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Come Meet My San Francisco. It’s Not Shiny, but It’s Good.

imageI moved to San Francisco just over two years ago and I know it’s normal but I still kind of hate it when I’m catching up with people and they ask me, “Do you love San Francisco?”

I think about how terrible it is when the MUNI doesn’t come, or the awkwardness of the homeless population that I still have no idea how to deal with, all the tech douches with their cookie cutter jeans, and then all the regular douches. I think of the rent I pay every month, the fact I still don’t know many of my neighbors and feel like the community I have is spread out like a spider’s web with me caught in the middle. I think of the inequality I see and the fact that so many people I love are far away from me forever. I think of how sad and dirty the streets look sometimes in the fog, and I think of the forever cold nights and the long lost dream of drinking an evening beer al fresco without shivering.

Then, I think about other stuff. I think of my first improv performance and the first time I was on stage in this city. I think about sitting in Golden Gate park with my friends and talking about men and how we clueless we were. I think of my plant Deb, dinners with friends, endless breakfasts and cups of coffee. I think of hills upon hills, views upon views, impossibly beautiful cityscapes in an impossibly beautiful landscape, non-stop creativity and casual conversations with strangers. I think of the Pacific Ocean and running into people I know on the street. I think of karoake and dancing and looking at Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End and I think of all the wonderful people I’m lucky to have met here.

That’s the thing. I don’t know what San Francisco you’re talking about when you ask me about it. I know you know about the postcards, the painted ladies, the bridge, the trolleys and the Fisherman’s Wharf. You know about avocados and sourdough bread and gay people, but that’s not my San Francisco.

My San Francisco is doing Zumba on a soccer field near the Balboa park community center/pool. It’s walking home against a wind that’s colder than all hell from an old Episcopalian church in the Haight. It’s doing improv in the police station in the Mission because they have a community room there that anyone can use. It’s eating a mediocre but oh so satisfying $4.50 gigantic slices of meaty pizza for lunch from Portico with an old co-worker. It’s walking five blocks to the UCSF medical school and looking out at the bridge at night on a balcony without any benches. It’s drinking beer at The Little Shamrock, a local bar with more tiffany lamps than people. My San Francisco is not shiny beautiful all the time, but it’s good, and it certainly is one that I can get down with, maybe even love.

But let’s not get too crazy.

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Feels like San Francisco to Me

Photo credit: torbakhopper, flickr

Photo credit: torbakhopper, flickr

I want to talk about Tuesday, when I was walking to a party. It was a nice night, a clear one with a couple of stars poking through. The deep blue black of the night here always reminds me of frosting for some reason, like I could dip my finger into it and taste it.

So it was a frosting color sky and I was walking somewhere in the Upper or Lower Haight, where the houses are so beautiful they make you want to barf and I was walking with my layers on – at least two or three for posterity, and I was strapped into my backpack – as one needs to be because otherwise there’s no guarantee your backpack couldn’t just fall right off – and I was wearing my tennies because those are my street shoes and play shoes and everything was normal.

Maybe I took a deep breath, or maybe I looked across the street and saw a cool tree or maybe the ghost of ET possessed my body for a second and imparted the secrets of the universe to me. I don’t know what happened exactly but all of the sudden, it hit me. I felt like I was in San Francisco.

So many times throughout the day/week/year/millisecond, I’m reminded of different times and places. That breeze makes me feel like Boston. These houses seem like they’re from LA. This hamburger reminds me of that one hamburger I had that one time that was really good in Chicago at that one place.

But this moment was the first time I’d related a certain temperature, sky, and house set-up back to San Francisco itself as opposed to somewhere else. It was cool.

It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside like somehow I know this place and its frosting sky and they know me too and I could wrap myself up in that sky like a big blanket and go to sleep on Ocean Beach and then watch the city get lit up from the other side in the morning since we’re on the West Coast in case you forgot. And I can mix metaphors like I don’t even care. Frosting, blanket, fishnet stockings – who cares what you call the sky? Not San Francisco.

And as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that maybe what I really wanted to talk about is how I want to be an astronaut and go into space and taste the sky. Is it frosting? If so, what kind – is it like a cream cheese, or a royal, or a ganache? And what’s under the frosting? Are black holes really some kind of molten chocolate pit, because that sounds pretty awesome especially with the possibility of time travel thrown in there.

But no matter where I end up, be it in an infinite spiral of swirling buttercream or wandering somewhere in Upper or Lower Haight, I know I’ll have that feeling of San Francisco sitting on the shelf of my mind in its mason jar, ready to be whipped out when it’s time to reminisce in the next city.

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I’m not a local, but then again, who is?

So cliche.

I was born in Colorado, spent three years in West Virginia, lived in Oklahoma for middle and high school, went “back east” to Boston for university, and then farther east to Egypt, and then even farther east to San Francisco.

To many people in California, Oklahoma is just as exotic as the Lost Kingdom of Thormasgurd, except no one wants to know more about Oklahoma. They assume things are radically different “out there” and they’re usually right. Sometimes they even express a fear of going to the middle place in the US because it’s a lawless, conservative backwater where people tie jackets around their waists, and I encourage this by tightening my cardigan around my middle and yelling “Yeee haw!” every time I meet someone.

I remember the first time my parents visited me at Boston University. I’d been away for all of eight weeks or less when they visited in early October, but on the way to Legal Seafood, I felt compelled to show them how city-savvy I’d become by wearing an eggplant J. Crew sweater and jaywalking, often stranding my parents on opposite sides of the street. Instead of proving myself an adroit city-dweller, I pissed off the parentals through my reckless walking behavior and ended up feeling dumb and sweating because it wasn’t cold enough to be wearing a sweater and speed walking.

Over the course of four years, and it did take me four years because I’m a slow realizer, I found that I would never be a local in Boston, that somehow my Oklahoma roots were standing out ever starker on the scalp of my collegiate experience (unwise metaphor?), and that, to my never-ending surprise, I was actually encouraging it, getting involved in things like stew-making and contra dancing and prairie-dress-wearing. While in the northern wasteland, I found comfort in identifying with a mostly mythological Oklahoma, not at all the same one I had mildly despised while growing up. The Oklahoma in my collegiate mind was something else. It was a warm fire in winter and a sense of belonging in a place where everyone was far from home.

Now in San Francisco, I’m finding the same phenomenon to be true. Though I haven’t lived in Oklahoma for roughly five years, it’s still the place I’m “from,” and I will likely be from there my entire life. In cities like San Francisco, many people are in a similar boat. Maybe not one quite as conservative or mythologically rich, but most people are not “from here.” Many are from other parts of California or other states on the West Coast, and they’ve been drawn to the hilly flame of San Francisco like hapless moths, just like I have. Quite often there’s nary a local to be found.

Being a local is a kind of rare currency in this city. It connotes intimacy with a place that so many people desire, and it’s something that can’t be bought or earned. It can only happen or be given by parents foolish enough to try to withstand the expense and private-school calculus of raising a child in the city.

I will never be a local here, no matter how asymmetrical my haircut is.  The only place I am a local is back in Oklahoma. I think that makes me a continual explorer, but it also adds the burden of creating home every place I go, but I guess that’s what we all have to do anyways. At least I’m in good company.

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Home Again. Police Coming Soon.

They made me throw my peanut butter away. You’ll be hearing more about this.

One mad dash in an airport, one jar of forcibly discarded peanut butter, my inaugural first-class experience complete with whisky, five days in a beloved city, three haphazardly finished final projects, a handful of not-so-final goodbyes, and one eager familial greeting at an airport after watching my airplane acquaintance, a man, walk into the women’s bathroom…..and I’m home.

Have I missed Oklahoma? Of course not. I’ve missed the humans that inhabit its suburban sprawls, specifically the ones that populate a small brick structure in an unremarkable town known for its ability to grow children well and then make them to want to leave.

The feeling of home, for me, is a combination of extreme fondness coupled with the intense panic at the thought I might never escape. Escape might seem a strong term to those who find Oklahoma’s tender chicken fried steak more toothsome than even the most succulent Kobe beef. And that’s fine. Here in America we have the sometimes ill-advised freedom to maintain and revel in our ignorance though we risk people on the coasts mocking us for it. I, however, have always needed to get away from Oklahoma, my efforts landing me most recently in Egypt where I have had a most rewarding experience.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the semester, I was looking forward to being in America, where I could walk down the street without turning even one brow, where honking the horn is the exception not the rule, and where there are sidewalks–usable, beautiful, sidewalks. America was once again the promised land, and my home, the most familiar place on earth, was now the object of my yearning.

Despite all this, as soon as I got off the airplane in Oklahoma City I remembered why I had wanted to escape. It’s not because I suddenly recalled how much I resent my dog or the fact my family only got a big screen tv as soon as I had left the country after waiting 18 years to upgrade. It’s not the annoying Central Plains female haircut or the cowboy boots that are as plentiful as Cairo street cats on a garbage pile.

It’s the fact I’m a wanted criminal. Forget all that sentimental mumbo-jumbo. I’m on the run and have been ever since my senior year in high school. After all that crazy revolutionary time in Egypt, I forgot the charges have not been dropped and that police officers with gravy still wet on their whistles will be hot on my tail as soon as I step foot inside my county, which I have already done.

So…thanks for the soup, Ma, and I hope you enjoy the cannolis since I won’t be coming back until some kind of computer virus destroys the record databases, expunging me of all crimes. PEACE!

Note: this is a joke. To my knowledge, I am not a wanted criminal.

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Remembering the Frenchman Who Showed Us His Apartment Today

Here was the bed he slept in. And this was the kitchen he would always make his instant coffee in. Do you remember how much he loved instant coffee? He would always offer us some even though we never accepted. And do you remember how he would let us wander in his apartment as we examined it, awkwardly standing by as I took a few haphazard photos? His complete lack of facial expressions was so disconcerting!

This was the bathroom he showered in and the toilet he used, the sink he sometimes shaved over and the black-splotched mirror he would look into as he brushed his teeth.

These were the books he read, and oh! There was the one he was currently reading: Modern Trends in Post-Colonial Interpretations of Revolutionary Artwork. He was such a scholar, getting his PhD I believe.

Remember when he told us in his endearing French accent about the crazy lady who lived in the vacant building across from his apartment and how she would scream at the people in the subsidized bread line as they were fighting? How we nervously laughed and laughed! We were so unsure of what the proper response should be!

And when, right after meeting him at Hardees, I asked him what his wife does and it turned out she was the lady sitting right next to you? Wasn’t that funny!

The way he asked us whether or not we wanted the apartment was certainly charming as well. He inhaled deeply and said, “So, do you think this is something like what you are looking for,” and as we looked at each other we both knew that there was no way we would ever want to live somewhere the kitchen is the size of the bathtub.

As soon as we’d seen the kitchen, we heard the death knell of our relationship. There would be no second meeting to sign the contract or determine the final details of the lease. There would be no exchange of phone numbers with the real estate agent or the bowab, and no other semi-firm handshakes.

And so it is with fondness I remember those awkward moments we spent in his tiny apartment, examining his home and finding it wanting. Though our friendship, and I hope we can call it friendship, lasted only a painful 30 minutes, I know I will be unable to forget the complete lack of comfort I felt while in his presence. It may have been the fact we were not speaking in his native tongue, or perhaps he had forgotten how to interact with humans other than his wife and research subjects because of his time spent buried under PhD work. Whatever the reason for his particular brand of charm, his company was priceless. I do hope he finds someone else to rent his apartment quite soon.

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