Surprise is one of the things that makes a city great. On Thursday my wife and I made an afternoon date to meet at the post office at Sutter St. near Kearny in San Francisco's financial district. Along for the date were our three children. We had to renew their passports.
Kiddie passports are a big pain in the neck. Both parents have to be present, as do all the children. You have to bring along original birth certificates, social security cards, a multitude of forms you have spent hours wrestling with ahead of time on a hopelessly user-hostile website, exactly correct photographs, and a checkbook - because they don't take cash or credit. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds: less than a fender-bender, but more than a root canal.
It took us about an hour. After we were done my wife had to go to a meeting, and I wanted to find a way to kill a couple more hours with the kids, so we could all go home together. First, though, we had to find parking.
San Franciscans complain about parking a lot. Too much, really. I usually scoff at their whining, having burned several months off my life span in cumulative block-circling time on the streets of Somerville, Massachusetts, begging God for a parking space or an easy death. This time, looking for a space in the middle of the day in San Francisco's North Beach, I began for the first time to sympathize with the parking-whining of my fellow Friscans. But then, just as I was ready to give up, a space appeared, and I grabbed it.
The kids needed to pee, of course. We were only a block or so away from the foot of Lombard Street, with its flocks of tourists but, oddly, not many businesses nearby. Right behind my parking space, however, was a church, with the gate to its cloister wide open, and a pretty fountain beckoning us.
So in we went, looking for a bathroom. What we found was the surprise.
We had stumbled, for the first time and serendipitously, into the San Francisco Art Institute. The front of it looks like a Romanesque church, complete with Tuscan-hill-town clock tower. That's where we entered.
Around the corner was the Diego Rivera Gallery.
Peeking in, I could see the usual clot of ironic art-student sculpture mounted on ironic unfinished wooden crates, so I figured this was just some exhibition space named in honor of the great muralist Diego Rivera. It was only after I wandered into that gallery, still looking for the bathroom and following my kids, that I found out how wrong I was. Because when you enter the Diego Rivera gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute - when you wander in off the street, through open doors, passing no security checkpoint and paying no fee - you come across this:
We had stumbled into The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. It was painted there on that wall by Rivera in 1931, and looks as fresh today as it must have then.
After admiring the fresco I made my way, reluctantly, out of the gallery. There was an open office, so I intruded politely to ask about a bathroom. "They're down by the View," the guy in the office advised.
"The View?" I asked.
"Just go down the long hallway. You'll see what I mean."
What he meant was this:
Okay, that's a view all right. The back side of this art school masquerading as a quaintly faux-Romanesque chapel is a bold, poured-concrete modern slab with a 360-degree open air vista of perhaps the most beautiful urban waterfront in the world.
That's what I mean by 'surprise.' All of this in the course of an afternoon of unpleasant bureaucratic errand-running and mundane parking and bathroom issues. No, I'm not a native San Franciscan - but I feel like I sure have gone native. And, I keep telling my kids, "you don't know how lucky you are." No, they don't, naturally. We never do, do we?