Writing to you from not-San Francisco. Not-favorite city. Not-simply-walk-to-the-top-of-any-hill-for-a-bay-view. What my location is (Los Angeles) matters less right now than what it’s not. Because when you come back from a place—and here’s the part where it’s different for everyone but still universal—that you really feel you belong, at least for any moment of your life which could be just that day or two years or forever though it’s most likely not or even in memories real or made up (both truths), your location afterward is only that: a place.
To talk about this city would require a bit of backing up. First, to pre-college life: the suburbs outside Seattle. I can appreciate it now but every chance I had to ride the 550 bus over the bridge was gladly taken and the freedom and mystery that came with those trips are probably what birthed my city-love. Possibly that my dad loved Seattle and my mom wanted nothing to do with it—a little of each. Then, my college town being a decent sized town, swollen with students with the exception of glorious summers, but still smaller than where I grew up—I always knew it was a temporary thing, more of a moment in time than a place. I get pangs of nostalgia here and there, but mostly for the learning and the wandering and the bay. I feel there is no other way to get to know a city so well than to walk it. I prefer the experience of discovery. Of happening upon a place. When you’re in a car, it’s easy to drive by and discount. I love the details.
That’s how I grew to love my college city when I wasn’t originally smitten. I walked and walked and walked. Coming over the hill and seeing that stretch of water—I knew without thinking of it that I’d always be trying to walk some hill, see some stretch of water.
When I first visited Portland, Oregon, I wasn’t in love either. But on my second trip, we walked from neighborhood to neighborhood and little by little I started to see things I hadn’t seen before. I haven’t had the chance to travel much before now, and generally it’s all quick, somewhat exhausting trips. But that’s what I (we) do now: drive in, park, walk, walk, walk.
When I was little my father drove us through San Francisco on a trip that included all the typical stops of a Disneyland bound road trip: Oregon coast, Redwoods, San Francisco, long stretches of the freeway, an insanely quick (perhaps the traffic wasn’t what it is now) ride through Los Angeles, and down to Anaheim. There are memories we have as children that are real, tangible memories. Then there are memories that are just feelings, like my adoration of San Francisco, developed in one small moment. Later I’d visit with a friend in middle school and become truly enamored, leading to my begging Kevin to take us on a detour there on our way to LA two years ago, all our belongings in tow, on the first day I’d ever live away from Washington. (And then there was our incredible trip last fall.)
(It was a little like Disneyland—Kevin had never been there as a kid, never been to California. He’s not the type to build things up; he just waits and sees. I had these memories to build upon for ten years almost. I had to chase those memories into the future. They did not disappoint, just as Disneyland never does.)
We just passed the two year mark of life in Los Angeles. It is the definition of sprawling. There are many reasons why I love LA and many reasons I don’t see a distant future here, but this may be the biggest. It’s been hard to get to know it the way I love to get to know a city. I take the bus or subway or ride with Kevin to each destination. Which is always going to be part of the equation, but there’s so much more of that than just exploring. So much getting to. I feel like I’ve missed a lot in the past two years that I’m just now starting to discover, and I hope that I can start to see it more this way.
So San Francisco for me is a mix of memory and introductions and too-short trips. We had only this weekend, really 24 hours if you take away all the driving, to breathe it in. We saw as many neighborhoods as we could. Walk, walk, walk. We honestly didn’t do much else.
(It’s been so bright on both of my last trips that my photos have been the epitome of bad tourist photos. Just snapping away without regard to harsh lighting and looking crazy to the locals. Then again, I do that anywhere.)
While I walked I noticed something: the people I passed on the sidewalk all smiled. We said hello. At first, I thought, are people nicer here? Friendlier? Are people just not friendly in Los Angeles? Until I realized: for the past three hours, I’d walked around smiling. When you smile, people smile back. I realized that what I need to do to love LA and anywhere else I go is to smile. Dropping everything and moving to one of the nation’s most expensive cities that I really, truly hardly know, is not much more than a dream right now and I think I’m okay with that. I like dreaming of the future. I am good at it. But making the present better? It takes work. But now I have a trick.
Up next, outfitted in SF, and much less long a narrative, I promise.