site sonology #5
vulcan staircase (at 17th st.)
the castro
2pm 10/21/01                    

The public staircases characteristic of this ‘steep’ neighborhood above the Castro give pedestrians access to intimacies of the neighborhood usually reserved for residents whose backyards adjoin and whose windows look out into the spaces behind the streets and beyond their noises.  The staircase named Vulcan rises up, westward, from Ord St.. Its whole length cannot be taken in from the bottom.  It climbs through several landings, planted densely and colorfully on either side with dahlias and shrubs and fruit trees, and then makes a turn and disappears into an overhang of branches all seemingly coming down from the skirt of a towering redwood.   It is in such places in the city that  pedestrians might very easily, with a tilt of the head, eliminate the buildings from their periphery and, in the insulated quiet of the setting, frame for themselves a small and momentary wilderness.

Once you climb inside the cover of the overhang, the staircase becomes more private.  At first, near the bottom, you step in full view of the house windows that border the gardens along the stairs and there is a slight feeling of trespass.  Your voices and footsteps bounce from the concrete and walls.  However, once the staircase becomes tunnel-like, ascending through the shadows of hedges and trees, you gain a privacy that is yours alone.  From here, your climb takes you past a massive blackberry hedge on one side and various hedges, gates and treelines on the other, obscuring yards and walkways leading to people’s homes.  Above, branches and vines twist across and mute daylight.  In this steeply-angled enclosure, the murmur of dishes and footsteps and conversations, of a book or something sliding across a table, a hinge, something motoring, some plumbing.... resonates and mixes with the birds,  the foliage shaking in the wind,  the hammering from a backyard and natural bits falling.

Today I brought several strands of bells and hung them in the ends of a large eucalyptus branch that I found in a thicket above one of one the landings.  My ‘performance’ consisted in dragging this branch behind me as I ascended and descended the staircase several times, the branch hissing and ringing rhythmically from stair to stair, its sound sustained in regular intervals at each landing.  As I passed the first gated walkway, leading to the enclosed porch of a house, I found out just how my action was going to influence the ambience of the neighborhood from there on out..........


Whereas the mere footsteps and voices of pedestrians on the staircase, because of their regularity from day to day, did not seem to evoke any canine attention, the unfamiliar sound of the bells did trigger a chorus of barking from the neighborhood dogs, which inevitably escalated into the hushes and shouts of dog-owners, the slamming of doors and the frenzied clicking and patting of dog nails and paws on various surfaces.  Once I brought my branch to a stop, this symptomatic noise ran its course for several minutes  before the peaceful thick of things at the staircase was restored.