The Visitor

 

Jim drove up the long twisting road to the Marin headlands and pulled over at one of the scenic overlooks. Dust flew up around the car when he left the pavement, so he quickly shut the car off and let it settle to the ground. He sat for a few minutes, taking in the sweep of the Golden Gate below him, with its bridge framing the famous skyline of San Francisco.

Then he got out, locked the car, stepped over the guard rail, and walked down a steep path to an old concrete bunker left over from World War II. There was a corner there where he could sit, sheltered from the ubiquitous wind, and admire the view in comfort.

It was a special place for him. He had been coming here when he felt the need, perhaps three or four times a year, ever since he had moved to the area twenty years before. It was his private place, but it was far from private, for there were always tourists there. But he didn’t mind them. He enjoyed just sitting quietly and listening to the “Ooohs” and “Ahhs” of those seeing it for the first time.

He settled himself comfortably. He had given himself the afternoon off, so he could stay here all day if he felt like it. And today he did. He watched a sloop battling its way slowly out of the bay, punching into the strong headwind. He could tell from the rips that the tide was flooding, or the sloop wouldn’t stand a chance of getting out.

Three young Japanese kids came down the trail and took turns snapping pictures of each other with the bridge behind them. He offered to take their picture and they gave him their camera and huddled giggling on the wall. He clicked off two shots, then returned the camera. They smiled and tried out their English by thanking him, then picked their way back up to the road.

Sometime later two teen-aged boys came past, climbed around on the walls, then went on down toward the bridge. A young couple started down from the road, but then stopped when they saw him in the corner of the wall. They stood talking for a few minutes, looking down at him. He tried to look non-threatening, but they turned and went back up, the young man gallantly but unnecessarily helping the girl over the steepest parts. Probably just wanted to neck, he decided. He returned to his meditation, though in fact he was doing little more than watching and relaxing.

Some time later, he heard someone else coming down the trail, and turned around to look. A tourist robot was approaching, with that mincing little walk they get on uneven footing. In spite of the steep trail, the little square head wasn’t looking down, but was peering forward at the view. He smiled to himself. Even after all these years, he still thought robots were funny-looking. He knew, of course, that the sensors for walking were in the knees, but their erect heads gave them a haughty manner completely incongruous with their vacuum cleaner bodies.

The robot walked up to the wall and peered over. The sign on its back said “World Tours, San Francisco” and gave a phone number. He could hear the faintest whirring from its servos as the head swept from the Berkeley hills, along the bridge, and out toward the Point Bonita lighthouse. It studied the view, then turned to look at him. He nodded.

“Hello,” it said, in an accent he couldn’t place. Its voice was male and deep.

“Hi.”

“Are you a native?” asked the robot.

He smiled. “Not many people here are. I’ve lived in the area twenty years, so I guess I’m an honorary native.”

The robot looked at him with its twin cameras. He wished they could think of a way to make a robot smile. He wondered if that were why some people weren’t comfortable around robots. People liked folks who smiled back at them.

“I don’t want to intrude,” it went on after a pause, “but I wondered if you could tell me if that is the Peace Tower over there?” One of its tubular arms swung out to point at Twin Peaks.

Jim pushed himself to his feet. “No, that’s the Sutro Tower. The Peace Tower is right downtown. There it is. See? Just to the right of the Mitsui Pyramid.”

The robot turned to follow his pointing arm.

“Ah, yes. Thank you.”

They stood side by side, looking at the white houses, row upon row, climbing up to Pacific Heights. The shimmering traffic moving down the streets looked like waterfalls in the distance.

“It is a lovely sight,” said the robot after a moment.

“It sure is. Even after all these years, I still like to come up and see it again.”

“Do you live in San Francisco?”

“No, I’m in San Anselmo, around on the other side of Mount Tamalpais.” He pointed behind them with his thumb and the robot turned to look, but they couldn’t see the mountain for the headlands looming above them. They both turned back to the view.

“Where are you from?” Jim asked.

“Nairobi, R.K,” said the robot, and then after a slight pause, “Republic of Kenya.” There was a hint of a question mark at the end of the statement, as if the robot were afraid he had offended Jim with the clarification. Jim smiled to reassure him.

“First time to the Bay Area?”

“It is my first time to America.”

“Oh? Well, welcome to the United States.”

“Thank you.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I came on Friday and must return Thursday.”

“Oh, that’s a good time. So many people come in for a day or two and say they’ve seen San Francisco. It can’t be done. Have you seen much of the area, taken any tours?”

“Oh, yes. I have a cousin who lives in Oakland. He picked me up at the travel bureau last week and has taken me all around. But today he went to work, so I’m out on my own.”

“Oh, that’s nice. You’ve seen some of the City then?”

“Yes, we went to Fisherman’s wharf, and the World Fairgrounds, and Golden Gate Park, and we rode the wire cars.”

“Oh, the cable cars. Did you like that?”

“Very much so, but it felt rather jerky and not entirely safe. A very primitive form of transport, is it not?”

“Oh, sure. They’ve been impractical for a hundred and fifty years, but the tourists like them and San Franciscans would howl if anyone ever suggested putting in a line of hoverbuses or something instead. This city is famous for being unconventional, but there are certain traditions that are almost sacred.”

“It is much the same in my country. People fly their cars into Nairobi and park them in fifty story parking garages, then put on beads and feathers and do a traditional hunting dance.”

Jim laughed. “Do you know, people here even celebrate earthquakes? The biggest celebration of the year is the parades and parties on March fifth, marking the anniversary of The Big One in ‘97.”

“Don’t people fear the earthquakes?”

“Some do, but they leave. Most people take a kind of pride in them. You know, that the City rebuilds every time and just keeps on going. People love to talk about where they were when it hit. And it’s always been like that. When I was kid there were still a few people who remembered the one in 1906, and that one almost burnt the City down. It’s a funny town.”

“It sounds like you enjoy living here.”

“I do. I wouldn’t live any place else.”

“That’s nice to hear. So many people complain about the places they live.”

“I know. I don’t know why they do it. If they’re unhappy, why don’t they move?”

“Perhaps because there’s no more room in San Francisco?” suggested the robot, gesturing at the crowded hills opposite.

Jim laughed, and the robot chuckled with him, a deep resonant sound. They stood looking at the view in silence. The robot’s head swung around to take in the view once more, then turned its cameras on him.

“You know, I was just going to comment about how hot and muggy it is today, but of course it isn’t here, is it?”

Jim laughed again. “Far from it. It’s quite chilly, and that wind off the sea is biting.”

The robot stared at him with its glassy eyes.

“Isn’t it odd,” it said, “to think that we can stand here talking like friends, and all the while you’re shivering in the Pacific wind and I’m sweltering in a tour booth in a travel bureau in downtown Nairobi?”

“I think it’s a great idea myself. People who can’t afford the time or the expense to travel can still get around, see far-off places, meet people from other walks of life.”

“Yes, it’s quite fun. The time difference is a bit disorienting at first - it’s well after midnight here, of course. But every morning I regale my wife with my adventures in exotic California during the night.”

“Have you been to other places?”

“We went to Antarctica for a three-day weekend last year. That was very interesting. Do you know, the penguins just came right up to us. They’re not intimidated by robots at all. And we were not at all sorry to miss experiencing the weather there.”

“I know what you mean. Last summer I spent three days in Copernicus. They don’t have any weather at all.”

“Really? I’ve always wanted to go to the Moon. Is it as strange as they say?”

“Every bit. I climbed the central peak and felt absurdly proud of myself for not even feeling tired. You wouldn’t believe the view of the full Earth.”

“I would like to try that some day, if I can talk my wife into it. She’s got her heart set on Switzerland next time.”

He took one more look around at the panorama. “Well, I must be going. My cousin will be expecting me. Thank you for telling me about your city.”

“A pleasure. You must come back in person some day. There is so much that you’re missing; the wine-tasting, the smell of the sea air, the steamed crabs down at the wharf.”

“I would like to do that, but true travel is so expensive these days, with the price of fuel what it is. I’m afraid that without these surrogates I would never get to go anywhere.”

“Well, I’m glad we could talk.”

“I as well. You must come to the R.K. some day. You’ve probably heard about nothing but the loss of wildlife in Kenya lately, but it is still a very lovely country.”

“I’d like that. Well, have a good stay.”

“Thank you. Goodbye.”

“Bye.”

He watched as the squat little robot waddled daintily up the track. “Nice guy,” he thought, “but he still looks like an appliance putting on airs.”

copyright 1993 by Brian K. Crawford