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Zachary Ehren

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SOMA Isn't a Drug: San Francisco Geography 101

Posted: 09/29/11 05:52 PM ET

My education on the city's geography began the day I moved to San Francisco. Like most pupils, I procrastinated in studying until the very last moment and tried going to class with minimal preparation. I found myself lost in the middle of the new city. Measuring only 46.9 square miles, SF still seemed to have more neighborhoods than Los Angeles, which seems to encompass half of Southern California. People talked of the inner Richmond, Upper and Lower Haight, Duboce Triangle, South of Market Street (SOMA), the Castro, the Tenderloin, the Mission, etc, etc... It was all a multiple-choice test I had not prepared for.



Week one's assignment on the syllabus included immersing myself in the city and taking mental notes of the neighborhoods I passed through. Luckily this assignment came with a cheat sheet by the name of Google Maps. There was nothing in the rulebook telling me not to use it so I plugged the address of City Lights Bookstore into my iPhone and hopped on the Muni train line to China Town. Walking up Kearney Street surrounded by the countless gift shops of imported chotchkies, I felt more confident in the surrounding geography and started to believe that my education would go more smoothly than I originally anticipated. Soon enough, I was walking on the floors of the bookstore that was a hangout for the late San Francisco professors like Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassidy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and many others. If I obtained half of the education they did about this great city, I would be happier than the out-of-towners driving Segways down the street as they receive guided tours of the city.



After a few weeks, the class progressed normally and I was becoming a stellar student. I learned that the Mission has excellent Hispanic food and thrift store shopping. The Marina is great for high quality bars. The Tenderloin has great concert venues, classic architecture, and a large supply of vagabond locals with interesting perspectives on reality. My ego was growing, thanks to my newly acquired knowledge, and I started to believe I would graduate first in my class... until a pop quiz took me by surprise.



I received a text from Chuck, "Prepartyin' around 8 or 9 at 22/Guerrero."



I got dressed and left the door at 8:00 so I wouldn't be too early or late. My cheat sheet said it would be a twenty-five minute walk. So I threw on my headphones, headed out the door and started walking east down Haight Street. As always, Google was spot-on and I arrived at 22 Guerrero in a little over twenty minutes. I wasn't exactly sure which door to knock on, so I gave Chuck a ring. He was confused when I told him where I was. It was then that I realized I had slept in on the day they gave a lesson on the directional lingo used in San Francisco. "22/Guerrero" wasn't the address, but the intersection of the streets 22nd and Guerrero. I was a good mile and half away.



I shook off the failed grade and decided to hit the books for the upcoming midterm. My dear friend from Ohio was coming for a visit and if I wanted a solid grade, I couldn't get either of us lost during her short holiday. To prepare, I had conversations with past graduates on places to go and routes to take and went to the maps when I needed to verify the location of different attractions. By the time she arrived, I felt like a pseudo-local. We went to Fisherman's Wharf to see the seals and envisioned Nicolas Cage running around "The Rock" in the short distance over the Pacific. We walked around Haight-Ashbury for window-shopping and to purchase limited release albums at Amoeba Records. On the last night, we went to little Tokyo for some cheese-corn and shots of the Korean vodka, Soju. When she flew back home, I realized I passed the midterm with flying colors. San Francisco's geography was starting to become more familiar.



Two months into my education, I am still learning. The semester is far from over and I know there will be more pop quizzes thrown my way. In the meantime, I will continue to use my cheat sheet to wander throughout the town, attend workshops at bars in neighborhoods I haven't visited yet, and pick the brains of past graduates so that one day I can call myself a San Francisco alumnus.