San Francisco. The second most densely populated city in the country. The home of the Golden Gate Bridge. The city by the bay that seems to have managed to get itself built on one slope or another (but maybe it only feels like that when you’re traveling around there on foot for a few hours nonstop). People have lived, breathed, and died in the city without ever managing to know all the ins and outs. It’s too big; too full of life.

So focus. Zoom in, shrink the map, and pick a street.
Valencia Street.

It’s the oldest neighborhood in the Mission District, and despite all the remodeling done in the past few years, parts of it still look it. Large, modern condos and narrow, boxy houses mingle with vaguely Victorian-style buildings that range in age from a few decades old to a few centuries old. Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it’s the weather, or maybe it’s just because it’s a Saturday, but the roads are thick with cars and the sidewalks are thick with pedestrians. People in groups, people alone, people with dogs on leashes and kids in strollers and full shopping bags hung from full arms, all bustling down the street at varying speeds of go.

Somewhere, someone is playing a radio loudly. There’s construction going on the outside the second story of a building, which means pedestrians have to walk under the rickety construction platforms put up on the sidewalk. Along with a healthy layer of San Franciscan pollution, the air is also full of at least three different languages worth of chatter.

A couple walks by with their dog, all three in coats suitable for winter despite the fact that it’s still warm here; the humans because of fashion, probably, and the dog because it’s a Husky and stuck with its own natural winter gear unless somebody decides to shave him.

Up ahead a few feet, sitting on a plastic blue crate he must’ve brought himself, is a man who is either homeless or pretending to be homeless and doing a bang-up job at it. He’s got sallow skin and dark brown dreadlocks and he’s drinking from a bottle that proclaims to be Coke but sure isn’t filled with any soda. When the couple and the dog passes, the man barks at the dog. The dog looks surprised for a moment and then barks back. The walking man protectively puts an arm around the woman’s shoulders while she tugs on the dog’s leash, leaving the barker to cackle madly to himself.

The shops here (and at ground level there really is nothing but shops and restaurants) give of the impression of being disorganized books on a shelf. Every storefront is decorated differently, giving the look of many small individual buildings smashed together (as though on a very crowded shelf). The effect is only made stranger by the fact that the upper stories of the buildings are (usually) pastel and comparatively plain, highlighting the old style of the architecture. All of the stores have numbers somewhere on their fronts, though some are harder to find than others.

I have a guide, of sorts. A friend who'd read about a certain bookshop on the street and, in a fit of bibliophilia-fueled madness, had paid a spur-of-the-moment visit once before. When she’d returned, eyes alight, a blissful smile playing on her positively glowing face, she was adamant I come with her the next time. And so here we are.

The shop in question is at 866, a place called Borderlands that only sells science fiction and fantasy books, both new and used. There’s a café attached, and sometimes if the owner has accidentally left the door to his apartment open, a hairless cat will come down into the shop proper and have look around. It isn’t supposed to be out, since that violates health codes concerning the café, but none of the customers seem to mind. We certainly don’t. With a disinterested glance at the strange people wandering the shelves, the cat climbs onto and subsequently curls up on the top of a shelf and goes to sleep. All that can be seen of it now is an unidentifiable fleshy breathing lump.

After the book shop, and finding ourselves laden with paperbacks and a special kind of excitement that comes from buying books in a strange city, we decide (she decides, I follow) to go "exploring". She shows me around despite the fact that she hasn’t actually been anywhere besides the bookshop, either. The adventurous blind leading the introverted blind, and what an adventure it was. We walk down the street, swimming through the crowd when she suddenly ducks into a shop, the only warning a cry of "Oh hey, this looks interesting." The next thing I know, we're inside yet another unfamiliar building.

826 is the aptly named Pirate Supply Store that sells anything and everything humorously pirate related and has a giant tub of sand they let people scoop through to find ‘doubloons’; some kind of token redeemable for something vague that might be store credit or might just be another doubloon. Though the tub remains in a perpetual state of tokenlessness (either because of the crafty store personnel or because of other customers quicker on the token-finding draw) playing in sand is amusing enough in its own right. There are punny posters on the walls all having to do with pirates and little bottles for sale claiming to be filled with mermaid repellent and mermaid attractors. When looked at closely both are revealed to have the same ingredients inside: sand and leaves. The staff there are always sporting eye patches. I don’t know if it’s because it’s part of the dress code, or if it’s just because—well if your job let you wear pirate eye patches, wouldn’t you?

A couple doors over at 824 is a store that sells bottle gardens and fossils and has a stuffed unicorn head tucked in the corner for no apparent reason. The head is an actual horse head. I lacked both the heart and intestinal fortitude to ask where the horn came from. My guide probably would have asked for me, but she was already running to the next shop over; a place that sells wooden toys and has a shelf of children’s books probably not suitable for children (“Go The Fuck To Sleep” springs immediately to mind).

We pass by an open gate leading into a narrow alley. She tells me that she’s certain the gate wasn’t open when she went by here last and then pokes her head in.

“Are we allowed?” I say nervously, looking around in case anybody is watching. Nobody is: everybody has their own things to do and places to be. They couldn’t possibly care about us.

“Sure,” she says. “It’s public.” She sounds so certain that I have to believe her.

We go through the alley- the ridiculously small alley that, for some reason, someone decided to string with Christmas lights. From there we go into a building and find what is apparently an art gallery. It consists mostly of black and white photos on white walls in an empty building lacking the acoustics to echo properly. The only way to go is up a flight of stairs. At the top two red-eyed gentlemen (presumably the proprietors) are lounging on lawn chairs. On the far wall is a bunch of cut outs of fish arranged to create one very large fish. I stare at the fish while she chats with one of the men who assures her that it’s “totally cool {we’re} here, because that’s, like, totally what it’s all about, y’know? The art and the public.” We leave shortly after.

“How did you know it was public?” I ask.

“Because San Francisco is full of weird places like that,” she said. “Little gardens and galleries and fountains and stuff kinda hidden away.”

I want to ask her more, but she’s distracted by a stand selling whirl-a-gigs and wind chimes and runs off again. I promptly forget the question until later, when it’s too late to ask.

Somewhere in the maze of shops and stores and boutiques and restaurants and dives and cafes is an alley. It’s a wide alley, more like a street, except not many people drive on it. When my guide sets eyes on it, she lets out a satisfied “ah” noise— not quite a sigh, but something like it. It occurs to me that the roundabout trip around Valencia was leading up to this.

“What is it?” I say.

“This,” she says, whipping out her cellphone, “is Clarion Alley.”

Clarion Alley is filled with art. The walls are covered in murals. Some are in a traditional art style, some are surreal. Some are funny, a few are sad, and some just look cool.

A skull looking like something out of Dia de los Muertos wears a ruddy brown hat with the words San Fran strung in cursive on it. Beside the skull, resting on what would have been its shoulder had it any, is a bright red rose.

A woman in a white dress stands in a dark wood, surrounded by dead and dying trees. She doesn’t look like something someone could have done with spray-paint. She looks like actual brushwork.

A homeless old man sitting on the street feeding a flock of pigeons that surround his legs.

The shadow of a T-Rex cast by a real T-Rex that is surrounded by a tiny, tiny SWAT team.

Surreal landscapes that cause headaches if stared at for too long- if not for the brain-breaking content, then for the bright colors. Quick doodles of stick figures. A discreet picture of a girl’s head sipping coffee. A picture of a cartoon girl that has, over time, been graffitied over. Instead ruining the picture, the graffiti seems to blend into the piece, until it’s almost impossible to tell that it wasn’t originally meant to be there at all.

Near the end, painted over a doorway in yellow letters against a black backdrop are the words:

GIVE IT          MAKE IT
LIGHT            BRIGHT

My guide snaps a quick picture of this with her camera phone and says, “Yep, this one’s going on the Facebook.”

Somewhere on the other side of the street, a man starts barking at a dog again.

Up My Street (A Quest for Local Knowledge)
Fictionalized tour surrounding a real place. This is a mash-up of several Valencia Street visits. Also a node your homework