by Jules Older
When you live in a place, after awhile, you lose your fresh eyes.
It doesn't mean you're dumb or insensitive or unaware of your surroundings. Unless you work hard to correct it, sure as fog, sooner or later you're gonna misplace your awareness of what you see and smell, hear and taste on your way to work or walking home from school or going out for the Sunday paper.
Sometimes it’s actually a relief. As one travel-writer friend sighed about her blissful oblivion to her hometown surroundings, “Ah, the luxury of not seeing!”
But, ah the pleasures of seeing through fresh eyes. Everything is new, everything is fascinating. Every pungent smell from a Chinese grocery, every touch of salt spray on a beach, every clang of a cable-car bell and visual surprise of a public wall mural — they all capture your attention, alert you to what makes your new home different from the old place.
My old place is rural Vermont. More, it’s the coldest, snowiest, most isolated part of Vermont, the northern end of the three northern counties known collectively as the Northeast Kingdom. That’s where I've lived since 1986, that’s where I was a justice of the peace, that’s where I grew garlic and basil and tomatoes. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom: where I've shoveled snow off the roof and cowshit out of the barn. The old place.
The new place is San Francisco. Yeah, I just moved here.
Neat place you got here. And a little wacky.
I like that in a city.
The first thing I noticed — after the view from Twin Peaks and the smells of Chinatown — was just how, well, wackily wonderful a lot of the local architecture is. The polite way of describing it is “playful” or “whimsical,” but for a lot of it, wacky’s more accurate.
Take 25 Van Ness, for example. If you have fresh eyes, you look up as well as straight ahead, and looking up at 25 Van Ness is a religious experience.
Christian iconography, soaring fenestration, even a gothic pulpit carved in stone halfway up the corner of the building. Definitely, Catholic.
Only it’s not.
What you're gawking up — now the New Conservatory Theatre — was built in 1912 as the Masonic Building. That pulpit pulpit isn't Catholic iconography; it’s Masonic.
Who knew? Not Jules.
For all its fool-Jules’-eye details, truth is, this is my favorite building in San Francisco. Numero uno. It gleams white in the sun, beacons in the mist and has just the right proportions to please the eye, fresh eye or native eye. It also has the perfect allotment of detail; not so much to turn it into a Victorian wedding cake, not so little to make it another urban slab.
We’ll talk more about slabs and details in future columns. One or the other, they're San Francisco’s future.
Starting at 5 pm on July 22, Jules' new radio show, Fresh Eyes, will air on KALW, 91.7 FM in San Francisco. Fresh Eyes will also stream at http://www.kalw.org, then archived under "editorials" at http://www.crosscurrentsradio.org immediately following the show.
A few hours after the first four commentaries were recorded at KALW, Older and his wife Effin took off for New Zealand. They and their New Zealand-based daughter will be listening on their computers at KALW.org.
They return to San Francisco in early August. The Olders’ website is http://www.julesolder.com