One of my favourite things to do during my month of exploring San Francisco was to make sure I was outside as dusk fell. The fog, a forceful personality with a name (Karl), a Twitter feed (@karlthefog) and an ability to evoke a private, knowing smile when brought up with a resident, was magical at that time of day. I would find a street corner to call my own and lean into the side of a building, staring up as wisps of clouds tumbled in, faster and stronger, carpeting the city in a gauzy mask of white.
I knew about the fog prior to arriving, having seen a video called Adrift (below) and other wonderful time-lapses that filmed its magnitude as it barrelled forward. But nothing prepared me for the wonder of watching it approach and of seeing how parts of the city were obfuscated by a hazy mist and others completely sunny, at exactly the same time of day. Despite its relatively small surface (7 miles by 7 miles), the city’s varied topography divides it into microclimates and submicroclimates; you never know what the weather is a few streets away. Temperature can vary as much as 5C (or 9F) degrees by block. There is even an app to track weather by area of San Francisco, now available for iOS.
And so, seemingly out of nowhere, a bright blue sky would fade, elongating tendrils of soft white the only warning of change. On the way to the airport, the BART train passed by Daly City, almost completely shrouded in fog. Gazing out of the window, I watched train glide through the clouds. I texted Cheri, whose apartment I was house-sitting during my month in town, to tell her how beautiful I thought it was. “Funny you should mention it” she replied “that’s the Filipino area of town, and we joke that it is so misty because of all the steam from the rice cookers”.
While Cheri is Filipina herself, she doesn’t live in Daly City but in SOMA (South of Market), which was where I, too, resided for my month in San Francisco. With Cheri and her husband Nick on a three-week trip to Europe, I was holding down the fort, learning about the city and finding my very East coast self slightly startled by the friendliness of the people here. Daily, someone would start up a conversation while waiting for the train. “Hi, are you from here?” or “Hey, I’m James — what’s on tap for your evening?” In New York, this would be out of place. In San Francisco, they just call it “Thursday.”
San Francisco does have its share of problems, as many of you might have read recently. Pieces on the tech scene and entitlement, on Silicon Valley’s second boom and a Medium piece by Peter Shih (subsequently toned down, but the original is here) talking about the aggressive homelessness and terrible public transportation system, which spawned an outpouring of furious counter-posts (one here and another here).
For the record, I don’t think the transportation system was terrible — I actually found it easy to get around. I will say that I do not understand how one cannot obtain a transfer from a MUNI stop to a bus — at this point you have to pay twice. And I also wish there was a sign somewhere that explained the bus stop markers; my first day in town, I wandered around pulling my hair out, staring at my phone map which CLEARLY showed I was at the bus stop, but there was no bus stop. The answer, I learned, is that the city paints part of the streetlight pole or parking pole yellow and then stencils in a minute number to indicate what bus stops there. This is not so obvious, but it resulted in a brief comedy of errors as I missed several buses before I could finally, frantically, flag one down. The driver, having taken pity on me while smirking at my histrionics took one look at me as I boarded and blurted out, “first day in town, lady?”
How did you guess…
Without a car, I took buses most of the time, including late at night. I’m sure the city has many women wandering alone, but in contrast to Saigon or even New York, I found the city to be a particularly intimidating place. The concerns about the homeless population are real — the State’s programmes for shelter and food are significantly better than many others, and many people point themselves toward California for that reason alone. There is also the matter of other states shipping homeless people to California; currently the State is thinking about a lawsuit with Nevada for that very reason. With good weather and support, I understand why those seeking shelter would head to California. But some of the population are also suffering from mental illness and in my short time in town I’ve been flashed several times, masturbated at once, watched a man smash his face into a car window, and almost got taken out entirely when a man shoved his partner off a city bus’ back steps. These events were all day time events.
As a Kiwi friend noted, half in jest, “It’s not a poverty issue. It’s that at any given time, I feel like someone is going to shank me for no reason at all, just for walking nearby”. Untreated mental illness can beget random acts of significant street violence, and with a persistent bias against openly addressing mental issues (other than pharmaceutical ads), I can’t see it going away. And it’s those random acts of violence that made it difficult to fully relax into San Francisco as a place. Not because of anything that happened to me, but just a spidey senses feeling of general awareness, of not knowing what will happen next.
One of my best friends in town, Neda (who I met in a hostel in Argentina in 2008) is an ER resident at San Francisco’s only (!) trauma centre, SF General Hospital. She was a great resource to talk about the homelessness, the root causes, treatments and more. I don’t note it here as a deterrent, but rather a reminder that in bigger metropolises the stratification between haves and have-nots appears in different ways. For Bangkok, it’s the smaller tin houses on a klong next to giant super malls. In Saigon, it’s the newer skyscrapers casting a shadow on the boats headed in from the Mekong, bringing rice and goods. And in San Francisco it’s the crazy juxtaposition between the homelessness and the huge houses sitting above the Market and the Civic Center and the Tenderloin, between the flow of tourists and the homeless people they sidestep in getting from A to B.
Unlike Peter, I’m not derisive of the city’s composition. I was simply surprised. The city was beautiful, and I truly enjoyed my time there. I was fortunate to spend my birthday at a table of friends from around the world who found themselves in San Francisco at the same time. I was able to hike to Tamalpais, to walk the city on foot and to make a habit of drinking tea with people I would only normally see once a year. A real treat.
It was also important to feel out of my skin for a bit, and to remember that these problems — different to how they would be manifested elsewhere — are present at home. I think that those problems are important enough to mention here as well. Many of my friends who live there are used to those differences, and are quite nonchalant about their presence. Many were surprised I’d take buses at night. I can see how one can easily stay isolated in parts of the city away from what are seen as “problem areas”, but I wonder how the city will digest its many different residents as the years go by.
The city and the bay are, without question, achingly beautiful. As I said in the opening paragraph, the golden hour is particularly wondrous, shimmering with light and fog and reflections off the water. It’s a hugely photogenic place and it is full of people I love. I felt very lucky to get this month in town.
And, it merits saying, I spent most of it wandering and eating. With a cluster of friends I met all around the world somehow in town at the same time, I did not lack for company to share these meals. It was great to meet readers as well when I spoke at the Apple store late in the month, and to compliment most of the cheap eats with a few spectacular but more costly intervening stops.
As promised, I am sharing my spreadsheet of cheap eats, cobbled together from your suggestions, my wanderings and friends’ urgings. It’s an open spreadsheet now, so for anyone who wants to add to it, please do. For the HTML version (if you want to just pull it up without the edit function and you’re on the move, click here.)
The requirements: cheap eats, please note if it’s gluten-free or not, and please add your Twitter handle in the notes section, so I can attribute you if I head back there.
Blue highlighting indicates my own notes; the other notes were from the person who recommended it.
I promised photos, didn’t I?
Most of the pictures below are taken with an iPhone 5, with the exception of these next photos, which were with my trusty Olympus E-P3 (mistakenly with a 20mm lens as I forgot my other one). I ended up leaving the EP-3 at home most of the time, so the bulk of the photos are from the iPhone. Not a bad choice either!
Bun Rieu from Soup Junkie San SF
And as promised, the Adrift video that is well worth a few minutes of your time. You’ll never think of fog the same way again:
That’s my month of August! After a great summer in Toronto, Chicago, Portland and NYC, San Francisco was the icing on the cake.
Currently in Montreal and heading to India with my mum on 27 September. More on that soon, but first a Thrillable Hours interview is up next.
Thanks, as always, for reading!