Thursday, 30 June 2016

Defined by Dolores Park

Dolores Park: an artist's view

Far from the throngs of tourists at Fisherman's Wharf, and away from the concrete and glass of the Financial District, my favourite place in San Francisco lies further south: the glorious Dolores Park. By the end of my holiday spanning just under two weeks, I had managed to make time to visit Dolores Park no fewer than five times, to say nothing of the times I happened to be passing it by and wished I could be lying on my back in this park rather than purposefully marching off to wherever it was that I needed to go as an ambitious tourist. For this reason, I cannot help but feel that Dolores Park, with its infinite recall value, defined my visit to San Francisco in some ways, and deserves to be written about.

In comparison with some of the more iconic attractions of the city, it's not hard to see why the park is of limited appeal for tourists. It cannot boast of the wide avenues of the Golden Gate Park - the one park tourists in the city must visit on their rented cycles with the small bag displaying the logo of their bike rental company of choice prominently dangling off the handlebars. It is devoid of stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge craved by visitors and locals alike. And it probably escapes mention on the free map the tourist picked up at her hotel lobby, a truncated map that doesn't even deign to feature the Mission as a place worthy of tourist footfall.

At something of an advantage by virtue of staying in the Mission, and only about a mile away from the park (as Google Maps informed me in its resolute attempts to shun kilometric values on this continent), there was no doubt in my mind that this was a park that needed to not only be visited, but "experienced". Particularly since in the lead up to my trip, my friend and host, Tulip had promised me "a park near my house where we can roll down hills" (a promise she hastily reneged upon on my arrival).

In the days immediately before my trip, the city of San Francisco had been mapped by me with the precision that may have last been employed by European explorers in the Age of Discovery. This park featured right from the beginning amidst the galaxy of stars on my offline Google Maps of San Francisco, each of which was a must-go/must-do, for reasons elucidated by friends (a big thank you to Castorman for prepping me well about where to get the best food, ice cream and dessert in the city!) or sources found through extensive Googling. It is either design or coincidence or both that some of the city's finest eateries are located close to the periphery of Dolores Park. They too clustered around on the map like a small but significant constellation.

It was on a Thursday evening, scarcely twenty four hours after my entry into San Francisco, that Tulip and I made our way to Dolores Park. Passing through the weekly farmers' market en route, we shopped for the ingredients for our one-pot pasta dinner later that night, and snacked on samples from various food groups (mostly carbs), before arriving at Boba Brothers to revive our ritual of drinking bubble tea together (because nobody else really understood the charm of chewing on tapioca balls doused in tea, and for this, we only had each other). Armed with warm bubble tea to-go in styrofoam cups, off we went to Dolores Park. It was a chilly weekday evening and luckily, we didn't have too many other people to share the park with. As we soaked in the flavour of the taro-infused bubbles, we tried very hard not to soak in views of the girl whose amorous liaisons with her lover included aggressively de-robing herself at our twelve-o-clock. It is this casual uninhibitedness, this do-whatever-the-fuck-ery that, to me, epitomizes the park. This is the charm of Dolores Park. This is what kept bringing me back.

Drinking boba while watching beautiful dogs cavort around.

On the Sunday following this Thursday, we arrived once more at Dolores Park, our stomachs full of brunch, with Tulip's Ridiculously Young Cousin in tow. The weather had changed, the landscape too. The sun was sharp; the patrons of the park, out in large numbers today, enjoined to sunbathe in various degrees of undress. Having managed to dress all wrong for the weather (because how can you ever be sure of dressing right in San Francisco weather?!) in more layers than were necessary, my agenda was quite different.

Sunday scenes at Dolores Park include levitating newspapers.

First, ice-cream was duly procured from the legendary Bi-Rite Creamery. The glutton in me would not be restricted to one scoop, no. Not only did the scoops have to be two in number, they also needed to vary in flavour. My child-like demands were catered to by Mommy Tulip, but as sure as it was day in Dolores Park, I had under-estimated the powers of Sol de San Francisco. The lower scoop started to melt, and how! Meanwhile, gravity had its own fun at my expense: the scoop on top threatened to topple over before the scoop at the bottom could be consumed (or more realistically, melt away). What followed was a mad scramble to finish eating the ice cream before I could run out of tissues to wipe away the increasingly large globules of melting ice cream and/or before my jeans were completely covered in said melty mass.

Ice cream from Bi-Rite Creamery: a project unto itself.

The second order of business was to roll down the famed hills of Dolores Park. Given the crowds sprawled all over the high gradient hills of Dolores Park, my only option was to exploit a less popular hill-let at the lower altitudes of Dolores Park. And so I rolled, only to be criticized for my slow rolling speed by my stationary companions who watched from their perch at a respectable distance. Rolling down the steeper hills of Dolores Park has now been reserved for the bucket list.

Not even a full day had passed, and I found myself at Dolores Park the very next morning. Today's mission was to "test-ride" the rather expensive running shoes bought from another San Francisco favourite - Sports Basement. The purchase had been made mainly on the basis of the store guide's reassuring promise about "the liberal return policy of Sports Basement": that these shoes could be returned "whenever", just so long as they weren't too dirty. Dropping his voice a few decibels, this helpful gentleman had also advised me to take the shoes for a run before making the decision to return or to retain. I could think of no better place than Dolores Park for a trial 5K in these brand new shoes. The concrete-throughout running track would ensure that no unwanted trail dust be permitted to tarnish the pristine grey of the Brooks Ravenna 7. The hills would provide the much-needed challenge to my fitness that the flats of Delhi never could. On that morning, it was pretty much just me and the Dolores Doggies.
Brand new shoes + Dolores Doggies

A special mention of the Dolores Doggies. This is a class of dogs better behaved than many humans in San Francisco. It must be hours of flawless training that gets them here. They display no ill-will towards any man or beast, do not pounce or bark except within the confines of the games they play with their masters, towards whom alone all their attention is lovingly diverted. The Dolores Doggies struck me not only with their abundant cuteness, but also the remarkable discipline that clearly comes with being a dog in these parts of the world. These dogs are un-leashed without apprehension, and they proceed to make Dolores Park their private playground. They display the elation-in-oblivion that we adults have long left behind: once upon a time, when we rolled around in the sand pit in school, we had it too. Ridiculously Young Cousin informs me that this is the result of the dogs and owners passing special courses which bestow upon the owners a dog license. The owners clearly care enough about owning a dog to go through this effort. A far cry from back home in Delhi, the city where rich humans mercilessly buy huge dogs better suited for tundra regions, often starting a relationship of distrust and aggression, sometimes abandonment.

                                     Running on a dull day in Dolores Park

I negotiated the Dolores hills on my run that Monday morning. I went clock-wise around the park. I went counter-clockwise. I huffed and puffed up the steep inclines, and ecstatically hurtled down the generous downhills. Shockingly, I even managed fourth place on a Strava segment that goes by "Cut through Dolores, Eastbound". I examined the tracks of what I now know is the J  Church Muni Metro Line, wondering if I too would get the chance to peruse at the gorgeousness that is Dolores Park through the window of a train (I didn't). It was a dull day, but Dolores Park never really fails to make your disposition a little brighter.

Four days passed. In the interregnum, a whirlwind of tourist activity had ensured that I had checked the boxes off of some key attractions in and around San Francisco: Alcatraz Island, Lombard Street, the Cable Car from Powell to Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Crissy Fields, Napa Valley, even Yosemite National Park. But one of the key points of attraction on my star-studded offline Google Map of San Francisco remained unexplored. Tartine Bakery. Whoever I had spoken to about Tartine warned me of the long queues that preceded entry into this hallowed institution, but always lovingly added that their baked goods were so worth standing in line for.

When Ridiculously Young Cousin and I arrived at Tartine on an auspicious Friday (auspicious only by virtue of this being a day on which we finally made it to this temple of flour, butter and sugar), the line was pretty damn long, "especially for a Friday", the locals said. Ridiculously Young Cousin wanted to bolt that very instant - legendary desserts be damned - but the Annoying Tourist had her way. In the half hour that we stood along the walls of the bakery that would test us before opening its doors to us, we debated over the menu and arrived at a consensus to order four things which we would split between ourselves. But when we were finally granted entry, crazed by the sight of some beautiful beautiful desserts, some of these decisions were un-done and new ones made in split seconds.

And of course, Tartine goodies needed to be consumed inside Dolores Park. That was always a non-negotiable part of the deal. This needed to be the "complete experience", no compromises. So we lugged our croissant, eclair, chocolate cake and chocolate hazelnut tart into the ever-refreshing greens of Dolores Park.

The Park put up quite a fight against us that day, almost berating us for our gluttony, as we tried to settle down with our varied snacks and respective iced coffees. The slopes of Dolores Park combined forces with the day's strong winds, immediately causing the cups containing our iced coffee to topple over and spill their contents into the same earth from where their constituent beans were once procured.

An iced coffee toast to Dolores (not out of choice: the glass refused to rest on the incline).

Next, the wind denuded The Best Croissant of My Life of a few precious flake, no doubt sparing us the burden of a few (negligible) buttery calories. The eclair was a poor choice for a dessert to be consumed on a windy slope in a park sans plate or cutlery, a decision for which my greed and I will humbly take the blame. The park and my clothes were soon speckled with the white creamy innards of the eclair, prompting the frantic use of those tissues which had not succeeded in flying away yet, and predictable analogies being drawn by peurile minds. The chocolate cake was then polished off almost single-handedly by me, with the fallout of being too stuffed to consider eating too much of the star attraction of the spread that day: the chocolate hazelnut tart. Ridiculously Young Cousin threw up his hands and refused to be of any assistance. We gave up and box-ed what remained of the tart.

The Best Croissant of My Life and the Chocolate Hazelnut Tart we could not do justice to.

That brought curtains on trip # 4 to Dolores Park. It should be added, however, that we did get to witness a brave soul who wished to roll down the steepest hill in the Park. At mid-morning on a weekday, the slopes were empty and free to be exploited by the horizontally inclined. In contrast to the lukewarm response of my companion a few days prior, this lucky boy's friends had placed themselves in a cheerleader-like formation to shout words of encouragement. As it turned out, our man turned out to be too chicken to go through with the task, and instead chose to half-roll down an easier slope. It is not enough for the Park's crowds to part to make way for the intrepid hill rollers - one must also be equipped with a sense of adventure or - at the very least - a stomach not bursting with confectionary.

I have always found it immensely difficult to cope with the end of a holiday. My last day in San Francisco arrived too soon, almost without warning as to the kind of emotional sledgehammer it would turn out to be. An ambitious list of last-day activities was prepared on my penultimate day, the dominant intention being to Carpe Diem -  I was, after all, down to my last miserable Diem. The one unalterable feature of this day needed to be to end it at Dolores Park (where else?).

This day did not go as per plan. I overslept and then squandered considerable precious time in trying to get from Point A (Mission and 24th Street) to Point B (Golden Gate Park), using a combination of failed modes of public transport: the mythical N Judah Train which Ridiculously Young Cousin had alluded to but I am absolutely certain does not exist, a bus that just happened to be the right bus but in the wrong direction, an Uber Pool cab that never showed up but charged me for a ride anyway. About 2.5 hours later, Golden Gate Park was finally accessed and conquered (if a 5K run can count as conquest, that is). Beautiful and vast, the Golden Gate Park is perfect for unleashing your active best in the Great Outdoors; for more chill vibes in the presence of (relatively) lazy crazies, there is always Dolores Park.

I was fairly miserable by lunch time when it dawned on me that I had accomplished scant little by way of seizing the day, and would now have to scratch out fun things like the Cable Car Museum from my schedule, to be able to wrap up what I truly loathed: shopping. Time was short, but I had promises to keep and things to buy. Aided by the kind intervention of Castorman, I finally made it back to the Mission on a bus that was going in the correct direction. An epic Mission-style taco and a shower later, I finally set out to seize...well, an afternoon.

There were going to be no two ways about it. I needed to spend my last evening in San Francisco in Dolores Park. San Francisco has a set of recommended spots from where the sun can be seen setting in all its splendour: Crissy Fields, Land's End, Bernal Hieghts. They had all been on my list, but I was almost out of time and when feeling so, so sad about leaving a city, going to a familiar and comforting place made the most sense. Shopping on that day was done in a rush and without much discernment: there could be no delay to Dolores. These last few hours needed to be memorable, which shopping never ever is. 

One last time in my Mecca in San Francisco

I think it was about 7:30 p.m. when Tulip and I reached Dolores Park. The sunset at Dolores Park is not something one is likely to read about in Lonely Planet or find on a picture postcard. You never really see the sun go down dramatically at Dolores Park, and yet that doesn't detract from the experience one bit. The Dolores sunset is dynamic. It is magical. Imagine a palette with constantly changing patches of colour. In over an hour and a half on that day - which happened to be a day short of the Summer Solstice - we saw the blue sky turn varied shades of yellow and golden, before evolving into an unbelievably fiery pink, and then settling into a lovely orange.

All the while, we were treated to a diversity of views on the horizon that I am confident most other view points in San Francisco would be hard-pressed to find. We could see buildings from the Financial District on the one side, "LA-style" palm trees in a cluster on the other, hills in the distance, and architecture of both domed and church-ey variety.

The Dolores Sky evolves, one day before the Summer Solstice.


"Los Angeles-style palm trees"

As we sat at a spot that Tulip confessed was her most favourite spot in the entire city, and resumed our endless exchange of views on life and people (I steer clear of the use of the term "gossip" but who am I kidding), we took in the very unique and very endearing sights of Dolores Park, which matched the diversity of the views on the horizon. A young girl crawling on all fours to try to catch a sea gull momentarily resting on the grass. A young man lazing in a hammock tied to two trees (we joked that the hammock could double up well as a parachute in the wind that evening). Three girls enjoying a lively game of UNO. A man engaging with his dog over a game of throw and catch using a ball and a fluorescent green plastic ball catcher. A group of boys walking with cans of beer to find a spot to sit.

The most special of them all to me was a man playing the guitar and singing a song that sounded so familiar yet so sweetly different. I found myself singing along: though unable to place the song, I knew the words. I realized a few minutes later that it was Tove Lo's "Habits", a song that I had listened to a lot in the recent past, including while walking around in San Francisco. What could only be described as a somewhat rough or edgy song had been effortlessly made so mellow and ballad-like by this guitarist - possibly even surpassing the original - that I was completely blown away. I don't think I will ever forget this stranger's cover of the song. It made me want to start playing guitar again. It made me realize that in Dolores Park, as in San Francisco, you can always choose your own rendition - of a song, or yourself. It's up to you what it should sound like, feel like. There are no limits. Don't hesitate, don't feel encumbered. You could be crawling on all fours or rolling down a hill. Or you could be that well-behaved dog that dotes on its human. Weirdly enough, "Habits", as sung by a total stranger in a version altered from the original beyond recognition, was the most unforgettable farewell gift from a park and a city that it was tearing me up to be saying goodbye to.

My San Francisco sojourn started and ended with an evening in Dolores Park. They were the perfect book-ends to a perfect holiday.

Tulip and I finally got up to leave, caught a glimpse of the sky on the other side of the hill where we were sitting, a sight that literally rendered us speechless for a few seconds. We exited Dolores Park one last time together, and ogled at the sky all the way to our last dinner together in San Francisco.

                                             Goodbye, Dolores Park, you beauty!

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