travelogue, san francisco: the sidewalk sparkles

I am drinking terrible coffee in the lobby of the hotel in the early morning. Upstairs, my family sleeps. We are all still a bit confused with the change in tome zone. We have traveled so long and so far to be here. And yet, there is a familiarity to the place that comforts, calms.

M. came here for a conference and we followed him out, not wanting, I think, for him to have too many pleasures without us. Our flight arrives late and on the ride from the airport, the lights of the city glitter before us in the darkness. We stay up as late as we can.

That first morning, we wake so early, the boy and me, so we slip out before dawn and wander the streets, quiet as they are in the dark. “I’ll lead the way,” he says, and I let him march on ahead. There are places where the sidewalk sparkles and he stops to marvel, his mouth open, lips round with wonder.  We keep within a two-block radius of the hotel and when his small legs have tired, he says, “I think it’s time to go back home.” I take his hand and we walk slowly back to the hotel, as the light comes up on the city.

We meet up with M. mid-day at a park across from the convention center. The day is stunning – bright, warm. The boy sees him walking toward us down the stone steps and runs at him. M. picks him up and folds him into his arms, and to see this moment brings unexpected tears. Z. and I make our way toward them and we are embraced, each in turn. It has been several days since we have all been together.

We have been promised cream puffs, and M. leads us to a little shop that smells of warm pastry and custard. We eat our confections with our hands at a metal table on the sidewalk in front of the store and when we look down, our clothes are covered with powdered sugar and pastry crumbs. I am aware, suddenly, of my hunger.

In the morning, I meet up with an old friend. We take the train two stops to a coffee shop where they play old records on a turntable behind the counter. We talk about writing, our fits and starts. About our families – both blended, as they say – about the complications of sharing one child between two households. I notice the gray in his hair, the soft lines forming at the corners of his mouth.

After coffee, we ride the train back and sit in the sun for a few minutes and let the downtown come to life around us. He explains the public transportation in the city – the busses and the trains, the ones that are always late, the ones that are run-down. I nod, but retain nothing.

When we get back to the hotel, he tells me, “You will love this city.”

I tell him, “Yes, I think I already do.”

By evening, the boy is tired. I tell him that we are going to dinner and he protests, throwing himself across the wide hotel bed. M. carries him to the restaurant, where at the table, he sleeps, resting his head on M.’s shoulder. I send them back in a taxi and Z. and I meander back on foot, stopping in the brightly-lit shops. We make dutiful purchases of unnecessary items, wanting mostly, it seems, to have record of our time here.

Later, although we are so tired, M. and I go back out, squeezing out the last drops of the day. There is a breeze and the streets are loud. In the bookstore, we wander. I run my fingers up and down the spines of books I know I will never read. Recognizing this makes me weary and sad, so I find M. and we step out into the cool darkness. We head to a crowded bar, where we sit, huddled in a corner and finally catch up on the last few days. I tell him stories about the boy that make him laugh. He tells me of the meetings and the after-hours gatherings that never fail to disappoint – forced and overly-engineered as they are. He tells me of the booths set up outside the convention center all day; about the “booth girls” in their skimpy clothes handing out tiny paper cups of soda to the passersby.

Back on the east coast, there are decisions to be made. The tasks pile up and my absence does nothing to slow them. They gnaw at the edges of my consciousness – a steady, anxious buzz. The second cup of hotel coffee seems less terrible as the lobby begins humming to life, travelers wheeling their bags back and forth across the marble floor.

I think of my family upstairs in the dark cocoon of the hotel room, the drapes pulled shut against the morning. And the ways in which we pass the time when we are in a place other than where we live. The willingness to wander, to let the rhythms of the place enter us. The simple pleasures of the new, the unfamiliar – how a cream puff in the sun holds its particular delights, when indulged in so far from home. The charm of riding a run-down train when the destination does not matter. A glittering sidewalk in the pre-dawn light. And the heart – how it swells and opens to accommodate the new – if we let it.