A man stands at a bus stop at the far end of the alley, watching me with a seemingly confused manner as I saunter along Veterans’ Alley, reading what must seem like graffiti to him. But the alley isn’t filled with graffiti. It serves as a canvas for well-considered paintings that directly reflect the experiences of veterans.
It’s early morning, and the sun hasn’t risen yet, so I’m looking at these paintings under the artificial green glow of street lamps and tungsten apartment lighting. I arrived early at Veterans’ Alley to avoid the 101 traffic from Sonoma County to SF, which would add hours to my trip if I had departed even 30 minutes later. I’m seeing these images at pre-dawn.
Some paintings invite hope for the future, some raise awareness of current crises the world faces - genocide, famine, and the like -, and some are for friends lost in war. Some spots are empty waiting to be written when the time is right.
Once I finish taking photographs I walk to a restaurant up the way. It is pleasantly homey and doesn’t even take credit cards, something I thought was an impossibility in San Francisco. As I eat my omelet I ponder where I’ll go next.
The day after visiting Veterans’ Alley a combat veteran killed three workers at the Yountville Veterans’ Home. Because I’ve been to the veterans’ home to visit the Vietnam Memorial that sits outside of the campus chapel, this killing strikes more personal than others I’ve read of. I feel a connection of place. The veterans’ home is described as bucolic in some newspaper articles, and those articles describe the nearby golf course and museum as evidence of the peacefulness that inhabits the facility.
To me, a finer example of peacefulness is that Vietnam memorial, a bronze statue of two hands palms up, open in receptivity, asking to be touched. Are they the hands of a god, a soldier, or society welcoming the visitor back? I don’t know, and it’s up to each viewer to create her own interpretation. Grabbing the adult fingers of the statue are children’s hands, each delicately attached to the larger appendages in a sense of wonder. That wonder and receptivity (to borrow a phrase from Ed Mooney) is what I’ve always felt when visiting the memorial. On my next visit will my perceptions change after this violence? I don’t know.
Just as Yountville’s Vietnam Memorial invites interpretation, Veterans’ Alley, San Francisco, CA, 2018, asks us to unpack its meaning. What does 6:33 signify? Why so many clock faces, and a lone peace symbol? Is the peace symbol the key to understanding the mural? Why white on black? I could email the founder of the project and learn the significance of 6:33 if I’d like, but that would defeat the purpose. It’s better I ponder, consider what the possibilities are, and allow the signifier to float over time.