Finding the lights in San Francisco

“I think I scared your nephew,” Ernesto laughed as we got into his car. He added with a grin, “I mean, not as much as you seemed to be traumatizing him.”

I slammed my door.

“Where are we getting food?” I asked.

The ignition turned over with a cough and Ernesto’s battered silver mustang drove us out of the Village under boughs of bright green leaves and the bending rays of afternoon sunshine.

“I know a place in Oakland that’s really good,” Ernesto said as we puttered the quiet streets of Albany where my sister and husband live with their adorable, perfect, heavenly child.

Oakland? Not a chance,” I shot back.

“Why not?” Ernesto asked. His loud voice filled the car with a cheery ambiance impossible not to be affected by.

“Firstly,” I gritted at him, “We’d never get out alive. Secondly, I just can’t eat in Raiders territory.”

Ernesto laughed (probably at me, rather than with me. I wasn’t laughing, so I suppose that’s fair).

“I hear Oakland is getting kind of posh, actually,” he said. “Things change, Mary.”

We ate in Oakland. Clearly I lived to tell the tale.

And it actually was nice. Spring break could not have given us better weather. The sky was placidly blue with just the right amount of fluffy white stuff and the sun was warm and infectious. People were biking and basking on the grass by the (…um, whatever large body of water that was. Bay? Ocean?). And I was here with one of my oldest, greatest, most ridiculous friends, about to start another grand adventure.

Ernesto and I go way back. I try not to think about our choppy beginnings, but they come back to me slowly and sweetly on days like this when I get to see what a fine young man that frustrating little curmudgeon has turned into.

Since our days working together on the college paper, Ernesto has gone on to a bigger college paper at Chico State University where he was a (beloved? feared?) Editor-in-Chief, and then on to writing for actual newspapers. He also has a job that pays actual money (because journalism tends not to) and he seems to be good at that.

I’m back at the same newsroom where we first met. So of the two of us, he’s winning the race to adulthood.

“It’s a nice change to be the one to have it all together, though,” he said in the most affirmingly back-handed way possible. The Bay Bridge rose up before us, our pockets considerably lighter from our brunch and the bridge toll. (“Thank goodness those trolls didn’t make us answer a riddle,” he said with faked exasperation. “We’d have never made it over.”).

We sat on the water in traffic that inched by slowly for more than an hour before the steep streets and narrow neighborhoods of San Francisco spread out before us.

Parking was a tough find, but a spot opened up next to a middle school near Chinatown. We claimed it and began our adventure on foot.



Chinatown was a bit underwhelming.

“It’s just not like the movies,” I said as we stopped to take pictures beneath the paper lanterns. Ernesto and I are both photographers, which is ideal for adventuring because we both stop to take pictures at the same time making pacing much less of an issue for us. “Like, I guess I was hoping for a parade with one of those dragons or a CIA agent getting chased through the streets. Or like, a magic kitten? I don’t know.”

I mean, it was colorful and we did see some dried sea cucumbers. And at one perfect moment, I looked down an alley just in time to see pigeons rising in a flurry as two boys chased a red ball down the narrow, dimly lit lane between twin brick buildings. That was something.

Ernesto got us turned around looking for the entrance to Chinatown so we could see the archway. We ended up buying an armful of cheap rice snacks and jelly candies from a local market and winding our way back to the car instead.

“I guess things don’t always live up to our expectations,” I said as I divided our spoils in the dusty mustang. I unwrapped his candies so he wouldn’t get distracted kill us behind the wheel. Not that it helped.

Next stop: Fisherman’s Wharf.


By the time we found parking again, the sky had clouded over and a brisk wind had picked up off the water.

“Bring your sweater,” I said, grabbing my own from the backseat.

“Thanks, mom,” Ernesto laughed at me, ignoring my advice and sauntering down the hill with a jaunty spring in his step.

The Wharf was beautiful. Pungent smells of salt spray and algae mingled with the odor of the local catches. Crabs, lobsters and fish were being sold, raw and cooked, along the walkway. An abundance of tourist traps (some of which we fell into) laid out their merchandise in an entertaining display of the most basic marketing ploys.

“Okay, you were right,” said Ernesto when we reached the wooden railing that separated us from the large, gray bay. “It is cold.”

I smiled.

“When are you going to learn that I am always right?”

“I should know by now,” he agreed.

To warm up our hands, we got hot coffee before trekking back to the car. I was hungry but Ernesto wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate before it got too dark. He was doing a photo project and needed a shot of the bridge and one of Twin Peaks at night for a light trail. So we hit the streets one more time, racing the oncoming fog bank.

Stripping off shoes and socks and slinging camera equipment over our shoulders, we left our car in a gravelly lot and walked the sandy beach toward a pile of rocks that jutted out into the bay.





The tide was coming in and, already, light was leaving the sky in a thin, dimming exodus. We clammered across the rocks (not an easy task. I almost died. Twice). Up the slippery sides of the sleeping giants, we scampered until we found ourselves nestled between two large rock faces with no view of the bridge and no way forward.

“That’s a disappointment,” said Ernesto cheerfully.

Ernesto is not easily disheartened.

A little more slowly, and more acutely aware of how hungry we both were, we walked back to the car through the sand and the foamy tips of the bay waters. Silver air caught the curling green waves and lifted them into the evening breeze.

“Mary, if you were a pirate, what would your name be?”

I thought for a moment, letting tied waters run over my feet as they plodded through the mushy sand.

“Seablood Mary. Captain Seablood – that’s what they’d call me.”

“That’s not bad,” Ernesto said with a nod. “I’d be Longsworth Stickybeard, because my beard would always be sticky from rum. I could be your ship’s cook. Or your first mate?”

“Of course you’d be my first mate, Ernesto,” I said. What a stupidly obvious question. As if I’d sail the high seas with anyone but Ernesto.

Ernesto’s phone told us there was an Irish-Western fusion pub that served a kimchi reuben, so we cranked up our Taylor Swift playlist and drove through the darkening streets to get to the grub.

The pub was nearly deserted when we got there and both food and drink were divine. We sat and talked about school and life and plans.

And then we were back in the car to get to Twin Peaks for Ernesto’s final photo opportunity. Winding around the hill, we knew he wasn’t going to get his light trail. San Francisco’s fog had rolled during dinner. Some lights were still visible through the mists and they twinkled and scattered like a kaleidoscope as the rays hit the water particles in the air.

Never one to be disappointed, Ernesto plucked up his smile and got back in the car to drive me home.

Being twenty-something is weird. One minute the whole world seems open before you, the next minute you’re double checking the Ones in your wallet to make sure you can pay for dinner. College plans are not the same thing as life plans, and neither guarantees fulfillment. And, like San Francisco, a lot of it is underwhelming, disappointing, and a little bit colder than you expected. Perhaps that’s why we have friends to remind us to bring jackets or to keep our spirits up and find the rays of light when things get foggy.

We let Taylor Swift take us all the way back to Berkeley. Ernesto has basically all of her albums and I knew which songs to skip and which to replay.

“I’ve never seen San Francisco at night,” I said as we crossed back over the Bay Bridge. Lights reflected off the satiny black water, much the way they do back home in San Diego, but without the familiarity and friendliness.

“Well, you’re only twenty-four,” Ernesto reminded me. “There will be plenty more firsts for both of us.”

And I suppose that’s true.

More firsts. More adventures. More memories to add to our growing collection of golden days, so that when the years darken our sight and the fog rolls in, we will still see bright spots shining through like so many lights of a beautiful city.



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