Peg-Legs and Carnitas

When I give my college friends a tour of San Francisco’s Mission district, I always start off at the corner of Clarion Alley and Mission. We stop for burritos and thrift stores and pirate loot later, but first, I show them the murals.

Strolling up Clarion Alley towards Valencia, I think back to when I first discovered these streets for myself. My last two years of high school, I would head into San Francisco on my own every Tuesday night, as a member of the Best American Nonrequired Reading committee at McSweeney’s. After watching home disappear as I rode under the Bay, I’d emerge at 16th Street, feeling thoroughly my own.

After walking up Clarion Alley, pausing at my favorite murals and checking out the new additions, I’d stop in at La Cumbre. That’s the next stop on my tour for visitors, where I urge them to order the carnitas and enjoy the best burrito they’ve ever had.

Holding carnitas takeout and my dog-eared copies of The Paris Review and Granta from the past week, I’d head up Valencia towards McSweeney’s. On my tour nowadays, I always make sure to stop at Casa Bonampak, a Latina craft store whose beautiful paper bouquets and colorful papel picado banners adorn my apartment back at school.

And, of course, we stop off at Dog-Eared Books, full of locally written magazines and odd used books, where I’d often roam and read before the weekly meetings of the Best American Nonrequired Reading committee.

Finally, we head into The Pirate Shop. If I stopped in as a teenager, I’d walk straight past the peg-legs towards the rows of McSweeney’s books in the back. But now, exploring the other curiosities—the invisible ink and absurd piracy rules and mustache mirror—I think farther back to Father-Daughter days, my earliest trips to the Mission.

Holding hands so I could keep up with his impossibly fast-paced stride, my dad and I would pound the streets of the city. We’d people-watch and talk and I’d say, “Papa, let’s check it out!” and he would never refuse. As we made our way down Valencia, we’d head to some of our favorite spots: La Cumbre, Casa Bonampak, Dog-Eared Books. Long before I sat in the McSweeney’s basement and daydreamed about being a writer, I’d hobble over to my dad, newly equipped with a peg-leg, fake beard extensions, and an armful of treasure maps, offering my enthusiastic plans for our sea-plundering future.

By the time I started exploring San Francisco on my own terms, Father-Daughter Days had become a fond but ever-receding memory. Now, walking down Clarion Alley, I point out my old favorite murals to my friends, leaving out my dad’s careful explanations of “Capitalism is Over!” and “everywoman’s weapon: rising up.”

I realize now that turning away from Father-Daughter Days was selfish. But to develop my curiosity, my sense of independence, my love of reading—the qualities that he instilled in me as a kid—I had to find and reappropriate them as my own. Turns out, they were right where Papa first showed them to me, on the corner of Clarion and Mission.

Charley Locke grew up in Oakland, California, and knew all the words to The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” long before she began to dig the styles of hip East Coast girls. She decided to give this side of the country a shot to see if Northern California is still where she belongs. She’s pretty sure she was right from the beginning. Send her an email at

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