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A Perfect Day
By Bill Yard
I MADE IT AS FAR as 24th and Valencia, one block from BART, just minutes from my usual ergonomically designed, temperature-controlled perch on the 18th floor of a steel and glass Beale Street cage.
Then I stopped. Look, I said to myself, it's happening again: another morning, another perfectly fine day, is turning into a workday.
Witnessing an otherwise fine and fulsome morning devolve irretrievably into just another drab slab of commerce, compromise, and petty politics is ... well, it's the opposite of watching some crusty cocoon unzip from within to free a delicate, gorgeous butterfly. Rather, that sweet fine San Francisco morning is suddenly and methodically eviscerated, bursting Alien-like into a slime-encrusted workday, devoid of vision and stinking to high heaven of trivial toil and banal greed.
You know the routine. You awake from a priceless and improbable dream, one filled perhaps with vague conspiracies, or suspended laws of architecture, or compulsively craven coitus with an insignificant other. That lurking demon, the clock radio (you didn't own one when you were young, did you?), has loosed its caterwaul, prodding you toward the daily money-Mecca cattle call. The noise yanks you up and out of your dream. For a moment you lie on the bed, blinking. Your body extends from your mind in a gooey mass, like egg white draped limply around a yoke.
A trained donkey could perform my morning ritual. If my life were an Excel file, I'd write a macro. Stumble to bathroom, shower, shave, breakfast, dress... Once in a while (today!), I get to the front door before realizing that I must momentarily rush back, because I forgot that most ridiculous, absurd, and demeaning device of all: the necktie.
Some time ago I ran into my good friend, the guru and carpenter known as George Morey, sitting on the bench outside Spinelli's (what is it now, Tully's? Whatever). I said, "Hey, George. How's work?" He looked down, shook his head, and muttered, "Time-consuming." Indeed, work becomes this defiling of time, each incident only a petty crime. But over the years, over a lifetime, our silent whoring reveals its true horror: we are worn down, eaten from within, drained of stamina, laughter, creativity. I read the other day that, in general, the more "advanced" a civilization is, the less leisure time it has. Do folks like me go to work to make money to buy -- what -- ties, alarm clocks, Fast Passes, auto insurance, Pentiums, all so we can go to work?
So there I am at 24th and San Jose. And the crime is not just what I have done to get there, but what I have not done.
Take fog: I have, once again, neglected it. Surely among the city's most valuable assets, the fog blesses many parts of town (Noe Valley more than most). Standing on a corner along any of our numbered streets or those parallel to them, facing west, you watch it coming over Twin Peaks. Through the years, you notice subtle differences in the fog during different seasons. In late fall and early winter, the fog's at its best.
That's because of the light that illuminates the fog during its morning and evening journeys back and forth from the sea. After the autumnal equinox, as the sun struggles to cross the sky, the morning fog glows from within in this low-slung sunlight. And watching the fog fighting Twin Peaks to the west, with the morning sun on our backs, we sometimes get that crisp, post-sprinkle sparkle from moist asphalt streets that lick passing car tires like big black dog tongues. You have to stand and face west, during late fall or early winter, to pick this up. I say, you have to stand there, and notice. And exhale, and be patient. And listen.
And you can't do that, or you won't, if you're going to work.
There are whole classes of people who don't work. Of course, there are the homeless. Most "working" folks just run right past them, so that they can run into the BART station, run down the stairs, run past the street musician, run past the Chronicle stand, run past the Watchtower vendor, run to the turnstiles, run to the escalator, run down the escalator, and run to their defacto slots on the platform. And for what? To wait, and often wait some more, for the train. Inside, they sit, silent, steaming, semi-digested, a few eyes alive and flitting among them to settle on someone and feed, until the mass forced extrusions at Powell, Montgomery, or the Embarcadero.
The homeless, meanwhile, don't run. Rather, they tend to talk to people (if only to themselves) and look around (at fog, or us). Retirees don't run either, nor do the folks (mostly women) pushing baby carriages (babies! Now there's a concept! Having a baby used to be almost written permission to spend much of the day outside, doing errands, breathing the fog! These days, unfortunately...), nor do young semi-employed students, and artists and poets and dancers and laborers and drunks and cabdrivers and -- you know, all the people who bring life and vitality and true economic and cultural diversity and patience and perspective to our town, and fewer and fewer of whom can afford to live here anymore. Which is why, in 1979, downtown 24th Street between Church and Castro was pretty much equally busy at 10 a.m. seven days a week, whereas the same strip in 1999 is relatively quiet at 10 on weekdays before exploding into yuppie Calcutta at 10 on weekends, the inmates having been forced to pound out license plates (or web sites -- whatever) until Friday night when they're finally let out into the exercise yard.
Oh, and there's a lot more to it than the fog. There's always something to read, the Chronicle, Bay Guardian, doesn't matter. To do it right, you read most or all of whatever it is. How about a novel? Read it all, or a bunch of it, at one sitting. Gorge on it. If it's a newspaper, you leave it on your seat for the next guy. And you're chasing it with coffee, of course, but coffee in a ceramic container, which is how coffee is supposed to be drunk, not in some disposable cardboard tube so it tastes like you're sucking your coffee through a box. To do it the right way, you have to stay put in the cafe. Sit. Stay.
Through the window, you see a pigeon. You watch it. You notice that it's picking up a twig, then it lifts off and disappears under the eave of a set of flats across the street. The pigeon is building a nest! This is where baby pigeons come from! Epiphany! Now we're getting somewhere! You walk down the street and somebody on one of the benches outside Starbucks says something amusing and you stop and smile and say something else and you both laugh. You, and a complete stranger. He (or she -- whatever!) says something else, and you reply, and lo and behold the conversation catches. You want to cup your hands around it so the wind doesn't blow it out. Maybe you exchange names. Maybe you don't.
This ... this transaction, it's civilized. It's called community. It's called learning about people who are different from you without having to look them up in a book or, God forbid, search their web site or, Goddess forbid, take a seminar at New College about them. It's just being with them. Quiet, patient, open-ended, wondering, both of you smelling the same morning air, watching the bakery trucks unloading, the fearless kids on skateboards, the door of the 48 dilating at the corner. Being with strangers, as well as friends.
This is how fear and ignorance and prejudice are stopped in their tracks. This is how children learn tolerance and courtesy and respect. A Christian might witness, in this transaction, the sharing of a dollop of the Holy Spirit; a secular observer might sense the cobbling together of a small corner of democracy. Both would agree: this is good stuff. We crave it, more than the newest CD, the safest baby stroller, or the subtlest stain for our hardwood floors.
It reminds us. On those mornings when we're going to work, or on those precious few mornings when we're not going to work but we're busy catching up from going to work, we miss it, this actual living. All of it.
I miss it. Any of it. I can't go back to 1979, when I only worked a few hours here or there (just like, it seemed, everybody else), and we all survived just fine, thank you very much, and we learned stuff like fog, and smells, and talking to strangers, and in a weird sense, we even enjoyed doing the laundry, because we didn't own our own machines back then, so we went to a (public!) laundromat, clutching an airtight alibi to hang on the street.
BUT BACK TO THIS 1999 day, this perfectly fine, anonymous morning. I don't have to walk that last block, go down into that BART tube, let the economy's peristalsis extrude me toward that perch in that glass and steel Beale Street cage. I'll take back this one day.
At 24th and Valencia, I stopped. A block from BART, I turned around and started to remove my tie. I began to walk.
Bill Yard is a writer and editor who has lived in San Francisco since 1971. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.