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February 22, 2008


Starting over

To the left of the elevators on the seventh floor of Kaiser Hospital is a wall of windows. In January 2006 I would pad down the hall from my room, swaddled in two blue cotton gowns wrapped back over front, and sometimes trundling an oxygen tank by my side. I’d turn left at the corner, go down one ramp, up another, and stand in front of one of the best vistas in all of San Francisco. I memorized the contours of every house below and tried to recall the sounds and smells of the city I knew so well.

But on rainy days – and there were a lot of rainy days that winter — I quickly learned not to make the trip. Whether my fluid-deprived body was jealous of the wealth of water just beyond the glass or I feared that I would never again feel that cold moist air on my face, I do not know. But tears insisted on rolling down my cheeks, mimicking the raindrops on the window. I stopped going.

For two years I have been plagued — no, not “plagued”; we’re supposed to love our demons — for two years I have been visited frequently by a strange ailment known as minimal change disease. To the layperson, the name is a joke. Because this is a kidney disease, its most visible symptom is a rapid gain in weight: my 100-pound wiry body became a squishy 160 pounds. I was transformed into a sweet little old lady, the embodiment of Mrs. Butterworth.

And I turned into a hermit.

Socializing required too much energy. So did intensive reading of the newspaper. I lost my instinctive grasp of political events. I forgot what it felt like to walk along Ocean Beach or through the Mission. Experience was mediated, accessed through TV and the Internet, a condition at least as unhealthy as the illness that led to it.

But that is in the past. It’s time to rediscover the city outside my window. Time to revisit the corridors of City Hall and relearn the ways of the world beyond San Francisco.

Many years ago, in January 2000, the first issue of the San Francisco Call carried an invitation to then-mayor Willie Brown:

Our Mayor learned something that every old-fashioned ward politician instinctively understands: backroom deals may be fun, but to gain real political insights, ya gotta hit the streets. I’m willing to bet that, with the advent of district elections, the successful supervisors will be the ones who spend an afternoon a week pounding the pavement, listening to their constituents and seeing for themselves how things work. In the spirit of civic cooperation and continuing education, I invite Mayor Brown to join me as I re-create a walk I recently took through my neighborhood. I’ll describe some of the local sights. The lessons they contain are the responsibility of the beholder.

Now it’s my turn to hit the streets. I invite you to join me.

Come on! It could be fun.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008