Mary Jo Bole was in town for the summer, doing an artist-in-residency stint at the Headlands Center for the Arts. I was trying to show her a good time, but although we’d known each other for years via mail art and a shared love of cemeteries, we really didn’t know each other well. I didn’t want to tell her where we were going. I hoped she’d enjoy the surprise.
We pulled up into my old neighborhood, the lower slopes of Ashbury Heights, and searched for a parking space. That Saturday morning was one of those perfect San Francisco days that make you forget that the fog will roll in around noon and you won’t see the sun again for a week. We could see for miles across the bay.
Buena Vista Park was relatively abandoned that morning. I remember when the raspberry bushes used to hang heavy and laden over the paths and we could eat ourselves full of berries on our way to breakfast in Lower Haight, but those days were over. The neighbors had finally tired of men having sex in the bushes. The hillside looked as if it had been clear-cut, brown grass dying in the dirt beneath the elderly Monterey pines.
I led MJ to the path above the children’s playground. The paths are paved in asphalt and short retaining walls of fitted stone hold the hillsides back above them. In the gap between wall and path runs a narrow gutter, less than a foot wide. It is lined with marble, an elegant, creepy touch lost on most visitors to the park.
Our outing was a little late in the year to be optimal. In the spring, after the rains have stopped, the Friends of Park and Rec host a work day to clear the gutters in the park. If I’d been thinking, I would have brought a broom to shift the eucalyptus leaves around. Instead, I kicked the oak leaves up with my tennis shoe, looking for an inscription.
One of the nice neighbors in a rose-pink jogging suit stopped to ask, “Did you lose something?”
“No,” I said, flustered by her niceness. I could already guess she wasn’t going to like what I was going to say. “The gutter is lined with grave markers from the old Laurel Hill Cemetery. You can still read some of them, but I can’t remember exactly where the ones with inscriptions are.”
“You’re joking,” she blurted.
“No.” I stopped kicking at the leaves to make eye contact with her. “It says so on the signs as you enter the park.”
“Really?” MJ crowed.
Once I uncovered one name, the others were easy to find.
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