Housesitting gives you a chance to occupy, for a few days or a week or two, another life, not just another house.
I’ve been housesitting for a friend this week in Petaluma, a smallish town about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Coming from a flat on a busy street in the Haight Ashbury, the quiet is astonishing. No drunks staggering home from the bars, talking as if deaf, often primarily to themselves. No loud discussions or arguments from the street kids and homeless who kip outside the church across the street. No downstairs neighbor blaring his TV at midnight. No car crashes, accidents, sirens. No traffic.
And birds. I inherited an interest in bird-watching from my father, but it is not an easy hobby to follow for someone who prefers busy urban streets to fields and streams. San Francisco is probably one of the better cities in the world for bird-watching—I regularly see hummingbirds and hawks in my neighborhood park—but it can’t compare to Petaluma. This morning at breakfast, I saw out the french doors three turkey vultures circling over the block, hummingbirds in the backyard shrubs, a western scrub jay on the fence, a towhee and a couple of finches, and a red-tailed hawk swooped past at one point. All in less than the time it took me to drink my coffee.
But the most interesting part for me, the most different, is the morning commute. Like the house, I have taken it over from my friend, copying her morning routine and commute, at least until I reach the City. After that, I have to go to my own job. (Pity—her’s is better paid.) I rise before 6am—obscenely early for me—and instead of showering and heading out to a café, I head downstairs, in pajamas which I have to put on for the purpose; her house has few blinds and the neighbors can see in. My flat in the city is high up and only standing right against the windows would I have to worry about my naked form causing distress and panic among the populace at large.
Boil water, grind beans, make the coffee. I suppose my mornings are a bit different from those of the woman for whom I am housesitting. She drinks tea, not coffee. And probably has little time for bird-watching in the morning as she has kids to care for and cajole through breakfast and off to school. But we leave the house at about the same time, walk through the same quiet small town streets in the historic part of Petaluma, full of beautiful old homes, large stately VIctorians that once belonged to the first families of the area, when it was the centre of a highly profitable agriculture district—eggs and dairy especially—and not also, and increasingly, a commuter suburb of the big city.
Then the wait for the bus: Golden Gate Transit bus 74, departing the depot at 4th and C Streets at 7:10am. There’s an informal line—not all that informal, people adhere to their places strictly and don’t cut in even to join a friend ahead of them, but its raggedness and the way it forms in a parking lot away from the stop and next to the portable coffee stand seems to be intended to suggest its unofficial status, that it is an agreed upon convenience, nothing more.
Few people talk, which seems a bit striking to me. One thing I’ve noticed in my time in Petaluma is that in general it lives up to the small town reputation for friendliness. People walk slower downtown and there is more casual interaction on the streets and in the shops and cafes than one tends to see in San Francisco. But in the morning commute line, people are mostly isolated in their own spaces, often immersed in an IThing or mobile phone, but there are more actual newspapers in evidence than on public transit in the City these days. Probably it is that the bulk of these commuters are older professionals and managers. Some people are reading books—this morning there were two books I had read myself, one of the Brunetti mysteries by Donna Leon and the third volume in the George R. R. Martin fantasy series which has been much talked of recently. It was nice to see one man doing a New York Times crossword puzzle, something that was a daily part of my routine for many years. The electronic cocoon of iThings is familiar from the City; the papers and silence are very different.
The bus comes and people file on, quickly, with little fuss and much experience. A number of them greet the driver, albeit in hushed tones. The quiet and privacy of the morning, of being half-asleep and still moving out of dream and home and into reality and work, persists. The bus is silent and moves smoothly through the foggy morning, carrying that sleepy, dreamy quality with it.
It’s an amazing bus ride for anyone used to Muni. The bus is a long-distance type, like one you’d ride on Greyhound across country, with racks above and individual lights and air like on an airplane. Tall, cushioned seats. The quiet of the line persists, even deepens. No one talks; there’s no muffled thumping of music from headphones. Even papers are rustled as quietly as possible. The miles fly by—after leaving Petaluma, the first stop is at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza, a distance of around 40 miles, and we make it in less than an hour. I’ve had longer trips across the City.
The bus slowly empties as we make the few stops in San Francisco. A couple of people get out at the toll plaza, apparently to transfer to some other bus. A few get out in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, many more on the stops as we pass through downtown. At 8:30am, we pull up at 8th and Folsom, south of Market—the end of the line. There’s not that many people left by then. Most people say something to the driver as they get off, another rarity, just “good-bye” or “thanks” for the most part.
I have more commute ahead of me, but it’s a bit nostalgic for me, being in the South of Market area this early. Back in the first dot.com boom, I worked a couple of jobs down here. The area’s changed a lot since then, some for the better, some worse. I stroll the streets, enjoying these last few minutes of this different life, this borrowed life. Wondering what to do with my real life.