Niece 2 lives in San Francisco. As fellow creative souls (she’s a gifted photographer) who’ve made ends meet in the digital trenches over the years, we always have a million things to talk about. Her sister, Niece 1 (working for the government as a reasearcher but every bit as dialed in artistically) joined us in the city, and both were game to indulge my insistence on being a tourist.

The Mission district is getting a fair amount of ink lately, with a recent NY Times “36 Hours” travel feature. I love the “36 Hours” features. Not that there’s any way in hell you could actually do all the things listed in 36 hours and stay sane (or really see anything), but they tend to nicely mix tourist requirements with slightly less traveled paths. Niece 2 lived in the Mission a few years back and was pretty skeptical; her husband had survived a mugging on their street corner, a friend had been shot, but she looked at the proposed route and agreed to give it a go since we were heading down in broad daylight.

We emerged into radiant sunlight from the BART station at 24th street, music straight out of Juarez blasting over a plaza that sold exuberant jewelry, sweaters, and scarves. As a waspy kid growing up in the Bay Area, I adored all things Mexican: the brilliant magentas, oranges, and turquoises, sunbaked stucco walls, loud crunchy taco shells, the bold, primitive strokes of the art that, centuries later, still evokes its Aztec and Mayan origins. All down 24th street, you see impossibly vibrant murals, and we were blessed with San Franciscan sunshine, making an already beautiful place that much more so. The murals are the best kind of naïve art, modern-day frescos with concrete standing in for plaster. Like fresco painters, the artists have to work quickly, not because their surface will dry but, at least back in the day, in case San Francisco’s finest come around to stop them. Even now, with murals recognized and accepted as legit art, there’s an urgency in the execution; speed is an essential component. They’re meant to be viewed quickly, peripherally, to thrill you as you walk past. Big brushstrokes and spray paint swipes express equally big emotions Passing by murals, you feel vicarious pride, joy, anger, and pure lust for life; there are no subtleties in mission art.

Almost as cool are the window displays, many of which feature and celebrate Day of the Dead skeletons, so iconic that they’re no longer confined to Halloween. These bones are happy – after all, skeletons can’t do anything but smile – and they’re often paired with roses in fiery tequila sunset hues, studded with jewels, swathed in bright silks or nothing at all. The windows are pure found art, humble and raucous at the same time. Ambling up and down 24th street, nibbling on a coconut macaroon ushered in an unexpected rush of joy utterly appropriate, but marvelously not limited to, the season.

The three of us continued several blocks to Mission Dolores; if you’ve seen Vertigo, this is the church. In the flesh, it’s extraordinary, an example of mission architecture even more beautiful than Mission Santa Clara where I’d heard music the night before. The small mission itself, withstanding 2 major earthquakes without losing even a roof tile, is a wonder, its beveled and painted ceiling sheltering intricate Spanish carvings of saints. The basilica next to it is spectacular, as stunning in its own way as any of the churches I saw in Rome, and empty except for the 3 of us and an organist practicing the Messiah.

Whether it’s Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, or Mission Dolores, you can completely confuse and bum yourself out by meditating on the human cost of all that art. Slave labor built much of the great monuments to art and God; people died miserable deaths so that future generations could feast on beauty. It seems wasteful and disrespectful of their sacrifice to refuse to acknowledge or condemn the work. After all, secular masterpieces like the Brooklyn Bridge claimed lives as well. Whether that adds to or diminishes their beauty is, I guess, a subjective call. I will say that it was extraordinary to witness something so beautiful virtually alone. I’d gladly exchange the solitude to have plenty of other people discovering this treasure so that there’s no threat of it closing or falling into disrepair. Art is precious and costly, sometimes terribly so; we need to experience it and preserve it any way we can.

The mission tour ends with a stroll through the cemetery, with many gravestones unreadable after 2 centuries, ancient by American standards. Afterward, we headed to the Castro, where we all three agreed that Milk was unnecessary when the superb documentary The Times of Harvey Milk had already been made. It’s a kick to see the Castro thriving, loud, and proud. I headed straight up hill as Castro turned into Divisadero (I fell in love with that name when I first read it in Interview with the Vampire; too bad all those other vampire books were so crappy), turning on Haight and attempting to scale the summit of Beuna Vista park, but failing as my quads sang out in protest and the sun began to drop into the Bay.

Down through the Haight to meet a college friend, a costume designer then and now. She, I, and her husband who works as a stagehand ate our way through different tapas at Nopalito, finishing with their insanely good queso fresco cheesecake with carmelized apples and managed to get out for around 70 bucks while getting deep into a conversation about Chekhov.

Great city made better by great friends, including my nieces. A heavenly day.

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