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City of Strangers

by Marjorie Salzwedel

part 1 of 2

“How many people in San Francisco come to the Presidio on the Fourth of July to watch the fireworks, I wonder?” Hannah Jacobson asked, smiling at her young husband. “People are still coming down from the top of the hill.”

“Probably a hundred thousand people like last year; most of them choosing to be down near the water. It won’t be long before the fireworks begin,” Ed replied as he watched his wife take two penlights out of the backpack.

“This hill is a small forest. I brought lights in case we need them to see the way back up to Jackson Street.” Hannah gave him one. She put the other into the side pocket. She took out Ed’s baseball cap with the “Fourth of July” printed on the visor and handed it to him.

“You forgot this,” she said, smiling. “You were disappointed when you didn’t have it last year, remember?”

“I remember. Thanks.” He adjusted it and pulled the cap forward so it was snug.

They put on the sweaters they carried, spread out their small blanket on the thin grass and sat down under the eucalyptus trees.

Hannah snuggled against Ed’s shoulder as they sat with their backs against a tree trunk. “This is nice sitting high on the hill.”

“We’re all set,” Ed said, putting an arm around his wife as he glanced at the other couples and watched families settle under the trees with their blankets spread out, as people do on beaches. Everyone faced northwest in the direction of Baker’s Beach and the golden spires. The ocean breeze made the air uneven. You could hear bits of conversations all mixed together like small pieces in a quilt of air, single words here and there, floating and flapping past them.

As the sun lowered behind the Pacific, Ed mused aloud, “The weatherman said the fog is going to roll in fast tonight. How long did it take us to walk three blocks?”

“Not long,” she answered as she stared at his silhouette and smiled in the darkness.

At nine-thirty, the first of the fireworks soared, each exploding with perfect symmetry, crackling through the sky and dazzling the crowd with multi-colored starbursts in rapid succession. The people cheered after each display, as a general murmur of contentment resounded from the hill. Occasionally small rockets whistled upwards and exploded with a single thunderous boom or with thin loud squeals. A few voices around them responded with disappointment. “Aw,” they moaned. Again and again, the crowd cheered for the splendorous flowering fireworks opening in symmetrical patterns, crackling and lasting not even a minute.

“It’s a good show,” Ed said in a low voice. He could feel Hannah breathing softly alongside him, resting her head against his shoulder. She oohed in admiration at the brilliant displays, her voice blending in with the crowd’s resounding glee.

Suddenly, in a thunderous three-octave collective voice, louder than the crackling of the starbursts, the crowd shrieked with confusion, stood up, gathered their blankets and coolers, and hollered to one another to run.

A black cloud was rising from the water, blotting out the sight of the bridge.

“It looks like a water spout or a tornado,” Hannah cried out.

“It’s headed this way,” Ed said, as he stood up and pulled Hannah to her feet.

“Is it smoke from a fire? I hope nobody’s hurt,” Hannah caught her breath, staring in disbelief.

The inky blotch moved toward the people on the hill, stretching wider every second. It was blacker than the night sky through which it spread.

“We better hurry,” Ed whispered as he took the penlight out of the backpack and handed it to her, and took out his own from his pocket.

“Yes,” she said.

Ed jostled the backpack over his shoulder, grabbed the blanket from the ground, shook it and draped it over his arm. Lighting their way with the tiny beams of light, they stepped up the hill, shoulder to shoulder with many others who had flashlights. The massive crowd made their way through the trees to the top of the hill, to Jackson Street.

As Ed and Hannah Jacobson ducked out from under the edge of the Monterey pines that bordered the edge of the Presidio, each grabbed an end of their blanket, holding it above their heads as they ran. The enormous black cloud was overhead as the dust from the cloud fell everywhere, blackening all around them with soot. Folks hurrying on the street rushed to their cars and disappeared into the shadows of their vehicles.

When the white fog appeared, it was, for a moment, like a massive apparition. Its silent tickling droplets made everything sticky with soot. Hannah began to cough harder, and they both slowed. The sidewalk was as slippery as mud.

“Keep going,” Ed shouted. “We’re doing okay.”

Between the intermittent hacking sounds of coughing from the crowd around them, they heard the anxious voices of mothers and fathers holding hands of children shout, “Be careful. Don’t slip.”

Ed and Hannah glanced at the couple ahead of them who stopped and stared at the blackened shapes of cars parked by the curb. The man clicked the remote door opener at several cars. Responding to his clicks, two parking spaces further down the street, their car’s headlights and taillights flashed off and on, the lights barely visible as the man and woman hurried to it.

“I can taste the soot on my lips. It’s like something burnt,” Hannah said between coughs.

“Wipe it off. Don’t leave it on your tongue,” Ed’s voice was urgent as the two of them hurried past the cars that had edged out from the curb and were slipping on the blackened street. The windshield wipers whooshed against the sludge when they passed a car that was stalled. “Take my hand,” Ed groaned as they turned the corner and slowed to keep their balance on the steep slope of Maple Street.

They were behind a young woman who carried a crying baby swaddled in a blanket. The woman stopped when the small girl walking beside her lost her balance. “Don’t let go of my hand again,” she told the child, reaching down and pulling her to her feet as they went on down the hill. The crowd filled the sidewalk side to side. The dark shapes of people stepping carefully down the hill were all around them. The sudden frantic cries of strangers pierced the blackened fog, reminding Hannah and Ed that their plight to escape the soot was not unlike the common plight of humanity to flee from something strange and menacing.

Ed and Hannah continued past Washington Street. Reaching Clay Street, they turned west onto the level sidewalk leaving the distraught crowd to continue down the hill to their cars, to the bus, or to their homes.

The Jacobsons reached the entrance to their second-story flat in a few minutes. Ed opened the lock of the front gate, and after walking through the enclosed side porch, Ed opened the front door with the same key and turned on the light switch. The couple was grateful for the quiet and cleanliness inside the vestibule.

“This has been a nightmare,” Hannah whispered, out of breath.

Ed set the backpack down by the door and dropped the blanket on the chair in the corner.

The couple took off their shoes and socks, slipped off their sweaters and outer clothes and left them in a heap on top of the blanket. Ed threw the sooty cap on top of the pile of blackened clothing. He turned to look at Hannah whose brown hair had turned black. The soot clung to her hair in clumps.

“Your hair is covered with the stuff,” he said.

“I know,” she replied.

At the top of the stairs Ed opened the front door and turned on the hall light. They hurried through the hall to the living room which was at the back of the house. From there, when it wasn’t foggy, they could see the city lights all the way to the dark blob which was the top of the trees of Golden Gate Park. They could see nothing now but swirling soot against the glass. Ed clicked on the living room light switch and turned on the television for news. There was none.

“Never saw anything like this in the seven years I’ve been here,” he said, as they hurried into the bathroom to wash their hands. “After you take your shower, I’ll follow.” I’m going to stand in the living room in front of the TV and keep looking for news. I won’t sit down on the sofa. Okay?”

“Good,” she said.

“I’m spooked,” Ed said as he turned on all the lights in the flat, three in the kitchen, two in the bedroom, and even the lights in the closets. After they had taken their showers and got into fresh clothes, they watched the news at eleven. There was the usual news coverage of fireworks, but still nothing was reported about the big cloud of black dust.

The next morning the newscasters reported that a heavy rainstorm had blown through during the night. This was a godsend because the wind-driven rain had washed the city clean. If Ed hadn’t left a streak of soot on the side of the bathroom sink, they both might have thought they imagined it two weeks later.

* * *

The couple had met at San Francisco State College during their undergraduate years when Hannah was a sophomore and Ed was a senior, both majoring in engineering specialties. He was an upstate New Yorker from Saratoga Springs, good looking, old-fashioned and reserved. He had trusting blue eyes and an easy smile.

She was a Midwesterner from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who had transferred in for her sophomore year. She was fascinated with the architecture of the city. In the five years Hannah had lived in San Francisco, and Ed for seven, they never tired of the Bay Area, never grew weary of its fog or steep hills.

“Living in San Francisco is like living on a movie set,” Ed told Hannah when he first met her in the student union. He was captivated by her hazel eyes and wide smile when she asked him if he knew his way up and down the hills of the city. She looked so young with her hair in a pony tail, sitting there at the next table listening to him intently when he told her about the best places to see. When he offered to drive her up and down the hills, she said she was ready to sight-see whenever he was free. They spent that day, and most days after, together, as much as possible.

They eloped three years later and rented the flat on Clay Street. Employed as engineers for the same company, every workday they rode the transit bus together across town to take the cable car down Powell Street. They walked the rest of the way to their office at Certified Structures on Market Street. Leaving their cars parked in front of their apartment to save the expense of a parking garage, they enjoyed this daily routine, the predictable sameness, and the unchanging climate.

Back at work after the holiday weekend, their supervisor, Dr. Sam Wells, born and raised in San Francisco, celebrated his sixtieth birthday and told his co-workers at his birthday lunch at the Top of the Mark “You could live your whole life in San Francisco and wonder how the years got by you. I never had a sense of seasons, ever.”

The idea of such a loss unnerved Ed. He nervously glanced toward his wife who he was glad wasn’t listening. She could not take her eyes from the wrap-around windows with the all-around view of the city. She had seen it often enough before, but now she was awed as if it were the first time she looked out of them. She stared out over the wharf to the north and then looked to the east to the Embarcadero where the big ships were moored.

Hannah and Ed had always been high achievers in school and on the job. When Dr. Wells was offered a new job to be part of the team to reinforce the strength of a building to new codes, he recommended them, and they were hired to start in four weeks. They gave a month’s notice and were looking forward to the prestigious employment.

Ed worried now about Hannah when she asked him for answers she already knew. He noticed that, increasingly, she didn’t know where she was.

A few days later Ed suggested they go for drinks at the St. Francis Hotel.

“Where is the St. Francis?” Hannah asked.

“You know where it is, Hannah. It’s on Mason Street across the street from Union Square. It’s our favorite place. We go there all the time, together.”

“Oh,” Hannah said, bewildered.

When they went to the hotel and entered the lobby, neither Hannah nor Ed recognized their old college classmates who hurried over to them.

“Hi.” Hey, remember us?” Wyatt queried when the Jacobsons stared at them with blank expressions. “We’re Wyatt and Brenda Werner,” Wyatt continued.

After some hesitation, Ed squinted and replied, “Yeah. How are you?”

“Good. Remember those environmental science classes we had together?”

“Yeah, I do,” Ed replied, remembering the class as he tried to remember the couple.

“Come sit with us. We have reservations,” Brenda blurted out. The two couples sat near the bar and talked for half an hour over scotch-and-sodas, mostly about the city they loved. Brenda folded her arms across her chest and leaned in at the table.

“We haven’t felt well since the fireworks. How have you been?” Brenda asked.

“We’ve felt strange ever since,” Ed answered.

“We watched the fireworks aboard our friend’s Chinese junk, not far from the bridge. They had permission to be anchored there along with other boats under the Overlook.” Brenda was wide-eyed as she went on. “A lot of dust came down on that boat. We saw the black cloud waft over the Presidio. When the fog came in, it was worse for an hour or so.”

Wyatt interrupted. “When we finally rode home across the Golden Gate it was eleven-thirty that night, and it was foggy of course. The clouds of soot were mostly gone from the bridge, except for little clumps here and there.”

Brenda went on, “We have friends in Piedmont who didn’t know anything about a dust storm. They watched the fireworks from the East Bay and saw the fog roll in, nice and white, the way it does. They had no dust or silt or anything strange. We never read anything in the newspaper about the dust storm or heard any information from any of the media networks.”

“Nor did we,” Ed said, glancing at his wife.

“Something is weird, if you ask me.” Hannah said, turning back to stare at the couple across from them. “The city looks strange.”

“We should be getting home,” Ed interrupted, as he stood up and nodded to Hannah. He and Wyatt went to pay the check, and the wives followed.

After the couples left the dining room, they walked out of the hotel. The throngs of pedestrians on the street, the sound of brakes hissing, and the wheels of the cable car screeching as it stopped at the end of Powell made it impossible to talk above the din. Hannah and Ed boarded the cable car ready to clank its way up toward Clay Street. The Werners walked around the corner.

“What were their names again?” Hannah asked.

“I don’t know,” Ed stared at her, realizing that he too was puzzled. “They were nice.”

“Yes,” Hannah said absentmindedly as they both took a seat inside the almost empty cable car.

Ed mused how they almost never got to the front of the crowd to be able to get a seat inside. The two of them usually rode standing on the passenger ledge outside, hanging onto the straps.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Marjorie Salzwedel

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