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Last Beautiful

I rode my bike to the beach on the last of the beau­ti­ful days.

Timon had to lure me out of the house. As a rule I was unim­pressed by the sun, and I had this the­ory that beau­ti­ful days are totally overrated, espe­cially in San Francisco. We all went crazy when the clouds parted. Every­body got dis­tracted and scram­bled out­side as if it would never be nice again.

I was no misanthrope! Just the opposite: I had a deep faith in the future. There were beautiful days behind us and beau­ti­ful days to come — so relax and play some video games.

But it turned out my faith was unfounded, because Sat­ur­day, March 27 was, in fact, the last beau­ti­ful day.

On Sunday, the sky over the city was gray-green. Mon­day was worse, and the week that fol­lowed was a cage of dark clouds that trailed cur­tains of cold rain. There was lightning. It went on like that, week after week, month after month, all across the city, the peninsula, and the headlands — the sun flatly refused to shine. Today, about a mil­lion of us are still stuck liv­ing in a weather non sequitur.

Something fun­da­men­tal has changed; some­thing impor­tant is broken.

But I’m not just talk­ing about the sky.

The thing that sucked about the last beau­ti­ful day was that I didn’t get to spend it with Kate Trudeau.

Back at the begin­ning I lied. It wasn’t Timon’s coax­ing that got me out of the house. Rather, it was the under­stand­ing that Timon is friends with Lacey Pell, and Lacey is friends with Kate Trudeau, and Lacey was definitely coming, so Kate Trudeau was maybe coming too. I mean, they’re really good friends. She was almost def­i­nitely com­ing.

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. But I was in a quasi-anti-relationship with Kate Trudeau, which means that we made out twice, hooked up once, got angry at each other 1.5 times, and were cur­rently trav­el­ing through some sort of roman­tic netherworld. Don’t look back, Orpheus.

There’s a spot in Golden Gate Park where you’re cruis­ing down the green-cosseted road and you make a sharp turn — there’s a wind­mill on your right — and sud­denly, there’s the ocean, so big and bright it messes up the color bal­ance of your eyes. It’s wide and white and waves are crash­ing and you can’t believe it’s been there all this time. And, espe­cially if you are coast­ing towards the pos­si­bil­ity of Kate Trudeau, it feels like the newest, biggest, great­est thing in the world. Like: wow, who invented this, and why didn’t I know until now?

But Kate Trudeau didn’t show, so I spent the whole day pre­tend­ing to be inter­ested in Lacey’s new job and play­ing quarter-hearted fris­bee with some dude named Chad. I was barely there; my spirit was out can­vass­ing other beaches, other streets.

In the damp driz­zled weeks that fol­lowed, pho­tos from that last beau­ti­ful day gath­ered a strange power.

It didn’t mat­ter if they’d been snapped on Nikons or Nokias, because they all had one thing in common: they were scarce. These were images tightly cir­cum­scribed in space and time, and with every gray day that passed, they seemed more and more magical.

People shared their col­lec­tions in lit­tle online shrines. Every golden photo had a long wispy beard of comments, all nos­tal­gia and longing. There were a lot of ellipses … 

I got a lit­tle bit obsessed with these albums. One of my favorites was from my friend Catherine, and it showed a sunny pic­nic in Dolores Park that, honestly, looked way more fun than fris­bee with Chad. In one of her pho­tos, I saw my old coworker Jay Gupta tak­ing a picture of his own, way down on the park’s green slope. So then I tracked down his album, and sure enough: in his pic­ture, there was Cather­ine with her camera, high up on the hill.

That’s what gave me the idea for Last Beautiful. I registered the domain (dot-org, because dot-com was taken) and installed an open-source “photo wiki” that I downloaded from a lonely beige MIT webpage. The idea was that you could import all your pictures, pin them to a map of the city, and con­nect them with oth­ers to make a big col­lab­o­ra­tive panorama: one big pic­ture of one last beau­ti­ful day.

Now, my secret hope was that, by bring­ing all of the images of that day into one place, I’d be able to find Kate Trudeau. So it was kind of an archive slash com­mu­nity slash stalk­ing thing.

The pho­tos came in a flood, and the sheer scope of the imagery was staggering. It was the view from a thou­sand pic­nic blan­kets span­gling the earth from Precita Park to Crissy Field. It was long snaking sequences that traced bike trips across the city, with the sun­light shift­ing from yel­low to white to red-violet along the way.

For some, that Sat­ur­day had been a boozy back­yard party, with a ciga­rette hang­ing on every lip. For oth­ers, it had been an expe­di­tion with the kids, with chocolate-chip It’s-Its and match­ing Explorato­rium t-shirts. Everywhere, in every kind of pic­ture, there was an effect that I came to cherish: at a cer­tain hour on the last beau­ti­ful day, cot­ton threads and gray whiskers all blazed to life, back­lit by the sun and burn­ing like golden filament.

Maybe the same effect had occurred on the beach with Timon’s fuzzy beard and Lacey’s long hair. I hadn’t noticed at the time.

It was in fact the photos from Ocean Beach — so many pho­tos from Ocean Beach — that told the tale.

On the hori­zon in every photo, always vis­i­ble over some­one’s shoulder, there was the hazy sil­hou­ette of a ship mak­ing its way towards the Golden Gate. If you found the right pho­tos and put them in the right order, you could watch the ship crawl closer, frame-by-frame.

Then it exploded.

Not a movie-style explo­sion with ten­drils of red-black fire. Instead, it just … lit up. In the images it was sud­denly overexposed, a bar of white light that would have looked like sun on the water if you didn’t have the film­strip to tell you that just a moment ago it had been a blue-gray vessel.

The explo­sion — or what­ever it was was — must have been soundless, or maybe the sound was lost in the roar of the waves. I’d been on the beach when it happened, and I’d heard nothing.

A batch of pho­tos uploaded by some­one called elton_82 revealed at last where Kate Trudeau had been hid­ing all this time. There she is: in the back­ground of a photo snapped on Fill­more Street, lean­ing to peer into a shiny shop win­dow. She’s hold­ing her hair back from her eyes with two fingers.

It’s the shop called Artemis that sells super-expensive, sustainably-manufactured ath­letic clothes for women: yoga pants, dance shoes, sexy anoraks. Her face is reflected in the glass and you can see that she’s not wear­ing sunglasses, even though it’s so bright out. She never wears sunglasses. She thinks they make peo­ple look like aliens.

Kate Trudeau is win­dow-shopping alone on this, the last of the beau­ti­ful days.

There are actu­ally three pho­tos that include her, taken in slow sequence because elton_82 appar­ently wanted to get exactly the right shot of his mom and dad. (Nice work, Elton.) In the last one, Kate Trudeau is standing, look­ing down at her phone with a seri­ous face. Her camisole is rid­ing up and her belly is exposed. The sun is bounc­ing off the shop’s win­dow right into the lens of Elton’s iPhone. A blob of pure light, just like that ship in its final moment.

I sent the pho­tos of the explo­sion — all two hun­dred of them — to a local blog. Two days later, the Chron­i­cle picked them up and did some reporting. The ship was the NOAA Ka’imimoana II. It had been con­duct­ing an exper­i­ment involv­ing deep ocean currents and Copen­hagen resonators. Appar­ently the cur­rents were too deep and the res­o­nance was too … Danish? Every­thing went wrong and there is now a very, very small black hole in the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

The gov­ern­ment made a $525 Cli­ma­to­log­i­cal Adjust­ment Pay­ment to every­body in the city. One help­ful com­menter on the Chron­i­cle’s web­site pointed out that the amount was just $14 shy of a one-way ticket to Costa Rica.

When I saw that band of belly on my MacBook — it was 1 a.m., and thun­der was rat­tling the win­dows — some­thing fell into place in my brain, like the long straight Tetris piece that flashes and clears the screen.

The sud­den pass­ing of beau­ti­ful days had scared me. It had demol­ished my deep-rooted belief in open-ended pos­si­bil­ity — my faith in an open-ended future offer­ing bound­less chances to meet new Kate Trudeaus, and mess things up with them, again and again.

Outside it’s dark and gray and bit­ter cold, and I think there might be a tor­nado form­ing over Bernal Hill. But I’m going to ride my bike to the beach. I’m going to bring my fris­bee and invite Timon and Lacey and Chad and yes, Kate.

We’ll miss these days too when they’re gone.

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