A Few Decades Within a Few Hours in the Mission on a Friday Night

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Good Afternoon:

If San Francisco is not constantly changing, then it is not San Francisco at all.

The temptation to arrive very early to an appointment in San Francisco’s Mission District will frequently prove irresistible. As a member of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco, I volunteered to work at Valencia Street’s Stage Werx on Friday night in support of our annual production of ten minute plays called Scheherezade (it’s a good show; you should check it out). But this is the Mission District (or “da Mish”); it’s hard not to have an early burrito dinner at Pancho Villa Tacqueria and then take a camera and explore the neighborhood.

Sparrow Lane is about 100 feet of brown nondescript sidestreet that you can access from Valencia between 15th and 16th. Except that nothing is nondescript in this town (all pictures taken with my iPhone):

Something in this scene caught my eye, and it wasn’t the colorful mural at the end of the drab brown alley. Take another look and try to spot the oddity.

A step without a door? As you can from the outline, there used to be a door here, but when someone filled in the door, they did not take the logical next step and remove the step. Another example of how change can come so quickly to my hometown that the process becomes a bit haphazard and slapdash. On the other hand, if they had removed the step, I would not have had something to photograph. Here is another scene from the alley, perhaps of no interest to anyone but me, but it did interest me.

While awaiting the arrival of the producers of the show, I spotted something that me wonder if I was imagining things:

Let’s move in for a closer look:

No, that is not my imagination running a little too wild; that is a bagel on a stick.

After a successful night with most of the seats sold, I couldn’t help but keep wandering about the area of Valencia & 16th Streets. I had lived here during the Eighties. In retrospect, it seems like the Mission of the Eighties was another universe. I finally left the neighborhood after I had been awakened in the middle of the night by a gunfight at an X-rated video store on Mission near 17th. Some of the traditional fixtures of the neighborhood remain, stronger than ever, such as the Roxie movie house, Pancho Villa, El Toro and the legendary La Cumbre tacquerias; but the changes say as much about San Francisco as the traditions.

The Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco’s best radical left-wing cooperatively-owned politically-active vegetarian grocery story and perhaps the finest tourist attraction in this city that tourists have never heard of, used to occupy a hole in the wall on 16th near Guerrero; it moved to 14th & Mission, thence to the current superstore on Folsom and was replaced by many businesses, including a coffeehouse, but today a bar. The Breton creperie acroos the street from the Roxie is now Giordano’s Bros. restaurant and bar. The Roxie itself remains, still one of the best tiny movie houses with uncomfortable seats in the world. I don’t know how the Roxie folks do it, but on the day The Godfather Part III was released, it was the only movie theater on the planet that had permission to show both of the previous Godfather movies on that same day. They also helped make Nicholas Cage’s make the leap from interesting character actor to star when a week-long showing of Red Rock West became nearly a six-month run.

Not bad for an iPhone camera.

Toward the end of his career the late great Herb Caen (actually, I should probably write “Herb Caen…” a typical example of a typical San Francisco in-joke) wrote a lot about how San Francisco had changed since he arrived in town as the “Sackamenna Kid.” He was prone both to complain about the long-lost bars, restaurants and nightclubs he used to frequent, and to complain about people who would complain about the long-lost bars, restaurants and nightclubs they used to frequent. He had a good sense of humor.

I don’t complain. It’s San Francisco, and change is San Francisco, and San Francisco is change; if you appreciate one then you must appreciate the other. It’s better to remember the old days fondly and not to lament them; in the words of Carly Simon, “These are the good old days.”

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–If you’re into newspaper trivia, here’s one you might like: the subject of the last item in the last paragraph of the last column of “Herb Caen’s…” career was a friend of mine from Ireland named Blagh (“blaw”). She was an avid member of the local Polar Bears Club, humans who prefer to swim in frigid waters, and a waitress at a seafood and pasta restaurant in North Beach (Irish waitress in an Italian restaurant?! Welcome to San Francisco). After one early morning swim in the San Francisco Bay, she was getting undressed to shower with some other women swimmers when a six-inch long fish jumped out of her swimsuit. She shrugged and said, “I told you our fish was fresh!”

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