When the Ship Comes In

My wife surprised with a two-day trip to San Francisco for our 5th anniversary. We just got back two nights ago. It was glorious in many ways, but right now this is the story that sticks out the most.

We were waiting for the trolley just down from Ghirardelli Square, with Fisherman’s Wharf behind us, and Alcatraz beyond that. Though it was early January the sun had shone brightly all day which kept the temperatures in the mid sixties,and a gorgeous bay breeze blew off and on throughout the day. So as we waited in the long line for the famous San Francisco cable car trolley, amidst what seemed like dozens of street performers and peddlers, there sat this fat bearded old man looking quite a lot like Albert Finney’s portrayal of John Newton from Amazing Grace, wearing a rainbow colored propeller beanie, overalls and suspenders, sitting on a old broken rolling office chair, picking a banjo under a tree, just steps away from where we waited in line. Less than steps actually. More like step. He was sitting awkwardly close to all of us captive-audience tourists. He would sing loudly and off key, and would talk between songs, to everyone, and, at the same time, to no one. Every other song he would do a solo version of Dueling Banjos (rather impressive actually), followed by songs he hoped we would know. Then he would walk down the line with supreme confidence holding out his hat reminding us of his performing moniker: Spare Change. He did the Beatles, and the Stones, and then…. and then….

When the Ship Comes In, Bob Dylan’s understated amazing classic. My wife reminded me that we were most familiar with the Decemberists’ version (and I later remember that it’s on the Chieftains Voice of Ages from last year). At the time I didn’t even recognize it as a Dylan song, but my brilliant wife did.

I cannot imagine a more perfect scene. San Francisco Bay as a backdrop behind us, at sunset, a full day of book-shop-browsing, chai-cart-partaking, and sea-food-eating behind us, and ahead of us none other than the Haight-Ashbury and all its glory.

Thank you fat old man in a rolling chair. Thank you for playing that perfect song, in your own imperfect way. You reminded me why I love music, and you made me fall head-over-heels in love with San Francisco. This video’s for you.


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