Collect Them All

Sep 21, 2010 at 12am

Dubya hen I lived at 17th and Dolores, it was my daily duty to walk the dog to Dolores Park for a little ball, a little doo-doo, and a little fresh air. Directly along my route, around the corner from Bi-Rite Creamery, was Owl Window, a grungy first story apartment choked with variations on the bird.

There were macramé owls, ceramic owls, plush owls, tiny owls, and robust owls. Each day the dog and I passed under the judgment of dozens of kitschy eyes. I loved it. They reminded me of my grandmother, who collected owls too. They also reminded me of myself, as I once had my own tchotchkes – which were now just collecting dust.

Like an owl, I would build a nest of coveted crap in every house I moved to. Each time I relocated, that display would get smaller. Last fall I came home from my walk and examined my once proud altar to thrift store irony and wonder. Among the Camel cigarette lunch pails and King Diamond carnival mirrors was a pair of ceramic owls: a bug-eyed bird holding its bug-eyed offspring under its wing. I’d named them Abraham and Isaac.

I was preparing to move into a home with my spouse, and my current altar to slack threatened to be my last. As I packed it up, I knew exactly what I should do with Abraham and Isaac. They had to join their kind down the street. I wrapped them in a note, said my good-bye, and left them on the mailbox closest to the owl colony.

About a month ago I was back in the neighborhood and I stopped by Owl Window. Abraham and Isaac were there, staring back at me. I was overjoyed. I bragged to friends. My curiosity swelled. What other apartment displays were out there? And what wonderful clutter did they boast?

Eager to find more embellished windows, I reached out for suggestions through Facebook. I got a smattering of tips that generally fell into one of two categories: intentional displays of collections/art or unintentional displays of irony. Todd suggested what he called “The Dreaded Prince House” on 24th between Mission and Valencia. Robert and Karoline pointed out the “Troll Window” on 18th at Valencia. (They also offered up their own shrine to Willie Nelson in their kitchen window.) With a handful of stops in mind, I crisscrossed the Mission on foot in search of kitsch windows. 

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M-dropcap y first stop is Troll Window. Located on 18th Street just around the corner from Taqueria El Buen Sabor, is a first floor window that has been transformed into a terrarium of sorts for wayward Norfin trolls. Alfie Hamilton, a longtime employee of Cliff's Variety store in the Castro, dresses and blocks the dolls into a diorama usually reflective of current cultural events or holiday spirit.

The day I visit, the trolls are simply fancied up and soaking in some rare summer sun. Previous to this light frolic, they were celebrating the ruling that overturned Prop. 8. Perhaps their current political apathy is in response to the stasis now placed on the fate of gay marriage in California.

After missing Alfie at Cliff's, I hunt him down on Instant Messenger. He agrees to talk on the phone, where he explains that he’s so busy with decorating projects for Cliff's and for his sister’s wedding that he hasn’t had time to change the display in a while.

“I’m working on one for the 20th anniversary of the window, which is this year,” he says. “I’ll probably save that till Christmas.”

Alfie says his troll scenes were first created for fun, and now people donate their dolls to him. There’s also a blog dedicated to Troll Window, run by his sisters. “They wanted to get me a gift or do something for me, and I was like, ‘Give me something that’s not going to collect dust,’” he explains. “So they run the blog.”

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He started his display career by doing the windows for Macy’s and Nordstrom, but adds you don’t get much credit for that line of work. His apartment window, on the other hand, has been featured in  People, the  New Yorker , the  Examiner , and  San Francisco Chronicle . (The  Chronicle  messed up some of the details, he adds, mistakenly calling him “the little old lady that does the Troll Window.”) His home is also part of the route for tour buses that cruise the Mission.

Alfie travels the city mostly by foot, and says he pays close attention to the other apartment displays around him.

“There is another apartment at 19th and Castro with a lot of fun things in the window – Barbies and stuff,” he says. “There used to be one up in Noe. It was all holidays: St. Patrick’s, Christmas, Halloween, but when the people there died, the family just tore everything out. They didn’t care about it.”

Realizing the fleeting nature of these displays only strengthens my resolve to become familiar with them. Excited, I move on to my next stop, the one that started my obsession: Owl Window. 

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I-dropcap  had recently dropped an introductory letter in the mail slot of Owl Window, and a few days later I receive an email from its curator, George Heymont. We arrange to meet at his place. As he opens the door, he cracks, “This is what happens when you have 30 years of rent control.”

The apartment is cluttered with his collections. His office, which sits behind the owls, is a tribute to Angela Lansbury. The guest bedroom has floor-to-ceiling pictures of cruise ships (“Dollar store frame sale”), and the bathroom is insulated with hundreds of hunks flexing and sexing (“So you don’t have to go to the bathroom alone”).

“Do you want to go running from the apartment screaming now?” George asks mid-tour. Quite the opposite. I feel strangely at home as he shows me the bedroom that holds three times as many owls as the window out front.

We sit behind the birds, where George works as a medical transcriber and freelance writer, and he explains the concept behind his main display. He’s older, having moved here in ’72, and speaks with an inflection that hints at his East Coast origins.  

“The window used to be filled with  Coleus  plants, but they got filled with spider mites, and died,” he says. “Very costly to replace them.” Instead he relocated some of the owls from the back bedroom into the front window. “I started to move the owls and, like usual, that got out of hand,” he adds.

I tell George I used to collect pigs in the same fashion he collects owls. It started as a few, and when friends and family caught wind, every gift from then on was a pig. Or in George’s case, an owl.

George peeks out the window as his birds attract the stares of kids and tourists. He remembers back about 20 years ago to when the owls turned the tables, and stared back a little too hard into his place. He’d brought home an inebriated trick who, upon seeing 400 sets of eyes looking down, exclaimed, “Uuuuuuuuhhhhhh...I gotta get outta here!” and ran out of the house stark naked.

I thanked George and left with my clothes on. Next stop: Dennis Richmond. 

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L-dropcap ongtime Bay Area newscaster Dennis Richmond’s portrait is perched on the roof far above the empty El Trebol restaurant on 24 th  St. near Mission. I remember his mug appearing there, adjacent to the window of artist Jesse Mosher’s apartment, the week the local icon retired from KTVU after 40 years of service in 2008. He’s the only journalist on display, as Jesse’s subject matter tends toward musicians and other counterculture icons (he painted the mural of Cassady and Kerouac outside The Beat Museum in North Beach). I think I can make out Jerry Garcia and a Ramone among the portraits visible through Jesse’s window.

It’s interesting to note that today Jesse is displayed as prominently as his art – he’s known to perch on his windowsill for long lengths of time. I just miss him the afternoon I visit, and ring the doorbell to no answer. I try to yell up to him, but just incur dirty looks from the old Cuban guys hanging outside the nearby Cafe La Boheme. I finally contact Jesse through his Etsy page. He confirms that he spends a lot of time sitting in his windowsill, sometimes drawing crowds, and adds that he has even sold paintings there.

Making all these house calls starts to light a fire in me. Maybe my fresh apartment deserves a fresh display. Inspired, I head home to look for anything that survived the move and is worthy of showing off to my new neighborhood. I think I have a backpack filled with broken sunglasses and a gallon-sized ziplock bag of M.U.S.C.L.E wrestling figurines somewhere. There has to be something I can do with them. 

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V-dropcap isit the Troll Window on 18th Street at Valencia Street, Owl Window on Dolores Street at 18th Street and Jesse Mosher’s paintings on 24th Street between Mission Street and Bartlett Street. If you’d prefer to create a scene of your own, you can always pull from an existing collection (I am, for example, furiously taping M.U.S.C.L.E toys to my window), and then embellish it with accents and backdrops from Cliff's Variety or SCRAP.  

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