I grew up in San Francisco. Most of my life has been spent in California. Of that, the majority of time has been spent in San Francisco and in the East Bay. So, it came to be that the two bridges that “connected” the city would not only allow familiar access avenues but also play powerful, omnipresent roles in my life. Here are my love letters to each.
THE GRAND LADY:
The Golden Gate Bridge has always been a revered lovely landmark. With a simple drive or a right turn, there she was, in her undeniable grandeur. As a child I was always aware of her physical importance. She was/is a definitive symbol for the city.
My family rarely crossed the bridge as, quite simply, we did not know many people living in the North Bay. As well, car travel to outer suburbs and towns was costly so the trips beyond the avenues where we lived were limited. But, when visitors came, it was a HUGE, obligatory outing to cross the bridge to Vista Point and let them gaze upon the glory of the city.
“Well, you are lucky it is not foggy today, explained my mother to each guest. “It is always foggy and cold. But today you get to see the city.”
“Ah muito benita”, exclaimed most Portuguese observers.
This evoked a half smile, half scowl from Mom. “Yes, but it is not Hong Kong Harbor. You cannot swim in the Bay. Too cold and dangerous. And I never understood why they called it Golden. It’s putrid orange”
Her commentary fell on deaf ears as the friends took photo after photo on their Brownie instamatics.
But I heard Mom. I always did. There was a part of me, even as an unquestioning, good little girl, that could not understand my mother’s negative emphasis. Yet, it did not matter, she was my mother, whom I loved. Mom always finished her tour guide speech with: “The bridge is a Gemini like me. It actually opened on my birthday.” My mother and the bridge. Both grand ladies. And every 27th of May, I quietly wish both the Golden Gate and my mother a very happy day.
For some reason, I cannot think of the Bridge without remembering this simple story. My mother had an uncle (her mother’s brother) who lived in San Rafael, in the North Bay. One day, after constantly speaking of her intent to visit, she excitedly decided that the family would make the drive across the bridge to finally meet. I was 6 years old. I remember dressing in my favorite party dress, crinoline petticoat scratching my waist and legs. But I felt pretty and honored as this uncle was part of the family legacy that Mom steadfastly held onto with determined pride. Though San Rafael was only 16 miles away, to a little girl, it was another world. And we got to cross the Golden Gate Bridge! A rare adventure!
Mom never stopped talking throughout the ride, ooh-ing and ah-ing. With the beautiful Bridge as our grand entry and a constant backdrop to wooded hillsides and stately, older homes, it truly was admirably beautiful.
I do not remember the details of the actual visit with my great Uncle but the excitement of the journey remains. To this day, every time I drive upon the bridge and approach the San Rafael city exit, the excitement returns. I become that little girl, riding in her family’s yellow Buick, feeling lovely and happy in that crinoline petticoat.
As time passed and I grew older, my visits back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge did become part of navigating in the Bay Area. From the child riding in the family sedan to the adult woman with places to go and people to see, it is now a familiar routine. But I never forget that first time and the happiness of my mother.
Also, with time, the bridge came to offer opportunities for change. Perhaps this perspective was just my imagination but it did not matter. An inspirational relationship began. Coursing a bold path over the waters of the bay and ultimately disappearing into the landscapes of San Francisco, I came to see the Golden Gate as a line of demarcation; a visual separation of the of the East and Western parts of the city.
The scenic hills to the East and the “outlands” to the West. This distinct and clear Maginot line distinguished my present and the potential of my dreams.
As a child, all I knew was that world to the west of the bridge… my neighborhood, family, school and social circles were anchored below the foggy blanket that covered rows of stuccoed houses in concrete, somewhat treeless streets. As I grew older and ventured beyond the avenues, I realized that, the Eastern part of the city held the bustling energy of the Financial and downtown districts and the beautiful, tony sections of the city: Pacific Heights, Russian, Nob, and Telegraph Hills. The fog always cleared and the sunshine was plentiful. I don’t know when or how it happened, there was no defining moment, but I grew determined to leave the fog and follow that sun. I had to leave home. Perhaps I am one of few who saw the Golden Gate Bridge as such a challenging, clarifying boundary of destiny. But that is the power of this lady. She beckons, even those seemingly entrenched, to dare. And that is exactly what I did…I headed East.
Today, whenever I return to the city and gaze up at the cantilevered arches of the Golden Gate Bridge, she remains not only beautiful but strong and beckoning. My heart beats faster and there is always such an excitement that overwhelms. I cannot help myself. This Grand Lady offered the glory and potential of life. This is where I started and this is where I will always return…albeit just for a visit. I have become that brief guest, not with a Brownie instamatic in hand but with a camera determinedly focused. Like those past tourists, I find myself still exclaiming, “Ah muito benita”!
I end this tribute with another memory: In my San Francisco grammar school, every year, the students would put on a dance festival. The finale would be a gathering of each grade, lined up, row after row of costumed children. We would sing the National Anthem and then…we would sing our city anthem. (The song actually was a from a Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald movie about the 1906 earthquake. She sang it as she stood amongst the ruins of a crumbled city. How I love the overt symbolism of old movies) I can close my eyes and still hear the little voices filling the gymnasium. And most especially this chorus echoes and touches me most…as an immigrant child who came to grow up in the city, as an adult who traveled away, and as a lifelong admirer of that Golden lady:
“San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You’ll let nobody wait outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more.”
THE BAY BRIDGE: A GOOD FRIEND
Officially, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge consists of two sections: the Eastern bridge and the Western, now called the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Bridge. Locals simply see it as one and call both “the Bay Bridge”. Not as famous or glamorous as her western counterpart, the Golden Gate Bridge, she nevertheless plays a vital role in the transportation infrastructure of the Bay Area. And, as it turned out, she became a pivotal backdrop/support in my life.
I was in high school and my family decided to pile into our treasured Buick and drive, for the first time, across to the East Bay. My Uncle was visiting and he had a friend who lived in a place called Oakland. I had hardly heard of this town so the drive seemed as if we were going to a faraway destination, so foreign and unknown.
I have a very distinct memory of driving along the lower, east bound level of the bridge. It was dark and I felt entombed in its concrete cocoon. Truly another, surreal world. It was also decided to drive through Berkeley to look at the University of California. And…as we drove down Bancroft Avenue and I saw the entrance to the college, all I can say is that it was love at first sight. I was overwhelmed by the campus…the beauty of its architecture, the energized pulse of the atmosphere, the enviable, independent air of the confident students who walked through the streets. I distinctly recall saying to myself, “I want to go to college here”.
When the process of college applications began, all I knew was that I wanted to leave. It all seemed too comfortable and un-challenging to apply to San Francisco colleges. I had the grades and test scores but more importantly, I wanted to go to a good school and travel out of my comfort zone. Looking back, my college search reflected a somewhat arrogant naivety, fueled by a star struck desire to escape. I did apply to some pretty idealistic universities…Brandeis, Vassar, McGill, Stanford, and yes, Berkeley.
And then one day my friend Arlene and I went to see this maverick new movie which was taking the world by storm, THE GRADUATE. It was, in itself, a new approach to film making…from the sharp editing and cinematography to the tradition-defying plot to the use of a soundtrack that infused the story line. It defied what was then conventional movie making. And its impact upon me was explosive. I wanted to be Elaine Robinson. I turned to Arlene and simply stated, “I am going to Berkeley”.
And Cal did not fail. I felt honored and challenged and intimidated but I never faltered. It was an unforgettable, life altering 4 years, And… it was the beginning of a new life in the East Bay. I was truly heading East.
Re my college years…as it turned out, I also had to solely pay for my education and was lucky enough to find a job at the grand GUMPS department store of San Francisco. There I was, all dressed up, donning pearls and jade in the Jewelry Department two days a week and then living in my jeans and peasant top as a back packing student the rest of the time. Logistically this meant that I had to commute over the Bay. I would leave my sorority, take the College Avenue bus, then transfer to the East Bay line that crossed the Bay Bridge to the San Francisco transit terminal on Mission Street. And with this, I began my “relationship” with the Bay Bridge.
There were many, memorable crossings during those college years. I can close my eyes and remember…
-Riding on a clunky transit bus towards the city. The slow, creeping morning commute on the upper deck of the bridge allowed for a perfect vantage and plenty of time to savor the magnificent view of the cityscape. I was always mesmorized.
– Seeing the giant 76 ball at the first exit off the bridge. It was a welcoming signal that I was re-entering the city. And I can still remember the scent of burnt coffee beans emanating from the Hills Brothers factory that also sat beside that freeway off ramp.
– Crossing the bridge and heading towards the avenues for visits home to meet with old friends and family. Without fail, I was always underdressed in Berkeley summer clothes and, landing back in the cold, damp fog of the avenues, I froze. A frigid reminder of the life I left behind
– Jaunting across the bridge in my friend’s Volkswagen “Beetle” to go shopping and sightseeing in the city. Lovely, young college girls on the town at a time when it only took fifteen minutes to cross the bridge and gas was affordable—even on a student budget. We drove to dances and parties and even a scavenger hunt, in search of “finding” city landmarks. (I was the ringer as, being the city girl, I knew where every place could be found in record time)
After college, I remained in Berkeley though my first post-graduation job was in the city. I was undaunted by the daily ride on the Bay Bridge as I had become a seasoned commuter. When I got married, had children, and, years later, began my new life as a single, working woman, I chose to live in the East Bay…in Berkeley, Lafayette, and then back to the Berkeley/Oakland hills. And the Bridge continued to be my access to and from the city and throughout Northern California. I honestly believe that, at the end of my life, it can be calculated that I spent a large percentage of my time crossing the Bay Bridge. Many decades, countless hours, going back and forth. With such constancy, how could we not become the best of friends? How could she not share in the major times and milestones of my life? How could I not come to love her?
If I may, I will share some “adult” Bay Bridge stories:
– When my first daughter was born, I decided to take her, at only a week or so old, to visit my parents in the city. Our first car ride together. She was so beautiful and I was so proud and excited. Back then, there were no new born car seats. I had made a very charming wicker basket to transport her. It was lovely (with its gingham lining and wool blankets snugly fitting) but, especially by today’s standards, completely unsafe. I wrapped the seat belt around the carrier as best I could. But, once on the road, it slid, shook, and threatened to fall over. I held onto the steering wheel with one hand and the basket with the other. All the while, cars whizzing by. I clearly was ill prepared and I felt overwhelmed.
But it was not just about the basket. New mother uncertainty welled up inside. This precious baby depended on me. So, I had to keep going; there was no such thing as a U-turn on the Bay Bridge. There are no U-turns in the responsibilities of life. It did help that I was on a bridge well taken and familiar. If one is having a life altering acceptance, it is best to do so with a friend like the Bay Bridge.
– As the years went on there were many more crossings on the Bay Bridge for family events: births, weddings, and, sadly, funerals. The rides to and from were always imprinted bookends to the passages of life.
-I remember when I got a job in the South Bay. I had to launch a career in my mid 40s and this position was a wonderful opportunity that could not be denied. It was an incredible accomplishment of survival and perseverance. But it did mean that I would no longer need to cross the Bay Bridge. In fact, I would never see the bridge as part of my daily routine. What a paradigm shift!
I remember one of my last transbay rides before I started my new venture. I turned to my car pool colleague, “As excited as I am about the new job, I am feeling melancholy. Look at this view of the bridge and Bay. It is honestly my favorite. I will miss it.”
His response, “Well you better stare hard. You won’t be going this way again.”
I know he was simply referencing my commute but it startled me. How many times does life change; how many times do you have to say good bye?
– As it turned out, I was at that new job for ten incredible years; the professional experience of a lifetime. It allowed me the financial ability to live in the Oakland/Berkeley hills–truly one of the happiest times of my life. And guess what? My carpool colleague was wrong. It was not good bye to the view. Perched high upon a hill, I could look upon the entire bay and always see the magnificent bridge in all its glory. This panorama was dramatic yet also peacefully assuring. I was on top of the world. I was “home”.
– I also had the opportunity to travel all over the world. Each trip was special and memorable. Each ultimately ended with a long ride back from the San Francisco Airport, across the Bay Bridge. It was always a gladdened return of a weary traveler, happy to be going home. Often as I made that final stretch, I would turn up the volume of my car cassette player and listen to this Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “Homeward Bound”.
Home where my thought’s escapin’
Home where my music’s playin’
Home where my love lies waitin’
Silently for me
It was always comforting to be homeward bound.
Nothing lasts forever.
In 1989, a 6.9 earthquake hit the Bay Area. A portion of the Eastern span of the Bay Bridge collapsed. The quake was catastrophic but it was a further shock that my beloved bridge was so damaged. And, even with repair, it was decided that a new, retro-fitted span would be built. It would be constructed alongside the old one, connecting at Treasure Island to the western section, into the city. Upon this completion, the old Eastern span would be taken down and carted away on barges to unknown junk yards.
I dreaded that day when I could not drive across this section of my friend. It took years to build the new cantilevered span and I was grateful for the delay of time. When the announcement finally came that the switch from the old to the new was imminent, I decided to take one final drive. And as the sun set over the Bay and with the new span waiting in the waters, I bade a poignant good bye.
A lot of good byes and changes have indeed followed. My trust in destiny and dreams has undoubtedly changed. There has been a lot of loss, each followed by the silence of grief.
Decisions so daunting that when, made alone, many ultimately became mistakes. HUGE mistakes. Earlier in this story I referenced Jeanette MacDonald singing to San Francisco as she stood amidst the rubbled devastation and fires of the earthquake. In the past years, I have had my share of metaphorical Jeanette McDonald moments.
I am no longer sure about happy endings but I do believe you get through the bad, accept the changes, and move forward. This is not denial or bitterness. It is survival.
In the midst of life’s changes and challenges, I still consider myself fortunate. Lucky to have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lucky to have memories that bind me to a sense of place, a sense of security, a sense of daring. I cannot live in the past or even try to recreate it. I can, though, write a stories that recalls moments, people, hopes. I can take photographs that evoke a further dimension of appreciation, a deeper reflection.
Who knows? I may still go East; perhaps to the actual East coast. (Remember, as proclaimed in an earlier post, I do love New York.). But wherever I go, I will always admire the beauty and the inspiration of the grandest of ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge. She let me dream in my youth. As for the Bay Bridge (now with its new and older sections gracefully standing), I thank her for a bounty of life long experiences, memories, and support. She helped me live fully; always a steadfast witness and supporter. What more can anyone ask of an old and dear friend?
More photos that capture each bridge and surrounding vistas
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