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Ditching the Playlist

March 1, 2016

Little is known about Otis Redding’s brief stint in the Bay Area, besides the fact that the young Georgian soul singer swung through there in the summer of ‘67 and played a few small and unremarkable gigs beyond the Monterey Pop festival. But it was in Sausalito where he, indeed, sat by the dock of the Bay and wasted time as a guest of friend Earl “Speedo” Simms. The song to commemorate the moment, released posthumously after Redding, 26, perished in a plane crash later that year, surreptitiously identified Sausalito as the more tranquil waterfront destination for the area’s counterculture movement of the late-1960s.

Today there is seemingly little left of Redding’s 20th Century Sausalito—though signs of it are still prevalent. For the longest time, it was a slumbering port town quietly bobbing in the fog after a decade-long bender as a shipbuilding hub during World War II. Many of the men and women who labored there during that time decided they liked it enough—and stayed awhile.

The monied class of white collar San Francisco workers and their families sought refuge and better schools there during the ‘80s and suddenly the old machinists and the aging hippies were joined by upstart yuppies restoring hillside estates and villas and driving their BMWs and SUVs down the middle of the arterial carriage roads off the 101. With them came the onset of an increasingly warmer planet. And when the fog lifted, it revealed t-shirt and taffy shops and restaurants with full wine lists and hotels with valets. By 2000, the town of 7,000 had received its third makeover in as many decades.

I lived there for a short while at this century’s turn. A townie bar called Smitty’s on Caledonia, just one block off the tourist buzz of main drag Bridgeway, was a safe haven for me. The tens of thousands of spandex-clad cyclists and foodie mavens who emigrated there on the weekends didn’t have the derring do to brush elbows with the men and women who still called the Sausalito Harbor home—their hands and faces weathered like so much driftwood that hung gray from the eves of their tiny floating empires. An interloper myself, I was there as a bystander, listening in on stories and reveling in the decor which mostly consisted of 49ers memorabilia from the team’s run in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as well as a mysterious jar at the bar’s end filled with red liquid and eggs that are magnified to look three times their size. All the clanks and drawn-out stories rang over the tinny sounds from an aging corner jukebox, which included Redding’s signature homage.

It was about that time in Sausalito that I also rediscovered running. My mailbox was a good city block away down a steep drive from my doorstep. And my trips to fetch the mail run up and drop it off on the sink and then back down to the idling car were my first intervals. Having moved from San Francisco to be closer to my job in Point Reyes, itself a town in transition: ag-to-hippies-to-gentleman-ranchers (i.e. tech guys who were cashing out on dot.com 1.0), I found myself also evolving. My lazy commute of 15 miles from the bay to the ocean and back and the slow pace of life I was charged with reporting on for the Point Reyes Light suited me fine. It was there I learned there is action and intrigue in every town regardless of size, placement or stature. I happily traded in the late weeknights in San Francisco where a post-work pint turned quickly to last call and last call meant diner food and diner food meant it was four am and wasn’t that first meeting on the calendar at eight?

I found myself comfortably home every evening at 5:20 p.m. sharp. The days seemed to grow another appendage. What was I to do in a sleepy seafront/tourist town with all this spare time? Then I thought on my daily hill repeats, dug out my Nike Pegasuses from high school cross country and began to run. At first it was to the corner 7-Eleven. Then down to Smitty’s for a self-congratulatory beer. Then to the fire station. Then along the waterfront where the tourist traps give way to the HD view of the tiny but indelible skyline of San Francisco. Then up the hill past the old Alta Mira hotel (now a recovery center). Then up up some more—by the old churches and plate glass fortresses and cottages hidden behind crooked-hinged gates and overgrown Cajeput, Myoporum and Japanese Black Pine. I lost myself in these runs scored by the harbor bells echoing from the hillside.

Around that time, I received an MP3 player from my girlfriend. Though not a Luddite, I’ve always been slow to adopt. Prior to that, my most recent attempt at listening to music while working out ended miserably with a Sony Discman crashing at my feet and being run over by a guy on a scooter in front of a gym on Van Ness. Good riddance. The MP3 player was different, she explained as I looked for some kind of eject button. “No, you load the songs through your computer.”

A digital device no larger than a skipping stone that held as many as 50 (that’s right!!!) songs? I was hooked.

The playlists stored on my picnic table-sized Mac laptop grew to suit any occasion. A ski weekend in Tahoe. A walk through Muir Woods. A quick three miles after work along Stinson Beach. Suddenly, life felt complete as I managed to create a living soundtrack for each of my excursions. It got to be such an obsession that I would hum a Gorillaz tune while traveling across the Golden Gate Bridge (because that’s what I would listen to when I was ascending to the span from Fort Baker) or I would bust out Jay Z lyrics while trying to find parking in an industrial neighborhood near Heath Ceramics (because that’s who would come on when I would run by there). It got to the point where I would turn around a mile in if I’d forgotten my device.

Then something happened.

On an unseasonably warm February evening, I was making my way up 2nd Street towards the venerable Golden Gate Market—a sandwich-and-craft-beer-stop must for all who visit or live in Sausalito. My trusty MP3 would sometimes skip a track or fade out and it was during Destiny’s Child’s Survivor—a song I needed for the 500ish-foot climb up that hill—that my earphones began to hiccup and crack on me.

I was running in the left or ocean side of the road and in the street because the sidewalks were impacted with foot soldiers, mostly the tourist variety. As the music checked out, I slowed to a mechanical shuffle to jiggle the digital player. It could have been nanoseconds or minutes later, but I looked up just in time to see a peloton of a dozen cyclists bearing down on me as they leaned around a sharp corner. Think that scene in Aliens when the electronic alien dots are right above Ripley and co.’s head. Earbuds still in, I froze. If it were a movie, the cyclists would have whirred around me and given me the bird or splashed water my way as I sat there looking like a cringing David. But it wasn’t a movie.

A front guy’s handle bars clipped my right arm and he and I cascaded down the hill together in a tumble of skin-tight clothes, carbon fiber and crunching bones. Three other cyclists went down in his wake. The skid and squish of rubber tires and the horror queen scream of brakes pierced the windless late afternoon. Very loud moans, very much not the good kind, ensued. And bystanders started to emerge from their homes and shopfronts as if all the tiny windows of a living Advent calendar were opened at once.

Expecting to see a bone protruding from an arm or a leg, I rolled over with care. The guy who clipped me was holding his nose, seemingly trying to will the blood coming from it to reverse its course. Two others writhed as asphalt-colored spots started to puddle on their thighs and forearms. And of course, a brief respite. Silence but for the faintest of, “I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it…” trickling out of my earbuds which were dangling halfway down a sewer grate.

Two ambulances and a fire truck showed up. Three or four cop cars too. Stories were shared, reports were filed. Information was exchanged. Litigation was threatened. Fortunately, the worst of it was a chipped front tooth, a broken nose, some bent frames and lots of bruises—the physical and the ego variety. At the time of the incident, I was running up the wrong side of the road but I was also a pedestrian and the cyclists were traveling at unsafe speeds, perhaps up to 25 miles per hour over the posted limit. In the end, nobody pressed the issue any further.

I threw my MP3 in the trash as I limped home after I’d given my statement. And I’ve never listened to music while running again.

…As a postscript, you could say that I overreacted. Maybe I was in the zone that day and wouldn’t have noticed the cyclists in time anyway. Maybe the overall relaxation I felt with the music in helped keep me loose as we started to tumble. Maybe I was stupid to have been running against traffic. Maybe the whole incident had nothing to do with whatever was digitally piping through my ears. But yes, I became a different, more aware, and much more cautious runner as a result.

That’s not really the point. When I got back out there, I started doing the things runners should do. I listened to my feet striking. I paid attention when my breathing became labored. I smile and say hello to my fellow patrons of the pavement with eye contact and a runners’ wave. Because I am no longer plugged in, during races, I am completely in touch with who is coming up behind me and whether it’s because they’re speeding up or I’m slowing down. Running, like any sport, is a five-sense endeavor. Even in the wake of an incident, I am one of those runners who’s lucky enough to be able to still have all of them in my arsenal. And I will employ all five to the fullest of their potential as long as I can.

…But that’s not to say I don’t cheat a little from time to time. Two weeks ago, on the way to a work conference in the Bay Area, I pulled off the freeway and stopped in front of Robin Sweeny Park on Caledonia (right across from Smitty’s), tilted my head back and opened my car windows. I dialed my iTunes to one of my favorite tracks, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, and let the song drift over me in the cockpit. Then I took the key from the ignition, strapped on my shoes and set out on my favorite loop—which still includes the hill climb towards Golden Gate Grocery—singing and humming and whistling…and wastin’ time.

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