It was the light and hills that first got me, then the scale of the place: a big tub of won-ton soup at a dive on Jackson Street in Chinatown for a buck 20, the bars, the burritos, and bookstores. It was a place you could walk around in, where people did, in fact, walk around.
Some places you just cotton to; it’s chemistry, like sexual attraction. I was smitten with San Francisco straightaway. Other places can have quite the opposite effect. Toronto and Minneapolis, for instance, Protestant fortresses of commerce and boosterism, make me so uncomfortable and depressed that I experience something like a low-grade flu while visiting them. Wellington, New Zealand, on the other hand, succeeds in making me quite as giddy and buoyant as Paris does.
After 23 years, much of my ardor for the place has eroded. These things are inevitable, I suppose. Had I been able to afford a townhouse on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village (a long-held pipe dream), even that magnificent circumstance might have, over the course of time, become tainted by over-familiarity. Regardless, if I don’t get out of town with some regularity, to London or New York, say, my heart begins to sink and my soul to mildew. The prospect of staying here for a year or two on end with no extended voyages to a livelier metropolis fills me with dread. The vapor of self-satisfied stupefaction that envelops this place like its summer fogs; the impacted, impenetrable, and resolute provincialism that wears a mask of studied languidness; it all comes to weigh heavily on my spirits. People here will be cross with me for saying so. If you don’t love San Francisco—volubly, utterly, and all the time—you are an ingrate and turncoat. “Go back to where you came from,” the good San Franciscan will testily volunteer.
By now, I have my well-trodden goat paths through the city. So much so that when I wander off them, as I did the other night with my friend Maureen to grab a burger, the place hardly felt to me like San Francisco at all, at least my idea of it. All of my notions about the place were reduced to only so much foolishness.
You won’t find West Portal, Maureen’s neighborhood and hamburger haven, on any tourist map, though it’s really quite central, just over the hill from us here in the Haight, which is the geographical center of town. Nor do I suppose there’s any real reason to visit the district if you’re an out-of-towner with conventional touristic aspirations. Nothing out of the ordinary or worth being photographed in front of can readily be found there, at least to my knowledge. It is a pleasant enough residential area, middle-class, ordinary working stiffs. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods with a second-rate downtown. West Portal is a neighborhood-neighborhood. People grow up and die there and leave their homes to the next generation, which does likewise.
West Portal, unlike much of the rest of the city, is a friendly, unpretentious place. Actually, it’s a bit more like the rest of America—America’s better self—than San Francisco, which prides itself on its otherness from the American mainstream, its eccentricities, its “liberal views,” its cultivation and pseudo-Europeanness.
Now, don’t get me wrong: 364 days a year I would prefer the precious, silly, picture-postcard-pretty San Francisco with its cable cars and fog and sourdough bread and all the rest of the nonsense. But, you know, sometimes a boy just needs a good old-fashioned hamburger and fries.
I hope it doesn’t kill me, the burger I mean. You know, this mad cow business. Of course, I wouldn’t know for several years, would I? One day down the road I wake up with a nasty headache and start moo-mooing around the apartment, bumping into walls, my knees buckling. … I don’t consider myself a hypochondriac. But Maureen did imply, rather unkindly I thought, over dinner that maybe I was, which I interpreted as impugning my stoical, masculine self-image. But these sorts of unpleasantnesses pass.
No, my goat paths don’t normally range in the direction of West Portal. There’s my own neighborhood—Haight Street, Cole Valley—for shopping, coffee, a drink, all that. I’ll head off to the Inner Sunset for a video, a loaf of bread, a visit to Black Oak Books. Or the Richmond district on the other side of Golden Gate Park, for a good Shanghai-style feed at the Fountaincourt, maybe hit Green Apple books, the Chinese market, maybe indulge in a Bushmills with half a Guinness back at the Plough and Stars, or grab half a dozen sour pickles at the Cinderella Russian Bakery and Tearoom.
I also need to visit the Mission district with some regularity for my La Cumbre burritos. They’re the secret to my strength, longevity, and creative power. Then I have to go to North Beach for any number of things: bookstores, cafes, bars, restaurants. (Is a pattern emerging?) And if I’m courting, I will probably drag the poor woman around North Beach at some point in order to share with her my favorite haunts. But those I shall keep to myself, so please don’t ask.