“One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”.
You ever get the feeling some places are just, well, magic?
Chicago in the summertime, when all the glorious concrete cracks are showing and nobody cares.
New Orleans in late afternoon, when it’s so hot the only sane thing to do is have another drink.
New York past midnight, when one minute you’re walking down a dark and deserted alley, and the next you’re in the 24-Hour Technicolor Oz that is Times Square.
San Francisco… anytime.
I don’t know those other cities. I’ve drifted through them, a traveler at best, a tourist at worst. One of the first things you’re told as a writer is to write what you know.
I know San Francisco.
I didn’t always. Just a few years ago, I actually thought going to “The City” was a pain. I don’t live there. The drive in was okay until about King Street. After that… chaos. Traffic, jaywalkers, one-way streets, hills of Everestian proportions- it’s a miracle I survived those early trips. It’s even more of a miracle I kept going back.
But go back I did, and little by little, the place grew on me. I learned how to slip in unnoticed, which streets made a modicum of sense, how to parallel-park at a ninety-degree angle (okay, that one still scares the shit out of me. Insider tip: curb your wheels). I found some great places to eat, and made a few friends.
Magic can be quiet at first.
Every city has its ghosts, but San Francisco’s are so close to the surface you almost feel like you could sit down with them and have coffee–an organic, fair-trade, artisanal roast, of course. History isn’t just history there. San Francisco is a city of layers. Literally.
During recent excavations for a new downtown subway system, trash heaps were discovered dating back to the area’s first Ohlone settlements. Symbols marking the long-defunct electric and telegraph lines can still be found on Market Street. A few blocks down, a Dogpatch park festers quietly as a monument to the bygone days of punk. Head the opposite direction to Chinatown and take a pleasant stroll down Ross Alley, once the most infamous street on the Barbary Coast.
There are monsters, too. It’s not difficult to picture The Haight as a witch’s stomping ground, not a stretch to imagine vampires stalking Marina co-eds as they stumble home after last call. A boat trip out to the Farallon Islands might reveal a wayward mermaid fighting for its life amid the sharks.
Most of San Francisco’s monsters tend to be of the human variety, however. Certain names still echo through the ether: Milk. Capone. Jim Jones had a congregation on Fillmore. The Zodiac Killer still sends chills down the spines of those who remember.
San Francisco is good at forgetting.
I’m still a stranger in this town. I don’t have the same perspective, the same love-hate relationship with it that locals do. I’ll never have a neighborhood market within walking distance of my apartment. Muni routes are a mystery to me. I don’t have to pay a cool $3k a month to live in a broom closet because of those GODDAMN TECH YUPPIES AND THEIR FUCKING GOOGLE HOUSING SUBSIDIES.
I’m an outsider, a fact I’m constantly, almost painfully, aware of.
But while I’m not a local, I’m not quite a tourist, either. I’ve done “the knowledge.” I know how to get from the freeway to the waterfront, and from there how to get to North Beach. And once I get to North Beach, I have this great little Italian place where the staff actually know me and my husband. Every time we visit, they exclaim over how big our son is getting.
Next door to that little restaurant is an empty lot. Its original inhabitant was a small Orthodox cathedral, destroyed in the 1906 Quake/Fire. For years afterward it was the site of a vaudeville theater. Now it houses an extraction shaft for the subway project I mentioned earlier.
Said shaft may or may not have a ghost problem.
Not quite a local. Not quite a tourist. Now when I go to San Francisco, I go as a writer.
Like I said. Magic.