Pigeons, horns, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, roaring construction generators. Knots of people walking quickly and determinedly, often gazing into a smart phone, or lost in a private world of sound from earbuds. A man yelling at the top of his lungs “TREAT BLACK VETERANS BETTER!” Trash jewelry and tacky artwork sold on sidewalk tables. Six unfamiliar languages. Tourists walking around in shorts, on a typical foggy 55-degree summer day. People going through trash cans. No one meets my gaze. Except for the people who immediately ask for money.
I grew up in this city by the bay, a place that is so familiar I can tell a story about something that happened to me on every block of Market Street. Now I’m making new stories, but they aren’t as pleasant. Both San Francisco and I have changed a lot in 40 years, and I find myself teasing apart the details.
The city is more vibrant in many ways, with the influx of tech and millennials. More and better restaurants, interesting bars, youth and vigor and money and higher rents. More bicycles and motorcycles and skateboards. Fewer people wearing suits and heels. It’s more crowded now than ever, with more than 840,000 residents, 200,000 more than in the ’90’s. When I got here, there were lots of people with long hair, including me when I came back from college. Back then, people smoked dope publicly, and the gay scene was a thriving, unique visual and cultural feast on Polk Street and in the Castro. Cars, buses and trucks burn cleaner now, so the pervasive smell of auto exhaust is much milder. And many buildings and sidewalks have been renovated beautifully, stone walls cleaned of diesel soot, less trash in the street.
I on the other hand, have been living in Marin for almost 30 years, and love the open space, the quiet at my house, the clean air, and the way folks will meet my gaze and smile and greet. I know all my neighbors, unlike my years of living in the city. I like the parts of me that enjoy the quiet and smiling at people, and I feel resentful that contact in SF is generally rewarded by an outstretched hand.
After two full days of this, I did something rare for me, I indulged in retail therapy. On impulse, walking past Goorin’s on Union Square, I ducked in and found a linen cap, something I’ve been keeping an eye out for since the new year. They had exactly what I wanted, in my size, and the friendly salesperson and I agreed that the cap looks great on me.
As I walked down Geary towards the bus that would take me home, earing my new possession, I realize that I look a little iconic, wearing this, and muse how nearly everyone in SF has a look about them that defines who they are in some way. This has been true as long as I’ve lived here, and feels more pronounced in the city than any other place I’ve been, except perhaps Paris or the French District of New Orleans. In the early ’70’s it was color and bell bottoms and jewelry; now it’s unique hair and tattoos and piercings and shoes.
And hats, a minor but ever-present element of style. I’m the only guy I see on my walk today wearing a cap like this, although I do see a fedora, knit and baseball caps, and a few hard hats at the construction sites. I feel somehow more comfortable in my iconic identity, as though it’s an accommodation that creates some space between me and everyone else, without having to withdraw into numbness. Perhaps this is an essential element to life in San Francisco, where my senses are bombarded so heavily that I have a hard time staying open and receptive, smiling at strangers.