Stairway to Heaven

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Of San Francisco's many charms, it's those iconic hilly streets that make ours such a picturesque city. As any San Franciscan knows, some streets are so steep the pedestrian sidewalks along the roads are actually cement staircases. And one sunny afternoon, making my way up one of those sharply inclined sidewalks, I paused to wait for a pedestrian in front of me on the narrow stairs. But it looked like I would be waiting a while because the pedestrian blocking the sidewalk was a very, very old lady. She was carrying two large grocery bags, making painfully slow progress from step to step. I did what any polite person would - or should - do, and offered to help carry her bags.

She cocked her head and considered, looking me over carefully. But those groceries looked heavy and it was a long way to the top. She handed over the bags and we resumed climbing together.

Up the precipitous cement stairs we rose, up, up, up, while she chatted about her long life. A native San Franciscan, she had lived in the same apartment for 50 years. Buried a husband from cancer and lost her son in Vietnam, but just kept on going - up, up, up. Listening, some stories had me cracking up, others close to tears.

She told me how her steep street had changed, through earthquakes, hippies, 70s swingers and tech millionaires. From elegant days when no lady would be seen without a hat and gloves to today, when people are sometimes seen without anything.

And, ascending the staircase sidewalk, it occurred to me, this is the reason we are all here. To share this long hard climb, listen to each other's stories, help carry each other's heavy burdens, to laugh and to cry together, as we make our way, slowly but inexorably, to the top.


I was having such a good time, I didn't notice we'd reached the end of the stairs. "It goes quickly, doesn't it?" she said to me, eyes twinkling. "Enjoy yourself." She thanked me, took her groceries and vanished into her doorway.

She may have thanked me, but I really should have thanked her, because I learned something on that hilly street. It goes quickly. For all of us, our long hard climb will be over before we know it.

So, as my twinkly-eyed companion advised me, enjoy yourself. I never got her name, but I will never forget her, and the day we shared the steep climb to the top together.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow works for the San Francisco Unified School District.