Every year or two, we like to come back to San Francisco, walk our old streets, visit our old haunts, and dwell on that eternally unproductive question, "What if we'd stayed?" For the last week we've been on one such Road Not Taken Tour disguised as a vacation, this time staying in a house (thanks, AirBnB!) just a few blocks from where we used to live.
It's a sweet little place with plenty of room for us both. It's quiet, with a charming kitchen, huge back deck, a YARD, and a nice big office down below. Pretty much what we would've tried to get, many years ago, had we decided to stay in San Francisco and forget the whole Maine idea. I wanted to be in a place that would let us pretend, if just for a week, that we'd never left.
We've spent the last week sitting out on the deck and talking about how we'd do the garden differently. We've gotten produce at our old market. We've had friends over for dinner. We've redecorated (in our minds) the living room. We've even eavesdropped on the neighbors and decided which ones we'd like, which ones…not so much.
A few observations after a week in San Francisco:
1. This no-mosquitoes thing is pretty nice. Ditto the black flies and horse flies and ticks carrying Lyme disease.
2. Public transportation. So, so very nice. For $35 you can get a 7-day pass that gets you on all the buses and trolleys and cable cars. There is no better, inexpensive way to see a city than ride its buses.
3. The drought is no joke. I've never seen it so dry here. The owners of our house are gone for weeks but left all the cushions on the patio furniture, explaining that they didn't see any rain in the forecast. Friends in Oakland can't remember the last time it rained.
4. I don't know if it's gotten louder or if I've just gotten accustomed to the quiet, but this city roars. I sit in the sunshine on the back deck, trees and birds and flowers galore, surrounded by the Noe Valley millionaires, yet in the background, always, is a roar as if I were sitting next to the ventilation system for a large hospital.
5. From our deck I can peer into at least 100 windows. I have to work to tune out neighboring conversations. There is no privacy. I realize how very lucky we are that, from our Maine porch, we look out across miles of fields, water, and woods, all the way to distant mountains, with nothing but the occasional blinking cell tower to remind us that other people are around. What a rarity.
6. The Pride Parade. For me, the most moving moment came after the sea of Apple employees, after the Kaiser employees and AirBnB employees and the endless smiling waving politicians, when a single car appeared carrying James Obergefell. A roar filled the street, people screamed, "Thank you!" And I cried.
7. The food. Good lord, by the number of restaurants in this town you'd think nobody has a kitchen? Don't get me wrong, it's good. But...if an alien arrived on this planet and visited San Francisco it would think all humans did was eat.
8. Those sinister silver and white tour buses that clog the roads, windows tinted so that nobody can see what's inside. They remind me of the time my brother and I passed a bus parked at the Emeryville Marina late one night, many years ago. We glanced up just in time to see a small light inside the bus illuminating a stripper, performing for the passengers.
After a few days it dawned on me, ahhh, these aren't porn-seeking tourists from China. These are the infamous Google busses I've heard so many people complain about. They circle like sharks, back and forth, back and forth. Had those buses been around when I was commuting, I would've embraced them, I would've cheered their arrival, for I really, really disliked my daily commute to San Mateo.
But now, there's something about them I find disturbing. It's as if a whole segment of the population has checked out of collective society and created their own little guarded, gated, tinted, air-conditioned, wifi-enabled community. The whole city has become a gated community. Only there's no gate, just money. And after years of freedom, I feel an oppressive sadness at the idea of packing myself into a bus for the day, only to be spat out again at sunset. I don't want that life.
Which brings me to:
9. We used to tell ourselves that if this Maine thing didn't work out, we could always move back to San Francisco. But our week pretending to be Noe Valley millionaires has really made it clear that the city has slipped beyond our grasp. Entirely, and irreversibly. That imaginary safety net is gone. I know I broke up with San Francisco, but I didn't actually want it to marry someone else. But it has, she's gorgeous, and they're really, really happy together.
I wonder what will happen to the artists and poets and writers, the hippies and dreamers who arrived with $20 in their pockets and made this city so magical? Even Armistead Maupin has confessed he couldn't move back here even if he wanted to. And what about the bus drivers and paramedics and school teachers, where, exactly, will they live?
The problem is real. I can't tell you the number of people who've said some version of, "If we lose our apartment, I have no idea how we'll manage to stay here." Bright, creative people who add spark and charm and genuine value to this place, one by one, they're being picked off. I grieve for the city I loved, albeit the city I left. It's rapidly disappearing.
Which, at last, leads us to:
10. Maine may have its problems (good lord it does), but it's still accessible to everyone, the artists and poets alike, the dreamers and starter-uppers, and even one very lucky woman who somehow managed to carve a career out of reviewing yarn. It's a beautiful, mighty fine place to call home, and I'd move there again in a heartbeat.
11. Once January arrives, you know I'll be planning another trip to California.