I enjoy the city sounds of early morning, especially when the foghorns are in the mix. By the time it’s light out the mystery is gone, but while it’s still dark or just beginning to turn, the sounds are muffled and tend to bleed into one another. It’s as if a jar had been placed on top of the world.
The garbage trucks, the streetcars, the buses gearing up and down. … I’m especially partial to the sound of large passenger jets muted by night, or rain, or cloud. When I’m on the East Coast in the winter and it’s snowing, or getting ready to, the airplanes overhead have a very particular sound that always affects me. There’s quite a range of pitches out there, a range of tones: When one noise comes in over another and then another and another, it gets positively fuguelike—a broken-up, post-industrial version—but fuguelike nevertheless. And when you have the foghorns sitting in, my goodness gracious, you’re in for some listening pleasure.
Composers and musicians pay close attention to all these random sounds, all these accidents of harmony, dissonance, and counterpoint, as they go about their day. When you’re hanging with one of them, an alert one, you see the head jerk slightly, the eyes dart around and narrow in concentration at an interesting vibration. A prose writer soaks up random language and registers striking or unusual syntax, slang, unfamiliar locutions. A poet—at least this one—occupies a sound-world somewhere between, encroaching on both.
We don’t often get the foghorn music in this part of town, particularly this time of year. In the summer it’s not uncommon, but in January it’s rare. So, when it’s out there, like this morning, however faintly, it’s a treat. In fact, foghorns are one of the principal reasons I don’t live in Cincinnati.
All of which reminds me of a very particular, very San Francisco morning not so very long ago, a late spring Sunday morning, to be more exact, when I awoke in a part of town where I had never awakened before, in the northwestern corner of the city near Land’s End, close to the mouth of the Bay.
It was dreadfully early in the day to be walking out into that fog and wind, especially fierce so close to the water. Summer visitors are almost never prepared for the severity of the weather here from June into September. That morning it seemed every foghorn in the arsenal was hard at it, trading booming tones as if engaged in a contest among themselves.
I made my way, shivering, to catch a bus in the direction of my neighborhood. A crowd of Chinese waited at the bus stop, young and old. I might as well have been on a corner in Nanking, except for the English-language shop signs and the Russian church with its big gold onion dome.
Considering that it was Sunday morning and they were all probably headed for a long, tedious day of work, the busful of passengers seemed in excellent cheer, chattering away to one another, listening to their Walkmans, heads bobbing to the music. A hardy, vigorous lot, I thought to myself. In contrast to myself, it occurred to me, on that particular morning.
I got off the Geary bus at Masonic and proceed downhill toward the Panhandle. Even before I made it to Fulton I registered the helicopters overhead and heard the cheering crowds. I was east of the fog now and into the early sunshine of what was becoming a very warm day. I had on a sports jacket, dress slacks, and proper shoes when shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops would have been the order of the day. But what’s a boy to do?
It was as if I’d walked onto a movie set. There were hundreds, no thousands, no tens of thousands of runners, shoulder to shoulder, densely packed, passing like a river before me in the direction of Golden Gate Park and, finally, the ocean, another three and a half miles further along. Many of them were in various stages of undress, some butt naked, some in nuns’ habits, several inside a centipede costume, one in only a top hat and jockstrap, and this a female, mind you. There was a cluster of Vikings in loincloths, scores of transvestites, fatsos in motorcycle caps and leather lingerie, a woman in a cocktail dress with a Laura Bush mask. … At the front, already miles ahead, closing on the finish line at the park’s western edge, were the swift slender Kenyans, as always, fighting it out among themselves for first place.
The stream of runners seemed without end, likewise the array of running wear, or lack thereof. And there I was, hot, sweaty, hungry, in dire want of a pee, a shower, a hot cup of coffee, only l5 minutes from home but thwarted by police barricades, police, and what would turn out to be well over l00,000 runners, many of them moving very slowly.
What was I to do? Risking all, ignoring the injunctions of police, not to mention the ire of the briskly moving pack, I jumped in among them, the naked werewolves, the bishops and babydolls, jogging forward, but cunningly, inexorably drifting to the other side of Fell Street on a long, erratic diagonal until I was safely across; and, never once looking back, made my way home: shaken, to be sure, anxious that I had not been spotted or photographed, naturally; aghast at the shameful exhibitionism, you bet; but home, safely behind closed doors, home at last.