I recently woke to a blue sky over a place I didn’t want to leave and I should have guessed that from there the rest of the day would take on the kind of proportions it didn’t fully deserve.
San Francisco isn’t supposed to be part of America, but I saw it as heartland visiting again after eight years living away and abroad.If there was anywhere I fit in, on any continent, it had to be this place with the blue sky white at the edges and fierce MUNI drivers and food choices galore and ideas forever coming to fruition and close, brisk ocean.Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes. I’d convinced myself moving back might make my world less complicated. So I went looking for signs urging me to return and, if those didn’t turn up, I needed irrefutable reasons why my young family and I should live out the rest of our days here, within a country that was plummeting further, rising from the ashes or just realizing the dream.Until I confirmed which one applied, I was only on vacation.
My wife’s phone buzzed on the floor beside her.She sat up in bed to open messages from France, where we would be flying home to that afternoon.“Oh my God,” she covered her mouth.
Friends and family were asking about us.They wanted to know if we’d already evacuated the city.We were okay, yes?Where were we now?Call or write back, because an earthquake just hit Japan and a probable, potential tsunami was headed to the west coast.European media estimated the waves approaching California shores at thirty feet high.Nothing was verified but still we should get out sooner rather than later.Devastation could be here any moment.It sounded bad from a distance.
I looked back out to the blue sky and down onto the city below this large hill we were perched on.The surrounding peace was terrible now.
We checked the local news.The only available information described choppy waves on Ocean Beach.Authorities advised caution for surfers.From the far epicenter, the ruptures and the rising water had done colossal damage to wide swaths of Japan.There, nightmares were coming true. Just as others had in spots all around the tectonic map in the past year.
I thought of those signs I was waiting for.Did waves that may or may not be sweeping in mean we should flee and never look back again?What about the present fault line at the ground beneath our feet?It was, and always would be, too early to tell.
We had breakfast and coffee, given to us by gracious, old-friend hosts where the conversation slipped to breezier subjects.We discussed what was good about the Bay Area.We went over schools, housing and other practical subjects that never crossed our minds in our olden days here.I learned that true coffee had progressed past Peet’s into Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle.I pictured myself already at a loss placing an order at any one of their registers.We’d been marveling at the little things like this all week but hadn’t yet factored in the morning’s news and fresh reminders of all the shifting ground.
So my wife and I walked down toward the open city.We only had to send some postcards.And possibly make up our minds.
At the bottom of the hill, we turned the corner to a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.She swayed in her gray-green dress on the sidewalk and waved at cars.As we approached, she ceded the sidewalk to us and winked.It turned out she only worked for a tax service that used the word “liberty.”The deal was off.
We passed a Pizza Hut, a credit union and a Locavore.We talked about how you can’t ever go home, of course.We went over what we’d leave behind if we did move back.We wondered if we’d always be torn over everything.Restlessness wasn’t going to get us anywhere and, on top of that, we’d never outsmart calamity, if that’s what we were worried about.
Having overshot our destination for mail, we asked a woman on the street where the post office was.She smiled and replied that she was going there herself and that we could walk with her to it.It was a conscientious gesture, one that I took as area-specific.
Ambling side-by-side in a trio, I had no idea what to say to this generous stranger.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?Shame everything’s getting so seismic,” was a tact I didn’t take.
“Whisper to me what you know about tidal waves,” was another I passed on.
“How about them Giants, several months ago that is?” yet another.
Finally, I just said we were visiting from out of town.I left out our former lives around these parts.
She was happy to hear it and asked more about us.She then suggested lunch places.I got the feeling that if we were to stick with her we’d never feel anything rumbling from below.We continued walking together as though we’d planned it this way.We even stood in line at the post office together and sent our mail, and then each other, on our separate ways.
By the time my wife and I huffed back up the hill, the premature tsunami warnings for the west coast had been called off.We ate one last meal with friends who buttressed the relative safety and shelter and familiarity of a place that resembled something close to home.Their goodwill was all I’d need to take with me.
Later, inside an aircraft, I got closer to the unchanged sky.We zoomed west first, looping wide out over the ocean.The waves below exhibited an unimaginable restraint as they broke over the same, fixed lines in the sand that they had for years.The world’s largest body of water absorbed the blow on one end this time.
And the green hills crested over cliffsides and the bridge spanned and, at the end of the still dry peninsula, the city consisted of two squares separated by the long strip of park and a crush of streets and neighborhood hills approaching its downtown port.It was a lucky seaside village.It was hard to grasp that so many people and pets and epiphanies and self-actualizations indeed resided at this contiguous tip.Leaving it behind again, it helped to see San Francisco as smaller.If I could keep remembering it that way, maybe nothing major would happen while I was gone.