An eight-hour train ride through the countryside of California. Yellow dominates the land in the roughs where the weeds grow, in the corn stalks hunkering in the heat, and in the rolling mountains where the clouds like to hide. The conductor comes through the speaker at every stop, announcing our progress on the way to San Francisco. I doze off here and there on this midday journey, and overpay for a sandwich somewhere near Merced. The sleeping man across from me drools, saliva snail trails mixing into the fabric of his flannel shirt as the train continues north.
The train pulls into the station in Emeryville, and I catch a bus over the Bay Bridge. The green-blue waters collide against the steel pillars below the bridge. Alacatraz anchors itself in the water in the distance. High risers and tower tops make a bird’s nest in the city center. And San Francisco welcomes me with a patrolling sunset and a deep, cloudless sky.
Andy is there when the bus stops at the Ferry Building. We last saw each other in Paris, and he’s grown a wicked beard since then, dressed like the local he has become: paperboy hat flipping out his hair, reading glasses giving him the smarts, tweed jacket and walking shoes completing his San Franciscan ensemble.
“Welcome to San Francisco,” he says. “You’re home.”
For a long time, Andy has tried to convince me to move away from my setbacks in Southern California. We have been friends all our lives. We lined up army men around our sleeping bags in childhood to protect us from ghosts. We made shoddy skateboards and paper airplanes and played baseball all day when school was out for summer. We drifted apart in high school when our egos got in the way and reunited in college when hammock days and endless beers became the mantras of our lives. He’s been there for my personal achievements. He’s seen me flatline while on the emergency bed of lost love and folded relationships. And he is going to spend this entire weekend propositioning me on why moving to San Francisco will provide the hot air to my deflated balloon-life.
After a brief reunion near the wharf, Andy and I snag a train towards Inner Sunset, where Andy shares an apartment with Becky, his wife. On this side of the city, the mists from the ocean settle into the streets and hang over power lines and cars and old buildings that creak and moan under the gust of the wind. The temperature breezes into a cool 56 degrees. The streets rush with city life. Sidewalks activate walkers and talkers. And restaurants do their best to zest the air with aromas that people can bag and use as potpourri.
Settling into my first evening in San Francisco, Andy and I rummage around Irving St. and dip into The Social brewery for some pints and the 49er preseason football game. After a few beers, Brett meets up with us, emerging from behind the doors of an Uber taxi, smiling that smile I thought he had lost, profound happiness trailing his footsteps into the bar. Indeed, it’s overwhelmingly fantastic to see the positivity that leaks from Brett like strings immune to the scissor’s pessimistic cut. Drifting across the street to the wine bar, the three of us laugh into the Thursday night, Merlot sinking us into giggle fits, catch-up conversations carrying us from subject matter to subject matter: life, girls, work, how to entice me to forsake Los Angeles for the temptations of San Francisco. Leaving behind a colony of empty wine glasses hours later, we exit the bar while the lullaby of drunkenness, and hazy yellow lamplight, guide us home.
A raucous afternoon plummeting into the spins and hazard cycles of wine, beer and whiskey shots while on our pilgrimage to the 7pm Giants game. Our journey through the city introduces us to local hide outs, whiskey shots and people who are already drunk at 3pm on a Friday. Somewhere around Union Square, with the alcohol already playing silly with me, I meet a peculiar character: an old Norwegian whaler.
The whaler made his way from Norway to Alaska to California over the course of fifty years. He fished the cold shores of Ireland, and steadied his stance – standing like he is now, with a slight hunch to his right leg to keep himself upright – while navigating ocean waves and deep-sea storms. He has always been happy, he says, with the freedom of his fisherman life: never married, content with solidarity, rambler of the ocean blue. The sea salt and coastal winds have etched their way onto his face in the form of wrinkles. And his cold blue eyes – whose color was no doubt inspired by the sea – seem to validate this man, as if his irises hold the pages of his life in their glance.
The whaler offers to buy me whiskey on the rocks in exchange for a listening ear. The man floats in and out of memories. He talks in a heavy accent, quite indiscernible at times, laughing at his own jokes, lost in the mirth and echoes of his wayward life. He rocks back and forth during our conversation, like the sea has permanently infused its ebb and flow into his creaky bones. He ponders the meaning of life while crushing gulps of whiskey. And his life memories – so vivid, so mentally obtainable – are the muttered musings of a man whose wish to relive his fisherman youth is granted, nightly, by the tales that live in the watered down crypt of his shooter glass half-full.
Leaving the whaler to his melancholy, we continue our journey to the game. We lose our sobriety to bartenders and Irish car bombs. We remove subtlety and moderation and replace them with boisterous, drunken laughter and more rounds of shots. Andy stumbles over his words. Bret sparks up cigarettes and coughs his lungs out. And I, quite ashamedly, forsake the Dodger in me and buy a Giants hat before entering the stadium. How tragic.
Ultimately, the baseball game races by. We spill beer, over and over, on the poor girl sitting in front of us. Brett takes an Instagram photo of the beer soaking into the girl’s shirt to commemorate our supreme, drunk-induced stupidity. We meet a college kid and smoke cigarettes in the stadium with him, hiding in the stairwell between decks to avoid unwanted attention from security. The game comes and goes. We forget most of it. But we remember to buy beers almost every inning.
A day of recovery, to be sure.
I’m plastered on Brett’s living room couch. My hangover announces itself with headaches and bad breath. Brett, suffering the same fate – still drunk, zombified red eyes, croaking for water – orders breakfast through a delivery service. He excitedly tells me about the Belgian waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, bagels, orange juice and coffee he’s just ordered. However, twenty minutes later the delivery boy serves up eggs that could have come from a McDonald’s Big Breakfast meal, burnt bacon, stale bagels, doughy waffles, orange juice in a dixie cup and coffee that was most likely brewed in the repugnant hairs of a homeless man’s unwashed armpit.
Brett and I agree it’s the worst breakfast we’ve ever had.
And it cost $50.
Hours later, I take a Sunday stroll through Golden Gate park. Andy and Becky introduce me to a wonderful ice cream truck parked on a road near the botanical garden. We walk though the Sunday afternoon, Becky recounting all the absurdities her husband evoked after coming home drunk from the baseball game last night. Andy denies his involvement, chuckling to himself, knowing full well the ridiculousness of his late night antics.
At this point in her pregnancy, Becky is full-throttle, baby belly holding the upcoming happiness she and her husband have waited to introduce to the world. I find unparalleled optimism in the way these two look at each other, ready to plunge into the next paragraph of their novel-ready life. All told, Andy could not have found a better wife, a better mother to be the pallet, brush and paint to his artistic life.
The three of us make a pit-stop at Mr. Pickles to grab sandwiches, and take our lunch to Dolores Park, where the city unfolds in greens, blues, and skyscrapers that sleep in the sky, ever watchful, omniscient concrete and glass pillars that have erected themselves over the shabby, rich, and colorful people that dwell in the city. I lose myself in the shapes of clouds, imagining myself in a hundred scenarios that involve me and my happiness finally coming together in a decent job, a nice apartment and a life I could see myself living a thousand times over. Andy, again, right on cue, tries desperately to convince me to move here…and I can feel the hook settling into my cheeks…
Walking Ocean Beach with a half-burned cigarette. Andy paces next to me, philosophically conquering the conversation with reasons why I should do this, and shouldn’t do that. The brisk day falls around us in grays and muted colors, so we duck into a restaurant and order the sampler platter of beer. Going from light to dark, we critique each brew, while I chance my luck on small talk with the waitress. After tipsy talk and more cigarettes, Andy and I take the train back to Inner Sunset, spend the rest of the evening drinking watermelon beer and watching Breaking Bad, and engage in more dicsussions as to why Los Angeles was never the place for me.
In the morning I throw my bags over my shoulder and take the bus back to the train station near Union Square. The long train ride home feels slightly opaque, like I have just left a potential life in the dust. California speeds by, the blurred representations of the country side come and go. The couple sitting next to me pucker and smooch their way into annoyance. And I wander in my own silence, writing, as usual, in memory ink that will never transfer to parchment as the sun drinks itself into a California darkness…