How sweet it was to hear a street musician playing this song while I walked out to dinner with my favorite sister on my first evening in my favorite city.
It’s already over a week since I’ve landed back here in the Bay Area – and what a segue it’s been back into the busy and full life here in northern California!
My first day came 24 hours earlier than both Donna and I anticipated – seasoned traveler that I am, I still didn’t get the return date right, what with crossing the international date line and being out of touch with calendular (ohh, I like that word!) life. Once we both realized that I really was here on Wednesday and not on Thursday, Donna ‘not being ready’ was, of course, perfect. That meant I could stay in the spontaneous flow that has been my compass for months now. Instead of that fancy meal she was going to cook, she took me out for one instead – a hip bay front restaurant, Butterfly. Fancy indeed. Free, chilled, purified water (woo hoo!), let alone all that yummy San Francisco gourmet fare. We had the best time, the best wine and then walked back home, had TJs dark chocolate-covered caramels (OMG!) for dessert and stayed up well past 3 am catching up and carrying on. Good thing I did arrive a day early and before her day off when she was gonna get ready for me – this way she stayed up with me in the midst of my jet lag and we got to spend the next day goofing off!
We found an extraordinary concert for the opening of Pride week-end – the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the Golden Gate Chorus, the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Band and Chorus, the Rainbow Symphony and maybe another or two than I’m forgetting. They rocked the house and filled the theater with that captivating magic of the human voice in community – what pleasure! At intermission we heard the fantastic news out of New York that brought the whole house down even more – we couldn’t have been in a better venue to share and celebrate the landmark decision, even as we sit here in unusually behind-the-times California that’s now got some catching up to do with the Big Apple. It will happen. It is happening. The walls are tumbling down. It’s just a matter of time before it’s spread from coast to coast, I’m sure of it!
Donna surprised me with another big treat – American Conservatory Theater’s production of Armistead Maupin’s, Tales of the City! I’ve been enamored with him for decades and was thrilled when I heard about this musical in production – didn’t imagine I’d get to be in fancy orchestra seats to enjoy it, but there we were, with Armistead himself ensconced in one of the box seats. Although the story dates from the late 1970’s, it was potent and poignant and stands the test of time. And the singing, oh, the singing! Seems there’s a theme here, yes?!
During the few days Donna was at work, I wandered the neighborhood, finding the solidity of the ground beneath my feet to remind myself that now, here, I ‘m in this new place. My eyes and attitude were as wide and in wonder as they’ve been for most all my travels – and in the midst of that recognition, I felt so grateful, so blessed to be able to move through even a familiar place that way, the way I aspire to move through all my life. I walked the Marina, Maritime Park, the Wharf and North Beach. Is there a more colorful city than San Francisco? Where? The lunatic fringe is present in every dimension – the seniors swimming in the frigid bay; the well-to-do and the down-and-out; the drag queens and the druggies; the tourists bundled up in unexpected layers, imagining summer and getting fall; the business people and the new immigrants – them and so many more make up the stew of this spicy, sassy city. I don’t imagine it’s a place I’ll ever pay rent in again, but it’s a city I know and love better than any other and for those reasons and more, it’s its own kind of home to me.
I sat in WashingtonSquare Park in North Beach. For the first time in all my travels, I noticed I was no longer the lone lone person. I had been an anomaly for most of my traveling, but here there’s plenty of solo people around. I thought about how in Asia, solitude is an oddity, something hard to understand and not worth attaining from the local perspective – everything is in community and that community starts with the immediate family and extends out and out and out from there. We here in the West romanticize it, of course. And we suffer, it seems to me, from more loneliness and separation here, as we long for that sense of community. But at the same time, we’re more free to be alone and enjoy some sense of privacy and individuation than those further East have available to them. Somewhere there’s a balance – sometime I’ll learn about finding it.
In only a few days here, I’ve already seen more homeless than in my entire Asia visit. I saw a man one day with a sign that read “Down and Out and Hungry.” The ‘hungry’ part would describe most all the people I came across in Cambodia and southern Lao – but I’m not so sure about the ‘down and out’ part. That seems to be more American somehow. At least claiming it does. We do love our signs here – whether they be those kind or t-shirts and bumper stickers, proclaiming this opinion or that brand. We love letting the world know what we think and where we stand; and we parade ourselves around making sure that everyone does. We seem to be a country of perpetual advertisement – from billboards to chest and back pocket labels – in your face and on your ass and everywhere in between. Lest your shoulders be getting a little tight, hold on, I’m just observing. I’m not judging here, I’m just sayin.
I feel like I’ve arrived in the Land of the Giants! And I’m not talking about the baseball team that people all over the city are waving flags and wearing the colors of – no, not them. I’m talking height here. Really. In Asia, I was the giant, in all of my 5’7” (a height I’ve had for as long as I can remember and one that’s recently come under question, but that’s for another discussion) and towering over most everyone. They’re tiny people and built like oxen – solid, with backs the envy of any Westerner. And they’re mostly lithe – I’m struck with the dramatic and truly epidemic obesity I see here, too. While I wouldn’t likely be picked here as an example of someone grossly overweight; there, I was the poster child for the crisis of American obesity. Women came up to me and pointed and laughed at my loose-skinned (I can’t quite label them flabby, even though it might fit)) upper arms, my thick thighs and my wide hips – I made sure my skin was thick too so I didn’t take it too personally, but I imagine I might have a different reaction if it happened here!
Back to the park – I sat with a homeless man on a bench that I imagined was ‘his.’ He generously shared it as he rocked out to the blaring sounds coming from the huge portable stereo system on his lap, while his chocolate brown pony tail swayed under his bright red and very dirty cap. Every once in a while, and with a big, beaming smile, he yelled out a declaration to whomever walked by – “Welcome to San Francisco if you’re not from here.” Few people took any notice of him. At one point, an African-American man walked by us in unkempt khaki pants and shirt, black sneakers, a red jacket and a huge purple and gold king’s hat. The man next to me looked over and we nodded and shared another big smile as the King walked by – no one else seemed to take any notice of him either. There was a large community of homeless people in the park and several of them came over to my neighbor and sat and visited awhile. I was glad to take more notice of them that I have tended to do in the past. I was glad not to feel the tremors of fear (and then instant guilt) that have sometimes moved through me when I’ve encountered such people before. Now I just saw them as people in the park and their homeless status was not the most important thing about them. I liked that.
I lingered. I ate a TJs salad of goat cheese, walnuts & red bell peppers. It was ambrosia! I swear I could eat at TJs for the duration of my visit here (although I haven’t been inside a Whole Foods yet – let’s see what happens then, although sticker shock will probably send me running right outta there!) and I would be mostly satisfied, especially in the ready-to-eat department. The no-cooking-required is particularly appealing. Seems five months away from a kitchen doesn’t have me pining to return to one, one bit. I tried to write on this-here net book, but I couldn’t. There were too many sites, too many distractions, too much to absorb rather than stand apart from.
I wandered over to the public toilet, impressed first of all that there was one. Two teenaged women were queuing and I took my place behind them. They motioned me forward – neither wanted to use the one unoccupied stall. I went ahead in and noticed the bowl full but not overflowing with excrement. I smiled. While it was far from an appealing site, it was a Western toilet, the floor was not flooded, there was free toilet paper available and the smell was far from noxious or even offensive. It wasn’t luxurious but it was functional and didn’t require me to squat, drag myself back up or pay anyone anything, even the pittance that was often required at the public Asian versions. The flushing mechanism was indeed not working, that being the biggest similarity to the Asian ones. Well, no, that’s not quite right. They didn’t even have flushing mechanisms. Instead, there was a big black drum of water nearby with a small, most often cruddy plastic bowl – it took little time to figure out that this was a do-it-yourself flushing system and it worked better than this San Franciscan one seemed to be doing. I walked out to the teenagers still waiting for the other stall. I made a face of disgust at where I had just exited, if for no other reason than to make the simple non-verbal contact I had become so accustomed to. I almost forgot I could talk to them and they would understand.
My homecoming with Donna was the perfect combination of playing in the big city and hanging out, nesting in her apartment. SF is wayyyyy out of my travel budget league, but her generous and sweet generosity allowed us to ‘do’ it in grand style. We walked; we cruised around on the restored, antique streetcars for which SF is famous; we gawked at the gorgeous city views from Treasure Island; we ate pizza (and plenty of other stuff!); we laughed and we cried. And when we returned to and hung out in her apartment, we gave it a radical make-over.
It’s a small, one-bedroom apartment she’s lived in for 20+ years. In that span of time, I’ve called more than a dozen places home. But hey, San Francisco rent control is a beautiful thing. Her inherited, familial hoarding disease, though, is not under a similar constraint. Like our mother and two brothers, it appears she hasn’t thrown a thing away since 1979 and I think I’m being generous there. In my jet-lagged delirium, I decided it was time to do something about it. What gall! Who does this?
Maybe it was an odd activity to so embrace upon my arrival, but I was gung ho. I felt like I was helping her to let go, create space and make room, but really, maybe all that was just an excuse to exercise my crazy Virgo nature. After all, I’ve only had a small backpack and day bag to keep organized over these many months. I was hungry for some spatial arranging. But maybe, too, it was the intimacy that came from her ‘letting’ me do it and from sharing the process together – going through her personal and private life and the memories that were stirred, many of them shared only between she and me (I know that’s not grammatically correct, I just prefer the sound of it.). More than once during the process, I was reminded of the last time we engaged in such an activity – two summers ago in the midst of our raw grief after our mother died, our tears streaming down through the memories as we reluctantly boxed and bagged them up. This time was way more fun, although there were more laughs back then than we could have imagined in the midst of such a process. As I told her, I’d rather do it with her than have to do it if I’m to survive her. She rolled her eyes, but kept them on me all the same, lest something find its way out without her approval.
Our sisterly relationship, while strained in the past, has enjoyed a resurgence of commitment and connection for the past many years. I think I can boldly speak for both of us and say it’s a tremendous blessing, especially but not only in our newly-orphaned lives. And even though we live them and move through the world and create lifestyles in dramatically different ways, we choose now to bridge those differences with a bond that goes beyond our blood and yet is of our blood. We have a shared history that no one else does and a future that we’re more sure to share than ever before. And maybe most importantly, we have a present that we want to be in with each other, too.
Who else’s home can I come into and within only hours of my arrival, take six of the twelve ‘guest towels’ out of the tiny bathroom and say that they’ve got to go?! She feigned shock, but laughed, which gave me the green light to keep on going. Maybe she would have flashed a bit more yellow if she had an inkling of what was coming. Before I left only five days later, we had filled her car five times over and left the larger various and sundry items out on the street. They were all gone each following morning. She watched in mock horror but real relief as I flagrantly, repeatedly and respectfully told her that no, that too needed to go. The hall closet was cleared out, three huge shelves that dominated the living room were emptied and carted downstairs, prints were taken from the walls, the couch was moved to a new and more spacious position, books long unread were bagged up. Carloads upon carloads were hauled away to the thrift stores.
We’ve talked since I’ve left and she’s ridden the momentum to clear out yet more stuff. Why do I love this so much?! I’ll even go back down and help out some more. Really, I’m doing it for her! Gee, I bet I could have a future in this. After all, people pay big money for de-clutter-ers. No, forget that. It wouldn’t be any fun at all. I wouldn’t recognize any of the ticket stubs or clothes. I wouldn’t have the chance to laugh about a shared memory or cry over a long lost one. Nope, there’s no future at all in this for me – so I guess I’ll just have to keep on calling it ‘helping my sister’ and leave it at that.
Yep, My City by the Bay has it all – my one and only sister, the allure and vibrancy of the urban life, the left of center of almost every other place and the joie de vivre that defines it. While I’ve left it behind now for my beloved Sonoma County; Tony has it right; I’ve left a part of my heart there, too, in yet another place I get to call ‘home.’