Thirty Days in the City 03-06-2013

San Francisco

Some thirty days ago, I moved from the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the crowded streets of San Francisco. I settled down in a nice, stereotypically SF apartment--big bay windows, intricate detail on the fire escape, hardwood throughout, Edwardian architecture, no central air and no need for such luxury--at the very peak of Nob Hill. It's a neighborhood that, as far as I have been able to discern, strikes a precarious balance of close to most everything and removed from the most extreme of the dense chaos. Nob Hill is remarkably residential relative to its neighbors, namely the Ten and Chinatown, which leads me to descend and re-ascend the hill multiple times per typical day. Given the height of the hill and the steepness of the majority of routes going up, this is both a curse and a gift: I reach heretofore unknown levels of sweat, but my cardio and my glutes are becoming phenomenal. Actually, that former point is also a gift. So, really, the neighborhood is a gift and a gift.

When I began to plan my move to the Bay Area in earnest, I considered a number of possibilities. I have a fondness for Berkeley, so that was on the table. I would love to wake up to a blue bay of sail boats every morning, so I thought of Sausalito. Palo Alto has a peculiar sort of charm, not to mention immediate proximity to Clementine, so it too was examined. Ultimately, however, I came to one realization: I had never tried urban living. I lived, worked, and played Northern Virginia. Haymarket, Fairfax, Vienna, Arlington, Manassas, Woodbridge, Gainesville, Sterling, Oakton, you name it: if it was a part of the sprawl, I had some connection to the town. And this conditioned me, perhaps, to develop a number of untested, unfounded assumptions about why I might not be cut off for living in a major city. It was time to test the hypothesis, to validate or to reject, and suddenly San Francisco was right in my lap for the taking. So I took, and I leapt, and I moved. And I'm here.

Initial Wonder

And how is it thus far? In short: nigh blissful. Thirty days in, I'm enamored with this city. Every day, I wake up to a gorgeous view of San Francisco (unless the fog is too dense to penetrate). Every day, I know that there is something wonderful happening that I can jump into in a flash. Every day, I know that there are about a thousand different parks in which to frolic. Every day, I see someone engaged in something whimsical. Every day, I experience something new. Want to go listen to some ludicrous local band that only plays in 15/23rd time? Want to walk across the city, surrounded by costumed drunks, consumed by barely organized anarchy? Want to go push a skateboard or pedal a bike through three miles of lush greenery and wind up on the shores of the Pacific Ocean? You can do all of these, any day you like.

I live a few blocks from Grace Cathedral and Huntington Park, where I frequent the swings and the grass and the trees. I live a few blocks from Flour + Co, where I can eat monkey bread any damn day. I live on the same corner as Le Beau Nob Hill, where I can wander in at 8pm, grab whatever supplies I need, and hear some obscure Grizzly Bear remix or Boards of Canada pumping through the speakers. I can walk to Washington Square and to the adorable sidewalk cafes of Little Italy, to Uncle Gee at Vital Tea Leaf in Chinatown, to about a hundred different restaurants serving up cuisine from places whose existence I was unaware of, and to friends across the city. As a person coming from a place where visiting anyone or doing anything interesting meant a twenty minute car ride, minimum, I am absolutely amazed by this.

Of course, adjusting to an urban lifestyle requires a great number of small changes to daily workflow, which I did not fully anticipate. Not having a laundry machine in my apartment means having to deal with the laundromat, which has manifested in a mental tug of war wherein I try to make more purchases with cash so as to acquire quarters more rapidly, only to find that my insistence on tipping for everything tends to mean that my quarter stash does not welcome new members as often as I'd like, which leads to me paying with cash even more often in an attempt to strike a balance which never comes. It's only a matter of time before I liquidate all of my assets and cash out in quarters. Being able to run my errands and do my shopping within a half-dozen blocks means that I get to go on foot more often, but also that I have to go on foot more often and must be cautious of how many groceries or general items I obtain at any given time. And when I do use my car, I have to try to play the street parking game wherein I try to guess whether or not I'll find a place to temporarily unload from my car just a little bit closer on my one-way street, and when the answer is inevitably, emphatically no, whether or not I should just take my car to the garage a few blocks down the hill and hike back up, or circle around the block and try again.

But I truly feel that I am getting better at surviving and thriving in the city every day. There are very few moments that pass where I think to myself, "This would be much better if I were back in the suburbs."

However, I did make the somewhat controversial decision to keep my car. I had it transported out after flying ahead in advance and I pay a few hundred dollars per month for parking in a garage. The vehicle is not worth as much as the transport cost, and it might not even be worth as much as the monthly parking fee. Being able to throw away the combined costs of parking, insurance, and ongoing vehicular maintenance would be nice, but I have found that having the car on hand whenever I want or need it is nicer. Whenever I get the urge to drive up across the Golden Gate Bridge into North Bay or down the peninsula toward South Bay or across the Bay Bridge into East Bay, I can make that happen. When I want to do some more robust shopping, say, at the amazing Alameda Point Antiques Fair, I can hop in my car and be there. And if I suddenly just want to go for a drive around the city late at night, while listening to my dark ambient electronica playlist, it's there for me. I don't have to deal with reserving and returning a ZipCar or some other sort of car share, nor do I have to deal with a rental when I go on a long road trip.

Essentially, having the car ends up being a significant advantage for me as it allows me to more fully explore a completely new world, provides a means of transportation which is sometimes more convenient, and enables my psychological need to just get away on a whim from time to time. It's entirely possible that I will eventually grow weary of having the car and will transfer into a slightly more urban mode, but that time is not now.

Having the car, living in the more residential neighborhood, and various quirks of the daily mode of life that I continue to evolve may point to a person who is trying to mold urban living to a form factor to which he is more accustomed. It may be possible that I am settling into San Francisco as nicely as I feel I am because I am living in a way which holds onto some aspects of the life that I had developed back in Virginia. However, I think that it is inevitable that I should maintain some level of stability and familiarity with my own patterns; it was never as though I would suddenly, drastically change absolutely everything that I know about daily living: change is often times gradual. And besides, I do not believe that I need to live in a radically urban manner simply for the sake of doing so, or even for the sake of running this urban experiment on myself. All that I need to do is live in the best way that I can, and I feel like I am converging on that ideal, slowly, surely, happily.

So I find that through thirty days in San Francisco, I am enjoying the advantages of urban life while conserving some aspects of the suburban life that I have no reason to shun. And I find that living in a city as diverse and energetic as this, in an area packed full of as many mountains, forests, beaches, and valleys as the Bay, all for the trekking, is pretty rapturous living indeed.


But one thing which is certainly troublesome is the disappointing way in which San Francisco takes care of its homeless population. Certain neighborhoods are worse than others--parts of SoMa and the Ten look as though they were simply forgotten about--but there are very few places in this city where there is not someone in dire need of food, shelter, and simple human kindness. This is magnified by the sheer affluence of much of the city, particular within its upwardly mobile, high-tech socioeconomic upper middle class. A few moments of people watching downtown will show that the ratio of snazzily dressed commuters who even make eye contact with someone in need to those who ostensibly try to pretend that there is nothing wrong is incredibly low.

And though I do my best to effect positive change--I give out a few snacks and drinks every day, I try to have a conversation with and learn something from anyone whom I assist, and I make sure to spread awareness and keep the issue at the forefront of consciousness by mentioning it when people ask me my thoughts about the city--I cannot help but feel just miserable about my role in the problem from time to time. On one particular day, I walked up Jones Street from Market Street to the top of Nob Hill, cutting an apparent socioeconomic cross-section of the city: each successive block as you head north becomes slightly more affluent, with slightly fewer homeless, slightly fewer police cars, slightly more boutiques, slightly nicer (by my own subjective standards, I suppose) graphic design on store fronts, and so on. At the corner of Jones and Golden Gate, there were no fewer than three ostensible prostitutes occupying three of the four available corners. At the corner of Jones and Ellis, a homeless man approached a clearly uncomfortable man waiting for a taxi, cup extended in his trembling arm. The Uncomfortable Man turned his shoulder and head away. The Homeless Man walked slowly around his person so that they were facing again. The Uncomfortable Man turned back around and walked about four feet away. No words were ever exchanged. At the corner of Jones and Bush, I ceased to see any people in need, as they were replaced by denizens in oversized sunglasses and tastefully colored Nikes. At the corner of Jones and California, at Grace Cathedral, now only three blocks from my own apartment, I started to feel a bit of a sinking feeling that returns every now and then: I was getting closer to my nice apartment in my affluent neighborhood up on the hill where "crime don't climb" and further away from people in need of so much.

The feeling subsides eventually and I become slightly less existential. But other times the only thing that I can think as I walk through the city is that the amount of money that I spend to insure and park a car for a year could probably provide food or shelter for a human being for a year. I could certainly be doing more, and I intend to be better toward my fellow Man, in this city and beyond.

Leaving Virginia

My mind still returns to Virginia on occasion. A big part of the rationale for my move was that I felt as though there was nothing more for me there. My mind constantly searches for meaning and consistently frames everything in some big narrative arc and, as such, I am wont to associate. Driving through the suburbs meant seeing road signs that made me think, "That's where I used to turn to go to her house," or passing through a neighborhood that made me say aloud, "Oh man I remember that one time with so and so where we did such and such." Going anywhere meant recalling a billion memories of a trillion experiences with people that struck important chords with me. Doing anything meant remembering the last time I did that same thing, and finding new things to do, new places to explore, and new people to meet was becoming less possible by the day. Virginia became saturated. I had to escape to somewhere new.

But of course, there still was, and is, much for me there. There are friends that I still care for, that I still think of. And there is my sister, and my mother, and my father, and my grandmother and all of my aunts and uncles and cousins and second-cousins and persons-that-I-call-uncle-or-aunt-or-cousin-who-are-actually-close-friends-of-the-family-but-really-that-just-means-that-they-are-family-all-the-same. For a moment there near the end, I was unsure if there were many connections that would last. Then I told every one that I was going, and the outpouring of kindness and genuine care was heart-meltingly touching. As I saw everyone one last time, and as we exchanged our final thoughts on the courses that are lives had taken and would continue to take, I began to realize that another core assumption of mine had been wrong for as long as I could remember: being the one who leaves is just as hard as being the one who stays.

Growing up, I became accustomed to feeling left behind. I lived in the same house from the age of one until the age of eighteen, when I left for college thirty minutes down the road. And in that time, I watched new people move into the neighborhood, became friends with many of them, and watched them leave all the same. The young Joshua thought, "But we're so close, how can you go?" Later on, I realized that of course the bonds that tie us together are not always unbreakable. Even so, I continued to watch as people important to me took off for somewhere that they needed or wanted to be more, and throughout all of this I felt a slight twinge of resentment. In my head it was a perverse sort of arithmetic: friends, family, absolute best friends, and lovers alike would go, I would stay, and they did not have the capacity to understand what I felt. And it began to compound in my head, as each departure signified some sort of affirmation of the formula, some sort of perpetuation of the cycle. I gradually got better at accepting this inevitable portion of life, but there was still a little, dusty corner in my mind where these thoughts continued to reside. That is, until I left and I felt just how hard it is to say good bye. Sitting in my vacant apartment shortly before I left, I realized that leaving the people you care about is, on some level, precisely the same as being left: not only because some aspect of that relationship is no longer sustained, but because other aspects of that relationship will continue to live on, in both people.

Some of these lessons that I had to leave to learn may mean that I will now have closer, deeper relationships with people that are suddenly thousands of miles away. I had to leave Virginia, a land that I no longer called home, to understand that it will always have a home for me. In thirty days, I have changed from a man who felt as though he had no place to call home to a man who knows that he has many, and that they circle the globe with the people who are never really left behind.