Crying on Cable Cars in San Francisco

There’s something very cathartic about feeling all the things (read: tearing up) while riding a cable car in SF.

I had been sobbing since 7:27 a.m. that morning. It wasn’t so much of a consistent wailing as it was a soft release; the difference between opening a shaken bottle of rootbeer and twisting the cap off a kombucha bottle that had sat out at room temperature for a few minutes.

Emails were answered through a thin veil of tears. Google Documents became sorted out, filled with words — the sting of salt omnipresent, throughout. The slightest bit of composure was collected before a Zoom call at 5 p.m., a glorious result from a midday nap and the third can of Diet Coke. Still, a slow summer stream of lacrimal fluid slid down my face. I could feel it erode whatever skincare was applied earlier.

Crying doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve historically dealt with trauma and negative emotions through any means of pragmatism available. To make sense of catastrophic loss or minor convinces with a level head; to obey survivalism over a vulnerability in an aligning moment; to sequester any physical expression of sadness for a more opportune time… that never seems to quite come when it should.

Alas, this was the morning a ’90s Volvo came crashing down on my uncle after a car jack failed to engage. He was killed instantly. My father asked on-site officers if “his skull look like a watermelon that had been dropped from a rooftop.” The officer — aware of what my father was asking through a muted simile: Did my brother die instantly and without pain? — simply replied “yes.”

Through all the t-shirt blottings, I knew I had to change my environment if I were to allow this catharsis to fully envelop me. Far away from my perpetually-awake MacBook Air. So I left my otherwise humble micro-apartment later that night, took a sharp right to the quaint corner store on my block (to grab yet another Diet Coke, my carcinogenic elixir of choice), before walking.

San Franco’s cable cars exist on a spectrum of both disdain and affinity for us locals. On one faction, they’re steeped with history and escapism, doubling as both utilitarian transportation and a window into a past, more affordable, more bohemian San Francisco. On the other side, our city’s cable cars have been deemed fly traps for out-of-town social media influences and now exist synonymous with misguided political photo-ops.

I shrugged in ambivalence. It was as if by some means of universal telepathy he knew about my nomadism for that evening.

“Works for me,” I replied before taking a seat toward the front. My Diet Coke opened with a metallic clang; the boy, eyeing his father’s iPhone which was unlocked and set to take pictures, looked over with an innocent gaze. Perhaps startled or just curious. I waved, smiled. He smiled, waved. I don’t think the reddish tinge of my eyes was noticed.

The last time I found myself inside a San Francisco cable car was five years ago. I had just moved into the city — blind with the optimism ascribed by one’s early twenties. Dawned in San Francisco regalia, embarrassingly purchased at SFO a few hours prior, I ascended Nob Hill bracing myself on an open handrail. I was upright and admiring the SF I had only seen through the small sliding doors afforded by Google Images and 1987 sitcom nostalgia.

This time around, however, it was a seated affair. Affirming in its mediative melancholy.

Somewhere past Union Square, my shoulders began to drop. The muscles pinching my TMJ loosened, releasing the tension carried in my jaw. That very visceral release gave way to me simply existing.

Memories of watching my uncle wield his DSLR camera as a cumbersome tool to capture scenic vistas began blooming in my mind. How “Uncle Todd’s” convivial nature always made him a fixture of any large family gathering. His itch to paint abstract pieces of art after our trips to the Texas coastline. The way he inhabited both his masculine and feminine qualities so effortlessly.

Uncle Todd carried himself with grace. It’s clear his kindness was both inherited and learned — but given the less-than-neon stories I’ve heard of my late paternal grandfather, I assume the latter had a larger role. As a human being, he was a prime example of our species.

But as our car began nearing the return point, I realized a man I had once kept in my close company was removed from that connotation.

What was left of my Diet Coke had become lukewarm and unpleasantly flat. My denim face mask still showed faint dots where moisture had once been. When the conductor made sure to announce to riders that this was, in fact, the last trip this cable car would take for the day. No matter our destination, the 1870s-era vehicle would shoo its passengers off at Chinatown.

“It’ll be a nice walk home afterward,” I said… out loud to the empty space around me. And so began a fit of cityscape déjà vu as what was left of our group ascended the same hills again.

The infamously jolting rail tracks prevented me from focusing on Zander’s dangerously charismatic personality for too long. Whenever I was catapulted back into the present moment, delusions of his charm disappeared. What was left were cold truths, rather than warm lies. Like weeds overtaking a rose garden.

I had outright forgiven him for malicious acts that demanded conversation. I had tumbled over my own sense of self to better fit into his ideal mold for a partner. I bit my tongue when I should’ve been screaming. But what hurts the most is that I betrayed parts of myself to meet in the middle for a man; I had made the mistake… again.

Walking back from the cable car stop to my apartment wasn’t met with any other cathartic epodes. It was, more or less, a forward-motion exercise of gratitude. Thankful for the time I spent with my uncle. Thankful for the fact that I had brushed up against love again (even if it left a rash). Thankful that I’ve, somehow, managed to carve a life; a career; and a friendship circle from this wonderfully mad city.

Perhaps that will elicit watering my cheeks with tears of joy… some other time.


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