Old Dogs, New Tricks

Anise Swallowtail on a Verbana bonariensis by Michael McAllister

I was puttering around in the front rock garden this weekend, adding some aeoniums that I’d picked up at Cactus Jungle, when I turned around and saw this guy on my Verbana bonariensis. I grabbed my iPhone and gloriously, improbably, he sat there for about ten seconds as I held the camera a few inches above him and snapped this pic.

Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers, I’m no lepidopterist, but thanks to the Google machine, Joe and I were able to narrow it down to the Anise Swallowtail, common to the West Coast. A couple of friends have confirmed our guess since then – in fact one glance at the pic and they both rattled off the name. Which made me wonder how they acquired such knowledge.

This isn’t exactly a deep thought, but as I spend the bulk of each weekend at nurseries, driving to nurseries, buying plants from nurseries, researching plants online, re-potting plants, and putting a few in the ground, I’m quietly amazed at the potential of the brain to acquire new knowledge.

I’ve been sober for nearly 12 years, but there was a time where my days all looked the same, where they felt small and dark and where the extent of my new knowledge might be figuring out the location of liquor stores that opened at 8 a.m. near the intersection of Hennepin and Lake Streets in Minneapolis.

Though still capable of elaborate forms of mental self-torture (just ask Joe), I’m generally a happier guy now, and after 12 years I no longer wake up feeling absolutely certain of what the day will hold. The potential to change, to  try new things and to acquire new knowledge, lately brings me comfort.

Even if it’s just about gardening, which, in the big picture, is probably a frivolous activity. But as I slowly transform into the cranky old man I’ve always longed to be, I get less interested in the big picture, and I seek happiness in smaller, quieter pursuits, kicking back on the couch with the husband and our pack of dogs, or standing outside in front of my plants, lost in thought, absently stroking the scruff on my chin as I measure the growth and health of things I’ve put in the ground, or admiring the color of the hydrangea in the derelict yard next door:

I could spend hours doing this, standing there, lost in thought, no doubt causing the neighbors concern for my sanity, until I snap awake and force myself to go, you know, clean the bathroom or feed the dogs. Obsession? Escapism? Sure. But as the country calls for the head of John Roberts, or rates in order of success the marriages of Tom Cruise, I find myself less willing – or able – to give portions of my finite days to those echo chambers. I’d rather watch a swallowtail land on a flower that I’ve managed not to kill.

The Right Direction, a.k.a. One White Dude’s Confession

About a week before we moved into our new house, some guy broke into a home about four blocks away and killed an entire family. I saw the headlines while, um, researching something online at work, then texted the Manly Fireplug.

“Five dead. But the paper says it took place in Sunnyside!” That would be the next neighborhood over from ours, and it was my attempt to inject lame humor into the mid-level anxiety we had about the location of our new home.

But a few days later I checked again, and now Wikipedia, our greatest repository of fact, called it “2012 Ingleside, San Francisco homicide.”  We consoled ourselves with the rumor that the killer already knew his victims, because frankly, it was too late for us to turn back.

I also consoled myself with other “facts.” The victims were Chinese. The suspect Vietnamese.

This post is taking me a long time to write, in part because it’s about my own racism, and I want to be rigorously honest.  I’d rather not do such a thing, so I keep clicking away to read about Cabin in the Woods and to shop for new shower caddies. And it’s taking me a long time to write because we’ve lived in the house all of 12 days, and my thoughts and feelings about my new neighborhood are muddled.

But hey, half-baked conclusions are what blogs are for, so away we go…

Ingleside is one of San Francisco’s more obscure neighborhoods. “You know, near City College,” I tell literally everyone when they give me that blank, where-did-you-move look. Located on the city’s southern edge, Ingleside has no distinguishing landmarks, and offers few results when typed into Google. It’s also one of the last affordable neighborhoods left in the city. If by “affordable” you mean single-family homes that sell for a half-million dollars.

One night, the week before we moved in, the Fireplug and I stopped by the house. We’d done this a few times, walking through the empty rooms and picturing our future. I think it’s what people do when they buy a house. I’d always drag the Fireplug into the backyard, which was surprisingly peaceful and offered a glimpse of the bay and the Oakland hills.

On this particular night, standing in the living room, we noticed a black couple coming out of the house two doors down. The woman turned to yell something to a man in their garage, then climbed into a car and drove off. The man in the garage turned on some very loud music, and left the garage door open for the next hour. The Fireplug and I looked at each other.

“You know our to-do list?” I said. “Let’s move double-pane windows to the top.”

Just now I could have called our neighbors African-American instead of black. I’m a writer; I understand the power of words. And there’s an unrelenting pressure to be politically correct, living in San Francisco, which black people are leaving in droves. At least I think that’s still the politically correct term. I’d ask my black friends what they preferred, but I don’t have that many. Which may be part of my problem.

I’m a researcher by nature, which I’ve realized from writing a 350-page memoir is probably due to a rather chaotic childhood and a deep aversion to surprise. I like to know what’s coming my way. Especially when I’ve just committed to buying my first house.

And so I went online and looked up census figures for the quarter-mile surrounding our new Ingleside house. And I focused my search on race. And that night I presented my findings to the Fireplug.

“Over the last eight years Asians have held steady at 50% of the neighborhood’s population,” I said. “Hispanics have dropped by 8%. American Indians dropped by 37%. Blacks dropped by 30%. Whites have increased by 23%. Oh, and people with graduate degrees grew by 110%.”

I want to be clear here. I wasn’t just reciting facts. I was offering proof that the neighborhood was heading in the right direction.

By “right” I meant “safer.” I’m not saying this was a rational act. I used percentages of racial minorities to try and ease my anxiety.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy, able to look past skin color to the individual blah blah blah. Nobody’s asked my position on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman mess, but it’s hard not to have one in our echo chamber. I’d say that public rushes to judgment are usually ill-advised. Off the record I was leaning in my usual liberal direction.

It’s easy to think of yourself as open-minded about race when you spend 95% of your time in neighborhoods that are 95% white. But moving into what real estate agents call a “diverse” neighborhood had ripped open my broad-minded disguise to reveal something else underneath.

The day we moved in, the Fireplug stood out on the sidewalk, directing the movers to carry stuff either upstairs or downstairs, and I stood inside, directing them to the right rooms. The Fireplug and I have this running joke about his habit of talking to strangers, a habit (surprise!) I don’t share. After the movers left, the Fireplug told me that more than a few neighbors had stopped by to welcome us.

He already knew their names. Susan, the Asian woman in the bright orange house, who dressed to the nines even when walking her little dog around the block. Brian and Rick, the gay couple across the street, who’d moved into their renovated house with two adopted kids, and who literally cheered when the Fireplug mentioned that he had a husband, too. Carlton, the black man from two doors down, who sat with two other black men on lawn chairs outside the open garage, watching the afternoon drift by.  And Austin, the Chinese man next door, who was thrilled to hear that we owned and not rented, and who told us that yes, the residents of Carlton’s house often listened to loud music, but it never went late, and in fact they acted as the unofficial neighborhood watch. They knew who belonged on our street, and who didn’t.

In other words, the Fireplug discovered things that no census could reveal. And yes, I felt foolish. And relieved. And thankful for the Fireplug’s big mouth.

Today our house is half-rewired and half-unpacked, our windows rattle, the shower’s cramped, and our kitchen won’t be appearing in Elle Decor anytime soon. But the house gets a ton of light, and I like going home to it, to our three dogs and the big backyard. I like waking up with the Fireplug.

And in the evenings, after work, when I take the dogs on our comical, leash-snarling, hill-climbing walk, I try to meet the eye of everyone I pass. Some of them talk to me. Some of them glare. Sometimes I’m glad that one of our dogs is a pit bull. (He’s arguably the sweetest member of our pack, but strangers don’t need to know that.) Every time I step outside I’m conscious, in a way I never was in my last neighborhood, of my skin color.  That’s not a bad thing.

And in 12 days Ingleside has grown on me. Most of the houses are modest. There’s trash in some yards, neglected gardens, cars propped up on blocks, “Beware of Rotweiler” signs, and acres of peeling paint. There’s a house around the corner where a young man was recently killed. It’s boarded up, with a row of candles out front, and outer walls covered in his friends’ testimonials. He was described by reporters as an “aspiring rapper,” and the articles about him, lean on details, ran for a single day. I looked him up on Facebook. He was twenty years old, and his profile says, “Engaged.”

There are “nice” houses, too, probably owned by people who, like me, sometimes pick up a copy of Dwell. But it’s the other houses I like to look at, walking the dogs, or on my way to the BART station every morning. And this is the point at which words fail me, explaining why I like them so much.

Because every possible word (“Real?” “Honest?”) sounds patronizing, the words liberal urban white guys use to romanticize the fading parts of their neighborhoods. After paging through several dozen Dwell photo spreads, after the ubiquitous bowl of green “apples” and countless Keep Calm posters, I yearn to see something a little more alive. Ingleside – whose residents show evidence of caring about things other than minimalist design- feels quietly alive.

Last weekend the Fireplug’s sister came to town and helped us do some unpacking and painting. After our second trip to Home Depot, we came home with a weed wacker, which the Fireplug used on our entire, quarter-acre backyard of 18″ grass/weeds. He also wacked the weeds out front, and Carlton, who was entertaining a few friends with a barbeque outside his garage, ran down to say that he had saved a parking spot for us on the street. He could just move his car and it was ours, he said. His barbeque was loud, but it didn’t go late. None of his parties had gone late.

More than once, before our move, I’d found myself defending our new neighborhood in a half-joking manner, pointing out new development on Ocean Avenue. “Because what’s a better sign of gentrification than Whole Foods? Ha ha ha.”

But as the 12 days ticked by, my little census research left me feeling gross and increasingly uncomfortable.

It’s humbling to see myself as a cliche. A gay white man moving into a “fringe” neighborhood, fixing up his home, paving the way for others like him. I am part of the 23% surge in white people. Which, it stands to reason, means that I’m changing Ingleside.

If there’s justice in the world, though, Ingleside will change me, too.