By Elina Ansary
I grew up in a house on Bernal Hill, which my parents bought for dirt cheap in the 80s. Before that, about ten families lived in the basement, and before that it was a brothel. My parent found a mummified cat in the basement wall when they first moved in. Growing up, my sister Jessy and I believed the house was haunted. Little things, like: you’d be sitting in the living room in the afternoon and all of a sudden, one little end table would start vibrating. Then the lamp across the room. Pretty soon everything would join in, buzzing away in the Sunday sunlight. Our parents said it was the neighbors’ washing machine.
And also, the back hallway, where the bathroom is. At night, when you got up to pee, it always felt like there was someone waiting on the other side of the bathroom door, waiting for you in that hallway. “I feel a presence here,” said my best friend Maggie when we were six, sitting there on the bottom stair, facing the bathroom. A slice of ice through my little torso. “Don’t worry,” she scoffed. “It’s probably just your grandma or something.”
It has felt less haunted as we’ve aged. But we haven’t stopped believing that the ghosts were there. It’s just that now the house is filled with our memories, and the old ghosts have grown faint.
Memories: those are the other kinds of ghosts, the versions of yourself that linger in the places where your life happened. That hundred-year-old house in Bernal is full of them; they’ve chased the old ghosts away. In the doorway to the kitchen, I’m taking my first steps. In the front bedroom, I’m 16 and a boy is telling me he loves me. In the upstairs window, I’m seven, watching fireworks over Candlestick Park, watching a thunderstorm. Bernal Heights is filled with ghosts of me; they’re all over San Francisco too. There are lots and lots of ghosts—all kinds of peoples’ ghosts— but you have to know how to see them. You kinda’ have to have been there.
To me, the world begins on Bernal Hill. When I was a toddler, I believed there were dinosaur bones in there. The whole crest of the hill was only a femur, back when dinosaurs were still inconceivably huge in my mind. Mommy and Daddy and Jessy and I, on New Year’s or the 4th of July, would try to make out fireworks from that crest, hardly visible through the fog, picking pointy gold grass from the brown blanket. Once when I was four, throwing rocks off the top of the hill with Jessy, I hurled my favorite barrette out into the blue abyss. It was a pink plastic bow, gone forever. The sting of loss, irrevocable and over with in a split second.
And at age sixteen, he and I walked on the asphalt path on the west side. In a mauve dusk with the bitter taste of cheap vodka dripping in our throats. Night crept on and the sky turned purple, full of possibility, glowing faintly red. Like a bloodstain on a dark fabric, like a bad bruise. Like the blackberries that grow along the edges, like their juice on your fingers.
Our friends were all at a rope swing that isn’t there anymore, kicking that empty bottle of Smirnoff around the dusty embankment, crushing eucalyptus leaves with their sneakers, shrieking. But he and I had gone for a walk.
That bench on the northwest side, the one that looks out over the city, right where the trees break. Right there he said, “I think there are big things in store for us.” I had that sweeping, giddy feeling, like my life was just beginning or changed forever. There were big things in store for us, he said, and in a small way he was right; but in a bigger way, he wasn’t.
Just a few yards down from that bench, past the place where there once was a rope swing, around the bend in the road, a guy named Alex was shot 16 times by the SFPD. Like me, he grew up in Bernal. For both of us, the world began there. For him, that’s where it ended too. I couldn’t believe that something so horrific could happen in a place like that. Like someone left a horse head in my bed. It all coexists and piles up.
There was a morning two years ago when I thought all was lost. Things back in New York—where I live now—had imploded. I went for a run on the hill to get my mind off things. It was a warm day, no clouds. The sun was brutal and it made my skin prickle, sad and panicked. A chill wind cut the heat.
I took a path I don’t normally take. On the south side, towards my parents’ house, around where the hill dips down into a red pebbly basin, and then goes winding up through dry golden grass. The remnants of an old stone wall is there, and I like to think it’s left over from the days when this used to be called Sheep Hill, back when all the roads were dirt, and sheep really did roam these hillsides. Up ahead on the path I saw a dog. I pushed forward, sweating and panting. It was only when I was about ten feet away that I realized it wasn’t a dog, but a coyote. I stopped short, and she stood still, as she had been the whole time. She looked me calmly in the eye. I backed away and felt her follow. But after a few moments, she was snaking down the hillside and on her way. I walked home, armpits itching, heart pounding.
Bernal haunts my dreams. There, her terrain is mutated by memory and emotion. In my dreams, Bernal is huge and still full of mysteries.
“If I could build a magic tunnel from Brooklyn to Bernal Hill,” said Jessy on an afternoon walk during that week between Christmas and New Years, “I’d walk here every morning.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, as we walked past the homemade shrine to Alex Nieto, all covered in photos and fake flowers, on the Northwest side, near the place where there once was a rope swing. “If only there was.”
Elina Ansary works as a theatrical scene painter in New York, but she grew up in San Francisco and is currently working on a multimedia public art project here, called Ghost Tour, centering around 7 separate “monuments” constructed from found objects and miniature paintings, to be installed in seven parks across the city of San Francisco. The binding thread will be a ‘zine consisting of up to a hundred personal accounts written by San Franciscans, describing their memories attached to these places. A mix of painting, sculpture, installation, memoir and The Art of the Book, Ghost Tour will bring to life San Francisco’s collective memory in the face of a cultural shift via gentrification. The finished product will be a city-wide scavenger hunt of personal memory, a tour of the city through the real-life memories of San Franciscans. Elina will be fundraising for the project on May 8, at Urban Putt, San Francisco’s most inventive miniature golf emporium. Drop by between 6 and 9 pm, hang out, have some free pizza, play some golf, submit some memories on an easy-to-fill out form, and buy raffle tickets for a chance to win some great prizes donated by local SF business and organizations. There will also be an SF-themed polaroid photo booth at the event with a hand-painted backdrop. Urban Putt is at 1096 S Van Ness Ave, San Francisco.