These days, I straddle a weird line between pop culture overload and pop culture ignorance. In some ways, I’m too dialed in: Twitter discourse, for example. In others, I’m woefully unaware. Case in point: my top played song of 2020 was actually from 2005, and I’d never heard of most the songs on Spotify’s top 100 for 2020.
It mirrors how my 2020 went, I suppose. Lots of time on my computer. Not a lot of time in shared spaces or Ubers—my usual sources for learning pop music. I mean, I did learn some new music in 2020. It just wasn’t pop music on the radio. At least… not around here.
In one of many unexpected plot twists in 2020, I got sucked into a specific sub-set of Argentinian pop. It started with one band, then it became two, and suddenly I was very engrossed in a particular group of singers and their friends. I have no sense of the broader Argentinean landscape—so I have no idea how popular these singers actually are. I simply know that they’re friends, they post each other’s music, and I am now sucked in. To me, they’re Argentinean stars. But within Argentina itself? Not a clue. I have no sense of their grander landscape, or where they fit in. I just know that I like them, and that’s enough for me.
I didn’t exactly need more data to prove I’m out of touch with music trends in my own country. And yet, when a coworker sent a music trend map, I had to laugh. I’d only heard of one “top song” across the whole country. And it was “Driver’s License”: a worldwide hit for weeks on end. Which I learned about on Twitter. Of course.
Other than that… I felt pretty clueless. The map itself is fascinating, and worth your clicks. You can explore top songs by geography, based on YouTube data. Some cities show cultural nuance, while others veer towards a very singular top hit. The Bay Area is especially fun to look at: depending on where you click, you’ll see everything from Bruno Mars to “regional Mexican” to a song in Telugu.
The project, created by The Pudding, says it’s meant to help you escape your “geographic music bubble.” Popular music is, by definition, songs that reach mass success with a certain population. And even though it can feel monolithic at times (like every radio station seemingly playing three songs), it’s a function of your data set. Only listening to top 40 radio? Of course you’ll hear the same things over and over. But if you switch up your radio dial, or go to Spotify’s top list in some other country or even just drive a bit out of your normal way… you might find a whole new reality of pop culture. When you start to dig into nuances by neighborhood or demographic or region, you realize that what’s “popular” is actually quite relative.
Now, I’m not someone who needs to know what’s cool to feel fine. But even I got curious to see just how many songs I could recognize on the list. Aside from “Driver’s License,” it turned out the answer was: zero. Until suddenly, somewhere on Bolivian and Peruvian border, I found another song I knew. It’s from one of those Argentinian bands I follow.
I’ve spent more mornings sitting with this view, listening to this track, than you could possibly imagine. Every weekend, long weekend Mondays, any day I worked from home: I spent part of it here.
Until COVID, that is. And then, like so many businesses, this cafe shut its doors. A year later, I still wake up wishing I could sit there and write. I mean… I kind of wish I could go anywhere and write. But this particular coffee shop held a special place in my heart. If you go somewhere enough, it becomes part of who you are. It felt familiar, and mine, but also really wasn’t mine at all. My friends knew they could find me there. I made new friends in there. And there was a whole orbit of other regulars I never actually met, but saw all the time.
The business closed so quietly, I had to keep walking by to check on it. For months, there was a note on the door saying they’d closed for the two week lockdown that started in March 2020. As the weeks wore on and that note stayed put, I started to suspect something. One day I walked by, and their sign was gone.
I used to joke that the coffee shop was like my living room. But really, it was my third place: a slice of the public sphere. The term “third place” comes from a sociological concept about public places where people gather outside of home or work. It can be anywhere people socialize or come together as community—parks, coffee shops, bars.
Starbucks became famous for applying this concept to their cafes. They designed their spaces and experience with the goal of becoming your third place (or one of them, at least). While other shops focused on getting customers in and out quick, Starbucks wanted you to sit and stay. This made their cafes feel more integral to people’s lives. A place where people spent significant amounts of time… and money. And it helped spurn the coffee shop laptop warrior culture that, for better or for worse, I love about the grand US of A.
This past year, so many of our third places closed. And for many of us—our second places, too. Suddenly, we were spending way more time in the first place—our homes. And even if your home is grand or cozy or scenic, it might not be enough for you. It’s not just about missing lattes or work friends. We’re missing the places that helped our lives feel more whole. The places where we felt part of something bigger, or part of a community, or could open ourselves up to chance encounters and new acquaintances. No amount of Zooming can truly fill that void.
Some coffee shops have reopened inside, welcoming back the laptop warriors and latte lingerers. I’m not quite ready for that yet. And when I am, I’ll need to find somewhere new to go. I hope that other people from my old cafe find the same new cafe, too. Or maybe someone will open a new shop in our old spot, and we can start the story again.
I spent my morning downtown, window shopping. The streets were empty—but the windows full. I walked slowly down long city blocks, staring at every storefront. Not many were open today, their windows the only sign of ongoing business. But even if they were open, I probably wouldn’t have walked in.
With all the constraints of this past year, I’ve barely spent time in stores. I’ll dash in for a cup of coffee, or whatever. But I haven’t been wandering the aisles of my grocery store, or browsing every shelf at the bookstore, or testing every perfume possible at Sephora.
Since I mostly see stores from the outside now, I’ve been thinking a lot about shop windows. What they’re for, and what they communicate. I’ve noticed they’re getting more cluttered this past year, as shopkeepers try to highlight merchandise from the depths of their stores. They’re catering to people like me, sidewalk shoppers and online buyers who won’t necessarily go in, but still want to know what’s inside. Some stores are still putting up artful displays or and clever signs. But more stores than usual are leaning into quantity: the more stacked in the windows, the better.
Shop windows weren’t always a form of marketing. The practice of window dressing and using windows as ads only came about with conspicuous consumption. Think about it this way: if you only shopped when you really needed something, and only went to the same few stores all the time—you didn’t need displays as cues. You only went to stores when you really needed to, and you already knew which store you’d pick. But when people started shopping for leisure, shopkeepers realized that windows could be a handy marketing tool. Displays started piling up, and soon the art of “window dressing” was born.
So window shopping itself really only started around the late 18th century, and grew in prominence with the rise of leisure shopping and department stores in the early 1900s. These days, it’s more surprising to see an empty window than one filled with goods or displays. And even more shocking when windows are boarded up, like so many have been this past year.
In these times, I can go days without entering a shop or restaurant. But as I walk the San Francisco streets, I frequently stop to consider what’s on display. I read book covers, examine clothes, debate which purse I’d want most. It’s not conspicuous consumption, in the classic sense. It’s more like consuming possibilities: imagining the world of options just beyond that window, right beyond my reach.
I’ve kept an “activity log” since 2013. It’s not really a diary so much as a list of my favorite things that happen every week.
My 2020 log reads like a play in three acts. The first act is the beginning of the year, before COVID changed our daily lives. The second begins March 8, when I wrote “I started staying home today.” Oh, the naïveté! The third act comes in October, when I rented a car and left the city for the first time in seven months.
The pre-COVID entries feel like another life. My last meal inside a restaurant was on March 6, with great company but very mediocre food. We joke that if we’d known what was coming, we would have picked a nicer restaurant. My last normal date was at a silly dive bar, better known for its drink roulette wheel than its actual drinks. And my last big event was a safari-themed party at a club, where I wore cat ears and pretended that counted as a costume.
And then. A shift to my “new normal.” I stopped mentioning restaurants and nights out, and started writing about solo walks and virtual parties. In that very first mention of COVID, back on March 8, I wrote that I was grateful for easy access to nature. The hills here can be gnarly—but they sure offer peaceful, restorative views. Especially in the early days of COVID, when it felt like my world had narrowed so dramatically, I loved that I could look out beyond the city, and remember that the rest the world was still out there, waiting.
My new routine
I can’t say I’ve totally cracked how to feel fulfilled, or even like myself during all of this. I’ve always thought I was good at spending time alone—I’d go to concerts alone, and I even took long solo vacations. But now I’ve realized that “solo” in the Before Times actually meant “solo, with the option of socializing.” I’d chat with baristas, talk to strangers in line, go to group events. Even when I started and ended the day alone, there was a persistent possibility of interaction. That’s remarkably different from the COVID kind of alone, when you actively avoid other people and have to calculate risk every time you socialize.
In many ways, I know my 2020 solitude was a form of privilege. I’m not saying I liked it: in fact, I very much hated it, and I don’t see much good in pretending otherwise. But I was also lucky to keep my job, and do it from home. I was able to take precautions to stay in more than going out. I had hobbies to keep myself entertained. I had friends and family ready to talk however, whenever.
I’m hopeful that in 2021, we’ll get some of our old routines back. In the meantime, I think we’re all learning a very new meaning to what it’s like to live “in the present,” without any sense of control.
Goals vs. reality
I recently found a list of “2020 goals” that I’d scribbled in a random notebook early in the year. I actually managed to do several things on the list—just in a very different way than I’d initially imagined.
For example: “See more concerts.” Ok, so I only made it to 3 concerts before lockdown. But technically, I saw way more live music in 2020 than I had in 2019. Thanks to platforms like Twitch, I watched tons of festivals and saw many favorite artists perform. In the process, I rediscovered the magic of Sofi Tukker and started joining their daily live streams. They’ve built an entire community around virtual DJ-ing, and I’ve loved being a (very, very small) part of it.
I also managed to dance more in 2020. When I wrote “get back into dance” on my 2020 goals, I meant things like salsa lessons and nights on the town. I got a good start on that one before COVID… but surprised myself by keeping it going the whole year long. Virtual dance parties with friends turned out to be a true highlight of 2020. Even if you think you hate dancing, I dare you to try it for yourself. There is more joy to be found bouncing around your house than you might think.
One goal I absolutely did not achieve: less screen time. Mere weeks after I wrote about getting away from my screen, COVID sent me into a mostly screen-based existence. I’d like to cut back this year… but we’ll see.
The myth of downtime
One of my 2020 soapboxes: rallying against headlines that lectured to use our “newfound free time” productively. Sure, I spent more time at home than ever before. But once you try to approximate some semblance of the life you had before COVID, it’s not like there is magically more time in a day. And I think we all underestimated the mental impact of something like this. I watched significantly more TV in 2020 than any other year of my adult life. And you know what? That’s ok.
I also think there’s been too much pressure to develop new skills or find new hobbies. Personally, I’m taking solace in loving the same things I’ve always loved. I dance, I read, I wander. I entertain myself with brightly colored makeup and flashy outfits. No, I don’t have a “new” hobby to brag about, and I didn’t do the Shakespeare-in-quarantine thing, or whatever. But as long as I feel like I’m finding fulfillment in small ways every day, that’s alright by me.
The baking roundup
I haven’t written my full baking roundup yet, but I did the basic stats. I baked 37 recipes last year, and 82% were new to me. While cookies still reigned supreme, I actually made a broader range of baked goods than usual. That’s one upside to staying home: you can tackle incredibly complicated, multi-step recipes. My favorite bakes were these tahini challah buns, black and white cookies, and my mom’s yellow cake with chocolate mint frosting.
The travel tally
Well. This one surelooks different than usual. I literally took one real trip in 2020, and only left the city a couple times after COVID hit. First I rented a car and took a day trip to brush up on my driving (it’d been four years!). Then I drove to Southern California for my one and only true trip of the year. I stayed at Airbnbs near family, hung out in their backyards and otherwise kept to myself. It wasn’t at all like my normal trips home, but I’m grateful I was able to do it, and I definitely appreciated the change of scenery.
My year in blogging
I originally thought that staying home would mean more personal writing, but let’s file that under “things we just didn’t totally understand when COVID started.” Turns out, my brain felt very fried last year. I did manage to post 6 articles here,10articles on Sugarsmithand 118 pictures to my photo blog, Scene in San Francisco.
2020 fun facts
Emo tributes attended: 1, before lockdown, and I loved every minute of it.
Museum visits: 4, all before lockdown.
Virtual weddings attended: 1, and it was absolutely beautiful.
Best meal: Pizzetta 211. Amazing pizza and creative desserts.
Virtual bar crawls: 1, on NYE.
My longest streak of weekly karaoke parties: 7 weeks in a row. Over the interwebs, of course.
Funniest line in my journal: “Went to happy hour on the Embarcadero. Lots of men in suits?” (This is shocking in SF! And clearly from the Before Times.)
Times I walked the main street near my house: It MUST be in the hundreds. I have no idea.
I haven’t written 2021 goals yet, but I do plan to write some. Even though 2020 showed just how uncertain plans can be, I still think it’s worthwhile to write down your aspirations. Come back in a year to see how I did, ok?
The first day I stayed home, I was supposed to help host a workshop for Women’s History Month.
The night before, my team exchanged frantic messages. We’d just received new COVID guidance from HR, and no one knew how to handle it. Should we cancel the event altogether? Discourage people from sharing poster supplies? Move the event closer to a sink?
We had no idea.
In the end, the event went on. I chose to stay home, thanks to my emerging COVID anxiety and my employer’s flexibility. But my Women@ co-leads ran point, made amazing posters and hung them up all over our San Francisco campus.
A week later, our offices closed.
Amidst the uncertainty, we tried to keep programming going. For my specific sub-committee, it felt like a whole new world. As the Community team, we focus on connecting people across the company and helping people extend their support systems. Before COVID, our programming centered on physical interaction and shared activities. When we all went remote, we had to reconsider our approach.
What does it mean to build community from afar? And how do you help people feel supported, every day, even when they can’t see friendly faces in the hallway?
We tried a lot of new ideas last year. Some worked great. Some… didn’t. But we got one thing absolutely right: People craved community. Maybe more than ever before.
And while we’re still learning how to show up and support people in all the right ways, I’m proud of what we’ve done. I’m sharing our insights here, because I truly believe that building community within a company is one of the most important things you can do. I hope you take inspiration back to your own team.
Our top three lessons:
1. Anchor in structure: At first, we struggled to replicate the spontaneity of meeting new people in person. We tried “happy hours” on Hangouts, but few people showed up. Then, we realized that spontaneity was the wrong anchor. We actually needed to add structure, not take it away. Unstructured, big events can be intimidating. But if you assign people into small groups, they’ll show up—and they’ll get a lot out of it. We now offer one-off “social chats” where you’re matched with 5–6 people, scheduled into a specific time and given prompts to guide the conversation.
2. Attendance IS effort: Early into COVID, we tried things like book clubs and movie clubs. But we quickly learned that the idea of “extra free time during COVID” was not, in fact, a thing. People didn’t have the time or energy to take on “homework.” So we reframed it: attendance is the only effort we expect, and we keep any reading or discussion contained within a specific event.
3. Stick to small: Even though you can make online events huge, it doesn’t mean you should. We try to keep events small enough that people can make real connections. For example, when we do AMAs with senior leaders, we cap the invite list at 12. It gives everyone a chance to speak up, and encourages a more meaningful conversation.
If you have any questions about getting these kinds of programs started, feel free to send me a note. And thank you, THANK YOU, to everyone who volunteered their time, ideas and feedback to the Women@ Community committee this past year. Partnering with you has truly been one of the greatest joys of my career.
An extra thanks to my Women@ teammates Sabine and Susan for providing helpful feedback on this piece.
I’ve never been good at picking favorites. I have a favorite color (fuchsia) and a favorite fruit (strawberries)… but beyond that, not many more come to mind. And if you asked my favorite band or favorite song, I truly wouldn’t know what to tell you.
Like so many of you, I love seeing my Spotify roundup every winter. It is an insanely clever marketing program: Spotify tracks our listening data, then spits it back out at us in an engaging, fun report. They’ve literally figured out how to market their first party data back to the first party itself—and I salute them for it.
But their data never feels quite right. I stare at my stats and wonder how songs I only sort of like cracked my top 20, but songs I love didn’t even make the top 100. I wonder how an artist could be #4 on my top artists list, but barely represented on my top 100 tracks. I question how a song I don’t even recognize made it to the top 100 at all. And above all else, I wonder if this really represents my “favorites,” in the truest sense of the word.
Which no: I don’t think it does. I spent a good amount of time analyzing my top 100 songs this week, and realized that it’s a really a list of my most consistent songs. They’re not necessarily the tracks I identify with, or feel most strongly about. They’re the songs I’m most likely to remember to ask my Google Home to play, over time.
For example, I love musicals. But I also go through lots of phases, so there isn’t one show that I listened to on repeat, the whole year. While show tunes as a genre hit #3 on my genre list, very few individual songs showed up on my top 100. Even if I really love an album and played it on repeat for part of the year, it wasn’t enough to crack the stats. Or take a band like Bastille, which has been my top artist for three whole years now. They’re my literal #1 band on Spotify, and all over my top 100 tracks—but they’re not even represented in my top 5. That’s because they have an extensive discography and I listen to different albums pretty equally… whereas I literally know two songs from We the Kings and they both made my top 5!
So does playing something consistently, or even craving a song consistently, mean it’s your favorite? I just don’t think so. I crave eggs all the time, but does that make eggs a favorite food? I certainly wouldn’t say that if you asked my favorite foods outright.
You could argue that data doesn’t lie, and if Spotify says I played “Dark Blue” the most this year then gosh darn it, maybe it’s my favorite song, even if I don’t say so myself. But this is where terminology becomes super important. I don’t work at Spotify, and I don’t know how they decided on terminology for their reports. However, as a marketing writer who works with a lot of data… I’m very confident that the report’s labels are intentional.
Calling something “top songs” simply infers quantity. Your top songs are the songs you played most, whether you loved them or your kid loves them or you accidentally left “Cardigan” playing for six months at your vacation home. Meanwhile, a word like “favorite” implies more intentionality and connection. “Top” just means that you literally played that thing a lot. When we start to talk about “favorites,” we get deeper into emotion and identity.
Spotify may have your data, but they don’t know your feelings. They could do some pretty interesting analyses graphing your habits over time, or showing how songs relate to each other, or how your tastes evolved throughout the year. But they don’t know that you play a certain song every time you need to focus, or that you also spent hours watching Newsies clips on YouTube (guilty), or that you sometimes just sort of forget about other songs you actually really, really like.
In some ways, I appreciate that the list showed my gaps. I realized a lot of artists I love were missing, and that I should spend more time listening to other people’s playlists and the radio, rather than depending on my own recency or saliency biases. In fact, it’s already inspired me to dig around and find some new tunes.
Maybe my 2021 wrap up will look different, with all new songs and brand new genres. But realistically, I do think it’s pretty likely that Bastille will be my “top artist” for the fourth year in a row. Because no matter what new music I discover or dance to, Bastille is just something I consistently crave, month after month. Does that make them my actual, literal, favorite band? You tell me.
On Thursday, I took my first car ride in five months.
My first ride of any kind, really. For five whole months, I’d only traveled by foot. No cars, no buses, no bikes. Just me, myself and my own two feet.
When we started shelter in place, the city said to stay in our own neighborhoods. Suddenly, my beloved 7×7 SF was more like a 1×1. In Normal Times, I’m all over the place, always. But when we started staying home, and closer to home, my radius shrank dramatically. I went from spending weekends all over town, to walking distance only.
At first, I found it fascinating. I realized that it was the most geographically constrained I’d ever been, and it felt strangely exciting—like going back in time. It made me think about how lucky I’ve always been to have transit at my disposal. And it made me cherish every inch of my own neighborhood, too. I stumbled upon views and parks I’d never seen before. Losing the option to wander far away helped me find more beauty close to home.
But it felt a bit stifling, too. I’m not good at sitting still, and it turns out I’m not great at staying content close to home, either. I felt strange pangs of nostalgia for other parts of the city. I was grateful that I’d done a staycation right before lockdown. I’d spent a whole week traipsing around, trying new cafes and sipping many a daytime cocktail. Sounds like a real luxury now, doesn’t it?
I think my neighborhood’s hills helped save my sanity somewhat. As my world shrank smaller, the hills provided much-needed perspective. I’d stand at the top, stare off into the distance and remember that the rest of the world was still out there. Perhaps out of my reach for the time being—but still there, waiting for me, someday.
And then social distancing dragged on, and the novelty wore off. The city stopped telling us to stay close to home but I didn’t want to take shared transit yet. So I stuck to walking. I started venturing further out, crossing into neighborhoods I hadn’t seen in months. Every time I made it further away, it felt like crossing some kind of threshold. My first time back to Alamo Square, to Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Embarcadero. Simultaneously like finding a whole new world, and rediscovering my old one.
But even now, my world is relatively small. I can do a lot on foot around here, but can’t do it all. I still haven’t been to many neighborhoods that I used to visit on a weekly basis. A coworker went to our office this week, and it felt like a lifetime away that I commuted there every day.
I expected Thursday’s car ride to feel whimsical. After months of using just my feet, I expected to feel whisked away, like on a magic carpet. It did feel somewhat strange—we covered a 20 minute walk in a 5 minute drive. We took a route I don’t usually do on foot. The scenery passed by much quicker than I’m used to these days.
But the ride didn’t feel as strange as I expected. And I kind of hope that’s how all of our reentry goes, over time. Whenever we finally get back to some semblance of normal, I hope it feels just that: Normal. In some ways, it’s appealing to feel the wonder of things we once took for granted. In others, it’s reassuring that the world still exists, and will be there for us again, whenever this is all over.
Culture Cookies turned nine at the end of May. Nine years is a long time to do anything. When I first started writing here, I didn’t have a longterm vision. I just missed writing, and wanted a place to do it.
My relationship with Culture Cookies changes over time. In my 2019 annual report, I wrote about shifting more time to being out in the world, rather than typing alone at home. Of course, the world has changed a lot since I hit “publish” on that post. The irony isn’t lost on me. I declared my intent to get out even more in 2020… and then the world forced us all inside.
Who’s to say what 2020 will bring for my personal writing. I write when I feel like it, and my feelings are kind of all over the place these days.
But nine years of writing—even if it’s sporadic—means a lot to me. So I read old posts and picked nine that felt especially exciting to me today. There’s no rhyme or reason here. Just nine older posts that I especially enjoyed today. I hope you enjoy them, too!
There’s a point in my Amazon wish list where you see reality shift. First, there’s a long string of flapper dresses, decadently shiny, candidates for a 20’s-inspired party that I attended in February. Then suddenly, the sequins segue into sanitizer. And laptop stands. And, sadly: Disinfecting wipes.
There’s many ways to mark the turn from the Before Times to now. My company ID has been hibernating since March 6th. I haven’t taken public transit in 75 days. And in a truly San Franciscan observation, I haven’t used a backpack for ten whole weeks.
It’s hard to make sense of this fork in the road, from Reality 1 to Reality 2. It’s like the world hit a decision tree in a choose your own adventure story, and went down this curvy, confusing path. Except none of us chose this adventure. And we can’t just turn back the page, and try again.
I feel like I’m suspended in time, living in an alternative universe from the one I knew. But I’m choosing to see this universe as a detour, rather than a permanent shift. I’m not an expert and I certainly can’t control the future (although I can do my part to limit the spread… and so can you! Wink Wink). I don’t know when we’ll get back “on track” to where we were. All I can do is hope it happens, and try to keep myself as sane as possible in the meantime.
Part of staying sane, for me, means managing my time well. I always keep a to-do list, a never-ending assortment of tasks and ideas. Some are closer in, like depositing a check. Some are much further out, like trying a new hobby or visiting a friend. I’m a pretty intense planner, and I get a lot of energy thinking ahead to the exciting things on the horizon.
Except right now… we just don’t know. We don’t know when we’ll get to pick back up our to-do list, for the smaller stuff or the big things. My usual trick of thinking ahead still kind of works, it’s just not rooted in any real dates or plans. It’s thinking ahead to a hypothetical someday, instead of a scheduled trip or concert tickets you already have.
I did some spring cleaning on my to-do list a couple days ago. You see the shift between realities in there, too. There’s an entire list of tasks I’d planned to do back in March: Buy new blush, use up a clothing gift card, go try the newest bar in my neighborhood. There’s ideas for a trip to Paris, which I was scheming about but hadn’t actually booked. There’s my personal goals for 2020, which ironically, mostly had to do with getting out more.
At first, I considered deleting that kind of stuff. After all, I’m certainly not going to do those errands or travel to France anytime soon. But I changed my mind. Instead of deleting all those Before Times ideas, I moved them to a new section at the bottom of the doc. I titled the section “eventually.” Because when the day comes that we can get back to some kind of routine, I’m still going to want rosy cheeks.
In the meantime, I’m focused on what I’m calling my “today list.” I can’t control the bigger picture of where we’re headed as a society. I can, to some degree, control what I do with my time today. So for now, I’m trying to stay focused on that. It’s hard to steer away from thinking about what could have been this year, or what we had planned to do. All I can come up with to cope is focusing very, very much on the present reality. Even if it’s a lot less sequined and a lot more isolated than I’d ever imagined.
Keep hanging in there, friends. And if you ever need to talk to someone, drop me a note. I’m here for you.
A couple days ago I caught a whiff of a classic San Francisco scent.
No, it wasn’t sourdough wafting my way. Or one of the rather unsavory smells you can catch downtown, either.
It was that aroma you only get on the cable car. That unmistakable blend of fuel and pine wood that’s pumped by the brakes as you ride up and down San Francisco’s hills.
When the cars stopped running last month, I noticed the change right away. They’re impossible to miss, in Normal Times. They have literal bells and whistles, and they clank as they grip their tracks. Tourists squeal as they round the corner near one of my favorite cafes. You see giant lines of people waiting for a ride downtown or at the Wharf.
I usually see the cars more than I ride them. So when they first left their tracks, called out of duty, I missed the sights and sounds first. Hyde Street feels too empty. Nob Hill is too quiet. The Cable Car Museum is dark and silent, mail piling up in its entry.
But the minute I smelled that unmistakable Eau de Cable Car, I wanted nothing more than to jump onboard and ride around the city. Even after living here for eight whole years, I take a special delight in riding the cable cars. I don’t do it much—after all, who wants to wait in line just to get around? But right before the shutdown, I happened to catch a ride from the Wharf back to my hood. I stared out the window as we climbed up Russian Hill, appreciating the beauty of the bay. And as that familiar burning scent crept in, I was so absurdly happy about this city and its landmarks.
The empty cable car tracks are just another eerie reminder that thing aren’t normal right now. Nothing feels quite right out there, and I’m finding I miss things I never knew I cared about. Like taking the bus to work. Or watching a local dry cleaning shop open up for the day. Or cable car braking scents.
Like us, the cable cars are sitting at home, waiting to be called back into action. And like us, just because they’re out of their normal routine, doesn’t mean their essence is gone. We’ll all get back on track someday. And when we do, I’m hoping on the first cable car I see and taking it as far as it will go.