This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine.
After the cops left, but before the firefighters arrived, Dana leaned in for a kiss at the top of Coit Tower.
â€œYes,â€ she whispered.
Then the fire crew arrived. One man carried an ax.
It was the proposal of every womanâ€™s dreams.
Of course, thatâ€™s not how I planned it. I didnâ€™t want the cops there. I didnâ€™t want the fire crew. But popping the question in San Francisco is not as easy as dropping to one knee.
Who knew you needed bail money?
Iâ€™d been dating Dana for six years when I bought the ring, and I knew the proposal had to be special. Sheâ€™d come to know me well, after all, so I wasnâ€™t sure a ring alone would do the trick. But there was something more.
I always envisioned that proposal stories rank up there with giddy confessions about length and girth, with fortunate women being able to lean over between brunch-time sips of Chardonnay to giggle, â€œWell of course I said yes. Who wouldnâ€™t after a trip to Paris?â€
Knowing Dana would never be able to brag about length â€“ or girth, for that matter â€“ I grew desperate. She needed something to talk about at brunch.
I pondered a trip to Paris. But at the time, America had just started a war with Iraq; and France, somehow, had become the enemy.
That left me with San Francisco.
It certainly wasnâ€™t my first choice. We live there, after all. Weâ€™ve seen it all before. And I wanted the proposal to be special. I wanted to find a place we could call our own, a place we could revisit in thirty years or watch grow and change with time.
So I did what any clueless, completely unromantic bachelor might do: I searched the Internet. It quickly dawned on me, however, that I was soliciting romantic advice from anonymous multitudes of other clueless, completely unromantic bachelors who, if they were more adept at dating, would be out on the town instead of cowering in their computer hovels and offering sage guidance like: Take her to dinner. Go to the beach.
One man even offered a book with â€œexpert adviceâ€ on how to pop the question, ignoring the debatable prudence of accepting marriage advice from someone who has had so many occasions to propose heâ€™d become a professional.
Then, I saw it â€” Coit Tower, hovering over the city like an old-school totem to romance. Rumors persist that the tower was built as a tribute to city booster Lillie Hitchcock Coitâ€™s beloved firefighters. They say the tower even resembles a giant fire nozzle â€” a romantic illusion unfortunately not supported by architectural realities, if you talk to tower enthusiasts.
But I ignored the realities and stuck to the romance.
After all, you can see Coit Tower from just about every corner of the city. Itâ€™s in movies. It dominates postcards. It would be a perpetual reminder of my good fortune and Danaâ€™s horrible decision-making abilities.
Steep staircases lace a park at the base of the tower. Tourist throngs flooded into the entrance, pushing against the people in front of them as if a well-placed shove will hasten their arrival.
In the gift shop, behind a warren of key chains and can openers, an unsmiling Chinese man sold tickets for an elevator ride to the top.
â€œYou want to propose, right?â€ the man said, after Iâ€™d gotten about five words out of my mouth.
â€œWell yes,â€ I stammered, â€œBut I actually have someone in mind already.â€
The man never stopped taking money from the tourists who had gathered around us.
â€œItâ€™s twelve hundred dollars for the very top for four hours. The view balcony below is cheaper, say two hundred.â€
I wondered why itâ€™s cheaper.
â€œItâ€™s windy â€“ very windy,â€ he said. I mulled it over â€“ the view balcony wouldnâ€™t be so bad, even though the observation deck above us would still be open to the public. And how bad could the wind be, really?
I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the tourists leaned closer.
â€œYouâ€™re going to propose here?â€ the tourist asked.
I was girding myself for bitter price negotiations, so I was annoyed by a new participant in the conversation, a tall man with reddish hair and a ball cap that said â€œOmahaâ€ in day-glow yellow.
â€œYes,â€ I said briskly, turning my attention back to the tower operator.
â€œOkay, the view balcony,â€ I said. â€œHow about one hundred?â€
â€œOne fifty,â€ the operator said.
The Omaha man turned to his wife and whispered something.
â€œRight now?â€ the Omaha manâ€™s wife exclaimed, frantically looking around for the object of the proposal. Seeing no viable candidates â€“ just me, her husband and the morose Chinese man â€” she focused on the Chinese man and frowned a little. I could almost hear her brain turning, â€œWell, this is San Francisco.â€
She must have found it odd, then, when I continued negotiations with the operator â€“ wondering, maybe, if we were hashing out the details of a dowry before beginning a new life together behind the key chains.
â€œOne twenty five,â€ I continued, trying not to laugh at the Omaha wifeâ€™s expression. A hundred and twenty five what, exactly? Goats? Postcards? I â€œheartâ€ San Francisco shot glasses?
We settled on one hundred and twenty five dollars and shook hands. It must have been a good proposal. The Omaha wife clapped and pulled out a camera. I smiled at her and mouthed â€œThank you,â€ entertaining thoughts of how she would retell this story back home.
â€œThose gays,â€ she would say during a hand of bridge, â€œThey sure do it on the cheap â€“ and in front of everyone!â€
The tower operator said simply, â€œnext.â€
My scheme was to lure Dana to the top by claiming we were to meet my site-seeing relatives. Only, at the top of the tower would be a nest of blankets, flowers, wine, pillows and candles.
Getting Dana there was the easy part. Getting her to stay in one place was not.
After a quick elevator ride to the view balcony, the door opened and wind roared in our faces. Dana bolted around the tower in a desperate attempt to find my relatives before being hurtled from the obelisk.
She circled the tower, stopping at the nest of flowers and wine. She turned around and saw me, right behind her and on one knee. I held out a ring.
â€œBaby,â€ Dana gasped, â€œWhereâ€™s your uncle?â€
It was very romantic.
Then the cops came.
Now, the operator told me I couldnâ€™t hang anything from the tower, but I couldnâ€™t resist. I had stitched four red bed sheets together with white yarn and painted the letters â€œY-E-S-!â€ on each section.
We tossed the banner over the side, but a flurry of wind caught the fabric and wrapped the sheets around the column. Our knuckles scraped against the rough concrete as we pulled it back in. Dana licked blood off her fingers.
About the same time we crumpled into an exhausted heap, we heard the sirens and saw a flash of lights. We peered down and watched as a fire truck stopped at the towerâ€™s entrance. Two cop cars arrived soon afterward, and two officers made their way into the entrance. A few minutes later, flashlights shined in our faces.
I wondered how much hard time Iâ€™d receive for defacing a historic landmark. Sure, the banner didnâ€™t damage anything, but I remember pondering whether my cell mate would give me the top bunk. Or something else entirely.
The cop focused on Danaâ€™s fingers. He moved his hand toward his holster and snarled.
â€œWhy is she bleeding?â€
â€œNo, see, I just proposed,â€ I stammered, as if every engagement ended in bloodshed.
Dana held up her ring finger and smiled, blood mixing with the gleam of diamonds and light. I had not only made Dana an accomplice to a crime, but I had made her bleed.
â€œNot a promising start,â€ the cop said.
In the end, though, the cops werenâ€™t after us. It turns out two kids in the observation deck above had been lighting bottle rockets at the same time as the proposal.
The cops went after them, followed by a crew of firefighters â€” who had been kind enough to stop and take our picture.
I hope they didnâ€™t get in trouble, those kids. But I wonder sometimes, several months later, whether such an elaborate proposal is needed â€” whether a nice walk on the beach or a romantic dinner might do the trick just as well.
And then I see Coit Tower on the way home from work each day. And I think of the wind, and the wine, the cops, the kids, the firefighters and our big red banner. I think of the romantic myth of Lillie Coit and her love affair with Engine Co. 5. Mostly, though, I remember Danaâ€™s answer and am grateful we will always have a special place in the world â€” right here in San Francisco.