Meanwhile in Mecca: an illustrated story of San Francisco

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From Meanwhile in San Francisco. - IMAGE: Chronicle/MacNaughton

The place “has always been a refuge for anyone to come to, whatever status in society. For people, intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, for lonely people. For every walk of life.”

Wendy MacNaughton is referring to the San Francisco Public Library, maybe not a stop on every vacationers itinerary, but the population of the library “mirrors the population we have in SF” — from Arab-American to Vietnamese-American.

People line up to enter before the library opens. It’s free and inside there’s a cafe, a literacy center, international center, teen center, environmental center, arts center and an unprecedented program for serving the homeless. Oh, and books.

This generally is not the kind of information found in a tourism brochure from a chamber of commerce or visitors bureau. But it is the type of information found in Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words from Chronicle Books. 

Meanwhile is graphic journalism, an illustrated, street-smart collection from MacNaughton, a New York Time-bestselling artist. Readers might have seen her work in the Times or the Wall Street Journal or her other book, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.

When Pride month comes around, we think of “Holy New York” and the Stonewall riots, but also of “Holy San Francisco,” where queer people from around the nation found something much more valuable than gold under that famous fog.

How many of us already have been? But still we think to make a pilgrimage back to the bay.

And we keep it in our hearts through literature.

MacNaughton’s book, at just 176 pages and fully illustrated, is as delightful as a sunny afternoon on the Presidio. “The drawings are mine, but the words came from people living and working in San Francisco,” she says.

She spent hours getting to know the drivers and the passengers on MUNI, studying Giants fans, visiting with the game players of Chinatown, figuring out the character of the lower Haight and the upper Haight, and appreciating the hard work of the vendors at the San Francisco Civic Center farmer’s market. Tourists might browse the market in 10 minutes, but for the vendors, the day begins as early as 2 a.m.

Visitors might have heard about the great bison of the great Golden Gate Park, who first arrived in 1890, or thereabouts. Well, MacNaughton, in just two pages, introduces them with affection and humor, including “Unnamed Cow” or “UC” for short, who “was a gift from Diane Feinstein’s husband about 30 years ago.”

The bison’s daily routine: “Graze, ruminate, eat grain, graze, sleep, retreat.”

There is a map to Dolores Park at the western edge of the Mission District, useful for a visitor who wants to know the “cruising area” or the visitor who wants to avoid the bushes. The “truffle guy” is marked on the map, as is a “naked guy nearly,” “gay beach lite” and “lesbians — butch, femme, young, old, all checking out the endless line for the bathroom.”

The book is not intended as a comprehensive portrayal of San Francisco. MacNaughton says, “It’s only a small handful of the huge number of communities to be found in The City, on every steep street, behind every gated door, in every grassy park. These are the stories of San Francisco daily life. This is what happens in the meanwhile.”

The meanwhile in our mecca.