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Topic #24
San Francisco Falling Down

When Janet and I first decided to take the plunge and make the move to San Francisco, we did our research on what the city was like. Actually, what we did was watch television shows set in California and read through a couple of websites talking about life in California.

When we first came to San Francisco to scout out apartments and jobs, we found the weather to be beautiful. The food was amazing… I ate burritos almost every day. By the time we left to finalize our affairs in Boston (and to graduate college&#41, we felt that San Francisco was the perfect place to live.

Landing in Boston confirmed our feelings. When we left San Francisco, it was a cool 60 degrees. When we landed at Logan International Airport, it was snowing. Again.

The first year in San Francisco, we reveled in the fantastic weather. We spent Christmas in Napa wearing shorts and t-shirts. Well, Janet was wearing a short little plaid skirt… but I digress. When our relatives called us from Connecticut to tell us how bad the winter was, we would rub it in by telling them that we were wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Yeah, we were cruel, but so what? If they didn’t like shoveling wet snow every day, they could move just like we did.

In San Francisco, we didn’t have any snow. We didn’t have thunderstorms or hurricanes. San Francisco wasn’t prone to tornadoes or even spells of extreme heat. We were living in a 65 degree paradise. Even the fog was charming.

The second year in San Francisco, we had a horribly hot summer. We had fans running 24 hours a day at the house. Since offices in the City weren’t prepared for the extreme heat, they didn’t have strong enough air conditioners. The Director of the division where I worked changed the dress policy from ties and slacks to tank tops and shorts.

So, for two months, we would go to work wearing as little as humanly possible. Unfortunately, at 3:30pm, the fog would start to roll in. Fog is San Francisco’s natural air conditioner. By 4pm, the temperature would drop to 60 degrees, which meant that when we left the office, we would freeze. Every morning, we would say that we should bring sweaters for the afternoon… then we would start sweating before we finished getting dressed and we would decided that we didn’t want to haul the sweater to the office… yadda yadda yadda. Then we would leave to catch the bus home and just like every other night, we would freeze.

The third year, we just decided that the weather was just too boring. Since there were no season changes, the leaves never turned color, the grass never died, nothing ever changed. That was the year that we also realized what happens when a city doesn’t get rain on a regular basis.

No, we’re not talking about anything like a drought. I mean, as long as there is bottled water, Gatorade and Amstel Light, the average San Franciscan would never go thirsty. We’re talking about the other things that you take for granted about the rain.

First off, Rain is nature’s natural air cleaner and ionizer. You know how the air smells after a drizzle? That’s right… it smells great. All of the pollutants are sucked out of the air… and the little pollen pieces that makes me sneeze are nowhere to be found (ok, the mold comes after the rain ends, but I’m not that allergic to mold&#41.

Also, rain cleans the shit off of the streets. All of that dog shit and piss that covers the sidewalks gets cleaned by the rain. Since we don't have regular rain, the city has a program where sidewalk cleaners come out with compressed hot water and steam clean the crap off of the sidewalks. They usually do this early in the morning.

Once a month during our third year in San Francisco, they decided to steam clean the area by the bus stop at 6:30 am. Unfortunately, we were catching the 6:30am bus that year. So, that one morning, each month, we would walk out to a steamy dried piss and puke filled fog cloud. Mmm. What a way to start the morning. It was absolutely disgusting.

So, now we're about five months into our fifth year in San Francisco. We haven't gotten any thunderstorms or hurricanes. However, we've been in the middle of an extreme cold snap the last few weeks… cold enough for frost in the city. On top of that, last week there was an earthquake. Follow that by a couple days of torrential rain and a tornado in the East Bay. Then we had the power failure on one of the coldest days of the month on Tuesday.

What next? Locusts?

To someone from the East Coast, the state of California seems like another country, if not a whole other planet, what with all its Hollywood and Beverly Hills mansions and wineries and famous people and the Spellings and whatnot. When I was growing up in small-town New England, people who had the money to spend on vacations went to the exciting city of Orlando, Florida, with all of its Disney World and later, Epcot Center and MGM Studios, and beaches and hot weather and alligators and bad-smelling water. Back then, it seemed highly unlikely that your average East Coast resident would even want – or need – to venture all the way over to the opposite side of the country, never mind to the vastly famous state of California.

Evidently, I'm not the only one who entertained this thought, because the first question out of everybody's mouth (and I do mean everybody's — I must have answered that question two hundred times by now&#41 when they find out that we moved here from the East is "and what brought you to California?" Truth be told, we moved out here totally on a whim, less than 24 hours after our college graduation ceremony for no real reason in particular. Being fresh out of college we figured that we had to find a job anyway, and California seemed just as good a place as any, so why not? We knew someone moving out here, he had a 24-foot moving van with only 9 feet of stuff, and the rest is history.

As we began to meet people in San Francisco, we started to wonder if there was anyone living in the city who was actually born and raised here. Most people are transplants, leaving the cities and towns where they've grown up and somehow ending up here. When I think of all the people I know, only two or three grew up in the Bay Area. This city's weird that way.

Alluringly weird is how I would describe my experience when we visited San Francisco for the first time, right before we moved out here. The city seemed like something out of a storybook — the people and attitudes were so vibrant and colorful, the vibe was strange and laid-back; totally the opposite from the preppy, stuffy, conservative mannerisms of New England. It was intimidating and very different, yet when our week was up and our plane took off due East, I looked down onto the city's lights and felt sad to go, like I had already gotten attached to something that I couldn't quite identify.

The actual process of living here was a different story altogether. What once seemed so new and exciting on our visit only served to constantly annoy me in the beginning. Laid-back started to seem like just plain lazy and apathetic. Colorful personalities were really just crazy, homeless ex-hippies who constantly harassed passers-by and peed on the street. It took me nearly a year to stop hating this city and all of its liberal-minded, meandering ways. For the next couple of years I suppose that I grew to like it, and would inexplicably defend it to anyone who I heard mention even the slightest criticism of my city, but now I'm beginning to feel the slow rise of the bile of annoyance yet again, and I'm wondering if I should just stop playing with fate and go back to the East Coast where I was born and where maybe I belong, only I just don't realize it yet.

SInce this city has a history of drawing creative people to it like moths to a flame, what you end up with is a conglomeration of opinionated, creative, often high-strung (or strung-out&#41 people, people who were the losers and outcasts in high school who are searching for a place that they can finally feel like they fit somewhere. Believe you me, you will find no shortage of ex-band geeks and tortured souls here. San Francisco is beyond overcrowded. Apartment buildings full of people are literally wall-to-wall, lining street upon street upon street. There are no lawns or flower beds (though people do try, planting things into the occasional crack in the sidewalk&#41, and the only nature we ever get to see is when we go to Golden Gate Park, one of the only city-sponsored patches of grass.

We have a mayor who is a media hound who is completely out of touch with the plight of the common man, and who has appeared in People, guest-starred on Suddenly Susan, and showed up on the Playboy's list of the Best Dressed Men of 1998. We hear more about his hats and where he shops than his policies. We have a public transportation system that, despite having the second-highest paid employees in the country, barely runs. The city is so overcrowded that in order to do something as simple as go out to dinner, you need to decide what cuisine you will crave and what time you will crave it a week in advance, or risk waiting in line for at least 30 minutes, no matter what you choose. Gentrification is running rampant; rents are skyrocketing and forcing people onto the street. With roughly one Starbucks or Jamba Juice per city block, these newly-minted homeless and their army of previously-homeless brethren have even nicer storefronts to sleep in and shinier corners to stand upon. We live in a place where the earth moves under our feet without warning.

When people ask me "what brought us out to California" they're looking for a reason and I usually try to give them one. The funny thing is, not one of them has offered their own reasons in return, and I've never asked. But now I'm beginning to wonder, what is it about this place?

Posted in Topics of the Week (1990s).

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