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The Man (and the Woman) Behind the Window Signs on Church Street
By Lorraine Sanders
He's a man with many names: the Mayor of Church Street, the Man in the Window, the Man Who Posts Those Signs. His business card identifies him as, simply, "Octogenarian." Whether or not you know Dean Bistline, it's likely you've met the little paper signs in the first-floor windows of his Church Street home. The grape and canary-yellow Victorian, owned by his daughter Deanna and her husband, sits between Lovejoy's Tea Room and Fattoush Restaurant near the intersection of Church and Clipper streets and just across the sidewalk from a J-line Muni stop. Bistline, a former public school teacher who looks like a jolly sea captain crossed with a plainclothes Santa Claus, is a regular fixture in the first-floor window.
Since Bistline, 83, and his wife of 29 years, Susan, 67, moved to Noe Valley from Washington, D.C., in 1989 to live with his daughter, the signs have greeted passersby with nuggets of wisdom, thoughtful meditations on life, and the occasional political statement.
"I came here six weeks before the [Loma Prieta] earthquake," Bistline recalls. "The first Bush went into the Gulf about that time, and I decided I needed to say something about it."
That first sign, posted on the garage door opening onto Clipper Street, declared, "I love my country, I fear my government."
Since then, what began as one sign has morphed into three and migrated to the front of the house. Dean and Susan scour newspapers, magazines, and books for messages. When they find a quotation worthy of becoming sign fodder, they print it out on a strip of white paper and save it for future use.
A stack of future signs sits paperclipped on Dean's desk, near the windows on which they will someday appear. There are quotes from Will Rogers, Joan Didion, Donald Trump, Tom Stoppard--even Nicole Kidman. Signs usually change every month, though Dean says he sometimes switches them twice a month.
Of course, he can only do that on his months. Two years ago, Susan stepped in to claim her right to sign space.
"She exercised her equal power and said, 'I want every other month for my signs,'" Dean says in mock defeat.
"[It's] because he gets all the credit," Susan, an author and artist, says with a grin. For years, she says, she's been known as the woman who's married to the man in the window. But their frequent debates have long fueled the sign tradition.
Her husband thinks the current arrangement has more to do with a conflict between politics and philosophy. His favorites are political signs. She'd rather stick to the philosophical.
"Susan thinks [my political signs] are a little harsh. I think they are kindly provocative. Plus, we live in a city that is Democratic, so I don't get any rocks through the window," he chuckles.
The two do agree on one thing.
"We do have a rule that we don't get into religion," Dean says. "We're not out here as crusaders. We're here to give people something to think about as they walk by or wait for the trolley."
Over the years, the Bistlines' messages have prompted some Noe Valley residents to do a lot more than think. Many smile, wave, and give Dean the thumbs-up signal when he's sitting by the window. Others have tapped on the glass and wanted to chat about the messages. Some have even dropped their own suggestions for signs in the Bistlines' mail slot.
After posting the quote "Leap, and the net will appear," which they discovered in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, the Bistlines say a young couple knocked on their door and handed them flowers. The young couple explained that they had been wrestling with tough life choices, and the short phrase in the window helped them make their decision.
"They decided to get married. And they decided to move out of San Francisco," says Dean.
Susan, who grew up in Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish, says she once noticed a Latino woman coming every day to copy down the phrases. She went outside to speak to her and learned that the woman was using the sentences to practice her English.
Another time, the couple went to take their dog, Charlotte, in for overnight boarding. A man working at the kennel recognized Dean as "the man in the window" and gave him a 50 percent discount on the services.
One of Dean's favorite slips of white paper hasn't yet made it to the windows. He's saving four little phrases, entitled "Rules of Life's Road," for his five children, 11 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. They are:
Go with your heart.
When in doubt, do.
Forgive and forget.
There's only one little problem, according to Dean: "I say, if you don't forget, you can't forgive. But she [Susan] says you can forgive, but you can't forget."
They're still debating about who's right.
A Few Lines from the Bistlines
A fanatic is one who won't change his mind and won't change the subject.
Don't worry about what people think. They don't do it very often.
War is the violent rejection of words in favor of weapons.
--90-year-old man from Dubai speaking to journalist John Cory
Leap, and the net will appear.
A patriot must always be ready to defend his country from his government.