My City by the Bay (+ Mixed-Berry Muffins)

[San Francisco at dusk, January 2012.]

The other night after work I walked home because I’d sat still all day and my legs were twitching to move through the cool clear almost-dark. It was sort of a last-minute decision; I was waiting for the light to change on my way to the bus, looked over to the right, and saw the early-evening-but-not-yet-sunset light. My feet seemed to turn away from the clutch of commuters of their own accord, setting themselves firmly up the (slight) hill on Bush Street before I registered what was happening. I wasn’t sure where the walk would take me – having walked home previous times I’ve gone up the fairly dirty and unaesthetic Market Street before splitting off west into my neighborhood – but it didn’t much matter. I simply wanted to go.

It’s about two and a half miles from work door to apartment door (aka, home), which isn’t so long really. It felt even shorter as I hiked along past little shops and grubby, tucked-away bars with funny names, laundromats and dry cleaners and churches interspersed with various healing centers (this is SF, after all) and corner markets. I wondered a little over some of the names and thought that the apartment buildings looked so nice but would it be loud in this neighborhood? I thought about what I’d make for dinner. I clenched with anxiety over a few things but pushed them away. I tried not to obsess over did my ITB twinge as I passed the Chinatown gate or is that hypochondria and instead looked out over my city, blue in the waning light. The light in San Francisco is sort of magical I think. There’s nothing else like it.

California shimmers in the sun, it’s true, and has been particularly shimmery this month. Weeks like the ones we’ve had — drought worries notwithstanding, it’s a gorgeous spell of days that’s a sort of time out of time — are to be savored even as we anxiously eye the water table. When real summer rolls around, thick with fog and the drip-drip-drip of water from the redwood leaves onto the ferns, we’re more likely to closet ourselves away with tea and Mozart’s Mass in C- and lots of wool blankets and warm things to eat. Or maybe that’s just me. Summer of the heart? Oh, that comes at the most unexpected times here and we’ll take it when we can.

Right now is a strange season. It’s the very mid of mid-winters but the sun shines and shines relentlessly without even a wisp of fog. I know it is brilliant and gorgeous and polishing the rocks and sand out at Baker Beach, and along the coastal trail that winds from the Palace of the Legion of Honor (you can get a surprisingly good lunch there, just to note) to Land’s End even as I type this. We went out there on Saturday and lazed a bit in the sun and ate the last of the Christmas cookies from Maine and it didn’t feel one bit like January. All the way out to Ocean Beach past the Bath ruins and the Cliff House the sun burned with fierce purpose. The tide was out and the beach, when we peered round the blinding glare, was wider even than at its usual. I am projecting myself there today, would trade the olive trees outside the window for that empty and booming beach just for an hour. A girl can dream …

[Pacific Ocean looking Southwest from the Sutro Baths, January 2012.]

I was talking about San Francisco this morning with my mum-in-law as we ate leftover berry muffins. I kept getting up to put away dishes and gather up the stuff I needed for the day, always with an eye on the clock (though I ended up being late in anyway) and always with an ear tuned to the conversation. There’s so little I know of my city, though I have – and do – make attempts to learn more; I saw an old photograph of the Cliff House this weekend at the museum that has prompted this bit of San Francisco wistful nostalgia for how-it-was. Dirt roads and houses of ill repute and filthy gold miners swinging through town to spend their hard-scrabbled nuggets on whisky and all – I would take it for a week, just to see.

San Francisco was once: gleaming with hope and teeming with horses and trolleys. Ships sailed in and out of the bay and there was no bridge yet (if you have ever seen that Ansel Adams photograph, “Golden Gate Before the Bridge,” you’ll know how strange and different it would have been to our modern eyes accustomed now to seeing that great span). Way out at the edge of town, in what is now the Sunset District, the few people who did start building houses found themselves thwarted by sandstorms when they planted gardens. The tram line ran out there and the tracks were often covered by drifting sand; still, I bet for a kid it was a fantastic place to live. All that empty space along the beach for hiding out and rambling, whichever you chose.

We munched on our muffins and sipped our cups of tea and I could almost see it out the window. Many buildings in my neighborhood – one of which, sadly, burned in fire just before Christmas – are so old they have stood for over 100 years. I love that about the city, that there are still so many houses and structures that survived the great 1906 earthquake and devastating fire. I love that nature is so close here. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, I sometimes think when the earth gives another, inevitable massive heave we’ll slide right into the ocean with hardly a splash. In the meantime we marvel over raccoons in Alamo Square Park and hope to catch a glimpse of the coyotes near the Buffalo Pasture (err — I do) and take walks home that remind us that we humans should tread lighter on the earth. We are the impermanent part of the universe after all, and perhaps in 1000 years San Francisco will be deserted and sand will once again drift over the train tracks along with a wayward grizzly bear come down from the north.

In the meantime, we are here. And when here we must fortify, and there are some days when oatmeal simply won’t do. Instead, muffins. I know it seems like all I do is bake and little else — I swear I have been cooking dinner nearly every night, even if very simple like last night which was just roasted potatoes and cauliflower and chickpeas with garlic and spinach and a piece of salmon baked in white wine and lemon juice and vegetable broth and then, YES, a chocolate-chocolate cake — but it is my wont it seems. Sunday morning I slid out from under the pile of the NY Times and whisked together a batter as quickly as possible using what I had on hand – the best muffins yet. I used a little whole wheat pastry flour here, some slivered almonds, more cinnamon than is usual, and brown sugar. They turned out dense and not-too-sweet and moist and a little crunchy and full of summer – perfect for this strange winter season and for meanderings of both body and spirit.



Join the Conversation

  1. I loved this post. It was the perfect post lunch sweet. Thanks!

  2. We live in an amazing corner of the Pacific Northwest, but your city is one of our very favorite places. Love to visit and just walk around! Your writing makes it all that more compelling.

  3. A beautiful post….sometimes only muffins will do. There’s something about berry muffins too that are so comforting to me that I can’t explain. These look delicious and beckon for a cup of coffee.

  4. Oh! Those look tasty. I will have to whip some up.

    I love San Francisco so much. I live vicariously through your posts about it.

  5. I have been enjoying this weather with my breath held just a bit. I know that soon it must break and we’ll have the rain we need, but for now each day has felt like a little blessing. A lovely post, and thank you for pointing me towards that Ansel Adams picture. I hadn’t seen it before, and it is rather shocking to realize that your brain is trying to build the bridge right into the picture for you.

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