“East is East, and West is San Francisco.” -O. Henry
The other night I dreamt that San Francisco was on fire, and as I watched a jumbled version of the city’s skyline burn to the ground, the Transamerica Building, that iconic white pyramid, fell like a tree with one swift motion, destroying everything in its path. I woke up tense and confused, and I had trouble sorting out reality from what was one of the most terrifying dreams that I can remember. Half of Northern California is on fire right now; this map shows the dozens of major blazes that currently ring San Francisco, Sacramento, and work their way up to the Oregon border. A state spokeswoman said that there are more than 1,000 individual fires burning, and Bush declared a federal state of emergency at the request of the governor. It’s been hazy here for the past week, and local health officials are urging people to limit their time outdoors.
In recent mornings, I’ve stepped outside and smelled fresh wood smoke. It took me a few days to put it together with the fires – now I know I’m smelling the remnants of an environmental disaster a hundred miles away. I can’t help but find it comforting; it reminds me of fall in upstate New York and New England. I missed that last fall living in Scotland; instead, Edinburgh has the metallic tang of wet stone, the whiskey distilleries’ heavy smokiness, and a sweet, indescribable smell that I’ve never found outside of Britain. They say that smell is the most potent memory trigger, so it’s strange walking out the door and smelling my favorite season 3,000 miles away. And it’s a little bit weird these days, because my time in San Francisco is coming to an end. Pretty soon, I’ll be back with crisp leaves and wood smoke and all that. Writing this here makes it official, I suppose: in the fall, I’m moving to New York City.
Ten years ago, I was obsessed with California. I guess I never really thought beyond the abstract: it would be sunny and next to the ocean, and people would think and act differently. But my California dreams faded quickly, and I’ve spent the past decade focused on Scotland, England, New York, and Massachusetts. California came back into my periphery when I returned from Edinburgh, and except for the sunny part, I was right. The ocean is twenty minutes west of my apartment. People think and act differently. And by and large, living out here has been fine. But I feel like more of a foreigner in San Francisco than I ever did living in Edinburgh and London; the familiar makes me complacent and the differences rattle me. My decision to move to New York wasn’t rooted in these vague feelings of displacement; with a tight money situation and an even tighter job market, I need to go where the jobs are. In editorial work, New York’s the place to be.
I see San Francisco with a clearer head these days. I have nearly a month left, but if there’s any time to start to say goodbye, it’s Pride Weekend. The city’s packed with tourists: the enthusiastic, who came here for the celebration, and the bewildered, who didn’t realize what they were getting into. I’ve hopped from strangers’ house parties to Castro clubs these past few nights. On KQED this morning the anchor forecast “areas of fog” and “areas of smoke” all around the bay. But the clouds parted as the drag queens and PFLAG families made their way down Market Street, and the sun came out and caught the glitter and bubbles that burst from elaborate floats. I squeezed onto a packed N-Judah as it rattled along Duboce, hopping off in Cole Valley in search of the perfect avocado. I made my way down Haight, pushing past the regular weekend tourists and stepping over bums passed out on the sidewalk. The Haight, for once, smelled a bit like New York: stale beer, piss, cigarettes, a lot of bodies. The sun was shining on Page and I caught my landlady as she was running out the door. “I have to talk to you later,” I said, and she nodded. She knows where I’m at right now.
My father has a knack for interpreting dreams, and he thinks that watching San Francisco burn from a distance has something to do with endings and displacement, which was my initial guess, too. Just before I flew to Scotland I had a string of terrifying dreams – a parade/suicide death march, nuclear holocaust, trying to re-seal the two halves of my severed body. Maybe this is my way of worrying through change. There’s so much to love about this city, but it’s not really about any of that right now, just as it isn’t about my frustrations with the laid-back, the self-righteous, those “types” that I – and many others – use to stereotype people out here. It’s more about one chapter ending and another beginning, no matter how short or how fulfilling those chapters have been.
As I sat writing this, the sun disappeared, replaced by overcast skies and winds that bend the trees outside my window at sixty-degree angles. The weather changes so quickly here: super sonic fog, glimpses of sun, forty degree temperature differences from one day to the next. People compensate in different ways. Some try to match the speed of the weather, continually pushing for change, while some hunker down – half the people in this neighborhood look like they haven’t moved an inch since 1968. Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile the two, or to find my place somewhere in between. I’ve seen a lot of San Francisco these past few months, but I really haven’t seen a thing. And maybe that’s exactly the point. I’m just happy to leave on good terms, moving to New York instead of away from San Francisco. I’d live here again; if the East Coast drives me into the ground (knock on wood), I’ll always have the other coast, even if I’ll never understand it. That might be part of the allure, after all.