A panegyric to the San Francisco Bay and what it feels like to swim in it.

My first time swimming in the San Francisco bay was like this: I showed up to the South End Club (the Dolphin Club was closed) and peered inside. Out of nowhere, a man walked up. “Come in,” he said gruffly and opened the door. I followed him into a long room filled with old boats. No one stopped me and asked what I was doing there, no one demanded that I pay anything to walk through that room. I walked on through and came out onto a small seating area and then a boardwalk and then a tiny cove. In front of me was the bay.

Joan Brown "The Crawl"

I tried to jump in once, twice, three times. It was solidly cold, maybe 58 degrees. My body didn’t shriek in protest, but it did  yell in surprise. I was on the verge of contenting myself with simply wetting my feet. But then a woman with a red bathing cap dove in and swam rapidly for the open water. I’ll have what she’s having, I thought. I dove in.

I surfaced, shaking the hair out of my eyes. You know what to do, I muttered to myself. Get Moving. I swam out to the open water. The cold turned to burning warm. The yells of surprise from my body faded. I thought of Joan Brown, the San Francisco figurative painter who died tragically when a temple in India fell on her, crushing her and her assistant. She painted pictures of women swimming in the San Francisco Bay, their bathing caps visible above the choppy waves. I swam steadily until the Maritime Museum came into view, on my left. I looked at it and thought of the public money that was spent constructing and beautifying it, and the amphitheater where, it was thought, people could sit after taking a refreshing dip in the swimming area which was created by a breakwater that curves protectively around the cove.


Public money brought me here, I thought hazily. Someone wanted me here. Someone thought I might like it. I flipped and swam this way and that and the scenery kept changing: the museum gave way to Fort Mason and then the Bridge. And then Sausalito. And then Mount Tam rearing up, and then all the blue grey islands of the bay. It was a perfect picture, bordered by the greeny-yellow water trembling below my eyes, a perspective which is formed by the act of immersion. I shape-changed the moment I dove in. I was now a sea creature coming up from below briefly to survey the sky and the surrounding earth before submerging myself again in all that wonderful brine.

I thought of my friend Grant, who has the joyous spirit of a dolphin. “Please float on your back and look at the Golden Gate bridge for me,” he’d asked me earlier when I said I was going to go swimming. Reader, I did that: I thought of Grant and his joyous swimming inside the cove, slicing his way across the open water. I dove down again and popped up. I loved everyone I laid eyes on.

A man swimming by looked at me. “I thought you were a mermaid,” he said. I laughed and told him I felt like one.

All around me bathing caps bobbed in the choppy wake as people toiled their way across the bay. I floated on my back and wondered how it was I’d come to this moment: how during the last few hours of reading and fretting and chewing over various insults and injuries and miscalculations, the sure and insistent instinct I’ve possessed since I was a child led me straight to the water, the embracing water. I have good ideas, I thought, the right values. I bobbed and laughed and looked at the purple-headed ducks and then when the current pushed me just so, my tired muscles murmured I’ve had enough now, thank you.

I made my way back in.

Elizabeth in the water
Elizabeth in the water

May 15th, the day of the Full Flower Moon, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a video of Joan Brown discussing the pictures she painted of swimmers in the bay.