Dear riders of the Powell-Mason cable car line in San Francisco, late summer 1991,
Sorry for flashing you.
I was living at 1612 Mason Street that summer, in an apartment on the bottom floor of a grey-and-purple building by the corner of Green Street in North Beach. A particularly picturesque San Francisco spot. View from the roof out over Fisherman’s Wharf to Alcatraz in the Bay. The trolley tracks ran right past.
The only way I was able to afford such a nice place was to share its two bedrooms with four friends from college. I’d been asked to take what a kindly dean referred to as an “academic hiatus” after my sophomore year. I thought I’d get a job and start a new life. But that was a recession summer. Jobs were not to be found, even for someone with my credentials. I ate tuna fish sandwiches and potato salad every day, saving every spare bit of cash for rent and the amazing pot a friend of a friend brought us down from Humboldt County. The only furniture in the apartment was a kitchen table and chairs. We slept on futon cushions and didn’t much decorate.
Or hang curtains on the windows in my bedroom. Those that looked out onto the sidewalk, and the street, down the middle of which, every half-hour or so, a red-and-yellow cable car full of tourists would slowly clatter and chug its way towards the intersection. My roommates and I joked about living in a fish bowl and carried our clothes into the bathroom to change after showering. But as the months passed and I got more comfortable in the apartment, I started walking back into the room in a towel and changing there. You could hear the trolley approaching from a block away, so there was always time to cover up. Eventually, though, probably due in part to the listlessness of unemployment, I stopped making the effort.
What did I care if a couple tourists saw me naked? Consider it a free perk or a hidden tax that accompanies the price of a ticket. A new kind of San Francisco treat.
This was early in the handheld video camera era. I remember being struck by the number of people who rode the cable cars with the things fixed to one eye, held steady, filming the faÃ§ade of every building on the route. I always thought they were missing a lot that way, sacrificing 360 degree scenery for dull documentation. Didn’t they want to look around? It didn’t seem like a fun way to spend a vacation day. Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps also because of the potency of the Humboldt pot, I got a real kick out of it the first time I saw a guy’s face pop out from behind his camera, eyes and mouth open wide, having spotted the whole of me through his lens. It’d give him a story to tell. Spice things up a bit.
Soon I took to air-drying after a shower, staying naked on purpose, waiting to hear the trolley come and standing right up in the window, hands on my hips, stoned and giggling to myself as it passed. It was rare that anyone noticed-only two or three gawkers and pointers over a month or so of this-but I very much enjoyed the thought of the people who might have caught me on camera without noticing in real time. That would be a fun home movie screening. Greetings from San Francisco!
But if you didn’t find it fun, well, sorry. Also, please keep in mind what Mark Twain said about how cold it is in San Francisco during the summer.