Last Tuesday I met my friend Tania at her apartment next to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco to launch a day-long exploration of the city with a meandering walk down Polk Street from the Bay (at the top) to Market Street (at the bottom). I was armed with my sketcher’s gear and ready to plunk down and start moving the pen at any opportunity. She travels light with her iPhone in her pocket with its camera and built-in photo and voice editing, etc. We were both after stories and people to inhabit them and had no agenda beyond that.
ink and watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mix Media sketchbook (spiral bound)
The day was perfect for this kind of strolling with sunny sweater weather and no wind, a rare treat in S.F. A lifelong resident of S.F., Tania was already sharing her stories of the various neighborhoods we passed through. Of course she knew where to get the perfect cup of coffee to start our day at Saint Frank Coffee in “Polk Gulch” right below Russian Hill.We sat in the window so I could capture some of the city scene along with the coffee drinkers and their dogs.
While I sketched, Tania read me one of the spell binding autobiographical stories/travel sagas she’s working on. Check out her blog where she publishes some of her stories. Her book Mother Tongue a Saga of Three Generations of Balkan Woman, will be coming out in March.
As we were leaving Tania noticed that there were only men in the coffee shop all lined up in every seat and at work on their computers. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask them what they did to scare away all the women. Smiles broke out on all the faces as we left, something that tends to happen a lot on these excursions with Tania.
Our walk continued with brief stops to check out the kind of unusual storefront and businesses one finds on S.F. streets. Some of them left us scratching out heads. I couldn’t resist the road crew with their colorful orange vests and plopped down on the sidewalk to sketch the work-people (that’s a woman holding the sign) while they ate their lunch. Behind me was MCC, a community center for “Diverse Beliefs, Common Values. A Home for Queer Spirituality”. Five inches in front of me was rushing midday traffic which vibrated the ground and caused me to blink madly to see the construction scene. That’s urban sketching for you!
After lunch we proceeded through the Tenderloin where homelessness and drug addiction is abundantly visible. It wasn’t an area where either of us was prepared to stop.
Arriving at the magnificent Civic Center Plaza and City Hall, Tania said “Let’s go inside.”
I would have been happy to sketch the magnificent interior of City Hall with its classical, ornate elegance for days! But it also turned out to be a feast of elegance of the human sort with a steady stream of wedding couples, photographers capturing romantic poses while bridesmaids arranged the gauzy white trains.
As I sat down against the wall, this elegant couple in matching attire were posing for their engagement photo shoot (hence not white). I can only imagine what the wedding attire will be! (Note Tania with her iPhone camera)
The photographer told us that on any weekday you would find 25-50 weddings at City Hall and over 100 on weekends. But we found that number to be low because we saw at least 20 couples in the hour or so we were there!
By the time the couple had changed outfits and come back for more pictures on the marble staircase, Tania had met them and urged me to show the sketch which had a bit of color on it. Aman held it up and wanted their picture taken with it.
We left City Hall with a bit of the glamor and romance and definitely sweetness of that day still clinging to us. You can’t help but feel hopeful for this couple as they launch into married life!
It was time to soak up some sun in the Plaza and we were delighted by the knitted giraffes encasing some of the trees. Directly ahead where the orange cones were pointing was Market Street and a building with the word TRUTH drawing us toward it next.
As we neared Market Street we met some friendly “neighborhood embassadors”, people from the Hunter’s Point project who we gathered were there to help out with the homeless population as well as to help keep the public areas properly maintained. They had great pride in the fact that within moments a mobile soup kitchen would be set up and they would be helping to serve hot meals to those in need.
We watched as a van drove up and a nun was helped to unload deliscious smelling pots of food and boxes of bagels and salad. A tent and tables were quickly erected and people started lining up. The “embassadors” told us it would be OK for me to sit and sketch.
And so, sitting on the cement wall with people eating steaming hot food on either side, I sketched as Tania listened to a woman with a heart breaking tale and the pigeons and gulls swooped in and out, scavenging what they could.
There’s a kind of alchemy that happens sometimes with this kind of sketching where you can begin to simultaneously experience not just the inside of your own space but that of others. I could feel the caring and enthusiasm of the servers, the relief and satisfaction of the diners all mixed in with my own gratitude for being there in those moments.
Tania suggested a tram to get us back uptown where we could have dinner near her apartment. We could have taken a regular city bus or trolley or cable car, but the trams in S.F. have a special charm and claim to fame. As other cities in the U.S. were discontinuing electric cable methods of transportation in favor of buses, S.F. decided to continue, and to this day has a fleet of historic trams from cities all over the country. So we hopped on the Kansas City Tram for our rush hour ride and I got in my last sketches of the day.
Bijan Stefan writes In Praise of the Flaneur in the Paris Review, “The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart. ” I think it’s safe to say that we were . . .last Tuesday. . . walking Polk St. . . for that day at least . . .embodying a modern version of the “flaneur”. Perhaps you have a bit of flaneur in you too?