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The Spirit of San Francisco

By Catherine Bigelow

Back in the day, our beloved city was dubbed “Yerba Buena,” a medicinal herb used for centuries by the Ohlone tribe, native dwellers of this temperate bay mecca. Its translation, “good herb,” is a rather apt Rx moniker for our current populace, stressed by COVID-19.

But in 1847, this pre-Gold Rush, Spanish colonial backwater (stolen, technically, from the former Mexican Empire) was renamed San Francisco — a nod to Franciscan friars who, in 1776, established the City’s first church, Mission San Francisco de Asis, to honor Francis of Assisi, the Italian patron saint of animals and ecology who renounced his bourgeois heritage to found the “begging” Franciscan order.

Some theologians dispute the provenance of his iconic “Peace Prayer,” doubting St. Francis penned that invocation with his feather-quill pen. But for generations of parochial students, the prayer’s recitation is a staple of Catholic education. And now, no matter your faith, St. Francis’ prayer resounds with aching depth to channel its cri de coeur: transforming ourselves as “an instrument of peace.”

Every hour of our lockdown, frontline workers battle this health crisis, toiling in anonymous humility. They are the courageous hospital staff (doctors, nurses, janitors) and brave emergency personnel. The devoted wage earners who calmly stock and bag your groceries, and the Franciscans of St. Anthony’s, who, every day since 1950, serve free hope (food, clothing, job training) from their Tenderloin headquarters to citizens who’ve fallen through the City’s safety net.

But throughout its existence, San Francisco has boldly conquered numerous crises: The devastating 1906 earthquake and fire leveled our “modern” city. Within nine years, it was reborn at the resplendent 1915 World’s Fair, signaling we were back in business.

The dark, twisted 1970s exploded in Jonestown, Guyana, where the SF-based People’s Temple cult incited the deaths of 918 followers in a “Kool-Aid” massacre. Two weeks later, an unstable, disgruntled civil servant assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had been appointed by the intrepid Moscone as our nation’s first openly gay city commissioner.

Above that gruesomeness rose the resplendent rainbow flag, fluttering over the Castro as a symbol of welcome and acceptance to LGBTQ people of all stripes.

Then, in the early 1980s, the AIDS/HIV crisis ravaged the City’s gay population, a burgeoning economic and political force that demanded, and received, ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs and live-saving treatments from such renowned institutions as UCSF.

Now, amid the tense weeks of shelter-in-place, the coronavirus pandemic has collectively reared complicated feelings: fear, frustration, bigotry, paranoia and outrage at the federal government. This un-savory soup is flavored with personal economic dread. However, I’m blessed to live near my family, who, “knock wood,” are safe. And aside from being stir-crazy and over familiarity with my (beloved) lock-down partner, he remains the calm, resourceful and skilled culinary CEO of our apartment.

In spite of fitful nights of pandemic-interrupted sleep, COVID-19 felt like a crisis I watched on the news, devastating families of strangers I did not know. But merde just got real: a week apart, my husband lost two friends to the virus. And my best friend’s mother, a delightful spirit in our carefree days of neighborhood hide-and-go-seek, succumbed within days to this scourge.

While “hope and prayers” have become a knee-jerk talking point, we yearn for a sign that our current darkness will eventually yield light. But there’s inspiration, too, in our city flag, emblazoned with a mythological phoenix, an ancient symbol of regeneration, perpetually rising above the ashes of civic catastrophe.

Even on brief, face-masked outdoor forays to source essentials (coffee, fresh produce, elusive rolls of toilet paper), I’ve experienced small, heartwarming grace notes of joy among fellow COVID-crazed citizens that rise above our collective sadness.

Parents teaching their kids to ride bikes on empty city streets. Potentially lucky Lotto ticket purchases (now, definitely “essential”), are greeted with enthusiastic “Good luck!” wishes. Apartment neighbors graciously beckon us to a wide hallway berth, as we drag laundry baskets to the basement. But most heartwarming is the #smize. That hashtag portmanteau blends the words “smiling with our eyes.”

Having worn specs since the first grade, I know my mask-framed eyeglasses to be a foggy morass that induces an uneasy sense of distance and physical proportion. But cutting to the far curbside as I pass a fellow masked stranger, who previously I may not have acknowledged, a shared #smize inspires a hopeful sense of peace, and humanity.

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