Monday, March 1, 2010

173 days to Bar Mitzvah: city burnout

In less than two weeks, I will have lived in San Francisco for ten years. On Monday, March 13, 2000, two things happened: the dot-com bubble burst and I started my new job at Mediaring in San Jose.

To get here, we gave up all kinds of things -- eight years' worth of friendships, affordable housing, the change of seasons -- but I wanted to live in San Francisco. It was to be my gift to the Jawa, that he would grow up a San Franciscan.

Looking back, it's easy to see now that my impressions of the city were based on flawed data. We'd lived here for a year in the early 90s before fleeing back to Seattle where, for reasons known only to God and the deepest recesses of my cockeyed brain, I spent every lunch for a full year camped out at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, reading and re-reading every book they had about San Francisco.

After a few months, the library become synomymous with San Francisco, which itself was a stand-in for every unreachable dream I'd ever had. If we can just get there, I'd reason, everything would be okay. Day after day I pored over these books, staring at the photos of this fantastic place, completely and conveniently burying real memories of the year of day-to-day challenges and frustrations that had driven us from there once under glossy images of neon martini glasses and achingly beautiful shots of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It wasn't until we actually got here that I realized I'd fallen in love with the city as it was 40 years ago, not today. All of the books I'd been reading were published prior to 1964.

I guess I thought we'd get here and find a city full of narrow lapels and pillbox hats.

It's amazing how pliable we can make ourselves when we want to. In order to make this fantasy work, I had to shove the sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating reality I'd already experienced here aside, replacing it at the forefront of my thoughts with pretty fantasy images.

And here we are, ten years later.

Over the past ten years, there have been moments where I've been completely bowled over by my adopted home. I remember one time, crossing Stanyan Street after attending a pro-am basketball game at Kezar Stadium with the Jawa, telling him that coming here was my gift to him. "I'm glad," he'd said. "I don't want to live anywhere else."

I was alone here for three months in 2000. I lived in a sterile corporate apartment in San Jose, then alone in a North Beach apartment. I slept on a mattress in the middle of the living room floor and marveled at evenings where I could meet all my needs -- dinner, dessert and bar -- without ever leaving my block.

One night, I was walking on Russian Hill with fellow Seattle transplant Dan, who'd moved here the same time as I. That night, we stopped at the corner of Hyde and Filbert. "Check that out," I said. Through the apartment buildings we could see the lights of the Bay Bridge. "We live here."

"I know. Isn't it great?" said Dan.

So there have been moments. All of these years in Seattle, I imagined what it would feel like to be able to call myself "a San Franciscan." All of those people already there, I thought, had it over me.

By now, you might be wondering how big of a fall I'd set myself up for. No place can live up to the advance billing I'd given this city. Besides existing as an ideal, I'd also forgotten to imagine it as a place where you wake up, drop your kid at school, go to work, pick up your drycleaning. For eight years, whenever we showed up in San Francisco, everyone dropped what they were doing to hang out with us. It never occurred to me that living here would be like living anywhere, only more expensive. And more difficult.

Last week, I told a visiting Roger Hunt that I'd figured out the difference between Seattle and San Francisco. "Seattle depressed me," I said, "but San Francisco's going to kill me."

And don't thing for a second that I think San Francisco will kill me because of some devious citywide plot. Yes, the population's tendancy to loudly and endlessly proclaim their political ideals gets old, but no more so than they would anywhere else. And besides, you knew that job was dangerous when you took it, Fred. No one should be blindsided by San Francisco's eccentric locals.

When I graduated form college in 1987, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that I wanted to live in a city. I wanted to be like Buffy and Jody on "Family Affair," and take an elevator to my house. I wanted to be the Sharks and the Jets, the Odd Couple and Uncle Bill at once. During the past twenty-two years, the farthest I've lived from a bar was two blocks.

And now, twenty-two years in, I'm tired. This great gift I've given to my son? Well, he knows his way around BART, but our big experiment of letting him walk the dog on his own was suspended when we learned that there had been three separate muggings in our neighborhood two Tuesdays ago.

Since so much of my time is spent battling to get from point A to point B, I can't really tell if this gift has been so great. All that I know is that he is indelibly a city kid, used to the idea that his dog must be taken to a designated off-leash area in order to get exercise.

Don't take this as me slagging on San Francisco or cities in general. I'm equal parts saddened and embarassed to be so far past my urban prime. I still like the part where I get to tell people where I'm from, mostly because I know they've never tried to get a perscription filled here.

Despite all of my complaining, the city still shines when we're planning the Bar Mitzvah. I love knowing that our guests get to come to San Francisco in August. We chose our party venue in part because from its floor-to-ceiling windows you can look out and see the bay, the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I was in my early 20s, I would come to San Francisco for these whirlwind weekends. I'd get here on Friday and be ferried around to restaurants and bars, go to parties populated by the coolest people on earth. After last call, we'd end up on some hillside overlooking the city, sobering up in time to get a few hours of sleep before waking up and starting the whole thing all over again.

What I remember most is the excitement you could feel in the air. You'd walk outside, take a deep breath and know you were about to embark on one of the best nights of your life. I've since concluded that what we were smelling was rotting wood, cigarette smoke cypress trees. Together they had a potency I'd not felt since I was fifteen years old and the dry nighttime Southern California air reminded me that I was about to go to a football game, and whoever it was that I'd been thinking about all day, she was going to be there.

It sucks getting old.

1 comment:

Butter Goats said...

They still have those houses on 17th.