I rode my bike to the beach on the last of the beautiful days.
Timon had to lure me out of the house. As a rule I was unimpressed by the sun, and I had this theory that beautiful days are totally overrated, especially in San Francisco. We all went crazy when the clouds parted. Everybody got distracted and scrambled outside as if it would never be nice again.
I was no misanthrope! Just the opposite: I had a deep faith in the future. There were beautiful days behind us and beautiful days to come — so relax and play some video games.
But it turned out my faith was unfounded, because Saturday, March 27 was, in fact, the last beautiful day.
On Sunday, the sky over the city was gray-green. Monday was worse, and the week that followed was a cage of dark clouds that trailed curtains of cold rain. There was lightning. It went on like that, week after week, month after month, all across the city, the peninsula, and the headlands — the sun flatly refused to shine. Today, about a million of us are still stuck living in a weather non sequitur.
Something fundamental has changed; something important is broken.
But I’m not just talking about the sky.
The thing that sucked about the last beautiful day was that I didn’t get to spend it with Kate Trudeau.
Back at the beginning I lied. It wasn’t Timon’s coaxing that got me out of the house. Rather, it was the understanding that Timon is friends with Lacey Pell, and Lacey is friends with Kate Trudeau, and Lacey was definitely coming, so Kate Trudeau was maybe coming too. I mean, they’re really good friends. She was almost definitely coming.
If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. But I was in a quasi-anti-relationship with Kate Trudeau, which means that we made out twice, hooked up once, got angry at each other 1.5 times, and were currently traveling through some sort of romantic netherworld. Don’t look back, Orpheus.
There’s a spot in Golden Gate Park where you’re cruising down the green-cosseted road and you make a sharp turn — there’s a windmill on your right — and suddenly, there’s the ocean, so big and bright it messes up the color balance of your eyes. It’s wide and white and waves are crashing and you can’t believe it’s been there all this time. And, especially if you are coasting towards the possibility of Kate Trudeau, it feels like the newest, biggest, greatest thing in the world. Like: wow, who invented this, and why didn’t I know until now?
But Kate Trudeau didn’t show, so I spent the whole day pretending to be interested in Lacey’s new job and playing quarter-hearted frisbee with some dude named Chad. I was barely there; my spirit was out canvassing other beaches, other streets.
In the damp drizzled weeks that followed, photos from that last beautiful day gathered a strange power.
It didn’t matter if they’d been snapped on Nikons or Nokias, because they all had one thing in common: they were scarce. These were images tightly circumscribed in space and time, and with every gray day that passed, they seemed more and more magical.
People shared their collections in little online shrines. Every golden photo had a long wispy beard of comments, all nostalgia and longing. There were a lot of ellipses …
I got a little bit obsessed with these albums. One of my favorites was from my friend Catherine, and it showed a sunny picnic in Dolores Park that, honestly, looked way more fun than frisbee with Chad. In one of her photos, I saw my old coworker Jay Gupta taking a picture of his own, way down on the park’s green slope. So then I tracked down his album, and sure enough: in his picture, there was Catherine with her camera, high up on the hill.
That’s what gave me the idea for Last Beautiful. I registered the domain (dot-org, because dot-com was taken) and installed an open-source “photo wiki” that I downloaded from a lonely beige MIT webpage. The idea was that you could import all your pictures, pin them to a map of the city, and connect them with others to make a big collaborative panorama: one big picture of one last beautiful day.
Now, my secret hope was that, by bringing all of the images of that day into one place, I’d be able to find Kate Trudeau. So it was kind of an archive slash community slash stalking thing.
The photos came in a flood, and the sheer scope of the imagery was staggering. It was the view from a thousand picnic blankets spangling the earth from Precita Park to Crissy Field. It was long snaking sequences that traced bike trips across the city, with the sunlight shifting from yellow to white to red-violet along the way.
For some, that Saturday had been a boozy backyard party, with a cigarette hanging on every lip. For others, it had been an expedition with the kids, with chocolate-chip It’s-Its and matching Exploratorium t-shirts. Everywhere, in every kind of picture, there was an effect that I came to cherish: at a certain hour on the last beautiful day, cotton threads and gray whiskers all blazed to life, backlit by the sun and burning like golden filament.
Maybe the same effect had occurred on the beach with Timon’s fuzzy beard and Lacey’s long hair. I hadn’t noticed at the time.
It was in fact the photos from Ocean Beach — so many photos from Ocean Beach — that told the tale.
On the horizon in every photo, always visible over someone’s shoulder, there was the hazy silhouette of a ship making its way towards the Golden Gate. If you found the right photos and put them in the right order, you could watch the ship crawl closer, frame-by-frame.
Then it exploded.
Not a movie-style explosion with tendrils of red-black fire. Instead, it just… lit up. In the images it was suddenly overexposed, a bar of white light that would have looked like sun on the water if you didn’t have the filmstrip to tell you that just a moment ago it had been a blue-gray vessel.
The explosion — or whatever it was was — must have been soundless, or maybe the sound was lost in the roar of the waves. I’d been on the beach when it happened, and I’d heard nothing.
A batch of photos uploaded by someone called elton_82 revealed at last where Kate Trudeau had been hiding all this time. There she is: in the background of a photo snapped on Fillmore Street, leaning to peer into a shiny shop window. She’s holding her hair back from her eyes with two fingers.
It’s the shop called Artemis that sells super-expensive, sustainably-manufactured athletic clothes for women: yoga pants, dance shoes, sexy anoraks. Her face is reflected in the glass and you can see that she’s not wearing sunglasses, even though it’s so bright out. She never wears sunglasses. She thinks they make people look like aliens.
Kate Trudeau is window-shopping alone on this, the last of the beautiful days.
There are actually three photos that include her, taken in slow sequence because elton_82 apparently wanted to get exactly the right shot of his mom and dad. (Nice work, Elton.) In the last one, Kate Trudeau is standing, looking down at her phone with a serious face. Her camisole is riding up and her belly is exposed. The sun is bouncing off the shop’s window right into the lens of Elton’s iPhone. A blob of pure light, just like that ship in its final moment.
I sent the photos of the explosion — all two hundred of them — to a local blog. Two days later, the Chronicle picked them up and did some reporting. The ship was the NOAA Ka’imimoana II. It had been conducting an experiment involving deep ocean currents and Copenhagen resonators. Apparently the currents were too deep and the resonance was too… Danish? Everything went wrong and there is now a very, very small black hole in the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.
The government made a $525 Climatological Adjustment Payment to everybody in the city. One helpful commenter on the Chronicle’s website pointed out that the amount was just $14 shy of a one-way ticket to Costa Rica.
When I saw that band of belly on my MacBook — it was 1 a.m., and thunder was rattling the windows — something fell into place in my brain, like the long straight Tetris piece that flashes and clears the screen.
The sudden passing of beautiful days had scared me. It had demolished my deep-rooted belief in open-ended possibility — my faith in an open-ended future offering boundless chances to meet new Kate Trudeaus, and mess things up with them, again and again.
Outside it’s dark and gray and bitter cold, and I think there might be a tornado forming over Bernal Hill. But I’m going to ride my bike to the beach. I’m going to bring my frisbee and invite Timon and Lacey and Chad and yes, Kate.
We’ll miss these days too when they’re gone.
Sometime in 2009, San Francisco
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