Ode to San Francisco on My Way to New York

07/29/2011 10:21 am ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011
  • Michael Tong Director of Business Development, Grameen America

When people move to San Francisco, I often hear a lot of disappointment in their tone. Newcomers forlornly discuss what they left behind in places like New York or Chicago -- bustling metropoles where the people and places ooze with intelligence and beauty that can be captured on first glimpse. What they've been told about San Francisco, they imply, is a half-truth. The hippie and hipster cultures exist, but aren't cultures -- they're spectacles, to be looked at from afar in neighborhoods like Haight Ashbury and the Castro. San Francisco is a city with redeeming qualities to be sure -- great views, good restaurants -- but at its core it is simply a mini-version of what they had elsewhere, with an earlier curfew. And more Asians.

This was, in fact, my own impression of the city when I first moved here two years ago from Washington, DC. Having grown up in Oakland, this initial reaction was potentially more devastating because of the nostalgic picture I had painted of the Bay Area in my many years out East. While I no longer believed in Narnia or the tooth fairy, it still seemed plausible that there remained a place where people held hands, danced with reckless abandon, understood each other deeply and wore flowers in their hair... constantly. While being mature and making lots of money. When this dream shattered, I wanted to run from my lost world, back to the east coast and polo shirts and mean people that actually made a kind of cruel sense.

For reasons outside of my control, however, I had to stay in San Francisco. Begrudgingly, I play-acted being a San Franciscan to search for the "true" San Francisco that I somehow had missed. I took classes at Yoga to the People, until the awkwardness of the "Happy Baby Pose" made me lose self-respect. I took a creative writing course at the SF community college, until an older woman forced the class to question our own existence based on a straightforward poem about snow. I even took a job selling apples at the Ferry building farmer's market to supplement my income, until I accidentally spent $20 on suspiciously chicken-like "duck" eggs.

One Saturday morning, feeling defeated, I found myself riding the N-Judah towards Ocean Beach through the Sunset District. The Sunset District had always seemed gloomy to me; the houses are tightly packed and gray, constantly draped in a lazy fog that never dissipates and suggests that the inhabitants have a dull ache to be elsewhere. The area seemed an apt metaphor for my impression of San Francisco: slow-moving and lost.

The train ride ended up being much longer than I expected, and blocks and blocks of bunched houses rolled past as I impatiently waited to get to the beach. Occasionally, I would see an old man sitting on a stoop or a couple watching television. When I finally arrived, I sat on the dunes sipping coffee and contemplating the irony of this lost place being the area that most San Franciscans actually lived.

As I sat staring off into the distance, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and an old high-school friend said hello. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was sitting and thinking. "Oh," he replied. Not, "Oh, what a loser with nothing to do," nor, "Oh, I understand, my kindred soul pirate on the Sea of Discovery." Just, "Oh." We talked, and he left. And thus my love affair with San Francisco was rekindled.

When I'm asked to explain this love, I normally leave out the prologue and skip to specifics. I high-five people about mutual friends at Google and Facebook, and talk vaguely about how it would be nice to work there. I talk about the pupusas at Off the Grid, the salads at Burma Superstar, the dancing at Little Baobab, the free concerts at Stern Grove or the hipster grit of Dolores Park. I talk about the hiking at Land's End or the hot sun in Napa.

But these explanations mask an inability, or perhaps refusal, to explain what is really to love about this city. Perhaps I am perpetuating the myth that leaves so many newcomers disappointed. If I had the courage, I would describe other things. I would describe the weary eyes of an aging hippie and the way that courage is born from naïveté. I would describe the walk up to the peak of Corona Heights, and the silence that falls on those that reach the summit. I would describe the difference between everyday fog, and the mist that settles in the panhandle at dusk. I would explain that people grasping for too much have a hard time finding their footing here. I would describe the succulents, the slow growing cacti that survive draught and flood, that grace the doorsteps of nearly every apartment in San Francisco.

If I had the courage, I would explain the reason that I will come back here after graduate school. Simply put, I am lost, and at least San Francisco allows me to start with that assumption. This acceptance, I believe, is the dull ache many great SF writers describe as romance and many SF inhabitants use as their inspiration for weirdness. In this city, I can sit, staring, at the beach, in a coffee shop, or out my front window, and no one will ever, ever make me stop. San Francisco knows the way to be found, and is begging me, is begging you, to discover it.