Operator Error

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Pacific Heights is a wealthy San Francisco neighborhood that brings tourists to see the huge houses – the houses of Larry Ellison of Oracle, Senator Diane Feinstein, the writer Danielle Steele. The streets rise up from Cow Hollow until they reach the crest at Broadway, an uber-wealthy street at the very top of Pacific Heights. The tourists stand at Broadway and Divisadero and take photos down the hill to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay down below. The hill at that point crests so sharply that a road sign at the top says “Trucks Not Advised.”

I was coming up Divisadero when I saw the truck. It was a large United moving van and clearly stuck at the crest of Broadway. I was surprised by the sight. Not because it’s uncommon for trucks to get stuck at this spot, but because the van was heading up Divisadero, not down. I have seen five or six moving vans caught coming down the hill but this was the first one I had seen coming up.

I like to get photos of trucks stuck at the top of the hill and so I pulled my car into Broadway and found a place to park. I walked back to the intersection. I got closer and could see that the tractor had made it up to the level ground at the top of the rise but the underbelly of the truck had run aground before the trailer got two feet further. The van was completely stuck.

I tried to think how someone would get stuck going up the hill. Going down the hill is easy to imagine. The truck driver doesn’t understand or dismisses the warning sign, the trailer starts down the hill, and before you know it there is a grinding noise and the truck is stuck and there is no way to back up.

But going up the hill the dynamics all seem wrong. There is a stop sign on Divisadero before the crest on Broadway, so a truck coming up that very steep hill would be stopped at the stop sign and would start up onto the flat ground at the crest of the hill from a low speed. You would think that at the first sign of a grinding noise it would be immediately apparent to the driver that the belly of the truck was on hard pavement and nothing good could happen by going forward. You would think the driver would immediately stop and back down the hill. It would be easy to back down because the truck couldn’t have gotten wedged very thoroughly given its low speed and the fact that it was climbing the hill.

The only way you would get stuck going up the hill would be if the driver felt the scrape underneath and decided to just muscle his way through the problem and gave more gas and more gas forcing the underbelly of the van further and further onto dry land. That would be macho. That would be stupid. That would be a mistake

I looked around to find the truck driver. He was unmistakable. He was wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt and one of those black and white checked hats that have built-in earflaps. He had a microphone that looked like that it was embedded in the hat and he was talking furiously to someone in another location. He was stomping his foot and I could tell he was angry. He was furious.

I walked around the truck taking pictures then, to my delight, a tow truck from Atlas Advanced Towing arrived. I had heard of these tow trucks, big as tugboats, able to winch out even a fully-loaded moving van. They specialized in Pacific Heights rescue missions.

The driver of the tow truck was clearly a pro. He was dressed all in black and he moved with the languorousness of expertise that the gravity of the situation demanded. I called out to him and asked how many times he had rescued vans at the top of this hill. He dismissed me with a curt but professionally knowing, a wave that suggested that the number was more than I could imagine. I watched as he drove the tow truck up to the nose of the moving van and then backed up by about ten feet. There he put down sturdy block-like stanchions from the front of the tow truck and unrolled three long chains that he hooked to the undercarriage beneath the tractor. Then he began to winch the truck towards him, up the hill.

believe what he was doing. He was doing the same thing the macho driver tried to do, just with more power. He was trying to drag that truck forward up the hill until it got to a place where the back wheels were flat against the top of the hill. He was just going to muscle it through.

I watched him winch the moving van forward. There was a deep grinding noise as the underside of the moving van dragged further across the crest of the hill. Steel squealed. Then there was a popping noise – like rivets exploding from their moorings – and the doors on the compartments on the underside of the moving van bent outwards and blew open. The tow truck moved the truck almost six feet until all progress came to an absolute halt.

I was amazed. The moving van was now completely and thoroughly beached. The back wheels of the trailer were up off the ground. The front wheels were off the ground. The underbelly was embedded in the crest of the hill. The truck was stuck like a whale on a sandbar.

On the top of the hill, cars moved around either side of the van and tow truck. Several stopped and passengers whipped out their iPhones and video cameras to record the events. There was a celebratory atmosphere. Two boys came by on skateboards and joined in the general hilarity. They started doing tricks in front of the truck, much to the annoyance of the Atlas driver. They were pilot fish in front of the whale.

The truck driver yammered at the pro from Atlas Towing. The pro ignored him. The pro took huge slats of wood from the back of his tow truck and then placed them strategically under the truck body of the van.  Then he loosened the tension of the towing cables and unhooked them from the underside of the carriage of the van, leaving the van like a house that has been jacked up from its foundation.

A minute later a man with an Atlas cap and a clipboard showed up and began a hasty and animated conversation with the Atlas driver. The truck driver, excluded from that consultation, walked over to my corner of Divisadero. I asked him what had happened.

He didn’t look at me and started talking on his cell phone. I eavesdropped. “I don’t know what the damn guy was thinking of.” There was a pause. “I can tell you this. It’s God-damned San Francisco and that means it’s gonna take a long time. I don’t know what this guy thinks he is doing but it’s not happening fast! I’ll tell you that. God dammed San Francisco! God <em>Damn</em> San Francisco!”

I got into my car. I thought about waiting to see how this would work out but there was no resolution in sight and I had that uncomfortable feeling you get when you are invited to dinner and your hosts have a fight in front of you. And so, reluctantly, I left the scene. When I drove by a few hours later, the van was gone.