Monday, June 21, 2010

60 days to Bar Mitzvah: disappointment

San Francisco does not play fair. It sets you up so that one day after you've spent five glorious hours walking from Aquatic Park to the Marina Green, drinking in all that scenery everyone else only gets to see in books or on TV, or during that one week they spent in the city for business in 1991, but it's your own personal backyard and how incredible is that? you get forwarded an email that makes very clear how dysfunctional and downright wrong this city can be. In one 24 hour period, you get to see the upside and severe downside of living somewhere that so convincingly defines itself as "special" that no amount of logic can sway it from its stout self-image.

Since 1976, when we ditched northeastern Pennsylvania for Orange County, every place I've lived has been part of the popular imagination. Ask someone what they think about Orange County, you'll get something back. Ask them about Seattle, especially in the 1990s, and they may go on for hours. Boston, a brief stopover in 1989-1990, may not be New York, but try walking down the street wearing a Red Sox hat anywhere outside of Massachusetts. I've never lived someplace like Belleville, Illionois, probably a perfectly nice place and easier to live in than San Francisco, but seldom included in the everyday discussions of people who don't live there, and then only as a punchline.

And then you've got San Francisco. Has more ink ever been spilled over a place that hasn't been anything more than a grown-up theme park since about World War II? We really believe, when we're marching down Market Street holding our signs blaming everything on George W. Bush, that "the whole world is watching."

I'm not kidding. Yesterday I read an email thread between a Brandeis Hillel Day School parent and San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Chris Daly. In it, the Brandeis dad respectfully asked Daly -- his district supervisor -- not to lend his support to the ridiculous (at best) and immoral (at worst) proposal the Board has forwarded, calling to "condemn Israel for its acts."

Forgetting for a moment how truly misguided and ill-informed I think the sentiment of that proposal is, how about taking a step back and asking yourself how a city whose trains don't run on time, whose schools are awful and whose streets are pothole-ridden finds the time to make lofty proclamations about far-off lands? This isn't the first time we've shared our righteousness with you lesser beings, you know. We already condemned the Iraq war. Yup. Had hearings, spent taxpayer money, etc. We really did that.

But besides that, I read over this email thread and couldn't decide whether to hang my head in shame or write a blistering letter to the editor. Do we really have elected officials here who tell constituents that they "hate politicians, but sometimes constituents are worse?" Do our barely-elected council members really think that "while I am only a local elected, I have had a significant international impact?" I suppose once you've made a 12 year-old girl cry at a public hearing and gotten re-elected anyway, anything's possible.

Seriously. This is where i live.

So I was thinking about this last night. Sunday afternoon's incredible walk -- an hour of coming one step closer to the Golden Gate Bridge at a time, a pause to look out at the Bay from the top floor of the Golden Gate Yacht Club (where Sandra Bullock was measuring windows to determine the correct pitch of the paper lanterns she plans to buy before the Bar Mitzvah), some projected table layouts at Tarantino's -- all disappeared under the increasingly uneasy feeling you can get living in San Francisco: that you're the only one who can see that the emporer is naked.

There he goes, waltzing through The Mission in his birthday suit while everyone stands on the sidewalk and applauds his hip new duds. It can make you crazy if you let it.

On Sunday, the Jawa and I spent a few minutes upstairs at Tarantino's, plotting out table assignments for the Friday night pre-Bar Mitzvah dinner. I know that Tarantino's seldom rates more than three stars on Yelp because the calamari is rubbery and the wait staff has seen better days. I know that the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is only supposed to impress tourists from Iowa whose idea of sophistication is one of those restaurants in North Beach where the Italian guy stands out on the sidewalk and beckons you to come inside.

But I don't care, and not because I revel in the ironic retro cheesiness of Tarantino's. I'm way too old for that particular game.

I walk into that dining room, with the faded murals on the walls and the view of bobbing fishing boats and Alcatraz, and I feel safe; comfortable. It's like stopping on the channel that's showing a re-run of "The Odd Couple," which immediately transports me back in time to my mother's old teenage bedroom in Great Neck, turned into a TV room by my grandmother where my sisters and I would sit and watch sitcoms on a brown convertible sofa pushed back against walls covered with wallpaper designed to look like the pages of a French newspaper.

You know how it goes, the first time I went to the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, I was 11 years old, a wide-eyed California newcomer. Thirty-four years later, it's Bar Mitzvah HQ. Blah blah blah.

So last night I'm sitting there emailing with my older sister, railing on the present state of my adopted city and telling her how I miss seeing "The Odd Couple" at Grandma Sadie's house in Great Neck, and I start thinking about why San Francisco is such a heartbreaker. Why it drives me nuts and then rolls out some fleeting moment of awesomness -- it can be something as simple as a bank of fog getting caught up on the bridge as it rolls into the bay or picking Josh K.'s dad's brain about what it was like growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s.

I used to think that my opinion of this city was formed during the long lunch breaks of 1995 and 1996, hunkered down among the stacks at the old Seattle Public Library, leafing through old Herb Caen columns and picture books published in 1970. Last night I realized that wasn't entirely true.

The truth is, my image of San Francisco sprung fully-formed the day in 1971 that my mother took my sister and I to see "What's Up, Doc?" at a theater in Massapequa, New York. Like many women of her time, my mother loved nothing more than Barbra Streisand and San Francisco. She almost succeeded in getting us moved here once, only to settle for the consolation prize of Orange, California.

I'm doomed to be disappointed. My San Francisco is Ryan O'Neal piloting a VW Bug down a flight of stairs in Pacific Heights. Chris Daly's San Francisco is a place where you can be as big of a jerk as you want, provided your political checklist matches up with the local orthodoxy-disguised-as-principle. I really, really wish his mother had taken him to see "What's Up, Doc?" instead.

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