Heading for a session in the slate-grey Pacific slop beneath a high sheet of grubby clouds, I pattered down the concrete steps of stairway 25 off the VFW's parking lot at Ocean Beach, my 6'9" plastic Wayne Lynch replica board under my arm. Smoke from a wood fire, with some heat still in it, wafted over the stairway, lightly stinging my nostrils. Sitting in the sand just to the south, left of the stairs, were a man and a woman, the fire in a shallow hole, and three yellow dogs. The bottoms of the man's jeans were rolled up and his feet were bare. The jeans wire dirty in a way that money can't buy - dirt-saturated with actual dirt, almost shiny, like leather. Dungarees.
"Smells good," I said.
He grinned. "Have some!"
I'd been talking about the fire, but he was talking about tacos. He had two pans, a small one for frying tortillas and one for the stuff he was putting in them.
I couldn't tell what the stuff was. It looked like that light-colored southern gravy. I was in a hurry to get into the water, grab a couple of waves, and get to work. I was already getting off to a late start - I'd checked the beach at 8, decided to pass, and driven to a cafe on Noriega Ave. called the Sea Biscuit for a second pint of coffee and some oatmeal. I'm on another training kick. On my way home after breakfast, I'd decided to check it one more time before heading the three and a half miles back up Lincoln Blvd. along Golden Gate Park.
"Just ate," I said, turning my head to answer him as I trotted past. "Maybe when I get out."
"Ha ha! When you get out!" he said.
"Ha," the woman said, and waved.
The session was unremarkable, aside from being relatively beating-free and aside from its brevity. Between duck-dives under a few closeouts and under a few waves I should have paddled for, I sat on my board and bobbed and thought about how hard it is not to think about sharks. About sharks, and about whether I was going to have to walk past the guy making the tacos.
After my second ride, a chest-high right-hander I had chased just to prove to myself that I could catch it if I really wanted to, I rode up and over the back of the sputtering wavelet, flopped onto my board to paddle back out, and saw that a seal was swimming north, looking at me. The seal dove under a wave. When the wave got to me, I started my duck dive too late, and it broke across my shoulder blades and pushed me back 10 yards. I reached a leg down and touched the sand. Two more waves were headed my way, and I realized that it would be a while before I got back to the outside, beyond the impact zone. I turned toward the city, gripped my board and let the next wave's whitewater bounce me the 75 yards to the beach.
I stood up, reached down and pulled the leash off my ankle. The tide was almost dead low, and the current had pulled me well south of where I had entered the water, so there was maybe a quarter mile of beach between me and the tacos. A wavy line of dark smoke from their fire rose to the top of the seawall, where the stiffening onshore breeze yanked it across the parking lot into the park.
I reviewed my options. I could head for stairway 24 or 26 or 27 and maybe wave if they saw me. Stairway 28 was even closer. With the expanse of loose sand cancelling out the advantage of taking the straightest path back toward my Grand Wagoneer, 28 made the most sense, plus it was 150 yards south of the taco picnic; they probably wouldn't see me at all before I went up the steps and behind the seawall.
The last and worst option, the way brushing your teeth on the way from the living-room couch to the bed is always the last, worst option, was to go back up stairway 25.
I saw and thought about picking up a clear 20-ounce Starbucks cup, but it was a few yards out of my way, and by the time I concluded that I really should have picked it up I was safely past it. The green straw that went with the cup was directly in my path, but used straws creep me out. About halfway to stairway, I saw the bottom of a broken brown glass bottle and picked that up.
As I got closer to the parking lot, above the high-tide line, I noticed dozens of little ash-mounds dotting the beach, some whitish, some black, an inverted moonscape made of the leftovers of people huddling around the little blazes officially tolerated on the stretch of Ocean Beach between Lincoln and Fulton Drive.
My first few bites of the taco were definitely not what you'd call hearty. He'd held it out to me as I walked up to the fire, as agreed. The crisped-up flour tortilla was wrapped in a soft one, to keep things from falling apart. I could definitely see scrambled eggs in there, amid the gravy. He said "tuna" just barely soon enough to enable me to finish my second bite. Tuna went a long way toward explaining the taste, and I relaxed and ate the thing, standing there in my wetsuit with my board under my left arm, the broken bottle in my left hand and the taco cradled in my right hand. It was right out of the pan, with a little steam still coming off it, scrambled eggs and cheese and tuna.
He asked how cold the water was and said no way could he get in there.
"I'm from Mazatlan," he said. "I like it warm."
I squatted down, putting the board across my knees and resting my elbows on it. I was enjoying the taco, but it had started to leak, running down my pinky onto my forearm. He offered me a napkin. Sitting with his legs out in front of him, the same way he'd been sitting since I first saw him, he held the napkin out toward me. Still squatting, I leaned forward and reached for the napkin, but there was still about a foot of air between our hands. It was quiet for 6 or 7 seconds while we each stretched forward enough so I could take the napkin from him.