I almost never drive to work in the city (San Francisco) at regular commute hours. I go in at midday, usually, and return home well after the last of the evening commute. But today I drove because it was the day before the holiday and the morning rush hour was light. I waited a little too long to start home, till almost 3:30, and this is what happened: a long (but standard) jam on the western approach to the Bay Bridge. The stop-and-go and merge after merge after merge slows you down so you can reflect on why you love living here.
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Sometime back in the rich Early Middle Era of my news career — 1987, I’ll call it, at The San Francisco Examiner — something awful happened at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. A wire-service bulletin said an airliner had gone down somewhere down the coast. I was new on the city desk, and had just started my shift. I had been part of many newsroom scrambles for big stories on deadline, but I was never really in charge of the response. I wasn’t, really, on this night, either. I remember that the senior city editor grabbed a reporter who was just about to leave for the evening and told him he needed to fly down to the crash site. Done. I think my fellow editor collared two or three other reporters who thought they were going home and told them to stand by.
Just recounting the incident revives its horror for me, though I don’t think of it often. What made a more conscious impression, one that still rises to the surface whenever I’m in a newsroom–every working day, now–was the way the editors and reporters reacted to the simple suggestion that a story was happening, that game was afoot.
I’m thinking about that now because my current newsroom, at KQED Public Radio, is in the midst of trying to respond to this week’s problems on the Bay Bridge. Circumstances are a little different now. Much smaller newsroom–which means much smaller staff. No one to stop at the door on the way out and say, “Hey — wait a minute. Big problem on the bridge.” In fact, when the incident occurred the other night, I was winding down from our evening newscasts and getting ready to edit a feature story, a guy wandered over from an adjacent (non-news) department and asked if we knew what was happening on the bridge. When it came down to it on night one, it was me, the local traffic reporting service, and our evening announcer who held the fort. (One of the bosses said to me, “These all-hands-on-deck situations are fun.” I didn’t reflect until later that at first, mine were the only hands on deck.) I had started work before noon and sent my last new email of the night after 1 a.m. I complained mildly on Facebook that it’s harder for me to do those long news days and come back the next day to do it again. The very same editor I was so impressed with that evening back in ’87 responded to that note: “And yet … you’re still a kid.”
Not so sure about that. But some old news reflex is still there.
Spent the morning — Friday morning, I need to say, with Saturday morning fast approaching — out at the Bay Bridge construction project. I’d love to describe it in detail, and will, but right now I’m just plumb tuckered out. This is the scene at the Coast Guard boat landing on Yerba Buena Island. None of the construction is in this view, and it’s a little out of focus, but it does convey a little bit of the beauty of this morning. More later.
Occasionally, once every couple of weeks maybe, I’ll drive in to San Francisco for my afternoon shift rather than take the train in. A midday the traffic is usually light and you zip across. And though it’s unnecessary to drive since I live and work close to transit, it’s nice every once in a while not to do the short hike down to the station at 16th and Mission at 9:30 or 10 at night. That’s another story.
This afternoon the bridge approaches were clear as usual at 1 p.m. But the electronic sign at the bottom of the long incline after the toll plazas said there was an accident two or three miles ahead. Just ahead, the traffic was slowing, and it took a good 25 minutes to get up to the accident site on the west side of the tunnel that opens onto the suspension span that carries traffic into the city. Since traffic was just about stopped, I took out the camera and did some distracted driving.
Warm this evening in San Francisco. Lots of people out on the Embarcadero after dark, and no jackets needed. Even the ferry back to Oakland was a shirt-sleeve ride. Before I got on the boat, I looked across the bay and saw the moon coming up beyond the Bay Bridge, over the East Bay hills; it’s that big, indistinct bright thing out there in the distance. I took long exposures by balancing my little camera on a railing along the Embarcadero walk. It worked well for keeping the camera steady, not so well for aiming the camera just anywhere I wanted.
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A favorite cheap excursion: Oakland to San Francisco and back on the ferry ($4.50 each way if you buy a 20-ticket book). We had rain showers early in the afternoon, and then this fog blew in over the bay. Somewhere in this picture are a couple of 50-story tall bridge towers. After we passed under the bridge, the fog swirled away from a tower for a moment (below). We took the ferry back to the East Bay after dark, and later in the evening a front blew through and cleared out the clouds.
My keys: An ever-popular household line: Have you seen my keys? No — seriously. I haven’t seen them since about Tuesday. I missed an appointment — a casual one, on Thursday — because I was stuck at home searching for them. So far, the usual thing — finding them in some obvious place that I never thought to look — has not happened and they remain MIA. So if you see them. …
Peet’s: I first went to Peet’s Coffee, the original store up at Walnut and Vine, in the late ’70s. The first time I really remember being there was when I was working as a construction laborer in early 1979. One day it rained and we couldn’t work — I think we were in the middle of digging a garage foundation by hand, since it was on a steep slope — and the carpenters on the crew said we ought to go to Peet’s. We hung out for awhile, mostly under the eaves out on the sidewalk, with about a dozen other people. It was chilly and wet, but it didn’t seem so bad because the coffee was so … well, it was really like a drug. I went home after two cups, and I probably didn’t sit down for the rest of the day. The foregoing reminiscence is prompted by the news, passed on by KTVU this evening, that Alfred Peet, the guy who really is responsible for both Peet’s and Starbuck’s, has died. He was a true coffee visionary, though uninterested in a commercial empire, and a first-rate drug pusher. (“Coffee Pioneer Alfred Peet dies,” San Francisco Chronicle.)
Poem: “After Reading T’ao Ch’ing, I wander Untethered Through the Short Grass,” by Charles Wright (from The Writer’s Almanac).
And last: The Bay Bridge is closed tonight. Closed, completely. For four days. As part of the generations-long project to make the bridge seismically sound, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans, not Caldot) has shut it down for the holiday weekend. That’s all the time it needs to demolish a section of the bridge on the Oakland side of the Yerba Buena Tunnel and slide in a pre-built piece to replace it. The last time the bridge was closed so long: 1989, from October 17 to November 17, after the Loma Prieta Earthquake lifted up the east end of the bridge and let it drop, causing a section to collapse. That was a generation ago, and we have a ways to go before the bridge rehab and rebuild is complete.
Oh, and give me a holler if you see those keys.