I am riding a beat-up but functional beach cruiser down the two-lane paved walkway that fronts the sand at San Diego’s Pacific Beach. The bike was provided for those renting the stuffy little box I’ve momentarily escaped while my kids sit inside, slumped glassy-eyed and inert over their glowing screens. Late in the day, there is finally a welcome little breeze coming in off the ocean. It’s been hot.
The beach and water beyond are pretty enough under colorful evening skies, but the sights that really catch my eyes this evening are all the people joining me on this so-called boardwalk with no boards. The young and beautiful, as my wife put it, though there are a good number of us older and average ones as well.
Bikinis are everywhere, the little tops and bottoms with their mismatched bright colors proudly proclaiming the curves of the girls who wear them here, away from the water. We are meant to watch, of course, and I do.
A young woman runs past, perfect body in bold black lycra, a blonde ponytail bobbing with her long and confident stride. Steel blue eyes above high cheekbones gaze imperiously down the path. She is a statue in motion, and she knows it.
There is a lot to see. What a riotous assortment of humanity I am dodging and passing on this crowded path! It’s fun to be part of it and take it all in.
A chisel-faced guy struts with the casual stride of an alpha dog, muscled arms swinging from his flat broad chest. He has arrived on center stage of his life, costumed in board shorts and flip-flops, ready to star in the show. Don’t get in his way.
Relatives speaking non-English languages veer and wander along the walkway, paying as much attention to each other as the sights around us all. The match in color of their skin and hair, their flowing dresses and sandals, and their plain collared shirts form them into little clumps of self-consistency that move through the varied throng. All here is a bit foreign to everything else, including these passport-carrying tourists. But they carry the familiarity of family with them, for each other, as their children dart back and forth to the edges of their groupings.
So do the people sitting around a speaker that plays loud rap—for them and for the rest of us passing by. They have an identity that flourishes along with all the others here, and they are proudly asserting it. I listen and feel the thump of the beat as I ride on, appreciating rather than judging as I once did. Standing with them and elsewhere are women with gorgeous chocolate skin and hair left kinky and unsullied by anglo-imitating straightener chemicals. Some of it billows out into full Afros. They are stunning.
People sit on the low wall between the walkway and the beach, seeing and being seen without bothering to move with the swarm of humanity along the path. The rest of us are on foot and varied arrangements of wheels. There are older guys on rollerblades, younger ones on longboards, and couples on rental bikes. A few wheelchairs zoom down the path, too. Dogs are walked on leashes, and little kids pushed in strollers.
Someone rides past me with a portable speaker strapped to the back of his bike, proclaiming his taste in music. It doesn’t sound bad. Neither does the talented saxophone player who has gathered an appreciative crowd around him, collecting money and compliments. Up on a balcony, a woman sings into a portable PA system. We all want to be heard in our own way.
Coldplay sounds its recorded drumbeat from the recesses of a bar, one of dozens. Under the outdoor umbrellas of another one, a middle-aged couple sit with their drinks, the glowing clouds mirrored in their sunglasses. Further on, a guy about my age reclines behind the little glass wall of his pricey condo, smiling about something.
In his hand and everywhere else, there are the smartphones, always the smartphones. I watch their owners’ faces peering over them, illuminated with the sun’s last glow and the screen backlights. They must all check their Facebooks during the very climax of the sunset. Here and back in the rental where my kids tap their touchscreens—and, to be honest, in my own life as well—the virtual intrudes constantly on the real.
I will go back to the electronic world in a while, too, after the sky darkens. But nothing that I see on my iPad’s little screen will stay in my memory like this simple trip on a creaky bike down a couple of miles of crowded pavement.