I came back on a bathwater-warm night, air sloshing on my skin, a night for drinking slowly and laughing slowly and moving slowly. I’d left this tyrannical New York summer — when I can’t walk without sweating or ride the subway sans m’enerver or think about much of anything at all. But there is still energy in the nights, the perpetual electricty of New York City, crackling and buzzing like high-tension wires.
The escape was San Francisco. I lived there for three years — NYC before, NYC after. This was my first time back since I’d left.
I left because I had to leave. I needed to ground my aspirations to solid things: perfectly presented village brownstones, real-life Pinterest boards of exposed bricks and functional hipster kitchens and knickknacks, reminders that the fashion show on the sidewalk extends to our inner sanctums. I needed to remember the ways in which presentation is everything. I needed to watch glass towers sprout from empty lots, “Luxury Condos. Starting at $3M.” I laughed at the secular ambition: closets with snap-together organization systems, rows of business suits, a flat-screen TV positioned in a practical manner. Do concierge services bring back the tucked-in warmth of when my mom still did my laundry? I needed to laugh again for understanding the appeal.
I needed the city’s unflappable pride, the high-chinned dignity of the movie star running her errands before inescapable paparazzi. I needed the center of the known universe, and huddled masses on the subway, and hustlers and climbers and party people and so many delusional kings of New York. I needed the proof that anyone can scramble to the top of a mountain made by men. I needed the Met and the Park, and Rockefeller Center and Carnegie Hall and Astor Place and “the hardest door in town.” The “Great Man Theory of History” still lives here, I think, somewhere on the Upper East Side.
Most of all I needed all those who see something in the crown-skyline, who feel something in the electric-warm air on these summer nights, who hear something in the bragging anthems, and whose insane faith in this ineluctable something makes everywhere else I’ve been seem ultimately provincial. I left because, as I’d heard it said about San Francisco, “there is more to life than the fucking weather report.”
As it always goes, I didn’t realize what I’d left until I’d left. My SF-bound flight arrived late. (Out of fairness: The plane was not late. The intended plane was probably on time, but I was late.) My friend was not there to let me into his house.
I left my bags and climbed into the park, over brown-red dirt and shale, and wild sun-bleached grass. With a washed-out haze and the fog feathery just above my conceivable-world’s head, I looked out and saw the whole city at my feet. I saw the Mission District, flat and gridded below me and the whale’s-back of Portrero Hill, the glittering windows across the bay tumbling down from the Oakland mountains, all of San Francisco, folding towards the water, and the sentry headlands, and the Golden Gate bridge, and then hills again, wrapping back around, to hug me; I saw a crater and I was sitting on its lip.
San Francisco rests, as civilization-defining cities do, on a single great assumption: it perpetually reminds us, “there are some things bigger than me.”
Just before I left, I borrowed an old motorcycle and started out through the Mission, past the taquerias and murals, through SOMA, past coffeeshops and techies and too-casual talk of saving the world.
In the Presidio the road winds, slowly then sharper and faster, with deep curves. The thing about riding a motorcycle, the art and grace and joy of it is all in those turns. You have to lean — beyond logic, with your rational brain screaming at you, your center of gravity no longer under the wheels but somewhere between your hip and the road. You have to trust that you’re feeling it right, that the bike will come around to get you, stay with you, road-tire-head together like the outside-to-the-inside of a record on a record player. No faith means head-first into oncoming traffic. Too much and you’re under four-hundred-and-fifty pounds of metal skidding down the road. Panic and brake: you flip.
This is what I like about riding motorcycles. It cuts deep, to where the fight-and-flight responses live, to all those things we must constantly be overcoming. It requires faith. It requires, namely, exactly what life requires. Each turn is what’s already in our hearts. Going into each turn, my fate’s decided. For a moment, I’m beyond time.
The view behind is the Golden Gate. The road arcs out, downhill, the biggest turn of them all, the bowing out the Pacific, the last of this continent. My eyes are closed now — all feel. Nothing happens. On to the Great Highway straight down a fog-tethered coast.
Back to San Francisco, to its high sunny center. Portola Drive to Twin Peaks, steep turns up the back, then a long, flat curve bursting between the hills, a thousand feet up, and for a second it feels like maybe gravity doesn’t apply, and I could ride off straight through the air forever just a thousand feet above the globe.
Before me is the whole city, golden, the whole city and the Bay in the late-afternoon sun, little fog fingers just-licking through hilly parapets, but the whole golden city at my feet.
And sometimes, here in New York, all I want is to get on a bike and ride up over the brownstones, with long deep turns between the towers, and burst over everything to the top of the city. I want to put it at my feet. And there, above it all, I want to hear in a summer-night whisper, “remember, there are some things bigger than me.”