The point of no return

I am not a tough girl.

I’ve given up trying to convince myself otherwise.

One previous attempt to exude toughness involved a 16-year-old me hurling expletives at a car backing into my path and a lady – an actual tough girl – throwing my expletives back at me. I cowered in fear, mumbled an apology, and assumed my proper place in society as a bookish, introverted teenager who chose her battles wisely, preferably ones that didn’t entail public lashings.

But I suppose it depends on how you define what makes a tough girl tough. When forced to unimaginable conditions or at least backed into a corner with no way out without looking foolish, I can muster up some courage.

In San Francisco, perhaps, I was a tough girl.

I climbed a roof. I biked. Two simple sentences that belie the enormity of such feats.

The roof, for one thing, was accessible through a precariously positioned ladder that, I kid you not, could throw off an unskilled climber several stories to her doom. It had 50 rungs, stood high above the clouds and rattled with each step. Or maybe this is my incredible fear of heights talking. No matter. I closed my eyes, clinging to the rungs above me, crying out for someone – anyone – to save me, and when I opened them I somehow was on top of the city on somewhat sturdier ground.

Biking, on the other hand, wasn’t something I could have done with my eyes closed. It was made especially more daunting by this guy.

This is Franco. I met Franco some years ago after knowing his twin brother Marco (Phil’s best friend from college) for some time and not hearing anything about him.

Before this meeting, I’d thought: Marco has a twin named Franco? Lies.

Franco later told me my first words to him were, “So you really do exist.” That probably should have been a clue that we’d get along famously, as he’s also prone to making sarcastic jerky remarks to unsuspecting folks, but we didn’t think much of it. “What a jerk,” he probably said to himself and followed it up with a jerky comment of his own to someone else.

Fast forward to San Francisco, where I decided to make the obligatory “Hey I’m in town!” Facebook message. It’s the kind of message you send to someone you know well enough to contact when you’re in the same place because not doing so would be kind of rude, but not well enough to make concrete plans before getting there.

But soon a night of “Let’s get a beer” turned into a night of many beers agreeing about the awesomeness that is Joss Whedon, the hilarity of Tina Fey, the pivotal role Calvin & Hobbes played in shaping our humor, and how we mispronounce words because we learn them from reading.

It was the kind of conversation that would have alienated a third, partly because we competitively tried to outwit the other, leaving no room for a swift change of subject.

We promptly decided we were both awesome, while Phil, who arrived some days later, often found himself puzzled by some obscure, random reference we made (likely to a ’90s TV cult favorite) before rolling his eyes and walking away.

After my suggestion to bike the Golden Gate Bridge was nixed because we’d rented the bikes too late, we opted for a leisurely, relaxing, painless ride around the city. A seasoned cyclist with calves that could only have been sculpted by an intimate familiarity with the city’s hilly terrain, Franco took those adjectives and said, “Got it,” before biking to the busiest road ever.

And that’s how Phil and I ended up in the hospital.

OK, we didn’t. But we could have. I’m not usually one to make dramatic proclamations (OK, I am), but we really could have.

The bike lane was too narrow for two bikes to ride side-by-side without one being swiped by a passing car. Doors from parked cars suddenly flung open, forcing the unlucky cyclist caught behind to swerve dangerously close to traffic. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years. Not only did we have to watch for pedestrians and cars, we had to tend to the cable-car tracks that were just big enough to trap the wheels of a bike with an unwary cyclist at the helm.

It was the kind of experience that made me question if I would live to laugh at it (Spoiler: I did).

Franco, probably sensing our panic, led us to quieter streets. And this is where the leisurely, relaxing, painless part of the ride began.

We rode through calmer paths, only stopping for things that required deeper inspection. Phil, ever the architectural nerd, was drawn to the SFMOMA like a yuppie to gentrification. By sheer luck, we discovered it was free for the last 45 or so minutes it was open. We strapped our bikes to some racks nearby and went inside.

We played, aimlessly looking at works here and there, mostly admiring the building.


Not knowing where to go next, we decided to bike toward Franco’s apartment. “There’s going to be a hill, but it shouldn’t be too bad,” said Franco, he who weaves in and out of traffic with little thought to his fanny pack-clad biking companions (Note: The fanny packs were on the bikes, not us).

We arrived at his apartment some time and maybe five miles later, surprisingly with all our limbs intact, as we had  just surmounted an endlessly unforgiving hill, with Phil trailing behind Franco, me a distant third and fire in my lungs, thighs and calves. Many times I resisted the urge to hop off and walk the rest of the way, too stubborn to give up.

It was in the moments after that, as my legs buckled climbing down some steps, too numb to firmly plant them on the floor, too weary to make the trek back to return the bike, perfectly satisfied that I’d sufficiently explored the city before my flight back to New York the next morning, that I decided maybe, just maybe, when the situation calls for it at least, I can be a tough girl.

This is the fourth of a multiple-part series of posts on San Francisco. Find the others here.

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7 thoughts on “The point of no return

  1. are you kidding? cycling through one of the nation’s hilliest and busiest cities?! – tough girl in my book. i’ve yet summoned the courage to take my bike up to philly because of those same concerns – sideswipes, opening door surprises, oh and just straight up falling. oof. but i still love the bike. perhaps one day =)

    • I’ve been wanting to bike since Fredericksburg but never got around to it. Imagine how much less of a disgrace I would have been in SF had I done so. Do you know a seasoned cyclist in Philly who could guide you? Maybe I’ll bribe, er, ask, someone here to help me get around the city, and we can exchange battle-wound stories.

  2. Tough, I say! SF sounds like a SUPER FUN city to go cycling in! Not that i know, yet, but I did purchase my waayyy overdue new bike from a SF bicycle company so I’m assuming! hehe I love cycling out here in the city, mostly in Brooklyn. I’ve come to find that being a driver [as well], I’d hate me too for cycling on the roads and not on the bike lanes. My “sensible” excuse for that is I’m “avoiding” “car-doors-opening” surprises. A cop chuckled when he tried to “pull me over” and I told him my reason! Worked like a charm, but cycled away with an undeserved warning ticket. In that case, you can dust your bike tires and come out cycling with me! And your tough-girl status remains! ;o)

    • I feel like it would be ridiculously stressful. Can’t riding in the city be like how it is in Sartorialist pictures, in which we wear something fantastic, hit the light just right and look simply elegant? No? Okay, well I’d love to have you as my guide! How much do decent bikes usually cost? I might have found myself a deal.

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