After nine months in San Francisco, I went to the East Coast for the summer. My friends said it was wise to get out of the Bay Area in July and August so I arranged my schedule to be away until after Labor Day. When I returned I wondered how it would feel to be back in San Francisco again. Would it still seem new and exotic as it did when I arrived last year? Or would I have had enough?
The fog answered my question.
Last year the fog was a mystery to me. I did not see why it mattered so much to people here. But this year I see it freighted with as much meaning as leaves turning on trees on the East Coast. I know the fog will be coming now, rolling in from the ocean, feathering over the Golden Gate Bridge, then extending its tongue into the mouth of the Bay, the tip reaching forward to Alcatraz and pushing even further into the Bay’s throat.
With the fog come the foghorns. I lie in my bed one morning the first week in September and listen to the sounds. There is the deep resonating rumble of the foghorn on the city-side of the bridge, the foghorn I call Umbo. I count the seconds before it blows again just like I did when I was a boy when they told us to count the beats between the flash of lightening and the crack of thunder. I know the cadence and the score of this music. Umbo blows for two seconds and after 18 seconds it repeats. On a separate 32 second cycle there is the two-note blow of the mid-span horn, the one I call Yelp. Yelp blows two notes, a little taa-dah, timed so it falls midway between every second pairing of Umbo’s blows.
I have listened to that sequence – the duet played by Umbo and Yelp – so many times that it is like a mantra, a theme song. My body rhythms align with the sounds, the urgings of life in San Francisco.
This morning, the day after Labor Day, in the early morning, in the pre-dawn morning, the music is more complicated. The two basic blows are there. Umbo and Yelp. Unmistakable. But on top there is something new. Two new sounds – foghorns for sure – but with a different rhythm, and at a different intensity.
Had they added foghorns to the bridge while I was away? Surely, after doing duty for 50 years, there was little chance that there was discovery of a better series of blows? If anything, I would think that the ubiquity of GPS would eliminate the need for any blows at all, not call for more.
In the dark comfort of my bedroom I listened to the new horns blowing for several minutes before I realized what they were. There was a long and steady blow that sounded from time to time. It was not on the same metronome as Umbo; it was louder and if anything deeper and more thrusting. And when it sounded, it’s blow was almost 3 seconds long, a long time for that rich roasting sound, like the long taste of Colombian coffee served to you at a stand-up tinto bar in Bogota. But even though its blow was longer and louder and lower than Umbo, it somehow did not diminish the weightiness of Umbo’s blow. Umbo’s rhythm kept the measure of the relentlessness of passing time in this city.
And then the fourth blow – this one higher and shorter, though not melodious like Yelp. Rather this was like the dot to the other’s dash. This horn – unlike the three others – didn’t carry any magic. It was a workman-like blow, a utilitarian announcement that space was being occupied, “I am here. Watch your ass.”
That last sound explained the music. Umbo and Yelp were sounding the songs of the city and the bridge, just as they always do when the fog rolls in. The first new sound – the big low blow – was from a freighter coming into the bay, going under the bridge, bellowing its massive size, its epic weight, its demanding intensity. The other new sound was a smaller vessel, leaving the bay, heading for the Pacific, almost done with the business of maneuvering about the pilings of bridges and other vessels in close proximity. “I am here but I am on my way.”
I lay in bed puzzling out the symphony and as I did realized that the newness and mystery of San Francisco had not worn off.