For this story, we’re going to have to start way back in 1906.
Two brothers named Miles attached a motion picture camera to the front of a cable car headed down San Francisco’s Market Street in early April of that year. They caught the hustle and bustle of people going about their lives, as horses trot up and down the street, weaving between pedestrians, trams, and a few motorcars.
It’s a historic film called, “A Trip Down Market Street,” and the most intriguing thing about it is that it was filmed just five or six days before the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.
In the film, you can see the 1896 Ferry Building getting larger as the cable car gets closer to it but, all of the buildings to the left and right were gone about a week later, and sadly, probably a lot of the people you see scurrying around.
Here is a great YouTube upload of “A Trip Down Market Street.” There’s nothing wrong with your sound, it’s a silent film.
Now let’s fast forward to last week.
This is the Salesforce Tower. It opened in the SOMA district of San Francisco in June and is now the tallest building in the city.
There are no windows on the top floors due to the 11,000 LED lights that show a multimedia light show and videos every night of the week.
They turn it on at about a half-hour after dusk, and it consists of ballet dancers doing a routine in silhouette, ocean waves, clouds, in a soft-light show, as part of a rotating sequence.
At a certain point in the tour we come down Post Street, and the Salesforce Tower comes into view. If traffic is heavy, it stays in view in front of the bus for anywhere from 10-15 minutes, giving plenty of time to talk about it as we inch toward our Union Square stop.
The winter season can be slow, with few riders on the bus. Recently, I only had two young guys aboard, both of whom opted to ride in the front row on top, which are the best seats in the house.
While at lunch earlier that day, I read a special announcement from the media people who run the Salesforce Tower display, saying that at 6:00 PM on that night only, they would start looping “A Trip Down Market Street” on the top during their light show.
Being winter, it had already gotten dark as we turned onto Post Street and the top of the tower came into view. They were displaying the ballet dancers, and I suddenly remembered that announcement.
I checked the time and seeing that it was about three minutes before six, I decided to have some fun with these guys.
I pulled my phone out and called up the ‘Trip Down Market Street” film on my YouTube app. I showed them the first few seconds of it and gave a brief explanation of what it was, and why it was famous.
Timing was going to be everything in this. My phone said 5:58 PM, so I stretched out my explanation to fill a minute.
“You see, guys, when you live in San Francisco, you get to know a lot of people who work in the tech industry. I have a friend who works for the YouTube division of Google, and he gave me a secret code that I’m about to punch into my phone..”
I had their attention.
“So, what if I were to tell you that I’m going to take this video on my phone, and throw it up on that tower for display?”
I glanced at the time. 5:59 PM. Looking good.
They looked at each other and smiled. This tour guide was making a preposterous claim! How can a guy like this have control over something like that on his little phone? He’s just a tour guide!
At least I’m sure that’s what they were thinking. I wanted them to think that because it would make the prank all that much more fun.
It had been 5:59 for a good thirty seconds or more, so I figured I’d better get that “code” punched in. I held up my phone and faked tapping on the display, pretending to hide the four digit “code” from their prying eyes.
“Okay, let’s see… I push this, punch it in… uh, I hit this button…”
I looked up and the tower still had ballet dancers.
Looking back down at my phone with them watching me intently, I filled for a little more time.
“Oh shoot, it wasn’t a nine, it was a six, always hate getting those inverted! So hang on.. okay.. *tap tap tap*.. that should do it!”
We all three looked up just as the top of the tower switched to “A Trip Down Market Street.” Judging by the reaction I got, you’d think I’d just made the entire tower launch in a burst of flame and rocket into the sky.
“AHHHH! WOW!!! HOW DID YOU DO THAT? REALLY? HAHA!!!”
They were laughing as I rose from my seat and nonchalantly made my way downstairs. We’d just arrived at the Union Square stop and they were both getting off there, leaving the driver and I with an empty bus to finish the tour loop.
As I stood on the sidewalk and bade them farewell, one of them said, “Sir, you really have to give me that code! Can anyone do that with a YouTube app?”
“Of course, but it’s programming level stuff. I’m sorry, but my friend trusted me not to give that out, so have a great day, guys!”
I wonder about them telling this story to friends later, and if any friends were smart enough to see through it and say, “You got punked.”
If you’re curious about “A Trip Down Market Street,” CBS 60 Minutes did a great story on it a few years back, hosted by the late Morley Safer.