Perfect Parking

You can find many things in a San Francisco park. Even mystery.

When I was a girl, my father and I stumbled upon a great, unlikely dome of brambles somewhere in the heart of Golden Gate Park. The growth was thick and old and seemingly impenetrable, but we were not a pair given to hesitation at the cost of exploration. Intoxicated by the warmth and splendor of a day already spent bouncing on blankets of bushes and dodging dragonflies (known to wise women in fairy tales as "devil's knitting needles"), we plunged into a low, woodsy portico discovered at the edge of the brambles and entered the unseen labyrinth that lay beyond. Low tunnels, fashioned by the regular passage of wild animals and, no doubt, undomesticated men stretched off in every direction; the earth, at once soft and dusty and firmly packed, formed a perfect footpath into the heart of the maze; the air was warm and dry, and, at periodic intervals, where shafts of dusty light pierced the canopy overhead, there were tiny clearings, like resting places for miniature travelers. I scampered down a pathway with my father following behind, though slowly, as the height of the tunnels required him to crouch and sometimes crawl before another clearing would suddenly offer headroom. There were forks and bends in the road, decisions to be made and crevices to be explored; small cubbyholes sprang off the side of the path like sitting rooms, some with flattened foliage, as if an animal had lain down to rest, others strewn with bottles and cans and strips of grimy old clothes. The paths twisted and turned, some returning to where they began, which I would recognize only after spotting the same smooth piece of wood arranged like a tiny bench in a clearing, or suddenly stumbling upon my father, who was grinning as widely as I.

After a timeless period, we came to what seemed like the center of the maze; it was situated near a very old tree, growing at the bottom of an unexpected slope. In the clearing, which was much larger, cooler, and damper than any we had seen, we found a bedroll, some crude shelving, a small table, a couple of plates, and some dirty magazines.

Troll, I thought.

"Someone's house," said my dad, gently shuffling me back out the way we had come. "Probably wouldn't like us poking around in his maze."

Suddenly, I remembered the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, which my cousin told in lieu of ghost stories whenever I slept at her house. It never occurred to me that, once inside the maze, my father and I might not be able to find our way out, but his footing was certain and his humor undiminished. And when we emerged into the light of day our Frisbee and our bottles of juice were still sitting at the mouth of the tunnel, and I forgot about the damp dwelling in the center of the maze, mostly.

Parks have, since that day, always held a certain fascination for me.

A bit of wilderness in the midst of civilization, they give the impression of refinement and refreshment, but there's always something unpredictable just around the bend. Sure, Golden Gate Park offers tennis courts, bocce ball, horse trails, carousel rides, bison, baseball, fly casting, and paddleboats, but you can also witness pagan rites performed at sunrise near Chain of Lakes Drive, catch glimpses of men having anonymous sex near the sea, watch drug deals near McLaren Lodge, have tea parties with the characters from Alice in Wonderland in fields of tulips under the Dutch Windmill, learn to roller disco on John F. Kennedy Drive(still), and rediscover the ruins of the much-maligned Sweeny Observatory on top of Strawberry Hill.

In a season such as this, when weather conspires with weekends to lure the city's denizens to the "public parks and pleasuring grounds," even a more modest patch of green, such as Dolores Park, becomes something of a torpid carnival.

"Can you butter us up?" says a woman who, accompanied by several friends, tentatively approaches a bikini-clad beauty on top of the Dolores Park slope known in Castro parlance as "Homolulu" or "Queen's Beach."

"You want me to butter you up?" clarifies the bikini girl. "Or you want to butter me up?"

"No, no, no, we want to butter you up," confirms the newcomer.

"In that case, the code word is H-A-W-T," says the bikini girl with some satisfaction. "Please go to the bottom of the hill where you will find an artillery box under the trees. Remove three pieces of artillery and return here for your target."

The woman and her friends run down the hill, winding their way through the bronzed flesh currently on display in the grass. Bikini girl rises quickly, revealing a giant target painted on her back, and dons a pair of fuzzy strawberry-shaped slippers. She waves her arms and begins running from the ensuing barrage of water balloons. On the other side of the park, a ring of thirtysomethings try to drink from the water fountain while other thirtysomethings cling to their backs. Down the street, Laura Glatsteinpretends to take a newfangled drug that turns her into a dog and begins to simulate the act of pissing on trees and humping strange men's legs.

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