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St. Mary's Park is a quiet old neighborhood nestled between Bernal Heights and the 280 freeway, just below the waist of San Francisco. To get there from downtown, you travel south on Mission Street, past Cesar Chavez Street and Cortland Avenue, and hang a left at College Avenue. You'll suddenly feel like you've driven into Pleasantville. A signpost with a little bell marks your entrance into St. Mary's, where the beige-and-pink 1920s homes line up as orderly as dentures.
If you go to call on a resident of St. Mary's Park, happen to forget her address, and wander aimlessly through the neighborhood, you will feel you're being watched. And you'll probably be right. Outsiders stand out in St. Mary's Park. Everybody seems to know everybody else, and the everybodies all watch out for one another. The keenest eyes in the neighborhood belong to "The Sunshine Lady."
The Sunshine Lady is actually a former executive recruiter named Dennis Billingsley who lives in a Renaissance revival-style two-bedroom home in St. Mary's Park with his longtime partner, George, a reclusive Chinese-American civil engineer. The fiftysomething Billingsley coyly gives his age simply as "retired," and, with his bushy white mustache and matching bushy eyebrows, looks as if he should be singing in a barbershop quartet. He has the rosy nose and cheeks of a jolly Santa Claus, and dresses in neat button-down shirts, untucked over chinos. He spends most of his time strolling up and down the well-tended streets of St. Mary's Park with his fluffy white Pomeranian, Missy, chatting up the neighbors and picking their brains for gossip.
"I'm just waiting for the day he comes out with curlers in his hair," says Billingsley's neighbor, photographer Audrey Vernick.
Whatever you want to know about the neighborhood, Billingsley can tell you: who moved in next door, and if he or she is gay; what that ugly house down the block sold for; how much a new resident's landscaping cost; and whatever other fodder there might be for over-the-fence conversation. He's the first to introduce himself to new neighbors, and regularly spills what he learns in the neighborhood newsletter, the Park Bell, for which he serves as gossip columnist. Billingsley's predecessor in this position wrote under the pseudonym of "The Sunshine Lady." Although Billingsley attempted to palm the title off on Missy when he took over, the nickname stuck to him.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the Sunshine Lady ambled up a hill in his indoor/outdoor sheepskin house slippers as Missy -- looking like some cotton-candy confection with raisin eyes -- pranced along beside him. A middle-aged Asian woman hurried down the street with a plastic shopping bag, but grinned when she spotted Billingsley.
"I love your new paint job," he said, referring to her home.
"Oh, you like it?" she said, pleased.
"Yes," he said. "I really do like it. It looks really good."
Billingsley shuffled on, then stopped to size up a yard that had been newly planted with little bushes. "I wish they'd talked to me before they put these in," he said worriedly. "They wanted something that's going to be easy. What they don't realize is that these shrubs become out of control."
As neighborhood busybodies go, Billingsley is a benign sort. He once called the cops on a man who claimed to be a cable guy but seemed to be casing the neighborhood, only to feel guilty about it five minutes later -- and call the police back to add that the suspicious character "couldn't have been nicer." His items in the Park Bell would never cut the mustard on "Page Six." A typical example: "Travelers: John and Lois Booth have gone to see their grandson graduate from high school in Chico."
In fact, the Sunshine Lady often uses his dishiest material for good, rather than publication. Neighbor Bill Hirsch once sold Billingsley some tickets to an AIDS fund-raiser and got useful intelligence in return. "I'll tell you who you should be hitting up for money," said the Sunshine Lady, and proceeded to fill Hirsch in on the wealthiest locals.
The neighborhood of St. Mary's Park, built on the original site of the Catholic St. Mary's College (it's now in the East Bay), has of late become a popular alternative for those looking to buy a home in San Francisco. Though not cheap by any means, its homes are less pricey than nearby Noe Valley's, and the neighborhood boasts hidden charms. It houses a healthy population of gay couples, a mix of races, and a nucleus of longtime middle-class residents to go along with its yuppie newcomers. It has its own recreation center, swimming pool, and tennis courts, and new neighbors even get a welcome basket that includes a copy of Park Bell.
Nobody sings the praises of St. Mary's Park more loudly than its Sunshine Lady, but since its discovery as a destination neighborhood, Billingsley says, moving in has become ... difficult. "Someone has to die before you can get a house in St. Mary's Park," is how he put it recently, without, of course, stating the obvious indelicate corollary: Because Billingsley keeps such close tabs on his elderly neighbors, knowing the Sunshine Lady might well improve your house-hunting chances.