Friday, July 3, 2015

What Might Have Been

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, more inexpensive way to see a city than by riding 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 cheer 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 buses 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. To keep up, I'd have to pack myself into such a bus every day, only to be spat out again at sunset. Just imagining it fills me with an oppressive sadness. I don't want that life. Nor is it plausible that I could even achieve it. Time has passed, and a new generation boards the buses.

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 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 chose to leave. 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. Maine has turned out to be a 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.


Bridget said...

I love San Francisco, but also worry what normal people with normal jobs will do if the wealthy continue to take over everything. Sadly, it seems to be a trend in a lot of cities. Here in Philadelphia, our house is probably worth a lot more than we paid for it. But if for some reason we sold it, we couldn't afford to buy another place here.

Having said all of that, your trip sounds perfect. Especially the non-mosquito part ...

scifiknitter said...

This a beautiful piece, Clara. I spent a week in southern CA with my parents this past winter - Palm Springs area - and was struck by the great disparity in how people live. Such a lovely, comfy bubble in the city, such near poverty outside the city (where we stayed). If you go 20 miles outside of Palm Springs, everything is rundown. I also have a step-brother living in Oakland whose house has been robbed and who pays college-level tuition to send his child to private school because that's the only place he can afford to live. As usual, California is the pioneer, showing us all what our society with greater income inequality is evolving towards.

kmkat said...

Re: #9. Your comments remind me of Scott Walker, my not-so-illustrious governor, saying that he didn't want to raise the minimum wage; he wanted those people currently making minimum wage to be able to get better-paying jobs -- be a welder, for example. But we will still need fast-food workers, hotel maids, convenience store clerks. What about them, Scott?

Lovely piece, Clara.

Anonymous said...

As an SF native, this strikes me as utterly true and utterly depressing. Thankfully, I moved to Vermont a year ago.

Zippi Kit said...

SF, and anywhere near it, is just too expensive to move to. I'm content to just visit it for a day or two, and not have the hassles.

As for the artists? They've mostly moved away unless they bought before the 60's. Carmel and Big Sur still have a fair amount of artists as do the little towns to the North along Highway 1. But practically every artist who is there was there in the 60's when I wanted to move there.

I'm glad you connected with old friends, and enjoyed your stay. The Freeways cause most of the racket you so aptly described.

Zippi Kit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think it is a problem with any downtown area of a large to moderately large city. Tulsa, OK is trying to upgrade the downtown housing, but what happens to the living places of barristas when ordinary people are priced out of the neighborhood? Communities need all types and income levels to be truly viable and not some Disneyland theme park.

Jan said...

Spot on, Clara, and it's happening everywhere, even in places like Phoenix. I was born here in the late 1950's and still live in the neighborhood where I was raised, in the center of the city. Now, the lovely large lots that were the hallmark of this area are being subdivided, and three homes appear, shoulder to shoulder with one another. High-density multi-housing units spring up in any available open space, and these "infill" projects have no yard, privacy or charm. By the time I was the age my kids are now, I had bought my first home. It's impossible for them to buy anything in a neighborhood anything like the one they grew up in. This is progress?

Renee said...

I just left the SF Bay Area after 13 years - got priced out of my housing, and that's with a decent professional job. Sad to say, the creative folks are leaving and will be gone, leaving the tech start-up people with their subculture to wonder why the neighborhood is so generic.

Anonymous said...

And London. Except it's not being taken over by tech millionaires, but by sheiks and oligarchs who don't even pretend to live there, they just want a snazzy apartment to park their money in (creating huge but dark and empty buildings). The knock-on effects are incredibly depressing.

Jocelyn Grayson said...

San Francisco is a very different place now, and it will never go back. FWIW, you might not recognize San Mateo, either. We live just south of SM, and our town has been transformed (and not necessarily all for the good) by We're hoping to sell our house in a few weeks and buy in Oakland. If we could put every last time of proceeds into a place in SF, it probably still out of reach.

ellen kirkendall said...

When we moved to the East Coast I thought we would live in Boston, but it is utterly beyond our possible price range. We bought on the Cape instead and visit from time to time. The Cape presents a very visible line between rich and poor but at least those few middle class people left here can find a home if we look hard enough. How fast food and other low wage workers make it in Boston I have no idea.

Unknown said...

I can't afford to move back to San Francisco, either, and I still have a flat there.

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