San Francisco is every color.
When you visit, go to Golden Gate Park. You can hear the vegetation growing, all the way from Haight Street to the Pacific. It crackles with its own bizarre energy. It leaks out of the park, into every crevice, onto every surface. Even onto the houses, they’re painted the same colors as the flowers, each one different from the other.
Its counterpoint is the feverish buzz coming from the other edge of town: great idea great idea great idea great idea. Long ago it hovered at the southern tip of the Bay. Now it’s swarmed northwards and invaded the City. There are people on every corner, waiting to capture the idea and harness its potential. It’s a pursuit that can be noble, or its very opposite.
Ride the Caltrain that trundles down the backbone of Silicon Valley, between San Francisco and San Jose. There was no WiFi on the Caltrain two decades ago and there is none today. Instead of installing it, each Valley tech company sends fleets of buses to the City to shuttle their employees to work. Double-decker, WiFi’d buses that squeeze through neighborhoods and wheeze up hills.
San Francisco is proof that progress is uneven.
Some of the best things happened to me in San Francisco. Some of the worst things happened to me in San Francisco. Through it all the City was there: Hills that force vehicles onto impossible planes. Diagonal streets with spiderweb intersections. Sometimes, a sky that shifts from rose-gold streaks to cobalt dusk.
The landscape is embellished but the people are not. The uniform is hoodies and sneakers and jeans. T-shirts with corporate monikers that have disrupted spelling. And life is no different at night. Venues are packed but there’s rarely a snappy suit or a sexy high heel. The dress code is written in binary, and it is not elegant.
Unless - there’s a party in the street. Come on, join in! Carnaval. Bay to Breakers. Folsom Street. Everyone is there. Wearing dog collars, rainbow hoop skirts, feathers, tattoos, or nothing at all. Marvel at the bacchanal of Hallowe’en, when the kids are cordoned off and the adults run wild. Be impressed by the vitality of a city that won’t take itself seriously.
Hey, San Francisco - high five!
But when the party is over, not everyone can go home.
People come here to invent things that change the world. That’s what they keep telling us. Still, none of them ever seem to tackle the problems that worry their town. San Francisco is one of the richest cities on the planet and as I commute to work, I step over people lying on the street.
It’s nothing hashtag-new. The ones who’ve been here since The New Economy and Negronis at Mars Bar and the excitement over Willie Brown’s hats - they are complicit, just like me. They’re nice people, don’t get me wrong. They’ll invite you over to their house, to check out the view. The light. The measure of their success. It’s lucky that they bought when they did, now it’s worth - well let’s just say it was a good investment.
They’re psyched that their kids got to grow up in San Francisco. Such a liberal place. So diverse. Of course it’s sad when the grocer on the corner, the one who’s been there for twenty years, such a nice guy! has to close up shop and move away. They used to go there all the time when the kids were little.
San Francisco is greedy. San Francisco does not want to share.
Go to Pacific Heights and walk around the fanciest neighborhood in the City. The houses are grand. Their spectacular windows look out onto the Bay, the Marin headlands, the Golden Gate. The people who live in the fanciest neighborhood are not hipster-millennial-techies. They’re lawyers, and bankers, and execs. Some of them have lived there for a very long time.
I thought I was moving to the city of San Francisco. But the longer I stay, the more I fear that I am living in the U-S-of-A. Sometimes that fear grips me hard. Go north, whispers the voice in my head. Everything you’re marching for is already there!
It’s so cold in Canada. Frozen cold, we called it when we were kids.
Frozen cold but not solid, not anymore. The economy of Canada is tied to the depletion of the country’s natural beauty. Tied even tighter to its large and capricious neighbor. And no one there seems that worried about it. Even though they’re sitting between the US and Russia and the Arctic Ocean is melting and underneath there’s oil -
When I go back I’m conscious of being impatient. Anxious. American.
I am a citizen of two places and a resident of one. I pledge allegiance - not to a queen, not to a flag - to a topography. To hills and bridges and flowers and fog. The City is woven into my stories. I use it to say things out loud.
Get on the cable car that rides from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square. The voyage starts out flat but soon enough, you’re flying downhill. On a narrow street that seems intent on dumping you into the Bay. The bell of the cable car is clanging, and the clatter of the rails becomes the beat of your heart. When you experience the intoxication of the City, it lasts longer than you expect.
San Francisco gives the best hugs.
You feel so accepted. But when you try to return the embrace San Francisco has already disappeared, into its silvery fog.