We could ride trains

The Muni trains are fun. I rode them for years before I figured that out. 

Muni was always a matter of function, a means of getting around. I was in a rush, a busy person with Places to Be. I was late; the train wasn’t there. When one of those historic clankers from Boston showed up on Church Street, I got even more crabby. The thing goes about four miles an hour; don’t they know we’re on a schedule here?

And then I had a son.

Even before he could talk, Michael loved trains. He’d point at them and start waving his hands up and down and laughing. “Choo-choo” was one of his first words; I think he knew that one even before “dada” and “mama.” And when I finally took him for a ride on the J-Church, around his second birthday, he became the happiest boy on the planet.

For the next year or so, every weekend morning, when he woke me up at the crack of dawn, I’d ask him what he wanted to do that day, and he’d say, with a big smile, “We could ride trains!” And almost every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, that’s what we’d do, from Church Street to Market Street, down Market, maybe along the waterfront to the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf. Then we’d get on another train and ride back home.

Sometimes we’d stop for a while at Dolores Park; sometimes we’d have doughnuts and check out the sea lions at the wharf. Sometimes we’d take a walk along the bay and look at boats. But really, as Zen masters and three-year-old boys have always known, the journey was the destination.

It’s different seeing the city through a child’s eyes.

I remember the amazing sense of wonder I had when I first arrived in San Francisco, a 22-year-old out of the New York suburbs and a Connecticut college town who had never been west of Buffalo. Everything seemed so alive, so special and strange and funny. And after a while, like everyone else, I had to pay the rent, and fight with the bank and the phone company, and the IRS found me, and life in the big city became, well, life in the big city.

But when you walk around with a kid, it all starts to come back. The whole urban world is an adventure. That stuff blowing around on the sidewalks isn’t garbage — it’s treasure. The graffiti on the walls isn’t vandalism (or even art) — it’s a clue to some sort of puzzle, maybe a map to where the pirates buried the gold. Even watching the train pull away just before you get to the corner isn’t any reason to be mad — because (as Michael always announces with glee) pretty soon there will be another one!

Just walking out the door is an explosion of scientific marvels. The wind is moving air, which is pretty cool when you think about it. The fog is a cloud on the ground. The rain makes puddles, and puddles lead to big splashes and soaking wet feet, and life doesn’t get much better than that. I suspect that every day in Michael’s life is like the first time I smoked pot and tried to talk about the difference between time and color.

There was a long period (and now it seems like another lifetime) when I could go for weeks without venturing beyond work, the 500 Club, a couple of take-out places, and my apartment. The advantage (and curse) of this city is that you can live quite well in your own neighborhood (particularly when it’s a place like the Mission District or Bernal Heights), so you don’t need to go anywhere else.

Amazing what I was missing.

I’ve lived in or around the Mission for 10 years, and I’d never been to Garfield Pool. You can swim there for three bucks, and it’s never crowded. The locker room feels like something out of a 1940s socialist paradise — everything’s one color, brutally utilitarian, and just a little bit broken. There are free kickboards, basketballs (and a poolside hoop), and sometimes even swim goggles (I guess when people leave them behind they become properly nationalized). The Upper Noe Recreation Center has the same sort of feel: on Saturday mornings, there’s a toddler gym, filled with a huge conglomeration of toys that look and feel like they were never actually new. But they work just fine and are durable as hell, and on rainy days, dozens of children stranded inside get a chance to ride welded tricycles and plastic cars around and crash into each other, with no ill effect. I smile just thinking about it.

The big children’s playground at Golden Gate Park has a long, steep slide made out of concrete that would make a modern-day insurance agent gasp in horror and alarm. Kids who have barely learned to walk somehow manage to climb up about 75 slippery, uneven steps that are almost too much for me, then sit on torn pieces of cardboard and careen down a hard, fast incline and skid to a stop at the bottom. It’s outstanding.

At Crissy Field, there’s a narrow, shallow channel where the water in the newly restored tidal marsh flows in and out of the bay. I don’t think the people who oversaw the ecological restoration of the wetlands area had any idea they were creating a swimming hole for kids, but that’s what happened: on warm days, dozen of children splash in the stream and build elaborate sand castles on the banks. When the tide goes out, a muddy island appears in the middle. Even with the tide coming in, the channel is never more than a few feet deep. It’s mind-boggling: you’re on the edge of the bay, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, a few yards away from the icy-cold currents and riptides where even seriously athletic adults in wet suits venture only with care — and three-years-olds are romping in the water with their dogs.

There’s a railroad museum at the old Hunters Point shipyard, with vintage steam engines that still work. There’s a model river (full of water and plastic fish) at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. There’s a working beehive in the bug house at the San Francisco Zoo, and the queen bee has a white dot painted on her abdomen. There’s an artificial earthquake that shakes up the Lego houses you can build at the California Academy of Sciences.

There are stores in the Mission that sell parachuting space aliens. If you ask nicely at Mitchell’s Ice Cream, they’ll stick a few green gummy worms in your chocolate-chip cone.

These are all things I didn’t know.

When I was a kid in the suburbs, I couldn’t imagine growing up in a city. I hope my kids see it differently. Because I’m getting to be a kid again right here in San Francisco — and I can’t imagine anyplace better.