We talk about leaving all the time. I come home and say “God. I’m sick of this place,” and then, still wiping the sweat off my forehead from the bike ride back home, I’ll go sit down on the corner to smoke a cigarette in an attempt to pacify myself. Back inside, we have dinner and try to discuss our dissatisfaction, but it’s very hard to do in such a beautiful place, and makes one feel like the worst kind of curmudgeon.
It’s hard to complain about San Francisco because it’s the prettiest city anyone has ever seen. People come from Nebraskas and Baltimores and think ‘my God! I didn’t know such beauty could exist in a city.” The rolling hills, the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, the spectral bridges lancing out into the fog and the dense neighborhoods, Little Saigon, Chinatown, Little Italy and the Mission all representing different cultures that have maintained their identities enough to appear different from each other, most importantly, to smell different from each other. It’s a unique arraignment to San Francisco that one can almost identify where one neighborhood borders another by the smell. Chinatown is mothballs, fortune cookie dough and mushrooms. Little Russia, is stale pirozhki oil and dried sturgeon. Each neighborhood smell is preserved by the damp pacific air that preserves the smells and then blows them out into the ocean at night. Every morning they are recreated afresh.
All the highest points of San Francisco are parks; walk up a steep street and it turns into a park. There’s not going to be anyone up there, just trees clinging to the sandy soil, moss, fog and the glittering lights of the city reflected in the ocean below. These parks aren’t just an homage to the natural world the way so many urban parks are. They are light intrusions of the Pacific coastal forest where coyotes trot in the twilight and heavy ravens brood over the day. The parks fit into the pluralistic system of disparate neighborhoods. They have their own residents, advocates and distinct smells.
I have always loved this city. I had never given it a thought when I first arrived here about eight years ago. My friends and I had finished college and had decided to take a roadtrip west. I was applying to graduate schools in places like Colorado and New Mexico, so it seemed like a good idea to go and see these places before committing to move to them.
We drove down to Memphis the first night and then continued west from there. Alternately sleeping in the car, drinking copious amounts of coffee and only stopping in each place for an hour or so to stretch and find a Taco Bell, it took us less than three days to get from Michigan to Albuquerque.
I liked the roads and the wide open spaces of Western America, but I was invariably disappointed by the towns. Boulder was too expensive and it didn’t look like there was much to do besides hang out in breweries; everything was a brewery in Boulder. I liked Albuquerque but the isolation of the surrounding desert weighed down on it. The place offered a charming melancholy to the visitor and possibly chronic depression to the resident. Phoenix was empty; even in February its million inhabitants stayed inside with their air conditioners on. The night before we got to San Francisco, we slept in our van in the hills south of LA. I looked down into the city, much like the view from Mulholland Drive. The lights coruscated through the valleys like rivers rippling over different sized rocks. I watched the scene for about 10 minutes before going back to the van and falling asleep in the driver’s seat, exhausted.
After San Francisco, we went to Portland, Denver and a few other places, but I had already been seduced. I remember the cafes and bars we visited, but I don’t remember the cities, not in the way that I remembered San Francisco. After seeing San Francisco, there wasn’t room for anything else. I spent the rest of the trip writing letters about the two days I had been there. Sometimes, when I go down Davisadero, I can see myself, sitting outside a café, frantically scribbling a letter with misspelled street names and strings of clichés. I wrote to everyone, telling them about this El Dorado I didn’t even know I had been looking for.
I’m sure many of the people that live here, most of them weren’t born here, have similar stories. All of them stood on some eucalyptus-scented hill watching the sun fall into the Pacific, thinking ‘yeah, this is happiness,’ and then drove back to their homes, only staying long enough to pack up their stuff and say goodbye.
I lived in San Francisco for a year before I moved away to attend graduate school. When I left, I did so reluctantly. I was restless. I wanted to see the world, but I didn’t want to leave San Fran. I told myself that, barring another terrible earthquake, that it would always be there, and I could go back any time I wanted. For years, I carried the place with me in form of a keychain, the sight of which, while living abroad, actually caused me to sigh out loud on several occasions.
I never tried to come back here. After I finished graduate school, I moved out of the country again. When I decided to come back, I had nowhere to go, my girlfriend’s extended family lives out in the East Bay, they offered us a place of our own for a while and it seemed like as good a place as any; we both knew people in the area, and after living in so many unfamiliar places, I was excited to return to a place and people I knew.
After dinner, we take a walk on the outskirts of Golden Gate Park, which is less than a block from where we live. As we walk, I talk about the past and how it’s shaped my perception of the future. I talk about all the roadtrips that I have taken between here and Michigan and the small towns along the way where I talked to someone in a gas station. I talk about living in such a small town, what it would be like to know your neighbors and feel like you were working toward a common goal, rather than competing with each other for everything.
I a couple of days, I’m going to leave San Francisco and revisit all the places that I had passed through before when I was too enamored with the Golden Gate Bridge and the smell of eucalyptus to notice them. I do not wish to find another El Dorado; the problem with living in a fairytale is that it feels like it belongs to everyone and no one. I will never really be a part of San Francisco, though it has long been a part of me. No. I want to find a place that looks simple; I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can create enough of my own entertainment. I just need the space to do it and at least one place that’s got a decent burrito.