Heart of the City Archives








Wednesday's child shops at Union Square
by Hank Donat

Thanks to the San Francisco Office of Emergency Services, which tests dozens of air raid sirens throughout the city at the same time every week, noon on Tuesday announces itself. Noon on Wednesday is more discrete, no sirens wailing, but is nonetheless worthy of a closer look.

If Wednesday is "hump day" - half way through the week - then noon on Wednesday is a perfect moment. The pendulum is vertical. The glass is at once half full and half empty.

This particular Wednesday is like any other, an average December morning in San Francisco. After a night of rain and fog, the sun appears at last, adding color to a black-and-white city. "The City that knows how" is the city that rubs its eyes at noon.

Steam rises from the Palace of Fine Arts. Revealed by the retreating elements, the dome is soaked in grandeur and drama. It appears out of the mist like a charred survivor of time and mankind.

My destination is Union Square. Wednesday's child once was full of woe, but I'm certain when the going got tough Wednesday went shopping.

A ride on the 45 Union bus, like a ride on a 27 Bryant or any other line, is a mobile kaleidoscope of the city.

On Union Street, a Sephora perfume store is in full swing where the old Wherehouse record store sat in the City of Used to Be. Today, San Franciscans can download music for 99 cents, but they still like to smell nice.

Portico, a New York-SoHo home furnishings boutique, is closing after only a year. Swensen's, a venerable institution, is wrapped in scaffolding, as if it isn't hard enough to sell ice cream in December.

The western slope of Russian Hill is bleached with sunlight. Stark and white, the rolling panorama of rooftops and bay windows is a wintery vision. It is as close as we are likely to get to over the river and through the woods.

Cats sit in apartment windows like sentinels, mute witnesses to the traffic below.

Along Stockton Street in Chinatown, the crush of shoppers, all pink plastic bags rustling, sends tourists into the street to circumvent the slow-moving lines. If the visitors had spent an hour at City Lights first they would know how to go with the flow.

The Stockton Tunnel, grey and still, evokes Dashiell Hammett, the great noir writer of the Tenderloin.

At Union Square, couples are taking pictures in front of the 40-ft. Macy's Christmas tree. With its glittery gold and red ornaments, the tree is a romantic manifestation of that particular holiday symbol, to put it in terms that are not so romantic.

A group of kids who should probably be in school race noisily past a trio of retail workers wearing name badges and carrying clear plastic purses. The store employees commiserate uninterrupted.

The old Bullock and Jones building at 340 Post Street has been magnificently remodeled as the flagship Williams-Sonoma store. The layout is light and open, with lots of stairs and plenty of space for bored spouses to wait comfortably.

On Market Street, the Emporium is partially veiled for its makeover into a Bloomingdale's. Some recycle department stores while others recycle cigarettes on the sidewalks outside. There, the bells of Salvation Army volunteers and Santa hats on kids, dogs, even a police horse, are further signs of the season.

The shopping experience is an individual one. Obviously for some it is Nirvana. I count myself among the bored spouses crammed into what are too often overlit, understaffed mass market storefronts.

I thought I might find a new backpack while touring the Union Square shopping district, but I learned that backpacks are a seasonal item, and this isn't the season.

Still, a visit here is a priceless opportunity to take in the jazz that is the city on an average Wednesday. It's a fusion of sights and sounds played in full measure on flat iron corners like Market and Stockton, Ellis and Fourth.

It's the shoeshine guys barking at your feet; shoppers wearing the new American clean cut, knit hats and sweaters with stripes; the aroma of the hot dog cart and someone's Vanderbilt perfume; "ladies who lunch" lunching; a boom box serenade; busses, taxis, delivery trucks, sirens; Sunday drivers lost in the middle of the week; the roar of the F-Line - must be the Milano car!

As the pendulum swings from noon to afternoon, this is a portrait of a city caught in the act of being San Francisco. Next stop Chinatown, where it's always backpack season.

PS: Today's publication date is election day, Tuesday, December 9. If you haven't already voted, please allow the noon sirens to remind you to do so. If you have voted, thank you

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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