I moved to San Francisco when I was 24 because I was peer pressured into moving into the small room of an apartment in the Outer Sunset. I had said no to my friend N* about 8 times because I was sure that our living together would be the end of our friendship. She was really smart and affectionate, but got angry unexpectedly and it reminded me of being around my mother.
I finally caved when she said the rent my rent would be $400. I had been living with my parents for 8 months while I taught at the continuation school adjacent to the high school I had attended. I was so depressed I would stand in the shower before work and fantasize about being hit by a car so I didn't have to deal with traumatized kids throwing desks across my classroom. They taught me how to spot an alcoholic and what it's like when people you love die all the time.
I couldn't imagine a world outside of that classroom and my childhood bed, where I spent hours watching television and crying. I was too embarrassed to see my boyfriend, but he would call and ask how I was doing.
"It's totally normal to cry every day," I would reassure him.
"No it's not," he would inform me.
N* and I had a tenuous few months as roommates and then two important things happened. First, she got a job in Berkeley teaching reluctant white people about how they were actually racists and decided the commute wasn’t worth the struggle. Second, she got a small black cat – and thought WE had gotten a small black cat – and when I refused to take care of it fulltime, it got worms, and the worms just poured out of its tiny cat asshole until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I called her and politely asked her to take care of him, and she was “so angry she was shaking” at the request.
I knew that living together would end our friendship, but I didn’t know that I would go on to inherit a lease in what was then a shady, and resolutely undesirable part of town. There was a 7-11, a laundromat with a payphone where old dudes would have phone sex while Anderson Cooper played on the 50 year old television, and there was a karate studio with greasy windows out of which no one was ever seen to enter or exit.
When I first moved to San Francisco I had no idea that there was such an entrenched hierarchy about the neighborhood in which one resided. I presumed that I would never be able to afford to live in The City, and my thought was that it was like a yacht club (which I’ve never been a member of, so this comparison means literally nothing): once you’re in, you’re on that other side of the line.
So let me explain to you – if you’re unaware of how San Franciscans communicate this hierarchy. It begins with this question, asked in a lilting kind of way that teeters between anticipatory schadenfreude and the possibility of a moment of faux intimacy, while the appraisal happens:
“Do you live in San Francisco?”
This question immediately puts the non-San Franciscan on the defensive while also positioning San Francisco as the center of the universe, a place from which all people deviate or to which they belong. Think of this as a flow-chart:
If your answer to this query is “no,” then there is a slightly condescending and pitying nod or “oh.”
If your answer to this query is “yes,” then this leaves room for the follow-up query: “Where?”
Having grown up in the Bay Area – the “east bay” as people not from here call it or as people who are from here say to explain to people who are not from here – this sniffing out process felt harmless, if not a bit odd. I went with it for the first twenty times, until I realized that the fact that I lived in the Outer Sunset – though technically still within the city limits – in the minds of other San Franciscans placed me outside of the social borders of the “real” San Francisco.
I learned from someone that the Outer Sunset was the last part of the city to be incorporated. It used to be called Outside Lands. The dunes went on for blocks and a biker gang used to run the area.
For a long time I was always on the lookout for a different place, a place closer to downtown, farther from the ocean and the trees. I was looking for a place that wouldn’t lead to that conversation that would place me and my apartment at the bottom of the pyramid.
This reminded me of growing up. I used to love getting home from school, taking off all my clothes and running down the hallway of the house naked and jiggling. I would do this Flash Dance style jiggle finale at the end of the hallway as it opened up to the kitchen, where Mom was always cooking. I would stick my arms out and spread my legs wide so that all my fat could get a chance to be part of the show. Mom would look up and laugh, and I remember how good it felt to feel myself jiggle. My body could vibrate like the jello my mom made. My fat made waves like the water in the bathtub..
And then I had dozens of exchanges that taught me that those things actually weren't fun, that those jiggles and waves meant I was ugly and weird and wrong.
I don’t know how in the mind of these people who had not grown up here, who had aspired to live in this place for so long, who saw it as a place where people “got them,” that the ocean and the mile and a half of trees and ponds and squirrels could ever mean something unworthy in their mind. But it did.
Then a coffee shop moved in down the street, and my neighborhood changed.
ABOUT THE BOOK
I release a new chapter a week on Thursdays - unless I'm exceedingly overwhelmed or whatever I write is so epically terrible I'm too embarrassed to put it on the internet.