When Did Water Become a Department?

When Did Water Become a Department?

By Daria Hilton

north beach


Morrigan must have seen the phrase “water department” close to half of a million times in her ten years as a meter reader for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. She never thought much about it. Without provocation, the question bubbled up one night as she and her bar mate Tommy sucked down pints of Guinness and watched the Hamms classic beer sign go from river to campsite to waterfall and back to river over and over.

“Hey Tommy, when do you think water became a department?”

“Water became a department at the same time a line became straight and narrow,” he answered with confident authority, “when white people took over the world.”

They drank to that, and to lost dog flyers, forklift drivers, found art and a bunch of other things lost to the haze of alcohol and alcohol-fueled sex.

As a month, and then two, went by, most of the memories of that night filed themselves comfortably into a heart-shaped box labeled mango-sweet distractions. But the question continued to surface. When did water become a department?  Morrigan blamed her unprecedented, and unwelcome, two-month stint of abstinence for her inability to let the question go. That combined with the city’s equally unwelcome fiscal decision to replace the old cast iron meter covers, which had featured a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, with gray, lifeless cement rounds, barely distinguishable from the gray, lifeless sidewalks.

The new covers left little room for fanciful meanderings. The unadorned phrase, “water department,” accosted her over and over each day, making her inexplicably less and less comfortable. She eventually became uncomfortable enough to seek an answer. She went to her fallback, trusted source of unbiased information: the public library. It turned out that Tommy had been right all along. Water basically did become a department not long after white people took over. 

San Francisco is on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by salt water. There is and was fresh water there to be sure, enough even to supply the intense demand created by the population explosion that the gold rush spurred. Among the many demands the 1849ers made upon the peninsula, the demand for water was paramount. Private water vendors, The Spring Valley Company first among these, used their paid-for political power to condemn and seize whole watersheds. They made more money than the fiendishly opportunistic pick and shovel vendors. Water became and remained a for-profit department.

Walking out of the library into the noonday sun and the tie-died beehive that turned out to be the tenth annual San Francisco Hemp Festival, Morrigan realized her small kernel of new-found knowledge gave her no comfort. Lord knows why she thought Medical Mary’s Miracle Brownies might, but she wolfed a couple down and tried to enjoy the scene. 

The music got to her first. Some seemingly earnest and well-rehearsed band cranking out blues standards for the pot-sauced, booty-shaking masses, twirling about in their thrift store layers. Her friend Shanice would have called it cocaine blues, intense and empty.  The uncomfortable intensity of the music increased as it violently ricocheted off the government buildings that contained the plaza and hammered her brain unmercifully. Mustang Sally, Ride, Sally, Ride

With the usual pathways her thoughts steadfastly trekked obliterated by the brownie, the music hijacked Morrigan’s mind and took her for a ride with Sally that went something like: Astronaut, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, the countless newspapers headlines, Ride, Sally, Ride. Space, NASA, fragments of a documentary about high-G training and g-induced Loss Of Consciousness (G-LOC), Ride, Sally, Ride. That first county fair and the dreadful spinning ride, The Round Up, that spun the puke out of her, Ride, Sally, Ride. In the briefest moment of clarity, Morrigan realized (again) that eating weed was much more intense than smoking it, Ride, Sally, Ride. She tried to sit it out, but the slow blues thump of the song pounded on.

All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.

All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.

All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.

She stood up and steadied herself, pushing her hand against one of the well-manicured trees. Electricity washed up her arm, across her body and into her battered brain. The horrible noise, by now the protesting screech of a sharply turned steering column low on fluid, vanished. She felt the pulse of the tree. Slow. Slower than rocks cooling in the comparative cool of a hot evening after a scorching day, slower than moss growing. Slow. Taken out of time and place, she could sense the roots of the tree gently spreading three asphalt inches below her feet, drinking calmly. And the breathing too. She could feel it. Not the clumsy in and out of lungs, but an electric exchange of molecules. Tiny trades that, repeated almost infinitely, created the solid, majestic presence before her out of thin air. 

She was afraid to hold on, or let go.

“Dude! What’s up?!” exclaimed some suddenly present voice, followed by an exuberant embrace, both of which turned out to come from her friend J.J..

“Woman, are you high, or what?!”

Morrigan could only manage a uneven smile, relieved that she wasn’t being accosted by some love-hungry, hippy stranger.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

There may have been a conversation on her way to J.J.’s North Beach studio, but her memories were jumbled, snatches of bright color seen through a steamy, glass, dryer door. 

She did remember the sex. Tongues employed in every manner imaginable not pertaining to speech. The music, Bach’s solo cello suites, gripping them almost as palpably as their entangled arms and legs. And the smell, more salty than sweet, the way the air smells on an isolated, hot, rocky beach.

Much later, when cogent thought returned, J.J. stated, rather matter-of-factly, “The Hemp Festival doesn’t really seem like your style.” Even J.J.’s most outlandish opinions were stated as facts, a habit Morrigan adored him for.

“I was at the library doing research.”

“Don’t tell me. You’re still pursuing your alien/wheat conspiracy theory.”

“It’s not only my theory, and, no, I wasn’t, but I’m more and more convinced that I’m on to something with that alien/wheat connection.”

“You are a complete lunatic. How can you say that with a straight face?”

A day and half later, and an hour and a half late for work, Morrigan hustled herself and a steaming cup of muddy nirvana from Graffeo’s Coffee Shop onto the 30 Stockton. Content at first to revel in the soothing dark goodness of her coffee, the worms inside her brain began to edge away at the familiar coziness she felt after a tryst. They brought up the question.

“I answered that damn question,” she scolded the worms.

“The next obvious question is why did water become a department,” the worms countered.

Morrigan knew they were right. There was always a next question and why questions often required answers you couldn’t find in a library. The meaning she had never looked for wanted to be found. She sighed and sipped her coffee, accepting and appreciating the simple pleasure it afforded but knowing also that her life had been irrevocably altered. The bus rumbled out of North Beach toward a future as murky, stimulating and gloriously satisfying as the brew she brought to her lips and swallowed.

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