Sunday, September 5, 2010

Solvitur Ambulando

Sylvia’s favorite mode of transportation is her own two feet. She claims it’s the most dependable way she’s found to traverse the city. Coming from one as peripatetic as Sylvia, this assertion should be reliable. I prefer MUNI for the most part, as I feel even with public transportation’s many drawbacks, it still beats negotiating the many obstacles and challenges of perambulating about the city’s sidewalks. The sweaty clothes, the weather, the dog droppings that may chance to begrime a shoe bottom, and of course the steep hills—especially for one such as I who lives on the top of a fairly lofty one—all are impositions I usually shy from. But, on the other hand, I am also probably the fastest uphill-walker in town. I’ve yet to meet my compeer in this regard. Sylvia tries to out-hustle me sometimes, but falls short, which doesn’t please her. She makes up for it on the downhills though, trouncing me by a good ten or fifteen feet. I am more prone to stutter-step my way down, my knees quaking a bit, while she glides fluidly to the bottom with a flurry of pattering steps. Though she’ll be waiting for me there on the street corner, as I plod my way towards her, and will sometimes hug me when I get to her, as if she’s been away too long and maybe has started to suspect that she might not see me ever again. It’s one of those nice made-up feelings that she disperses in small doses, and it makes me happy beyond belief.

We live in a hilly city of sharp inclines, which provide for spectacular views but also make the walking of its streets a more difficult task than it should be. Russian Hill is notorious for the wills it has broken. Charging up its harrowing slopes—say Jones heading south all the way to Green—is not for out-of-shape poltroons, though its humped acme offers the rebate of an incomparable panorama: the hills of Marin like islands beyond the sailboat-packed bay; the piers lined with old battleships (maybe dreaming of gold-rush days still); Alcatraz and The Bay Bridge; the peaks of the downtown skyscrapers; stone walls overflowing with ivy in orchidaceous courtyards of century-old apartment complexes; wild parrots chowing down on berries in the leafy foliage; and horizontally parked, well-rusted Cadillacs with sagging tops, their flat tires sticking to the rugged, lined concrete like melted licorice.

After catching one’s breath, say on a clear, calm, cloudless afternoon standing on a copse of grass by the old grave of an unknown Russian soldier, when nobody else is around, beholding the plush wonder of the city spread out below, one can become quite rhapsodic, if not downright ebullient, and might even completely convert to transcendentalism. That feeling of conquest, of besting a hated rival, though short lived, is one of walking’s great rewards. At least here, in San Francisco, where the land seems crowded with the potbellies of supine giants dozing off after supper.

There is wind to contend with as well. The intersection of California and Jones is a prime example of one of San Francisco’s many wind-tunneled vistas. Toupees are lost, groceries come un-bagged, and many are those who are brought to a dead halt in their forward progress by the gales. Little kids have actually been lifted and flown like hang gliders airborne across large swaths of the crosswalk’s white lines. It’s fun for them, though a bit iffy for their parents. Dogs have similar issues, their leashes stretched taut, their front paws scratching at the air for help, their owners tugging the poor pups back as if they were flying a kite. The lapels of my jacket will flip up and flap around, and my hair will resemble a thrashed tumbleweed after venturing through this small treacherous zone. I hold my glasses on tight with both hands. I stride with much puissance and bravado, not letting the ruffling of my person prohibit my trek over Nob Hill. As long as I live, the wind will forever be my archenemy, and I vow not to let it get the best of me.

Neither Sylvia nor I have much tolerance for direct sunlight. We try to keep to the shady side of the street whenever possible. No form of umbrageousness goes unappreciated by us. Sylvia vows to invent a parasol hat which will offer complete shade for its wearer at all times, but I have yet to see any results—though she assures me the fault is not in her design, but in the alignment of the stars. I’ve told her she’s miscarrying Cassius’s warning to Brutus, to which she responds by smiling slyly, and then tweaking my earlobe with a flicked finger. The matter has now become moot between us. Besides, there’s a lot of shade downtown during the day, as the skyscrapers spill their long shadows over the street, spreading their amorphous shapes like spilled ink onto their counterparts across the block; and there are always trees and telephone poles to use as temporary sunblocks while waiting for a light to change or tying a shoe, or enjoying a lazy afternoon kiss.

Despite all these obstructions to our walking ways, we somehow manage to put in a good hour or two of foot travel on most days. Sometimes we won’t talk at all; we’ll just listen to things, and look for things we haven’t noticed before: the shape of a frieze or a cornice on a building’s façade; a flowering shrub squatting in an alley; some graffiti spanning a brick wall like wisteria gone mad; a face painted on a fire hydrant; names permanently etched into the sidewalk long ago while the concrete was still setting; discarded objects crammed into cardboard boxes; strange species of moths; mutated pigeons; a wheelchair-bound old Norwegian woman with no legs blending into a stone wall; luckless stray cats with chopped tails; fanny-pack-sporting tourists in shorts wandering around holding up maps and shivering in just-purchased Alcatraz T-shirts; and myriad other types of urban lusus naturae. Then, usually after we’ve just huffed our way up a giant incline and are resting for a moment at a hill’s crest, Sylvia will stop dead in her tracks, and, for no apparent reason, ask one of her patented unanswerable questions, like, “Is it the sound of the wind or the sound the wind makes other things make?” I’ve learned to not venture a guess when it comes to these imponderables, but rather to just squeeze her hand a little tighter and pull her a bit closer to me. It’s better than any answer I could offer anyway, plus it has the added benefit of being quite enjoyable. She doesn’t seem to mind.

Molded into half of the west sidewalk all the way up Taylor Street between Pine and California are the more-than-one-hundred steps of a concrete stairway. This one-block stretch is one of the steepest in the city. Those with less than stellar salubrity, or even cars with engines on the crotchety and frailer side, should probably ponder more than twice before undertaking this grueling ascent. Many are those who have unwisely, with much hubris and overweening pride, attempted to scale Nob Hill’s heights via this path, and many are those who have been thwarted in their efforts, left bent over at the waist, hands upon hips, gasping for breath, and shaking their heads at the immensity of it all. The steps look inviting at first, like a dream cement staircase to the sky: hundreds of tiny levels creeping slowly and orderly upwards. They are not made for those of the long gait though. Whoever decided to construct them must have been somebody of the short-legged variety, as they are too close for most folks to take evenly one at a time, but are also a bit too far apart to take two at a time. I don’t use them, and instead choose to walk up the non-staired sidewalk to their left. Sylvia will plod along up them though, taking them one by one, carefully making sure she touches every last one, not at all concerned about the world going on around her, staring at her shoes, and humming slightly under her breath as she goes. I always think of that song There Goes My Everything when she does this, and will get it stuck in my head the whole way up. I’ve never told her this, and don’t think I ever will, but I like to pretend that she’s humming the same song. 

Being a flâneur in San Francisco takes much heart, esperance, courage, and a little luck. Sometimes Sylvia will wander away, loaf a bit, or skip, peering into odd places here and there in the landscape, as if she were scouting locations for a film, or was an archeologist exploring among the nooks and crannies in the eldritch ruins of a once grand and magnificent ancient city, which actually is a little bit true. So much of our city has been lost over the years, torn down, wrecked and ruptured to make way for condominiums and high rises. But we abide, and move on.

One night Sylvia tugged me by the arm (as is her wont when she’s feeling suddenly inspired) while dashing off down Sacramento’s leeward slope towards Polk, telling me, “I want to show you the glass in this doorway here. Come on. It’s incredible.” She wasn’t mistaken. After what seemed like an airy flight (I don’t think my feet touched the ground but twice) we set down in a sort of open-air vestibule in front of an apartment building. The glass in the windows of the entrance was almost opaque, but had a glistening quality to it, and had the appearance of something riffled, almost like choppy seawater, each pane its own storm of sculpted liquid. Sylvia bade me to look up, which I did, noticing a square cut of noctilucent sky up there above the pillars.

“Wow. There it is. The cloud-smeared sky. Cool.”

Sylvia was holding onto my hand, and, as I often do, I was hoping she wouldn’t let go ever again. She just stood there, smiling and absently looking up.

I cleared my throat, breaking a lilting silence. “You know, until about the 12th century the word ‘cloud’ and ‘sky’ were essentially the same.”

The non sequitur fell to our feet and stayed there, like an ashamed animal that has just misbehaved and knows a scolding should be coming. I decided not to go on. Instead, I looked down at her, watching her watch the night’s verses of clouds and stars skying along through the 8-ball-black firmament. Her eyes were browning towards a melt, and the slip of her thin-lipped smile was languorously sauntering back at me, waiting and watching, at ease and afloat on the serene pool of her face. I held her by the gorgeous nape of her neck and pretended that we were dancing, dipping her some with one hand on her lower back, and she let go a puff of giggle, and everything seemed soft and ethereal and wonderful. The wind, my most rancorous enemy, had gone to bed for the night, and we just stood there, hugging in that doorway, not thinking about much else except each other.

Sylvia breaks the lull. With a hushed murmur she sighs, “I love living here.”

For some reason I think she means the building we're standing in front of, like she’s making up a story about our lives, like window-shopping for dreams. “Yeah. It’s quite a place. It’s so nice I’m thinking of getting another apartment here, just for my books and magazines. Maybe with a view of the Golden Gate. I think they’d like that.”

She dismisses me with a kind smirk. “No. I mean here, in San Francisco…where you are.”

I’ve never heard her say this before. In fact, it’s quite a rare thing for any San Franciscan to say. Not that we don’t; we just don’t happen to utter it very often; it’s something we all assume. But it deserves mentioning, how lucky we all are to live here, and how much we appreciate the city, through all its vasty ups and downs, its fog and foreboding, its splashes of sun and turbulent crashes into the who of what we are-- like me, here; and Sylvia, here too; in this city where we both love to be.