San Francisco Musings From A 10-Year Resident : Year 1
I've lived here, in this pseudo Never Land balanced on the edge of California, since I was a freshman in college at SF State. I've seen The City grow and morph into the tech-filled, rising metropolis that it is today. I've lived in the Outerlands, both Upper and Lower Haight and Downtown in North Beach and Nob Hill.
I've worked long hours for minimum wage. I've been a consultant, and an intern and unemployed. I've had a traditional 9-5 with a salary and benefits. I've now lived here long enough to go to bars and restaurants and reminisce about the places they used to be, and the people who used to go there. Like The City, I've grown and changed and struggled--because San Francisco, like life, will do that to you. It forces you to challenge your own beliefs while confronting what you actually value.
As I evolved into a real, fully formed adult, the San Francisco I experienced grew up too. The neighborhoods I spent time in changed as I changed. Places I thought I'd always gravitate to lost their shine, and new neighborhoods blinked onto my personal radar. Neither of us are the same as we were a decade ago, yet here we are--thriving and growing and changing. That's the magic of San Francisco. It constantly forces you to want to be here. To choose SF over other places, other homes, other lives. It's not easy here, or cheap, or convenient. You have to choose it, and keep choosing it. You have to want it to be your home.
Like every good love story, San Francisco and I have had our ups and downs. It wasn't always the perpetual love story that Limitless San Francisco tells. San Francisco has a unique and cruel way of kicking the shit out of you, sometimes over and over, until you earn her love and respect. Like most people, I had a really hard time adjusting. There were lots of tears and lots of great times. There were Craigslist roommate searches, and Craigslist apartment searches, and there were times when I was between places and it was terrible. There was falling in love, and roommate drama and growing pains. There are still roommates. It's still not perfect, but it's home.
To be honest, at first, I completely hated it. It being every single thing about San Francisco. I hated the fog and the crowds and college in general. I hated being away from home and struggled to make meaningful connections with my peers. I spent fall semester freshman year crying and losing weight and I barely made it to winter break.
I withdrew from school, packed my sad dorm room up, and moved back into my parent's house in perpetually sunny San Diego. I went back to a cliché high school boyfriend, a small town and a mall job. Maybe it was living in the dorms that did me in, or being homesick for the first time, or being plunked into a foggy, dreary land of confused 18-year-olds, but I couldn't wait to get out of The City. I couldn't wait to leave, to escape, to be back in my element. But, like all major life decisions, leaving didn't turn out exactly how I thought. Six months, one big break up, and the death of a good friend sent me back to SF. I'd spent the summer saying "yes" to things that scared me and decided after a two-week visit that I'd re-enroll in the fall. By August I was moving into a townhouse in ParkMerced to start my sophomore year at SF State. (As a quick aside: If you're struggling in college and need to take some time off for any reason, you can usually talk to a counselor and withdraw for a semester or two without any negative repercussions or having to reapply. )
It's amazing what a few months and a little perspective can do for you. I'd lived at home for six months, but I didn't have it easy. I worked full time and went to the local community college more than full time. I water colored tropical flowers as I felt my life fall apart. I felt suffocated by the high school requirements and attendance taking in community college but was grateful that my family gave me a soft place to land. As I started to put myself back together, I became friends with my parents. I gained more independence and maturity in those short months at home than I could have ever imagined. By the time I moved back to SF in August, I felt sure in myself and my decision. I also knew that if I'd stayed through freshman year I would have been miserable. I'd followed my heart, and my gut, and it had paid off--just not in the neatly packaged way I'd imagined.
By late September, I felt like I had a home in San Francisco. I was excelling at school, had a strong group of friends, and transferred my mall job to the flagship store in Union Square. I felt like I was beginning to live my life. SF still fucked with me though: my car got towed for the first time and not only did I have to pay $500 to get it out, but I had to take two buses and walk through Hunter's Point when the neighborhood was still one of the most dangerous in the Bay Area. I had major roommate drama that included uncomfortable conversations about someone's lack of showering habit and a different roommate's bad habit of stashing of her cat's shit in her room in gallon-sized Ziploc bags. I had to learn the hard way that if you spend all your money on alcohol and fun you won't have anything left to feed yourself. I was living in a classic coming of age story, but instead of idyllic Ivy-covered brick buildings and frat parties I had a sparkling city full of endless freedom and possibility.
I was lucky enough to walk to class, but to get Downtown I'd hike up to the M stop at 19th and Holloway and hope the LRV would show up. It was cold, and wet and foggy. Afternoons felt dark and foreboding. If I was lucky, an hour later I'd file off with the crowd at Powell Station, climb the escalators and spend the next four to eight hours yelling over booming music at tourists who couldn't wait their turn to try on overpriced graphic tees. But, standing in company-mandated shorts at the door to take Polaroid photos of tween girls with our shirtless male models, I could feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun streaming in. If The Sunset was a winter wasteland, Downtown offered summer for at least a few short hours.
At closing, we'd frantically sort go-backs into their correct rooms through three floors , while a crew of Chinese men and women filed into the store to spend the night folding everything back to perfection. We'd go out, or go home, but even if you managed to catch the last M back out to the Sunset, it was a journey. If you stayed Downtown and went out, there was a good chance that getting a cab home would be impossible. We'd flag them down, usually a small group of girls on Market Street, Union Square or maybe the Tenderloin, and they'd pull up doors locked and ask where we were going. Then they'd speed off. A ride to the sunset was a bad ride. Too long, too far, no return fare. If you were brave, you could take the OWL bus. Or, if you waited long enough some desperate cabbie would eventually decide to drive you home. For $45.
Hungover, we'd eat head into the quiet village of West Portal to brunch at Squat and Gobble or stuff ourselves with Bison burgers at The Bull's Head. We'd go vintage shopping on Haight and marvel at the old hippies, street kids and eclectic mix of gentle beauty and vulgarity. It took us two buses to get there, but nothing was better than wandering through Amoeba's endless rows and drinking sake cocktails at Noc Noc without being carded. This was pre-Whole Foods, pre-parklets and pre-tourist clean-up. Head shops outnumbered tourist traps. There were more tattoo and piercing places than new clothing stores. Vintage was king, and scoring the perfect soft, well-loved flannel was always my goal. The Army/Navy Surplus Store was crowded with gritty veterans, street kids and politically confused college kids. You could still find designer originals at bargain prices at Wasteland, and I once got a BCBG Max Azria sequin dress, new with tags, for $30.
Free concerts and parties seemed to dominate my San Francisco. While my friends from SoCal went to themed frat parties, we explored music festivals and street parties. Power to the Peaceful in Golden Gate Park offered up reggae music live and for free with at least one Marley in attendance. LoveFest was colorful and happy and full of dancing strangers in the middle of the day. Halloween in The Castro was like going to an adult Disneyland where drag queens roller skated and grown men dressed as fairies walked around on stilts. Pride lasted for days and they still let you use shopping carts to push kegs around during Bay to Breakers.
Sophomore year we'd spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights walking drunkenly from house party to house party in ParkMerced or discovering yet another bar that didn't card. We mixed it up with the occasional warehouse party or would head downtown to a friend of a friend's house. There were rooftops and tiny studios and big houses and everything felt like it was happening at once. The feverpitch immortalized by Jack Kerouac had infected us. For a while, it seemed that everyone that wasn't a student was an artist or musician. People were in San Francisco to follow their paths, their destiny, their love. No one asked what you did, or where you worked. The ubiquitous tech-tees hadn't yet made their way north from Silicon Valley. Or if they had, we didn't notice. We were classically self-centered. We created our own gravity. I sometimes felt like we were spinning out of control, but somehow always managed to go to class. It wasn't all free drinks and parties, there were still papers and tests and stressing out about financial aid. I managed to pass my finals, I wrote my papers, and I finally began to feel like I was making some progress through all the general ed requirements.
Now, they ask you to register for Bay to Breakers and all the best street parties are gone. The City feels more sterilized and monetized and bureaucratized than ever before, but there's also a much stronger divide between those with money and those without. I've never seen homelessness like I've seen in the last few years. I've never seen so much destitution and such a lack of compassion towards other humans. I swear it didn't used to be like that, unless perhaps I was just too blinded by all the new experiences to notice. Were we all?