At the Stoplight

Crossing the street, an Asian lady with short hair, wearing white cotton gloves. Her coat nips at the waist in a ’50s silhouette, and her matching black hat with a small feather dates from the same era.

She nods at a school crossing guard in an outsize reflective yellow vest. The guard is black with a deluge of blonde braids, and a hygienic mask covers her nose and mouth. She beckons an old man as he approaches to cross.

The man is white with a poorly tended gray beard. He is skinny, his leather blazer like a tarp thrown over his skeleton. On his head is a promotional sombrero from a national Mexican restaurant chain. In his hands, a second sombrero. He rushes across the street with purpose — sombrero delivery guy, sombrero delivery in progress.

“Look at this,” says Brad. “America.”

Can you keep a secret?

Latitude Society Photo: Lydia Laurenson

I’ve been reading up on secret societies and came across the Latitude Society, a San Francisco group that apparently became defunct in 2015. Inductees were given an invitation by a friend or acquaintance, with an envelope request for “absolute discretion.”

The card had a code you could use to schedule an appointment online. Then you showed up at the appointed address, and entered a small room with a slide inside the fireplace.

Photo: Lydia Laurenson

The slide led to a library too small to stand, where inductees first heard this fable, which was reiterated a ritualistic start to group meetings:

Afterward, new members were sent on a sort of scavenger hunt through the city, and given access to invitations, and to online forums where they could arrange to meet with other members.

Magic. Jeff Hull, the society’s creator, is an artist living in Oakland. Costs eventually outstripped revenue and made the project unsustainable, but what a lovely thing while it lasted.

A few articles if you want to know more. Did any of you get to do this?
My Year in San Francisco’s $2 Million Secret Society Startup
I joined a secret society and loved it, but now it’s just another failed startup
Can a Secret Society Become a Business?

8 Fun Places to Eat in San Francisco

As part of my Life List goal of getting to know my city like the back of my hand, I’m collecting 100 of the best things to taste in San Francisco. These are 11-18:

Let’s go somewhere delicious and fun.

1. Pork Shumai at New Asia, $4.50
New Asia is a kitschy Chinatown banquet hall, and their weekend brunch features rolling steam carts with endless, reasonably priced dim sum to ease your hangover. The mostly Chinese patrons are an excellent sign, but the pace can intimidate if you’ve never cart-ordered dim sum before. Research what you’d like to try, and ask the waiters zooming by to send it your way. Otherwise, you can just nod when they show you something appetizing.

2. Happy Hour Oysters at Waterbar, $1.05 each
Fresh oysters and bubbly with a view of the Bay Bridge, this is among the best reasons to live here, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

3. Dessert Soufflé at Café Jaqueline, $30
Café Jaqueline is a romantic, all-soufflé restaurant tucked off the main strip in North Beach. Call ahead to secure a spot at one of the five or six tables, and settle in for a nice slow dessert or savory soufflé with a bottle of wine. Use the restroom so you can peek at the little kitchen, where you’ll find a bottomless bowl of eggs resting on the counter.

4. Burger at Mission Bowl, $15
Burgers that are simple, juicy, and with some kind of magic sauce — all to the soundtrack of pins toppling.

5. Half a Fresh Cracked Crab at the Swan Oyster Depot, $20
San Franciscans will queue for absolutely nothing but great food, so a line is a sign. You will always find a line at this tiny seafood diner, especially now that it’s crab season. Wait in line. Take a seat on a swivel stool at the counter and enjoy a plate of oysters on ice. Grin at the suckers in line, and order another glass of white wine while you crack into your crab.

6. Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Carlton Lounge, $65
I feel calmer just thinking about this place. If you’re going to take tea, there should always be a harpist at hand.

7. Ribeye at Alfred’s, $32
Alfred’s was founded in 1928, and it still feels like you should be able to smoke a cigar at the table. The steaks are exceptional, and reasonably priced for a San Francisco steak house, but I love it because the cocktails are perfect and the place is so cozy. Especially good for a rainy or foggy night.

8. Nebulous Potato Thing and a Breakfast Milkshake at the St. Francis Soda Fountain, about $10 for both
This soda fountain has been around since 1918, and was run by three generations of the same family until 2000. In 2002, the current owners renovated the 1948 dining room and installed a kitchen, making it my favorite diner in the city. Everything is good, but I like the Nebulous Potato Thing – a mound of potatoes fried with onions and whatnot, smothered in melted cheddar with sour cream on top. Your choice of thick breakfast shake on the side, tin included.

E-Bikes, I Want One

Bosch sponsored this post, but the enthusiasm is mine.

A few months ago Bosch sent me to The New Wheel to borrow an e-bike for the day.

I’d never heard of an e-bike, but they’re bikes with electric motors. Riding one is a lot like riding a regular bicycle, you have to pedal and you still get exercise, but you can set the motor to give you a boost when you’re climbing a hill, or getting tired from riding a long distance, or coming home from eating a lot of pasta.

None of this meant much to me until I was climbing vertical San Francisco hills like Wonder Woman on an adrenal high.

Guys, I have worn some adventure helmets in my day, but this was incredible. I don’t even like to walk up those hills, but biking up made me feel like I should be holding a tiny parasol and waving at passersby.

We biked places I would never take a regular bike — over massive hills in Pacific Heights and out to the Golden Gate bridge, up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, and right through the nightmarish traffic on Fisherman’s Wharf. We even climbed the massive Potrero Hill to see the city lights. In 15 years living in the city, I’ve never seen as much of it in one day. It was so much fun!

This guy wrote a piece on Medium about why he sold his car for an e-bike, and I was doing the same calculations in my head as we rode around.

Karen, who owns The New Wheel with her husband, loaned us the bike and led the way. She told me that lots of their customers are buying e-bikes to replace cars — new ones run about $3,500 and up.

While we rode around, Bosch asked me to catalogue some of my favorite places in San Francisco that are harder to access by car. So check that out if you’re interested.

And if anyone ever asks you if you want to try an e-bike, do it. And then keep it.

Sweet Tooth, 10 Things to Taste in San Francisco

When I travel, I like to make a goal list that includes specific foods I want to taste wherever I land. So I decided to make an extensive treats list for my hometown of San Francisco, in case you’re similarly inclined.

I set up a Pinterest map that has photos of each item with their addresses, right here and will be building on it as we go along. We’re starting with dessert, which is a solid life philosophy. Ten sweets you should taste in San Francisco:

1. Bourbon Banana Cream Pie at Wexlers
I want to dip my finger in this filling and wear it behind my ears as perfume. Do not share a piece. Get your own piece.

2. Butterscotch Pot de Creme at Town Hall
They will serve this in a bathtub so you can immerse yourself in the unctuous expanse of cream, but it’s more expensive.

3. Sweet Revolutions Caramels at Bi-Rite
So soft, they’re like biting into cold, sweet butter. Let one warm in your mouth and try not to pass out.

4. Caramel Robin Eggs at Miette
These are only available around Easter, and I wait all year. The outer candy shell has an aftertaste of fresh lemon, with a layer of dark chocolate surrounding a caramel center. If you want some, you’ll need to get there before me, because I sweep every last bag into my basket and hoard them all year.

5. Passionfruit Milk Chocolate Donut from Dynamo Donuts
You could eenie meenie in front of the case at Dynamo and fare just fine, but the Passionfruit Milk Chocolate? That’s the one.

6. Blackberry Milkshake at Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers
When I was a kid, the family would go camping and I’d spend hours picking blackberries. In the morning, mom would pour cream over them for breakfast. This tastes just like that.

7. Toffee Chip Cookies from Anthony’s Cookies
You can’t go wrong at Anthony’s either, but if you’re only trying one cookie, start here.

8. Millionaire Bacon at Sweet Maple
They soak the bacon in Maple syrup and secret spices, and I can’t talk about it anymore because I’m chewing.

9. Salted Caramel Ice Cream at Bi-Rite Creamery
You’ll see this on every damn list anyone ever makes about Bay Area food, and they’re right.

10. Key Lime Pears from Recchiuti Confections
The pears are thin and crispy like potato chips, flavored with lime essence, and dipped in very high quality chocolate. It’s rare as an adult to come across a new texture or flavor, and these accomplish that. They’re seasonal, but you can order them online, so if you won’t find yourself in San Francisco soon, at least you can play along at home.

If you like this post, you might also like:

8 Things to Taste in Argentina
Five Things to Taste in Chicago
Top 10 Things to Do and Taste in Jamaica

You Lost Me There

Mr. Baldwin is in San Francisco doing a reading tonight at the Ferry Building (6 p.m.). I hear his approximation of a Maine accent is without parallel.

The best parts of You Lost Me There:

“I tried playing housewife for a year to an empty house.”

“Russell squeezed my arm and gave me a light hug. While he strode toward the airport, compact and hustling, his suit bag like a shadow on his back, I thought, I don’t care if I ever see him again.”

“Sara always said it was a hindrance of mine, that I expected people to tell me what they needed.”

“After the coffee he was still focused on how she liked it, how she took it, he put it, going into details to show off his good fortune for discovering a woman who didn’t mind facing away from him during sex.”

“She longed for honor. For Eagle Scouts.”

“I won’t have a normal relationship. That’s not who I am.”
“Of course not.”
“I won’t be dragged down to what other people do.”

“You’ll have worked tremendously hard to build your life after a certain fashion, and then suddenly, one morning, you want something different. You want anything but what you have, you want it new, and you want it just right then. It’s terrifying, the desire’s so powerful, you’re just sick with it.”

Flashback Monday: 6 Favorite San Francisco Parks

Six Parks to Visit in San Francisco - Mighty Girl

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, I’ve been posting articles that originally appeared elsewhere. This piece was originally published by the The Morning News in 2006. Thanks to Andrew Womack, for the edits. (Andy!)

There seems to be a park every few blocks in San Francisco, so people often favor the park closest to their apartments. We meet in parks all year to listen to music, to share food, to celebrate together. Friends of mine married atop Tank Hill near their Cole Valley apartment, and my own husband proposed at a nearby dog park with a hurricane fence and a sweeping view of the city lights. There are too many parks to list, and possibly to count, so these are a few of the standouts. I highly recommend coming to visit, so you can choose a favorite of your own.

Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a lot like New York’s Central Park, only larger, and you can walk on its paths at night with a reasonable hope of emerging alive. The lush, 1,017-acre expanse was coaxed from a desert of unstable sand dunes at the west end of the city. Two Dutch-style windmills once pumped water through the park, maintaining an electric-powered waterfall, several small lakes, and the running creeks connecting the lakes.

For a few years, I rose early Sunday mornings, laced my red Converse with leather glued to the bottoms, and rushed to meet the lindy-hop dancers who gather in the Music Concourse. People came from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and as far as Sweden to dance together there in the park, while a tai chi group moved in slow motion nearby. Afterward, I would walk over to the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden to read over a cup of green tea and a plate of almond cookies.

Model-yacht enthusiasts head out to Spreckels Lake (near 36th Avenue), which was specially designed for mini-yachting. We go to watch the little boats when my niece and nephew are in town, or rent paddleboats on Stow Lake and take turns directing the kids to keep their hands out of the murky water. We gawk at the herd of bison whose ancestors have called the park home since 1892, and visit the recently restored Conservatory of Flowers to hunt for geckos on the panes of milky glass.

The park is a throughway for the annual Bay to Breakers race, attracting tens of thousands of drunken, costumed revelers pushing fully operational tiki bars up and down San Francisco’s hilly landscape. Golden Gate Park is the only place to relieve yourself on the route, which means that everyone stops to pee in the bushes together. Now that’s a San Francisco treat.

Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach is where Golden Gate Park meets the ocean. It’s also where everyone goes for bonfires, mostly in October and November.

After the holidays, San Franciscans are known to collect truckloads of withered Christmas trees to burn on the beach. (If you’ve never watched a Christmas tree burn, I highly recommend it. It takes about 15 chilling seconds for the entire tree to go up in a whoosh of flames, and the tinsel makes sparks!) Regular police patrols keep the fires moderate, so hide the flask when they stop by.

Next door is Baker Beach, where a few friends met in 1986 to burn an eight-foot-tall wooden man, the humble beginning of the unabashed Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

South Park
One of hundreds of small neighborhood parks scattered throughout San Francisco, South Park has a distinctly European flavor. It feels as though you should be able to visit a butcher, a baker, and a cheese shop simply by crisscrossing the grassy oval.

But the park’s denizens, with their heavy-framed glasses and silk-screened graphic T-shirts, betray SOMA’s actual economic engine. Tech geeks flock here to meet, eat lunch, and grab a quick espresso fix.

Around 1999, I worked at a web magazine a few blocks from South Park, and I would queue up for half an hour to buy lunch at Café Centro on the edge of the park. The area was awash in dot-commers attracted by the low rents and artistic potential of the newly renovated warehouse spaces.

A few years later, the pigeons were the only company. A local artist trucked in dozens of tumbleweeds and set them out on the grass. Those of us who’d somehow survived the bust could almost hear the harmonica on the wind.

But today, picnic tables are scarce as ever. Geeks are back in force, and everyone seems to know everyone else. That makes it hard to plot secret business plans on the back of a café napkin, but easy enough to get them funded.

Alamo Square
You may remember Alamo Square from its cameo in the opening sequence of the regrettable ’80s sitcom Full House. The family is picnicking in the park, in front of the Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.

Because of the Painted Ladies, Alamo Square is the park mostly likely to be seen by tourists and forgotten by San Franciscans. Buses stop at the top of the Hayes Street hill so passengers can snap a photo, and then everyone climbs back aboard—leaving the park blissfully crowd-free and ready for the locals.

Alta Plaza
I mention this park for one reason only—Pug Sunday, people. The first Sunday of each month, pug owners from all over the Bay Area gather here to unleash their pugs on hapless trees, fire hydrants, and picnic blankets.

Go to gaze upon the romping, wheezing mass, and listen to the baffled owners calling out, “Prudence?” “Winston?” “Reeeeehmington!”

Wait for the end, as the owners try to re-gather their pets. A few pugs will have shaken off their identifying bandanas and stretchy collars, making them indistinguishable from one another.

Dolores Park
When the sun is high, Dolores Hill is one of the most popular and stunning parks in the city. It boasts a panoramic view of downtown, and row upon row of achingly beautiful gay men working on their tans.

The Speedo Nation shares the park with a small population of homeless people who use Dolores as a sleeping and meeting place. You’ll also find Scrabble-playing Mission hipsters, Frisbee-tossing dog owners, and families taking advantage of the large playground and barbecue areas.

The park was a Jewish cemetery until 1894, when San Francisco outlawed burial inside the city limits. Most of the remains in the city’s graveyards were exhumed and moved to nearby Colma, where the dead now outnumber the living.

Dolores Park takes its name from the Mission San Francisco Dolores, which is up the street. On Independence Day and New Year’s Eve, I meet friends here to pass flasks and watch the fireworks, which are invariably obscured by fog.