A Tap on the Shoulder

It’s time to return this blog a little closer to its originally intended theme: ghosts. This follow-up on a previous post about one of my childhood San Francisco landmarks leads to the closest I can come to a ghost experience of my own.

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The Coca-Cola sign around 2007, much as I remember as a child. Photo:Chuck Tomasi

If the old Union 76 clock tower was the sign that my family and I had officially entered San Francisco, then the bright neon Coke sign on Bryant and 5th St. was further confirmation. Flights from the Philippines tend to arrive late in the evening, so I mostly saw this sign at night as the family drove to SFO to pick up a cousin, or an uncle.

I loved watching that sign as we drove by. From darkness, the red neon lights swept across the sign like a curtain; the Coca-Cola logo fizzed (just like the drink!); the red background would retract; the outline of the letters would light up one at a time; the sign would blink out; and the whole thing started all over again. As an adult now, I wonder that something so garish is still allowed by the San Francisco Taste Police — you can see it all the way from the top of Dolores Park, or at least, you used to be able to — but as a child, it was wonderful. We didn’t have soda in our house except for special occasions (or when my mother got her occasional cravings for Coke and potato chips). The fizzy sign was a harbinger of the treat soon to come, since the arrival of relatives counted as a special occasion.

And I must not be the only person in the world who loved it; here’s a video of the sign from around 2008.

According to this Coke press release, the original billboard was erected on that spot in 1937 (the same time as the Bay Bridge), and has been replaced several times since. The latest replacement was in 2010. It looks much the same, and it still fizzes.

Oh yes, the ghost story.

My father-in-law passed away a few months ago, after a long illness. He fought it all the way — he didn’t want to go. Afterwards, my husband helped his mother go through his father’s things. One of the things he came home with was an old, beat-up metal tripod. Since a tripod comes in useful to me, for impromptu video shoots for the dance company that I belong to, I tossed the tripod in the back of my car.

A few days later, I drove with a friend to Berkeley, to our regular dance class and rehearsal. We were stopped at the intersection of Bryant and 5th, waiting to get on the bridge. I looked up at the Coke sign over our heads.

“That sign’s been there since I was a little kid,” I said.

“Mmmmm,” Vicki said, not looking up from the text message that she was composing.

Then I felt what I thought was a tap on my shoulder. By reflex, I turned, though of course there was no one else in the car. I saw nothing but my braid (I have long, heavy hair, which I wear braided when I dance). It was caught in the shoulder harness of my seat belt. It disentangled itself as my head turned, and fell with a thump on my shoulder.

I thought of my father-in-law.

“He’ll come back to visit,” my sister told me, when I’d called her with the news. “Lola [my grandmother] came to visit us after she died. Didn’t she visit you?”

Um, no. I don’t think so. There is a family tradition of visitations from the dead, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, and my sister is supposed to be “the psychic one”, so if Lola would visit anyone, I suppose it would be Isabel. I don’t believe these stories, really, though I am romantic enough to wish that I did. This probably explains my taste in literature.

But, still, at that moment under the Coke sign, I thought of my father-in-law. He was a native-born son of Oakland, old enough to have been alive when that sign first went up. Certainly, he would have remembered it from his childhood, too. Was he letting me know that, in solidarity?

I like to imagine that he was taking one last look around his old neighborhoods, before moving to the next place, riding along with his tripod like a witch rides a broomstick. But of course, it’s more likely a mere coincidence, the intersection of my hair, my seat belt, and my nostalgia.

Still, it makes a good story, doesn’t it?

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