One part of me will always be on my roof in the Sunset District, smoking with my human butt on a damp spot, my cigarette butt about to rest on a similarly moist shingle. I liked to be at the same height as the trees of Golden Gate Park, many of which seemed to me to be fake – too perfectly erect, with a few bristly branches veering off their tops, obscuring the cameras that no doubt were trained on some nearby subversive.
Speaking of which – across the street was a house full of porn, one recently deceased man’s immense personal archive of Playboys and Hustlers dating back to their first tentatively covered issues. My friends had subleased the place from him, and had a bawdy in-memoriam party for their departed landlord full of pizza, severe haircuts, and uncomfortably placed pornography. By then, this was less surprising than tiring. At the previous week’s party I had won a skateboard jousting contest dressed as a medieval plague doctor. I went back to my room with its Valhalla rafters and view of Mount Sutro, rising like a furry head from behind the lit-up University of California San Francisco. At night, all the blazing windows made it nearly impossible to sleep, and I would wake at 2 am convinced I was underwater, looking up at the white underbelly of a boat.
Sometime around the time I tried to start smoking – and it was hard, much harder to start than to quit, because no matter what, I seemed to embarrass myself; the thing would go out because I had forgotten to keep inhaling from it, I would burn holes in my clothing, feel compelled to spit every thirty seconds like I was chewing a wad of tobacco – I received what Ahmed, reincarnation of King Tut and resident breastplate weaver of San Francisco, termed an Egyptian baptism.
Ahmed chased after me one blurry morning during my brief housesit in the Mission District, where the sunlight and number of young people stretched richly right up to 17th Street’s vertical ascent, and then descent, into the Sunset. After that, the fog and families settled wetly into houses against the edge of the Pacific.
One Steven Sloan, MD, had recently and permanently eliminated my tonsils, two engorged ornaments that had thus far served as dependably gloomy harbingers of chronic throat infections. I could barely speak, and laughs emerged as thin, whistling wheezes. I ingested things like hot cucumber water, hot to simulate soup, which would be calorically gratifying but impossible for its chunkiness. Luckily, I was not yet working in cafes and restaurants, which would, after about two years of nonstop conversing, throw me back into a similar but more embittered state of silence. Instead, I was working at a naming company, which gave new monikers to things like blueberry varieties, volunteer coast guard forces, canine energy drinks, and retirement planning software. During my tonsillectomy recovery, though, I walked daily between the city’s extremes trying in vain to become addicted to cigarettes. To have something to do, and think about, and to be good at. I remember whispering to myself while lighting cigarettes the way you would to a nervous horse: calming, reassuring, preparing the beast for some new hurdle.
I was walking; Ahmed called after me something about my aura and told me he wanted to give me a spiritual reading. I knew before I had finished turning around that I would not be able to say no, not for my physical inability but because I was damn tired of expending all the energy it took to live in San Francisco. Or I was damn tired of withholding from the city that last bit of energy I had reserved for myself, maybe.
As Ahmed and I strolled across Dolores Street, he spoke about his dual life as a half-Haitian High Priest and the reincarnation of King Tutankhamen. One hand held open his black robe so that his breastplate – hand-beaded, he emphasized – glinted into the eyes of all the high young people roasting in the park. Their eyes bounced away, then slid onto me, Ahmed’s unlikely companion in yoga pants and hastily-grabbed orthopedic wedges, and then slid onto his suitcase, pulled along behind us by his other hand.
I didn’t say anything then, and I didn’t say anything as we floated into the higher parts of the park, the young people thinning as we approached the train tracks. We stood, finally, on a landing above the tracks but below the overpass – a middle level, from which I could see everyone but no one could see us. Ahmed’s eyes now seemed unfocused and yellower in the shade than they had seemed in the sun. He baptized me there as the train rattled by us, holding a vial of holy water from his suitcase upside-down over my head, calling me his Nefertari, and smearing my face and neck and shoulders with liquid from two other bottles labeled “sunlight” and “opium.”
Later, I stared at a tile on the shower wall, scraping the scent of patchouli off me with a bar of oatmeal soap, and thought about how I loved this city but how loving it was not possible to do half-heartedly. Kind of like smoking, at least for me.
If you gave San Francisco your all, though, you might be destroyed. All the young people I knew who loved San Francisco, really loved it, who had wormed into the city and never expected to leave, sat right up against its edge. One flew down 38th Avenue on his skateboard, a beer in each hand, and full-forcedly knocked me into a trashcan. On a solo nighttime walk I turned a corner and stopped: there was the born-and-bred boy I was almost dating, mid-snort. White sand on the back of his hand, him looking at me while I looked at him, crouched and frozen like a midnight raccoon.
Close friends emerged from every drunken bike accident totally unfazed, climbed over the neighborhood police station’s wall to get places faster, unscrewed the auto-locking front wheels from shopping carts and rolled each other away in the hobbled metal baskets, crashed golf carts they had access to at their day jobs. The Richmond, especially, seemed defined by its young and rougish, pushed to this edge of the city for high surf and low rents. I’m pretty sure I was roofied at a party I had only incidentally been invited to by a band of beautiful mustachioed men ambling down the street hours before. I remember receiving my own mustache from a purple Sharpie. I remember dragging my hand along the sides of houses as I stumbled home, navigating with this tactile map of my salty neighborhood.
It was a city, too, of immense coincidence. I wholeheartedly expected to see Ahmed again at some point, and never sat in Dolores Park without one eye open for him. I had told him my name was Carmen, which was unlikely but ultimately less so than Nefertari, and lied about where I worked, but I knew from experience that even in a city as dense and varied and crazy as San Francisco, another run-in was likely. Nearly every day I chanced upon someone I knew or had recently met: on the bus, on the street, in front of me on a bicycle path, on the Internet. OkCupid suggested I date someone I then identified as a neighbor, who I next learned happened to be a friend of the guy I was almost dating; he went to the tiny college in Oregon my brother goes to and was also good friends with the younger sister of my best friend’s roommate – whose boyfriend’s favorite restaurant was the very same one in Laramie, Wyoming that I grew up ordering macaroni and cheese in. Luckily, though, I was wrong about Ahmed.
The first meal I ate in San Francisco was a flaccid, three-dollar breakfast burrito given to me in payment for the gigantic marijuana harvest I had performed the night before, high on a mountainside in Northern California, in a room at the end of my boss’s garage. I did not return to the city for four years.
I can’t remember the last meal I ate in San Francisco. I remember feeling dubious, though, that whatever I was eating should be the last part of the city I would ingest after three years of life there, and that whatever it was would reside in me through my plane journey to rural Illinois but not for very long after that.
Now, the time I spent in San Francisco seems fantastical. It was a series of mishaps, and a string of woozy moments in which I noticed the exact way the light filtered through the fog and then glinted off blue and pink houses’ windows, throwing itself through the leaves of trees and the buses full of people. I was never sure if each daily piece of euphoria had to do with this place or with being young.
After saying goodbye to my summer boyfriend in the parking lot of a Los Angeles doughnut shop, I drove ten hours up Highway One to my cousin’s house in Montara, where her German shepherd was to rip the crotches out of all of my underwear and leave them scattered on the carpet like slobbery leaves. I found the naming company job, retired at the end of each day to my new room on the third floor of an ex-brothel in the Richmond District, and supplemented my near-nightly meal of Shanghai dumplings with forty ounces of Steele Reserve.
Eight months afterwards, I quit the naming company to take a series of restaurant and cafes jobs, various internships and freelance commitments. The times I most loved San Francisco were those times in which I couldn’t talk about it – rushing around corners on my bicycle so that sights and noises turned algae-colored and silent, the moments in the morning before opening the tiny café, walking through the thickly dark park at night as the incoming fogbank pulled over the moon. Or when my tonsils had just been cut out of my throat.
There were certain periods when I didn’t talk to anyone for days. That was before I realized there was quietness in San Francisco’s noise. The Dia de los Muertos parade pushed through the dark Mission with jangling skeletons, burning sage, and different drum rhythms every ten feet. Something thick hung over all of us there, silence within the loudness, heavy-lidded recognition of the candlelit altars all around. If you danced with enough abandon, you could believe that whatever music was playing in whatever bar you were in wasn’t coming through the speakers. Go stand in the middle of the Big Rec Field in Golden Gate Park at noon on a hot Saturday and feel the baseballs and the kids tear through the air around you, hemmed in by those too-straight trees. Sit on your roof in silence and watch men unload pig carcasses from trucks on the street below, and then look over to your left and see three figures a few lichenous roofs over looking downwards at something else.
San Francisco, to me, was made up of its moldering basements and its roofs as much as its glassy and pastel houses. The above-attic expanse seemed in my neighborhood almost a mountainous city itself, built exclusively for cat burglars. The houses nudged into each other and the slippery shingled landscape they formed, dotted with cigarettes and lawn chairs, was forgettable until you were on it. From there I once saw a man standing in front of his windows, which faced the street, and another man in the apartment above him, standing beside his windows, looking out in perfect stillness over the roofs and a gloriously blazing sunset. The man below could not see the sky, just gray wet tree trunks. Unknowingly, he was so close to that beauty.
Driving South to Big Sur with my best friend, I realized my old car was somehow losing power. There was no other way to explain it. Each attempt at acceleration found no new speed. It was like holding down a piano key and hearing nothing. Driving uphill became a question of attaining enough momentum during the previous downhill to make it past the crest. Any anxiety about temporarily leaving San Francisco was heightened as we drove closer to Big Sur and the traffic thinned but the hills gathered.
Eventually, we found ourselves in that specific stand of redwoods tucked between the more open coastal bits of road. We parked, hiked four hairpin miles down to the Big Sur River, and cooked the whole packet of fleshy bacon we’d bought hours before. It was nearly inedible: intestinal curlicues of white fat we had to eat, my companion said, or risk visit by a bear. By then, night had set in and I swallowed those tapeworm shapes blindly. Our tent sat ten feet away. We stripped, hung our clothes on the vague shapes of bushes, and slid into the river. Felt our way over smooth rocks and scratching unknowns to the deeper pool we remembered near the other bank, and there, we uncrouched in the cold, stretched out our bodies so that no skin folded upon itself in escape from the frigid water. The night was almost completely silent. Except for the dark shapes above us, I saw nothing. I said nothing.
First image by Brandon Joseph Baker.