The Mark of a Great City
As a devoted pop-culture pilgrim who’s lived here for 12 of those years, I’ve visited many of Mark's spots, but I figure the release of Sun Kil Moon’s
is an appropriate time to let his words guide me on a day
trip through the city. So I hoof it to some of the notable spots that
have shown up in Mark's lyrics, titles, and album sleeves and covers,
with a soundtrack of his songs buzzing in my headphones.
My first destination is Ocean Beach. Mark’s enamored enough with the area that he’s named two albums after it: Red House Painters’ Ocean Beach and Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway .
I take the L to the end of the line, at Wawona and 46th, and walk over to the median at Sloat and 45th. Standing tall, proud, and googly-eyed just a stone’s throw from the zoo is one of the Bay Area’s most exotic animals: the oversized Doggie Diner head, as pictured on the inside sleeve of Ocean Beach .
The first time I encountered this friendly beast, he was located outside a restaurant called Carousel, which had taken over the last remaining Doggie Diner at 46th and Sloat. But after being damaged by wind several years ago, the head’s been restored and now welcomes visitors to Ocean Beach via a plaque that also states, “Long live the Doggie!” These days his shiny red face is looking a lot better than Carousel, which has been gutted, abandoned, and tagged.
I catch the 18 to the northern end of Ocean Beach and the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park, which brings me to the Dutch Windmill. Photographer Melodie McDaniel’s black and white image of the landmark graces the cover of Ocean Beach .
The windmill is as beautiful and grand as it looks in pictures. Clearly, Melodie was given access to the ledge halfway up the structure to capture the close-up shot, and I wonder if I can get up there somehow. A Dutch woman convinces me to poke my nose inside a hole in the big rusted door that leads to the staircase. “Smells like Holland,” she says. How’s that? I ask. “Smells old.”
I show her Ocean Beach and ask if she’s heard of Red House Painters, to which she replies, “Are they from Holland?” The Dutch treats keep coming as I notice on the ground a pixilated printout of a photo of the Netherlands soccer team with “Better luck in Brazil” scrawled at the bottom. But my luck runs out as I decipher a sign posted next to the stairs: “Please chain and lock yourselves in to avoid curious tourists from following you up.”
My next destination is Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop on Polk between Sacramento and Clay. Any San Franciscan with a sweet tooth is familiar with this old-school joint that serves some of the finest fried dough on the planet 24 hours a day. But even the most die-hard fan of Bob's apple fritters and giant donuts may not know that the late Eleanor Ahn, who used to run the place, is immortalized in a Sun Kil Moon song called “Glenn Tipton.”
After gazing at the goodies in the display case that faces the street and collecting all kinds of unsolicited opinions from others in line about which donut is best, I plop myself down at one of the small tables with a fritter, which lives up to the hype. I’m entertained by a woman who says she’s been coming to Bob's since she was a kid and offers a history of the neighborhood. But I’m disappointed when Sonia the cashier, who’s been working at Bob's for decades, stares blankly when asked if she’s familiar with Mark or his music. While attending to a steady stream of customers, she recalls that a patron once told her that someone was planning to write a song about Eleanor, otherwise she doesn’t seem as impressed by “Glenn Tipton” as I’d hoped she’d be.
Fans of Mark’s work know that he likes to talk about “colorful hill,” specifically going down it: Red House Painters’ debut release, Down Colorful Hill , includes a song of the same name, and then in “Priest Alley Song” from Songs for a Blue Guitar he talks about “Going past golden gate elementary everyday / kids down colorful hill / recess and fire drill.” But no maps of the city refer to any place with the name. So what exactly is colorful hill?
“I don’t want to be specific,” says Mark in an email conversation we had before my tour. “That’s my personal memory. It’s just
whatever you picture it to be. It’s just a title. It’s up to the listener to fill in the blanks.”
Fair enough. But as I start the walking portion of my day in an attempt to work off some of Bob’s calories, which includes a trek up Washington toward Priest Alley on Nob Hill, I stumble upon Spring Valley Elementary School. Considering that Golden Gate Elementary School was located at Turk and Pierce in the Western Addition before it closed, I’m starting to wonder if Mark employed some artistic license and referred to Spring Valley as Golden
Gate Elementary in “Priest Alley Song.”
First off, Priest Alley – a 56-step walkway between Jones and Leavenworth – is just a few blocks up from Spring Valley. Secondly, while checking out the playground at the school, I turn around to notice that it can be seen from a couple of buildings on the street where Mark lives. At the top of the steps I realize I’m basically standing right in front of people’s front doors. Not wanting to look like a peeping Tom, I go back down what I’ve decided to start calling colorful hill.
A few blocks up and over, I make it to Taylor between Sacramento and California, which separates Grace Cathedral from the adjacent park. “Grace Cathedral Park” is my favorite thing that Mark’s written, and it’s arguably one of the best songs ever made and is one of the most poetic ruminations on a doomed relationship.
I’ve always wondered which street Mark was walking down while he had his heartbreaking epiphany – California Street toward the Financial District? Taylor’s steep steps? Mason heading north, which offers the prettiest view? I only recently discovered that the green area is not actually called Grace Cathedral Park. It’s Huntington Park. “I was like you – I didn’t know the difference,” says Mark. “Grace Cathedral church is right there, so why not? Poets don’t have to follow rules.”
The park is situated in one of the most picturesque areas of town. It’s the perfect break-up spot: There are plenty of benches to sit and ponder your own impending breakup with a soundtrack of cable-car dings in the background. And if your thoughts start to get a bit too heavy, there are distractions like watching kids in the playground and the dogs, most of whom convince their owners to ignore the leash law. And, of course, you can wash away all of your sins across the street at Grace Cathedral. As I leave, I decide it’s Mason – that’s the hill I’d walk down if I were to break up with someone there.
Later that day, I walk down to Market, grab a K at the Powell Street station, and venture toward my final destination, where Mission Street bends. Mission Street runs both north and south and northeast and southwest, and where it bends under the Central Freeway is commemorated in Red House Painters’ “Make Like Paper.”
Considering that I used to live a block and a half from here, and it’s still on the route that I often use to get home from work, where Mission Street bends has always been a part of my San Francisco life. After getting off at Van Ness, I search for the house he’s singing about, but realize that there aren’t any houses along here. In fact, with the exception of the massive condo structure – completed long after the song was written – there’s nowhere to live where Mission Street bends, which is made up mostly of office buildings. “It was written so long ago, inspired by a relationship with a woman who lived around there,” says Mark. “If you tracked her down she’d probably say, ‘Mark who?’”
As I’ve learned on my day trip, Mark’s words tend to be more concerned with impressions than getting the facts exactly right, and that kind of projecting is also what makes for a great pop-culture pilgrimage. When visiting places that have inspired your favorite performers, you’re free to color the experience with your own thoughts and feelings. And sometimes that can make you feel closer to the artist than actually meeting him.
It’s going to take a whole day to make this circle around the city without a car, and in my case, it ended up costing $6 in Muni fees. Take the L to the zoo, the 18 north to the Dutch Windmill, the 5 east and 49 north to Bob's Donuts, then put on your walking shoes for the trip through Nob Hill. Any train from the Powell Street station will get you to Van Ness, which is close to where Mission Street bends. The most pertinent albums to bring along are Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill , Red House Painters (a.k.a. Rollercoaster ), Ocean Beach , and Songs for a Blue Guitar , and Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway . The two-and-a-half bucks you’ll spend on an apple fritter and coffee at Bob's is well worth it.