Love. I feel it in the way the old couple sitting across from me on the BART train gaze into each other’s souls with absolute adoration. When they boarded, he sat next to me. There weren’t two seats next to each other, and rather than sit away from him, she preferred to stand beside him on the jerking, unsteady train with her hand on his shoulder. My heart melted into a puddle, and I hurried to move to a different seat so they could be next to each other. Their eyes smiled at me with the deepest gratitude. I watched them laugh as they looked at photos on a phone screen together, chatting animatedly for the whole ride through the tunnel under the bay. They leaned into each other naturally as they talked, ebbing and flowing, pushing and pulling like magnets. Sharing sweet, subtle kisses, as giddy as any teenage couple I had ever seen.
Fear. I feel it in the way some of the streets reek sharply of urine, a man with a dirt-caked coat sitting on a square of cardboard, his eyes wide and terrified as he shrieks at shadows and figures we can’t see, responding to voices we can’t hear. His voice echoes hauntingly between the walls of the tall buildings rising on either side of the street, full of people in cubicles who are indifferent. We make eye contact for a brief moment, and I feel his terror, his confusion like a bolt of lightning. I see the desperation of a man who no longer knows what is real and what is in his head. Now, if there were one or two of him in the whole city, I might shrug it off as unfortunate. But when you find these characters at nearly every street corner, in every subway station, I know there’s something else.
Beauty. I feel it in the way the lights glitter on the waves of the bay as I stand at the end of the pier, a quick, cold breeze trying to find a way to blow through my coat. The lights drip and roll down the suspension chords of the bridge, and then flow from one end to the other like the creeping fog that so often consumes the city. Beside the pier, the old ferry boats rock and back and forth on the water, as if trying to help a baby to sleep in his cradle. It’s easy to forget about the stars you can’t see in the flat grey sky.
Perseverance. I feel it in the way the pigeons coo and take off in a flurry of startled feathers. And there’s one right there, over by the trash can, limping on deformed feet — grotesque lumps with no toes. She has a strange gait, hobbling along, but she is not thin. She finds an abandoned fry that some silly human discarded. The little handicapped bird, she is not perfect or beautiful, and the others avoid her, but she is strong. She will survive.
Fate. I feel it in the way thousands of people all over the world pass by each other every day on the sidewalks and sit next to each other on the buses. Most of them think they are on parallel tracks that cannot cross, but at any given moment, the tracks can jump, and something beautifully unexpected will blossom. I wait with baited breath for those moments when someone drops their bags and a stranger comes to their aid, or when a woman who barely speaks English gives up on her map and asks a man who barely speaks Spanish for directions. There are few things more thrilling than those first smiles exchanged between two unacquainted souls.
I feel San Francisco’s heartbeat. Some days it is faint and buried under the weight of the world. And some nights I can barely sleep, even all the way across the bay, as it thumps persistently in my mind.
I fall asleep with a smile.