The first time I went to San Francisco, I hit a mailbox. Rather, I was in the passenger seat of a motor vehicle that hit the mailbox. I was on a book tour, and the person whom my publishing house had hired to collect me from the airport was a bit frazzled that day. At the airport, she threw my suitcase in the trunk, brushed some food wrappers from the passenger seat, and invited me in. Once in town, she attempted to back into a parking space outside a bookstore, threw the car in reverse, and the tires catapulted over the curb, sending pedestrians veering. Only after we pulled away did we discover that the curb had punctured the car’s tires. We made it about four of those inordinately long San Francisco blocks before we had to stop.
“I have to call triple A,” she said, popping the trunk, “you’d better get out and go to the hotel.”
I had no idea where I was. She gestured at a major thoroughfare behind us. It could have been Market Street. It could have been Van Ness or Geary. It could have been anywhere. It’s often difficult to recall one’s first trip to a city, to title one’s surroundings, to place neighborhoods. What I did know was that I was not quite as in love with San Francisco as everyone told me I would be. I was not in love with dragging my luggage around in the midst of a rare San Francisco heat wave. I was not in love with being late for interviews, or the oddly green taxis, or being the most wound-up and neurotic person in any given situation. More than that, California still seemed fake to me. I don’t mean that derisively, I mean it literally. I saw palm trees, but I didn’t believe in them. I had only been to the state a few times and the majority of my encounters were skewed by my conflation of history textbooks with current reality. The whole place felt freshly settled to me. When I first discovered Joan Didion is a sixth-generation Californian, I thought: Is that mathematically possible?
Luggage in tow, I hailed a cab. By the time I arrived at my hotel, located in Union Square with a view of the back of a department store, I was exhausted and not particularly keen on San Francisco. This was, of course, the first and last day I would feel that way.
Over the next few days and subsequent five years, I spent lots of time in San Francisco. I worked there, then I made friends there, and finally I flew back and forth for a long-distance relationship. It became my second home. San Francisco was magical to me in that it provided the same high-low experience in a single breath as Manhattan does (burritos, followed by dive-bar karaoke, followed by cocktails crafted by a James Beard winner and, maybe, a John Waters sighting), but it did it in a pressure-free, almost childlike fashion. I’m not sure if people have ever made me feel so welcome in a city. We went to Mission Street Foods when it was just friends of friends waiting tables. We drove around in great old cars or delightfully crappy cars that never had to be replaced with new models because they had been unsullied by snow and salt. In a single day, we visited the jellyfish at the aquarium, wandered around City Lights Bookstore, and crashed a downtown real-estate brokers’ convention for fun. Because it was there. Because we could.
Most of these friends lived and still live in the Mission, drinking coffee that will slap you awake after sleeping on beds in closets. But there’s no part of San Francisco I can’t appreciate: the bay, the bridge, the other bridge, the pedestrian variety of Telegraph Avenue, the fresh food, the vintage signs, Chinatown, the pastel row houses, the sun setting behind Dolores Park, the sailboats in the marina, the just-sprung-from-the-institution meanderers of the Tenderloin, the first sight of the Golden Gate as you drive down the 101 and think: How can anyone stand to live in a place this pretty? Don’t it make your heart explode? Of course, as I did not end up making my home there, I get to ignore how expensive it is, how provincial it can be, how rough around the edges, how disproportionately and consistently judgmental its people can be of Los Angeles.
In between trips out west, my then-boyfriend sweetly sent me a fig tart from the bakery Tartine. Let me be clear: he did not have Tartine send me a fig tart. He bought a tart one morning, put it in a paper envelope, and put the envelope in the mail. After it arrived, I scraped the mush out of the envelope with a spoon.
“Wait,” he seemed shocked, “you actually ate that?”
I was embarrassed. I suppose it did seem a bit animalistic, a bit unhygienic. But I decided I didn’t care. I wanted to gobble up all things San Francisco. I would have licked the envelope.