The house next door, once vacant and more or less abandoned for years, is alive again with the sound of workmen’s saws, jackhammers, and polka music from 8 to 4. The overgrown jacaranda in their yard that used to shielded my living room from the afternoon sun and give me the half-illusion of living in a Southern California arboretum if I squinted hard enough has been cut down and hauled away to make room for piles of rotten wood and old concrete, which are then cleared away at regular intervals to make room for new piles of ejecta. It’s good that the owners are sprucing up their neglected property, but the noise from all this improvement is excruciating.
My across-the-hall neighbor Rachel moved out two months ago to co-habitate with her boyfriend. I wish her all the luck in the world, but resent the different sort of banging that could be heard from the other side of our shared bedroom wall as the handymen refinished the floors and did whatever else they typically do when freshening up a place in order to entice new tenants into paying $3,500 a month for a small one-bedroom apartment.
Last month the noises started coming from an entirely new direction when the low, constant-yet-oddly-soothing Satchmo-like growl of my downstairs neighbor, Stephen, was replaced with the sound of power tools and yelling to be heard over power tools. I found his kitchen door wide open as I climbed down the back stairs to the laundry room. The place was gutted. Any trace of the man who had lived there for the last forty-four years had been eradicated, which caused me to worry. Did he move out by choice? Was he ill? We weren’t friends, but we were neighborly. The owners are now installing new kitchen cabinets, which have been boxed up and cluttering the building’s foyer for a week. I saw another tenant moving out the other day. One I’d never even met. They’ll be starting on his apartment next and the noise will continue. The only quiet hours of daylight occur on Sundays. If I’m lucky. At night, there is an eery silence with my part of the building now half-empty.
My neighbors are vanishing one by one. News from the outside has been relentlessly awful. It is either too noisy or too silent to write much, even when I am able to concentrate. And so, dear reader, I feel as though I am slowly going mad.
Most means of escape that I once took for granted like hopping on a train to stay with friends or an airplane to visit my family are currently not an option. I get clammy just thinking about getting on a bus to go take a peek at the ocean, mask or no mask. My world has become remarkably small over the past few months and there are precious few places to which I can safely flee to find a bit of peace and quiet.
Fortunately, there is one tiny corner of the world where I feel I can take refuge– my local park. It’s a very short walk to a place designated to honor a man with an extremely long name– Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, the French hero of The American Revolution. It’s a small park, but it is surrounded on all sides by points of personal interest. To its west lies the hospital where I had my appendectomy. To the east is the home of Julie Newmar’s somewhat creepy younger brother. To the south is a building which offers up the dubious claim to have been the temporary residence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And what, you may well ask, is so special about the northern edge of the park? It is dominated by a Beaux-Arts confection called The Spreckels Mansion, built by syphilitic sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels and his artists’ model wife, Alma. It also happens to be the San Francisco residence of the 4th best-selling author of all-time, Danielle Steel.
In the park there is a long bench, high up and shaded by trees, which overlooks Washington Street and the mansions that line it. For example, Mrs. Merrill’s house, where I was once invited by my friend Justin (her live-in personal chef) to hang out as he prepared her dinner. After her meal was finished, Mrs. Merrill asked to meet me and suggested that Justin give me a tour of the house. From the top floor, he pointed to an enormous place across the little stretch of Octavia Street where Alma Spreckels convinced the city to place barriers in the road to slow down traffic enough to help with her husband’s sexually-transmitted headaches. He indicated that it was Ms. Steel’s house and that was my first glimpse of the woman, wearing a nightgown and pacing her bedroom carpet. Feeling a bit Peeping Tom-ish, I averted my eyes by lifting them to her rooftop, where I saw a play set– one of the cheap sorts in primary colored plastic. From my perspective, it looked as though the yellow slide would shoot any child brave or stupid enough to use it straight over the side and down three stories into her privacy hedges. That could not have been the case as I realized such placement would be architecturally unlikely, but it was my first impression of the woman and I cannot say it was entirely wrong.
And twenty years later, I find myself sitting on a park bench across the street from from her house in Portuguese fisherman sandals and a surgical mask wondering where all the time and most of my sanity and even that ugly play set have gone.
I always bring a good book with me when I visit the bench. There is perverse satisfaction to be had in reading good literature in front of the house of a pulp romance writer, though I can only get through ten or fifteen pages at a sitting because my attention span is shot to hell. But I tell myself it’s what I should be doing. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, which was given to me for my birthday. I had the book tucked under my arm when I left the park the other day and ran into a friend at the grocery store who mentioned she knew the author. I told her I thought I had another friend who might know him and it turns out she’s friends with my other friend and all I could think was “San Francisco is the smallest world in the world.” Everything seems connected. Every book and every person and every park bench and every mansion, if you’ve lived here long enough and that, in its small way, is grounding.
When I arrive most mornings, when I find I can get out of bed at all, it’s foggy and cold, which is how I like my San Francisco summers. Yesterday, I shared the long bench with a bottle of water belonging to a woman doing Tai Chi. I looked up from my book at one point to find her hands open and held away from her body like a department store mannequin, rotating her torso slowly towards the mansion. Her hands then gently clenched into fists and I read far more into that gesture than was likely intended. Had she, like I, overheard Ms. Steel’s out-of-touch complaint regarding the quality of diamonds in San Francisco? Had she, too, been left with an unwanted party favor pack of cards labeled “Fifty Fabulous Farts”? I may never know for certain. The bottle was eventually replaced by a woman who took off her mask to smoke a cigarette, thereby breaking at least two park policies. She looked as though she was having a rough morning, so I said nothing. I read maybe five pages before my brain stopped working and returned home to the noise.
And that, dear readers, is another glimpse into my day-to-day, COVID-inspired life. I know I’ve been away too long, but it feels like the wrong time to tell my stories and the idea of ironic or clever recipe writing makes me feel a bit… “whoopsie”? Is that the current polite term for being sick to one’s stomach? I may have recently heard that come out of the mouth of Brett Sommers on a Match Game ’74 YouTube clip and I hate that I’m not certain.
I feel like there are more important things to be doing right now, although I feel a bit helpless to do anything at the moment except check in on friends from time to time, send condolence cards when needed, call my family once a week, iron absolutely everything that can be ironed in my apartment, and try to believe that there is any sort of future ahead that isn’t totally bleak.
But it’s also good to reach out and tell people you’re doing okay. Or that you’re doing not-okay. Some days I’m one, some days– most days, really– I’m the other. But I’m alive and that, I suppose, is a good thing. I need to give myself permission to write as a diversion and that’s a challenge right now. But I’ll get there, I promise.
Just as soon as all this god damned* hammering stops.
*I was going to say “Just as soon as all this fucking hammering stops”, but my father hates it when I use profanity on my blog.