The Spider-man Burglar

I recently heard a rebroadcast on NPR of a This American Life episode titled “My Undesirable Talent” that reminded me of the 2002 crime spree in my neighborhood.

The part of the episode is called Climb Spree and is about a burglar in western San Francisco that climbed up buildings and enter through a skylights, ventilation shafts, or attics to rob local businesses to support his gambling habit.

I wanted to do a spread about the “Spider-man” crime spree. I decided to visit and sketch a few of the businesses where the burglar dropped in and connect these thumbnail sketches with a map of western San Francisco.

He was dubbed the ‘Spider-man Burglar” by the SF Police but his real name is Kristain Marine. He was adopted from Korea by Midwestern parents. People at his church, (The Church of Latter Day Saints), knew him as the guy with Italian shoes who was respectful and soft spoken.

He first stole $200 from the gym where he was working and then proceeded to gamble it all away. He needed money to replace what he had stolen and lost so he committed his first “Spider-man” robbery: a concession stand at City College of San Francisco. He climbed up on the roof and lowered himself down through a skylight. He didn’t even have gloves to conceal his fingerprints so he had to use snowboard mittens.

The concession stand at City College. This is where the crime spree all began.

This was the start of 63 burglaries in San Francisco. My thumbnail sketches are of the Church of Latter Day Saints in the Sunset (where he might have attended) and the The Lunch Box concession stand at City College of San Francisco, the location of his first robbery.

Noriega Produce is now closed. The market has moved up the street and is now called Gus’s, in honor of the Greek immigrant who founded the market.

The next thumbnail is of Noriega Produce, on the western fridge of the continental United States. I once lived a five minute walk away and this was my local market. This market is owned by a Greek immigrant and run by his oldest son. Spider-man robbed this market and had time to have an ice cream bar at the owner’s expense. This was an assault on my neighborhood and the family businesses I patronized. Gus Vardakastanis, the owner, was killed by a hit and run driver in 2017.

The next thumbnail is of a Japanese noodle house called Hotei on 9th Avenue, near Golden Gate Park (this excellent restaurant is now closed). Marine lowered himself down into the restaurant but fell and injured himself. Outside the picture window he noticed a police car. He was trapped, his crime spree was about to end. There was only one way out and that was through the front door.

He walked out the door, said hello to the officer, and pulled his keys out and pretended to lock the door and got away.

The last thumbnail is of Clancey’s Market on the 3900 block of Irving, near Ocean Beach. Most of Marine’s burglaries where starting to show a pattern: early in the mornings on certain days and in certain neighborhoods. The police presence in the Sunset Neighborhood was increased at these times.

Marine was trying to break into this corner market but he became trapped in the attic. After a neighbor heard glass breaking the police where called and they were on the scene in minutes. Marine’s 63 robberies where now over.

Clancey’s Market and Deli, where “Spiderman’s” crime spree ended.

Marine was a first time offender and he admitted to all his burglaries, even taking investigators to his crime scenes. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

I think the main problem with tone of the This American Life piece and with other media stories is that Marine is portrayed as some sort of comic book super hero. What he did was not super nor heroic. As I visited and sketched some of the 63 local businesses he robbed, I thought mostly about the people who owned these shops, markets, and restaurants. Many of these businesses where and are “ma and pop” family businesses, not big box corporations.

If Marine’s crimes reminded me of any literary “hero” it would be as a kind of corrupt Robin Hood.The Spider-man robber was stealing from the poor and giving it to the casinos.


The Balboa Theatre

After work I took my sketching pack and wandered north through Golden Gate Park into the Richmond District. My destination, once I exited the park, was two long blocks north and two short blocks west.

I found a seat in the parklet outside the theater and started to sketch the tall neon sign of the neighborhood cinema: the Balboa Theatre, in the unrolling Pacific fog.

The Balboa is one of the last operating neighborhood movie theaters in San Francisco. It was built as The New Balboa and opened on February 27, 1926.

The marquee and sign of the Balboa. The amazing Korean film Parasite and 1985’s Dune are on the bill.

The theater was built by Samuel Levin as part of a neighborhood chain, San Francisco Theatres Inc. The 800 seat theater was designed by the same architects that were responsible for the Cliff House, the Fairmont Hotel, and the Spreckel’s Temple of Music.

Over the years the Balboa has been know for it’s long runs such as the 92 weeks that “The Sound of Music” ran between 1966 and 1967.

Like the city of San Francisco, the Balboa has been all too familiar with conflagrations. But like the Phoenix, the symbol of San Francisco, the Balboa has always risen from the ashes. After a fire in 1978, the Balboa was rebuilt and the 800 seat theater was divided in two and reopened on April 21, 1978.

Today the Balboa remains a vibrant, neighborhood theater that now focuses on second-run films. I remember seeing Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi at the Balboa, as part of a samurai film festival.


The Gettysburg Address: 158th Anniversary

One of the most famous speeches in American History was delivered at the dedication ceremony for the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. This was four months after the turning point of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.

This cemetery was created to be a permanent resting place for the Union soldiers that fell at the Battle of Gettysburg. The new cemetery is bordered by the existing Evergreen Cemetery. This cemetery was founded in 1854 and the only civilian killed during the battle, Jennie Wade, is buried at Evergreen. The front gate was the site of fighting on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The front gate of the Evergreen Cemetery.

While the there is a monument to the Gettysburg Address on the grounds of the National Cemetery, featuring a bust of Lincoln, the speakers platform where Lincoln delivered the famous words was actually on the grounds of Evergreen Cemetery.

This is an ink sketch I did while seated in the National Cemetery looking towards the location of the speaker’s plateform
The bust of Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address Monument.

The most famous 272 words in American history, delivered my Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln arrived by train in Gettysburg they day before. While it is untrue that he wrote the speech on the train ride from Washington, he did put the finishing touches on the speech at David Wills house in the center of Gettysburg. Wills was a prominent lawyer who hosted the president during his stay in Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg Train station where president arrived the day before he gave his Gettysburg Address.

Sketching Note: the featured sketch is made up of the first hand written draft of the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln. I attempted to imitate Lincoln’s script. The silhouette of Lincoln was sketched in the field, a few blocks from my house in San Francisco. It is a mural on the side of Lincoln High School, where my father was a graduate in 1950.


County Birding: San Mateo and San Francisco Counties Part 2

On Sunday I decided to head to Lake Merced and its environs.

I started at the Vista Grande Canal which is just south of the Concrete Bridge. This concrete canal can have some nice species including the continuing swamp sparrow. I found the sparrow shortly after arriving and enjoyed watching it foraging in the water with excellent mid-morning light.

The continuing swamp sparrow and it’s relflection. The reflected green makes this scene look like a May Morning instead of early February.

Above my head, on a power line, a California scrub-jay perched with an acorn in it’s mouth. This intelligent species is an avian gardner, responsible for oak trees “growing” uphill because of the jay habit of caching thousands of acorns in the ground.

In the distance, toward the lake, I could here the unearthly song of a male great-tailed grackle. This “Devil bird” has been slowly making it’s way north.

My next stop was the Boathouse and docks. This is where I had seen an adult bald eagle a few weeks before. The docks can sometime yield interesting gulls.

I first checked, quiet hopefully, the eucalyptus for the adult bald eagle but this bird had flow weeks ago. With the naked eye, I could see a lone gull on the nearest wooden dock. It’s grey mantle and white underparts said, “small adult gull”.

I put bins on the bird and I realized that this was no ordinary gull for this location. What I was looking at was a wintering pelagic gull that rarely comes ashore excepted when pushed towards land, ahead of a storm front. And there had not been a storm in the past week. The bird I was looking at was an adult black-legged kittiwake!

I grabbed my camera and headed down to the docks to get a better look. Yes the yellow-green bill and dark “ear muffs” put this in the kittiwake category. I took some photos for documentation for this was indeed a rare bird at this location. Most kittiwakes in San Francisco, are seen by scope when birders are doing a seawatch. The last two eBird reports of black-legged kittiwake from Lake Merced where from 2001 and 1977!

One of the first photos I took of the wayward kittiwake. The indentation just under the breast seemed off. When the kittiwake turned to face me I could see the reason this pelagic species had been forced ashore. There was a deep indentation under it’s breast and a large, open wound in it’s chest. The kittiwake was injured.

The kittiwake had come ashore to rest and die.

I watched the kittiwake as it repeatedly drank water. It occasionally sat down but then stood up again and took another sip of water.

This angle shows the open wound, perhaps caused by a fishing line.

I put word out to local birders of my find. I wanted other birders to witness this pelagic rarity on the shores of a San Franciscan lake before it flew off or passed away. In all about 11 birders reported seeing the kittiwake that Sunday.

One report, from mid afternoon, noted that animal control attempted to net the kittiwake but it was well enough to fly off towards the gull flock in the middle of the lake. It eventual returned to it’s favored place on the wooden dock.

The last eBird report of this bird was just after 4 PM and then it was seen no more.

The adult kittiwake taking a sip of water. This photo is bittersweet. While is was amazing to see a new San Francisco County bird but also realizing that I was probably witnessing the kittiwake’s last day on Earth.

Raven’s Wake

Everbody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from,

Everyone is worrying’ ’bout where

They’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me

I think I’ll just the mystery be.

~Iris DeMent, Let the Mystery Be

Do other beings mourn like humans do?

Those dog and cat owners would answer in the affirmative. What about other animals. Can a newt morn? Do snakes ever get depressed? How about birds? Can you really tell if a bird is in mourning. Ravens are always wearing black.

On the way to get coffee this morning, I saw something that might provide an answer or simply create more questions.

On the sidewalk was a dead raven, lying face down. At least that is what I took it for at first, in the dim, morning light. In reality is was a feathered raven figurine that a neighbor must have used as a Halloween decoration. There was black string trailing behind. The “raven” was set out on the sidewalk with the trash.

I picked up coffee at the local coffee shop, which is seven blocks away. I took a different route home and I noticed that the two ravens perched on a power pole, had their attention directed to the north. They both flew off to the north, with purpose, calling.

I walked a block further and as I came to the intersection of Noriega and 26th Avenue, I could hear the eruptions of crows and ravens one block over.

I headed north on 26th to see what was going on. As I neared the intersection with Moraga, there was a swarming cloud of about 50 ravens and crows, circling above the intersection. They were all calling, which seemed intense and heightened than the corvid norm. I knew what had drawn their attention.

It’s always a fool’s game to try and put human thoughts or feelings into the heads of other animals, partly because we will never truly know how another being is feeling or thinking (some would say that understanding other human beings can be just as obscure) and also it seems highly hubristic to put your own thoughts and feelings in to the mind of an animal, especially a wild animal.

From my observation, the mixed murder of ravens and crows were calling up an alarm, so much so that the neighbor on the corner was looking out her window to see what the commotion was all about. This alarm was calling in all corvids within earshot.

I told her that a dead raven was on the corner and this had attracted the attention of the corvids. When I took a closer look at the “raven” I realized that it was just a faux bird.

As I’ve noted before, with experiences with nature observations, that you may never know the “why” but that is the mystery of the natural world. There are things in nature that we may never know and I am fine with not knowing. Indeed that is why I continue to seek out these experiences, whether they on the streets of San Francisco or the deep forests of northern Maine.

So after the murder/congress of crows and raven dispersed and their calls became less frequent, a few crows and ravens perched nearby on power lines and poles. What were they thinking? Were they mourning the death of the “raven” on the cold, wet sidewalk?

Or could they simply be “rubbernecking” by the side of the road?

Whatever they were really doing or thinking, I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The corvid wake is coming to a close. Many of the members had dispersed, some flying west while others perched on nearby power lines and poles.

Gift of Eagle

Local San Francisco birder, Hugh Cotter, first gave me the Gift of Eagle.

Midmorning on the Friday January 23, Hugh was birding at Lake Merced, in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. He spotted an adult bald eagle flying in from the north. The eagle landed in some eucalyptus trees on the southern shores of Lake Merced. He reported this sighting on eBird.

What was unusual about his sighting is that the eagle didn’t continue on south into San Mateo County but instead, perched in San Francisco County. Most bald eagle sightings are of birds soaring above San Francisco before headed further south down the coast. I wondered if the eagle was going to stick around.

On Saturday January 24, I was going to find out. I headed over to the Boathouse on Lake Merced so see if I could spot the adult bald eagle. I began by eBird checklist at 9:04 AM.

I scanned the eucalyptus trees to the south and the white head of the adult eagle stood out like a shining light. A San Francisco County bird!!

I recorded my sighting on eBird, took a few crappy photos, and continued birding other parts of the lake.

Now it was my turn to pass on the Gift of Eagle.

Across the Bay, Jim Lomax saw my post, confirming that the eagle had overnighted. Jim Lomax is an epic California county birder. He is the first birder to see over 200 species of bird in every one of California’s 58 counties!

Jim wrote on the birding listing service, Sialia:

Read Hugh Cotter’s report last night but these birds never stay . . . Then got to my emails . . . and saw that John Perry saw the same bird this morning and suddenly I was out the door. Wearing shorts and flip flops. . . for more than 15 years I have wanted to see this bird in San Francisco but if you read about it, you missed it. They are always flyovers. Most of the San Francisco resident birders have seen more than one, but sadly (snif) . . . not me. UNTIL TODAY!

There perched in the eucalyptus trees . . . was an adult BALD EAGLE . . . I have now seen a Bald Eagle in all 58 counties.

The stars are aligned today.

Wow, what an achievement to see bald eagles in all of 58 counties! That is true birding dedication! And I was glad to play a very small part in making it happen.

To remember the gift, I did a spread which almost looks like an illustrated diary entry. The sketch is from one of my crappy photos and Jim’s Sialia post is on the facing page.

Here is one of the crappy photos I took of the adult bald eagle at Lake Merced. The white head and tail and the yellow beak says: bald eagle!

Santa Clara Control Tower

I have been sketching a few of the remaining Southern Pacific water towers in California but I had yet to add a control tower to my sketchbook.

There are about nine Southern Pacific interlocking control towers still in existence in California and 16 are still in existence on the former SP system. These control towers where once ubiquitous on America’s railroads at busy junctions or rail crossings. Interlocking control towers centralized a group of signals (semaphore and lights) that were controlled by an operator to control the rail traffic by communicating different orders: proceed, caution, or stop. Think of it like a traffic signal for trains.

The Santa Clara Southern Pacific Interlocking Control Tower was built by SP in 1926 and put into service in 1927. The tower was in continuous use for 66 years at this very busy junction of the Coast Line and the Western Division. In the 66 years of operation, many trains, both passenger and freight, passed by. The famed Coast Daylight sped by the tower, stopping to take on passengers in San Jose.

The tower was in use until July 17, 1993 when the control of all switches and signals were moved to a centralized control center in San Jose.

A Southbound Caltrain pulls into Santa Clara Station on its way to the end of its run in San Jose. To the left is the restored control tower. On point is locomotive 915 “South San Francisco”.

Santa Clara is a busy junction where the Coast Line and the Western Division meet. It is busy today with both passenger and freight traffic. The passenger trains that stop or pass this way are Caltrain, Capital Corridor, the Altamonte Corridor Express (ACE), and the Coast Starlight. Four main line track pass Santa Clara, tracks to the northeast are used by Union Pacific for freight. The other three train a primarily used for passenger service with some routes turning off here to head north, on the east side of the Bay, towards Oakland (the Western Division).

A northbound Caltrain passes the control tower as it pulls out of Santa Clara Station heading toward San Francisco. This consist is being pushed by locomotive 905 “Sunnyvale”, an EMD F40PH-2CAT.

Sketcher’s Folly: Oops I did it again. I made a sketching mistake. In my sketch of the California Theatre in Dunsmuir I left out an “I” and now I made the egregious mistake of misspelling the county of my birth: Santa Clara. What next? Misspelling my own name?! Well at least I’m making new mistakes!


Lifer Drought Ends: Least FC

My world life list has been hovering around 1,647 species for a long time now. I was hoping to break 2,000 with a planned trip to Peru but of course it was canceled due to the global pandemic.

The pandemic also meant that I have not gotten out to bird across the country or the state as much as I would like. It is great to get out and be amongst nature looking at birds but sometimes when it is a rare species that has been reported, social distancing becomes a real issue as more and more birders show up to a certain site looking into the nearby bushes.

When I found out there was a least flycatcher being seen in the Presidio I rushed over hoping to get a glimpse of it before sunset. I whiffed on the flycatcher, missing it by about an hour. But I was determined to try again the following morning.

I was in place by quarter to nine the following day. I was soon joined by two other birders. A least flycatcher in California is a rare bird! This is a flycatcher that is normally found on the east coast and it is an Empid, a genus of small flycatcher that can be notoriously hard to distinguish from one another. Some call only be told apart by song.

Within the next hour birders reached critical mass at eight.

To pass the time there was plenty of passerine action and a few raptors too. A white-throated sparrow was foraging with golden and white-crowned sparrows. Another birder called attention to the continuing yellow-bellied sapsucker high in the eucalyptus trees. This woodpecker is considered rare in California. A stunning adult red-shouldered hawk was perched above, warming itself and preening in the morning light.

An Adult RSHA, squinting into the morning sun.

After an hour’s wait, by about 10 AM, a birder informed me that they had the flycatcher further down W. Pacific Ave. So I headed down and seven birders where looking into the forest edge. I followed their gaze and got on the least flycatcher!

This was a very active bird, hawking insects on the wings and occasionally landing on the ground to capture prey. The least flycatcher forages low to the ground, which can help with identification.

The diminutive least flycatcher, looking down for insects to catch.

Little Libraries

One benefit of sheltering in pace and the global pandemic is that it has forced me to walk around my neighborhood (for sanity’s sake).

When you get out in the neighborhood you start to notice details you haven’t seen before. You noticed the little details of houses that before seemed all the same. Details are the route newly noticed.

One thing that I have noticed on my walks of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District is the proliferation of little boxes on wooden poles. These are the little libraries.

The box on top of the pole contains one or two selves lined with books. These boxes are used to take a book or leave a book and they are all free. It seems odd in a city there is actually something free! Well not exactly free. I donated three books:

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson (Good but not as good as Notes From a Small Island.)

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

The nonprofit company behind these boxes is Little Free Library, a Wisconsin based company that inspired 100,000 boxes (and counting) in 100 countries (and counting).

People can either build their own library of have one pre-made. Once it is installed, usually in the front yard, facing the sidewalk, the library is registered and added to a map so reading in the community know where to find a Little Free Library.

Here’s a two story version on Judah street in front of the St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church and the Far Out West Dune Community Garden.

This Little Free Library is a few blocks from Ocean Beach and is topped with succulents and bejeweled with sand dollars. Each of the boxes are as uniques as their owners.