In a recent 99% Invisible podcast, Roman Mars introduced me to the concept of Thomassons A Thomasson is an object in the urban environment that previously had a purpose but now does not serve a purpose, but is maintained as if it does. A San Francisco example is a pair of crossing guard poles on the Lefty O’Doul’s bridge that are chopped into a third of their original size, so couldn’t even be used if we wanted to stop traffic on the bridge and yet are still maintained by city workers with (annual?) coats of paint.
After listening to this podcast, I knew we had to have more Thomassons in San Francisco, and sure enough, history bloggers 40going on28 and Burrito Justice (I am such a #fanboy) were all over it, finding horse rings in Noe Valley. I found some in my hood, too, at Henry and Noe.
I started looking everywhere for Thomassons, and noticed so many objects in our built environment that even I hadn’t noticed before. All kinds of things are embedded in our streets and buildings. Pipes and poles protruding from plaster, knobs and buzzers and curling metal objects, grates, metal plates, screws and, yes, horse rings. Most of these aren’t maintained, but they aren’t necessarily rotting away either (things embedded in our sidewalk get cleaned every time the sidewalk does, sort of an adjacent maintenance).
I have long had an affinity for the historical built environment, and well, junk. In some ways, it stems from parents, who were avid collectors of folk art and devotees of garage sales and flea markets, but I drawn to not to the artistic representations of our culture, but the accidental artifacts, the tossed away. I am a history voyeur, and I like the curious everyday scraps that have survived the organic march of time. The paper ephemera, the springs from mattress, the shards of porcelain dolls dug up in a backyard, the leather straps that could have been from reins or boots or salt boxes. At a flea market, I’ll spend hours in the postcards looking not for a rare stamp, but for a note scribbled to someone on a postcard, or even the stray pencil mark of a postmaster. I’d rather see a book with torn pages and writing than an unmolested copy. With a determination towards everyday life and social space, I also love the industrial landscape and all of its remnants. I find hypnotic beauty in grain elevators, shipping containers, cranes, railroads. I know it’s currently very hip to want to live in a woolens mill (with a waxed moustache and a lo-fi record collection) but I equally love the less acceptable: the fracking sites, coal conveyers, catalytic crackers, heavy haulers, the monstrous machines that chew up resources. Although I work for a sustainable energy future that doesn’t exploit our environment, I find industrial energy infrastructure strangely and horrifyingly beautiful. I am, in their gaze, aware of the dizzying combination of the energetic smartness of humans to figure out that long hydrocarbon chains can be broken into smaller hydrocarbon chains as well as the curious shortsightedness that would poison our water, air, soil, atmosphere for future generations in the process. The industrial landscape is one of hope and tragedy, building and death.
All things being equal, I’d rather rest my eyes upon vacant lot with rusted chain-link fence than another bar with Edison light bulbs. But like a lot of people, I like to collect artifacts that stimulate nostalgia, and am drawn to kitchen objects from my childhood. I had always assumed that my nostalgia was linked to all of the emotions stimulated by cookery, but a few years ago, I started obsessing over a dark, cobwebbed cabinet at my dad’s cabin (where he’d been a bachelor in the late ’60s), where I found a cardboard container of salt that had probably been purchased in 1981. It was an Alpha Beta store brand, and clutching it to my chest in discovery, I marveled at the price and the font. My mom dismissed it, suggesting we throw it away, but I insisted on keeping it in this exact location (original order, per archival practice!), as a “food museum.” “What else are we here for,” I wondered plaintively to my perplexed mother, “than to steward the ephemera of future generations?”
Along with this came a tipsy aside, still unanswered: is there a word for “love of font”? I don’t know if it’s love, but when I see font and typeface from the 1970s, I feel an emotion very viscerally, like a gentle giddiness present in my body, and yet I can’t describe the font or its characteristics (it’s blocky, kind of “Western,” no, but, like also curlicues) or even why I like it. “That font…” I will often say, frustratingly without analysis.
Anyway, back to historical stewardship: over the years, I’ve come to realize that we should preserve the past, but we don’t need to hoard junk. My “collection” has waxed and waned, and my current equilibrium (summed up as “look but don’t touch”) fits into a girlfriend-approved parameter: The junk that can’t be reasonably displayed can’t come in the house.
And so, yeah, our house. My girlfriend and I moved into our flat this past April, which was a four-month process to find the right fit. High on our list of desired qualities (besides “not $3200 for a studio on Capp Street” and “has a door”) we wanted “historic details.” And what I’ve learned about making wish lists as an adult is that things can come shockingly true, so you had better be sure you are very specific.
The rental market is brutal (From the Desk of Professor Obvious), and livable apartments in our price range and preferred neighborhoods usually came with 30, maybe 40 other applicants, all overachievers with three times the rent who offered bonuses if the landlord chose them. We were determined to stay in San Francisco, and we were committed to our list of desired qualities. We had a robust, loving vision of a charming home with historic details.
If you are not wealthy, “historic details” on your house could definitely mean junk. It could definitely mean piles of leather straps in your only storage area, cans of paint with all kinds of nostalgic 1970s font stacked in the pantry, doors that don’t close, windows painted shut, kitchens with mini-fridges in the broom closet and a ceiling light bulb that is also the only electrical outlet, windows into light shafts filled with raccoon colonies and pigeon shit, brocade curtains shredded to ribbons by ghost cats, Murphy beds in mothball-filled closets that still smell like sewage, mildew, cobwebs, cigarette smoke, and the persistent stench of dog piss that the landlord tries to convince you must be coming from the neighbor’s house.
Overall, we saw close to 20 apartments. One emergent theme beyond the teeth-gnashing frustration of rent was surprisingly quotidian: ironing boards. Ironing boards in the kitchen don’t make as much sense to us moderns, since we don’t need to fire up our irons by placing them on a hot stove, but in almost half of the apartments we looked at, we discovered not only the ironing board closets in the kitchen (common components of almost every house I’ve lived in in San Francisco), but the ironing board still intact. I loved the connection to the past, even if evokes the kitchen-bound drudgery of pre-electric America. So having the board fold down seemed somewhat cute, until I saw others that had turned the closet into useful things (a spice rack in two, and then – this may be cheating – I had a dream that we converted an ironing board closet into a miniature display of tiny model railroads).
At one house we viewed, we opened the ironing board closet in the kitchen and down came an ironing board covered with fabric that looked straight from a 1986 McCall’s pattern book – lime green Op Art daisies on a pink fabric that was stained and frayed. My stomach clenched, and I surprised myself with feeling disgust. After all, I had loved a cardboard salt container from a cobwebbed vacation cabin. But this didn’t feel historic; it just felt like someone’s dirty laundry. My hands itched vaguely. I guessed I had already pre-disgusted by the apartment’s Murphy bed with loose mattress ticking rolling around on the floor and a pellet stove that had been installed crooked. We soldiered on. We amended our list of desired qualities to useful historic details.
A few weeks later, we went to see another apartment, this one brighter, the architecture suggestive of a Streamline Moderne. It actually appeared to be the same builder as another apartment we’d looked at in the Mission (literally the same layout, same bathroom tiling pattern same doorbell plate) and it was there where we had seen the ironing board spice rack that we started coveting. When we pulled down the ironing board in this Moderne, I swear that moths flew in our face. The cover on this one was burlap, a dingy brown that looked like it had claw marks. We both recoiled. Rust powder curled around our fingers as we pushed the ironing board back in its closet and the contractor who was replacing the sink, noticing our faces, told us that he could convert it into a spice rack. We nodded, coughing. That would be useful, we agreed. We decided to take the apartment, and a few days later, we showed up – joyful and flushed with relief – to sign the lease with the landlord.
We should have turned around when he insisted that we fill out the lease on the tailgate of his truck rather than in the apartment, but we were so happy to stay in San Francisco that we just grinned at him. Yup, a tailgate. It’s so casual. We love it.
Our smiles didn’t last long. First there was a failed negotiation about the parking space, which was an abrupt way to start a landlord-tenant relationship. He was gruff, dismissive, and had shady math. Fine, we don’t need parking. Then he tapped the lease with his pen, and he said, “This item is very important. Here you state that you are taking this apartment AS IS.” We both stopped short. The contractor hadn’t completed the work, which is why he had suggested we remain outside, so I said we’d need to see the state of repairs before signing. He said, impatiently, “What repairs are you asking about?” Wondering if maybe we had seen a ghost contractor (I am sure there are tons lurking in the city, hammering planks and stuffing ghost dynamite into holes), I said, “He said you would replace the ironing board with a spice rack.” He looked sharply at me, with pursed, acrid lips and said, “No. I won’t replace it. It’s a historical detail. People pay money for that.”
Although this is generally true – people will pay anything for historical details, especially now as San Francisco sinks towards its own Disneyland simulacra – I said that the ironing board as it stood now was actually disgusting. He snatched the lease back from us and peered over his glasses at me and said, “You don’t value historic detail.”
Now I sensed a partial insanity. Now I regretted spending my free time researching the 1930s builders of apartments of Eureka Valley and the Mission rather than doing due diligence on our potential landlord. My girlfriend’s eyes widened as she folded our paystubs to her chest protectively. Our discomfort wasn’t — obviously – over the spice rack or the rusted metal shank covered in burlap, but his demeanor. This isn’t someone who values historical detail, either; this guy’s an asshole. He pulled out his phone and called the contractor, barking into the phone that that ironing board was coming out over his dead body. My girlfriend and I looked at each other, knowing that we should walk away, when suddenly, a man in a polo shirt came out of the apartment building and anxiously approached the three of us. Alarmed, he asked abruptly, “Why is my garage door open?” We said nothing, and then he said “And who are you?” We definitely did not expect that the landlord would retort with, “I should ask you the same. Who are you?”
The tenant responded that he lived upstairs, to which the landlord said, “I own this building.” The tenant then said, with surprising restraint, “Oh, then you’re the landlord that hasn’t been returning our phone calls or certified letters. Our refrigerator has been broken for three weeks.”
At this point, my girlfriend and I started to feel as if we were sliding off the gentle slope of Eighteenth Street. The words were starting to pool together like sweat. Their argument escalated as my girlfriend gently tore the lease in half and placed it awkwardly on the tailgate. The landlord was insisting that he wasn’t responsible for repairs to the apartment, at all, and he clutched his dusty flip-phone in his fat fingers, the contractor on the other end probably still squawking, shaking his fist in the tenant’s direction. We turned away, starting to wobble towards the Castro,and the tenant said, “Don’t move in here. Worst mistake I ever made.” The landlord raised a hand to us and snarled, “Good day, all right, whatever.”
A few weeks later, we found our current apartment, and before the open house, I researched the building in the San Francisco newspaper archives, finding both an article about an explosion during its construction in 1908 and then a building contract in 1910. The landlady here, as it turns out, loves genealogy and thought we were a cute couple and later we found evidence of charred timbers in the basement from the original fire. It was, simply, like coming home. The apartment is spotless, with a a tiled fireplace and a vintage Wedgewood stove. We immediately felt balanced, part of the building, like our DNA had somehow been in the architecture the whole time.
I love finding weathered and damaged objects (maybe it’s my queerness – we are good at making broken things beautiful), in an abstract way, as I ponder the relentless and cruel passing of time, the headstrong decay of nature, the tragedy of the obsolete. Like the typeface from the 1970s that I can’t quite describe (it’s tall and fat, but, no, also squat, like a mansard roof of letters), sometimes I am overwhelmed with wondering who had touched these objects before me or how the object – a shoe, a broken mirror, a postcard – had made its way through the years. But this kind of wool-gathering can keep us suspended in an amber-like stasis, or even into an organic decay. Although I have loved the junk, I prefer a home that’s clean, expansive, ready to move forward rather than linger in the ghosts.
And so I guess I also prefer a Thomasson to any old regular piece of junk. A new use – décor, a reminder, a tangible viaduct to the flow of time – from a previous utility, and the loving hands of modernity paying homage to something that they themselves may not even understand but continue to preserve.