A Beautiful Noise: The Ritual and Culture of Bay to Breakers

This morning at six I awoke to the sounds of helicopters overhead. It is one of the joys of living in an urban environment. The sounds of the city surround you wherever you are—indoors or out. From foghorns to garbage trucks, fireworks to barking dogs, car alarms to barking sea lions, the sounds of the city create a beautiful noise that is irresistible to those who love San Francisco.

Today’s humming helicopters was an alarm clock awaking the city to the annual Bay to Breakers. The annual event is a 12K foot race from one end of this 7-mile wide peninsula to another, starting at the Embarcadero and ending at Ocean Beach. It is a uniquely San Francisco event—singular to a city known for its eccentricities. Nearly all dress in outlandish costumes, behave in outrageous fashion, and celebrate independent thought and behavior. Teams of synchronized swimmers, Flower Children, and nudity are ubiquitous. They’re all part of the core DNA of the city, and one giant celebration of creativity and independence. The vibe reminds me of something from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

A rite of passage for new residents, and a cultural tradition for natives and transplants alike, the Bay to Breakers has its roots back to 1912 when the city was still suffering an emotional and economic depression as a result of the famed 1906 earthquake. The event was designed to lift the spirits of the residents of San Francisco, and for the last 101 years it has done just that. In 1986 the Guinness Book of World Records named Bay to Breakers the world’s largest footrace, with more than 110,000 people participating, and nearly 76,800 runners registered.

But it seems that the whole city participates in the Bay to Breakers on this third Sunday in May. It is a singular event that seems to connect the entire city together—whether you are a registered runner or not.

As I headed out this morning, I was greeted by a neighbor as he zipped by on his bike: “you headed to the Breakers this morning?”—he yelled from his bike as two blimps traveled overhead to take aerial photos of the event. It seems the event was on everyone’s mind.

By 7:30 I was at my favorite breakfast stop. There I ran into an old friend, his two sons, and his brother. Jake and his brother Nate are San Francisco natives. Their father used to take them to the Breakers every year to soak up the city, surrounded by freaks and geeks, 20-somethings and seniors, men in drag, women dresses as honey bees, and centipedes of all types. This was the first year Jake was taking his sons, Brandon and Kyle (aged 9 and 11) to the event. All four were giddy with excitement. “It makes you feel connected to everyone else in the city. Everyone just lets loose, and shows off who they are. There’s nothing like it.”

Then I was off to the market, where I spied four 20-somethings wearing Australian speedos (the type where the buttocks hangs out the back), Nike runners, and Revolutionary War hats—and nothing else. They were deciding which beer to buy, and how to keep it chilled. I can only assume they were headed to the event. It was only 8:30 am.

The race cross the geographic divide of the city, and seems to engage all types, shapes, and proclivities. It is what connects everyone together as part of the mesh of the city.

By later today (the event technically ends at 11am) I expect I’ll see drunken honey bees trying to hail a cab, and speedo-clad 20-something passed-out against the door of a dry cleaner, and grease-paint dripping off a sweat-covered nude “Superman.” It is all part of the spectacle, and homogeneity that is this wonderful glittering urban city on a hill.

Primary image via Dane Escobar.


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