Stephen stepped off the BART train and into the San Francisco crowd. He wore his headphones as he followed the herd up the Embarcadero station escalator, across the street, and toward the shadows etched by buildings towering above in glass and concrete. His eyes adjusted to the daylight. He paused and looked up at the towers scraping the sky, recalling moments in his childhood where he did the same. Still awed by the illusion of buildings tumbling forward with the low, moving clouds, he smiled.
He continued walking north-east on Market Street, past Main Street, and toward the tower in Ferry Plaza, framed by the blue sky and buildings at either side. When he reached the Embarcadero, the buildings disappeared and only piers and the vast bay were ahead of him. The Bay Bridge stretched far and towered above the waters. He was always struck by humanity’s ability to create something so massive, fighting against the torrents of sea.
As he crossed to the side closest to the waters, bikers and runners passed him. He continued westward as he stared right at the expanse of the San Francisco Bay–whenever the piers of restaurants didn’t interrupt.
He passed Piers 9, 23, and 35. The crowd started getting thicker. Tourists with DSLRs, point and shoots, and camera phones twirled around and snapped photos with clicks and shutter-snaps. When he reached Pier 37, the crowd stopped moving. They surrounded professional video cameras and boom mics on cranes and tripods, elevated and pointed downward toward the center. As he moved through the crowd, the camera clicks and snaps grew frequent. In the middle, a lone artist–dressed in a top hat, large, lens-less glasses, a hip, yellow shirt, a vest, and torn jeans– stared at a wooden panel while holding a large brush in hand. Surrounding the panel were tin-cans full of paint. Stephen couldn’t see the panel fully and expected a magnificent work of street-art–art he so frequently browsed in magazines. Instead, as he got to the inside edge of the crowd, he saw random splotches of paint and clashing colors. The artist dipped his brush in red and whipped it downward toward the panel. Steve shivered as he remembered Staff Sergeant Verne’s blood splattering on his boots and ground as he carried him on a litter. But he knew it was just paint splattering onto black, hurried streaks, painted with a large priming brush. It looked like shit to him.
He looked at the crowd’s reaction. They all stared approvingly with camera phones. A professional cameraman followed the artist’s every move; he seemed to feed at the attention, exaggerating every flick of his brush, every ponder of his next stroke, and every step around the panel. Temptation to buy art supplies at the local art store and paint a masterpiece next to this exhibitionist weighed high. What would he paint? Sisyphus crouching in defeat? A lone woman standing in a ruined cathedral covered in snow? But instead, Stephen looked on. His scoffs soon transformed to envy. He realized the artist was around his age.
As a member of the faceless crowd, Stephen walked off toward the edge of the pier. He imagined himself painting freely, surrounded by an attentive audience. His talents could have been appreciated. Famous, even. Instead, he fought a war for a foreign land and returned as a nobody. He looked off at the ocean, tempted to jump into the torrents of the cold expanse.