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Last Stop: Eventually, Everyone Leaves San Francisco, One Way or Another. Colma Has a Place for Them 

Wednesday, Jan 14 2015
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It took six men to haul you onto the trolley this morning. You have, obviously, seen better days.

This fact escapes no one as the tram pulls away from Steuart and Market streets and begins to pick up speed. You have a long ride ahead of you, but it'll be over sooner than you think.

The creaking of wicker seats is the only sound heard in the cramped trolley. Trolleys are generally loud, but not this one. It is custom-engineered and fanatically maintained to be wicker-creak quiet. It's especially quiet today anyway because the mood in here is dour.

Probably because of something you did.

In the past, you'd be concerned about this. But not anymore. The jet-black trolley trundles on through San Francisco, more or less silently, past Italian farmhands driving horsecarts heaped with vegetables up Mission; past the putrid detritus of the slaughterhouses bobbing in Islais Creek; past the great dunes — scenes set to the soundtrack of overburdened wicker.

And, just like that, the San Francisco & San Mateo Railway tram rolls across San Francisco city limits and keeps going. And you said you'd never leave the city.

The big trolley glides to a stop, a bell rings, and, of all things, a priest ambles out to meet you. It was only an hour ago that you were at the Ferry Building. And, in a few hours, everyone else will be there again. But you're staying here.

The tracks continue south to San Mateo. But this is the end of the line. This is Colma.

And you're dead.

In the Newtonian cosmology of the Bay Area, San Francisco is the action. Colma is the equal and opposite reaction.

Two miles from the city's southern border, you'll find Colma's Town Hall flying the town flag. It depicts Colma's Town Hall. Town Hall is, per town officials, the most recognizable site in town.

But that's hardly true. When the word "Colma" is mentioned, your first thought wouldn't be its handsome, 1937 hacienda-style Town Hall but acres of verdant, manicured lawns speckled with headstones. And that would make for an odd flag. But a fitting one.

Colma is a place with no shortage of names: The Silent City, the City of Souls, even "Deadsville." But its best name came along only a few years after its establishment in 1924, from Colma's founding father, Mattrup Jensen: "San Francisco's Necropolis."

There are just shy of 2,000 living inhabitants of Colma. And just shy of 2 million dead ones (with approximately 75 more arriving daily). This is a city that exists because of San Francisco. And it always has: Colma was exploited by 18th-century Spanish colonizers to supply San Francisco's burgeoning Mission outpost with its daily meals. In the ensuing decades, it befell Colma to provide the sustenance San Francisco craved but had no desire to own. That came in the form of not just crops and livestock (Colma became the rancid, stinking hog farm providing Imperial San Francisco with its breakfast bacon) but in the violent sports, gambling, bootlegging, drinking, carousing, and myriad other forms of hangover- or VD-inducing pastimes outlawed or frowned upon by San Francisco authorities and nudged over the southern border.

And that's still the case. Strip malls and gambling dens aren't so easy to track down in San Francisco. But they are in Colma: There is not one but two Home Depots here; the Toys 'R' Us and Target here are among the most lucrative on Earth and can practically be seen from space. The Lucky Chances casino is open every minute of the year; when asked how many patrons piled in on Christmas morning, a poker dealer replies, in a heartbeat, "More than you can imagine." On a chilly Sunday morning, the place is packed and the pleasant odor of the cafe's special, ginataang manok, pervades the interior. There's an NFL playoff game on every TV, but nobody is watching. At a poker table, two paper coffee cups sit side by side, each with "Uncle" penned on it.

Even still, they keep it quiet here, as you'd expect of a casino bordered on three sides by cemeteries.

But while Colma exists because of and for the benefit of San Francisco, it also came about in opposition to this city and serves as its polar opposite. San Francisco has been, for more than a century, a place for the living to live it up. A small place. This is the city that evicted its dead to accommodate its living, providing politicians with the unique opportunity to rail against the deceased.

In reaction to San Francisco's decadeslong campaign to remake itself, exclusively, as a land of the living, Colma was established, expressly, on behalf of the dead. A strange and symbiotic relationship continues to this day.

San Francisco is a transient and ephemeral place. Like life itself.

Colma is where San Francisco outsources eternity.

In Colma, you will find two states of being that San Franciscans put off for as long as possible: death and suburbia.

This is not a macabre place. Neat green laws and white picket fences stand on one side of the wide brick roads, and cemetery lawns and wrought-iron fences stand on the other.

Death is a matter of simply crossing the street.

The proximity to a landscape of decomposing bodies may unnerve San Franciscans. As will a sense of small-town tranquility and suburban order undesired by city dwellers.

San Francisco has neither. And that's no coincidence.

"No feeling is more honorable or creditable than respect for the dead," wrote San Francisco Mayor Jim Rolph in 1914 as a preamble to explaining why this most honorable and creditable feeling is, in fact, terrible city policy. "The duty of government is more to the living than to the dead." In January of that year, "Sunny Jim" signed the legislation leading to the exhumation and removal of nearly every moldering corpse within San Francisco city limits. In 1934, he was himself buried beneath a grandiose memorial cut from the same granite used to construct San Francisco City Hall. In Colma. Along with an eventual 125,000 San Franciscans uprooted as a consequence of his legislation.


About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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