These buried benches in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park cry out for a story-caption in the style of Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee. I even have a dim feeling he drew these for one of his panels. (His picture would have been better — he’s a brilliant artist, I’m an indifferent photographer.) So I hope he won’t mind my borrowing his style to tell a story of my own about this place.
In the 1990s, which is already long ago, I met a man who came to San Francisco long before that, in 1970. He landed first where this picture is, in Buena Vista Park. He was there for three days — good days — before someone told him he wasn’t in Golden Gate Park. He said it with remembered mischief in his voice. A welcome, I’m imagining. A party with hospitable strangers. Inadvisable states of mind that must have been pleasant at the time.
This man had problems at the time I knew him. For all I know his problems may have started right there and then. But he and others made Buena Vista Park something more than it is now. That’s worth remembering, good and bad together. Especially now they’re closing Golden Gate Park every night.
Maybe you know Buena Vista Park already. In case not: it’s the steep wooded oasis between the Upper Haight, known in legend as the Haight-Ashbury, and the Lower Haight, a less showy, tougher-rooted survival of San Francisco’s abused Western Addition and Fillmore districts.
Walking westward from the Transbay Terminal or the old Greyhound station on Seventh Street, the man who got here in 1970 would have climbed the tiring lower Haight Street hill to find Buena Vista Park at the top of the steepest slope. If he walked directly from Seventh to Market to Haight, and from there west along the whole length of Haight Street, then I suppose Buena Vista Park would have been the first big patch of greenery for him since the station. After that, if he’d ventured briefly farther west from Buena Vista Park, there would have been lots of distractions to keep him from finishing the busy mile or so of the Upper Haight business district before Haight Street’s dead-end at the main bulk of Golden Gate Park. I can see his mistake. Eh, Golden Gate Park is where you find it. Or anyway, reputedly, it was.
Buena Vista Park has been up and down, these past forty-fifty years. Bad drug-related things happened there for a while. It’s a contested space. It’s hard to police and nervous-making to walk in alone because of the same landscaping features that, security aside, would welcome the visitor with a sense of privacy. I guess that explains the unfriendly state of this space with the benches. Beautiful park, though. Lovely Edwardian and Deco buildings all around it.
I titled this post out of Villon, but with a slight blush I’ll admit thinking a Tolkien verse best conveys the feeling I got from those benches sitting unused and half buried in mulch. It’s from Treebeard’s lament for “the willow-meads of Tasarinan”. The old forest-guardian, looking back at past sunny days, speaks with resignation of his own dark, diminished, embattled woods: “Where the roots are long / and the years lie thicker than the leaves.”