Landing in San Francisco

Published 7 Jun 2020, last modified 15 Sep 2020

Two people look out at the San Francisco Bay from Point Lobos.

We were sitting at the terminal in the evening of 31 May 2020 when I first found out about the curfew. The television screens showed scenes from protests in the Bay Area, protests much like the ones that were happening right there in Boston and in cities across the country every night, spurred on by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black people summarily executed by U.S. police. I knew I had friends in Boston who would risk their safety—wearing cloth facemasks like the ones my sister and I were wearing in the airport terminal, as recommended by the CDC and required by both the state of Massachusetts and the county governments of the Bay Area to reduce the spread of COVID-19—to join and support these protests. I knew that police departments across the country has gone on the defensive, firing projectiles at or arresting journalists on the job, even arresting CNN correspondent Oscar Jimenez and his television crew while he was broadcasting live on the air. I’d heard about children facing tear gas, about people blinded by “rubber bullets.” And the newscasters were talking about looting—at a Target, a Walgreens… So for the first time, I opened up the San Francisco Chronicle web site on my phone. A curfew. There was a going to be a curfew in San Francisco beginning a couple hours before our flight (one of only two nonstop flights to the city we could find for that day) was due to land.

If this were a sightseeing trip, an actual vacation, I would have turned back. If I hadn’t already turned back when the Alaska Airlines representative who took our checked bag and tagged my sister’s rollator asked us if we were aware of, and able and willing to comply with, San Francisco’s stay-at-home order upon landing, I would surely have turned back when I heard about the curfew. But my sister still had an appointment to meet with the surgeon within two days, and was scheduled for surgery the following morning, so we didn’t budge. I just prayed we would still manage to get a ride to the apartment we’d booked when we landed.

The flight itself was awkward. Everything happened right on schedule, and there was only light turbulence along the way, but even with the plane at only about two-thirds capacity (with all middle seats of the three-rows unavailable for purchase by special airline policy) and flight attendants periodically ensuring we were all properly wearing our facemasks, it was not lost on me that we were all within six feet of other passengers for six hours. We were permitted to remove our masks only as necessary to eat and drink, and with meal service suspended apart from a little baggie of salty pretzel bits, I’d snuck aboard two sandwiches from Dunkin’ Donuts, which had appeared to be the only shop still operating within the terminal. We were flying west, chasing the setting sun, so the simmering colors of dusk illuminated the cabin for hours.

It’s must have been one of the last flights to land in San Francisco that night; the airport was quickly clearing out. My sister knew where we were supposed to meet rideshare drivers so as soon as I pulled our checked bag off the carousel she sped off for the elevator, pushing her rollator but clearly not relying on it in that moment except as a sort of cart to hold her call carry-on suitcase. I ran after her across the nearly-empty roof lots of parking garages and through a couple identical and deserted elevator lobbies to the place where we were to meet our ride, all while I continuously tried to arrange it from my phone. I had never actually hailed a ride in my life before. Lyft said they weren’t serving our area at the time; my partner has warned me to hail an Uber XL as these would surely have enough room for our luggage, but Uber said there were no Uber XL drivers available. I tried to hail a ride through Uber X several times, but each time the app said it was “connecting” me to a driver for several minutes before informing me that something went wrong, and that I should try again soon. Eventually we had arrived at a marked & numbered pickup space, and we were standing still as I tried to do this a few more times and three few other passengers waiting nearby all meet their rides and left. Finally one of my attempts succeeded; Mikos was on his way in a black Tesla Model S. When it pulled up, he quickly began to help us load our luggage into the car.

I turned to grab my carry-on suitcase. It wasn’t there. I’d chased my sister across the airport without it, rolling only our checked bag behind me. After a minute of hesitation I told my sister to get in the car without me, repeated instructions for entering the apartment, apologized to Mikos, and ran off looking for the baggage claim we had come from. The whole airport was less well-lit and more deserted even than when we’d first arrived. For a good twenty minutes or so I struggled to find where we had come from, first just finding the appropriate side of the parking complex, then realizing I had entered the international terminal by mistake (this too was deserted), and finally, once I had found the dark and unstaffed Alaska Airlines counter in the correct terminal, navigating from there to the baggage claim, where most of the lights were off and my suitcase stood all alone in the middle of the floor. Thank goodness! All this time, the only people I saw throughout the airport were a smattering of tired airport security officers, most of them in pairs and seemingly unconcerned with what I was doing running, sweaty and panting, into and out of elevator lobbies trying to find the Terminal 2 baggage claim. It occurred to me, given current events, that maybe this is an element of white privilege—the ability to lose one’s luggage and freak out in an empty airport at night without the cops taking notice.

I managed to get another Uber ride for myself soon enough. The roads were quiet, and soon I was on the back of a Ford Fusion on an empty highway running north up the western coast of San Francisco. I finally began to relax a little, to appreciate the warmth in the air I’d felt since stepping out onto the parking garage roof at the airport. The houses I saw it the window were simple, square, with flat roofs, decidedly not like the houses of New England. The sort of house one sees in a place where the weather is kind most of the time.

When we awoke the morning after our arrival I ordered breakfast delivered from one of the first places that came up in GrubHub on my phone, Café Guatemalteco. The menu was all in Spanish, so I helped my sister pick her food. I ordered el Ranchero: huevos estrellados con salsa ranchera, frijoles de licuados, queso fresco, crema, salchichas, y plátanos fritos. The food arrived in about an hour, announced with only a text message; I hastily pulled it inside as soon as I knew. Our host had provided some coffee beans and equipment, so I had a fresh cup of coffee, too, and ate in the small, wildly colorful garden behind the ground-floor apartment we were renting. Somehow, though it’s not food I grew up eating, I don’t think I really felt safe and ready to face our trip until I was eating those fried plantains.

And then, because because I didn’t yet know how much if be able to carry back from the grocery store about 2km away or whether my sister would need anything while I was out, we ordered groceries through Instacart. I was astonished at how quickly we became so reliant on these expensive and exploitative platforms—Instacart, GrubHub, Uber, Lyft—to feed ourselves and get around for medical appointments in this city away from home, where bus service had been reduced, a curfew had been enacted, we had been ordered to isolate ourselves as much as possible, my sister would have to restrict her movement after surgery, and restaurants were not permitted to seat people. As someone who has always preferred to either walk the extra distance or figure out a new public transit system rather than caving into these companies, I was resistant.

Still, there was a seductive charm to getting into a car I didn’t have to park or maintain mere minutes after requesting a ride, one that would bring me directly to my destination without any need for me to transfer between multiple public transit systems, usually a nicer, newer car than my own. In a Tesla Model 3 with a glass roof I finally appreciated San Francisco in the daytime; our route took us through Golden Gate Park and gave me a better glimpse of the city than I’d ever had. This was also my first ride in an all-electric car.

Another ride for another medical appointment took us over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Robin Williams Tunnel, with the bright rainbow arches painted around its twin mouths on the southern side. The calm, easy warmth of the weather, the quality of the sunshine, these would be rarities back in Massachusetts. People here seemed to squander them. I felt of stepped into a land of myths.

The charm momentarily wore off when we arrived at a CVS pharmacy in the city to fill my sister’s new prescriptions the afternoon before her surgery. The windows were boarded up, and a hastily-written sign informed us the pharmacy was closed until further notice. It was 14:30 local time. “They’re afraid of looting,” another stranded pharmacy customer said to us. “Do you know if any other CVS is open? I think they’re all just fucking closed.”

We walked a few blocks down the street to a Walgreens where a number of other people were arriving on for our in their cars. It too was boarded up, but a sign on the door have the address of the nearest open Walgreens, in Daly City. That Walgreens did turn out to be open as promised, but only until 17:00, and thankfully we got there in time to fill the prescriptions, but not before we were questioned by a pharmacist, briefly but somewhat sternly, about why we were in San Francisco during the pandemic in the first place.

The morning after that I hailed a ride to the hospital for my sister outside the apartment. She got in alone; no visitors would be permitted during or after her operation. I didn’t go anywhere for a while. I took an uneasy nap, read a news story about how it was revealed that someone from San Francisco that police had shot and killed in nearby Vallejo in the pre-dawn hours of the previous day, outside a Walgreens he was accused of looting, was on his knees when he was killed. He was a 22-year-old named Sean Monterrosa, and the police said they thought he was grabbing a gun concealed in his sweatshirt pocket. What he actually had in there was a hammer.

Then my phone notified me of a new voicemail. The apartment wasn’t well-covered by my phone carrier, so any incoming calls usually went straight to voicemail and text messages were sometimes very delayed. It was the surgeon. Everything was fine, my sister sister’s recovery was off to a great start.

Finally, I was ready to take a walk. I put on my mask again and made the short walk to Ocean Beach. Once I was within sight of the ocean it seemed I was the only person wearing a mask, and the there was no shortage of families, surfers, people walking their dogs, &c, but the beach was very wide, with ample soft, warm sand and plenty of room for me to stay quite a bit more than 6ft away from everyone else most of the time. I walked north along the beach until my shoes filled with sand, and then kept walking. I turned away from the beach, crossed a street, and wandered into Golden Gate Park, where everything seemed to be in bloom. A grey-haired person sauntered out of an old motor home parked along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to set out a folding chair on the grass beside the sidewalk. Someone tuned an acoustic guitar in the can of a pickup truck with the windows down. I saw messages written on the sidewalks here and there, in chalk: “Breonna Taylor, say her name,” “Black trans lives matter,” and “The first Pride was a riot.” Here more of the walkers and joggers I saw were masked than on the beach, but I did at one point hear a masterfully played blues harmonica drifting from a dense grove of trees on a small hill.

I remembered a whim I had, to see the Sutro Baths, so I exited the park at it’s northern edge on Fulton Street and headed back east towards the shore, then followed the beachside walkway north and upward toward Cliff House. And then, turning the corner and walking still further upward just past Cliff House, I saw the Baths. The misty, creamy blue of the sky floating on the sparkling-cool blue of the ocean cutting up against the browns, trans and gets off the sand and rock, the green of what hearty shrubs and grasses clung to the cliffs, and embraced within it all, the murky blue of the water that still stood in that inland pool amongst the ruins. I felt that I had stumbled into a story book, that all of a sudden I was okay, and that somewhere, something would be okay.


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I’m implore you to go somewhere with me where I don’t get operated on. I can recollect sand trailing in from a beach I never actually touched, good food, narcotics, and a garden in a seemingly permanent bath of warm light. But not you. And I like you brother.

Comment left by little sister on 20 Dec 2020