My old office chair sat dismantled on the corner of my block. I had released it to the sidewalk earlier that day and it traveled down the street, seemingly on its own, before the legs were taken off and the seat ripped out. Finally, it disappeared altogether.
And so the city absorbed my former life — chairs, old books, inherited knick-knacks, even my nostalgia. A friend asked me recently, “Why San Francisco?”, and I couldn’t form an answer that seemed complete enough. Of course, it’s always easier to understand a place when you’re looking back at it. Thirteen years ago, I came to observe, sing, dance, struggle, love, work, fail, go for broke, and celebrate at the foot of a bohemian Empress.
Having grown up in the country, my contact with American cities was indirect and somewhat limited. But there was something about San Francisco that drew me in — the historic decadence, the scrappy art-makers, the Jack Kerouac lovers, the socio-political edge of America, and all of it wrapped up in a pretty Victorian bow. I came to it like a child reaching for a tactile object, but its layers peeled off in my hands; some of them burned, some of them soothed, but all of them showed me something about myself. I remember driving across the Bay Bridge for the first time, gazing out at the Financial District. I wasn’t expecting the buildings to look so tall and imposing. That wasn’t the San Francisco I had in mind, but there it was.
I lived in a Fort Mason hostel my first month, sleeping on a bunk between street kids and European backpackers. I gaped at the tent cities with my Disneyland eyes, reflecting on the difference between my homelessness and theirs. And after 13 years I am again homeless in my chosen city, and even now I appropriate that word as if I understand it. These are the words San Francisco taught me to use like a big girl — homeless and appropriate.
San Francisco can be reduced to the vignettes of your choosing and I suppose that is one way to wrap your mind around her. They loop in an endless exhibit: Mexican men playing cards around a fold-out table chained to a tree. The freedom in the bodies of young women in funky arcades — owning it before understanding it. Generations of Black San Franciscans flowing through the city like water from an ancient stream, recognized only by those who know it’s there. Tattooed baristas on their way to work, walking over the fresh tar circles of sideshows from the night before. Latino children sitting on laundromat counters. New lovers eating ice cream. The laughter of gay men in public bathrooms. The summer fog spilling out the top of Twin Peaks. The massive arms of the Bay wrapping around the city and reaching into the continent. Drug-ravaged minds staring at the sun. Tech workers. Sex workers. Musicians. Muralists. The nervous loitering of open-mic comedians. The discretion of sidewalk artists. The outsiders, slithering in from everywhere with tongues searching for the smell of money. And all humming the anthem of the free as fuck.
San Francisco is everything good and bad about America. All the most beautiful and terrible things conjurable roll from East to West, gathering speed before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. Every species of repression comes to shed feathers like migratory birds. Here pools all our deepest problems and all our brightest solutions. Here is a cavernous laboratory for every kind of social experiment — some volatile, some harmonious. Pull up a chair; you’ll see a stunning parade of art and culture, and a harrowed walk of capitalist shame. Of all the most complicated places in America, San Francisco is Empress of them all.
I walk through my now empty apartment, the weight of time crumbling the rent-controlled walls and all my truths and secrets absorbing into the carpet with the dust and grime. I look into the bathroom mirror where I had watched myself age from 25 to 38, and smile at myself for what feels like the first time. Of all the most complicated people I’ve ever been, I am Empress of them all.