San Francisco Chronicle
Loving San Francisco isn’t rocket science
Being wedged between a racetrack and an airport, there are no souvenir shops in South Ozone Park. No rocket scientists either. There was no Battle of South Ozone Park. No great earthquake. One of the few well-known residents, Jack Kerouac, became famous only after getting out of there and on the road. But it was a great place to start. If Herb Caen was the Sackamenna Kid, then surely I am the Boy from Oz.
When my parents, Hap and Nurse Vivian, retired, they moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., which Hap called “God’s Waiting Room.” Never saw a souvenir shop there either, nor a rocket scientist. Nurse Vivian passed away in 2002, and Hap lived alone until he burned his condominium down (one votive candle too many).
He moved into an assisted living facility where the widow to widower ratio was such that Hap never sat alone at the bingo table. They had dances once a week, and the women lined up, some of them with their walkers, to waltz once around the room. The widows made small talk, and whenever they asked about his sons, Hap would say: “My son Kevin is still in jail in California. Thirty years of hard labor.”
Now in the 29th year of that sentence, I’ve earned a little cynicism, having spent almost three decades working around people accused of murders, arson and even politics.
Last Sunday, we hosted Dylan. To say Dylan is a relative would be a stretch. He’s the son of the sister of the woman who married the brother of the man who is my husband. But we do our own math in the Outer, Outer, Outer, Outer Excelsior, and our chosen family has chosen him as our nephew-in-law-inlaw. And a genius nephew at that. He studies astronomical engineering at Stanford, which makes him an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist.
There’s a downside to genius, though. Having occupied all his time studying robotics, cosmology and Japanese since arriving here in the fall of 2022, he had never gone sightseeing. “I think I saw the Golden Gate Bridge when I flew into the airport,” he noted, “But, gosh, there were so many bridges, I couldn’t tell which was which.”
So on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we walked him across that bridge. We drove him down Lombard, the world’s second-crookedest street. We strolled through the Japanese Tea Garden. But it wasn’t until we got to Coit Tower that I remembered the wonder of this town. I had not been there in maybe 30 years.
There was a parking spot at the very top of Telegraph Hill, which is either a San Francisco miracle or the result of the fact that even tourists were watching the Super Bowl.
Telegraph Hill itself was named after the semaphore station built on top of it in 1850 to signal that ships had arrived. But in 1933, using Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s bequest to beautify the city, a 210-foot Art Deco tower was erected and dedicated to firefighters. Lillie had been a gambler, wore pants and smoked cigars, and had already volunteered with Knickerbocker Engine Company 5 by the age of 15.
Inside the tower there are 27 murals, created by more than 20 artists, under the sponsorship of Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was the first time, however, I noticed the phoenix above the main entrance, a frieze by artist Robert B. Howard. Many think that the phoenix appears in so much San Francisco architecture because of the city’s rise from the ashes of the quake and fire of 1906. But the phoenix has appeared in the city’s seal since 1852, just after it changed its name from Yerba Buena.
Fran Lebowitz, the New Jersey cynic (even though she hasn’t spent 30 years working in jail), recently said: “There’s no city as murdered as San Francisco.” She got us wrong. We’re the phoenix. If you kill us, we come back stronger.
There’s a souvenir shop at the base of Coit Tower, in a space that was once a broom closet. We buy souvenirs so that we remember where we left our hearts, and to remember that our hearts are in the right place. This shop sells hats and maps and, if you look very, very closely, even a phoenix.
Oh, and Fran? People do leave their hearts in San Francisco. They don’t even leave their livers in New Jersey.
We ended the day with dinner at Nick’s in Pacifica. Scallops for me, steak for the husband.
Stuffed chicken for the genius nephew. As the sun slid into the sea, we toasted the city that would always rise from its own ashes. And the rocket scientist who helped remind us of that.
I’ve earned a little cynicism, having spent almost three decades working around people accused of murders, arson and even politics.