Kurt and Karl

August 9th, 2019

“Karl can be a real rat bastard.”
— Kurt

Karl likes to hang out along the coast and hillsides of San Francisco.

Nothing in my life compares to hanging out with Kurt. We roomed together in college, but even before that — on the very first day of our Freshman year — he sidled up to me, confident, maybe cocky, wearing a skinny punk rock tie, brash, bold, and yes, a bit frightening. Immediately my protective mother was somewhat dubious about this dude living next door to me on our Alma College quad. 

But by the end of our first term, Christmas break, we were best buds, playing board games on the floor with his then-roommate, Sharpie (see my piece about El Sharpino here).

After a high-level stint at Ford, he now lives in San Francisco with his life partner, Amy, in a cool place that doubles as an office.

Karl? Even though I don’t disparage him like Kurt does, I’m not really a fan.

“Look! See that? Karl’s coming back.”
— Kurt

Kurt is much different than Karl. Kurt has loved biking/cycling since grade school. That’s not surprising; most kids love their bicycles. It’s different with Kurt.

“When I was little, I lived in a new subdivision with a long empty street and just a smattering of houses,” explains Kurt. “There were open fields everywhere. Once I learned how to ride a bike, I was free to explore, free to fly to school. I was only seven.”

Breaking Away was his favorite movie. If you haven’t seen it, it’s exactly nothing like Breaking Bad. It’s about a teenaged boy who is obsessed with Italian cycling, until his image of them is shattered. He grows up in the process and everyone lives happily ever after. Kurt bore a passing resemblance to the lead actor.

I remember listening to Kurt on his stationary bike next door, shouting Italian arias in the middle of a mid-Michigan winter at the top of his lungs. He sounded quite good, actually. He has taken that passion to his profession. He and Amy provide bike fleets to the tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. Bikes make life better. That’s not only their philosophy; it’s the name of their company: BikesMakeLifeBetter.com 

My reflections on Kurt, or at least his shades. Karl was nowhere near.

Karl, arguably, makes life worse.

I’ve visited Kurt and Amy’s operation on the Facebook campus. It is widespread, fascinating, and gives me hope for corporations, a hope that had been diminishing ever since I got abandoned by them. Say what you will about Facebook; they treat their employees and contractors quite well, Kurt and Amy’s employees too.

When he’s not working, he likes to take me out on his “Tan Damn,” his tandem bike — one of a ton of bikes in the garage under their place. We do this each time I’m out there. Most every street in San Francisco’s Mission District has a four-way stop. On a bike, you can just go sailing around and through, grabbing the right-of-way, unless there’s a pesky pedestrian.

We sing overly loud, just like we’re on stationary bikes back in Bruske, our college dorm. Not arias now, but Smokey and the Bandit riffs. People look up and smile. They’re sure we’re just a fun, gay couple living our best lives. Bikes really do make life better. We pull into a thrift store; I buy a shirt I’d never normally purchase. We ride to a bodega and I joke with the hispanic clerk that she probably doesn’t understand Spanish, but that mas means more (She literally doubles over in laughter). God, there’s nothing like bombing around the city with Kurt. I’d show you a picture, but all I have is Kurt’s back, fluttering a shirt as I stay focused on keeping my balance.

Karl is being respectful right now. That’s not always the case. He’s been quite pushy during my 36 hours here in San Francisco.

Kurt and I like to talk about things without artifice. Night now; the early August temperatures sling into the 50s. Sitting out here on his deck, I have to wrap up in long sleeves, long pants and a coat that can best be described as a 1970s pimp jacket with fur. No disrespect intended for 1970s pimps, but I looked pretty rad.

Karl lurks nearby.

We sit asking about things regular, middle-aged guys ask about: death, sex, the perception of who we are, other dimensions, UFOs — you know, normal conversational stuff.

The average San Francisco temperature in January is 58 degrees. I look at my iPad and it’s 58 degrees right now in August.

Karl is partially or entirely to blame.

The flowers in San Francisco seem to love Karl.

Amy and Kurt welcomed me into their home office. Karl is generally unwelcome.

They call the wind Mariah; they call Alabama the Crimson Tide; they call the fog here “Karl.”

Apparently the fog — a marine layer of mist — was named “Karl” back in 2010 by a person who has remained anonymous. There’s been speculation about the name. But an SFWeekly reporter interviewed Karl’s creator and writes that it began as a parody. Yes, Karl has his own Twitter account: @KarlTheFog. The name is a reference to a giant in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish.

“Karl was the giant in town everyone was afraid of because they thought he would kill/eat them. Turns out he was just hungry and lonely.” In San Francisco, that giant is the fog. “Karl is a constant character in our lives. … Some people love how he keeps the city cool, others hate that we don’t get traditional summers. They spot him from all over S.F. and many people have choice words for his arrival.” — writes Mike Billings, quoting Karl’s creator.

And, of course, Soledad O’Brien follows Karl. Whenever I find someone (or something) I think is new or different, I go to follow them on Twitter and she’s already there.

Kurt snapped this picture of me, well before Karl showed up.

During my last day here, Karl has relinquished his grip and has rolled back up toward the iconic Sutro Tower. For some reason it’s funny for me to think about those souls just across town a mile or two and how they’re battling intense fog while all I see above are blue skies.

Now as Kurt and I prepare to separate physically for another year or more, Karl is a pretty postcard picture. Kurt’s having a work conversation about bikes and I’m talking into my phone, furiously transcribing voice memos into half cogent/cohesive fragments about fog and friends.

Ending his call, Kurt waves a white olive branch:

“Karl is a reminder that the world is mysterious and powerful. We think we are given a sunny day and Karl just sweeps in and says ‘no, never mind.’ I just love that that’s a natural rhythm that you have to pay attention to.”
— Kurt

Karl makes life interesting. Bikes make life better. Kurt makes life wonderful.

Yes, Karl can be beautiful too. Here he is caressing the Golden Gate Bridge at sundown.

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