About 10 years ago, I went with a cohort of 150 Bay Area freaks and weirdos and took over a hostel/lodge 30 minutes outside of Yosemite called The Bug. We spent the few days surrounding New Year’s partying and frolicking in and around the snow-covered park. It was a glorious way to end one year and begin the next.
When our packed car arrived at The Bug and we all got out and stretched, a stranger walking by smiled, waved, and said “Welcome!” I literally turned around to see if he was greeting someone behind me. I figured there was no way he was talking to us. I was of course wrong. I’d forgotten that people are hella friendly once you get outside San Francisco.
Before that I used to think this was a neighborly place. I’d lived in New York for a year in the mid-2000s and SF was definitely more welcoming than that. But it got me thinking, is San Francisco actually a friendly city?
I like to ask that question to visitors. I get mixed results. Some say they are bowled over by how helpful and amiable everyone is. Others tell me that people are standoffish and cliquish. Maybe both are right.
I’ve often described San Franciscans as difficult to engage, but quite open once you do. A huge part of that is because we have absolutely insane people mumbling and howling at themselves (and sometimes at you) nearly everywhere you go. Just to survive walking down the street you need to develop a firm and decisive vibe that says, “Nope. Not interested. I want nothing to do with that second hand snorkel you’ve got.” It’s heartbreaking that we have to be so guarded, but it’s part of Street Smarts 101. Once you can get through to someone that you’re not a lunatic or a creep (any woman who rides mass transit knows what I’m talking about here), people generally brighten up and are totally willing to engage.
What I do notice though is that people in San Francisco often don’t know their neighbors. Even in my building, I’m only buddy-buddy with one person from each of the other units. And I’m like a Golden Retriever — outgoing. It’s the complete opposite where my parents live in Hillcrest, San Diego. Every time I sit out on the porch with them nearly everyone who walks by waves or says hello. Even people who they don’t know.
While I obviously hear from some San Franciscans that they’ve got close relationships with their neighbors, these are usually folks who’ve lived in their places for a long time. The fact that this city is ever more transitory each year, probably affects peoples’ neighborly relations.
If you live somewhere you don’t plan on being too long, you don’t bother setting down roots. You don’t get engaged with what’s going on in your neighborhood, unless it’s to complain about something. You don’t build relationships with the people who live near you, because you know you won’t see them again. And you don’t even learn your corner store guy’s name — which is really the biggest faux pas. That dude is a wealth of knowledge, he knows everything that has ever happened within a four-block radius of his store. He’s like a very specific one-man Wikipedia.
Top all that off with the fact that we’ve all spent the past decade staring at our phones, downloading apps that make it so we don’t have to interact with other humans. Our phone induced anti-socialness only compounds our unneighborly tendencies because we’re too busy scrolling on Instagram to look up.
I say all this and yet, just the other day a woman stopped me in Union Square and asked for directions, which I was more than glad to give. And last week I saw strangers laughing with each other on the bus about some wild shit that was going on outside. And the man who lives in a tent around the corner from my house wished me happy New Year when I walked by.
So, is San Francisco a friendly city? I’m not sure if I know.
What do you think?
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.