Drew and I drove into San Francisco for the last two days of our mini-vacation, a getaway for just the two of us. We picked a small hotel located in the heart of downtown, between Union Square and the top of Nob Hill, and hoped to see a fair bit of the city during our short stay. On the GPS we could see its location, mere blocks away. “Almost there!”
“We turn left at the next intersection,” Drew said. But when we got to the light, we found police blocking the road, and had to continue past. “Well, just go to the next one,” I said. But it was a one-way street, moving to the right, and we were in the left lane. One block later, we encountered another police barricade.
Then yet another one-way street, headed the wrong direction again. “What is going on with all these road closings?” we wondered to each other. “How are we supposed to get to our hotel?” we repeated at each one-way avenue. Trapped in a crowd of afternoon commuters, we sat through multiple cycles of each traffic light, only to discover another no-entry or no left turn allowed when we reached the intersection.
“We have to turn around and circle back another way,” Drew said. He cut across traffic to the right lane and turned away from our destination. A circuitous route brought us at last to The Golden Gate Hotel, which, we soon discovered, sounded far nicer and grander in its online description than it was in person. “European-style” is code-speak for “tiny, cramped room.”
The space was barely larger than the bed. With nowhere to sit, we stood against the walls and looked at each other. “Perhaps there is a balcony?” Pulling the curtain aside, we peered out the small window. It overlooked the narrow shaft in the center of the building.
“Let’s get out of here, where can we go?” A movie theater was located less than a mile away, and we had plenty of time to wander over there before the next set of shows started. We could explore the city freely on foot—do a little window-shopping, maybe find a restaurant for dinner after the movie.
Walking along the closed or one-way streets would pose no problem, we reasoned. It sounded perfect! We set out from our hotel on Bush Street and turned at the corner, onto the sidewalk of Powell Street—one of those closed-off roads we hadn’t been allowed to drive on. We walked a block or so and the crowd around us grew.
The streets were cordoned off near and around Union Square so that you could not step off the curb. Police were everywhere. Stores and hotels had their doors closed and locked. There was nowhere to go except along the sidewalk. “What is going on?” we asked each other again.
Then, as we crossed Post Street and came alongside Union Square, the crowd pressed even closer and we heard and saw the explanation. A parade tromped by—it was Chinese New Year and thousands of people thronged to the city to celebrate.
Union Square was the main venue for the parade. Everyone tried to gather here. The sea of people stopped moving in front of us yet continued moving behind us, squashing closer and closer together. Music, marching feet and the murmur of hundreds of voices assaulted my ears. Heat radiated up from the pavement. I looked longingly in the door of the Westin hotel beside me. The cool air and the spacious, quiet lobby tantalized me.
Minutes crept by with no relief. Suddenly the mob surged and I stumbled. Someone shouted. Another surge. I felt Drew’s muscles tense and he pushed back, holding a small pocket of space for me between himself and the throng in front of me. We were immobilized again.
I noticed a man with a toddler on his shoulders. I caught a glimpse of a child beside him. Or was it two more children? In the confusion, I couldn’t tell. My stomach clenched. Would he be able to hold onto them if the pressure increased? I thought of my own children, safe at home, across the country.
Again the wall of people leaned into us. Angry voices. Tension. Were we about to topple into madness? Then, “It’s alright,” a calm voice said. “Take it easy,” Drew added. The mood eased a little. I looked through the glass into the hotel again, “Would they open the doors, if the crowd pushed hard enough? If people were being trampled?”
More minutes ticked by. I could hear the parade, but on the building edge of the sidewalk, I couldn’t see a thing. Drew could identify a dragon going by. We’d been standing in the same spot for at least twenty minutes. I craned my neck, trying to see to the end of the block. The intersection was within view.
If we could just get to it, and go to the right, would we find open space? Or would the surge of people carry us along still? A few steps opened up in front of me. I moved forward. A pause then a few more steps. Now we were actually making progress toward the intersection. I took a deep breath—would we be able to escape?
The crowd began walking. We came to the corner, turned to the right and suddenly pockets of space opened between us. The mass of people became individuals again. Drew and I picked up our pace and half-jogged to the next corner, turning further away from the cacophony and crowd. We slowed down, breathing sighs of relief. My muscles relaxed and I smiled. “That was scary,” I said. “It was right on the edge,” Drew agreed. Neither of us had ever been trapped in a mob like that before.
The rest of the way to the theater was easy to navigate. We purchased tickets for Amazing Grace—the story of William Wilberforce’s 20-year crusade to outlaw the slave trade in Great Britain. We watched as Wilberforce and a few fellow abolitionists tried to drive their legislation through Parliament, without success.
The throng of MPs standing in Wilberforce’s way refused to budge. Year after year, they blocked his Slave Trade Act. Though Wilberforce shifted the attitudes of many common people, he found it difficult to move the hearts in Parliament. Discouragement, despair and weariness threatened to overpower him.
In final scene, Parliament voted to eradicate the British slave trade, and as the applause died down, MP Lord Charles James Fox remained standing to say:
When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon, men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who has achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. Yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow, and remember that the slave trade is no more.
The speech is fiction (Fox died before they achieved victory), but the essence of it rings true: William Wilberforce was a truly great man.
Inspired by the beauty of his life, his battles and his victories, Drew and I talked and traveled through the now-deserted streets to dine at Uncle Vito’s, a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. The pizza was delicious and our discussion of the movie led to exploration of our own dreams and struggles to create a meaningful, beautiful life.
I often remember that day and our difficulties, and the inspiration we found on the other side of the mob at Union Square. What an effort it felt like in the middle of that sidewalk, what a reward we received at the end of that small journey.
True beauty does not come without battles, and those struggles are so often longer and harder than we expected they would be. Yet, if we persist, the beauty is worth far more than the cost of those battles, and resonates far longer than the pain and struggles we go through.
What beauty are you battling to reach?