Los Angeles

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

When people ask where I am from, I tell them, “San Francisco.” It’s a spiritual truth as much as a literal one. When I left the Bay Area at age nine, I truly left my heart behind, and when I graduated from college just over a decade later, the first thing I did was flee westward to the San Francisco of my dreams.

In the intervening years, San Francisco had grown some, but it was still, fundamentally, itself. It was a place where all possibilities were possible – from miner 49ers to flower children and beyond. It was a city filled with active neighborhoods and the activists who loved them; of spicy eucalyptus pods dropped along the park; a place of historical hangouts and the leftover hippies who still hung out in them, as fervent in the 90s as they’d been three decades before. A place of ocean and fog, of salt that floats out each morning and in each evening on a sweet wet wind, burned off and on by a bright but not-too-hot sun. It was the Golden Gate, the Bay-to-Breakers, Alcatraz and Angel Island and Marin in the distance. It was, of course, a city of hills – hills navigated slowly by original Beetles and VW vans with bumper stickers of dancing bears and, ‘CoExist,’ and ‘dog is my copilot,’ and the Darwin fish. It’s where garage doors rolled up on a Saturday, revealing one sale after another; where you could start a fight on the Muni by insisting your burrito place is best; where grown men rode skateboards, not scooters; and everyone was a politician of some sort because we were all devoted to our systems of belief.

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Like dancing bears, only San Francisco-ized.

It is by no means surprising that this city of free love and the Diggers and Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead and acid-dropping and Black Panthers (I’m appropriating Oakland here) and City Lights and Spec’s and Fillmore posters and the thriving Fillmore district replaced by the yuppie Fillmore street and motorcycles not bicycles outside Toronado and the TransAmerica building and hip-hatted Willie and Jerry Brown and Harvey Milk and Margo St. James and free speech and SDS not LDS – it is by no means surprising that this is the place where tech went boom. It was as inevitable as the fire of 1906. Only a place of such possibility would yield a creative mushroom cloud of such impact as to bust the city it dropped on.

Last month, I was home in San Francisco for a wedding. It had been a while since my city and I had reunited for more than a night or two, and it filled me with conflict, and an overwhelming nostalgia. San Francisco was, and remains, my one true urban love affair. I love its grungy streets and random murals, the sound of electric busses passing and the streetcar on a track. I love the beach in the fog and a grungy coffee house in the spring. I love those Eucalyptus trees, and triplexes of railroad flats. But San Francisco, my San Francisco, is gone.

San Francisco still has a funky attitude - one funky people can't afford.

San Francisco still has a funky attitude – one funky people can’t afford.

It’s hard to be a dreamer in San Francisco anymore. Dreams there are incredibly expensive. In the mid-90’s, I shared a three bedroom flat in the mission with two other women and we paid $1350 combined. We were two blocks off Dolores Park and surrounded by stores of used stuff, semi-functional laundromats, a couple sketchy-marts, and the 500 Club.

In that same neighborhood now, a one-bedroom costs upwards of $3000 per month, and our combined rent couldn’t even get you a studio (I’m not exaggerating). The sketchy-marts are now smoothie bars and hi-end independent organic grocers and farm-to-table restaurants with lines out the door. The 500 Club is still there, but I doubt the same is true of its Addams Family pinball machine, or the regulars who camped out on the same bar stools, night after nigh,t with a bartender who resembled Pinhead. Friends who grew up in the city by the bay, who are married with solid double-incomes have been priced out, and in their places have come a new generation of dot-com and start-up youth who think it’s normal for a martini to cost $15 and will never know the inside of a true dive bar.

The “go west, young man,” dream is in our national psyche, for better or worse. We leverage it to create a new beginning when the going has gotten too tough or the odds are never in our favor. But where do we go to start over when the start-over west goes bust?

When I was looking for a place to settle, I was frequently asked, “why don’t you go back to San Francisco? You love it there!” I struggled with an appropriate answer because what my heart was shouting was, “because my San Francisco is dead.” Meanwhile the Los Angeles of my memory was calling.

Since all of my fun Los Angeles memories take place on vacations, I figured I should come down from my temporary encampment in Washington State and check it out. I intentionally went to dinner during rush hour traffic, to see how bad it was (not fun, not horrendous). And then, while having lunch with a friend I’ve known since the sixth grade, the lightbulb turned on.

“LA is great,” he said. “I love it here because you can decide to do anything you want, and people will help you make it happen. Want to start a line of vegan baby clothes? Great, how can I help? I know a dude who went to Harvard and decided he really wanted to be a dog walker. Done. You just put it out there and work on it, and people are on your side.”

Now, granted these are ridiculously Californian examples, but the lightbulb went on: a place where all possibilities are possible. Not everyone’s dream will come true. But in LA, your dreams aren’t over before you find a place to lay your head.

My heart is still in San Francisco. It always will be. It remains the city that launched a thousand dreams – my own alone. It will always have its funk, its fog, its coffee and its political vibe. I will always want to be there, when the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay (or when Journey is playing a concert). But I’m creating a life in the new San Francisco, a city with a vibrant history of its own, where museums are popping up amidst the bright lights of movie premiers and the dark corners that yield a crisis-launching number of homeless. We lack funding, and water, but we have enough palm trees and dreams for everyone. Come join us – we’ll help you make your dreams come true.

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Los Angeles

The Jig Is Up

I’ve never been great with milestones. When I left New York after five difficult years of college, the friend with whom I was driving cross-country asked if I had anything I wanted to say or do to mark the occasion. I said, “yeah, get in the car and leave.”

Setting intention isn’t historically my strong suit, and sabbatical-ing around the world was no different. As I mentioned way back when, I landed in Bogota with a four day hostel reservation, an around the world plane ticket, a six-year-old copy of South America on a Shoestring, and two weeks to get to Bolivia. Advance planning: not my strong suit.

So how do I mark today, the momentous last day of freedom before I return to work? With gratitude, with friendship, and with adventure – the same way I spent my time out and about in the world.

I walked the dog this morning the same way I have most days I’ve lived in this neighborhood. I happened, today, to see the owner of a home that I have watched, dog walk by dog walk, be lovingly restored and re-landscaped in a neighborhood where homes are more frequently torn down and replaced with McMansions. I got to tell her how much I’ve loved watching her house come back to life – and see how happy she was to be thanked.

Dogwalk LA today

Dogwalk LA today

I went to the Broad Museum, just opened last week, and saw amazing art with a friend who took the same semester off from college in 1991; the last cultural thing we did together was use my dad’s tickets to see La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera, which we left after one intermission because we were both crying so hard we couldn’t take anymore. But even today, we both remembered that evening for its beauty, which I believe is how I will remember today. Something old, something new, something inspirational.

Me beside a chair in Robert Therrien's Under the Table, at the Broad

Me beside a chair in Robert Therrien’s Under the Table, at the Broad

These plates are taller than I am. My grandfather always said, "Don't stack the plates!"

These plates are taller than I am. See the person in the background? My grandfather always said, “Don’t stack the plates!”

And then I delighted in the mundane. I went grocery shopping. I cleaned my room. I changed my sheets and unpacked my suitcase from last week’s adventure. I hardly remember how to go to work, despite some contract jobs here in LA (like that time I worked on the Oscars, which I’ve yet to report). So I’m trying to remember what I need at a desk, what one wears to an office, and to bring my paperwork to prove I’m a legal, able to work, resident of the USA. Thank goodness my passport is close at hand.

This transition – this last day of ‘freedom’ – is one of many lasts I’ve had since I packed up and hit the road over two years ago. There was my last day in Dallas , my last day ‘out and about in the world, which took place in Turkey, my last drive in my beloved Bessie.  But this transition also marks one of many more firsts on this adventure my life has become: my first visits to 16 countries, my first published piece, my first new car in 15 years, my first time (and second, and third) in the Eastern Sierra in 25 years, and tomorrow, my first day at a new company since 2005.

My last day out and about in the world, in the harem in Istanbul.

My last day out and about in the world, in the harem in Istanbul.

My last day out and about in the free world (today). Do I look THAT different?

My last day out and about in the free world (today). Do I look THAT different?

The struggle with this transition is the looming question, “Is this the end?” Is the adventure over? And while, of course, I’ve had moments of panic at this very thought, the reality is no, of course not. The adventure began where, somewhere along the way, I learned to let go of fear and let in life. To take risks that were previously unimaginable because I would have rationalized my way out of them, before even starting. Quitting my job was a risk. Moving to LA was a risk. Taking this new job is a risk – it seems safer than the wander but the truth is, I will be measured against or among a number of incredibly competent people while undertaking new and unfamiliar tasks, and I may not measure up. But at least I will have tried.

What I have learned these last two years could fill a book – and hopefully, it will.  In the meantime, I will be toiling away at something new – at a desk, or on a page, or here in LA – and storing up time and resources for the next great wander. And I will be doing it with a degree of gratitude and compassion that I’ve only discovered in myself because of the amazing trip I’ve taken.

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(PS: This isn’t goodbye. There are at least three half-written blog posts on this computer crying to be published, not to mention that in looking for that picture of Turkey, I realized I never wrote about Turkey (or Morocco, or Patagonia, or…). So check back…)