Still Gray Lady

Still Gray Lady
June 4, 2012 Jon Armstrong
Still Gray Lady by Jon Armstrong.

My love of the San Francisco Bay Bridge dates back to the summer of 1983. I took the Amtrak “California Zephyr” from Ogden, Utah to San Francisco with an old friend from high school. Back then, flying was three times the money and I wanted an adventure. We were headed out for a life-changing week. I had never been to San Francisco, nor had my friend. We stayed with my sister and her boyfriend on Castro. The Castro Castro. That’s another post.

When you take the train to San Francisco, the train stops in Emeryville and you get on a bus to cross the Bay Bridge. I’ll never forget walking off the train to the bus and seeing the skyline for the first time. It was my first big city skyline. I’d been to southern California as a kid, but never remember being struck by the skyline of Los Angeles or San Diego. It was like looking across the bay to Oz. The bus was a coach and we sat higher than the other vehicles. The view was stupendous. When you cross the bridge entering San Francisco, you ride on the top deck. It’s great marketing. Definitely a vista I will never forget. My girls will tire of me telling this story again and again. They have been raised differently. Leta has flown more in her eight years than I did before the age of 30. Marlo will never fly.

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Summer, 1989, I had access to a used Porsche 924 turbo. That car ruled. Killer Blaupunkt stereo. Some Saturdays, I’d open the sunroof, throw in Living Colour, early Red Hot Chili Peppers or Fishbone and head from Oakland into the city, full of music and exuberant. Stopping at the toll gate, I’d sometimes have my toll paid by the car in front of me and I learned to pay it forward, sometimes throwing a five dollar bill down so that four more cars could follow. It was amazing what that five dollars felt like. Bridge tolls on the weekend are a pain in the ass. During a normal commute, the majority of drivers know the drill and even if the traffic is heavier (it’s always heavy on the Bay Bridge), the commute vibe is drop the cash, move your shit to the cracked out traffic control lights and haul ass off the line and up the chicane of 16 lanes into 8. Having the stereo up and punching it was one of the best feelings I’d have all week.

I didn’t drive recklessly or fast. It wasn’t my car. I did like to move decisively. Even used, that car could rip it when necessary. Loved it. Loved heading into the city and then hitting Tower Records or Aquarius or any of the used CD stores on Haight, throwing whatever I purchased into the stereo and then driving back to Oakland on the lower deck, anxious to tape my new purchases for the Monday BART commute. Something about the sound of the car on the lower deck right before the Treasure Island exit thrilled a primitive part of my brain, especially with new music pumping.

The last span of the bridge into Oakland is a wake up call. The fantasy is over. It’s 20° warmer and everything slows down to a crawl through the maze. The bridge gives you a sense of timelessness before the jockeying begin for the myriad of freeway options.

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In 1998, I spent the summer in a sublet in the Inner Sunset looking for work. I had moved from Salt Lake City in earnest. I got an interview at CKS, prior to the merger with USWeb (fascinating story about one of the Utah-born founders of USWeb here). I was told that the building where CKS was located was called the Hills Brothers Building and it was on the Embarcadero. I walked from Market over with my portfolio. I can’t remember what floor I went to, but I remember meeting an art director in her office that had an amazing view of the Bay Bridge. I wished I had my 35mm with me that day, as the view was stunning; almost like the bridge was coming out of the building. I didn’t get the job. And for good reason.

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In December of 2008, I did a one day business trip to San Francisco to meet with Federated Media, who was in the top floor of the Hills Brothers Building at the time. I grabbed a shot of the Bay Bridge that has sold pretty well. I shot that one with a Canon G9 and I like what the zoom did for me with that shot. The overcast sky gave a great sheen to the bridge that day.

It was crazy to be back in that building and under such different circumstances than when I was there to interview at CKS.

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In May of 2012, I took a photowalk and after not finding the light on the Embarcadero to be the right angle for shots, I mentioned to my fellow photo walker Mark Esguerra that if we could get on the roof of the Hills Brothers Building, there would be some great shots of the bridge. Security said no to roof access. I mentioned that I had been their when Federated was there knew of a roof deck. I asked who was in that suite now. Mozilla! I asked if it would be ok if Mozilla let us shoot, would the building have any issues. Nope, it’s up to the people in the suite. Boom. We decided to go up to take a look.

The lobby wasn’t too busy. But there were no good bridge views from the lobby. After some pause, Mark pushed a tiny bit for me to ask the front desk if we could get out and shoot on the deck. I mentioned the Google and the Photo and the Conference. The receptionist walked us to the roof and we shot uninterrupted for several minutes. So big ups to Mozilla for letting us out there to shoot when a lot of companies likely wouldn’t have even let us in the door loaded with mobile photo gear, large cameras and big lenses. Very cool. Go download their browser right now if you haven’t yet. If you have downloaded it in the past, update it. Still a great browser and the cosmetic changes for the Mac version are pretty sweet. If anybody from Mozilla happens to read this, please don’t punish anybody! This was an ad hoc thing that will likely never happen again.

The only downside for me was that I was only carrying two lenses: a 12-24mm super wide angle and a 70-200mm telephoto. I think I was missing the sweet spot as 70mm was too tight from the shooting positions and 24mm was just a bit too wide. I think the 24-70 would have been ideal for the shot I saw in my head. But I left the 24-70mm back at my friend’s house because I wanted to push myself with both of the lenses I had with me; especially the super wide. I like this shot well enough, but wonder what images from the 24-70 would have looked like.

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Daily affirmation: When you smile and ask, good things happen.