Neighborhood Nomads
places we belong

Map of Mornings: Polk Street

“San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth.”
-William Saroyan

This is one in a series of morning photo essays documenting neighborhoods around town.

February 20, 2012, San Francisco: I have the strangest feeling here this morning. I have a feeling I’ve written this post a million times over, like this whole concept started here years before I knew it. This neighborhood on Russian Hill is documented in my memory in this very format. This morning on Russian Hill was mapped out long ago.

On that note, here are the photos I never took back then, snapped just this weekend, accompanied by words I wrote circa 2003 sitting right here where I sit now, sipping a latte at Royal Ground:

“He is sleeping on his back and my head is resting on his chest. I rise as he inhales and sink as he exhales. We breathe together, my neighborhood and I.

Our awakening is painful. Six hours earlier, I dripped from a pub called Shanghai Kelly’s. Others leaked from the Buccaneer and some seeped from Cresta’s, all with a nostalgia and energy only 2 am can bring. Six hours earlier, I floated home past Hollister, the bum on the crate by the alley, and felt it almost too much to bear the brunt of his blues.

Now in this morning’s all-too-bright light illuminating this tiny section of Polk Street, this place is no longer rowdy, spunky and drunk. No longer is it awake and moving. It is quiet enough to hear the wind go swoosh, and in this moment I realize it has been too long since I heard the nothingness of air. But give this place time to rest. Polk Street is tired. It is going to be a beautiful day.

In these early morning hours, I smell the scents of yesterday – of stale beer sticking to dirty countertops and sweat emanating from Gorilla Sports. As I trudge these three blocks, this neighborhood is part of my being. If I were lying in the backseat of a taxicab under the midnight sky, I would be able to sense the moment we arrived here. It is vibrant and giddy, quiet and calm, stable and comfortable. It is defined by the characters who tend its bars and pour its coffee. It is a single living and breathing entity, a character in and of itself, and as such it is difficult to determine whether we dictate the rhythms of our street or whether the rhythms of our street dictate us. This place sure does have heart.

It amazes me what just a few hours can do to the San Francisco soul. By 10 a.m., my world has woken up, shaken off its collective hangover and run six miles. This doesn’t happen in other cities, nor does that undeniable smell of Easter that now lingers in the October air. But this town is unique. It forever sprints to the beat of its own drummer and refuses to follow the weather patterns of the calendar year. It is too independent.

My neighbors and I meet for breakfast at the Bagelry, where a line of Adidas shorts and fleece and running shoes has already formed, stretching. I greet two of the dogs tied to the parking meter by name as I take my seat on the sunny west side of the street and watch this day unfold from my little nook of warm pavement. I dissect my newspaper. I run into everyone I have ever met on this coast as they jog by, an unplanned social scene like a college library late at night. Yes, there is a finite number of people who obsessively run these gorgeous and hilly streets and if you are here long enough, you will know them all.

Around 11:30 am, I move from the west side of the street to the east, as the sun has meandered its way behind me and tossed me into the shade. I watch the afternoon lull come over my neighborhood like a drug, weighing them down and counteracting the morning’s initial burst of energy. At the Royal Ground, I order a coffee and sit outside at the rickety wooden table for the remainder of the day. I stay still. Hollister ambles over to say hello. He is a goofy man who smiles a goofy smile and walks a goofy crooked walk, as if he is dancing. He is the most popular man on campus.

When the light fades and the sun sets, I move inside. As another stunning day comes to a close, I watch in awe as the rest of this daily ritual unfolds. With the rising darkness, coffee culture slowly transforms into beer culture. Like the bridge of a favorite song, an energy barely audible at first gains momentum as the tune of our street begins its last verse. The rhythms of the night begin to drown out the slow afternoon. Our night players, Tom, Teague and Rory, fling open the heavy curtains of their pubs and open up shop. Rory puts on Bruce. Gently, they rouse my neighbors from their homes and declare a second wind. Soon I can no longer hear the yellow, weathered pages turn at the Russian Hill bookstore. Instead I hear the clank of silverware at Polkers serving up burgers and curly fries.

The Royal Ground empties out and the Royal Oak, in all its raggedy red velvet splendor, fills up. The only ones left drinking coffee now are the movie reviewer in the black beret and the bald man in the corner who always lingers to talk to him. At this hour, the drinkers of the night dependably replace the drinkers of the day.

I am daydreaming as I cross the street, until Hollister brings me back to earth and tells me to stop thinking so much. I toss my coffee cup in a trashcan, climb up onto a barstool and order a beer.

By the time I call it a day, my favorite bartenders are wiping down the counters. I turn the corner up the hill towards bed as the fog horn sounds. There are times when the energy in this crisp air feels maddening and I shiver. Without the daytime sun, I smell sap and incense and wrapping paper and pine. It is suddenly Christmas in my neighborhood.

I burrow under the covers. It’s impossible to differentiate my own breath from the breath of this neighborhood. I know this place more intimately than anywhere I’ve ever been and yet I still get lost in it all. I probably will again tomorrow.


Comments (13):

  1. jacquelyn

    February 20, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    Kate, I am LOVING your San Francisco blog posts. Perhaps it’s because I lived through it with you that I can really feel every word you write, but these are really well written, and capture these places so well. I love that this Royal Ground one was written in 2003. Can’t wait to see where you go tomorrow!

    Reply
  2. Elspeth

    February 20, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    Kate this is really really good stuff!!! Loving it!

    Reply
  3. Michael Thomas

    February 20, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    Seeing you this morning was surreal, “Mary.” 🙂 I have been looking forward to reading this post all day, and it certainly was worth the wait. I could even smell it, from the book store pages to the sticky counters. Really cool stuff, Kate, keep up the good news.

    Reply
  4. Neighborhood Nomad

    February 20, 2012 at 10:56 PM

    Mike Thomas. Surreal indeed. How incredible to come home to the neighborhood eight years later and see your family sitting outside Royal Ground. May we keep on meeting that way… loved seeing you guys. 🙂

    Reply

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