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San Francisco Diary I

I once hated and feared San Francisco. Then again, I did so from three feet off the ground, in an era that saw the city’s struggles with filth and homelessness reached their most vicious. Upon growing up, I began calling San Francisco “an amusement park for 36-year-olds.” Indeed, the closer I get to that age, the more I approach the place as a welcome diversion instead of an aggressive, bewildering hellscape. If you want clean streets, observed my friend Chris (the Livejournalist formerly known as Cobalt999), you could have found them in any communist capital. San Francisco may lean well left, but not in quite that way. San Francisco may still flaunt its remaining patches of urban strife, grime, and decay, but it doesn’t fully embrace that kind of cityhood. San Francisco offers something else.

Having grown so accustomed to the built environment of Los Angeles, I’d wondered how San Francisco’s would now strike me. As I made my way back into this city I used to visit so often, two contrasts jumped right to the fore. First, everything looks somewhat older. Second, everything looks considerably more… undulant.

Transit having become an urban fascination of mine, I’d looked forward to spending more time than ever before (and I’d spent none before) riding the various vehicles run by BART, Muni and whatnot. As it happened, I found occasion to get around by bus, surface train, and subway all within the first few hours. BART, though analyzed as a great planning disaster by no less an authority on these matters than Sir Peter Hall, seems serviceable enough and has a homely seventies-ish appeal. (Certainly the station announcements could make you believe that text-to-speech technology has stood still since then.) Muni’s trains, though I’ve heard they routinely fall into agonizing slowness, have a similarly homely seventies-ish appeal. I have yet to determine the era of which San Francisco’s buses bear the mark (some look retro, restored from distant glory days), but they seem wearier than Los Angeles’. Then again, Los Angeles’ bus riders seem wearier than San Francisco’s, and deeply so — by which I mean utterly defeated.

Should you find yourself in Haight-Ashbury and in need of a place to sit down and do some writing, The Red Victorian Peace Center has a reasonably accommodating cafe. Be apprised, though, that their strength must lay in their capacity as a Peace Center, since it sure doesn’t lay in their cappuccino-making abilities.

Two or three times a week, Angelenos comment on my Chrome bag. Usually the strap’s gryphon-emblazoned buckle catches their eye. (“Hey, cool Ferrari thing!” said a middle-aged lady on western Hollywood Boulevard whom I did not acknowledge.) The globally peripatetic French-Canadian-Korean polyglot cinephile expressed surprised at this. “Everyone has them in San Francisco,” she said, drawing upon very recent memories of having lived there. Walking around the Mission, I can confirm that, yes, everyone has them in San Francisco. Turns out Chrome has its headquarters here. I imagine they’ve partnered up with the city government; real San Franciscans can probably pick up free messenger bags, as many as they like, at some depot.

Ending my first day of San Francisco interviewing in the Mission, I thought I’d mark the occasion by eating a genuine Mission-style burrito: you know, those overstuffed, foil-wrapped monstrosities that, consumed late at night, test the limits of human digestion. While technically available in southern California, Mission-style burritos aim for a far different demographic than do even the most burrito-oriented Los Angeles eateries I frequent, so I hardly ever encounter them. Daring myself, I went all the way and ordered a corruption of the Mission-style burrito, a “California burrito” bursting with steak, avocado, sour cream, and, yes, French fries. You wouldn’t have wanted to watch the ensuing ordeal, my indulgence in a perfect yin-yang of pleasure and disgust, savoring and self-loathing. “Were this the only image in the world, you’d be forced to give it your full attention,” as David Sedaris wrote, “but fortunately there were others.”

Not having spent deliberate or meaningful time away from Los Angeles in nine months, I watched downtown pass through the windows of the LAX Flyaway shuttle and wondered how quickly I would begin pining away. The answer, obviously, is that I won’t, not in five days. But the feeling didn’t rise from the isolated prospect of this trip; it rose from the symbolic acceptance of a career, and thus a life, designed around — indeed, dependent upon — ultimately spending as much time “away” as “home.” Even that distinction will blur, as I suppose I accept that it must.

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