The 104th Bay to Breakers takes place in San Francisco Sunday. In spite of the efforts to control the 50,000 participants, the 7.5-mile course has turned into a moving cautionary tale about where its host city, and possibly humanity, is headed.
Have I run the Bay to Breakers?
Have I also walked the course, people-watched (people-stared) and gladly accepted sundry Jell-O shots/whatever is coming out of that squirt gun and courtesy brews that came my way from kind strangers?
Do I think it’s one of the prettiest/best/most fun urban courses in the world?
Without a doubt.
Is today’s Bay to Breakers not just a 100-percent accurate representation of the asshole-and-douchebag capital of the world San Francisco has become but a bleak, bleak stare down with the not-too-distant future?
It’s difficult to write a take down of today’s Bay to Breaker’s revelers without sounding curmudgeonly. So I won’t bother trying to pick apart why I was less of an asshole living in San Francisco in my early 20s during the first dot.com boom than the assholes who live there now (though, it likely starts with the fact that my friends and I had the same types of jobs but no money and didn’t leverage app technology to create a more efficiently connected rape culture).
What I can say is the city has been shaken down and is nearing its end in this form.
It’s Sodom and Gomorrah the week before the skies rained fire or whatever is depicted in all the paintings. It’s downtown Chicago October 7, 1871. It’s Long Island Sound on October 28, 1929. Every great civilization has its San Francisco of 2015 moment. And, to a place, it all comes crashing down.
At the Bay to Breakers Sunday, 50,000 runners and revelers will toe the line in the financial district and make their way, bedazzled, bedecked and bewitched to the finish line on Ocean Beach.
The spinning wheel of title sponsors pointed to Zappos this year which only means they’ll make haste from their contract when someone dies, someone gets assaulted (physically and/or sexually) and someone is scraped from inside one of the course’s 1,100 portable toilets and sent to the ER for an afternoon date with a bag of fluids and a stomach pump.
Some long-time San Francisco resident who refuses to sell the cherished home which lines the course gets to witness once more her marigolds get pissed on, fucked on, defecated on—in spite of the fact that she put up caution tape. Some lovely tourist family will post Facebook photos in outrage and check out of their Fisherman’s Wharf digs to enter San Diego in the Alamo rental GPS. Some runner, there in earnest, will get pelted by a tall boy and crumble in a lump of shorts, bib and tank top as folks amble by unknowing, uncaring as if the individual in need is a piece of performance art.
My most recent Bay to Breakers was 2012. I raced it and then decided to walk to the course backwards to gawk. It was a solo mission. My immediate peer group had long retreated to the suburbs and woke that morning—not to put on running tutus and coconut bras—to make waffles for their offspring and watch Dora. Kidless and unafraid, I decided on a swan song. Though I wasn’t looking to crash a party (and be the ”Who was that random old guy?” there), I was probably trying to recapture some of the glory years.
What I saw was fucking horrific.
It wasn’t just people hammered. I’m OK with hammered, even during the day if it’s a special occasion (Spring Training). It was blood-sucking, black-eyed, thousand-yard stare, zombie apocalypse hammered.
Vomit and bile and tears of self-hatred slipped radioactive down the street and gurgled around the sewer grate. You know that feeling when you walk into a bar and it’s all malice? Folks aren’t in there to have a few drinks or catch up or tell tall tales. They’re there trying to forget. Violently trying to forget. It’s that all-in, hair-at-attention-on-the-back-of-your-neck, I-better-flee-because-I-cannot-possibly-fight-all-of-them moment. The If-stay-here-too-long-I-might-lose-all-sense-of-me notion. That Where-is-Liam-Neeson-on-his-cell-phone-when-I-need-him-most stomach drop.
Imagine that seedy, dead-end bar, now multiply it by tens of thousands and dump it out on Alamo Square.
It wasn’t just people getting loose because they were drunk or misbehaving or their parents weren’t around for the first time ever. It was unkind people let out of their cages, sprung from their cells. The type of folks that usually only occupy the shadowy side of society; the maggot-infested eye socket that we don’t give cops enough credit for dealing with once every 18 minutes. The kind who fill up work-release programs and prisons and clog society’s shower drain that is the court system.
Bay to Breakers is an open invite for the marginal majority who feels lost and abandoned in an era of factory farms and endless wars and tax payer-subsidized Wall Street safety nets to show up not in non-violent protest, but in intoxicated, bitter rage. They don’t have much of an opportunity to show themselves and their wares in the daylight. This is one of them.
It wasn’t just people dressing or acting promiscuous. It was live, craven and, for the disturbing majority, involuntary corpulent acts right there on the street, in the parks, semi-behind overflowing Dumpsters, on the side of floats. It was the hard-core and regrettable side of humanity that isn’t just an I-let-my-guard-down moment but is more a there-was-nobody-to-guard-me tragedy. (see: Liam Neeson).
And the thing is—the most depressing part of it—nobody stopped to help. To ask are you OK? Is this OK? We all just kind of got out of the way hoping the storm wouldn’t hit us.
Over the past decade, the city has fallen victim to its own success. The quality of life for everyone this side of the hard-charging VC-funded Chosen Ones is nil. The city is being vivisected and the crucial innards: its history, its culture, its working-class heart, is being scooped out like a Jack-o’-lantern by the fucking ladle full. It’s an absurdist kingdom now occupied only by those who have way too much and those who have nothing…including nothing to lose.
That is what I saw at the Bay to Breakers. It wasn’t the Barbary Coast. It wasn’t some latter-day version of the Summer of Love. It wasn’t Baghdad by the Bay or Pride Day. Hell, it wasn’t even the Folsom Street Fair. Perhaps what I saw was a glimpse of the near-future. Humanity awe-struck and helpless against the wildfire of bone-crushing capitalism and power gone unchecked. People at their worst because nobody is expecting anything better of them anymore.
Perhaps this is where we’re headed.
But that doesn’t mean I ever have to head back.