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Love as a place
a clutch of roses dropped in a Capp Street crosswalk
I was born in San Francisco, and even though I’ve traveled so much that really, I’ve been most places—the fact is, I grew up a City kid, and I’ve spent far more time here in San Francisco than anywhere else, by far. From where I live now across the water in Sausalito, the City appears as a singular mass of darkness and lights—a million anonymous ants all up in their hive—and still, I feel always part of its barely-distant domain. The marine layer makes its way in from the Pacific, wraps the land in wet gauze and conjures a crystalline palace of emergent memory.
There’s no use for me in comparing San Francisco to other cities in terms of culture, let alone diversity, or aliveness. I’m a native, and I am a loyal son, but those are not our real strengths here. San Francisco doesn’t jostle you with jocular cab-driver wisdom, short—or even colorful—skirts, and you’re not likely to hear a friendly hey buddy on your way to coffee. We may have more restaurants than any other American city, but I bet you can find better late-night Korean right down the road in Daly City, and I still haven’t run across a real-deal Schezuan that satisfies like the one I know in London.
My San Francisco can feel quiet and lonely, a slow, old and grey town—and it is, but it’s also a place of alive with of subtle and dramatic variations in the neighborhoods, and in the infinitely varying microclimates that are funneled and sheltered by the topography of the place. There’s always a sense of discovery, of something just over the next hill, or emerging in the distance. The shape of this place is the deep source of her timeless glow of allure and opportunity, and is an example known world-wide of how the spiritual essence of a place is embodied in, and derives from, its physical form.
Geography, for me, is always where place begins.
Before people lay on their aspirations, architecture, commerce, history, and endless debris, any place must have its roots in the angles and colors, the curves, textures and windswept whispers of a physical place. When I think of some of my other favorite cities—Rio, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Palermo, Venice, or Kyoto—I always see the topography first. The views of the sea, the inclines and descents, the rivers and canals—all of it taken together, as seen from above. Sure, there are cities that thrive despite their lack of interesting geography—starting right here in California with that place down south that was first synonymous with “sprawl”—but it’s harder to think of one that’s well situated and doesn’t have the shine to match.
There’s no single formula for a world-class city. Whatever it is though, there’s no denying that San Francisco has always been just that, and also that it’s always been known first of all for its hills and fog, and then for the bay, the bridges and islands. Everything else that’s come since—from the avenues lofted in long lines that echo the hull-forms of however-many thousand westbound ships, and all the dreams of the men that arrived upon them, to the titanic fortunes of fur, steel, gold, and glass imagined, created and destroyed so many times over—is all built atop the natural beauty of this place.
Often enough when I’m out there in the Bay, spun this way and that by the currents rushing in through the Gate, I end up with a full mouthful of sea water. I don’t spit it out! That stuff is precious—and so well seasoned that I drink it like soup.
The shape is what’s underneath it all, but there’s something much more than that too. Whenever I find myself driving south across the bridge, down 16th Street towards the flats of the Mission, up the steep ridge that divides the Castro from Noe Valley, down the back side of Potrero towards Dogpatch, timing the lights northbound on Franklin, or cruising the Great Highway where the city meets the ocean, I feel the intimate layer of lived experience swelling in my chest.
Whatever it is that the centipedes of shivering visitors on their ponderous and ill-fitting bicycles take away in tiny squares inside their oversized phones, it cannot contain even a fragment of the hidden world that I travel within, which only grows richer and more dense with time, an infinitely in-folded and interconnected collection of pinpointed personal meaning. Immersive, resonant and unseen—but not to me—and of course there are all of you, with your own memories that remain invisible to me.
I see a clutch of roses dropped in a Capp Street crosswalk, one stem broken, petals scattered against the black. I see the flickering light of a television left on ‘till dawn as I wrap rubber bands around papers, and I smell greasy grey newsprint on my fingers. I can see a double slice of Cybelle’s pepperoni, a square of clam pie from Golden Boy, a full cheese in a box from Bus Stop. I hear the creak and squeal of streetcars making their way around a bend in the J Church tracks, and the clack-clack-clack of skateboard wheels on concrete sidewalk. I feel great gusts of salty air seeking the seams of my clothing, and the windblown grains of sand collecting in my ears. I wrap my hands around the plastic joystick of a Pac Man console in the old Transbay bus terminal video arcade, a stack of dirty quarters heavy in my pocket. I hear men catcalling from balconies, the old telephone ringing in my back bedroom, and the ping of a basketball in the back court of the nextdoor firehouse. I can taste the hot black coffee at Farley’s.
Most vibrant of all are the places outlined in the throbbing, hot-blooded red of love. On that map I’ve circled my first girlfriend’s mother’s place up on Bernal hill, right next to the Hells Angels clubhouse. We’d tangle for hours after school under a thin blanket on the sofa—sweaty, delighted, and desperate, stars dancing above the stereo with that first Violent Femmes LP set to repeat. A red arrow points out one specific place among the Hayes Street storefronts, lit to blinding by the afternoon sun, where I was dazzled, years later and still very much in my youth, by a run-in with someone I’d met long before that in the foul basement of Nickie’s, on Haight, just east of Fillmore. A red star marks the Big Four, the way it used to be, with a huge panoramic photo of San Francisco taken in the 1890’s from the very same spot. You could stand there and see the old city all around you on your way to the bar for two rye Manhattans—one for each of us, and a twenty for the piano player.
My heart holds a mark for everywhere I’ve ever been—and just like me, that map runs its way right around the whole damn world, and it always ends up right back here. For me it’s always been the shape of the place that matters most. Not more than love, but love happens somewhere, and with every year I’m more aware that as much as it pains me to not give more to all the other places that lie so far away, most of all, love is right here, today.
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