While sheltering in place, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the world around me. For the past month, I’ve been taking walks and exploring old places in a different light. During one of my strolls around the Inner Richmond, I started thinking more about the giant cactus on the corner of Anza Street and Fourth Avenue. Upon returning home, I painted a picture of it for a SF greeting card project I’m working on.
I knew I needed to find out more. I returned to the corner the following week and noticed the garage door was open. It’s there that I met Yvan, who was happy to fill me in on the backstory of that resilient succulent. As you’ll see, that’s the basis of this piece.
“The Carpenter and the Cactus” is a lighthearted look at the current state of things. It’s a snapshot of my favorite corner in San Francisco, and I believe it could help bring a smile to readers’ faces.
It was previously published online with The Bold Italic, but it may be of interest to other readers in print. Either way, I figured I would send it your way.
Thank you for the great publication.
All the best,
‘The Carpenter and the Cactus’
By Joey Ukrop
My neighborhood is home to what may very well be the tallest cactus in San Francisco. I have no data to back that up, but I’m pretty confident about it. Towering more than 12 feet, the green goddess grows out of a small box next to the arched entrance of a beautiful old apartment building on the corner of Anza Street and Fourth Avenue. Someone is clearly looking after it, because they’ve fastened wooden rings in the wall to keep it aligned and growing skyward.
I’ve always admired this resilient succulent. “How old are you?” I often ask, noting its size. “Where are you from?” I know nothing about this cactus, but I smile every time I see it oh-so-out-of-place in the Inner Richmond.
Every year, I try to create a watercolor postcard to send out to friends and family to brighten their day. As we all know, 2020 has been particularly tough on everyone. While brainstorming this year’s subject, I though back to the cactus on the corner. It’s surviving andthriving – and that’s exactly what we need right now. That night, I took to my living room-turned-studio and got painting.
A few weeks later, I noticed the garage door next to the cactus was open. Inside, I saw what looked like some sort of wood shop with overflowing racks of lumber, a drill press, and tools hanging on yellow pegboards. In the back stood a bearded man in a vest, tan pants and a grey knit cap.
I paused, collected my thoughts, and called the most creative greeting I could muster into the garage: “Hello!”As I did this, I realized how strange I must look standing there on the sidewalk with a bandana covering most of my face. Nonetheless, he replied with an enthusiastic “Hello!”
It’s there that, from six feet away, I met Yvan. “Like Ivan with a ‘Y,’” he says. Yvan told me that he’s been working out of this space for nearly 30 years, and he planted the cactus two decades ago. He built the wooden box that it grows out of as well as the rings that keep it in place. During our conversation, he points out that even though the cactus is tall, it has its shallow-but-dense root system to thank.
I tell Yvan how much I admire the effort he put in, but he shrugs it off. “You should see it in August,” he says with a smile. “Every August it flowers – no matter what.”
I’ve spent the past month thinking about Yvan and the cactus, which I now know is a Lemaireocereus thurberi (or Organ-Pipe Cactus). According to my sunbaked copy of Colorful Cacti of the American Deserts that I got at an East Bay estate sale years ago, these giants are native to Arizona, Baja California and western Mexico. They thrive in rocky environments at elevations less than 3,000 feet. Bay Area sidewalks were not mentioned in the book but, by the look of things, I’d say that they’ll work just fine.
Maybe there’s something to be learned from this cactus and the carpenter who planted it. During these strange times, our tight-knit roots will help us stand strong and, with any luck, grow. When we see all this through, the world will be a sight to behold – just like that unforgettable cactus sprouting up near my favorite street corner in San Francisco.
To watch this cactus grow through the years on Google Street View, click here.
Categories: Richmond District