Elegy for an Advertisement

I drove into San Francisco in June or July for the first time since the order to shelter in place had begun. I remember the bizarre emptiness of both the freeway and the streets; the lack of traffic rendering it impossible to anticipate my exit. Everything happened too quickly. The billboards that caught my eye were the ones that seemed the most apocalyptic: an advertisement for A Quiet Place 2: now months out of date. One Valentine-flavored ad still hanging on. No sign of summer; no concert series or convention ads, no liquor boards reminding you that drinking in groups with friends is your gods-given summer night right. It was as if time had stopped.

One of the only things that looked unchanged, that made the city seem eternal, was the light-up Coca Cola billboard that has sat beside the 80 west since 1937. Sitting above SoMa, it shimmered like a shower of coins as I entered the city, reminding me that good things happen here. Coca-Cola removed the sign just this week, citing their interest in digital platforms and the outdated nature of the sign itself.

They’re right, of course. And it’s silly to mourn an advertisement in an age when we are soaking in them, drowning in them, living cheek-and-jowl with influencers and advertorials, incapable of separating advertising from any other form of communication. But I loved that sign. It never seemed like an ad, despite its imperative ENJOY. It was just a feature of the skyline, like the Transamerica Pyramid or Coit Tower or (gods help me, I’ve gotten used to it) Benioff’s phallic disaster with its Eye of Sauron on top. Logos as classic and well-known as the Coca-Cola wordmark carry the same psychic weight as religious iconography in our overtaxed monkey minds. I want to lift my eyes to it in wonder, take in its sparkle, see it separate from the bottling plant or the bottle, love it for its beauty alone. And I never will again.

I loved it best at night: its red paint rendered into black, its lights running in warm yellow incandescent sequence like Vegas, like dressing-room glamour. I loved it on my way in and out of the city: seen through the eyes of anticipation and then nodded to through a haze of drink and a droopy eyelash. It was the guardian of the night and the night out. It was a lantern and a wink to the reveler who came across the bridge in search of something with a little fizz in it. It was soft drink and hard naughty, more a symbol of nightlife for me than of a daytime-appropriate beverage with a squeaky-clean image. Maybe I loved the Coke billboard because it looked like every cartoon representation of the heartless, unstoppable city I’d ever seen. You know the one: the sound of shouting and car horns as neon and bright-bulbed lights flash the promise of vice and sin: theatre, drinks, live nude girls!

The real vices of San Francisco line the freeway further on: Dreamforce made to look like Disneyland instead of an influx of khaki-clad bizdev posers ruining the city’s night life. The towering depiction of the kinds of photos you could be taking if only you’d gotten the Good iPhone, not like the shitty one you bought a month ago. The pot-scraping fear synthesis of the Bay Alarm ads set up for the benefit of commuters from Oakland: On your way to work? So are the thieves. 

Compared with all these, the Coca-Cola sign was a prosaic, old-fashioned shimmering harbinger of good things ahead. It betokened a night on the town, one you didn’t even have to drink to enjoy. Perhaps it’s fitting that the sign is coming down while we’re all on restriction, unable to have those vistas and those evenings anyway. When we return, we will find a city gutted by its latest epidemic, abandoned by those who didn’t want to pay exorbitant rent to stay in their shoebox apartments and wait for San Francisco to come back to life again. Shouldn’t we find her a little less bubbly?

I have been counting the things I cannot return to, I have been living on the list of things I shall know once more when I can. There is so much I miss that has quietly died during this awful, frozen time. One of my favorite places in Oakland, the Starlight Lounge, was one such casualty. I drove by it a few months ago to find it boarded up and anonymized. Some poetic soul had painted the end is nigh across its blank façade. Where the Coca-Cola sign was, there will be no such statement to mark its absence. Only a patch of blue sky, only fewer lights in the night.

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