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6th September 2010

Mission's Murals, the Weirdest Haircut Ever and a Conversation with an Opera Singer

Balmy Street Mural      (please use scroll bar)

    I started the day by catching a streetcar to Powell, and then the BART down to 24th Street in Mission. I wanted to see the Mission murals which were spread out over eight blocks or so. On my way I crossed paths with a homeless person pushing a shopping trolley crammed full of his worldly possessions. Perched on top of the midden on wheels was a hen. Perhaps the guy liked eggs for breakfast.
A Children's Playground Tiles Mural, with Some Tiles being Mirrored
Another Mural
    San Francisco was a city that was in love with murals. With over 600 murals, San Francisco's mural tradition was rich and diverse with murals painted on building walls and facades, fences, garage doors and more. The colorful Mission District was the capital of San Francisco murals with the greatest concentration of murals in San Francisco. The San Francisco Mission neighbourhood's love affair with murals stemmed from the Mexican roots of the Mission District community. The Latino community took up residence in the Mission neighbourhood in the early 1970s and they brought their muralist traditions with them.
    The Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Centre was the place to begin exploring the murals in the Mission neighbourhood, but being part of Labour Weekend, it was of course closed. I decided to walk down 24th Street and have my own guided tour. On my walk I came across many vibrant, colourful murals on the fronts of building, the sides of buildings, garage doors and outside shops and businesses.
A Monochrome Mural
Laundry Mural
    A side street, Balmy Alley, had a concentration of more than 30 murals painted on fences, building walls and garage doors. Muralists began working in San Francisco's Balmy Alley as early as 1971. Many of the original murals were still there as well as many murals that had been painted over the intervening years. The alley's murals were very diverse, both stylistically and in the subject matter. Some of the murals featured cartoon-like illustrations that were playful and juvenile. Other murals grappled with difficult subjects, such as a memorial to people who had died from AIDS or depictions of political strife and war in Latin America. Another mural honoured the great muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. And another is a tribute to women muralists of the Mission District. One colourless mural, depicted two men and a woman jumping through a barbed-wire fence lined with keys. The woman had her hand held high, making the peace sign.
Mural Complete with Wheel Clamp
Colourful Mural
    All along my walk I was aware that I was passing through a multiracial community. From the evidence gleaned from shops, restaurants, cafes and languages I could tell there were Mexicans, Chinese, Italian, Turkish, Jewish, Jamaican and near Eastern communities in the district. Shops and businesses were well protected with heavy duty steel latticework over windows and doorways. There seemed to be a few oddballs around, and eyes that followed me as I walked past. I wasn't unduly concerned, but I instinctively knew that this was a different type of neighbourhood compared to the parts of the city I had visited before. There were no homeless characters in these streets rattling tins or begging for money.
Children's Playground Mural
Another Children's Playground Mural
    I passed a barber shop, whose owner was standing at the doorway with a cheery smile. I walked some paces past the shop, thought that my hair might benefit from a trim, and I could have a chat with the barber too, so I turned around and entered his shop. The chat idea was dispelled immediately: my Spanish was almost nonexistent, his command of English was even worse, so we got on like a house on fire. However, he seemed to grasp the concept of a number one. He plonked me onto a chair, wrapped a gown around me, and proceeded to plough through my hair with an electric shaver. The TV was blasting out some Spanish soap opera, and he was muttering to me in Spanish. I just smiled back.
    Then a loud voice appeared in the doorway uttering short syllable words in Spanish. The barber shouted something back, resulting in the other voice getting louder, and its owner appeared in my peripheral view; a tall stocky chap of Jamaican descent, who seemed to have a good command of Spanish. A broken dialogue was now going on between the chap, who I deduced was a local oddball, and the barber, and I could sense the chap was after something by the frequency of his "Por favor"s. I could tell the barber was becoming agitated, and soon extremely agitated. The intruder was threatening him in some way, and then started looking in the barber's drawers. The barber made a dash for the door, exited, and shut the door behind him, and was then making a phone call. Was it to the police? Meanwhile I was left with the oddball. Should I make a dash for it too? I would look a fool running through the street with one side of my head shorn. I sat, tensed up like a coiled spring, ready to fight of flee. The oddball then pulled something out of one of the drawers, a razor, and then proceeded to trim himself up a bit. As long as he didn't trim me up, I thought. When he was happy with that he rummaged through another drawer, then focused his attention on me. He came across and offered his hand, saying something in Spanish. He had a modicum of sense to realise I could not extract a hand to shake his, not that I wanted to anyway, and he drifted off to the door. The barber had in the meantime collared another fellow, and they were both engaged in animated conversation staring at the oddball through the glass door. As the oddball approached, the new fellow disappeared quickly, and the barber backed off. The oddball exited the building, with I guess a string of Spanish curses, and the barber returned, somewhat ruffled.
Tiled Serpents in Children's Playground
    He proceeded to explain something to me in Spanish, and continue with my haircut. His task in hand was now disturbed by a few phone calls, perhaps from people he had called in his panic moment, I'll never know, and I was beginning to wonder what my haircut would be starting to look like. He was still yattering away to me when he took another shaver to me and started attacking my beard. I don't know where that instruction had been inadvertently introduced into the translation, but I assertively said NO, and he got the message. I left the barbers shop perplexed by the oddball event and with one side of my chin as smooth as a babies bottom!
Business End of a Fire Engine
    I found the whole area so colourful, vibrant, lively, intriguing, so much so that I set off walking down Mission in the direction of downtown, just to see what else if could offer. At key focal points, folk would be gathered sitting and chatting, with a few drinking from brown paper bags. One guy had dispensed with his bag altogether, and was drinking whiskey straight from a one litre bottle. There was no trouble though, or even threat of trouble, apart from oddball man that is.
Electric Car Charger
    Before I knew it I had walked almost twenty blocks back into the city. I crossed Market Street to the City Hall area, and was about to walk down the Civic Centre Plaza when I came across a row of plug-in points for electric and/or hybrid cars. The points were key-operated, and it was not evident how customers were charged for the service, but I guessed it would be a token driven system of sorts. Two cars were on charge at the time. A rather large chap came by walking his dog and we got talking about the cars. He said the hybrids were very economical, and when the petrol engine was being deployed, they could achieve up to 50mpg (I presumed American gallons here). We both agreed that they would be ideal for commuting, but for long journeys, the periodic charge ups required en route would render the journey unmanageable. In the US the cars were sold for $30k and in some cases up to $40k. The batteries currently only had a five year lifespan, and were costing around $5,500.
    The guy had not come across such charger units before, and I explained I had not seen any in the UK, though some must exist. The fellow had grown up in San Francisco, but now spent all his time traveling with his work, and the nature of his work didn't lend itself to him sightseeing. He was a professional opera singer, and was currently rehearsing for the Marriage of Figaro which was due to open in two weeks time at the Opera House just by City Hall. I explained I would not be around to attend it. "Not to worry", he said, and he proceeded to tell me about a performance, Don Pasquale, at the New York Metropolitan Opera in November. He would be playing the part of Don Pasquale, and the performance would be transmitted by satellite around the world in high definition, and I could watch it in the UK.
Cars on Charge
    I told him that my wife had been a singer, and described the types of music she sang and loved, and he listened attentively. He asked me what I did for a living before I retired, and when he heard about my involvement in internet systems he waxed lyrically about how it had advanced. He used Skype to receive singing lessons from Switzerland. Yes, even the best still need lessons. He was jealous about my adventurous trek, and despite all his travelling around the world, he would love to visit some of the canyons I had been to. We wished each other well on our paths through life and parted. A very warm, sociable and pleasant bloke - John Del Carlo.
Chess Players
    I wandered back down to Market to pick up a streetcar, passing a line of chess players on the way. I could never resist taking time out to stop and watch how a game or two was unraveling. I am not a gifted chess player, but I do enjoy watching others who know what they are about.
    I got the streetcar back to Fisherman's Wharf to shorten the trek back to the hotel. The tourist trap area was shoulder-to-shoulder; I made the right choice by visiting the Mission district today. A pair of air force jets roared above the bay about half a mile out, and seemed to be doing laps, perhaps as a publicity stunt. The crowds didn't seem to notice them, they were just enjoying their extra day off work.
    My evening was most exciting. I drank two pints of milk to ease my dehydration and typed up this blog. I had been burning the candle at both ends too many times over the last week or so.
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Uploaded from Francisco Bay Inn, 1501 Lombard Street, San Francisco CA on 06/09/10 at 23:00

Last updated 3.1.2013