I’ve come upon more free time lately, and Spirit Airlines has me thoroughly suckered by its prices and on-point branding, so I grabbed some ridiculously cheap flights to San Francisco and L.A. just in time to visit one of my oldest and most enjoyable friends of all time on her birthday: Ashley.

I’d been to L.A. but never San Francisco, where A. had moved a couple years back. She was driven to show me as much of the city as possible, so we walked and walked and walked. The soles starting coming off my shoes, that’s how much we walked. I went into a shoe shop and bought a new pair of kicks, asked the salesman to get rid of my old, threadbare shoes, and wore the new pair out the door. What a blessing: a new pair of chucks. These ought to last me to 2030.

I’d been following SF news since A. moved there a couple years back because I find it extremely absorbing to learn about the place in this crucial moment. It seems to me that San Francisco encompasses nearly all our society’s seismic problems – racial / ethnic / gender / sexuality / class inequality; big tech’s insatiable appetite for capital and how that manifests in wear and tear on our civil liberties and our cities; pollution, preservation, and climate change volatility; homelessness and housing crises; the criminalization and scapegoating of migrants / refugees; criminal justice systems decimating communities. California’s a petrie dish of social-cultural maladies, but, if history is any guide, the state will find its way, innovating solutions that ripple across the nation. Those who are conscientious and those who are privileged with the energy and resources to do so are meeting issues head-on. Those motions represent what some of us in “flyover country” might mimic in the future when we, too, can’t look away from the formidable challenges already cresting the horizon.

El Tecolope newspaper of the Mission district in San Francisco celebrates the election of the new D.A., Chesa Boudin.
Chesa Boudin’s election win dominated the city’s news as I landed in San Francisco. Despite massive pushback, Boudin secured the victory on a platform of progressive criminal justice reform, including policies that favor reconciliation over incarceration.

A. lives in the Mission. She’s an accomplished muralist, so the neighborhood was like stepping into her head in a physical plane, all her imagination and ambition in concrete form. I’m so happy she’s found a place that serves up her passions in heart-stopping visuals at every turn. The murals are everywhere, so imbued with layered meaning historical and freshly contextual that the easy, natural conversation that gushed freely between A. and I halted when we’d confront a wall of color and stories. Ashley steered us down alleyways and streets on a secret agenda until we arrived at a destination I hadn’t known we were pursuing. We’d stand silently looking at a mural — no, looking into a mural, more rightly, because they are like portals you walk into with your eyes — and she’d let me be awestruck for a few moments before explaining the artist and the work to me. My friend the street museum docent.

People in the neighborhood knew her or knew of her. She had a story for every storefront and lunch spot. She chatted with muralists at work and we learned things from people who made up the neighborhood, things that make me feel joyful and sorrowful when I think of them still. I lapped up so many stories in this city.

Luis Gongola Pat
Mural in homage of Luis Góngora Pat, migrant from Yucatán killed by police in 2016.
Clarion Alley
On the rooftop of A’s apartment
Castro neighborhood
Palm trees peek into Clarion Alley from the back yards of the affluent folks whose garage walls and doors make up the painted surfaces of the block-long community mural wall.

Although the words sounded kinda dumb as they left my mouth, I found myself telling A. how much the Mission reminded me of East Phillips, my old neighborhood in Minneapolis. I couldn’t say exactly why, though, and only understood later why my brain made that unlikely comparison. I saw A. immersed in a community that lived deeper than the pop-up restaurants and tech start-up creep. Something crucial to its identity had been preserved because, as A. telegraphed through her stories on our walks, people had fought pretty hard to keep that sense of community here.

In Minneapolis in the early oughts, my neighborhood had been very close-knit. I knew many of the shop and restaurant owners and they me. People bent to pet my dog and would easily pick up months-long, ongoing conversations with me at the lavandería. When you walked down East State and smelled food cooking, you could guess with all likelihood the person who was doing the cooking. And there was art on the sides of buildings that wasn’t commercial or transplanted. It was about the community itself, the natives who lived there first, the hip hop legacy airbrushed onto alleyway bricks, the local heroes and legends (like Prince, of course, but also an homage to a local cop, and beautiful girls in braids dancing in ruffled skirts). I felt that insulated microcosm in San Francisco’s Mission in walks, food, sights, conversations with lovely, friendly people. That feeling of community is an endangered thing. I know that my old neighborhood in Mpls is a shell of its former self since falling victim to overzealous city planning and gentrification.

In the small town where I live near Kansas City, I don’t think I’ve felt that omnipresent story connecting everyone who lives around me. The history isn’t always an easily accessed via visuals.

This is Chabo. He’s waiting to go to the bar after work with his momma, Yaeko Yamashita, who creates beautiful fiber arts found in her shop (Laku Yaeko). I walked out wearing her handiwork: a knobby red hat.
At Hospitality House on community art night, artists sell prints indoors (A.’s friend Txutxo walks into the doorway of the venue), and other folks sell goods on the sidewalk. This rockhound gentleman was full of excellent knowledge about geological hunts. I could’ve spent quite a bit more time chatting him up but we had to keep walking. His sassy dog (below) kept initiating spats with other pooches who were only just minding their business. Sweet lil’ stinker.

A. got her birthday wish to make it to Lands End before sunset

On her birthday, A. gave me an incredible gift by helping me hitch a ride along the circulatory system of her community. She did all that by telling me stories and showing me what artists had to say about it as we walked and walked and walked. Not a bad trade for a worn pair of shoes.

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