There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I’d fallen down. The sidewalk was my only friend. Conjectures about balance and world peace were grousing with pink elephants and blue mice. Numb, cliff-hangingly stable, folding a flush in a windy game of poker played on a blanket on the moon, I lay there and waited for time to go by without me.
Struggling to untangle myself from my tie, unable to, giving up, righting a few wrongs with my hair, scrubbing the gunk from my eyes with dirty fingers, watching flowers slowly wither and die in some time-lapse hallucination over in a garden to my right or left or up or quite possibly down too. It was all a mess. I was okay. Everything was fine.
I stood up.
Somebody was playing opera that was drifting from an open window of an apartment, and the sailboats were all out on the bay in the sun, and the wind wasn’t blowing too much, and little white trails like frosting were on the water where the boats were cutting up the surface, and I was standing up on top of Nob Hill looking down at the view from Sacramento and Clay. I could see the cable car tracks going off into the distance, and every once in a while an electric bus went by rattling on its wires up above, the trolley poles nicking sparks with a flurry of sizzles. The sails on the boats were fun to watch. They looked like ghosts skimming above the choppy curls of water. Nobody was bothering me up there on the hill. It wouldn’t last. But just for a few minutes there everything was okay.
I looked again at the view, thinking with a sigh, as I always do at these times of subtle contentment, ‘My little fishing town.’ The view often makes me feel this way, imagining all the cozy houses with their chimneys puffing into the last strained clinging blues of the day, things becoming crepuscular, the ships and husbands coming in from a day’s work, supper cooking in all those percussion-slotted homes in the slow last waning hours of sun, vespers ringing out from Grace Cathedral, the block-away stertorous clang and whining iron trundle of the cable cars barreling by all filled-up with tourists, who are busy clicking an endless stream of pictures. The Richmond bridge streaking sun-slapped on the edge of the horizon, angel island with its coat of mossy fur humped out there like a sea monster, the darkening waters of the bay spotted with sail boats endlessly circling in the wind, and, like some queen’s Foot Guards with their heads scouting from above the whole thing, the spires of Peter and Paul’s — sentinels keeping watch over less extravagant structures of old wood and brick.
I stood there on the northeast corner of the sidewalk, almost tipping over a few times, and people kept coming by and asking me in broken English to take their picture. I became very good at looking sour, at shaking my head and sneering at them. Nobody liked any of it. That was okay. I wasn’t feeling very social. Being alone was good enough for me.
But that damn opera coming from a window somewhere above me. It was close. Close enough to matter at least. I sat down on the sidewalk. I looked at that damn view again. That view was always there. Tens of thousands of times I’d seen it over the years. Always there at the top of my march up Mason to try to catch the 1-California to try to get to work on time to try to keep my job to try to make a living leasing out my brain for the day to somebody else to do with it whatever they like and then maybe return it to me but most likely not in the same condition it was loaned out to them in — all for the sake of a lousy buck. So is life. At the top of that hill so many mornings, me all out of breath, quickly spinning around to take in the scenery, making sure it was all still there. The red fire alarm box atop a red pole with its missing glass window where there is a hook, and below the white letters: “PULL HOOK DOWN ONCE.” Sometimes the fog gets so heavy you can’t even see the few bushy trees outside the Cable Care Museum two blocks away. Sometimes the sun is so bright I have to squint and hold my hand up like a visor over my eyes to see what’s always out there: the street’s slope courting the buildings like an unwanted suitor waiting to be arrowed by the cuckolded streetlights, the hangnail smoke of things in general putting my eyes at ease. For some absurd reason I was not trusting my moods. They were wavering like a streak hitter’s batting average. And somehow I was caught under the Mendoza Line of my ability to reconcile the gales inside my mind with those of the outside world.
If you look at something too many times you stop seeing it.
Another girl had just broken my heart. I was upset about it, but also very joyful. It was like having survived a fortnight in the trenches. You get up all covered with blood, all muddy and unslept, weary and delirious, and you shake your head at the miracle of coming out of it alive, and probably feel like all the better of a person for it. Then the emptiness hits. That place that she used to fill up in your heart. And that place has been ripped out by a pair of pliers, and you’re left wounded, incomplete, ruined, and gutter-bound. Nothing makes sense. The bloom of ivy that once lined the walls of your mind is now dead and rotted brown. The only way out is a bottle. You take a drink. It’s warm going down. You take another. The sensation returns to your numbed emotional makeup. It’s not a good sensation, but it’s something. And something is better than nothing. Stewing around in nothing will do in whatever is left of one, even while sniffing marigolds down soft summer streets, or using ATMS, or drinking beer in bars at 2 pm. Dazed, you walk around. Then you hit bottom. Then you keep falling. Then you realize that there is no bottom, just more places to forever keep falling towards. This is okay. Everything will be fine. Keep moving. I walked across the street to 1000 Mason.
Now I could see that incredibly tall glass-and-cement wonder of condos with its bevy of window washers, their ropes hanging down from their platforms like thin strips of string cheese fluttering in the wind. And also the thick round brick chimney of the Cable Car museum. The cars all lined up and parked at right angles to the curb down Mason make me think of a firing squad for some reason. People keep bothering me.
There is a courtyard of beige, fulvous, gamboge, and maize bricks. A few scenes from Vertigo were shot here. It doesn’t matter. I think of Luck Dragons and the accordion stretch of the 38-Geary. I want to wander. My head is slow to respond.
Bush street seems to cater to sunlight in that hour which bends towards crepuscular. The golden light is a little more golden here, I do believe, though I’ve no proof of it. The neon signs just begin to flicker to life under the ashen sky, the streaky bursts of sun sneaking through or over and under tattered clouds to glisten from buildings’ bricks. Soot stains gleam like fresh tattoos. The pavement is washed in lapping waves of honey and amber as light just seems to spill differently over things here. Even mailboxes are brought to a bright cerulean shine. The sky turns that special color that is bluer than any blue yet not exactly anything else either. People might stop for a moment in their brisk walk down the sidewalk, brush some lint from a trouser leg, turn maybe, kick a few dead leaves away, and quite possibly think, ‘What great luck it is to be alive on this gorgeously hued late afternoon.’ But, for the most part, I doubt it. I’ve watched people a lot, and they rarely do things of this nature; and although I do not know for sure of course, I’d venture a guess that what’s going on inside their respective skulls is much different than these types of thoughts.
And so, at some point later on into the evening, I found myself leaning back with my arms up on the top of a hardwood booth at the Jasmin Café on Bush Street, showing off my socks at a table by the wall, legs crossed, head tilted towards the TV hanging above the beverage-chilling unit, watching the Giants get the shit kicked out of them again by St. Louis, while the chef burned my hamburger under the hood behind the counter. The fog was squatting like some giant reptilian beast taking a shit on the city, getting everything soaked, blinding tourists, huddling around and choking the streets, cheating the buildings out of their tops, and basically making a mess of what was left of my mind. Car headlights set smoky yellow fires in the air: blurs of stifled gleaming, June bugs running on fumes, lonely gasps into the dim mush of oncoming night.
I got tired of watching the Giants getting kicked in the nuts, and so turned my attention to the girl behind the counter. I knew her in that superficial way which one comes to know people who work at the places one frequents. I liked her; she was always very sweet to me, though her English wasn’t quite top notch. She spent a lot of time chewing gum, putting her hair in pigtails, and had a penchant for wearing fall-colored scarves and black thick-rimmed glasses. Her parents owned the place: a dwarfish and amiable Chinese couple with a wry sense of humor. He’d wear one of those old-style tall chef caps when he was behind the counter, had a tiny notepad he took the orders on, and would always count out your change to you in cents: “That’s five hundred and forty-eight cents.” His wife worked the counter too. She was lovely and silly, and would loudly bellow out the orders as she rung them up, sometimes making things up: “Two large patties of beef! Cheese! Big buns! Triple buffaloes! Pears! No pistachios, PLEASE! Hold the gravy!” There was a certain poetic madness to them, and it made sense to me, they did, being the way they were together. Sometimes she’d brush his hand while he was writing down an order on his tiny notepad, and he’d pretend not to notice, or would shoo her away with terse little bits of gibberish; but I knew he enjoyed it more than he’d ever let on.
Across the street was the Bush Market, its sign starting to come on: red and yellow neon fighting the fog for breath. I liked looking at the façade’s verdigris tiles almost seeming to shimmer a bit under night’s first assault, and the pigeons were sitting up there and shitting all over the sidewalk. I didn’t like watching them as much. People would come and go, toting their plastic bags of junk food snacks and beer and toilet paper and microwave dinners, hurrying to get away, trying not to get drenched in the fog, rubbing their faces and gesturing like underwater dancers. The fog was rapidly rolling in on giant dinosaur feet, which was making it difficult to see things out there. Cabs went by honking through the soup, and a dog tied to a tree barked rabidly at nothing.
“Double Cheeseburger! Extra Cheese!” calls out the chef, a gregarious young
Salvadorean chap with one silver front tooth. He knows very well I can’t digest cheese, and this is his way of having some fun with me. I saunter up, smile and grab my cheese-less hamburger, telling him, as I always do, “Thanks man. Have a good rest of your night, alright?” His easy silver-toothed grin is cheerful and sad at the same time. “You too. You also. You as well,” he chants as I walk out the door and into the ocean of fog.
I could barely make out the other side of the street by this point. The streetlights were fading, but had enough luster left for me to tell when it was safe to split from curb to curb. Up Mason I went, up those more-than-steep two blocks to California — the plastic bag holding the Styrofoam container with my hamburger in it flecked with sweat-like beads of moisture — hunched over and hustling, passing up slow-strolling heavy breathers, triumphant in my overcoming of all obstacles: the hill, the fog, the tiredness aching in my bones. Then, after striding so triumphantly up the hill, I, of course, missed the light at California. The damn cable cars screw up the light there, and, if you’re unfortunate enough to miss the light while one of those archaic beasts is rattling past, you end up waiting for two cycles of light changes before getting that hard-won green palm on the signal. It’s quite a thrill, but the wait seems interminable, especially when you’re surrounded by a gaggle of idiotic tourists in shorts who can’t make up their mind whether they should take a picture of the cable car, the fog-shrouded Flood Mansion across the street, or the barely visible remnants of the Grace Cathedral not yet completely enveloped by white mist. I often mumble curse words under my breath during these waits. It passes the time.
I looked up The Mark Hopkins’ dress, but couldn’t see much. The Top Of The Mark was gone, disappeared into the fog’s ghostly clutches, and even the drenched flags waggling around over the front entrance weren’t easy to spot. This was some serious business. The fog wasn’t messing around tonight. It was mopping up dinner and the leftovers too, and I didn’t want any part of it. After a few eons had gone by, and more than a few cable cars, the Walk signal finally flashed for me, and I sprinted across grand old California Street between the crosswalk’s magic yellow lines.
The Flood Mansion, now the Pacific Union Club’s home, seemed a smoky tomb, its brown granite frosted, the metal laurels of its seaweed-green fence shot through with snaking tongues of fog. I shivered as I walked by, damp, sulking too as I held onto my plastic bag of dinner with both hands. Something miserable was crawling around in me. I tried to shake it off, but it didn’t go anywhere. The Fairmont was camouflaged by a massive white cloud across the street; it’s flags of many nations were drooping and dripping wet. I wondered if down below in the Tonga Room that boat were floating around on the fake lagoon (formerly the Terrace Plunge swimming pool) with its Don-Ho musical combo playing pop standards. I’ve never been much of a tropical-drink guy, but for some reason a nice strong Mai Tai didn’t sound too awful just then. But the fog and the cold precluded that, not to mention the rapidly plummeting internal temperature of my hamburger. I moseyed on by.
It was just another car stopped at a stop sign. Nothing significant. Nothing strange. Just another bedouin passing through the streets of night. Its lights flashed at me, which I took as a signal to proceed across the street. Unfortunately, it turned out this was not the case. Fumbling my hamburger bag, I made haste across the street at Sacramento, narrowly avoiding death by automobile.
Angel Island’s still slightly covered with a downy orange glow. The wind’s rustling along at a good clip, handling itself like a gentleman though, not stealing any plastic bags or lifting skirts. My head’s a few Bloody Marys away from okay, and so I decide to live in this odd borrowed time for as long as possible, gazing north from the top of Mason at Sacramento, as if my wont, and has been for many years. Clumpy white puffs roiling in through my little fishing village, down there, spread out among the maze of streets and steeples and rooftops. Fog clomping in on giant elephant hooves. So many dislodged locations of another era down there. So much still putting up a fight, sticking around, like I keep doing too. The hours peel away like mango skin, slowly and sticky from the day’s flesh. Daylight’s just an idea. Living? I’m bringing up the rear at a turtle’s pace, and sweet, flushed with the acceptance of all things happening around me, for once.