In a few weeks I leave San Francisco for good. As I begin to pack away my belongings, my mind begins to replay my past 9 months and marvel at the vast distances travelled since college graduation, physically, emotionally, intellectually.
Saying goodbye is difficult. I will miss San Francisco, no doubt about it. This hilly city possesses a timeless beauty unparalleled by any other. Who can resist falling in love with the area after biking across the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny day and then lounging at a seaside cafe for a delectable brunch? Whose heart is not filled with joy and awe after driving up the Pacific Coast Highway before sunset? Surely, biking up to Twins Peaks to watch the sunrise above the fog will forever rank among my most sublime memories.
My love for San Francisco is much akin to a lover’s infatuation, however. At first she seemed perfect. Her beauty was awe-inspiring and her quirkiness seductive. The new life with her promised redemption. Yet, spring-time obsession disappoints as the layers of intrigue peel away. After all no city can be truly, completely ideal. Underneath the surface beauty of San Francisco, there is much poverty and apathy.
Life in San Francisco is good for someone with a decent income. In fact, making life better seems to be the chief concern of this city. Love for good food and wine and the outdoors is near universal. Listen closely to conversations and you will find a strong desire to make life easier, be it the hipsters who languish in Dolores Park, the yuppies who ski in Tahoe, or the techies who obsess about mobile apps. The question of utmost importance here is whether the weather permits spending time outdoors. There is something wonderful about this epicurean life; there is also something disappointing about it.
For a city that prides itself on its dense diversity, the various communities are severely segregated; there are very discrete neighborhoods and social scenes. The rich locate themselves in inaccessible areas such as Pac Heights or Nob Hill, while the mentally unstable drug addicts are left to expire at the foot of those same hills in the Tenderloin. The city’s elite either are shielded themselves from this ugliness or have grown apathetic. While every New Yorker I’ve met has an opinion about Mayor Bloomberg and the city government, San Franciscans seem to rarely think about theirs. Perhaps because so many San Franciscan are from out of town or elsewhere in the Bay, local civic discourse seems oddly absent.
What is most unique about San Francisco is the tendency of its residents towards Utopian views. Not that Utopianism is necessarily bad. This city’s capacity to imagine alternative worlds is generative of great music, art, technologies, and even political movements. There are technology visionaries in both the large software companies and fledgling start-ups who are solving genuinely big problems. Many folks here who are passionate fighting for causes they believe in, be it homelessness reduction, environmental affairs, or sustainable foods. This is the city that inspired Harvey Milk to begin the fight for gay rights, after all.
This delusional attitude is both refreshing and unsatisfying. It is too easy to lose a grip on reality and live in an imagined land of love and understanding, with drug use and stunning urban beauty around every corner. Too often the newest start-up is merely a concatenation of buzzwords, and the idealistic hippy too often lacks an deep understanding of how the world works. Though I have only begun to get to know San Francisco, I wonder if its blind idealism is any better than cynicism. Shortly after I moved here I began to miss the no-bullshit gruffness of Boston and the cerebral focus of Cambridge. I suspect New England sensibility is too much in my blood for me for me to truly become San Franciscan.
The unraveling of a romance prompts soul-searching. In August I arrived in San Francisco after the end of a long relationship. I was lost and introspective. In the intervening months I came to know San Francisco. I have also grown much as an individual.
One big lesson I learned is how much effort it takes to lead a fulfilling life. Perhaps I have been spoiled, having grown up in a loving and comfortable family. It took me by surprise how hard it is to be able to do things that I love and to surround myself with people that make me happy. There are the difficult decisions: changing jobs, moving to new cities, ending relationships. There are also the mundane but necessary activities of adult life: the utilities bill, credit cards, finding housing and roommates in a tight market. I survey people around me and I realize that very few people successfully design a happy life for themselves, even the perpetually sunny Californians. Being fulfilled is something one needs to continually work for.
Another big lesson I have internalized is how much better life is when you have good friends. Through the difficulties I have encountered I have been lifted up by friends from yore as well as by friends that I have made here. I have sought advice and help and then received much more from them. If there is one reason that my departure feels premature, it is that I am foregoing many opportunities for deeper friendship with people I have encountered here. I aspire to become a better friend and a person who can be there for my friends when they need me, and I can only hope to find another nice community of friends as I have here.
I leave San Francisco a little older, perhaps wiser, certainly more hopeful. Like me San Francisco is changing and growing. Tech start-ups are migrating into the city. Various neighborhoods are being rapidly redeveloped. People from all around the globe are immigrating here. San Francisco will become increasingly cosmopolitan, which I believe will also help it flourish. I am hopeful that San Francisco will come to address its imperfections and become an international cultural center like Tokyo or New York. In any case it will always remain the beautiful city that I have left part of my heart in.
Next stops: Yosemite - LA - Flagstaff - Grand Canyon - Las Vegas - then finally and more permanently - Hyde Park, Chicago