On Facebook I posted a historical photo of a famous San Francisco landmark: Lombard Street on Russian Hill. They say it is the “crookedest street in the world.” A friend saw this photo and asked if I had ever been down Vermont Street. It’s over on Potrero Hill. Yes, I have been down that street. You could say Vermont is the second most crookedest street in the world. To be honest, the world has plenty of streets way more crooked than either of these. I’ve been on some of them. One is in Lower Manhattan. Another in Wichita. There are others. Okay, enough digressing. What I want to say is that all this talk of San Francisco got me to missing the place.
Suddenly I am in the Diamond Lane on the Freeway of Memory—otherwise known as Google Street View. Once again I’m hiking around the city of San Francisco just like I used to when I lived there. Except now I’m in the Catskill Mountains of New York, sitting in front of a computer screen and putting the squeeze on a mouse. Instead of the step-by-step joy of a good walk in fresh air coming in off the Pacific, I’m enduring a migraine-inducing click-by-click lurch-along between noisy still images of once-familiar places. It’s like dying and having to walk all the way to hell. But hey, it’s Memorial Day weekend in the Northeast and it’s snowing outside. I’ll take what small happiness can be found on the internet.
Anyhoo, after clicking my way up and down Lombard a few times on Street View and then flying across town and getting my fill of Vermont—without, I might add, having to suffer the inconvenience of riding the 19 Polk—I get the urge to check out the corner of Geary where my wife and I used to live. Again, no Muni ride required—namely, the 33 Stanyan—but these whimsical excursions on Google Street View can be disorienting. So please hold on.
Okay. Here I am, in front of our old apartment building on Geary. Well, not really because I’m still in the Catskills in New York and a late May snowstorm is still howling outside. But that’s not the only weird thing going on. At the bottom of the Street View picture of our old place is the date the image was captured: April 11, 2011. My wife’s birthday. On that particular birthday I was away in northern Alabama. My father lay dying there in a hospital. Harrowing thunderstorms were erupting all across the region. Those were dark and sad and terrifying days of awe in Alabama. Yet back in San Francisco all was clear and warm and bright.
I zoom in via Street View on our fourth-floor apartment as it appeared for an instant on April 11, 2011. I’m surprised at how much in our old home is visible through the windows. I can see our house plants. I can make out some of our paintings on the wall. And then right in one of the bay windows is the blurred but instantly recognizable image of my wife. She is sitting in the same chair she sits in every morning, the one where she enjoys her coffee as the traffic on Geary below slips along into a new day. It’s her birthday. I’m far away. My father is alive. Thunderstorms rage across northern Alabama. The sun shines on San Francisco.
But we don’t live in San Francisco anymore. It’s the evening of May 25, 2013. We live in the Catskill Mountains in a house I helped my father build many years ago. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Snow is falling across the higher peaks. My father is buried in Minneapolis. An image of San Francisco flickers on the computer screen.
“Hey!” I call to my wife in the next room, “come here and look at this!” Now I hear the sound of footsteps approaching.