Immortalized in story and song, internationally renowned as a cultural and capitalist mecca, San Francisco continues to draw both visitors and would-be residents to its overcrowded, exorbitantly priced, noisy, dirty, joyously chaotic confines. Lured by the promise of innovation that is as often as not little more than novelty, supposedly impressed by a history that they promptly trample underfoot, adventurous spirits, mavericks, aspiring entrepreneurs, outcasts, and kooks of all manner continue to throng to the city by the Bay, blithely oblivious to the existing poverty, crime, drug abuse and sea of mentally ill people that fill every public space as if it were an open air lunatic asylum.
Still, it is easy to forget all the strife and struggle of life in San Francisco when walking its streets or its shores and taking in its breathtaking views or luxuriating in its beauty, both the natural and man-made varieties, and there is perhaps no better place to forget one’s cares for a spell than the waterfront which stretches from Ocean Beach to South Beach and provides an escape (or at least the means to it) from the physical and societal restrictions of the office buildings towering above its downtown segment.
Here people jog, skate, bike or otherwise travel along the Bay, but perhaps the ideal way to make the most of the waterfront is to take the Bay Lights Tour, a relaxing ride along the Embarcadero via pedi-cab, which allows passengers to sit back and enjoy the sights: art installations like Cupid’s Arrow, historic buildings, and the jewel in the waterfront crown, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with its magnificent lights.
Designed by light artist Leo Villareal, a member of the Board of Directors of Burning Man, the lights were originally conceived as part of a celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the bridge’s opening and installed in Spring 2013. Two years to the day later, the lights were taken down, but it was decided to make them a permanent fixture of the Bridge and they were reinstalled in early 2016. It’s surprising to find that the simple addition of ordinary lights can transform an essentially functional structure into a work of art, but the lights undeniably have added a touch of magic to the city’s vista, glittering above us each night from dusk until the wee hours of the morning.
Never so celebrated as its counterpart at the northwestern corner of the city (and sometimes mistaken for it by newcomers), the Bay Bridge is in many ways the more glamorous of the two, and in fact always has been, even before its extensive reconstruction and the addition of the lights. Leading right into the tangle of downtown’s skyscrapers, it has always been a massive, dazzling presence when viewed from the San Francisco shoreline or glimpsed down one of the narrow corridors of the city’s streets, framed by the idiosyncratic architecture of the buildings.
From across the Bay, it is the impressive gateway to the city’s wonders, rubbing elbows with the Ferry Building before disappearing into the glass and concrete jungle edging the waterfront. It was for many years visible from the highest point in Dolores Park, resembling nothing so much as the road to the Emerald City of Oz as seen from within, a view which was unfortunately ended with the construction of the Millennium Tower. It’s particularly lamentable since the Bay Bridge is a more spectacular than ever. Whereas the unadorned Bay Bridge was
merely an admirable, imposing monolith, the addition of the Bay Lights has made it a starry constellation unique to the sky above San Francisco, twinkling above the world-weary mortals who pass beneath it.
If they do so via pedi-cab ride, they are ideally situated to enjoy the sight. With pedi-cabbie Larry Benson or one of his colleagues acting as a congenial and well-informed guide for the Bay Lights Tour, passengers ride along the Embarcadero and out onto Pier 14, a perfect spot to sit suspended between sea and sky and gaze up at the Bay Lights or back at the city, a panoramic view of San Francisco practically in one’s lap. Lovers hoping for a magic moment can count on their guides discretion and brief exit should they wish to idle awhile with nothing but each other and the waves for company.
Whether it’s a romantic idyll or simply a momentary escape from one’s woes, a pedi-cab ride might sound like a bit of a luxury. It is, and happily it’s a luxury within the reach of even those of us who can afford few of them (like starving writers!). For a brief interlude, you can sit back and let someone else do the driving, with nothing calling for your attention except the world as you watch it drift by.
J. Eric Miller is an animal lover and has spent the better part of his life studying San Franciscans in their natural habitat. Follow his work at: theupsanddownsofsanfrancisco.tumblr.com.