I was walked home from the gym yesterday morning. The fog was receding as I traveled, slithering backward over peaks and cell towers, leaving a warm sunny day behind.
From the gym to my house is about a mile, and the return walk is almost entirely uphill. The hill is so steep that if I leave the main street and walk half a block up a side street, there’s an old cement staircase between the houses that connects the street below with mine, above. I’ve never counted the stairs but there might be as many as one hundred. On one side of the staircase is a mostly unkept terraced park of sorts. Crepe myrtle and other vines have mostly taken over there, but trees shade the park and the stairs, and as you climb the stairs, there are landings where you could stop and take a break, perhaps sit on one of the benches in the park. I’d like to leave out the fact that the park often smells like urine and the fact that often a bench might be occupied by a sleeping homeless person. Still, climbing to the top of the stairs has its reward: a view of the southern half of San Francisco, pastel houses sprinkled over hilltops, with the bay glittering beyond, and on a clear day, Oakland beyond that.
There are three homes on the other side of the stairs one at the top, one halfway up the staircase, and one at the bottom, on the street level. (The only way to enter the house in the middle is to climb the stairs. I’ve often considered how much of a workout it would be, dragging bags of groceries up those steep stairs to the home’s front door.) For some time, the lower two homes have been vacant and under construction. I’ve seen Chinese-speaking workers hauling debris out of both buildings and sending it clattering down to a dumpster in the street via a long shute. Both houses have been gutted now, and when I climb the stairs I can see through gaps in the siding on the middle one to the other side.
Yesterday as I climbed the stairs I saw a piece of yellowed newsprint laying on the stairs next to the first house. I looked at it for a moment deciding it must be a recent piece of newspaper that had been out in the elements for too long. But something seemed not quite right. I stared longer. Something seemed off about it, for a recent scrap of newspaper. Finally I understood what it was that had made me stop to look: the font. The print was not modern. And the words… It was a small ripped piece of the newspaper, but part of an ad stood out: Build a bungalow for $2500. The sharp smell of urine tingled my nose and I wondered if I should pick up the scrap. The newsprint appeared to be adhered to a thicker piece of paper and for some reason this encouraged me.
When I did I could see part of a date, the important part, the year 1907. The scrap listed the religious services offered that week, and it was stuck to a blueprint. I looked around; no other scraps laying about. I glanced at the vacant houses. Yes, they could have been built in 1907 (as much of San Francisco was, post-earthquake) and their walls could have been lined with newsprint for insulation. I imagined reading a whole year’s worth of news on the walls of one of those homes. I wondered what other treasures those workers sent to the dumpsters on the street below; what else they might have found inside.