just been restored during this last closure and are now open for restricted viewing, but the docent who conducts the private tours isn’t here today. I tell him it’s the only day I can be here on this trip. Please, I ask, is there some way? An older man, tall and distinguished-looking with a neat gray beard, appears behind him and says, “Come around here.” I expect him to show me more photographs of the mystery murals, but he leads me past them to an unmarked, closed door next to the elevator. “It’s slow this morning,” he says. “I’ll give you a five-minute tour.” My mind stirs with images of secret chambers and worlds behind wardrobes as he unlocks the door. We stand at the bottom of a narrow, circular staircase lined with murals. “Please don’t touch anything,” he cautions as he shows me why the space has been closed off—the frescoes are inches away, unprotected from curious fingers. As we move up the stairs, we’re accompanied on both sides by a teeming procession climbing Powell Street, from the foot of Market Street to the cable car kiosk at the top of the hill. Most of the figures have been identified, he tells me, local personalities and friends of the artist. I ask about Lillie, hoping to find her in this panoply of city life, but she’s not among the crowd. I see more murals on the landing at the top of the stairs, and then my guide escorts me back downstairs. I leave Coit Tower high on the serendipity of my experience, afloat in the balmy breeze off the bay. What to make of it all? How do I assemble these mismatched bits of memory and history—mine and Lillie’s, the tower and the murals—into a cohesive and tangible hypothesis, that sign I’ve been seeking? Or maybe my present feeling of satiety is the sign I’ve sought. Another Lillie comes to mind, fictional painter Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Her struggles as a woman artist in the early twentieth century are captured by a painting she’s been unable to finish. Her breakthrough comes when she draws an otherwise inconsequential line through the center, and it transforms her canvas from blurred to clear, from tentative to complete. The narrator says, “it was finished.” The moment comes when you realize you’ve achieved your goal with a single brush stroke, a word or sign. I haven’t done anything shocking or heroic. But like Lillie, I’ve paved my own way. And my mentors and muses, Lillie among them, came along in their own good time to illuminate my path. I head down Telegraph Hill to the Ferry Landing for a celebratory lunch.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Featuring essays by Alice Lowe, Elizabeth Mosier, Ben Wirth, Adrian Koesters, and many others.