On Never Leaving San Francisco
Sal Moon Boots with the 415 area code was trying hard to be weird and woke. That’s why she adopted a stupid new name. That’s why she referred to her straight boyfriend as her “partner.” I didn’t mind being called a gentrifier in New Orleans by another white person with a 415 area code, I figured it was probably true, but I never get along with a fake-ass bitch. So for an hour at the indoor dinner party in the midst of the deadly global pandemic, Sal and I antagonized each other.
“New Orleans is a miserable city, really,” I said. “It would be wonderful, I think, to turn the whole place into an Apple store.”
“If I had rich San Francisco parents,” Sal shot back, “I’d make jokes too.”
But where else could she be from with a 415 area code, that sacred signifier of belonging? I realized she must be from Marin, the burst of green I would glimpse from my window when I lived in the rooming house on Fulton Street. Now I’d been away from home for a week and I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why people kept talking to me and why they all walked around in droves, maskless, practically coughing on each other. Already I felt lost here and I’d wanted to meet this other woman from the Bay, but she was really damn unfortunately irritating. So irritating as to need three modifiers to describe it. So irritating as to tear through me, in the coming days, like a tapeworm.
People in the Bay Area are total assholes. San Francisco totally sucks. You can only say this if you would die defending the honor of the place, like me. I still remember the day I dumped my first girlfriend over text. My friend Claire showed up at the bookstore all in a rage, shouting about how she’d quit her job at the sandwich shop to live outside the constraints of capitalism, etc. etc., so I told her about Abby and our split, anything to shut her up. Claire squinched up her face in thought, drew a bowl from her pocket, and lit it.
“Claire!” I said. “Not in the store.”
So Claire walked outside and I followed. She was my best friend and sometimes you just put up with things. The Great Overland Book Company was a boxy little storefront on Judah Street, the door red and chipped with yellow highlights, and carts of books that no one loved or cared about were leaned against the windows, on sale for a dollar. Closing the door so that smoke wouldn’t blow inside, I lit a cigarette. For a while, Claire and I puffed away in silence. Winter light cast the street in a pearly glow.
“So,” Claire finally said. “You dumped Abby? Over text?”
“Sort of. She asked if I wanted to break up.”
“Sounds like she started it.”
“But I ended it.”
“Well, good,” Claire said. “I hated Abby.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, and I wondered how I’d gotten here. I was 22 years old and made exclusively bad decisions, at least so far. I drew my phone from my pocket to check the time. “It’s late enough,” I said. “Let’s close up.”
Claire was my best goddamn friend, I loved her like the moon. It didn’t matter to me that she’d freaked out my dad by talking about murdering congressmen or that she never called the therapists I found for her. We were always bolting around the city like terrors and she made me feel like a kid. I was lonely, even among friends, and still looking for my lost childhood in San Francisco. “That fog!” we were always saying, without feeling compelled to elaborate, because the fog spoke for itself. A cigarette, tilted upright, looked like San Francisco: a little mountain of orange light with thick gray cascading everywhere.
I wish I remembered more details from the day. I remember remembering the pumpkin seeds I’d bought with Abby the last time I saw her, how she didn’t like the ranch seasoning and I was relieved I didn’t have to share—how the Mission had sprawled out in a hazy streetlight glow, smelling of hot dogs wrapped in questionable bacon. I remember thinking, Well, I’ve failed at love, so what’s next? And I remember running with Claire, we were always running, literally, after inbound buses or through stoplights. Later, when Claire left town and we fell out with each other, I would wonder if I’d made a mistake, if I should have married her or something, we got along so well, we had such fun, but girls, all of them, paled next to San Francisco. And the truth was that the city, this city full of awful ideas, didn’t know who I was.
Still, we tore around like we owned her, San Francisco. Claire lived in a dented green van with a sick setup, a mattress and bong in the back and a black kitten named Ziggy Stardust prowling around the seats. At the time I was on my fourth apartment in two years, a mouse-infested hoarder’s nest in Parkside with a woman named Jackie and her three kids. My windowless room cost almost a grand a month. I thought I was living the dream, and in fact I was, because that day, roaming around the Duboce Triangle, we ducked into an alleyway to discover the happiest house we’d ever seen, like something out of a summer camp, a jumble of balconies and jutting bay windows looking out on the night. I had a feeling that I would forget where the house was, that I would never see it again, and I was right. Oh San Francisco! I had failed at love, yes, but wasn’t there more to life? At Duboce and Noe, the N-Judah snakes through a tunnel, and as we stood waiting for it, we studied the bulbous moon overhead, tinged pale orange from the city lights. I looked at that sky, that sky over San Francisco, and I thought, It’s you, sweetheart, it’s always been you, you’re the only one for me.
After the indoor dinner party in the midst of the deadly global pandemic, I gleefully internet-stalked Sal Moon Boots, finding new and exciting things to hate about her. She claimed to stand up for the Black community but was practically coughing all over them with her antics. She rented her house from a white woman with dreads in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. And maybe I hated her because she thought we were different and we weren’t, so I also read about gentrification in New Orleans. I had never been called a gentrifier because I couldn’t be one: I was from San Francisco originally and for most of my adult life, I earned very little money. But I realized that things must be different here, that my coming with Californian unemployment checks for cheaper rent could pose problems, and I felt like a real basic-ass white person for not thinking it through. Sal Moon Boots did not make me want to go home because I already ached for home. I was thinking about the misery of last year and somehow yearning for it.
“Come to New Orleans,” my friend Jude had told me months ago. “It’s so much more fun here. San Francisco is dead.”
But then, I’d been clinging fiercely to my phoenix up in ashes, the boarded-up shops and piles of discarded furniture on street corners. I’d miraculously landed a job in the middle of the pandemic, the first good-paying job I’d ever had, and I was capitalizing on the COVID crash to score a studio below market rate. I didn’t know they were going to fire me in six months, making the “cheap” rent once again untenable. So, beaming into the empty space, I thought: I will die in this studio in Cole Valley. I had grown up, partway at least, in a pale blue Victorian a block away. The N-Judah had roared past my bedroom window late at night. I’d had a bunk bed and a little TV to watch The Simpsons. There is no longing in my heart like the longing for that particular past: it is a romance, it is a story I tell myself. I think I must be a gentrifier in New Orleans and I wonder who San Francisco belongs to now, so far away, if she belongs to anyone at all.
Because Sal Moon Boots pushed my buttons, I started asking everyone about gentrification in New Orleans. I was probably obnoxious, the way well-meaning white people tend to be. “What’s gentrification?” asked Tina, the hot girl at the bonfire. As a child, she’d immigrated with her family from Vietnam to Texas, and she’d been in Louisiana for 15 years. I kept giving her cigarettes because she was beautiful. At 28, she had six kids, but Jude, now my housemate, had never met a single one of them.
“It’s, um, a shitty thing that white people do,” I said, too drunk to explain it well.
“Oh,” said Tina. “Can you get, like, more specific?”
So I told her about my own city and its most recent wave, the Google bros whose Ubers would clog up the bus stops, who rented one-bedrooms in the Mission for 4K a month. For years, in revolt, I refused to ride in an Uber or purchase a smartphone to support the app, but now I was using them to zoom all over New Orleans—today, to Mid-City, where we huddled around a pit of flames in someone’s driveway. This was a city of cars: people thought I was insane for using my feet so much and beyond lost when they learned I didn’t know how to drive, a thing that made absolutely no sense to them. But in my years of revolt, I’d memorized San Francisco’s bus routes and loved to see those proud streetcars lumbering through the outer avenues or past Dolores Park.
The bonfire was my first invitation to a truly local queer event in New Orleans: other than Tina, Jude, and me, the group comprised young Black people who had grown up here. I realized that, aside from attending protests, I had never really entered a Black space like this in the Bay. Was Sal Moon Boots my shadow self, bragging about her concern for community and her cheap rent in a single breath?
Much of San Francisco’s Black population was priced out years ago, but I still met an Uber driver who could rattle off the names of the Jonestown dead. By 2020 I was riding Ubers like the rest of the assholes in my city, though I was careful not to call them from bus stops. I was in the car with a date, a girl I’d had weird sex with once who was now tagging along to scope out an apartment I was considering in my hunt for a studio, and we listened raptly to the driver’s stories.
“Y’all call this NOPA?” she asked as we sped along Geary.
“Never!” I said.
“This is the ‘mo,” she said. The Fillmore. She was so real and I loved her. And she told us all about Jim Jones, the plague that had descended on her neighborhood back when San Francisco was a different city, since it’s always becoming a different city.
The story of Peoples Temple is a story of gentrification. Menaced and displaced by redevelopment projects in the Fillmore, members of the Black community flocked to the huckster Jones, who was the darling of local progressives and promised racial equality. This gets lost. This is a story that demands retelling, in place of the demeaning catch-phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” In San Francisco, if you meet a Black person of a certain age, they will remember, they will look inward with a wistful expression, they will tell you names, but too often you simply don’t meet Black people in San Francisco. Had I ever any right to bitch about gentrification, to claim that it impacted me? I’d loved to bitch about it, how it drove me into a barrage of divey apartments, defined in turn by their particular vermin or psychotic roommates—but I’d always managed to stay, until suddenly, out of nowhere, I got fired for the second time in a year and lost just enough faith in home to flee. Now I felt like a traitor to everyone and everything: without a roost, without the pulse of familiarity, without the inherited history of my city, without the ghosts of the Jonestown dead who still flood the streets of the Fillmore, which I will never, ever call NOPA—what will become of me?
When Claire and I were still friends and still lived in San Francisco, we made a game of terrorizing tech workers. At the anarchist hackerspace on Mission Street, we printed out flyers that read “Die Techie Scum!” and plastered them on every street corner. Then we were banned from the anarchist hackerspace for inciting violence, so we switched to a print shop on Guerrero. Every time someone’s feelings were hurt, our brains swam in dopamine. I saw many a Google bro throw a tantrum outside the boutique clothing stores and vegan bakeries popping up all over Valencia. This was joy! This was fun! Once we were joined by a homeless woman whom we put in charge of cutting tape, who told us her stories of the streets. Every so often, another queer would pass by and slap us a high five. When one day a stranger shook our hands and told us we were saving San Francisco, I burst with pride, but now I wonder: weren’t we, more than anything, just amusing ourselves, one-upping the Sal Moon Bootses of the world with our excess of woke points?
I always thought that Claire was the type of person who deserved San Francisco, who was born belonging to the city, even from her faraway hometown of Templeton, California. She was a trans dyke who’d been disowned by her millionaire parents, who’d given up every single creature comfort just to be herself, and wasn’t this supposed to be a place where queers could feel safe? Rainbow flags rippled from every streetlight in the Castro. Claire slept in homeless shelters or the SFSU library until she somehow acquired the van. She was my hero and my cause, and we loved being pissed off together. I will always miss her, just as I’ll always miss the particular San Francisco we shared.
My room in New Orleans is $550 a month. It is by far the cheapest and nicest place I’ve ever stayed, on the second floor of an Antebellum manse in the Garden District. At night, our 70-year-old landlady tells us stories of her personal version of the city: how the kitchen ceiling made a plopping sound when it collapsed after Katrina, the manic ex-girlfriend who broke into her car, the group of gay men who were her circle of friends in the 1980s. She doesn’t speak of the place the way we speak of San Francisco, like a flame about to extinguish, though the old friends are all dead now. One of them, she keeps in an urn in her bedroom, because his parents refused to retrieve his body from the morgue, to even speak to their son as he died of AIDS.
In San Francisco, it is easier to find the ghosts of AIDS than of Jonestown, though both are abundant if you look carefully. Every older queer has a story, a glimmer of fight in their eyes. Jude spoke of the day she first found the memorial in Golden Gate Park, where mourning turns to celebration not just of the lives lost, but of that San Francisco, yet another San Francisco, because San Franciscos are infinite in imagination and memory. In another lifetime, I believe, I roamed these same hills, crazy with poppies, as a grizzly bear, before a city was here.
The Greek poet C.P. Cavafy was born in Alexandria and insisted on dying there too. In his poem “The City,” he writes, “You won’t find another country, won’t find another shore.” He writes, “You will always end up in this city.” In New Orleans, perhaps I’m a gentrifier, that urban curse word I hurled at people whom I didn’t want to notice looked familiar. I know I’ll try to be as decent as I can. I know, before all else, that this place doesn’t belong to me, that one day soon, because I’m a lucky one, I’ll find my way home. How dare you feel so entitled! I would think of the tech gentry, swelling with entitlement to the place I was born, simply because I was born there. But I have walked every neighborhood, known every hill. I’ve crossed that mammoth of a bridge that spans the sparkling Bay, I’ve smoked a cigarette on every yuppie’s stoop, and now I know the truth. Here is what entitles us to San Francisco, whether we can manage to stay or not, this and only this: being madly, blindly, blissfully in love with her.
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