john colagrande jr.
The Sea Lion
On a sunny summer day in San Francisco a father and daughter journeyed toward the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. In the overcrowded courtyard between Pier 41 and Pier 39 the afternoon inspired life. Every breathe of wind carried the whisperings of French, Japanese, German, English, Spanish, Italian, and above all the chatter, a seventh and universal language, Rhythm, as a street performer pounded a tom-tom: pa pa go pa pa go pa pa go.
The father’s voice battled the rhythm of the drum. “As a kid I heard about seals hanging out in San Francisco—”
“They’re sea lions, not seals,” corrected the daughter.
An empty pack of cigarettes lay on the ground and the daughter deposited the trash into an old barrel of a receptacle. The barrel stood next to a four-sided bench island boxing in beautiful blossoms.
“Take a picture of me with the flowers,” she said, sitting on a bench beside the bouquet.
Snap, the father took a picture of his daughter and the beautiful blossoms.
The sea lions were to be the highlight of a weekend holiday, the first of its kind since the divorce and displacement of the daughter into the custody of her mother over a year before. Now the father didn’t worry about how he would get along with his daughter or what her mother would think. He fretted over memories. He wanted so much for his daughter never to forget the trip.
As a consequence they were always snapping pictures: him, the mock hippie, hugging a redwood in Muir Woods; her, the adventurous nine-year old, hanging off the side of a cable car on the top of Powell Street; natural beauty, the Pacific Coast just north of Carmel; the crazed local, the Bushman. Twenty years later they could look at the pictures and the father could say, remember this, princess? Remember the guy who hid behind the bushes and barked at us like a wild dog when we walked by? Where was that?
Was that the Wharf?
The pair continued along the courtyard toward Pier 39. In one hand the father carried a FAO Schwartz bag filled with souvenirs from the day: a Gonzo Muppet doll, an I Love SF mug, a Hard Rock Cafe tank top, a box of Chinese medicine balls, and Ghiradelli chocolate. In his other hand rested five warm fingers and the soft palm of his daughter. You see the father didn’t want the daughter to recall a trip to San Francisco, he wished more than anything in the world for her to remember the trip to San Francisco with dad. So far the trip had been a success, and they were saving the best for last, the sea lions. He equated the sea lions with genies. They’d lead her to say, I saw the sea lions as a kid, I saw them with my dad.
Right before the entrance to Pier 39 stood a hollow bronze statue of two sea lions locked in a kiss. The display stood eight feet tall and ten feet wide. “Go stand by the statue of the two sea lions.”
She obliged a pose, the sun in her eyes, without smile.
“I don’t want to be a ghost this Halloween,” said the daughter. She referred to the picture that fell out of his wallet earlier in the day at a Chinatown store. The picture of her, white bed sheet, torn eyes, trick or treating with her best friend, Wonder Woman. “I want to be a princess.”
“Plenty of time before Halloween, princess.”
Snap, he took a picture of his daughter and the big hollow bronze sea lions locked in a kiss. She continued to pose—the sun in her eyes—without smiling.
At the entrance to Pier 39, attached to the bridge that crossed Jefferson St., there was an old wooden sign picturing a cartoon sea lion. The caption read Follow Salty to see the California Sea Lions. Salty pointed toward the end of the pier.
They began the long walk down the pier at arm’s length. To their left, the harbor docked numerous sailboats. To their right, behind old rusty doors, lie the restaurants and shops of Pier 39. Along the seascape, the Golden Gate glistened in glory, a lighthouse flashed forever on lonely Alcatraz, and the inlet stirred with activity as wave runners, speedboats, sailboats, and yachts carved trails of whitewater. Near the end of the pier the one tier wooden bleachers set up to view the sea lions were empty except for two couples and a handful of stragglers.
“Where are the sea lions?” asked the daughter.
She leaned over the railing and peered into the dark water.
Three rows of ten wooden floats gently rocked back and forth in the harbor. The floats were anchored by chains attached to tires thrown around thick wooden poles jetting eight feet out of the water. Pigeons and gulls lined the wooden floats. The birds stood amongst the graffiti of their own dung.
“This must be the wrong place,” he said.
“No. This is the place, look.”
A few feet to their left a weatherworn sign, off color due to the salts of the sea, it hung against the banister of the pier. The father and daughter read the sign to themselves.
THE SEA LIONS HAVE MIGRATED SOUTH TO BREED AT THE CHANNEL ISLANDS. THE CALIFORNIA MARINE MAMMAL CENTER SPECULATES THE SEA LIONS ARE LIKELY TO RETURN THIS FALL.
They stepped back from the railing and sat beside each other on the bleachers as far away boat horns blared. The breeze howled and a flag rattled. Gulls gawked. A door opening into Pier 39’s mall squeaked while bells from distant cable cars rung.
“Stupid freaking seals,” she said.
The Apostasy, a boat taking tourists to Alcatraz, left Pier 41 in a trail of spray.
“Do you want to go to Alcatraz, pumpkin?”
“This sucks,” she said, pacing.
He stretched out his hands for his daughter to come to him.
“Come on. Let’s go to Alcatraz.”
She walked past him, turned around. “Who wants to visit an abandoned jail?” She wandered to the end of the Pier and stared out at the bay in the direction of Alcatraz.
He sat with his hands over his face, sighing. He sighed again, walked to the railing, and watched the empty wooden floats vacillate in the harbor. Sure there were birds on the floats. There were always birds and with the birds a bunch of dung. To the father the floats were empty.
In-between two rows of floats, a single sea lion popped its head out of the water. Its long whiskers glistened in the sun. “Baby,” he yelled, “I see one.”
The sea lion looked around for a moment then submerged.
The daughter turned. She wasn’t into it. “What?”
“A sea lion.” He pointed at the water.
“Where?” She looked toward the floats.
“I just saw one,” he said. “In the water.”
“Whatever.” She turned back around.
The father peered deep into the dark cold water.
In the gallery the couples paid no attention.
The stragglers observed the scene like a game of tennis.
The father glanced to the end of the pier where his daughter stood, her back to him, staring straight ahead at Alcatraz, what a vision to see, his daughter set against an abandoned jail.
She wants a sea lion. I can give her a sea lion.
The father put down the shopping bag filled with souvenirs. He threw the camera from around his neck into the bag and began to undress. He took off his shoes, socks, shirt, and slacks.
The young lovers, stragglers, and another recently arrived family stared at him.
The father climbed on top of the railing and balanced himself. “Hey, princess. Look at me.”
She turned around in time to see him in his underwear flipping upside down into the air. She ran toward the spot where he leapt. What a leap! So far he leapt, laughing as his light head spun in the air.
The daughter, with the gallery of on-lookers, watched the water.
His head emerged, looking around. He swam toward the floats.
“Get out of the water. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
The father plopped onto a board and the birds dispersed. Arms to the side, he flipped and flopped around the float. “GNUNGK, GNUNGK, GNUNGK,” squealed the father.
“What are you doing?” said the daughter.
“You’re crazy, daddy.”
The gallery laughed and went for their cameras.
“GNUNGK.” The solitary sea lion stuck its head above the water.
The daughter grabbed the camera from the bag.
Snap, she got the picture of her father, also the sea lion.