From the drafts, November 2021 Nostos: Returning “Home” in A Dangerous World
San Francisco Has Changed, duh
Antibiotics progressively smell worse as they get older: a sulfuric rotten-egg smell that makes me oddly relieved. It is funny that there are still odorous medications, when we’ve made so many medical advancements. And maybe it is a little gross, but I think the increasing stinkiness is fun. By the time you are down to the last three, oh boy, it is like a dozen rotten eggs left in your heating vents by your worst enemy. They are so small and so stinky, like my friend’s chihuahua Petey’s mouth.
About a week before my flight, the left side of my jaw began to ache. I had two of my wisdom teeth removed in 2019 and the remaining teeth were too up in my skull. Removing them almost guaranteed nerve-damage. The rear left wisdom tooth was breaking through the gums and pushing against my other teeth. My oral surgeon prescribed me antibiotics to calm whatever infection was taking hold in my rear left wisdom tooth. It would keep the infection at bay until after my childhood best friend’s wedding. I didn’t need to cancel my trip because of a dental emergency, and while incredibly thankful, it meant I couldn’t escape the anxiety.
Leading up to my travels, I felt a level of stress that I hadn’t since March 2020. I wasn’t that worried about contracting Covid-19 on the flight, although it is always a risk in the back of my mind. I was primarily worried about San Francisco. Many long lonely days, whether I was at work with my anti-masker coworkers, or home after resigning from that job, I imagined being back in my childhood room with the window open, feeling the foggy cool droplets waft in over my bed. I fantasized about the temperate sweater weather, my beautiful old neighborhood in North Beach with steep hills — the faint sound of sea lions barks drifting up from pier 39 on a quiet night. I would daydream about my old job as a dog walker and my favorite dogs; I spent the early mornings writing, walked dogs until the late afternoon, and then came home to my tiny one bedroom with the fridge on the back porch stairs. I missed walking everywhere and not having to use a car to get produce. I missed looking at the bay’s sparkling water, and the community of North Beach. Like Greenwich Village, North Beach is small and insular, many families living there for decades. There are still old hippy artists in their breathtaking rent-controlled apartments that spend the morning drinking coffee, the afternoon drinking booze, an espresso after that, and then a nightcap. Even if you didn’t know your neighbor’s names, you knew them and they knew you by sight. I missed Washington Square Park and the way you could always walk out on the grass and find a dog to meet. I even missed the corner that had a water retention problem, where my dogs would get their paws muddy if I looked away for even a moment. I missed the elderly asian ladies happily doing Tai Chi in the the morning and dance midday. I obviously missed my dad.
During the early days of the pandemic, I read about local SF business institutions closing: concert halls, cafes, restaurants, and all of the break-ins. My therapist warned me that things were not the same when I returned in late October 2021, quite different actually. I feared that when I came back to the place I called home, it would be a shell of its former self, only the tech-money and tourist-serving places remaining. It would be like how one day we all signed into Neopets to find that the shops in town were now sponsored by McDonald’s. Fast-casual chain restaurants and fast food had a strong resurgence because of the pandemic. I was concerned that the tech equivalent of McDonald’s bought up the city to advertise themselves. What if SF was now sponsored by Google and all the street signs had Google written at the bottom — all the buses and cable cars, and there were Google-led tours of the city featuring whatever restaurants and landmarks paid the most. Walking from one place to another or waiting for an official Google-sponsored mode of transit, there would be screens everywhere advertising a pair of leggings you looked at one time five months ago. Or maybe Apple picked up the tab and destroyed historic buildings, turned them into glass boxes with steel beams and white interiors. The Apple bus stop would record every word you say and talk to you about the new iPhone with seven cameras. It would scan you and tell you that you might be cold because the weather three hours from now will be in the low 50’s. It would then suggest you stop by a sponsored store to grab a jacket or have one delivered to your next destination. I knew it wouldn’t be that extreme, however when I left San Francisco in August 2018, it felt like it was headed into a sponsored invasive robot land.
There are things I don’t miss about San Francisco. I don’t miss the coyotes. SF coyotes are not the ragged wild coyotes most people are used to, but strong, confident, and not afraid of people. Seriously, they are buff and have gleaming coats! Sometimes I would have to run back inside when I was taking dogs out for a final before bed pee because a coyote was stalking us. They make pets go “missing.” I don’t miss the scary wildfire smoke that makes the air dangerous to breathe and turns the sky orange. I don’t miss the tech bro guys in fleeces blabbering about VCs while making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, pricing out long-term residents, and then treating the city like a giant frat party at night.
When you love a place, it can be painful watching it change, even if these changes are objectively good. We are nostalgic for dumb crap all the time. I would say that is the Millennial curse: we are nostalgic for a world of Squand, Slime, and not knowing if Global Climate Change was real because the research was ongoing as long as the oil companies kept lying. Our ennui is a world that can never exist again. The year after I graduated college, my school sold off a handful of houses, including one I lived in my senior year. Town residents bought the houses, put them on trucks and moved them elsewhere. Now that area is a new dorm for freshman and sophomore students. Some of the old dorms were in bad shape. The new dorms are an objectively good thing, but I am still a little bitter that my sweet little house, next to the culvert with a large grassy lawn, is gone. Many of the old theaters in SF that are no longer functioning as theaters have been transformed into gyms, maintaining the exterior and some of the interior. It simply isn’t sustainable to have that many theaters anymore and it is nice to know the buildings aren’t abandoned and in disrepair. Am I a fan of the chain gyms, popping in every neighborhood? Not particularly, but it is better than the alternative of boarded up theaters making main streets in neighborhoods look disenfranchised.
The hardest thing about loving a place is watching it change in a bad way. The first time I noticed that things were changing in a bad way was when I came home from college for winter break in 2011. I grew up in Russian Hill with my mom and Telegraph Hill/North Beach with my dad. Russian Hill was where I first noticed the changes. The people renting the apartment underneath us had been a rotating assortment of white women in their 20’s since my mom bought the building when I was a kid. They would live in the building for a year or two, commuting downtown for office jobs, then find a boyfriend and move out. Eventually they would get married and leave the city altogether to live in a more “child-friendly” place like Marin County, or a big-ass house in the Midwest. They rarely had parties, were nice to me, and left the apartment in good shape when they moved out. In 2011 tech coder guys moved in to the apartment underneath ours. The stretch of Polk Street close to my house, between Polk and Broadway and Polk and Union started to change as well. Restaurants closed and were replaced by healthy takeout places where you could buy a box of salad or a salmon fillet and cous cous. Little shops and cafes were replaced by bars. There have always been bars, but now they were back-to-back. You didn’t even have to crawl between them, you could just take one step over.
At 21, my former high school classmates started talking about going out to Polk street to hang out at the bars. It was uncanny because the people I went to school with would get lost trying to visit me. Now my neighborhood was a destination. However, this didn’t last long because the vibe of the area changed again when the coding tech guys were replaced by the management tech guys. These are the people San Franciscans complain about when they refer to tech bros and tech culture messing up the city. The twenty-somethings in company-branded fleeces weren’t coding apps or beta testing new technologies. These oversized frat boys “oversaw operations,” had lunch meetings with investors. They made calls and convinced investors to fund other white men re-inventing public transportation by creating shuttles with the exact same routes but more expensive and only accessible via app.
More bars opened, the healthy place closed and then cycled through ownership depending on whatever food was trendy at the time. These places would last about a year before their next transformation. The bar scene grew, the local hippy/health food grocery store with a whole upstairs of vitamins became absurdly expensive, and less vitamin-focused. I’m not even sure if the vitamin section still exists. A juice place opened, a fancy thin-crust pizzeria, and a beer and empanada bar. A antique store turned into a candy store that sold brightly-colored candy in clear plastic boxes to be given as gifts and then thrown away. Then the restaurants became brunch spots and the small holes in the wall restaurants became greasy white people drunk food places that serve mac and cheese and grilled cheese. A thai restaurant was replaced by some French-ish restaurant that had St. in front of their name and probably illegally serves fois gras. My mom installed lights in the entryway to the two apartments to discourage drunk assholes from peeing and puking there, though they still would occasionally. My high school acquaintances stopped coming to Polk street, but I couldn’t avoid it.
Right after college graduation, I moved back to the studio in my mom’s house for a short spell. During that time, a new crop of techies moved into the second floor apartment, and had a party that same night. As my mother and I prepared for bed, me sleeping on the futon couch, someone threw up over the deck. Barf poured down to the tradesman’s entrance and splashed onto the studio window that opened out. The following years, tech bros would break a chunk out of a porcelain sink in their bathroom (we don’t know how that happened but I think someone was watching himself do bicep curls in the mirror), call us to change light bulbs they could do themselves, and refuse to collect their own mail from the mailbox.
After my mom moved to Greece, either my partner or I had to come over to the building to sort the mail and put it by the tech bro’s back stairs, so that the tradesman’s entrance wasn’t a fire hazard. My partner was helping to coordinate maintenance and a tech bro sent him a picture of the overflowed toilet with feces everywhere. My partner had asked for a picture of just the tank of the toilet. One night a neighbor from across the street called and told me that the front door had been open all day. She occasionally called to report that the garage door had been left open, and was a great neighbor for keeping an eye on things. It was after 8pm at night when my partner and I made it over. Worried someone had broken in, we called the police to check the dark apartment. No one had broken in, the tech bros just left the front door wide open while moving out a few days early without informing my mother, myself, or my partner. The most frustrating thing of all has always been how that demographic of tech bro treats a place I love with so little respect while changing the culture of the city to fit their interests and desires because they have so much capital.
I landed in San Francisco at about 10:30pm and my dad picked me up from the airport. He’s smaller. Age shrinks you. My dad is the last surviving member of the Old Dad’s Club. My two childhood best friends (one of whom was having their wedding that week, the other officiating it), and I all had older dads. We grew up with people calling our Dad’s our grandpas and jokingly dubbed ourselves the Old Dad’s Club. My dad is in his early 70’s. The other two members of the Old Dad’s Club passed away within the last five years from Leukemia and Alzheimer’s, respectively. This was the main reason my two friends moved back to SF after college; to help take care of their ailing fathers, while trying to establish a career and stay afloat psychologically. Now only one of us still lives in the city. I’m in New Jersey, our other friend is in Pittsburgh (which is somehow farther away from central NJ than San Francisco to LA — I was told distances between states on the East Coast were shorter! Why is Pennsylvania so dang long!).
As my dad drove us back to his apartment, it is too dark to see how the city has changed. We passed a few large well-lit new condo/apartment buildings. When I was a kid I called them “a hunk of condos,” because they looked boring and utilitarian. Based on memory, it seems that a handful of the old gas station plots sat empty long enough to not be considered toxic and inhospitable by the city, which allowed developers to build. The following morning I woke up naturally, surprised by the quiet. San Francisco is a sleepy city; it goes to bed early and wakes up late. Before I moved away I was getting woken up by at least one hollering drunk tech-adjacent partier per night, stumbling in and out of ride shares, yelling up to their friend to get let into their apartment. It was such a clear representation of how tech bro transplants had no respect for long-term SF residents with families and jobs where they need sleep.
I rode the bus to Cow Hollow for a doctor’s appointment on Union street, only to discover that my phone tried to streamline my calendar to Pacific time without telling me and shifted my appointment three hours early. Instead of going back to my Dad’s house, I decided to walk up and down Union street to see how the neighborhood has changed, get a nice coffee, and read on my Kindle in the park behind the Octagon house. A wealthy area hit by an economic downturn via pandemic, this stretch of Union street had seen dozens of business closures. Restaurant spaces were empty, with their windows boarded up, retail chains like Sur La Table, and The North Face dissolved, sat empty with printer paper signs behind the glass “thanking” the area for however many years of business. Among the stores and businesses that remained, there were signs posted about how the stores and bars didn’t carry cash, or have back stock merchandise, to discourage break-ins. However, the strangest part about the neighborhood were the new ultra-exclusive businesses, like an entire store for caviar, aestheticians who preformed minimally-invasive plastic surgery like fillers and stem cell treatments, exclusive private doctors, a vitamin IV “bar” where after a rapid covid test, you could have B12 plugged right into your veins and two dog bakeries. My brain struggled to process this unsettling new reality.
I made it to my first stop: a cafe where I used to frequent for lattes before appointments. When I lived in the city my dentist, orthodontist, therapist, and psychiatrist were all on this stretch of Union. I was happy to see the cafe was still open and running. The upscale bodega had re-organized, now offering twice the amount of alcohol, gourmet deli fare, hot drinks, and had three times the employees. The drink menu had exciting new options, like a hazelnut latte, which I ordered decaf with oat milk. The cashier told the order to the barista in Spanish, and I noticed she doesn’t mention the oat milk or decaf espresso, although I ordered and was charged for both. Maybe I just missed some of the details because I am not fluent. I didn’t want to be that asshole who butts into a coffee order before it is complete. I worked as a barista and we all establish our routines and communication methods which outsiders may not understand: drink tickets, talking, writing on cups. When I moved to the East Coast I was shocked by the amount of Dunkin’ Donuts, and the prevalence of flavored coffee and coffees with flavored syrups at all price-range cafes. In San Francisco, a flavored latte at an upscale cafe meant that some employee handmade the flavoring, burnt sugar on the stove to mix into espressos, or toasted nutmeg and then infused a house made sugar syrup. That was part of the reason these specialty drinks were always at least a dollar more expensive. A cafe less than six blocks away made their own special cashew/almond milk, the cafe at the other side of the shops on Union Street made their own chocolate syrup, and this had been my favorite cafe in the area because their espresso had nice caramel notes.
I watched as the barista poured a quarter cup of Torani hazelnut syrup into the base of the drink before pulling the shot. I don’t care about the extra dollar I spent for the latte, but I don’t want my drink to taste like syrup. I interrupted the barista and asked her to dump out the syrup and make the latte without it. She dumped out the syrup, pulled the shots, and then poured cow milk into the cup. Once again, I didn’t want to be an asshole, but my stomach can’t handle cow milk. I asked the barista if the drink had oat milk in it, she looked flustered and asks if I ordered it with oat milk. I said yes. The barista alerted the woman at the register who put in the order and they start talking. I would have taken the coffee as it was if I could drink cow’s milk, just to avoid this situation. As the barista and cashier tried to figure out where the miscommunication happened, I feel a wave of anxiety wash over me. I don’t want to make the employees frustrated or angry. I loudly tell both of the ladies that it’s fine and to please not make another coffee. Please don’t worry about the coffee anymore… I faked a smile to try to communicate that everything was okay. I waved gently and back out of the cafe, leaving the drink on the counter. There were people waiting for their orders, people waiting to make orders and I couldn’t handle holding up the line. Out a little more than seven dollars, I walked to the park behind the octagon house, sat down on a bench and started to cry.
I called my partner and told him about the latte situation, which he knew was just a thinly-veiled metaphor for how out of place I felt in SF now that so much has changed. I wiped my tears with the lining of my sweatshirt collar, and he offered to buy me a new coffee. I used to be friends with the baristas at that cafe; two of them gave me discounts for being a local. One of the baristas gave off an infectious calming energy, another was a professionally trained clown (he did not wear clown clothes at the cafe). I knew a bit about clowning, so we always had something to talk about. Now my presence at the cafe felt like an imposition in a chaotic environment with people just working to survive during a global pandemic. I watched dogs sniff around while I try to keep from hyperventilating. In the abstract, almost having a panic attack over a messed up coffee order was absurd, and I knew this, but it didn’t stop the feelings. Feelings are not guided by logic.
The sidewalks were empty, the businesses were obscure and expensive, and I felt like I’m at that imitation Prada store art installation in Marfa, Texas. Everything looked real, but felt fake. I focus on the dogs and the plants, my partner’s voice, to stop dissociating. Since the pandemic began, being back in San Francisco was a dream, and now that I was here it still felt unreal. I told myself it isn’t a dream or a simulation, I’m here and my brain needed to accept that. I walked to the other end of the Union street shopping area and ordered a coffee from the cafe where they make their own chocolate syrup. A woman approached with her old dog, ordered a coffee and croissant. As the barista made our drinks, I watched the woman feed her dog small bits of the croissant. My chest relaxed, letting in more air. Even if I had trouble connecting to my body, animals brought me back to reality. I’m not used to being away from my pet dog, unable to look over at any time and watch her scruffy white body rise and fall. She reminds me that the Earth has many worlds: tiny microscopic worlds, animal worlds, humans in different cultures, and not just my own world where I am a failure and waste of oxygen who should vacuum more.
After my appointment, my dad picked me up in his car and we stopped by the Sports Basement store in Crissy Field to buy insulated raincoats. My raincoat couldn’t zip over my chest anymore and I needed a new one. Also, my arrival coincided with the first real rain in San Francisco for months, the projected forecast was more rain and wedding was outside. We wandered around the racks, touching fabrics, picking up and showing each other different options. I kept the tearful latte incident to myself. I’m exhausted and grasping for words as we chat. I helped him try on jackets, noted how obnoxiously small most zipper pulls were on outdoor wear. Grounding myself in San Francisco, in my body, in my mind, was proving to be challenging. While walking to check out, I slammed my shoulder into a rack of clothes. Nothing falls over and I avoided making a scene. I’ve lost my proprioception skills. I keep walking although my arm smarted and I felt a bruise forming.