Half An Hour Before Dawn In San Francisco
I try to avoid San Francisco. When I go, I surround myself with people; otherwise I have morbid thoughts. But a morning appointment and miscalculated transit time find me alone on the SF streets half an hour before dawn.
The skyscrapers get to me. I’m an heir to Art Deco and the cult of progress; I should idolize skyscrapers as symbols of human accomplishment. I can’t. They look no more human than a termite nest. Maybe less. They inspire awe, but no kinship. What marvels techno-capital creates as it instantiates itself, too bad I’m a hairless ape and can take no credit for such things.
I could have stayed in Michigan. There were forests and lakes and homes with little gardens. Instead I’m here. We pay rents that would bankrupt a medieval principality to get front-row seats for the hinge of history. It will be the best investment we ever make. Imagine living when the first lungfish crawled out of the primordial ooze, and missing it because the tidepool down the way had cheaper housing. Imagine living on Earth in 65,000,000 BC, and being anywhere except Chicxulub.
Everyone here thinks the world will end soon. Climate change for the Democrats, social decay for the GOP, AI if you’re a techbro. Everyone here is complicit in their chosen ending - plane flights, porn, $20/month GPT-4 subscriptions. “We have walked this path for too long, and everything else has faded away. We have to continue in wicked deeds [...] or we would have to deny ourselves.”
The sky is still dark, but the streets begin to stir. The Muni slithers past a line of self-driving cars wearing lidars like silly hats. The few visible human commuters pump thick black Arabian hydrocarbons into their vehicles, or thick black Ethiopian methylxanthines into their bodies. The city is a machine made of submachines, each with its own fuel. A particle accelerator, a summoning circle, a stargate, choose your favorite megastructure that calls up things of dubious put-downability.
Somewhere to the south, Ray Kurzweil walks into his office at Google. Twenty years ago, he conjectured that all human history - no, all evolutionary and geologic history - was a series of accelerating movements, which would crescendo at the end of time in approximately 2029. Six years to go. San Francisco doesn’t feel like the sort of place willing to wait another six years. The doomed summoning-city at the end of time seethes with palpable impatience. Too much Ethiopian methylxanthine, that’s my diagnosis. It feels eerie and unreal in the darkness, like everything is underwater, and I remember Poe:
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
A Muslim woman walks by in traditional dress, followed by a dark black man in African garb. All clothing sends a message; theirs is “everything that ever happened anywhere in the world however far away has converged here for this moment; it was all for this.” A crazy person walks by, mumbling to himself. We nod at him and let him pass; he seems to know the score. Here we have all gathered, abandoning our green and pleasant homes in Pakistan or Nigeria or Michigan to see the doomed summoning-city at the end of time. Chicxulub or bust. It’s a miracle we only get one or two madmen per city block.
No rays from the holy Heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently
The light from the lurid sea - okay, the lurid creek channel - is the reflection of a billboard. Something something SF. Mirrored in the water, “SF” looks like “86”. The number eighty-six appears only once in the Torah; it was Abraham’s age when his son Ishmael was born. Abraham was childless, and tried to name his servant Eliezer his heir. God disagreed - he must bear a son. Abraham’s wife Sarah was 75 and doubted she could have biological children, so she told Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar. Abraham and Hagar had a son, and they called his name Ishmael. Then an angel descended, and prophesied this was not the destined child, not how things were supposed to go. “He will be a wild donkey of a man,” said the angel. “His hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” So the esoteric meaning of 86 is “to produce an heir by unnatural means and have it go badly for everyone, because you rejected Eliezer”. He who has ears to hear, let - no, sorry, that’s overcomplicating things, S+F is literally just sof, Hebrew for “end”.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
No, sorry, the sun just rose and the world looks 75% less eerie and all of this is stupid. Just science fiction - another S-F word, but that’s just a coincidence, everyone knows words aren’t real. Or maybe I phrased that awkwardly, but certainly they’re not so real that if you inscribe every word ever written onto a piece of glass then the glass comes to life and kills you. That’s just an urban legend. I am in a normal city full of humans. It has sourdough bread and clam chowder and a place that serves almost-but-not-quite-perfect Detroit pizza. I like this city, somewhat, in ways. I once thought about naming my daughter Saffron in its honor. Saffron Siskind the San Franciscan, they would call her. “What a lovely girl in a normal organic body who is destined to live to an age greater than six”, the people would say.
It is a bright, clear morning in San Francisco, and I almost believe it.
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave—there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide—
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow—
The hours are breathing faint and low—
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.