The Long Goodbye

There’s a girl outside, immediately below my window, sporting cropped hair, wide glasses, and bright red lipstick. Next to her, a man in a knitted white and blue sweater and carefully coiffed hair, holding hands with another man in torn black jeans and leather jacket. They’re talking and laughing in beige wicker chairs around a table of boutique coffee and upscale french pastries, in a small public parklet on a crisp but sunny afternoon.

It’s a scene that screams San Francisco. This incongruous group of friends – part pop-synth, part private croquet, part rock-star –  is the regular rhythm for a city that’s always on the bleeding edge of social norms. The Harvey Milks, the hippy blazers, the silicon-valley geeks – all the odd pieces can fit in this kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle.

Contradictions have nowhere to hide. The super-elites of Financial District glued next to the ghetto Tenderloin; the old hispanic Mission gentrified by the tech boom kids; the socialist coffee shops with hippy roots now taking orders from a smart phone. And where else can you find a walking S&M parade – filled with gags, straps, and yes, even public anal sex – in the middle of a tech district?

You think your town has strange? Boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I’m leaving San Francisco. And I’ll miss the taste of this unique flavour.

I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there.

When I first moved to San Francisco I had never been to the West coast, but from what I’d heard, this was Mecca. The tip of Silicon Valley – a Roddenberry utopia of tech future, where smartphones were tricorders with Twitter functionality, and everybody owned a Tesla.

That naivety got a swift punch to the gut. The initial shock of living near the Tenderloin – the poorest ghetto of the modern City – in a hotel known for quarterly bed-bug outbreaks, next to droves of homeless, on streets of cracked pavement, all while doubling my rent – well, let’s just say it wasn’t the USS Enterprise I’d been sold.

And I don’t want to gloss over those cracks. If you come visit, know that San Francisco is a city with very real problems – homelessness, segregation, gentrification, and an ever expanding wealth gap to name only a few. They haven’t gone away or gotten any better since my first walk off the BART train.

But, I still love San Francisco, warts and all.

Another road, where maybe I could see another kind of mind there.

If there’s one thing San Francisco gets right, it’s food. You think your city has something better? It doesn’t matter, because we stole it. A San Francisco native is rare to find, most residents having moved from other parts of the country or the world. This patchwork of peoples bring all the mouth-watering traditions of their homelands. Chicago deep-dish, Indian dosa, Thai curry, Alabama soul food, Spanish tapas, Mexican enchiladas, need I go on?

And don’t think that the food stays segregated. Fusion restaurants are the new norm. Want a traditional Burmese rice porridge with a side of crispy bacon? What about a sushi roll in the form of a burrito? Or why not the dripping pulled pork barbecue between two Japanese rice cakes? I would never identify as a “foodie” before living here. But in a town full of high-tech experiments, my favourite innovation is in the kitchens.

What can I do, what can I be, when I’m with you I want to stay there.

I don’t know where the free spirit was born, but she lives here now. A mix of music festival, sexual deviancy, and granola hippy mean that San Francisco has a peculiar definition of normal. This city’s motto seems to be “Whatever floats your boat!”

Bay-to-Breakers is a great example. In this city-wide marathon (from the San Francisco Bay to the Ocean Beach breakers) many runners compete to be first across the finish line. Many more, however, use the event as a public parade – a city-wide party with drinking and music all day. And it wouldn’t be San Francisco without costumes, ranging from grown men as Teletubbies to the unbridled exposition of a classic birthday suit.

A parade, with booze, loud music, and nudity? Have these people no shame?! Whatever floats your boat!

From the teller at my bank, to the taco-serving food-truck, to the bartender of a Chinatown dive-bar, everyone and everything eschews prejudice with that Golden Rule mantra. And I love every bit of it!

If I’m true I’ll never leave, and if I do I know the way there.

I take far too long to write, and the contradictory trio outside my window has now been replaced by a dog, a baby, and their parents – random does sometimes come up traditional. Though if they stay in the city, this kid’s going to get quite the eclectic upbringing. The future of this place should be interesting, little buddy.

As much wild-west as Star Trek, San Francisco’s cacophony of neighbourhoods and inhabitants are what make it special for me. I knew I’d move on eventually, but I’ll miss this place more than I imagined I could, for reasons I never thought I would. I hope this is only farewell, that I may be back one day, but for now, this is the long goodbye.

Quotes from Got to Get You Into My Life by The Beatles.

Image of San Francisco Chinatown by Christian Mehlführer.







One response to “The Long Goodbye”

  1. […] This is the San Francisco rarely advertised to outsiders, but notorious to locals. There are swaths of the city — SoMa, Tenderloin, sections of Mission — where petty crime, drugs, and poverty are routine. It’s not all California sunshine, much as even I may have sold it that way. […]