Walking through any city, but especially San Francisco, is an exercise in eccentricity—the smells, the sounds, the people, all of it. There are needles on the street and businessmen rushing past homeless camps. For whatever reason, today I notice more taxi drivers out on the streets than usual, some sort of callback to a forgotten era. Under a dimming, overcast sky, the world loses its edge. The colors of the stoplights and restaurants all blend together in a dreamy haze.
It reminds me of the cold summer night when my dad drove us all the way up Mauna Kea, through the thick Hawaiian mist until finally we could see the stars. For a second, I’m trapped in memory. My sister and I, young and tired, in the backseat fighting over a ukulele. The strange calmness of the air conditioner’s breeze. My parents in the front, silent, waiting as we climbed.
I pass a line of drummers and street performers and the BART station that I had planned on entering on Market, but it’s like I’m walking with my eyes closed. I can’t stop thinking about the stars that night, imposing and opulent, so grand they were almost buzzing. Still, it feels improbable that, behind the fog, the same stars are just above me.
I’m back on Market, behind a couple walking hand in hand. I hear the man say to his partner that the human body is an imperfect machine, even if it is amazing. Slowly, I make my way toward the pier. There are little white bits of trash on the sidewalk that’ve been stepped on so many times they look like footprints. The sidewalks become crowded with tourists.
I think of New York and the most crowded streets I’ve ever seen. The rushing cabs and men in suits walking everywhere like the world is judging their strides. A rush of sadness that feels like panic comes to me as I think of the price of a plane ticket to New York. Or Peru. Or anywhere. Living in one place your whole life brings about a kind of deep stir that “wanderlust” doesn’t quite capture. I think about looking out the window as I land in Thailand or Turkey or Morocco. I don’t know what I’d look at; I’ve never been, but the feeling of looking over a foreign place is so strong that landing in a new continent almost feels like a memory.
I keep on walking toward the pier, and the crowd reminds me of every airport I’ve ever been in. The rush to see it all is contagious. The world is big and gets bigger the more you think about it. The moon has risen to the sky now. The crowd all moves together in one block. And here, on this path that I’ve walked so many times before, I can’t help but feel like if life is a great adventure I’m doing it wrong. It’s not rational and it’s not healthy, but I haven’t figured out how not to confuse passing time with wasting time.
For a second, I take the chance to be still, and I even go so far as to turn my phone off and put it in my backpack. I look out over the water. The sun is setting now, and it seems like everyone else on the pier too is stuck in a moment of observation. And we’re not talking or even standing particularly close together, but we’re sharing something anyway. So few moments nowadays belong to the collective, and those that do are so often tragedies. It’s a weird sort of magic to stand with others and watch the same sunset, the orange and pink hues now coming together as if placed deliberately.
I can just make out the shape of Angel Island in the distance. With the Golden Gate Bridge to the left and the smell of the Bay in the air it feels like San Francisco has been boiled down to a postcard and placed in front of my eyes. I think of my grandparents. Only a lifetime ago they were here, for the first time on American soil. I remember their stories, the Korean War pushing down until their hometown was a war zone, the fright of violence. How lucky am I to be able say the phrase “travel the world” and mean to experience new things, not to escape old ones? And how thin is the line between privilege and luck?
I try to bring my eyes to the horizon and focus on the colors. The orange feels almost synthetic. Though I’m still, it feels like a struggle, as if forces pulling me in every direction just so happen to cancel out.
I’ve fallen asleep with the image of the Milky Way across the Mauna Kea sky for years on end. Maybe one day I’ll go back. Until then, there are too many places to explore.
By Colton Wills