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.

******

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.

Photo Of The Day: A Peek Of San Francisco

Photo of the day  San Francisco view
Flickr, Nan Palmero

One of the great pleasures of exploring a hilly city is a constantly changing, often surprising, landscape. One minute you are trudging along a crowded sidewalk, huffing and puffing up a big hill, and suddenly you glimpse it between buildings: the Bosphorus. The Acropolis. The Prague Castle. Today’s Photo of the Day from San Francisco reminded me of the moment of magic. From out of the shadows of Russian Hill, Flickr user Nan Palmero shows us the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and the city spread out before you. It’s a good chance to stop, catch your breath, take a photo and keep on trucking until the next overlook – hopefully with a refreshing beverage nearby too.

Share your favorite views in the Gadling Flickr pool for the Photo of the Day series.

24 Almost Perfect Hours In San Francisco

san francisco baker beachA pair of hairy middle-aged Chia Pets are blasting Wham’s “Careless Whisper” from a new age boom box. A cluster of Latino immigrants is fishing and drinking cans of Tecate just steps away from a male paddleball player in a tight speedo with a Taliban-style beard and his long hair pulled in a Samurai-style bun. A teenager with a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooed on his chest is enjoying a joint, not that anyone cares. A tattooed guy in a San Francisco Giants hat is playing the bongo drums while just up the beach near the rocky foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bevy of bronzed men, and one eccentric old lady with bright orange hair stroll the beach in the buff. There is no better place to drink in San Francisco’s delightful eccentricity than Baker Beach on a warm, sunny day.

Muddy Waters once referred to San Francisco in song as “mean old dirty Frisco,” but my experiences with the City by the Bay over the last two decades have always been significantly more positive. I’m always looking for an excuse to visit San Francisco, so when the opportunity arose to tag along with my wife on a business trip, I jumped at the chance. Here’s how I spent 24 hours in the city with two little boys, ages 3 and 5.9 p.m.

At first I was a little bummed when my wife informed me that the company she was visiting booked us into an Embassy Suites in South San Francisco (which bills itself as the birthplace of biotechnology) near the airport, but it turned out to be a good place to explore the city on a budget. They have free parking, a rare treat in these parts, and the place is less than a mile from Grand Avenue, which is filled with a variety of tempting and cheap ethnic restaurants, including Mexican, Thai, Brazilian, Mediterranean, Chinese and Vietnamese. I picked up takeout from a little place called Ben Tre Vietnamese Homestyle Cuisine and we feasted on BBQ Pork spring rolls and a tasty Garlic Noodle BBQ chicken dish ($20 all told) in the bedroom while our boys crashed on the pullout couch in the living room.

8 a.m.

I love how Pacific Standard Time can turn a night owl like me into a morning person literally overnight. I was up at 6 a.m. but felt like I’d slept in, and after a mediocre but free breakfast at the hotel, the boys and I were on the road heading to Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s bucolic 1,000-acre green heaven. The rub with staying in the burbs is having to endure traffic heading into the city; but we made it to the park by 9 a.m. and easily snagged a free place to park right near the park’s century old Japanese Tea Garden.

It was a glorious day, sunny and warm and the park was filled with joggers and Chinese senior citizens taking their morning constitutionals. I paid $7 each to wander in the sumptuous Botanical and Japanese Tea Gardens (the Japanese Garden would have been free if it had been a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, when it’s free from 9-10 a.m) and then let the boys chase after birds and ducks on the walk around Stow Lake. At their urging, we also hit one of the park’s playgrounds but never made it to the carousel, the Buffalo Paddock or any of the parks other attractions because I was too eager to hit the beach.

11 a.m.

We drove through the park and scored another free parking spot just across the street from Ocean Beach, which on this Thursday morning was gloriously empty, save a smattering of sun worshippers and frolicking dogs. James, my 3-year-old, took his shoes off, dug his toes in the sand and did a little happy dance, gleefully running around the beach in circles. With the sun out and the waves crashing in, it was easy to relate.

1:30 p.m.

After spending an hour digging tunnels and making sand castles, my sons immediately crashed as soon as we got back in the car, so I took the opportunity to take a slow, circuitous drive through Richmond, the Presidio, Pacific Heights and Russian Hill en route to North Beach, a historically Italian-American neighborhood that was once the stomping ground of San Francisco’s Beat writers.

North Beach is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the country for strolling, but somehow I’d never been to Molinari Delicatessen, which has been on Columbus Avenue since 1896. It’s a gloriously old-school place – their house-made salami and sausage links hang from the ceiling and the intoxicating aroma of meat and cheese hits you the moment you step through the door. I had a sandwich with prosciutto, Molinari salami, provolone and sun dried tomatoes on fresh focaccia bread that was out of this world.

4:30 p.m.

After a little siesta/work break at the hotel, we picked up my wife and drove to Baker Beach, which has to be one of the most picturesque city beaches in the country. Aside from the unparalleled people watching described above, there is the view of the ocean, the hills in the distance and the Golden Gate Bridge. On an unseasonably warm day, it seemed like the whole city was there, some clothed, some naked, many with picnics, wine and beer.

6:30 p.m.

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance from Baker Beach is alluring but the vistas get even better a mile north along the Presidio Coastal Trail.

7:30 p.m.

Even after taking walks on the beach and on the Presidio Coastal Trail, I still struggled to finish the massive, delicious grilled fish burrito ($7.95) at Nick’s Crispy Tacos, which is located inside a lively bar called Rouge SF that has $4 pints during happy hour.

9:00 p.m.

We worked off our dinners with a long walk through North Beach, which was alive with panhandlers, nice looking people dining al fresco and lots of motorists circling the neighborhood looking for elusive parking spots. (It took me a half hour to find a spot myself.) And when it was time to eat again, we repaired to Gelateria Naia, a gelato place on Columbus Avenue. I loved the offbeat selection but we thought that the gelato, which has nearly 700 glowing reviews on Yelp was overrated. But if the worst thing you can say about a place is that your artisanal gelato wasn’t creamy enough, and that you have a “Careless Whisper” earworm, you are in a very special place indeed.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Saying ‘No’ To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

Thrifty Car RentalI’m a rental car company’s worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, “no thanks” when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn’t want to pre-pay for my fuel or “upgrade” to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

“Do you have proof?” he repeated.”What, you mean a photocopy of my insurance coverage?” I asked, confused.

Indeed that was what he wanted, and I told him that in 20 years of renting cars no one had ever asked me for it.

“But this is California,” he protested. “If you get pulled over, you’re going to need proof. You’ll get a ticket.”

I told him I’d take my chances and he moved on to his final sales pitch: a toll pass.

“You’ll need a toll pass,” he insisted.

I actually thought about getting one, but when he told me they cost $9.95 a day or $39.95 per week plus whatever toll charges one accrues, I told him I’d pass.

“But are you going across the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I admitted, “probably.”

“Well,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “You’ll need the toll pass then because there’s no one there to collect money any more.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I later looked it up and found out that he was right – sort of. As of late March, cash is not accepted at the iconic bridge, built in 1937, heading into San Francisco (it’s free heading north bound), so you have to call a telephone number (1-877-Bay-toll during bankers hours only, Monday-Saturday) and pay the fee before crossing the bridge. (Those who used the bridge often can buy a digital transponder that deducts money from a prepaid account or credit card.)

I told him I’d take my chances and, after I asked about how to cross the bridge, he handed me a flyer detailing the above procedure. Feeling exhausted from all the sales pitches, I asked him what kind of cars he had available.

“You don’t get a choice,” he said.

The last time I rented from Thrifty was in Costa Rica and that experience was less than positive as well, as they quoted me a price and then doubled it (unstated mandatory insurance) when I got to the counter. I’ve had two strikes with Thrifty in 2013 after numerous positive experiences in the past, but to be fair to them, I think these heavy handed sales tactics are becoming common for all the major car rental companies, as they seek new revenue streams.

Thrifty and some of the other discount chains advertise low prices so to make up for that they have to try to sell you add-ons. And their agents no doubt have goals and incentives to try to up-sell as many clients as possible.

What’s the take away here? First, if you’re visiting San Francisco, be aware of the situation at the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t think you have to necessarily buy a toll pass. With respect to the insurance, it probably is a good idea to travel with a copy of whatever policy you’ll be using. And as for all the other add-ons, GPS, car seats, upgrades, prepaying fuel and the rest, well, buyer beware.

[Photo credit: Birdie Holsclaw on Flickr]

Photo Of The Day: End Of The Line

Photo of the day - Graffiti bus
Public art can take many forms: a mural, a street performer, even a tank as “sculpture.” Then there is the many forms of graffiti. How do you differentiate between art and vandalism? This photo of a broken down Muni bus was taken by Flickr user JRodmanJr in San Francisco‘s Dogpatch neighborhood, presumably in the junkyard. It’s hard to say when the bus acquired all of its “artwork,” perhaps some of it while in service and the rest after it reached the end of the line. Do you think it’s art, or just some spray paint?

Share your artistic travel shots with us for the Photo of the Day. Just add them to the Gadling Flickr pool or share on Instagram with @gadlingtravel and #gadling.

[Photo credit: JRodmanJr]