I call her my ‘sister in exile’ – my homegirl Susan, who used to live around the corner from me in the Lower Haight around the turn of the milennia and who left five and a half years ago to start over in her semi-native hometown, Philadelphia. Every Boxing Day for the last few years we’ve met up, during her Christmas visits to family in the Bay Area, and set out an Annual Wander, picking a neighborhood – or two or three – and spending a day walking around, browsing, catching up, reminiscing, comparing notes, and egging each other on to a fever pitch of bittersweet longing for our first love, the one that got away – the City. Last year we sat over cannolis and tiramisu in North Beach and pined over our near-forcible exiles from our past home even as we waxed rhapsodic over the respective ease of our suburban tree-lined streets and parking spots, hers on the Main Line and mine in the near-hinterlands of Marin County.
At the time I was still coping with the (very extended) hangover of the culture shock of my move from the wintry, windswept edge of the Sunset District some twenty miles north into an alien, beautiful place that was much more like the rest of California. I felt like I’d been holding my breath for a year and a half and was fairly certain I was going back when my lease expired. By the time it did, I’d started to plant a garden and painted a bathroom and had the best landlord ever, and figured I wasn’t going anywhere, especially while the housing stock in the city remains so ridiculously shoddy and expensive. I somehow made a truce between myself and this green hell, or Eden, depending on how I feel on a given day. I revel in the greenery and absence of billboards (reason enough to live in Marin), the warm nights and stars and the crickets, yet I mourn for the cozy cafes and Amoeba and Green Apple, and the warm river of people, lights, and fog.
After the last game of the National League championship, in which my town’s team whupped her town’s team, I sent her an email saying I knew she’d secretly been rooting for San Francisco the whole time and she wrote back to tell me I was mistaken about that and then said, “By the way, I went to the city to live and I feel renewed…….. yet, when I come in from a rough night of parking, and I look around my crumbly, antiquated apartment, and hear the pack of college kids above me, I wonder why we can’t have it both ways:).”
This has been rolling around in my brain for days now. I can see her in my mind’s eye, manning her car around the dark, narrow streets, stalking a parking spot with all the strategy she learned in her decade-plus here. I picture her in a tasteful coat and dark tights walking beneath those huge East Coast trees, wearing a jaunty black hat. I know the murmur of density that becomes a song and I played the What If Game for a while, falling down the interweb real estate hole and looking at houses from Petaluma to Albany, Pacifica and San Francisco. So many of them were beautiful, and seemed to offer a variety of different lives from which to choose – a faux-Eichler in Terra Linda, a petite Craftsman cottage in North Berkeley, a rustic ranch in Nicasio, a tiny gingerbread toy box on Twin Peaks, a midcentury ranch in the fog above Pedro Point, my beloved Sunset Doelger homes – all equally beautiful and completely different. I wanted them all.
And I know just what she means – both ways. I want the crickets and the cafes. The driveway and the cheap, exotic eateries. The washing machine in the kitchen and the landmark building on the corner. Mellow but happening. Safe but exciting. Bucolic but buzzing. I always think of New Yorkers, who more often than not eventually move out of Manhattan, and to Brooklyn or suburbs further down the road – Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island. I think they must feel the same longing that I feel, that Susan feels, because once the City is in your blood, it never really leaves. I wonder how many women stand at their windows in the towns along the train lines, watching the leaves turning red and missing hot chestnuts from Central Park, the way I look out at my beautiful sycamore tree and still miss the fog of my hometown, the way it wrapped everything in a gossamer hush, the way I imagine snow must when winter comes.