In these harsh, Bush-shadowed times as the sun sets on the empire of the two Georges from Texas, it is not surprising that our Friday nights may find us with a shortage of funds slated for our discretion. San Diego Bay was two short blocks away from my room and reflected the incandescent bowl of a moon, calm and untroubled on the surface. Stars wouldn’t repeat themselves there, not through the marine layer muted by surrounding neon and fluorescence. The night was still evening, and I joined the tourists for a stroll because it is free and a part of me will always be a tourist here.
It was inevitable that Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay” should arrive in memory. Never a bad song, even with its cornball whistling solo, but it did bring along with it its year of origin and all that accompanied those digits, welcome or not — 1968.
I stopped at a display rack for tour brochures and pretended to pick out “Harbor Cruises: Sea Lion Adventures,” “Dining Cruises,” and some harbor-excursion two-hour deal, but I was really steadying myself against the stand. It was a rich year, 1968; distant as it may be, those 12 long-ago months contained more than their share of stuff. It once occurred to me that the expression “shit happens” came into being just to accommodate 1968. Things happened to the world that year, from Prague to Peking to Pulaski Avenue in Chicago. And standing/leaning against the brochure rack of tourist materials that Friday night, listening to the murmur of the bay, the bustle of boats, the voices of families, raised just out of habit and not anger or urgency, I never felt more like an out-of-towner in the 29 years I’ve lived here.
Yachts, I think, staring without focus at what I would guess to be a 26- to 32-foot Columbia or California, a two-masted sloop and not a ketch. I learned some things, out of necessity, years ago, about boats. What kind of word is yacht or yachts? Momentarily, it is as if I were coming out of a coma with a bad case of aphasia; simple words have no referents.
“This is the perfect place if you’re a yachtsman,” a voice says behind me, one of those people I took to be a family member in a group of five. “We’ve been blessed here with calm waters and good winds.” I don’t mean to be eavesdropping. Turning, I see that the speaker is maybe early 50s, a bald dome with a corona of gray just over his collar and to the bottom of his ears. His black-framed glasses are on a red string. He bears a resemblance to the other man and one of the children, a boy about 14. I decide that they are related and that the speaker lives here and acts as tour guide for his brother’s family.
The speaker’s brother is looking out across the bay to the lights of North Island and Coronado. “That’s where we were today for lunch, right?”
“Yeah, that’s Coronado. That’s the restaurant too.” The tour guide is pointing with his chin. “We could do some sailing, maybe tomorrow. I could rent a 22-footer over at Harbor Island or Shelter Island. I can’t remember which; it’s been a few years.”
The woman speaks up, “You’re not getting me on the water.”
“We’ll see,” her husband, I presume, tells her.
Walking north, toward the Star of India, I leave the family and tour guide and reflect that my first glimpse of San Diego was from this bay, from the deck of a 48-foot ketch called the Griffin. It was January of 1973. We had sailed down from Santa Barbara and were about to sail down the length of Baja. Four of us, in our 20s, none of us with a clue. Had any of us known the true extent of our ignorance, we would have been much more frightened than we were.
This watery nostalgia fest is interrupted by a boy, maybe six years old, who darts in front of me in hot pursuit of a pigeon. The kid cackles like a maniac, as if nothing could ever possibly be this fun again. The pigeon waddles at a clip but frankly doesn’t seem all that concerned. The boy doesn’t tire for a good ten minutes, though he selects alternate pigeons. The joke doesn’t wear thin at all. Each bird cracks him up. People-watching is always more rewarding when there are little kids involved.
A cruise ship, the name of which I made a point of remembering and then promptly forgot, looks like a chunk of some modern South American city that broke off and floated up against our own.
Only a few minutes ago and maybe 20 yards back I was overcome by recalling too many events from 1968. From there I went to sea then reverted to childhood and chased pigeons right alongside the boy who looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy, as I did at that age.
The night is still young.