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I Live in Noe Valley--Wow!
By Anna Van der Heide
I woke up this morning, walked up the block, and paid $2 for a cafe latte. A year ago, when I first moved here, I vowed I would never succumb to this yuppie vice. Yet here I was, sitting in the window of Starbucks, reading the Sunday paper. I'd sure come a long way from my hometown diner, where a cup of coffee with unlimited refills cost 45 cents. I guess I'd finally become a true Noe Valleyan!
Who woulda thunk it? Before I moved here from the East Coast, Noe Valley was just a place I tasted with relish on yearly visits with my daughter, who moved to San Francisco in 1985. On one return home, I gushed about 24th Street in my weekly column in the Central Maine Morning Sentinel. There were more things to see and do in three blocks of Noe Valley, I raved, than within a 100-mile radius of West Athens, Maine, the backwoods town (population: 1,000) where I lived.
Since the '70s "back to the land" movement, I had flourished there, as a hippie, a mother of three, and a working journalist/artist in the bosom of a uniquely creative community. I was a big fish in a small pond. I reaped both the benefits and tedium of small-town living. Surrounded by the most glorious nature, I was steeped in the husbandry of maintaining an old farmhouse on 100 acres of land -- with summer gardens, a swimming hole, wood stoves, an outhouse, and regular swipes from those wicked nor'easters.
Like the handle on the hand pump in my kitchen, life had its ups and downs. But it was real.
Then halfway through the '90s, the empty nest syndrome struck with a vengeance. My kids -- now all grown, and two living in the Bay Area -- suggested I pull up stakes and Go West, Ye Middle-Aged Woman (I was in my late 50s at the time). Aside from the joy of their proximity, I could take advantage of the urban conveniences. "Remember what you wrote about those three blocks of 24th Street," they prompted.
Well, finally I took the bait, packed away my woollies, and after lingering a while in fond farewell to my funky homestead, moved to California.
My daughter, who was then contemplating marriage, made arrangements for me to take her affordable apartment on Jersey Street. At first I had no idea what a coup this was. (The last time I'd lived in a big city was in New York in the '60s.) But when I sensed that Renters Anonymous hit men were secretly planning my demise, I knew I must be living in la crème de la crème of San Francisco neighborhoods.
Still, I was enormously homesick. After many years in a place where everyone knew me, it was painful to feel invisible -- especially on 24th Street, where the gaggles of friends shopping and dining, the parade of babies and doggies and nannies, the tasteful exotic shops, and the flow of shiny new cars epitomized happiness and success. I felt out of place. I longed to use my hammer, light a fire. I wanted to run back to the tarpaper shacks of my Maine neighborhood and the easy intimacy of country folk.
Yet here I was, and I knew that if I was going to survive, things would have to change. My precious old building blocks would have to be replaced with new ones. Otherwise, the tradeoff to a more modern lifestyle would not be worth it, at least not at my age. Luckily I had landed in Noe Valley, where underneath the trendy surface, real people lived and worked.
The first place I instantly felt comfortable was at the unpretentious Herb's diner, where the regulars trade the house newspaper and exchange quips over the counter with the cafe's cheerful and hardworking waitresses, Sandy and Wendy. The next was Tuggey's, the family-run hardware store a block down the street. With its finely worn floors, helpful employees, and loyalty to unpackaged goods-by-the-piece, it reminded me of my rural hardware store back in Maine, where I'd earned my "handywoman" stripes.
I then found amusement in joining the legions of workers who, like me, were using public transportation to get to their jobs downtown. Each morning we did our decision-making dance at the corner of Church and 24th, the one that goes: "Shall I take a chance and wait for the erratic J-Church, or shall I walk down the hill to the 24th Street BART? Or should I really be lazy and take the bus to BART?" My membership in the Griping-About-the-J Club was a big step toward a sense of belonging.
Little by little, the feeling of neighborhood seeped in. I began to recognize people, at least enough to exchange a nod, a smile. In particular, I made contact with the very gracious service people who helped me establish my new home. It was they who made me feel especially comfortable.
I could always count on a laugh or two with the enigmatic Tito from Ames Key Shop; some shop talk with Sam at Good News; an exchange about the weather with Willie, the early-morning checker at Bell Market; and a recommendation for something "earthy, yet penny-pinching" from Moses, the wine expert at St. Clair's Liquors. Isabel and Richard at Coast Federal (now Home Savings) treated me with such consideration when setting up my new accounts.
And the list has continued to grow. Smiling Jane, at Tung Sing takeout, has come to anticipate my propensity for her stupendous eggplant dish. Edmond, at the corner Laundryland, gallantly opens the door for me as I struggle with a cumbersome load. Lourdes, at the invaluable Noe Valley Library, feeds my rapacious literary appetite. Jim and Son provide vegetables that come as close as possible to my summer homegrowns. Anna, who delivers my mail, is always warm and gracious, as are Richard and the staff at the Noe Valley Post Office, which has the personal feel of the one-room post office in my hometown.
I've even come to know Noe Valley's panhandlers -- for better or worse. I treated one to a taco one rainy day and another to a dollar on his birthday. It's getting harder and harder to pass by without making a contribution.
The local cultural scene has begun to tug at me, especially the Noe Valley Ministry -- a clone of the rural grange. There I've "jigged" with kilt-clad Scotsmen, stretched out on a yoga mat on Tuesday nights, and enjoyed a "San Francisco Klezmer Experience."
On Saturday mornings, like a possessed addict, I scour the bountiful garage sales.
I also appreciate the fact that holidays are celebrated with great gusto in Noe Valley. On Halloween, there are no cuter costumed toddlers -- nor prouder parents -- than those on 24th Street.
Although I still miss the rhythms of the New England seasons, I appreciate the ever-changing light on the curvaceous hills of Noe Valley and even the fog as it slinks over Twin Peaks. And although the brave little chickadee is still my favorite feathered friend, those raucous parrots up there in that palm tree on Dolores stir my heart, as does the climb back up the hill from the 24th Street BART Station.
Transitions are never easy. Moving to a new place has its challenges no matter where you come from. The right apartment, furniture, and job are all important elements, but human connection lies at the heart of it. Most people -- rich or poor, urban or rural -- finally just long to feel "at home."
And for me, Noe Valley might just be "da place"!
For 10 years, Anna Van der Heide wrote for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel under the pen name Anna Freeman. She is currently working as a legal secretary and planning to produce her play Generic Women.