Heart of the City Archives
The Fine Art of Life in Falling Palaces
by Hank Donat

Perhaps like you, I get a little heavy hearted after a few hours of dwelling on the economy, the prospect of war, and the right wing takeover in Washington. Fortunately, in spite of what I said in this space about not allowing the World Series to distract us from affairs of the nation, I am in fact distracted by shiny objects.

San Francisco has some of the shiniest parks, buildings, and overlooks in the world. All are objects of my affection. Since I was in the neighborhood of Bechelli's on Chestnut Street where I drowned my worries in eggs benedict, the Palace of Fine Arts was an obvious choice for a place to loll for a while.

Strolling from a friend's place on Baker, the first thing that catches my attention is the sign over Phil's Electric Vacuum Center repair shop at the corner of Lombard. "Since 1941," it says, and for some reason that's comforting in our time, when everything could change in an instant and has. 

Over the radio from a car at the intersection comes a Barbara Taylor news report on warnings of terrorist threats against hospitals in San Francisco and other U.S. cities. I can't say I'm living in fear, but these terrorists have certainly put a crimp in my serenity.

Crossing Richardson Drive by foot anywhere over here is extremely dangerous. The painted outline of "Man 36,"  killed on 12/21/01, does nothing to inspire confidence. 

I arrive at the Palace of Fine Arts an hour before dusk on a crystal clear day. The waning sunlight casts moody and dramatic shadows across the lagoon. 

The last of the sun worshipers stand their ground. Some of them are quite attractive until they turn their heads far enough to reveal the cell phones they're yammering into. Cell phones are the new cigarettes. 

The fountain here, more like a geyser, provides white noise, drowning out nearby traffic with aplomb. The lagoon in front of me is covered with a thin layer of dead leaves and duck feathers, along with a discarded java jacket and a Tootsie Pop wrapper. 

A tourist is videotaping the scene. Another, a cheery lady with apple cheeks and a big straw hat, is taking a picture with a disposable camera. At any given time, someone is taking a picture here, though brides and grooms have tended to prefer the Palace of the Legion of Honor since the walkway here started to sink into the lagoon. 

The chain link fence surrounding the damaged path looks like braces on a smile. The asphalt promenade now disintegrates foot by foot, not inch by inch, into the water. The damage is significant. An enormous tree, uprooted in the last storm, blocks the path where decay meets destruction. 

A turtle basks in a ray of light on a crumbling ledge. I don't know how they can possess so much charm, being barely animate stone-like creatures, but they do. You could tell them so, if you're inclined to do that, but I read somewhere recently that turtles are deaf.

Bernard Maybeck's magnificent dome is where Rome meets Busby Berkeley. Centaurs, angels, and nymphs exert themselves, in pageant form, in the relief sculptures as if they could spring from the stone entirely and join the tossed yet tranquil scene below. Seagulls land on the stony heads, humiliating the statues just a little.

The underbelly of the dome, also crumbling, is covered with a giant net. Gathered in the center, it looks like a great jelly fish swimming overhead. Strangely, the park is beautiful even in its present condition. 

As I make my way through the dome, I encounter a homeless couple fighting over a possession - a single sock. 

On a lawn near the Exploratorium, an agitated woman is feeding Cheez-Its to some swans in a pretend-official capacity. She holds up a sign saying, "Do not Approach the Swans," and shrieks at tourists to back away. 

The eccentric woman doesn't stand a chance against the dozen or more tourists who have gathered to ignore her and take their pictures with the birds. For their part, the swans couldn't care less. They continue guzzling crackers uninterrupted by the fuss. 

In a final fit of frustration, this would-be Mark Bittner of the Marina threatens to have a five year-old arrested. Suddenly I don't feel so bad about the way my own day is going.

St. Francis, our city's patron saint, had better luck with birds. In "Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi," an excellent new biography by Donald Spoto, Francis emerges as a leader in a movement that revolutionized the way humans perceive the poor. 

In a recent conversation, Spoto was generous with his views on the death penalty (against it), class war (it's real), and the Bush Administration (a nightmare). 

Observing the Palace of Fine Arts brings to mind a story, told with great accessibility in Spoto's book, of God telling Francis to rebuild his church. He wasn't talking about the building.

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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat
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