The moment I stepped off the train at Mission and 24th Street and everything smelled like tacos, I knew I was going to like this place. San Francisco hooked me quickly, and hard. Walking down the street that first afternoon, I felt like I was back in the Brooklyn of my memory with its riot of Mexican eateries, its music and colors and windows full of cheap baked goods. Here a hipster bagel spot, there a brewery in stainless steel, and the sidewalks full of people out and about for who knows what reason on a Thursday afternoon, all clutching iced coffees despite the cool spring air not quite dispelled in even the sunniest sidewalk patches.
But coming from Berlin’s last wet, winter thrust, even the feeble sunshine felt like a blanket, open and spread out on the lawn, bedecked with a picnic lunch and maybe even a bottle or two of wine.
Here’s what I didn’t do in San Francisco: I didn’t ride the cable cars, I didn’t see the painted ladies or walk down Lombard Street. I didn’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf. I didn’t have oysters.
What I did do in San Francisco was walk. I had been told, upon arrival, that public transportation was inefficient and probably wouldn’t take me anywhere I wanted to go. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I didn’t question the edict, and by the time I found out that there are, in fact, opportunities for getting around that don’t involve blistered feet or ordering a car, it was too late, the damage had been done. In my mind, San Francisco was a city of walking only.
On my very first day, I walked sixteen miles from the Mission nearly all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I meandered, watching the city change from neighborhood to neighborhood without ever really knowing where I was and with nothing more to guide me than a vague pull north. I walked up bougie Valencia, hooked a right somewhere, ran into a remarkably imposing church, and accidentally passed by City Hall. I wove my way through the mall in Japan Town, and famished, sat in the smallest of parks with a pastrami bagel for lunch.
I hit my first “hill” at Divisadero, gamely starting the ascent with something like speed, slowing to a vertical crawl upon the crest. I found the houses of the very rich spilling over the hilltop, clawing for the best views of the breathtaking clutter below: the architecture of San Francisco pristine and perfectly gabled from up high, water everywhere, generously blue, the hump of the Fine Arts Theater beckoning like a misplaced Athenian spaceship. It seemed like as good a goal as any. So I kept walking north, into the Presidio, headed for the bridge. I nearly made it, too, but a text from a friend recalled me from my northward trek. Because from where I was, to make it to the Haight in time on foot, I’d have to turn back south.
I took a strange road out of the Presidio, where there were only half-hearted sidewalks crumbling alongside the speeding cars and tumbled down towards Golden Gate Park. There, skirting its edges, I passed noisy bros playing beer pong in the shade of the Conservatory – it seemed to be a kind of reminder, on my first full day in America, that I was no longer in Germany. By the time I made it to the Haight and sat down, my feet were raw and blistered, despite the Band-Aids I’d bought and slapped on my heels.
I did not walk very much the next day. But it didn’t take long before I was back on my feet.
Besides walking, what I spent most of my time in San Francisco doing was sitting in Dolores Park. Perhaps not even the most spectacular of all of the city’s green spaces, it was central to where I was staying; it was the park all roads seemed to lead back to. It reminded me a little of Berlin’s Görlitzer Park replanted with palm trees; there was the city, crammed onto blankets at the slightest provocation of sun, the attitude one of wild abandon, a safe haven from whatever work happened outside that sanctuary of green.
Maybe I loved San Francisco because it was a city full of people I loved from an arc of different times in my life: friends from Davidson, from Australia, from New York, from Berlin, and each of them opened up the city to me in their own way. I was constantly being handed treasures, Bi-Rite sandwiches and a lazy lunch at Fieldwork brewery in Berkley, Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, a golden, warm evening at Frances, afternoons of singing in the park, fancy cocktails at Trick Dog, and too many mint-garnished coffees from Philz to count. Rarely has my heart felt so open to a place so quickly, so willing and wanting to swoon.
Of course, as a tourist, it’s easy to stay on the city’s bright side. I caught glimpses now and then of a darker San Francisco – the shocking price of rent, the homelessness, maybe even a little unsustainable, even dangerously idyllic exuberance. But then I’d recall walking along the paths past the Sutro Baths, the wind brisk and cool blowing off the bay, my hair whipped across my face and my heart and mind at peace the way it always is on water, where the vast expanse of wave and swell reaches out, endlessly moving somewhere.
On Easter Sunday, I went singing in Golden Gate Park just as the afternoon sun was melting into evening and the last Hunky Jesus contestants were drifting through the park in flashes of sequined robes and glitter thongs. Throughout my week in San Francisco, I kept telling people it was my first time in California – but that wasn’t entirely true. I was born in Santa Monica, and though I don’t remember it much – my strongest memory is the feel of AstroTurf under my feet in the student-family housing courtyard – in the back of my mind, California feels like a home I might have had. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the song “California.” Because for as long as I’ve been singing it, I’ve been in other places, looking west and wondering about the constellations beneath which I was born. Singing “California” in the warmth of that state’s sun felt, like Joni says, a little bit like coming home.
Thanks to Amy Lee, Angelique Hering, and Laura Zulliger for the use some of the photos/video in this post!