The City

_I found these unfinished notes from my first week in San Francisco. Caitriona was right._

cali_ny_truck.jpgI’ve just moved in with a city I barely know, and I feel like an Edith Wharton heroine embarking a European tour. My inbox jostles with advice and opinions, and I want to remember this time before I knew the place.

They call it “The City.” The definite article makes me giggle; bless their 750,000 hearts. Caitriona predicts that within two weeks of moving here I’d be my usual obnoxious self. She’s seen it before, from Dublin to London to Manhattan to Brooklyn to Lake Superior.
“Oh my God,” she mimicked, “I can’t _imagine_ going back to the East Coast. San Francisco is soooo great. Everybody in the _whole world_ should move there. I just can’t understand why you still live in DC. Dudes.”

For an accidental nomad, fawning over novelty protects the soul.

Five days in I’m not quite there yet. The skies drip like Dublin–and none of us leaves Dublin to be rained on, whatever about snow and ice and heatwaves. But I hope that soon that ambitious little definite article won’t evoke a New York smirk. In the meantime, I get to pretend I think real people say “Frisco.”

New Yorkers live lives of modern inconvenience, so I’m excited to have a dishwasher and a garbage disposal in the sink. I’ve never had them before. What does one dispose of? Coffee grounds? Tin cans? Body parts? I’d like to stay home all day and play with these suburban appliances, but I came out a few days early to explore the city.

My project is to map the neighborhoods. What’s San Francisco’s Lower East Side? Their West Village? Their Williamsburg? Bicoastal pals have advanced their theories for a few weeks, and I like hearing their projections of where I should and shouldn’t live.
    “You’re not blonde enough for The Marina, Russian Hill or Pac Heights, and we will disown you if you move there,” writes John. “Anyhow, next earthquake and The Marina will fall into the bay, which will never recover from the peroxide overdose.” Jake says I’d like Noe Valley. Natasha says Cole Valley. They both seem a little staid to me, but Keith tells me I’d meet _people like me_ there. That’s not much of a draw, but I don’t say so. And I think he means dates; Keith’s a fixer-upper.

Of the Mission, my Bay Area guru John says: “You aren’t Mexican, a twenty-five year old anarchist/found objects sculptor who organizes raves, or a gang member, so I wouldn’t consider the Mission. Great place to hang out, fabulous bars and restaurants, but after your twenties living there might get old.”

I’m no fan of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, with its pre-fab hipsters and squat architecture, but I like Mexico City, and the Mission lies somewhere between the two. I thought it worth another apartment-hunting stroll, in spite of his warning.

Walking through SoMa(South of Market Street) at 9.30 on Sunday morning, there’s a line of bubble-armed men queuing to get into the Endup nightclub. The sex shops are snoozing. Otherwise, it’s just me, the panhandlers, and the cars for twenty blocks or more. Then there were families hanging out on Alabama St, kids in Sunday clothes, people talking and laughing. And knots of young guys in baggy pants, mooching.

The Mission is fun, at least the part plenty south of Valencia, where the pentecostal churches are. It reminds me of Chiapas. In one of the churches I belt out Spanish hymns and wish I were not an atheist, for this faith looks comforting. Spiritual karaoke. I write down my name when asked, wondering if they will give me a shout of soul-saving welcome from the altar, and hope they won’t.

Across the street, Phil of Philz fame puts mint sprigs in my coffee and tells me that his way, this handmade, by-the-cup brew, is the future. He’s ten years ahead of Starbucks, he says, and he’s probably right. I drink the spicy coffee and think about red pork tamales, and maybe some mango with chile powder if I can find it.

Maybe I’ll do okay here.

9 thoughts on “The City”

  1. Actually Phil may not be so far ahead of his time. My car poolmate a native Santa Cruzian, has mentioned to me handmade coffee is not unusual down there. They have filter bars, where you place a filter over the cup, put in the required amount of coffee – hand made coffee.


  2. I’ve been thinking about how to replicate Phil’s service, which goes so far beyond the (very good) coffee. Essentially you’re buying the experience of Phil’s warm attention and the care he puts into recommending and making each cup. He reminds me of Gus of Tom’s Diner fame in Brooklyn. I’m fascinated by the process of turning an ordinary business into an experience of love. Do a Google search on ‘Philz’–he’s beloved. I like to go in there in the evenings, when it’s quiet enough to chat to him.

    Starbucks can’t go there, but I’m also not convinced that Phil and Gus can go where they go. You can commodify the by-the-cup part, but it’s not the main event.


  3. Hi Matthew,

    That’s funny. I am utterly clueless about womanizers; I always think they’re just really, really nice. In fact, Oblivio Michael wrote about that here:

    Second one on banubula’s list–The Hemlock bar–is co-owned by one of my colleagues here at Stone Yamashita.


  4. It took me a minute to figure out why we were talking about womanizers all of a sudden.


  5. On a business trip taxi ride from the airport to downtown San Francisco. the driver explained to me how the city lies at the intersection of personality power lines, causing a unique vortex of good vibes, resulting in a city which attracts unique individuals from around the world. I held my seat belt just a little bit tighter as we passed candlestick park, and thought to myself “only in san francisco do the cabbies speak in tongues”.

    But now, despite the athiesm you profess in your posting, dearbhaille, it seems that you’ve fallen into the wonderful vortex that is SFO – the capital of good vibes, beautiful white sun-lit stone, and good folk.

    Thanks for your postings, and looking forward to the next chapter . . .


  6. Oh my, you are making me miss SF so much. There is a bookstore/restaurant there, across (I think? It’s been 15 years) from the Roxy Theater (which I hear is closing) … called, um, ?

    Maybe at 34th and Valencia? Am I totally dreaming up streets? Anyway, it’s filled with sofas and chairs and shelves and shelves of books and — you know, I don’t think it was a bookstore. I think it was just a cafe and restaurant and people left their books there. So much to read. All to say: try their Rainbow Trout.

    I love the Mission — and I didn’t mention a very Mission-y place there, did I?


  7. Thanks Julia–and also for leaving the link, which I enjoyed. I am boiling on your behalf over your entry on the Bust mag debate–what a dipshit! Keep the faith.

    And thanks, Janes(?). SF cabbies are hugely entertaining, more so than the autocidal Sikhs who terrorize Manhattan.


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