coyote of Telegraph Hill

Note: I’ve been assembling a list of drafts of things that, for my own sense of forward progress, I need to make sense of and move into the foreground. For now, I have this, an old piece from March of 2016 that was mostly finished (if there’s such a thing) but hidden. May as well put it here for posterity, or at least a bit of momentum.

I woke up to learn that my morning flight back home had been canceled. There were no explanations, only me with a flight rebooked for two hours later and the grogginess from a restless sleep in a cramped hotel room, rain all night dripping in the alley outside my gray, alley window.

In a way, fate had invented new time for me, but there was no point in going back to sleep. No point in rushing out to breakfast. The rain had paused just enough to lift gloom from the wet streets and my psyche. I found my hat and wool shirt, laced my shoes, tucked my hotel key and i.d. in my shorts pocket and headed out, negotiating the tight space between my bed and the door’s inward swing.

Running uphill on Grant in San Francisco takes you under Chinese lanterns that are suspended across the street. Storefronts that would normally display whole ducks and bok choy are closed and streets are quiet on early Sunday mornings. A few carts cross narrow, wet streets. As I crest the hill and look towards North Beach, the neighborhood and the neighbors change. I cross Columbus at its its angle skewed relative to all other city blocks, City Lights Bookstore on my right as I focus attention to crosswalks and traffic signals. And then I climb again past charming restaurants and retailers, progressively steeper and steeper until I’m wrapping around Telegraph Hill.

There’s serendipity in all this. I love a city early in the morning. I love the wet streets in between the torrents of rain that have pushed through the last few days. I love the climb of these hills and this particular route. Up until now, I hadn’t been able to make my way to Coit Tower, even though I could see it from a distance and from all directions and even though I love the route down from that point, a series of cobbled brick stairs weaving a path in between homes and a jungle of green. There used to be parrots living in these trees, which sounds unbelievable until you’re there and you have the sense that they could still be hidden among the greens.

And then there was the coyote.

I had rounded off Grant and up Lombard where it was about to turn me again onto the final twist up the hill, tracing the most reasonable grade up to the park at the peak. And there she was, in the middle of the street, just the two of us, face to face. Beyond was the bay and a bridge fading into the fog.

Looking back on that moment, maybe the most stunning part of it was the complete absence of sound. I don’t remember my breathing, my footfalls, or the city’s sonic profile. I’m not sure if my memory has blocked out everything else or if addressing a coyote on Telegraph Hill transcends all other experience and sensation.

I slowed to a walk, sidling along the curb as she held her ground in the middle of the street. First, I’d thought, “coyote,” but then I was sure — I knew — that this was impossible, it must be a dog; this is San Francisco. But then there was that bushy tail and the sleek coat and the bright eyes and presence of an animal who lives outdoors. But then, again, no, this is the middle of a street in San Francisco; but where is its collar and where does it live? I looked to the canine and back to the closed doors on either side, waiting for a round man in a tattered robe to step out and call his companion back into the house.

Still facing it and walking right by, I’d convinced myself that it couldn’t be a coyote, even though it was obviously a coyote. I’ve faced coyotes twice before in the “wild,” I think. The first time I’d watched it run across my path in the middle of the the first day of a weeklong trek dissecting the Sierras. It streaked by, bounding away into reaches I’d never find. I’ve come to know coyotes as those animals that are heard, yipping or howling in the middle of the night, but not seen. They are clever and elusive. They are supposed to be elusive. And they most certainly don’t live in San Francisco. It wasn’t until I’d left the coyote behind, turning back to reconsider and re-reconsider, and made my way up the path in the park to find a sign. It was a “real,” human made, makeshift A-frame folded sign, communicating the impossibility that there could be coyotes in the area and that we humans should be aware and give them space if we should happen to come across one. I turned back to look at the impossible coyote, still in the middle of the street below me.

She walked across the street and away, elusive again.

A coyote on Lombard street is the poem that I can’t write, can’t even have imagined. Ferlinghetti might have written it, but he wasn’t there. It was a gift for me on a tired, damp morning, the gift of a canceled flight, the gift of running shoes, and the gift of the gates of Chinatown and the stairs of Telegraph Hill, and the gift of coming face to face with something beautiful and unexpected. If that’s all there is, it’s enough.