On Thursday, December 11, 2014, a colossal storm hit the city of San Francisco. I had to wake up at 6:30 AM and when I looked out the window, the sky was all yellow (please don’t sing Coldplay. Please). It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in the past month (well, maybe second most beautiful thing…but that’s another story for another time), and the soft pattering of rain on concrete below sounded like a cat purring, but in a way that enticed me out of bed. I threw on my black wool pants and black jacket, the same jacket I wear every day, with this pin:
I have a small black umbrella I’ve had for a few years now. Many other umbrellas have come and gone out of my life, but for whatever reason I keep losing them and returning to this one. The release button popped off last year and so I have to jam a pen into the handle to open it, and one of the spines is broken and juts off at an awkward angle so that whatever body part is directly under it will not be protected. I initially forgot the umbrella when I left my apartment but I ran back upstairs to retrieve it when I arrived at the front door and realized that, indeed, it was raining outside. When I finally stepped out the front door with umbrella in hand, the rain instantly ramped up from a “stage 4 drizzle” to “raining large marsupials and pachyderms.” My feet got wet.
Nobody was on Muni. Usually Muni is packed and I have to push my way on, reminding people to step back into the middle of the train cars. “Come on San Francisco,” I sometimes yell, “if you can still breathe, we can fit one more on. Nobody needs to be left on the platform!” I sometimes get laughs; I always get stares. Today there were only four or five other people on the train: one really beautiful woman in black tights and a faux-fur coat (at least I hope/assume it was faux) and three or four other people to whom I wasn’t really paying any attention. Oh, and a Muni employee, who announced in a surprisingly high and squeaky voice (he was a big dude) that the Montgomery stop (which happens to be my stop) was closed due to power outage. I got of at Powell instead and decided to walk the extra few blocks. The station was filled with homeless people sleeping—the police often kick them out of the train stops but on this day they made an exception.
When I emerged above ground, I found myself in a hauntingly mesmerizing world where thick black rain enveloped me, drowning out all noise so that the city was filled with an eerie silence. There were no cars on Market Street and no other people except one young man in a 49er jacket who bolted past me at top speed. The street lights weren’t working, but the gaudy obnoxious LED snowflakes on the lampposts were all lit up—I guess auxiliary power in San Francisco is used for ornamental purposes only.
A gust of wind inverted my umbrella, and as I felt my arms and chest getting wet as my jacket and purple Banana Republic dress shirt became saturated, I remembered that at home in my closet I had a perfectly functional rain slicker. At that point, I really needed a fucking donut. I quit eating sugar for the most part a few months ago, and out of everything, I miss donuts the most. I used to have a tradition called “donut Fridays,” in which on Fridays I’d walk to work and stop at Happy Donuts on Sixth. Although I quit sugar and it wasn’t a Thursday, I decided that, given the circumstances, I was entitled to one chocolate and one glazed donut. Besides—going inside Specialty’s would give me shelter from the storm.
But Specialty’s was closed. As was Razmindi, and Venue, and Lee’s. I realized that I was getting neither my comfort donut nor any respite from the torrential downpour, which by that point had escalated into a Class-3 Kill Storm.
I finally made it into my office building, but the power was out and the security officers were not letting people use the stairs to go to their offices. During the changing of the guard I snuck into the stairwell and climbed up ten flights to my office to retrieve some documents I would need in order to (ostensibly) do some work from home. On my way down a bleary-eyed red-haired woman who looked to be in her late forties/early fifties told me she was an AP reporter and asked if she could interview me about the storm. For some reason I had always pictured AP reporters as young and hyperactive.
I’ve been Googling my name even more than usual since then, but I don’t think she used any of my mildly witty quotes. The only one I remembered was when she asked why I didn’t stay at home and I responded, “I’m a lawyer—you know the old saying, ‘neither rain nor sleet nor snow,’ and so forth.”
Then I took a cab home, put on my Star Wars pajama bottoms, ordered some Indian food to be delivered, and plopped down on my couch, where I remained for the rest of the day. I spent a fair amount of time on Facebook to see other people’s reactions. This was the best one:
Yes, it’s funny. Our worst storm during a particularly nasty El Niño is a joke compared to the weather much of the country experiences every year. In fact, I mentioned to a friend of mine from Minnesota that I was going to write a blog post about the rain and she let me know, in no small words, that I didn’t know shit about weather. While that may be true, it doesn’t make the fact that a third of the city was without power for much of the day any less scary/fun (a large transformer exploded during Union Square—not really the same as Hurricane Sandy). In any event, I loved the downpour. The sound of fat raindrops on my windowpanes has a soothingly romantic quality that makes me reminisce back to the days of my youth, when I first fell in love with the rain. Now, to fade back to the early ‘90s in the most appropriate manner possible…
By 1992, we Californians were getting pretty darn fed up with the drought situation. For me, it had been going on since second grade, which constituted the vast bulk of my cognizant life. Oh sure, it was fun at the beginning, when “if it’s yellow keep it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” became a state-wide mantra and everybody had “navy showers” with quick-stop valves installed. But by year four, when “Shower Together Tuesday,” “Waterless Wednesday,” “Thirsty Thursday” and “No-Flush Friday” had become the laws of the land (thank you very much, former governor George Deukmejian), many of us were mighty fed up. When they threatened to take away our golf courses and swimming pools—basic human rights to which all residents of Marin and Orange Counties—that was the last straw.
Realizing that the government was intentionally holding back the rain in an effort to take away our Constitutional freedoms, the California State Militia [http://cal-militia.com/home] instituted a state-wide program of firing silver iodide into the clouds out of nineteenth-century cannons that were originally used in the Mexican-American War. This practice, combined with a bizarre new dance craze known as the “El Niño” (popular with teenagers at sock hops and box socials), inspired the rain g-ds to piss all over our fair state. The northern half of it, anyway. Palm Springs then went ahead and stole a sizable chunk of it–SoCal folks have always been mooching off of us.
As a twelve year-old who had not yet discovered girls or intoxicants, the great Storm of Seventh Grade was a watershed moment in my life. Get it? Watershed? I slay me. A large creek ran through my entire hometown of Ross/San Anselmo (we lived on the border), and when enough rain would fall the waters from the creek would rise up to the bridges that were supposed to span them and overflow into the road. So first you’d get this:
and then you’d get this:
Streets were flooded. Cars were ruined. Schools were closed. There’s nothing worse for a parent than to have a son who is on the verge of a hormonal explosion stuck in the house all day with hyperactive cabin fever, so my mom sent me out to go play in the rain with my friends. I didn’t own rain boots or rubber pants or whatever the hell else people in places with inclement weather wear, but my torn black jeans, gray hoodie and Converse One Stars were just fine for whatever elements the Bay Area storm of ’92 had to offer. By the way, I owned the same pair of black Cons from fourth grade through ninth grade. By the time my parents finally threw them away, they had turned green from grass stains and the soles were 75% torn off, the last scraps barely held in place by the thinnest thread of rubber. I guess I have trouble letting go of things.
I met up with a couple of friends who lived nearby. One of them had a crush on a girl who lived one town over. Her family had a large house on a hill with a hot tub, so we decided that it would be a fun rainy-day destination (this was before anybody told us that hot tubs are not good places to go when there’s a chance of lightning). Umbrellas were useless, as the rain was not falling from the sky, but rushing towards us from all sides, parallel to the ground. Although the Quick Stop parking lot was completely flooded (as we discovered that day, many parking lots in Marin were unfortunately designed to be slightly concave), the store itself was open. While others were stocking up on bottled water, batteries, and canned goods, we bought Icees (cherry coke, of course). Even as a young lad, I enjoyed this type of contrarian humor.
We walked along the main road until we reached the Post Office, at which point we decided that the quickest route was to cut down the bike path that goes alongside the damn creek until we reached the College of Marin parking lot (which was concave, surprise surprise), at which point we would cross a freakin’ marsh to get to the girl’s house. About 5 minutes in, we reached a puddle that was impossible to step across, so our feet got soaked. 5 minutes after that, there was a mini-lake and we waded through, our jeans becoming saturated with water and instantly weighing us down. By the time we reached the marsh, we were already swimming in our clothes (despite the hood, my cotton sweatshirt did not actually do a good job of repelling water), so there was nothing left to do but dive head first into the mud and trudge our way across. When we reached the opposite edge of the marsh, but clouds parted and the sun beamed upon us, instantly baking the mud into our clothing.
The girl wasn’t at home—she had gone to another friend’s house. Her mom flipped out when she saw the three of us, looking like little mud monsters, and yelled of us to get off the fucking porch.
Naturally we hadn’t bothered to tell the girl we were coming over—this was an era before cell phones, and even before pagers. I miss the days of random drop-ins. If any of you in San Francisco are reading this now, please feel free to come visit me without warning. My doorbell doesn’t work, but if you wait a short bit you can always find somebody entering or leaving the building who will let you in, and the door to my apartment is always unlocked if I’m at home.
That’s my earliest memory of an unrelenting rainfall—clinging to the last days of innocence with one last adventure in a swamp-like land. To this day, rain awakens my inner child (who, let’s face it, was never a big fan of naps anyway), and when it pounds against my window I want to completely disregard my jacket and booties and go outside and get sopping wet. While we’re on the subject here are some of my fonder, if not more hilarious, rain-related memories that help explain how I grew to love the storm:
–At Jew camp in upstate New York, an impromptu slip-and-slide made out of garbage bags during the warm summer showers.
–After hearing that Ricky Martin song, taking my clothes off and going dancing in the rain. To music other than that Ricky Martin song.
–Storytime! When I was at Columbia, I was in the Columbia Bartending Agency, which meant I got paid a good deal of money to serve wine at swanky Manhattan shindigs. One client threw an annual fourth of July party in a ritzy Upper East Side penthouse. She was on the board of a nonprofit that provided aid to victims of spinal injuries, so a number of the party attendees were in wheelchairs. I was in charge of cooking burgers on the expansive balcony (we were a pretty full-service bartending agency), and many of the party-goers converged around me, anxiously awaiting their delicious grilled meaty treats. I enjoyed wielding that kind of power and the attention that came with it.
One of the wheelchair-bound party attendees was a rather portly fellow, who needed to be lifted out of his wheelchair (by several people) in order to make it out the door to the balcony. The whole operation took several minutes. He was incredibly eager to get his burger and managed to shove his way to the front of the food line. As I handed him his beefy reward, there was a loud crack of thunder and the skies lit up with violent purple streaks of lightning. The air pressure plummeted so fast that my ears popped and seconds later rain was pouring down. A mass of people in wheelchairs pushed towards the tiny door, and somehow the aforementioned portly man got to the front and bellowed to anybody who would listen to come and help him inside. We bartenders did our best to lift him out of his chair and through the door quickly, as he was creating a log-jam at the door and several dozen other party attendees were getting soaked, but as the leather of his wheelchair became wet it was difficult to slide his massive body out of it. The whole operation ended up taking nearly five minutes, with the man yelling at the top of his lungs the entire time, and by the time we shoved him through the door, everybody else who had been stuck on the balcony was completely soaked (and several electric wheelchair motors had short-circuited). We eventually got everybody inside, and the band struck up a lively rendition of “Purple Rain.” Very few people danced.
–For two years I lived in Toyama prefecture, which is the second-rainiest prefecture in Japan (after Niigata, directly to the north). Staring in September we had typhoon season, which in December finally bled into Winter, during which we had some snow and a lot more rain. After Winter we had a 2-week Spring before “rainy season,” which directly preceded Summer, which was also rather rainy. Then it was back to typhoon season.
In Toyama, bicycles and umbrellas were communal. You’d park your bike at a train station and somebody else would take it, but then when you needed to ride home you could just take somebody else’s. Because we all knew that we were likely to be trading bikes, everybody rode the same model, which was affectionately known as a “Mama Cherry.”
Similarly, whenever you went into a building, there would be a bucket to deposit your umbrella. While you were inside, somebody would inevitably grab your umbrella, so when you left you’d just grab one that somebody else left behind. You were disincentivized to buy a nice umbrella, so everybody just used this crappy number you could buy at a conibini for 300 yen:
There’s one typhoon moment I’ll never forget. On my way to the train station, I popped inside of a conbini to grab some breakfast (shyake onigiri and peanutsu bread), and when I went to leave my umbrella was gone and there was no replacement. I bought a 300 yen plastic special, stepped outside, and opened it up in the pouring rain. One freaking second after I opened my umbrella a tremendous gust of wind shot into me and my umbrella exploded, with plastic and metal spines flying everywhere. I ran to the train station and arrived at work sopping wet—there was no way around it. I loved every minute of it.
–On the first night the Bay Bridge lights were activated (March 5, 2012) it was raining, not too hard, but raining nonetheless. I was with a pretty girl and we didn’t have an umbrella, and there was nowhere we could go where could see the lights and be sheltered from the rain at the same time, so we stood in the rain when they turned the lights on and we kissed.
Even without the drought, even when I get wet, I still love the rain. Something about the sounds, the smells, the memories.
Stay damp, San Francisco.