This article is part of a poetry series dedicated to every Muni route in San Francisco. You can find the poet, Mc "Mack" Allen, on twitter at @that_mc.
Impromptu Company of Firefighters (39 Coit)
San Francisco would not sleep in the bed of ashes
placed here by that first great fire
though unkind winds pulled sheets of flames over the city
five times more in the space of a year–
San Francisco threw off the luminous linen of ruins
defiant of loss, explosively resurgent
the city refused to be destroyed
refused also to put the infernos out altogether
leaping out of its grave ungrieved
gambling on the glory of phoenix plumage–
those feathers could be gold or kindling or both.
Ascending Telegraph Hill
I have a kind of hallucination:
the bus is a fire engine
rushing toward a lit candle
which remains standing on the kitchen table
of a house reduced to rubble by shaking.
Believing the candle could topple
into the nest of sticks and tender
people in the street watch, but do nothing.
The neighbors are too paralyzed
to take one deep breath and blow the candle out.
Our fire engine has slowed, then stalled–
I am gripped by a vertigo of impatience
we will not arrive in time
to prevent the conflagration.
Suddenly our bus driver shouts
"Come on, you men! Everybody pull!"
She is Lillie Hitchcock Coit,
she must be about a hundred and eighty years old
but clearly possessed with the same frenzy of passion
with which she seized the ropes
of Knickerbocker Engine Number 5.
So of course I tumble out of the bus
and I push along with the other passengers
now a company of firefighters
endowed with strange strength
sufficient to the task of pushing a bus uphill.
We make the summit and climb the stairs of Coit tower
where Lillie extinguishes the flame
by pinching the candle wick.
Footnotes to the poem:
San Francisco has experienced several devastating fires, the last of which was the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The first Great Fire of San Francisco was kicked off in a gambling hall on Christmas Eve in 1849, and the city experienced fires that destroyed significant portions of the city on May 4th 1850, June 14th 1850, September 17th 1980, December 14th 1850, and finally again on May 4th of 1851. Each time the residents of San Francisco immediately rebuilt, sometimes beginning to re-erect structures the day after they burned.
For further reading about the early great fires of San Francisco, visit this informative page on sfmuseum.net, and particular acknowledgement is owed to Annalee Newitz, whose article in the Bold Italic influenced the creation of this poem.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit (August 23, 1843 – July 22, 1929) is one of the fantastic and sensational characters of the early history of San Francisco. From childhood, she was fascinated by the independent and competing fire engine companies who responded to, and sometimes fought over, fires in progress. At 15 years old, she saw the Knickerbocker Engine Company No 5, shorthanded and struggling to haul their engine to a fire on Telegraph Hill. She pitched in on the rope and admonished onlookers by shouting "Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!". Lillie Hitchcock Coit was from then on patron, booster, and mascot of the Knickerbocker firefighters, and in 1963 was made an honorary member. Before her death, she left one third of her considerable fortune to the beautification of the City of San Francisco, which was used to build Coit Tower, dedicated to the memory of firefighters who lost their lives battling the great fires of San Francisco.
For further reading about Lillie Hitchcock Coit, visit guardiansofthecity.org, also an invaluable source for the poem.
For further insight on the 39 Coit bus route, fares are $2.50.