I first moved to San Francisco in the time between gold rushes. It was 2002, the dot com bubble was a laughable memory to most of the people I knew, and The City was full of people, who, given the choice between sinking and swimming, decided to float.
It was the summer between my junior and senior year at UC Santa Cruz and I was in town for an internship at Bill Graham Presents. I was 21 years old and slept on an air mattress in a door-less room at Haight and Central that I shared with my friend Mani and his air mattress. I had barely enough money for food, rent, and a couple of $2 beers at Murio’s Trophy Room. It was absolutely glorious.
Nearly 20 years later, as I’m about to pass a major milestone and turn 40, I’m thinking about how that summer changed my life and pushed me towards where I am now. That was the summer I first fell in love with a woman, but more importantly, it’s when I first fell in love with San Francisco.
After the internship was over, I went back to Santa Cruz to finish my final year of school. The girlfriend I’d met that summer was still in San Francisco, so every other weekend I’d take a bus over Highway 17 to the San Jose Caltrain station and then grab the rail up to Fourth and King. No matter how many times I took that ride, I’d get butterflies in my stomach and my heart would race a little bit as we passed the 22nd Street Caltrain station, heading into downtown.
Sure, part of it was because I was going to be seeing my lady, but mostly I was twitterpated at the thought of being back in San Francisco. The City had gotten under my skin in a way no other place ever had before and each day I was here felt imbued with the potential to meet someone fascinating and discover things not just about the world, but about myself.
San Francisco felt both cosmopolitan and quaint. Expansive yet accessible. Each time I approached by night I sensed it vibrating, like the whole city was roiling with underground magic, reverberating like the world’s biggest bass drum. And those whose ears could pick up the frequency knew it was for us, and we did everything we could to be there and drink in the things that young people thirst for.
As soon as I graduated, I moved right back to San Francisco. I bounced around apartments (Russian Hill, Tenderloin, Western Addition) and jobs (gay bar, hat shop, candy store) doing anything I could to stay in this luminous city of “yes.” Because that’s what San Francisco seemed to say with conviction. Do you want to be surrounded by people who accept you no matter your gender or ethnicity or class? Yes! Do you want to move into a warehouse with eight other people and work a job in a café so that you can spend the rest your time making art? Yes! Do you want to make a zine and sell it from your backpack and somehow turn that into a writing career that’s now lasted nearly 20 years? Hell yes!
That last one was obviously me. I’m sitting here thinking about how I’ve given nearly half my life to this city and how it has paid me back in spades. The fact that San Franciscans saw a scrappy kid who made a zine about cheap things to do and not only supported him, but cheered him on, well that spirit is what made me truly fall in love with this place.
So much of what I do now, so much of my devotion to this problematic, maddening, beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking, mystifying city is tied to the way San Francisco made me feel when I was in my early 20s. It was a city of dreamers and believers, seekers and preachers, people who didn’t belong anywhere else, and never wanted to anyways. It was a city of “hell yes!” in a world of too much “no.”
I used to have a saying that went “Some people run away to join the circus. Others run away to San Francisco. Those of us who live here know it’s the same thing.” And for those who read my writing and scratch their head about why I lament S.F.’s changes, that’s the reason why.
I’m embarking on a new decade at a time where San Francisco is experiencing yet another huge shift. Something like 10% of The City’s residents have left since the start of the pandemic and tech companies seem to keep fleeing as well. I’m excited to see where this takes us and maybe, if we’re lucky, some of the magic that made this place so special will seep back in and fill up all the space left empty.
Stuart Schuffman is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list at http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His column appears every other Thursday. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.