The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through San Francisco’s Potrero Hill With Caroline Paul And Wendy MacNaughton

Rachel Friedman, AOL

One afternoon in 2012, Caroline and Wendy’s cat slipped out the door and never returned. Until he did, that is – five weeks later, fat and happy, unperturbed by or unaware of the grief he’d caused his owners during his absence.

“It was a devastating experience,” says Caroline. “I’d had Tibby for 13 years and when he came back, I was like: I don’t know this cat. He can survive in the urban jungle. He has another life and I don’t know anything about it.”

Some pet owners might have chalked up Tibby’s temporary disappearance to one of life’s feline mysteries but Caroline decided she had to know where her kitty had been all those weeks. They knew Tibby was returning to wherever that was because even after he came home he wasn’t eating, yet the extra weight he’d gained on his little vacation stayed stubbornly put.

They decided to try and track him, first through a tiny GPS unit clipped to his collar, then with accompanying notes they hoped neighbors would read and respond to. When efforts that relied on technology and the kindness of strangers failed, Caroline turned to more offbeat strategies: a pet detective who didn’t understand what she wanted since her cat already been found, a woman who claimed she could teach people to communicate telepathically with their animals.

I asked if they thought it was simply that Tibby was getting better food elsewhere in their San Francisco neighborhood of Potrero Hill. Maybe the reason he had strayed was purely gastronomical.

“He was getting something he couldn’t get at home,” Wendy replied ominously.

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Potrero is Spanish for “pasture” and that’s all Potrero Hill used to be: a one-stop grazing shop for sheep, goats and cows brought over by missionaries in the 1800s. Though it’s long abandoned its pastoral roots, the area has changed drastically even since Caroline arrived in 1992.

“It was always super industrial over here but the neighborhood was considered pretty unsafe in ’92,” she says. “Now it’s gentrified a ton and it’s so close to the freeway that the tech people from Palo Alto come live here.”

“The other thing as far as gentrification goes is that there is this Potrero Hill and then there’s another Potrero Hill,” Wendy says. “Right over that hill are some of the only public housing projects that remain in San Francisco. So you have, more towards the downtown facing side, some of the wealthiest tech people living in homes over there and then public housing over there. This is primarily white and that’s primarily African American. It’s completely segregated.”
Caroline and Wendy tell me all this as we make our way towards their favorite view in a city known for them. It’s on Arkansas Street and Caroline jogs ahead of us so we can snap photos of her in prime position.

“Keep going!” Wendy says. “More! More! More!” Caroline keeps shuffling away from us until it looks like she’s at the very edge of a cliff.

“Don’t I look like I’m at the end of the world?” she shouts.

Hilly San Francisco has such a plethora of spectacular backdrops that even the local public library has an amazing one. It just underwent a 5 million dollar renovation, expanding its second floor to maximize city views taken in through giant glass windows. A skylight pulls in natural light even on the greyest days and visitors in need of free Wi-Fi and a picturesque place to catch their breaths should add it to their to do lists.

As we walk towards 18th Street, the neighborhood’s main drag, Wendy tells me in a low voice that we’re passing one of the “mafia restaurants.”

“It’s the French restaurant mafia,” she clarifies. “They’ve opened one of every ethnicity of restaurant but it’s all French. So a Mexican restaurant. But it’s French Mexican. And the Italian restaurant. But it’s French Italian. And every time some other restaurant opens, they don’t last very long and then the French mafia ends up taking that space.”

“Is there some subterfuge there?” Caroline eggs her on, barely suppressing a grin.

“I think it’s just the same family who owns all the restaurants in Potrero Hill,” Wendy concedes. “But they really do.”

The couple is taking me to their neighborhood’s independent bookstore. It’s a place, Caroline says, “that by hook or by crook is going to survive, no matter the rough and tumble publishing industry.”

Christopher Books has had the same owner since 1992 and is full of the kind of carefully curated selections you’d expect at your local booksellers, including a whimsically decorated kids section that makes me wish I could fit into their nap-inducing miniature rocking chairs.

The store is quiet, like most of the streets we’ve walked since I arrived. I shrug this off as a lazy Monday phenomenon and Wendy raises an eyebrow. “Every day is kind of like this,” she says.
“Nobody walks,” Caroline tells me. “The hills here make it much less of a walking city. Until we started fostering a dog, we didn’t walk a lot, either. It’s embarrassing.”

Maybe the streets aren’t that crowded because everyone has taken up residence at our popular next stop: Farley’s. In the ’90s, the café scorned those who requested nonfat milk. Later it became the kind of place that outlawed cellphones and laptops. But all that’s changed.
“They have nonfat milk and wireless,” Caroline says. “They even have food.”

We grab three pine nut and goat cheese salads, me experiencing reverse sticker shock that they’re only $6 each, and grab seats outside near a tiny patch of park that has been inserted where once a few parking spots stood. The greenery is here because of SPUR, an urban planning initiative.

“They started Parking Day,” Wendy says. “On a certain day every year people take over parking spaces and set up parks. They grab a role of Astroturf and a beach blanket for their friends and some PBR. It’s really fun.” The space in front of Farley’s came out of the city offering businesses the opportunity to designate certain spaces permanently as parks.

We’re hoping to grab sweets at Baked, a dessert mecca opened in 2008, but sadly it’s closed on Mondays. I’m even more distressed by our bad luck when Caroline tells me about the homemade brownies stuffed with caramel and milk chocolate ROLOs.

“Caroline used to eat one a day,” Wendy says. Caroline, who has the lean physique of the former firefighter she is, nods sheepishly in agreement.

Caroline and Wendy have lived here for years (although she’s somewhat new to Potrero Hill, Wendy is a fifth generation San Franciscan) and know the neighborhood through and through. But it was only after Tibby disappeared that they started getting to know their actual neighbors.
“I’ve been here 20 years and I didn’t know people on either side of me,” Caroline says. “It’s common on the hill.” There’s no stoop sitting here and people just drive straight into their garages. But when Tibby went missing, the pair showered the neighborhood with flyers and went around asking: have you seen my cat?

“And of course everyone wants to talk to you about a missing cat,” Caroline says.

I ask if those relationships have been sustained and as if on cue a UPS driver leans out of his vehicle and addresses Wendy and Caroline by name, asking how their day is and mentioning a package he just dropped off with Wendy’s assistant. Caroline says the whole experience of tracking down Tibby made her aware of just how neighborly she was before. And she loves the little stories they’ve gathered along the way from other residents.

“I know this old guy who lived up the hill and he always worked in his garage so you’d see him if you parked your car on the street. And he’d say hi and I’d say hi. Turns out he’s been working on the hill his whole life. When I remodeled the house, he said: you’re the one doing the work on your place. How’s it going? And I said: I’m kind of worried about the foundation because it’s a 1926 house. And he said: oh no, you shouldn’t be worried. Your house was picked up in the 1950s from the other side of the neighborhood to make way for the freeway and plopped here so actually it’s a foundation from the ’50s.”

It’ the kind of information you only gather from chatting with your neighbors, if you’re the kind of people, as Wendy and Caroline are, who care about being part of a community – a community who eventually did help them find out where their wily cat had been hanging out for five weeks.

But that’s a whole other story…

About the Wandering Writers

Caroline Paul (http://www.carolinepaul.com) is the author of East Wind, Rain (HarperCollins, 2006) and Fighting Fire (St. Martin’s, 1999), and most recently, the book Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation & GPS Technology. Wendy MacNaughton’s (http://wendymacnaughton.com/) illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Print Magazine. She illustrated the book Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation & GPS Technology.