Visitacion Valley

“Somewhat scary residential area. Don’t come here at night unless the 49ers have a game at 3Com”
–NFT Not For Tourists(TM) Guide to SAN FRANCISCO

Let the Nobs stay up on their hill and the hipsters stick to Hayes: Visitacion Valley is the most evocative name in the city, and as a neighborhood, it’s preserved, for now, by those nose-wrinkling write-ups. It’s the last stop before you leave San Francisco for the cubicles of Silicon Valley. Perched above it, on the San Bruno Expressway, a cocked martini glass invites commuters to stop for one for the road at a Russian cocktail lounge.

Some neighborhood history is written in the streets: the Mexican names, the boarded-up restaurants that used to sell Louisiana chitlins, the Indian Baptist Church, the Chinese and Vietnamese-language dailies in the newspaper vending boxes. It’s half Asian now, and most of the residents were born in another country.

On Leland Avenue–storefront churches, nail salons, and lunch shacks–I dithered over what to eat. Fried chicken or beef pho? It turned out that the Sunflower Blues Cafe, with its improbable indoor picket fences and yellow gingham table cloths, wasn’t opening until next week, though Marcus, the owner, was proud to show off how good it looked already. Everything made from scratch, he said, and healthy ingredients, salads and grilled stuff, though of course they’d do fried chicken, too; no sense being _extreme._ He’d started his family young and brought them over to Vis Valley from Bayview. They were grown now, though he didn’t look more than forty. He owned a few properties in the neighborhood, and his wife ran the beauty salon up the street. Julia here used to work for her, he said, and Julia was the best. Could I figure out how to get her to come on board with him?

Julia shrugged and giggled, not yet convinced.

At the Vietnamese place next door, my beef pho came with tripe and tendon, and a bush of basil leaves. The fish sauce was given out without asking. I ordered _ca phe sua da_ and thanked the waiter in dredged-up Vietnamese. I was proud, but he was baffled until I gave in and pointed to the number on the menu. The broth was as good as Hanoi, and the decor very nearly worse.

A gnarled Chinese lady, bent low, haggled in the 99 Cent Store. I paid full price for a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, some Chinese birthday cards, hair clips, and a flashing bike reflector.

Up the road, in Portola, there’s an old cinema that’s a Baptist church now. I’m a lapsed-Catholic-aetheist-Buddhist, but even I’d go to a church with a drum kit behind the Hammond organ. A nearby diner looks untouched since the 1920s, apart from the laminated waffle menus in the window. But in keeping with the neighborhood changes, those red vinyl booths and swivel stools are now wiped down by owners who got here from Seoul four years ago. It was closed, on a Sunday morning, and on the store window next door, a poster warned residents to be wary after several recent attacks.

In the supermarket, frogs squatted in their tank, eyelids heavy. Sunday must be frog night, because they were stacked halfway up each other’s backs like toppled dominos. Three aisles over, you could choose from six brands of canned quail eggs, five kinds of canned rambutan, and a fridge full of sticky drinks. In the checkout queue, with an armful of mangosteen jellies and Vietnamese espresso, I almost wept at the sight of a box of durian fruit inside the front door. In deodorized America, it’s stinky, oozy, primal, pheromonal durian I’d like to offer instead of Altoids.

The other day someone asked me if I still had the travel bug. Truth is, I never did, even–and especially–when I wore a backpack for a year. I’m a homebody; at most a reluctant daytripper, and sniffing a durian on San Bruno Avenue is all I need before heading back to my rocking chair to look down over the city.

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
what childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?”

–Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

3 thoughts on “Visitacion Valley”

  1. I wonder how much things will change with the new 3rd street light rail. I work in Brisbane which is a stones throw over the next ridge. The difference is huge. Brisbance is like a little mountain village. Both areas would be prime real estate, (great climate etc), except for the fact that they are right beside the dump.


  2. (Solemnly) America needs durian. America needs exposure to things that smell “bad.” P&G is marketing deodorant to 8-year-old girls. We must resist, with durian.


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