It’s Saturday at 4 a.m. The only other person in Dolores Park is staring at me from behind a tree 30 feet away. Then I realize he’s walking towards me. He looks like he’s in his late 40s, skinny, about 5’8″.
So far this year there have been eight strong-arm robberies in the park. Should I run for it?
I ‘m bigger, stronger and younger, but wait a minute, I’ve been here for 20 hours and I’m also sleep-deprived, possibly hallucinating.
It’s been a long day.
8 a.m. — The First Hour
Water sprinklers spit over much of the park’s 13.7 acres of grass. The air smells wet and green.
I’m here on a Saturday morning with a dozen or so other park users, mostly tennis players. They’ll be gone in an hour, but I stay. I have a task: to spend 24-hours at the most popular park in the Mission District, a park used every weekend by thousands. A park with one toilet and a urinal for men, two toilets for women and six porta-potties for everyone.
9 a.m. — Time to Get Up
The sun shines and the temperature rises. The men playing tennis take off their shirts, the dog walkers begin to arrive and the joggers multiply. A group of three old men, their belongings in shopping carts next to them, wake up next to the tree line south of the basketball court. “People don’t bother you here,” says one of them.
10 a.m. to Noon — Dogs
“You are a terrible owner!” a woman in her 50s screams at a young man. His black lab puppy likes her small poodle.
“You still keep him off the leash! You are a terrible owner!” she continues, the poodle in her arms, the yapping puppy circling her.
“You are [expletive] crazy,” the man says as he tries to restrain his puppy.
“Am I [expletive] crazy!?” the woman asks. “It is your [expletive] dog who is attacking my dog!”
At 11 a.m. the sprinklers go on again, scattering a couple of women and a dog lying on the grass just south of the restrooms. The dog turns back and viciously attacks the sprinklers.
The first paletero shows up.
12 p.m. — Causes
Petition gatherers are everywhere. One is collecting signatures in support of stopping the use of herbicides in the park. Another is trying to sign people up for car-sharing services.
I see a man holding a sign, “Support the Leukemia Lymphoma Society,” with directions pointing to a bake sale on the other side of the park, near the children’s playground. Hungry, I open my bag and look at the two turkey sandwiches that are supposed to last me for the next 20 hours.
“Did you see the sign?” a young girl at the bake sale table asks when I get there.
“Great,” she says. “It is not a waste of time.”
1 p.m. — Park Rangers
A park ranger shows up.
He heads for the car-sharing service, the sound therapist using gongs to de-stress people, and a crew of women selling baked goods who say they are from the Lusty Lady, the world’s only unionized and worker-owned peep show.
Do they have a permit?
Nope, nope and nope.
Then they have to stop whatever they are doing, he explains.
“Don’t you have drugs dealers to bother?” a man asks.
“Sometimes they want to kill me,” the ranger, wearing a green uniform, says to me. “I’m just doing my job. They need a permit and I tell them who to call.” (The permits and reservations page is here.)
He is the only park ranger today, he says, but their numbers vary depending on how busy the park is.
Both the car-sharing table and the gong man stop their activities, but the Lusty Ladies walk around the park and continue to sell baked goods.
2 p.m. — Sign: “Smoking and Drinking Prohibited”
People drink, smoke and celebrate a birthday with a unicorn piñata. There is so much beer that a group of middle-aged women start collecting empty beer cans and bottles to sell.
“I can sometimes make $50 recycling the bottles and cans from a day in the park,” says one. She has a thick accent, a gray hat and a large sack — you’ve all seen her there.
At 5 cents a bottle and with several women working, that means park-goers produce several thousand empty bottles and cans. But as everyone knows, it’s not only alcohol getting many high.
The smell of weed permeates the air, especially near the spot taken by dancers and hula-hoopers. There is a maximum fine of $500 if caught smoking in the park, but smokers are no shyer than the drinkers. The signs? Smokers and drinkers lean up against them.
3 p.m. — Truffles
“Very special cookies, chocolate truffles!” a man advertises as he walks around the park with a messenger bag. Customers pay up to $5 for a “dose.” More picnickers arrive; one group brings 30-packs of Tecate, PBRs and other liquor.
4 p.m. — Brownies
“Brownies are $4 and they are four doses. I also have plain, Hersheys and Reeses,” says the vendor with dreadlocks and a messenger bag filled with “special” brownies.
“Let me have some Reeses,” a young man from New Jersey says.
“I also have hash chocolate. Let me give you a deal on the fudge.”
“I love California,” says the young man, who is only here for a visit.
“I got caught in Central Park the first time I bought this,” he says.
The brownie dealer says that he got busted here last year. “But I was only held for four days and was able to keep my stuff.”
He continues, “Cops used to buy from me. Maybe they still buy, just not in uniform anymore.” This, of course, could not be confirmed.
5 p.m. — My First Sandwich
Young adults chase shots of whiskey with Tecate, boom boxes blare and the restrooms fill. Dolores Park is just a big party where kids who look too young to be legal drink alcohol and smoke weed out in the open.
The paleteros walk their carts around the park selling cold treats, but don’t seem to be doing nearly as much business as brownie man.
After a few not-very-special-cookies, I eat my first sandwich. The scent from all the portable grills sure smells a whole lot better.
6 p.m. — Wind
The wind blows hard and the temperature drops as the sun sets behind Twin Peaks. By 6:30 p.m., half of the several hundred visitors have left. Their cans, bottle caps, food wrappers and cigarette butts remain.
7 p.m. — The Bathrooms
A man shouts an expletive as he walks through the park.
“What?” asks his friend.
“I stepped on dog shit,” he says, dragging his right foot on the grass.
“Stupid dogs,” the man says as I follow him into the restroom, where loads of park visitors had been lining up outside a couple of hours ago.
The floor is a pond of urine. The man uses the rim of a toilet to scrape the shit off his white skater shoe.
8 p.m. — Lights
The sun has set and clouds cover the sky. Maybe a hundred people remain — most drink and smoke. Young couples sit on the benches up the hill, holding hands. I am by the palm trees, where the rope walkers were earlier. The lights from the tennis courts shine brightly.
9 p.m. — Lock-Up
Couples arrive to make out by the benches at the top of the park, where the best views are, as late-night joggers pass by. A few adults play in the children’s playground and a park ranger locks the restrooms. Groups of young adults wearing leather jackets and chains gather to drink.
10 p.m. — Park Closed 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“Whoooooo’s got the crack!? Whoooo’s got the crack!?” sing some from the leather jacket group as they sit on the stairs south of the restrooms. They drink, smoke and play guitar. A few middle-aged men gather under the overpass on Church Street. The Bi-Rite Creamery line still stretches all the way around the corner on Dolores.
“No way!” says a man, laughing at the line.
“Lets just go, this is ridiculous,” says the woman with him.
The man walks away and then turns back, walks away, turns back.
“No [expletive] way,” he says again, looking at the line.
“Come on, lets just go,” the woman says as she holds his hand and drags him away.
The young people in the park, now a dozen or so, get increasingly loud. Some gather behind the restrooms and others next to the playground. All of them take shots of liquor and smoke weed.
A few men, probably the same ones I saw earlier this morning, return with their shopping carts to the line of trees south of the basketball court. They set up blankets and pillows and get ready to sleep.
Midnight — Now I Look Suspicious
“What do you sell?” a group of young men who walk through the park ask.
I’m writing a story about the park, I say.
They walk away from me. I don’t blame them: I’ve been sitting on the same table west of the restrooms near the Hidalgo statue for over an hour, by myself.
1 a.m. — Only At the Playground
The young partiers are gone. A small group of men and women in their mid-20s arrive and head toward the children’s playground. They seem to enjoy the playground more than the children did on Saturday morning. “The slides, the slides!” one shouts as he climbs the slides and slides down. “How high can you go?” a woman asks a man as both swing higher.
2 a.m. — Fog
Almost no one remains, and the fog has started to move in. Those who walk by look at me suspiciously and try to edge farther away as I pass by.
I decide to eat my second sandwich, which by now looks more like baking mix than the turkey and bread I lazily made yesterday morning. I’m really tired but the cold and the wind keep me from falling asleep. I’m also thirsty, as I forgot a water bottle and I’m too lazy to go over to the water fountain that’s been my supply all day.
3 a.m. — Alone
No one is awake but me. No cars drive. It’s silent. I sit on a bench in the park near the corner of 19th and Dolores to watch the night view. I wonder if I get paid enough to do this. Then remember I don’t get paid at all. I pull myself together and try to get a third sandwich from my bag — the sandwich I never made. Now I am cold and hungry, and without a smartphone. I am also bored.
4 a.m. — The Man Coming Toward Me
Yes, that is a real man coming toward me. He’s speaking.
“I am horny, can’t go to sleep. I have good skills,” he says.
I recognize him as one of the men under the bridge earlier tonight.
I’m confused — that is the last thing I was expecting to hear.
“You speak Spanish?” he asks.
He then asks where I am from, if I live alone and if I am a photographer. I explain I am taking photos for the story. Would he like to be in a photo?
“Good night,” he says, and heads down the bridge. He meets another man there and they head into the Castro.
5 a.m. — Waking Up
The first J train goes by. The birds start to sing and cars drive by. A few people jog through as the sun begins to rise. The sky looks beautiful.
I find myself thinking of that third sandwich and the “special” brownies. I start wondering if a “special” brownie would have filled me up and if they taste anything like regular brownies, which I love.
The tree line south of the basketball court looks increasingly attractive as a place to pass out.
6 a.m. — Dolores Park Is Officially Open
The same women who picked up cans and bottles the day before show up and pick all that remain. The dog owners arrive. This is the first time since 1 a.m. that I have seen women in the park.
The water sprinklers turn on. The tennis players arrive. It’s time to go home and decide whether to eat or sleep.