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Kids say the darnedest things…

As part of my three-year long nomadic journey resulting from being displaced from my home in San Francisco, I made use of a storage unit. Now that I’ve been renting a place to call home for almost a year and a half, I decided it was time to end the money suck that was this small 5×5 space. I really hadn’t missed most of the things that had been there almost 5 years, had I, so why should I continue to pay to store them? I am now slowly going through all the things.

One of the joys of getting to the bottom of the boxes in your storage unit, where all those papers sit that you don’t know what to do with, but which span periods of your life you don’t want to let go of, is finding gems like the autograph book I inscribed this way:

6th grade 11 yrs. old
1983-1984 Autographs from the
end of the 6th grade.

LRE 6th grade autograph book

Prelude to the junior high and senior high yearbooks, I present: the Autograph Book.

This archival piece preserves messages from a time that was the end of a two-year program for gifted kids I was bused to across town called the Student Teacher Enrichment Program (STEP). And it was the end of elementary school, so many of us were heading into the unknown and scary world of junior high, where we were to become “sevies” (translation: seventh graders) and which would mean our class would bifurcate into two groups as we headed to our respective junior high schools based once again on where we lived (not how smart we tested).

Paging through this little orange book with Snoopy and Woodstock on the cover, I had to chuckle at a number of things, some of which I’ve included as photos because I’m not sure it’s possible to be as poetic as a message written in a fifth or sixth grader’s cursive handwriting. Also, apparently we used the phrase nifty keen to mean great back in the ‘80s…

LRE autograph book Melinda

I have no idea about the “scare me” part, seriously.

One thing is striking in the messages: The gendered difference in communication and identity, already apparent at 11 and 12 years old. Almost all of the girls spoke to our friendship (relationship), positive words about experiences we shared, and emotions. Not one of them just wrote their name.

LRE autograph book lara

90 rules

On the other hand, the boys—who seemed to have a need to give themselves titles in addition to writing their names out—mostly did not have personal notes to share. In fact one page, below, is just a collection of boys names…autographs as one would use an autograph book, I suppose. The titles include often very grandiose statements: “Otherwise known as BVH the Great”. There were two boys, actually, who used “the Great”. Others referred to themselves as memorable through one of the program’s most fun modules: the Rocket Launch, where we assembled, painted, named, and shot off rockets as part of our science class. I looked forward to this each year. “Dangerous Rocket Maker”, or “The Shuttle maker”, or “Maker of dissappearing rockets” were a few titles claimed. (My rocket also flew out of sight and range of the park of the launch…)

LRE autograph book boys page

One of these boys managed to make a personal statement—he had noticed I kinda had a thing for whales.

LRE with rocket STEP 1984

Me rocking various shades of purple along with my red rocket at the STEP rocket launch, 1984.

But out of 22 boys, only twelve wrote something more than their name, six of these messages hoped I had a good/great/nice/wonderful summer,

LRE autograph book summer wishes

Variations on a theme…

and this kicker, from Jeff:

LRE autograph book jeff

Bad conscience? Reconciliation? Regret?

My bus drivers even left notes, Milly who drove #14, and Marilyn who drove #19. Both wrote it was very nice to have me on their bus. I think it was Milly who I often ran to on the bus ride home in search of some protection against the teasing my skinny self had to endure on a daily basis, and I remember her telling me to suck it up and not be a victim. Or something to that effect. No sympathy there, in other words.

I don’t remember who Mrs. Olson was, but according to her I was both a quick and happy person. Apparently some personality traits define us even from early on.

LRE autograph book mrs. olson

Mrs. Olson’s thoughtful entry

I still have two good friends from this program, and another person I’ve reconnected with over social media from that time. And these don’t include the first girl to write in my book, who said “Hey, no matter where we are or how far apart, we’ll always be friends.”


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claimed by the mountain

one of my best friends, michael naiman, died on a sunday less than two weeks ago (16 july 2017) while skiing his descent down mt. rainier. he had just summitted that morning—his second time doing so in a couple years—and fell 150 feet into a crevasse on emmons glacier on the way down. he was 42. along with his extended family, coworkers, and friends, i have been reeling from the news, washed over with waves of grief. mike and i had been friends many years, and met each other as tsunami disaster volunteers as part of the tsunami volunteer center on the andaman coast of thailand in 2005.

over the last few weeks i have been reading another friend’s book about a death in yellowstone, of a young man killed by a grizzly bear in 1972 that led to a trial against the national parks/U.S. government. i’d been immersed in that young man’s tragedy, in the other deaths by bear attack or in the hot sulfur waters in national parks, and meditating on that small hairline edge that exists between life and death. the night i finally got to the pages with the description of the moment of the grizzly killing was the day my friend fell into the mountain. strange overlay.

july 2009 mount rainier from chinook pass-lisaruth elliott

a view of mount rainier from chinook pass, july 2009. photo by me

i grew up in the shadow of this volcano once known as tahoma, and it has been a very sacred presence and has held a special place in my life. i have joked it is like a 5th family member, after my parents and sister. i bought a book years ago about the first female ranger on mt. rainier. i think i thought i was picking up a story that was meant to be empowering. but i ended up hating that book, since it was an introduction into the harsh environment that can be tahoma and the ranger was also up against a lot of misogyny and ended up being the first on the scene of a lot of tragedies like my friend’s up on the mountain (sometimes as a result of the discrimination and being sent out into dangerous situations to be tested, but other times not). i didn’t expect the book to be a rosy glow of life on the mountain, but it was hard to read about so much devastation from simple trailside accidents gone horribly wrong, to airlifts and the unpredictability of the conditions and weather and ice on the peak. with mike’s death, i’m finding myself at odds again with my lifelong sense of this volcano. yes, in death there is anger, and i’m not exactly directing it at the mountain since no one person is pinpointed by nature’s wrath, but i like it a bunch less right now.

i found out about his death in a way that is very telling about the strength of the tsunami volunteer community, even 12 years after the relief efforts in thailand began. i got a text at noon on monday after his death from a thai volunteer friend living near me in the san francisco bay area who had been texted by an italian volunteer who had seen a post by a thai volunteer in bangkok who had been texted by mike’s brother. i am grateful our three continent “phone tree” worked so swiftly, as his accident hadn’t made the press yet, nor had much been posted on his facebook page—though this is where i was able to confirm the news, reading his mother’s words, “the mountain claimed my son.” our tsunami volunteer community were made aware of his tragic death through a post by one of the tsunami volunteers later that day, and over the next few days there were memories shared in this private forum by people who he had worked alongside in the early relief days.

a thai friend in the bay area arranged a small, simple remembrance ceremony for mike at the san fran dhammaran temple on the wednesday after his death, where she and i made offerings of food and support to the monks, poured water into small bowls in his memory, and ate a feast of the delicious home-cooked thai foods prepared for this purpose. we were making merit for his good karma. my friend “oh” told me she made mike’s favorite dishes, particularly a shrimp paste (nam prik ka-pi) with deep fried mackerel (pla too tod) he loved. so many things washed over me at this ceremony, namely the feeling that i had been there before—as had mike—in similar ceremonies in thailand for people who had died in the tsunami, and it felt wrong that he was now the subject of this blast out of our past. i also felt his presence so strongly, mostly in relation to the food, and could almost hear him say, “no way, this is all for me? cool! ooh, look at that dish, it smells great.” he would have loved the spread.

once the memorial had been set by his family in seattle for the monday, a week after mike died, i realized i would be the only one from this network of people scattered across the world able to go. i offered to say some words from the tsunami volunteer community, which mike’s family graciously allowed me to do. below is what i shared, a mixture of mike’s words to me, my memories, and the wishes and blessings of those tsunami volunteers who left their condolences.

LR speaking at mike's remembrance ceremony 24 july 2017-linda elliott

my profile at sunset on the salish sea (puget sound) as i shared the below words with mike’s family, friends, and coworkers on 24 july 2017. his climbing helmet is visible on the left, and on the right is a statue at saltwater park in shoreline, wa. the man in the headdress standing next to me is his makkah friend Aaron who led the ceremony. photo by linda elliott

Mike and I first met in Thailand in February 2005 as disaster relief and recovery volunteers following the tsunami, and tonight I bring blessings to Mike’s entire family and expressions of heartfelt sadness from people across the globe who he met and formed strong bonds with then. Though he regretted not listening hard enough to his inner voice telling him to go immediately after the December 26, 2004 tragedy, he was one of the earliest volunteers on the scene and was witness to a lush landscape scraped to dirt and thousands of people who had perished. With his photography skills, he captured a lot of the devastation along the Southern Thailand Andaman coastline, and these photos became emblematic of the Tsunami Volunteer Center experience. Elena, a volunteer from those early months remembers: “Mike was a keen photographer and many of the memories I have are in his pictures, as if I looked through his eyes.” While many of us chose to stay in the arranged accommodations, retaining a degree of our outsiderness, getting transported to and from debris clearing and construction sites every day, Mike chose to live with a family in a floating house in a fishing village while work went on, learning to speak very good Thai and cook local foods, and endearing himself to the community. The kindness and respect he gave, was given in return by the villagers. The time he spent in Pak Triam and the folks there were very special to him, and he stayed in touch with them, going back to visit most recently in 2014.

Though I live in San Francisco, when I returned to the States after the second anniversary of the tsunami I would visit my family in Seattle for various holidays and my visits always included time with Mike. Our common history as disaster volunteers, and the drive to be in that state of direct and invaluable service in the midst of tragedy, really in the everyday, was the foundation of our friendship. One of the reasons he wanted to study ultrasound was to have a medical skill that could be useful in future disaster situations. When the earthquake in Haiti happened in 2010, Mike was the first person I called to talk over the pros and cons of entering yet another disaster zone, and truth be told, I was hoping I could talk him into coming with me. His words after our conversation were,
“I’m battling with my inner voice telling me to go right now, but I’m not in a position to follow it. Before you go, do everything you can to prepare yourself mentally to be surrounded by death and hopelessness. See a therapist, or hone your meditation skills. Personally, I’m still traumatized from what I saw five years ago. The thousands of bodies at Yan Yao, and the miles wide refugee camps in Sri Lanka still haunt me. It still makes me cry a little when I think about it.”
His dedication to excelling at his studies meant he didn’t make the trip to Haiti, but he said this after my first stint there:
“Now you have to go back to Haiti, so I can continue living vicariously through your exploits! I’ve been out of my mind, stir crazy lately. I have this innate need to get dirty, sweaty, and parasite infested. You know what I mean, you’ve got it worse than anyone I know.”
It was this innate need he spoke of that I think drove him to find adventure within reach, or at least close to home, as his mastery of all things “outdoorsy” was beyond what most of us would probably consider our “reach”. His adventurous spirit also extended to food, and we would often stuff ourselves silly on “food tours” throughout Seattle or San Francisco, and I would sometimes get messages imploring me to send him specific dishes he couldn’t find at home. He probably could have cooked them himself…

I was constantly in awe of Mike’s dedication to his family and the obligation he felt to make contagious his zest for “experiencing life fully”. Commitment to family also meant that he was good to the larger sense of family, including mine, and I last saw him three months ago when we scooped up some Thai street food in Auburn and ate dinner at home with my parents. I got to show him the river I grew up on and always talked about—which he, in true Mike fashion, wanted to fish on immediately. His generosity of time and self was something they will also never forget.

Mike, many of us in the tsunami volunteer community called you best friend, and like me, loved your goofy humor, your kindness, your lack of pretense, and the way you embraced life without reservation. I personally am so grateful you always managed to make time for me, and am so glad for each moment with you. May the kindness, compassion, and joy you brought to Thailand await you wherever you are now.

at the memorial i heard stories from more than one person of the extensive crevasse rescue training he had been doing—and had gotten quite proficient at—in trees on family land, in the narrow spaces between staircases in the parking garage at work… it’s devastating to think that he could have saved himself had his injuries not prevented him from doing so.

some images from the memorial:

and some favorites from over the years—sadly there are no photos of the two of us— including a tribute meal of neua nam tok and a singha earlier this week:


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curating scraps of life

green river dec 2015

photo by sfurbanwanderer

in moments of deep connection with the world—and in those that are potentially the most banal, too—i compose haiku. this form pops up when my mind has found a spaciousness only possible after sitting or while walking for a long period. i usually memorize these snapshot poems, as often i’m not able to write them down in that moment, or i don’t want to turn to my handheld device to record them right then.

here is a collection of 27 haiku written over the past several years chronicling my explorations in both the urban environment and out in the natural world, and some that speak to the intersections of the two.

gradually heating

until i’m a waterfall:

a sauna healing.


castle on a hill?

mountaintop reveals itself

around the next bend.


snowy plover runs—

a millipede’s leg movement

from nest to shore.


hot afternoon rocks

gray pines on the horizon

woodpeckers in flight


scattering lizards

acting as little sentries

on the river path.


the tower obscured

fog thick on a summer day.

heat pulls from valley.


a sidewalk dancer—

leaf like a brown butterfly—

summer city wind


nothing like the sound

of an eagle’s morning call.

i am en-raptor’d.


a flutter of wings

heading in amongst the trees:

geese on the river.


scotch broom in full bloom

lining Washington highways

yellow pollen bursts.


fly like an eagle

hawk swoops down to interrupt

bird sounds warning call.


in the daylight hours

can’t see the hills for the trees

nighttime hike shows lights.


percussive bird sounds

many species greet the day.

Saratoga morn.


bright bougainvillea

September bursts of color.

fall is in full bloom.


hummingbird wings growl

new chirp at bottom of dive

sun dries my wet tent.


white flames through the door

iguanas out for a stroll

surreal Sunday morn


sunny window spot

afternoon food and head break

my body lengthens…


a lizard pushup

a chipmunk scales scaffolding

Sonoran desert.


heading eight blocks south

December sun on my face

joy in a bike ride.


sun on San Bruno

mount diablo peeking up

crisp clear winter’s day


a pigeon’s widow walk

atop a Victorian,

club foot kin below.


the spring el polin,

a summer dedication

ohlone return…


descent to deer creek

feet roll across pine needles

quick mid-day leg stretch…


sierra foothills

full package deal adventure.

this week smiles linger.


the rough peaks glisten,

a knife’s edge to the clear sky:

view from hood canal.


sea under bridges

may sun warms Stockholm’s stone face

city in spring bloom.


climbing the flatlands,

heels click on cobblestone streets.

ochres line the sea.




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what price do you put on hope?

i wrote this in 2007, and just came across it on my backup hard drive when looking for something else entirely. ah, for those days when writing came so much faster and more furiously…

my sister is now celebrating her 6th anniversary with the “boyfriend” in the piece, and i’m on my third computer since the one i mention. i’m posting the piece for archiving purposes here, and to remind myself of this craft that i really should pick up and do more often (i don’t mean the gambling… writing of course!).

17 july 2007

i’m losing rhinestones from my new strappy heeled shoes almost as fast as i’m losing money in the slot machines.  after a quick whirl through las vegas, and about 125 dollars less than i came with, repetitive computerized sounds of reels—sometimes punctuated by a “winning” noise and the clicking of betting one (or max) credit—are still ringing in my ears.  no, wait, i’m in the airport and those are actual machines next to the gates ringing and clacking.  my sister’s boyfriend said he read somewhere that the slot machines at this first and last stop to vegas aren’t regulated by the same rules as the casinos in terms of payout, so it’s harder to win here.  i was going to take my 50 cent win on 5 dollars and prove them all wrong.  but then i kept playing, as you do, and lost it all.

my gaming (the accepted term before gambling) was limited to the computer screens with special bonus additions, preferably in the 1 to 5 cent range.  i must say though, that the most satisfying—mentally—and most successful efforts were at the 25 cent draw bonus poker screens.  i appreciated the semblance of interaction, am certain i was missing some card counting opportunities, and somehow felt a strong sense of kinship to the professional poker players just a few miles down the strip who were battling it out for the top spot in the world series of poker.  a couple of times i played for at least an hour and was able to cash my ticket in for the same amount i arrived at the flashing machine with.  i began to suspect that the machines could read my mind, or in particularly misguided moments, that i could predict their next move, and am a little snowed on how random the computer generated spinning could actually be.  i understand that my affection for ordering fictitious chinese take out, present-heavy parties, larry the lobster, and board games-turned-digital put together with investing small amounts of money at irregular intervals don’t make me a very good candidate for winning “the big bucks”.  it is still disappointing to come home with an empty wallet.

i came to this overstimulating environment to meet up with my sister.  she in turn was accompanying her boyfriend and his friend on their yearly poker playing escape.  both men came with a fund of several hundred dollars which they have been paying into over the course of the year, with the express intention of sitting at a table several hours every day playing the game they love.  if i had any amount of money i thought i could spare, i would have sat down at one of the intimidating, high minimum amount tables as well to try my luck.  i didn’t hold cards in my hand once this trip.  my fingers are actually itching to do so, but not for a 250 dollar buy in. and both of them ended up several hundred dollars down as well.  which sounds more painful to me than my little over one hundred dollar loss.

not having traveled by airplane in the states for almost a year, the whole experience has been much like a cold bucket of water thrown in my face.  once again, i feel more scrutinized and less safe traveling here than i have in any of my travels around the world in the past year and a half.  this statement seems worth a moment of silence, at least a pause to consider its impact.  while sitting at the salt lake city airport and battling with the theatrics of fox news blaring from every seat cluster, i was informed we are on orange level terror alert.  i was stopped at two out of three security checks for bottles of water, tubes of sunscreen, and a yogurt drink.  juggling a pair of strappy shoes, a laptop, and a studded belt, along with my backpack and purse, i thought i had covered all my bases by displaying and/or removing it all.  i could have chosen to have my 7 dollar 4 oz bottle of organic, unused sunscreen shipped back to me for a price of 15 dollars, or have it confiscated and thrown into a bin that not even the security worker knew the fate of.  there is a strange element to it all when we are carrying more electronic devices than ever before, but a tube of liquid/paste/lotion causes anticipation of danger and an accepted state of hysteria.  i think the terror alert factor should be changed to “how hysterical are we feeling today?” or, “how much longer do we feel like forcing a militarized state/state of war on ourselves?”.  yes, i think i’m feeling quite ________ today (fill in the blanks with any of the following: provoked, unsafe, under imminent threat of attack from a foreign national… or choose your own “freedom conserving” word).  london was extreme too, and as either a former or current colonial power there must be some underlying sense of unstated awareness that the “natives” are STILL not happy.  neither their generations upon generations who live in a world crafted by arbitrary colonial behaviour.

oh i’m so tense, and never tenser, could all go a bit frank spencer.  and i’m talking gibberish…* 

* arctic monkeys song about being unable to talk to a woman in a pub, but it somehow has been echoing in my head since i was first in sfo two days ago.

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one year of a farm in bloom

00 alemany farm sign pre install

over the last five years i have spent from one to four weekends a month volunteering at alemany farm, on the south slope of bernal heights, in san francisco. it’s an abundant place, teeming with vegetables, fruit, and wildlife all year round. the lepidopterist liam o’brien loves it because so many species of butterflies—and other insects—can be seen there, indeed are thriving there. in 2014, i documented the blooms throughout the months, and though toward the end of the year i didn’t have much time to spend there (photos end in september, with a couple images from my home thrown in), i love the picture this paints of the farm is it changes with time.

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uprooting: a loss of home

oak fell on scot

oak fell on scott. 
painted by san & escif, june 2011
they make reference on their blog to two incidents in may and june 2011 of trees falling in the neighborhood, and their road trip prior to arriving in sf shows more trees uprooted. i am of course using the image as a metaphor…

this piece was written in january 2014 as a reflection on a five month journey i did not choose to take.

on august 7, 2013, i was—together with the two other members of my home—evicted from our upper haight flat in san francisco. the building had been sold, and the new owner decided they wanted to move in to our apartment, a space that had been my roommate’s home for almost 30 years, and mine for three and a half. i have spent the months since august living in other people’s homes, doing some housesitting, but mostly relying on the generosity of friends offering their extra rooms to me.

this piece is about the effects of displacement, about living in transition. it was read on January 17, 2013 at Campfire: Eviction Ghost Stories and Other Housing Horrors, an event organized by Adriana Camarena’s Unsettlers: Migrants, Homies, and Mammas in the Mission District, together with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. A video of my reading that night can be seen on the Campfire website. it was also read at the Red Poppy Art House on January 18, 2014 at the closing of Mona Caron and Dustin Fosnot’s “The Mission Condition—Outwardly Mobile” collaborative piece.

My story was also featured on KQED’s Priced Out, and I participated in a discussion, Artists, Galleries Displaced Amid Tech Boom on KQED’s Forum on March 7, 2014.

NOVEMBER 2014 addition:

I was interviewed by a Japanese reporter covering the boom and accompanying housing crisis for the Tokyo Keizai paper.

LR in weekly toyo keizai

The caption on the photo of me says, “Lisa Elliott, the historian, was chased out of her home and forced to live in temporary housing.”



i have been living as a sort of ghost for the last five months. this taurus girl born in the year of the ox, a creature of stability who thrives on sanctuary, i was forced out of my cozy home in the haight in august, a place i would have stayed indefinitely if given the chance. uprooted, not feeling much more than the shell of myself almost half a year now, i have floated from one generous friend’s home to the next. ironically, the mission district building that has given me the most stability—the one in which four of the six units are occupied by friends, and where i have been welcomed into three of them in this period—is on the verge of being sold. there all of the residents live in a state of dread of what will happen next for them, and on some level i am an uncomfortable apparition of what is most likely to come. a lot of attention has been called to the displacement of artists, and yes, there we are artists, but most importantly i think, is our common denominator of having shown up as informed and impassioned activists at struggles from those for the rights of people with AIDS, to demanding food security, to protecting sex workers, to protesting the wars and nuclear power and economic injustice and climate change, to burning effigies at gay shame rallies, to participating in city-wide riots and mourning over the dan white verdict, to joining occupy, and on and on and on over the 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years we have lived in the city.

two out of the other three homes i have stayed in are owned by friends, people fighting for rights of refugees, a nature-based artist, a san francisco-based writer who firmly planted the presence of the google buses in our consciousness and discourse lest they simply slide by morning and evening, day after day, without us noting our outrage. i am glad these friends own homes in this city that i, and they, love.

as i spend a month here, two months there, i keep my food in a box, my clothes in a bag, shoes in a black plastic garbage sack, some books i thought i couldn’t live without in my office, my bicycles in a neighbor’s garage. and my plants? i line the edges of the rooms i stay in with my belongings. i didn’t use closets, drawers, bathroom cabinets, kitchen shelves for four months, knowing always i am a visitor here and subconsciously trying to erase traces of my presence all the time. i am the kind of person who typically unpacks her suitcase when traveling, or unpacks within hours of returning home to really settle in. i feel the tenuousness of my existence each time i scrape the edges of a room clean in moving to the next space.

each time i change my living space, my perspective and orientation to my world changes. i feel ripped from my normal fabric of understanding of and integration into my community, my patterns and paths have to be relearned again new. i have only been to yoga two or three times since august, i have found it hard to stick to a meditation schedule, and i stopped my weekly acupuncture visits, even though i live much closer to the clinic than i did before. these are most useful to me now, and it feels difficult to explain, but holding a routine—outside of one for work—requires a certain settledness which i just don’t have.

i have felt myself withdraw from things.  i am less available for friends and community. i find it hard to initiate things, following along for now. i have watched more tv episodes—foreign murder mysteries mostly—in the last five months than i have in the last five years combined, perhaps preferring even dead peoples’ stories to confronting my own. i hear myself talk about myself all the time, most often about my displacement, but also stories about things that happen to me, as if to find some way to verify that i exist here. most jarring, when i reflect on it, is how i, an activist for decades, feel impotent and have lost the fight in myself for this very issue i have been affected by.

there have been some gifts in the process, i want to say too. for two months i stayed with my former dance collaborator who i used to rehearse with weekly, giving us some good catch up time. i helped another host make some improvements in her garden. i was treated often to delicious and healthy gourmet meals at another home. dozens of friends have kept me in mind and sent housing announcements my way, so much so that i never once had to brave craigslist searches. many generous offers to stay for a weekend, or catsit, or housesit were made, for which I’m very grateful.

fundamentally, displacement is disruption of the human experience whether it be due to economic pressure or war or natural disaster or oppression in any form. the current mass disruption is hitting artists and activists the most because we have found creative ways to inhabit the cracks of this city, because low rents allow us to—are even necessary to—fashion a life beyond the status quo, on the edge of what just “getting a job” means. but i don’t want to haunt this city or be an invisible statistic. i want to continue to experience the magic of SF that brought me here originally and firmly plant my feet in to the experience of living here.

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Mona Caron’s “Manifestation Station” — its fate is manifested


Mona Caron’s “Manifestation Station” in its original location, on Duboce at Church. Photo by Mona Caron

After the story hit the local blogosphere and social media outlets* of Mona Caron’s muralized utility box at Duboce and Church, “Manifestation Station”, being removed mid-September of this year, the first step was to track it down. The intrepid (and outraged, thus driven) artist Hugh D’Andrade launched a series of emails and phone calls, and with Mona’s help and that of the media and countless horrified people on social media, found it on a SFMTA lot.

hugh found the box

Hugh found the box!
Photo by Hugh D’Andrade

The workers he met there weren’t convinced it wasn’t trash, and was possibly even removed because of the artwork painted on it. But with pressure from the media and neighborhood groups who commissioned the painting of the box and calls from concerned citizens, the agency agreed to release it to the artist if it would be hauled away.

The question then arose: What to do with it now that we’d found it? The removal of the box hit a chord because it was painted to correspond exactly with the environment it was in, to disappear if you will, even, into a beautiful future possibility of the block. Mona has an exquisite sense of perspective and this box demonstrated her skills amazingly.

Many people wanted to keep it in the neighborhood, for fear that its significance and mastery would be lost if placed elsewhere. Suggestions to auction it off to benefit a local organization, or romantically let it float away or live as a seagull perch in some body of water were brainstormed, even to offer it as a tool shed to a local community garden.

Mona painting “Manifestation Station” during the Critical Mass 20th Anniversary celebration week September 2012. Photo by LisaRuth Elliott

Mona painting “Manifestation Station” during the Critical Mass 20th Anniversary celebration week September 2012.
Photo by LisaRuth Elliott

But then Mona got this email from a worker at the SFMTA:


We have been making efforts to reduce the weight, probably already down several hundred pounds materials.
The box now still weighs approx. 600 to 700 pounds.
What happened is that the Artwork Mural box on the outside physical attached to another steel box inside.
So please let know when you have arrangements.
We have well protection to the box now, and many people observing the box take photos at the shop.
Everyone wants to preserves the artwork.

Wait, the thing weighs 700 POUNDS!?!? This was discouraging, but good to know the SFMTA folks wanted to see it live on!

There had been offers by some organizations to house it for a little while, but with the news of its weight, the trick was to find a place that we could move it to where it would be permanently placed and appreciated. We lamented the recent loss of Hayes Valley Farm, since it was close and had just the right combo of urban-scape and utopian present/future that the box invokes. Enter me, LisaRuth Elliott, former mural assistant to Mona and a volunteer at Alemany Farm. I suggested there is lots of space at this other urban-utopian experiment. It just so happened that there also was a project underway at the farm by CCA students and alumni to create an outdoor kitchen. The Alemany Outdoor Kitchen (AOK) team happily agreed to incorporate it into the kitchen area being built…but there was paving to be done first.

Fast forward three months, when conditions finally converged to have 1) a truck to transport the box, 2) people available to do it, and 3) a prepared spot where it will live at the AOK.

On Wednesday, December 11, David Solnit and I showed up at 2502 Alameda Street, the SFMTA facility where the box was in a corner of the rail yard visible from Alameda St., with a truck and a furniture dolly.  When we approached the box, about ten SFMTA workers spilled out of the facility anticipating watching us struggle with the 700 pound beast, telling battle stories of getting it to the yard with a crane and forklift. One guy escaped back into the building afraid that just watching the move would hurt his back. But with the help of a few of the men (and David’s friend Lisa who is a former UPS worker and thus used to moving all sizes of things), we quickly were able to push and slide it—dolly and all—onto the bed of the truck.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at Alemany Farm, where the emerging AOK was being given granite countertops by AOK Team member and CCA alumnus Alex DeCiccio and local Alemany Dwellings resident and welder Tony. The two of them helped us slide the box and dolly out of the truck and roll it the several hundred (very long and heavy) yards to its final spot at the corner of the demonstration kitchen near the Alemany Farm lower food growing boxes.


Alex DeCicco of the AOK Team rests a bit after helping move the box to the kitchen site at Alemany Farm. Photo by David Solnit


Here’s the outside of the inner steel door with breakers. David says it is fun to know what is in those boxes that litter our cities.
Photo by David Solnit

There Alex, David, and I saw inside the box for the first time, which contains a second steel door with switches and breaker and the interior which does have quite a bit of hardware still, but plenty of space for storing kitchen equipment.

Update: By Sunday the AOK Team had removed the inner door and much of the remaining internal hardware. Turns out they can use the door hinge for their cabinets!


Alex and LisaRuth show the inside of the box at the Alemany Farm AOK site. Photo by David Solnit

So, for all the concerned box fans, bloggers, and blog commenters who were afraid that it would get scrapped, there is a happy ending to this crazy saga! We are planning to make a plaque to post near the box with a photo of it in its original context and a short explanation of how it came to be at Alemany Farm. Stay tuned!


Alex shows off the countertop construction at the Alemany Farm AOK. Photo by David Solnit

Many thanks to Mona Caron; David Solnit; Hugh D’Andrade; Victor Chen and Hubert Wang at SFMTA; Hugh Vanho and the rest of the AOK team; Max Chen; and John Stokes, Erik Rotman, Brett Stephens and the rest of the Friends of Alemany Farm, for their help in coordinating the final move!


Later that afternoon, Mona was seen standing near the nondescript replacement box on Duboce at Church.
Photo by David Solnit

* The case of the missing box was first covered by Mission Mission, then by SFBG, Uptown Almanac, Haighteration, and on various Facebook threads.

PS The mosaic sidewalk is personally a favorite detail of this box’s artwork for me, since it connects to a mosaic project I was coordinating near the Yuba River in August 2012. Mona wasn’t able to make it up to the mountains to help us that weekend (because she was painting the box), so she incorporated a mosaic in the design of the future Duboce Street on the box.

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