Saturday, June 11, 2011

All Signs Point Toward Home

On my arrival in San Francisco, I held my GPS device to the steering wheel with one hand, thankful that there were satellites in the sky guiding me. The roads there worked in three dimensions: north-south, east-west, and up-down. I put my trust in technology to keep me from getting lost, took a seemingly random series of turns, and miraculously arrived where I was supposed to go.

For the most part, the memories of my two-day visit in San Francisco blurred together like the cryptic directions on my GPS. I blindly went where I was told to go. But two particular experiences stick out, both of which occurred on public transportation. I should preface these stories by saying that I have grown very accustomed to the unwritten laws of riding public transport in a big city, where getting from one place to another is a serious, silent business. But not so in San Francisco.

During my first bus ride, a young couple boarded with three small children. The father fidgeted and checked his watch frequently, as if willing time to slow. When they got off the bus a few stops later, they left one of their children, no older than five, behind. A young woman sat in the seat next to the child, and without hesitation she picked the child up, set her on her hip, and walked her to her parents on the sidewalk below. Neither the young woman, the parents, the child, nor anyone on board the bus seemed to find this unusual in the slightest. I, of course, was completely flabbergasted.

I was waiting for a bus later that evening when a very old woman touched my shoulder and asked if I knew when the next bus was coming. I told her we had just missed one, but the next should be along in about ten minutes. Thirty minutes later we were still waiting. In that time a small crowd had gathered. The bus finally arrived and the doors swung open, and the woman took two very cautious steps forward, in a direction that was not exactly the direction of the door. I reached for her, but before I could touch her, another man came forward and gently took her elbow. The entire crowd seemed to curl around her, not with impatience, but with some collective empathy, as if they could will her safely in the right direction. No one boarded that bus before she did.

Although these experiences left me feeling a warmth and appreciation for San Francisco, they couldn't fully overcome the weariness that had swept through me. Just outside the window of the room where I was staying, there was a diner called "Home," which at the time seemed less of a funny coincidence and more of a mean-spirited joke. On Saturday I took the bus to Golden Gate Park and visited the botanical garden, where there grew plants native to every continent on earth. It was a walking tour of worldwide forestry, but I just wanted to see the redwood trees native to California. When I found a grove of them, I sat on a bench and looked up at their trunks stretching into the air above. When I got off that bench, in my mind, the trip was over. I had spent months thinking about it and thinking about it and dreaming about it, and now it had reached its conclusion. Everything that came after was merely killing time before I returned.

So eager was I to return that, when I flew home on Sunday, I was actually comforted to see the inside of an airplane. In Chicago I got into a taxi and closed my eyes. I opened them some time later and still knew exactly where I was going. On sliding the key into its lock on the door of my apartment, I felt a burst of energy, an adrenaline. Standing in my own kitchen felt like victory. Two hours later I sank into my bed with deep gratitude, and fell asleep.

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