They say you learn new things with age; celebrating my 17th birthday, I learned that they don’t run cable cars in the rain. It was a damp and dismal Friday, the first day afforded us President’s day weekend, and four friends and I had trekked what Google Maps proclaimed 2.5 miles inward from a hotel facing outward on San Francisco bay.
We’d passed the facades of many buildings on the trek: brown marble bedded lobbies, the fluorescence of shops selling fruits in boxes and drugs on shelves, the Roman pillars of Wells Fargo buildings smug and stately and much at home. The rectangular cylinders of trash cans and the entrances of BART station stops, dark green C’s like cardboard cake-toppers to the sidewalk’s gray frosting, greeted us in the rain; businessmen walked in North Face zip-ups, dark leather loafers and white ear buds with a vengeance, families with a friendlier pace.
I was wearing a plaid tunic with a peplum and buttons the color of a dark sea and it seemed a lovely parallel that as my friend Claire and I walked towards the cable car junction we passed a swathe of red lanterns hanging like oversized and illuminated fruits as well as the melancholy moaning of bagpipes, thick on the wet air, a combination like that of our tangent hipbones as we squeezed together beneath the umbrella.
It seemed an affirmation as well, that which reminded us how we’d ventured outside the monochromatic and culture-chromatic bubble in which we draw our daily sights and sounds. Understanding obstacle to accompany age, it seemed reasonable, following said trek, for the man at the ticket booth to inform us of the cable car’s disinclination to operation in the rain.
“No cable car,” he said, in a raincoat and thick accent.
“No cable car,” he repeated adamantly.
Claire wore a marshmallow pink sweater and a wide-eyed alarm. “Um,” she said.
“Guess we have to tell them,” I said to the front-windows of the Old Navy store across the street, not wanting to meet my friend’s disappointment.
We walked back towards them under a shared umbrella, her left and my right shoulders gathering little droplets from where the nylon couldn’t reach.
“Yeah,” I said as we approached them, my hands in my vest pockets where I should have held the overpriced tickets for our trip.
One of my friends stared blankly out of a set of dull navy eyes.
“Yeah,” I repeated.
We called an Uber, a gray van with plush seats. It was quiet in the car as we sat in our windbreakers and disappointment; the smell of rain and wet denim overpowered my Ralph Lauren blue and someone else’s fruity scent of hair product. We climbed through San Francisco’s streets as the Uber took what seemed a route tangential to the one the cable car would have taken on a sunnier day, or had it chosen to brave the rain, and it seemed a strange phenomenon to have paid nearly as much as the tickets would have required to make the trip in that sleeker vehicle.
As we passed pastel painted Victorians, houses arranged in cramped rows and bearing an uncanny resemblance to tri-color cake, I thought of the reason behind our trip, behind the foray into the city altogether, how the fact that I’d survived seventeen years of life and had trudged through finals week with the Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” had so arbitrarily overlapped.
Hot fudge and pecan-studded whipped cream mountains welcomed us back to warmth from the rain; a cramped table at Ghirardelli Square watched us eat sundaes named in honor of various local attractions—Lands End, Ocean Beach, Crissy Fields—and I thought how skillfully I’d achieved my aim of playing tourist to that city, capturing brick walls and old photographs of men in aprons and vintage cocoa powder ad posters, watching the turning of liquid chocolate, like the laundering of linen on rollers, with an unadulterated wonder.
As I played tourist I learned other things, as well: how recording my surroundings had morphed, by seventeen, from a concerted effort to an unconscious one. My friend Elena’s comment—“My mom’s really into nature. She cares more about plants, than, like, any of my extracurriculars”—had pronounced itself in my i-Phone notes on the Uber ride over; at the small marble outcropping of table we’d been granted beside the other tourists, responses to my friend David’s ability to tie a cherry-stem knot—first, “That means you’re a good lover,” second, “You look like you’re doing math”—had similarly traveled to my mobile phone.
Uber rides capitalized the night; next was one with a driver named Joseva who drove us down past the old brick of the Drake Hotel and its surrounding squatters to the fluorescent tourist traps and nautical-kitsch storefronts of Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, a destination in which we acquired two grainy i-Phone images of the sealions about their laziness and one stuffed version which we quickly stifled in first a plastic and second a cross-body bag.
Ariel followed, ostensibly a Filipino man, who drove with a steady hands, sober classical music and a trinket hanging from his mirror like a clear See’s Candies caramel pop which picked up bits of light—headlights, tail lights, contortions of neon which advertised breasts and Coors Light—and threw them like a frantic prism; Ernest, a Latino man in a baseball cap returned us from dinner to the hotel, listening to a questionable radio-station which lamented “a well-kept female classmate” and our own backseat squabble as to the appropriate use of the night’s remainder.
None of these trips, despite their abundant and frequent nature, fit the particular slope or charm of streets traversed in an animal cracker box-resembling streetcar, and so throughout the night I became preoccupied with a pilgrimage for this lone and missing cable car. My attention rode the translucent, red plastic waves atop the muni stop booths, walked the miniature Golden Gate of my J-Crew tank’s T back, and chased the 7-11 wild cherry Slurpee which ran back and forth between my mouth and the oversized cup intermittently between 10 and 11PM with a synthetic quality designated Irish pub signs’ fluorescence.
Tony Bennett’s San Francisco evaded me. “Little cable cars” did not “climb halfway to the stars” this weekend; they were grounded somewhere, in lots or warehouses, on underground tracks or specialized parking garages. Neither did I wear the “I don’t care” sentiment when “the morning fog” came to “chill the air”; I was angry at how the gray color had, bringing storm clouds and downpour, inconvenienced my agenda. Though we did pass a clay sculpture of the shape, it wasn’t my heart abandoned in the city; the love waiting “above the blue and windy sea” no more belonged to me than it did to the explorers of old, in their English and Spanish tights and entitlements, or the Sacred Heart girls in plaid skirts and knobby knees, or the visitors bogged down my hotel reservations and unwieldy Nikons.
I shouldn’t be mad about the cable cars’ truancy. I shouldn’t be mad about the sea lions being different than the plush ones written about in Julie Orringer’s “Care” or about the sundaes at Ghirardelli costing more than two-fold my allowance, but the truth is that, however mature I am supposed to be, I am, in the face of the law and by slack of another year, still a child, and in such a distinction, permitted certain juvenile tendencies, fixation large among them.
I told myself I wanted to pick up souvenirs for my seventeenth birthday, souvenirs of a homeland I always rejected before I proceed to leave it, but the truth is that I don’t understand this as my homeland. I feel a bit like Nick Caraway, the one literary character with whose sympathies and traits mine bear uncanny similarities; as someone weaned on CNN, I’m not only “five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” I’m much more than five years too old.
The California I met at age eight is effectively the same California contained the weekend, and the distance with which I approached it then, in 2008—as though through the division of the glass of one of those snow-globes outfitted with a miniature Golden Gate hey sell down on Market—the same distance. For each of my few California memories and attachments—after school hours of pizzas built atop English muffins, a husky mascot, a pair of thrift store Coach boots—there are dozens from New York to drown them: a preschool sandbox, a class trip to the fire station, a lighthouse, the Old Dutch Cemetery and the headless horseman who used to ride along the storefronts alongside pumpkins and candy-corn birthed of window paint, a black dog who used to swim in a reservoir rimmed in blackberries, whose hairs I still find in the corners of the house like remainders of long-before solved though carried over equations.
I feel distant from these California memories, I think because those memories are also now, the evidence of their continuation without me frank, evident, physical, like walnuts removed the shells with which I once claimed them, incarnated into a new form: kids my friend babysits complain about the same English muffin pizzas, the interlocking C’s of the coach boats slump like hung men in the depths of my closet, the mascot has been replaced by a classmate who wears the same dark hair and large brown eyes, with whom I once did a group brochure on a visit to Uranus, but who has long-since shed her cargo pants and her Happy Valley Huskies sweatshirt for a state track and field title and a probable recruitment to Harvard.
Maybe my failure to find a cable car represents some greater failure of mine; maybe I can’t find here what I’m supposed to be able to derive, and maybe I never could. Maybe I have to reconcile with my failure to claim a Tony Bennett song in destinations, or give up on other people’s San Francisco. Maybe I have to accept that despite my zip-code I feel more of an affinity for Dunkin Donuts than for Peete’s Coffee, that despite the distance of the latter transportation, my archetype for train cars is not the blue raspberry of a BART card, which it probably should be, but the saffron yellow of a MetroNorth pass survived the move. Maybe, instead of trying to conjure track gears out of red plastic waves clear enough to indicate the lack of such contents, or to draw levers out of a flimsy tank in which the only machinery is that microscopic sort made to slide along the straps, or to pull the glazed metal side, colored ‘cablecarmine’ from every afternoon instance of red: CVS letters, a Red Cross advertisement, the vermillion bow contained a stranger’s mouth.
Maybe I have to accept the souvenirs, instead of those found in Fisherman’s Wharf postcard racks and t-shirt spreads, are those with which I escaped the weekend: my birthday cards, whose innards are pale pink colored, some white, and which read things like “It is crazy to think it has been two years” and “Thank you for being my best friend, my fellow liberal,” a renewed camaraderie with old friends, a want for Scrabble-revenge, the contentment indicative of company well-spent.
Maybe I have to smile at the check my grandparents sent me, which wears their names in block-print and a pale depiction, as though an age-bleached daguerreotype of and not a commercial reproduction of the Wells Fargo horses, a journey, like my own, devoid a vibrancy of color. Maybe I have to take stock in how my grandmother claimed Tony Bennett to her native Brooklyn, making his words “When I come home to you, San Francisco / Your golden sun will shine for me” as little weighted with a sense of home as they are when I hum them.
I wanted souvenirs of a homeland I always rejected, and maybe I got them. I wanted five dollar chachke and knickknacks—plush sea lions and seals, window-sticker crabs, linen cinch-bags of pyrite pieces or gold nugget chewing gum—to assemble along my desk or shelves in some future and still abstract dorm room. I wanted eagle-stamped chocolate squares, Alcatraz paperweights, pencils topped with suspension bridge mockeries the color of synthetic cherry, but I got a lesson instead.
When I go to college, when I return back east from what has been this limbo called home, I’ll finally have an answer for my objectivity, an explanation as to why, unlike my classmates in flannels and velvet chokers, my friends in white vans and wooden saint bracelets, I’ll have records of that place, perfectly intact, photographs in which I never managed to eclipse a piece of our fogged metropolis—the Transamerica pyramid with a head, Coit Tower’s cylinder behind a raised arm. I’ll have learned the reason for my desire to have these things in keychains and snow globes, in polyester mittens and in scarves, is due the fact that they don’t belong to me, never did, and that it was out of a hope that I might rectify what has been my failure to have claimed them through ownership of their replicas in plastic and glass.
In elementary school we had to do projects on the California explorers, complete with shoebox dioramas and coffee-stained paper, and I understand now what had been my nine-year-old affinity for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who others ridiculed as “his men completely missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay, an error mariners would repeat for the next two centuries most likely due to fog” was due my similar circumnavigation of the area.
I wanted souvenirs of a homeland I always rejected, but in the place of shell-case boxes or shot glasses painted with the red bean paste and hunter green hues of redwoods, I’ll have lessons to share with my roommate: how cable cars don’t run in the rain, the evasive quality of Tony Bennett’s San Francisco, how my affinity with a dead conquistador and the impersonality of my bayside photographs attest the tourist I always was.