Far From the Clank of Crowds

[April 24, 2001]

“Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother…”

Walt Whitman.

On my first visit to San Francisco I had such a sense of coming home, of belonging, that I couldn’t help but vow to live there one day. Being prone to melodrama, I’ve made and not kept many such vows: I vowed to move to both LA and New Orleans upon visiting those cities too, feeling both times that I had discovered aspects of myself. But these were mostly bad aspects that, if exercised, would probably result in either prolonged or sudden self-destruction. For people like me, subject to compulsiveness and flights of egotism, these are evil, city-sized Disney Worlds — places where I’d surely end up lingering in inflated shallowness or burning out on too much soul-eating empty fun.

The idea of moving to San Francisco stuck though, it stuck past any number of subsequent vows and half-boiled ideas. How couldn’t it? I had some of the best moments of my life on a single afternoon, when I took a cable car trip into North Beach. I remember walking past historic sites like the “hungry i” (a club where Lenny Bruce performed and Jack Kerouac read his poetry — I’m told it’s now a pornographic movie theater) and being hit with a sudden burst of weird, alien energy. It was as if it came from the place itself, rolled in off the bay and wound through the streets, picking up the dead echoes of countless poets and musicians. It descended upon me in a sudden storm, finding me just manic and wired enough to be receptive. Truly it was a sense of being haunted by artists, feverish whisperings of a rich creative past. And it was a summoning.

Even the weather was perfect, as if made to suit a taste for temperate climates completely at odds with my otherwise extreme approach to the world. I distinctly remember returning from that day trip to a neighborhood (somewhere off of Dolores St. I think) where I was staying with friends of colleagues. I got off the cable car and turned around to orient myself, not expecting to see anything. Instead, I saw a beautiful site: a steep winding hill, studded with palm trees and life-sized doll houses, eventually leading all the way to the water. And then this breeze blew past me, simultaneously warm and cool and perfect, ruffling the plant life peeking over the pale orange stucco wall surrounding the home I was standing next to. The temperature and cool smell of that late afternoon breeze was a moment in which San Francisco defined itself to me. It was also one of my life’s defining moments.

If I wanted to play the Blame Game — one of my favorites — I would fault our tech industry for ruining my chances of ever living in San Francisco.

Like New York, and by extension the New York Metro area where I’ve spent my entire life, most of the West Coast has just become way too financially prohibitive to risk now that I have a three-month-old son. Unless, that is, we become one of those toothless stoned hippy families begging for change in Haight Ashbury. Oh I’m sure we could probably make it work somehow, but my point is, for what? It sounds like all the genuine magic is being pushed out anyway, rolled flat by ever increasing traffic while the creative spirit continues to be siphoned off into the towering engines of vaporware. And those quaint and playfully arcane Edwardian homes lining the rolling streets of my memory — homes I’d imagined to be full of special, bright people flushed with good health — are probably now all populated by unappreciative yuppies.

Oh lamented dreams of sunlight spilling through the bay window across the table of my breakfast nook! The table where I’d write columns, novels, essays, articles, then step out the door and take dog and kid down to Golden Gate Park, where the great “Be-In” was staged, where Allen Ginsberg once ran around clashing finger cymbals and shouting pseudo-Buddhist aphorisms

There’s a point to all this, of course. Finding out that San Francisco was subject to the same qualities I’d hoped some day to escape — not so much the cost but the congestion, the traffic, the exclusivity — was seriously depressing. It was the small death of a secret dream.

Perhaps the reason that new places can impact me so fiercely is that I wrongfully assume them to be immune from all the things I’ve grown weary of in a lifetime of moping around various New York Metro suburbs. Is anyone else tired of having to plan their lane changes ten minutes ahead of time? Can anyone relate? Is there some point on your daily commute where you have to get over into a right or left lane for an eventual turn, and if you do it too early you’ll get stuck in the perpetual turning lane, and if you do it too late you have to drive fifteen minutes out of your way just to turn around?

Is anyone else troubled by a world in which fifteen minutes even means anything? It shouldn’t, unless you’re trying to resuscitate somebody or reattach their severed limb. It shouldn’t mean anything at all.

In response to traffic, my road rage has gotten terrible. Well not that bad, but I regularly blare my horn or flash my brights at idiot drivers only to feel incredibly embarrassed upon getting stuck next to them at a stop light. Then I’m forced into playing the “I don’t see you” game: staring straight ahead, fiddling with some feigned piece of lint on the dashboard, rummaging aimlessly through my CD collection. Most of my righteous indignation at abrupt lane-changers, speeders, etc. is of course expended in the closed cabin of our own car. Like many kids, we’re pretty sure my son’s first word will be a version of “mother” — though it will probably bear an unfortunate two-syllable suffix.

I also suffer from “aisle rage” — having to regularly stifle a strong urge to hurl my shopping cart into other consumers at our overpopulated grocery store; and “line rage,” expressed through an agitated huffing and shifting of weight in response to inefficiently handled customer queues.

Am I a lunatic? Am I due to pull a Michael Douglas some time soon? (see Falling Down for what could’ve been, if handled right, one of our better filmic representations of modern life). I’m definitely high strung, neurotic, histrionic, whatever. But mostly I’m just crowded. I need to go somewhere where I can experience that curious paradox: more physical space to move around in and yet a simultaneous feeling of more “closeness” with other people, e.g. neighbors. Our current quadruplex apartment in Stamford, Connecticut for example seems to stand about five feet from the aluminum-sided monstrosity right next to it, and yet we’ve shared maybe ten words with our house mates, and none with our neighbors, ever. Even where I grew up on Long Island I couldn’t tell you the names of half the people on our street, much less their professions, whether they kept bodies in the basement, or if they have a hobby.

All of this is as opposed to the American Midwest, the simple conclusion to the above, which has really served as a lengthy introduction. In the Midwest, or what I’ve seen of it anyway, people are so mellow that a Long Islander sometimes doesn’t know how to deal with it. An example: having accidentally gotten into the turning lane on a busy street in Sioux Falls, South Dakota recently, I naturally started to freak out. How long would I be stuck there, waving frantically, my other hand gripped to the wheel? Would I pull out into a hellish chorus of blaring horns? Would my car be smashed, would I be dragged from the wreckage and beaten senseless?

I was of course shocked to learn from my girlfriend, a native, that people will actually willingly let you back in and without giving you an impatient ushering wave or a reluctant grimace. And then there are the rents. There is actually the potential to realize that “your rent should be one third of your income” adage that’s become so ridiculous by East Coast standards, where your rent is equivalent to or exceeds your income.

So it is for a mellower and more affordable lifestyle, for the chance to tap into a rather vast support network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, for a profusion of great primary, secondary, and higher forms of education, and for other reasons too numerous to mention that I will leave everything I’ve ever known for the Midwest — in particular, for the Twin Cities region of Minneapolis/St. Paul, in the state of Minnesota. It’s not San Francisco and it certainly isn’t New Orleans. But it has lots of art, progressive politics, nice people, lots of family, and most importantly, a slower pace — and neighboring states that harbor some of geology’s most exquisite creations.

I will be leaving behind a prince of a brother and a perfect mother (though I’m trying to get her to defect along with me), as well as a beautiful set of friends. I will leave the Long Island Sound, which has been a constant presence in my life and perhaps abstractly signifies my entire childhood — being the constant background of my earliest memories. I have never lived more than five to ten minutes from this body of water: The biggest geographical relocation I ever made was only to cross it, moving to Connecticut, and it still faces the back of our current house. So the Sound deserved its own good bye, which I gave it. Last week I went and stood looking out at the water, listening to the gulls, thinking, “I am from there,” feeling sad.

As for San Francisco, perhaps one day when I am a wealthy columnist, and given the agreement of my family, I will realize my dream of a great bay window overlooking windy streets and breeze-tousled palms. That may be at a time when the information/communication frenzy has reached a plateau, people are satisfied with the number of available ways they can reach other, and what is now our current wave of technology becomes thoroughly appliance-like, household, and quotidian. Then the real estate will mellow out a little and the entrepreneurs can move somewhere else to set about drafting the next short-lived trend. Until then, perhaps these current residents can at least make sure they are appreciative of their beautiful city. Maybe they can do something suitably San Franciscan once in a while, like light some incense and thank the universe for their good fortune.

Eric Hayward welcomes comments and offers of rent-free accommodation at eric@erichayward.com.


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