It’s probably a simple matter of having gone to all the wrong places — or all the right ones, I guess is the better way to say it — that I didn’t meet a single techno-utopianist, or socially horrible start-up kid, or semi-sociopathic software engineer, during my recent (and only second-ever) trip to San Francisco. I’ve heard stories, read things; complaint is a favorite genre of mine, and there’s no lack of it these days on the topic of the Bay; still, almost everything in the city that presented itself to my senses was, in a word, pleasant: barely an unpleasant item all weekend, landing to take-off.
I was in town visiting a friend from home, now a teacher of boys different almost phenotypically from the kids I see on the street in New York. They seemed healthier. Each seemed to have undergone some climate-inspired transformation of the body: brown gone browner, white gone freckled, torsos lean after what I assumed were lifetimes of surfing, biking, hikes. This, the school, was in a tony neighborhood that I reached from the airport by way of BART (impressively shabby; easy to use) and bus (ditto), mostly Victorians in faded Easter colors and huge hills, vaguely hostile, like waves frozen and tenuously paved.
Indeed, if I perceived a threat in San Francisco — or maybe the better way to say it is: a threat to San Francisco — it was the natural world itself, and I mean this in the most positive way possible. We walked from the school to the house my friend shares with roommates, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that nature wanted the city back. The place is sort of untrustworthily beautiful. You reach the crest of one of those hills and look right, and suddenly, as in a slightly comic horror flick, there again goes the Bay, and Alcatraz Island sloping out of the water like a hip out of the bath. Trees burst through the pavement like searching hands, trunks twisted like wrists, branches like groping, knotted fingers. Magnolia leaves with their construction-paper weight scrape audibly across the ground. Back East, the true and deep American wilderness is purely mythological — memory, even, is too strong a word — but San Fran, yet unconquered, won’t let you forget. The people who know the place seem to understand this as a kind of coexistence, but I don’t know. There might be a lulling-to-sleep going on.
In the light-stunned kitchen of the house, my friend welcomed me with coffee via Chemex and spoke of his newish city. He’s been there almost two years.
It’s weird, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, but at work you sort of need that guy who, during the meeting, gives you that look that says “Boy, is this fucking bullshit.” Back home, I was the pleasant one, and I would sort of try to temper that other guy, but here I sort of miss it. Everybody’s very pleasant. Nice. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Here there’s space, of which in the City there is basically none. Here you can stop and look around and give yourself space to develop. Everybody here has, like, incredibly developed and specific hobbies, and they kind of know themselves, and I’m pretty sure this is because of the space. It’s a great place to get good at something, find yourself. Sometimes you find yourself desperate for just one good asshole, but I feel lucky to be here.
The coffee was miraculously good, retail-quality. Or perhaps I have that backwards. That night, with the roommates, there was a deep fryer, and everything went in: buttermilk-sopped chicken, then Oreos, then ice cream, then perfect cake donuts, cinnamon-dusted. Everybody helped cook or clean.
I have a new favorite writer every month or so, and a few months back, maybe December this was, I became a voracious reader of Joe Eskenazi’s long-running column in the SF Weekly. Eskenazi, since departed from the Weekly — as if to prove some point about lost eras — now working for the markedly glossier-sounding San Francisco Magazine, is an artist of disappointment. The coming all-but-extinction of the alt-weekly is such a tragedy precisely because of pugilists like Eskenazi. Take this characteristic line from his farewell column in the Weekly:
The New Yorker‘s George Packer was on to something when he noted that "the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up." Visitors to Dolores Park treat the place the way Keith Moon treated hotel rooms because, to an extent, this entire city is a hotel.
And then, just a line later, this turn toward the ever more complex:
A generation ago, however, Dolores Park — and this city — had a different set of concerns. Veteran cops recall it as an open-air drug emporium; crime was so rampant that cash-rich drug-dealers actually begged police for protection from armed robbers lest they be transformed into human ATMs.
Me, I don’t know San Francisco, so who am I to say. I did walk past Dolores once, on a long walk — me and my friend trading stories, worries, possible futures — on our way to see another guy I hadn’t seen since maybe high school. He was just as I remembered him: a soft and slightly slurred speaking voice, posture folded inward, an unfailing politeness that sometimes erupted into glee. Anyway, yes, I passed the park, and what I saw were frisbees, kites, little circles of cross-legged friends.
There’s something, isn’t there?, about city halls and other architectural monuments to power. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I often passed the White House on long walks home, and just East of that building with its lawns, porticoes, gardens, was a block whose sole use at night was as a resting place for homeless men. They slept in rows and columns, effortlessly uniform, their filthy bodies and soiled blues and browns amounting to a kind of metaphorical rebuke.
The same is true, in its way, as far as I could tell, of San Francisco. City Hall is an intricate gray hulk. Statues dot the plaza outside. My friend had recently bought a new camera — this is my last night in town — and had me posed between parallel rows of trees that stretch away from City Hall and slope down toward the shallow horizon, trying to work the flash, or make of the darkness some passable image. I moved back and forth, trying to make a swatch of amber streetlight sit still on my face. We switched at some point; now I was the photographer, he the model chasing light. Then, from nowhere, a young man materialized.
I’m sorry, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, to bother you. And I want to remember my manners. I realized that when people do this kind of thing, ask for things, they sort of just jump into it, and I don’t think that’s right. I know sometimes people don’t have time for this. So first: do you have a minute to talk?
The kid was my height, maybe an inch shorter. Mid-twenties, I thought: his wide, shy eyes looked young, but it was impossible to tell.
Sure, I said.
Thank you for that acknowledgement, he said in his low and oddly formal voice. A lot of people won’t even give you that. I appreciate it. Here he drew a huge breath, as if preparing to sing. Now, I was wondering if you could help me get something to eat. You wouldn’t be just handing me money to do whatever with — I know that’s a concern for some people. You could go with me to a store — wherever you want. And I wouldn’t ask you to do it all for me; I don’t want to ask too much. I have a dollar and thirty-five cents, and I’d put that towards whatever you bought. You’d be helping me, but I wouldn’t ask you to do the whole thing.
That’s a thing some people ask for, but I want you to know I’ll do my part.