May 18, 2003
Lemony Snicket lives on the windiest block in San Francisco.
The mysterious author doesn't mind a haunting wind. It helps the creativity.
But he does mind drop-in fans, so he'll only identify it as near the five points where Masonic, Buena Vista, Roosevelt, Upper Terrace and Ashbury Terrace come together. It is also uphill from the intersection of States and Levant. Try finding that one.
Lemony Snicket is the name on "A Series of Unfortunate Events" that bedevil orphans. Daniel Handler is the name on the royalty checks for 7 million books sold. That is how he and his wife, Lisa Brown, advanced from a rental in the Richmond flats to a 1907 Victorian atop a steep hill.
"I don't plan on getting any higher than this," says Handler, who moved in a year ago and celebrated by writing "The Slippery Slope," the 10th book in a planned series of 13.
Starting at 8:30 a.m., he moves back and forth, switching screens from the shy Snicket, hatching calamity for kids, to the friendly Handler, 33, writer of novels and screenplays for adults. At 3 p.m., both personas bundle up and go for a walk.
"One thing I like about this neighborhood is it's still half rentals. The other night there was a party until 5 in the morning two houses down from me," he says, standing on his front steps with the wind whipping the palm fronds - though it fails to budge his bristle-cut.
He doesn't doubt his block's "windiest" appellation, but he has doubts "about how that could even be measured, let alone verified."
Five points is a borderland. Down the north side is Cole Valley and the Haight, and down the south side is Corona Heights and the Castro. "Ashbury Heights always seems really pretentious," he says, trying out common handles. "So usually I tell people that I live near Buena Vista Park. That makes them think I'm sneaking off for anonymous sex in the middle of the night."
By day, Buena Vista is "the park where I fake my walk for TV cameras," representing newsmagazine shows.
His real walk is down Buena Vista East, which cuts around the base of the park, and back up Park Hills, maybe with a detour to the Randall Museum, where he used to go as a bug-obsessed brain growing up on the other side of Twin Peaks.
Then as now, he lives in the shadow of Sutro Tower, relying on it to receive channels 2, 4, 5, 7 and the exotic UHF channels 20 and 44.
"We don't have cable, so we're like the last people on Earth to actually use the TV tower," says Handler, who is more likely to use the VCR. "My wife and I both work at home, so we're completely out of conversation by the end of the day. So either we have to have a puppet show or watch a movie."
Once they tried a backyard barbecue, but the wind caused a "50-foot wall of flame," he says, while noticing a Weber on the porch of an optimist at 412 Buena Vista East.
He points out a senior center "where Jimmy Stewart is put in the loony bin in 'Vertigo,' " he says. "Barbara Bel Geddes, the other woman, comes here." But movie buffs don't, nor does anybody else. He counts 10 striped parking slots, all vacant. "It's almost worth a photograph," he says.
Near the corner of Buena Vista and Park Hills is an illegal unit Handler rented when just home from Wesleyan College in Connecticut. It was here that he started writing cranky letters to the editors of local papers and signing them "Lemony Snicket," not knowing he'd created a name that might be second only to Harry Potter in popularity for modern kids' books.
He makes a hairpin right up Park Hills, which connects to Roosevelt, and at the top makes a hard left back down Museum Way, passing Corona Heights Park.
"There's this big dog social thing here," he says. "I want to get a dog so I can be part of it."
The Randall Museum is a 1951 flattop at the bottom of the red rock hill. The old gravel driveway was recently landscaped into a great lawn. A new observation deck opens the panoramic view of downtown and the East Bay.
He signs "Snicket" in the registry and walks in "just to make sure it's all going right." One thing is wrong: The giant stuffed grizzly bear was removed from the lobby 10 years ago.
"I miss it," he says. But the shiny black crows, ravens and magpies are still there cawing. Some call Randall "the snake museum," and Snicket had his problems with them in "The Reptile Room."
"There's a murder in the reptile room in the book," he whispers, casing the joint for snakes and shifty characters. But there are only two behind glass - a thin green garter and a thick tan gopher - and a few moms with kids.
"It looks like a pretty quiet day in the reptile room," he concludes, and heads back home into the wind.
E-mail Sam Whiting at firstname.lastname@example.org.