Sunday, May 8, 2011

winter solstice in my San Francisco neighborhood

My little part of San Francisco is Bernal Heights, which is an isolated hilltop at the transition between the Inner and Outer Mission Districts and the eastern edge of Noe Valley.  Here's a taste of my neighborhood from Christmas/solstice 2010:

Red Hill Books, 401 Cortland Street

Ducking into my the neighborhood bookstore, I get recommendations on Brazilian authors and children's books. The folks there always have answers. 

La Altena, Mission & Virginia Streets

At the counter of this cheap Mex resto on Mission & Virginia, I order my usual chile relleno plato in Spanish.  They answer me back in English.  I then speak to them in English.  They answer me back in Spanish.  As usual.  In spite of the language confusion, they don't forget that I like extra corn tortillas.

Mission Street

I'm now walking north on Mission St, towards the Mission District itself.  Though it's early, it's long since dark on this shortest day of the year.  Post-rainful, I occasionally squish cardboard food containers, now pulp.  I pass my old night time cafe haunt, Socha Cafe.  They're going out of business.  It's inexplicably staffed tonight, but as has been the case these last few weeks, the door is locked.  The night shift guy - who is superficially charming, but on a closer look has a malevent edge - is apparently running out the clock on his employer.  Collecting his minimum wage while he sits with friends inside drinking beers.  I gotta find a new place.

Esmeralda Minipark

I hike up the steep stairs of the Esmeralda St mini parks.  These parks are built around stair cases that run through city land, threading from the western lower reach of the Bernal Heights where it almost reaches Mission Street, extending all the way to the park up on Bernal hilltop.  Each set of stairs has a narrow little park around it, and each has been made in a different style.  Near the middle park - which is a block below where my house is and one park down from the slide  -  I hear soft music, but coming from out-of-doors.  Clearing the last step, I see a handful of people and a handful of dancers in the flat concrete platform at the top of the stairs.  Someone is playing an old accordian, and another person is holding sheet music under an umbrella to shield the sheets from the drizzle.  Turns out they are "sword dancers."  Sword dancing is apparently some kind of traditional English dancing.  I know this only because of an old-fashioned sandwich-board style sign, hand-lettered, which gives a few details on the group.  Resting on the traffic bollards ringing the minipark are small cooking pots with lids.  I edge over and lift the lids, and smell cider and punch.  Another bollard holds a bowl of popcorn.  A kid motions for me to help myself to the treats.

The swords are clearly dull, but they are heavy metal.  In one maneuver, the dancers form a circle, raise their swords and interweave the blades together to create star-shaped object that one dancer can hold aloft and parade around.  They repeat this several times - it's kind of cool.  One time, though, a dancer got clocked in the head during this complicated move.

The dancers wear a kind of uniform: white puffy shirts, black pantaloons, yellow stockings and shoes with buckles.  Everyone is middle aged.  Everyone wears glasses.  Rain drops bead up on the greasy lenses of the dancers that move by me, the drops briefly glinting yellow light from the sodium street lamps.

The gathering is too small in number to clap hands rhythmically, though it's obvious that is what we should be doing.  Some observing kids hold lanterns, their parents appearing intent on making this into a holiday ritual.

The dancing line snakes away.  One dancer announces the name of the group and invites everyone to her mother's house to finish off the punch.  Instead, I take my plastic cup and continuing walking up the Esmeralda steps, through the rain, home.

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