These empty San Francisco streets: A holiday dream

We’re here because we can be, and because we have nowhere else to be

I have a recurring dream that takes place here in San Francisco, and while the city of my sleep bears little resemblance to the real one, there is a point of overlap: In the dreamscape, there’s an absence of people and crowds — not unlike a long holiday weekend here, when things move just a little bit slower and it feels like there’s enough space to reclaim a piece of the place as one’s own.

Though I was born here, I’ve moved away and back — several times. But with the sum total of more than half my life lived here, it’s fair to say I’ve collected enough experience and information to know this is my home, in part because I can’t seem to stay away from it. Something keeps calling me back again though it’s not friends or family: My people have largely left for the great beyond and greener pastures, as they say. And while I too thought I’d found perfectly fine homes elsewhere, life had other plans for me.

“It’s somatic that feeling of home,” said my friend Lisa in an email. “Maybe we can make it, but first it makes us.”

Born and raised here, Lisa has lived far and away too, most recently residing in the North Bay while working in The City. We haven’t seen much of each other during shelter-in-place because she telecommutes now and I haven’t crossed either bridge since March, nor do I intend to over the holidays. During the traditional vacation exodus — when those who aren’t from here return home and those who can retreat to Tahoe, Palm Springs, Hawaii or Mexico, I’m one of those who sticks around, perfectly happy to have the streets, the parking spaces, the parks, waterfront and restaurants vacated. There is something about the emptiness, and the people who are here for it, that feels like home to me.

A quiet laundromat in The City at holiday time prompts wistful thoughts. (Courtesy Denise Sullivan)

A quiet laundromat in The City at holiday time prompts wistful thoughts. (Courtesy Denise Sullivan)

Sure, I’ve spent holidays in other cities, on the other coast and in other countries and I found out, I’m a homebody. The pandemic has underscored that I’m all right, right here in San Francisco. It helps I have a partner in life who found a home here when he ran away from his in the ‘70s. He couldn’t wait to get back here when we did (though he’s equally at home on the road or in LA and getting a little restless to get back to traveling and playing music).

Now it’s Lisa who’s ready to move home, the pandemic helping to inform her decision. The City emptying of those who electively come and go as they please — who have of late, mostly elected to go — has made a way for Lisa’s return.

“I’ve needed the feeling of home somewhere, and there it was, right where I left it,” she said.

Lisa and I talk often about what it means to be from here, to bear witness to the changes, to be sensitive to them and perhaps at times, take them a little too personally, loaded as we are with experiences and ideas instilled in us from the Summer of Love to the tragic events involving serial killers, Jonestown, the assassinations of Milk and Moscone and the AIDS pandemic.

And while I was not here for the Loma Prieta quake, I watched the TV turn to static during the Battle of the Bay, fearing for loved ones, unable to reach anyone for hours or maybe days. It was a small inconvenience, to find out in the end, all had mercifully survived, though now that they’re gone, what remains are outlines and places on a map. I sometimes catch myself retracing our steps, never forgetting they made a way for me.

Intuitively knowing my way around after years of being driven up and down 19th Avenue or across the park. I understood that right, right, and right again meant we were going to visit my grandparents in the Avenues. I don’t really remember traffic being an issue then, though I do remember the Central Freeway, and how when I moved into my first apartment in what’s laughingly now called NoPa, that I could be in North Beach or anyplace else in The City by car in 20 minutes, or half hour — 40 minutes on Muni, max.

Or when I rode a bike and figured out a way to get from the Haight to the Mission without hills (it wasn’t yet, as far as I know, dubbed the (gulp), “wiggle.” I was usually the only cyclist headed that way at 10 in the morning, toward an office in the Redstone Building at 16th and Capp, one of those blocks that has changed little through the years, providing so-called stability in the face of the human suffering that has continued there for decades, unabated.

I think I understand feeling lost and hopeless and taking to the street. I think I understand the late-night drag racers, not sure of what will happen if someone shines a light on them, but willing to take their chance. I know I understand feeling like you don’t belong anywhere but here, then still feeling like you don’t belong anywhere. But I’ll never understand leaving our people to live on the street or turning them out of their homes: Inhumanity is forever incongruous with my idea of civic pride.

As The City continues to go through changes, it’s understandable that some people have lost hope and taken to the streets. (Courtesy Denise Sullivan)

As The City continues to go through changes, it’s understandable that some people have lost hope and taken to the streets. (Courtesy Denise Sullivan)

I guess that’s what binds us, those of us who’ve stayed, or come back, or arrived and decided this is our spot, as unpredictable and unkind as it can be. We may or may not have been forced out, burned out, locked up or knocked around but we’re “still here,” as we say, still investigating, attempting to solve the puzzle of our lives. We’re here because we can be, and because we have nowhere else to be. We’re here because we love it, even when we hate it.

In the dreamlike film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” its creators Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails take on The City under siege of recent gentrification and ages-old racism. Fails delivers what may as well be our new motto: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” But it’s the ending that tears me to pieces, opening a wound so deep it’s positively historical. Thinking I know where the character is going, part of me wants to believe he’ll be back. I identify with his spirit, with someone gone looking for a home.

San Francisco has become a mirror for me, though it’s a little like the funhouse mirror from Playland now displayed in a storefront on Clement Street. Looking and dreaming of what you think you see instead of facing the reality staring back at you can be disorienting, but in the right light and the right angle, you might be able to see that you’re exactly where you want to be — where in fact you are supposed to be. Turns out, at least this weekend, I’m living in the San Francisco of my dreams.

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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