If ‘leaving SF’ essays are mandatory, here is mine

Since 2010, my husband and I have lived in a third-floor apartment that looks out onto the Panhandle, the twin spires of St. Ignatius, and a drug dealer who refuses to be chased off his turf.

For most of those years, George lived one floor beneath us. George was gay, I’m pretty sure, around his 60s, and probably on disability. I don’t know any more specifics, because he was the shyest man I’ve ever met. He could stutter out a hello when we passed on the stairs, but when I would essay a follow-up question about the weather, his lips would clamp together and his eyes would widen, and we’d look at each other for a few seconds more before I’d release him from the terror of communicating. Then he’d start up or down again, clutching the stair rail, each step consuming all his strength.

George got even quieter and slower with the years. If he heard me coming up the stairs behind him he’d stop, lean against the wall, and wait for me to pass. Last year we stopped seeing him. For a few months, we saw homecare workers and nurses instead, then construction workers stripping out his apartment. His unit listed for more than twice as much as we, with our nine years of rent control, still pay.

I’m not saying George is the reason I’m leaving San Francisco, but he’s one of the reasons I decided it’s time to go.

***

The first time I moved to San Francisco was at the age of 20, when I took a semester off college to intern at Shanti Project during the worst of the plague years.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in San Francisco — its mythos intimidated me, as did the proximity to so much AIDS and death — but three weeks into my stay, the other interns and I went to the Folsom Street Fair together. It was everything that, at 20, terrified me about gay male sexuality. We watched people doing things I’d never seen in porn. We spotted the director of Shanti, a giant bearded dom, in assless chaps. And, like the tens of thousands of San Franciscans jostling around us, sweaty and squeaking in their stiff black vests, we laughed our way through the afternoon.

It was the moment I fell in thrall to the city. It wasn’t about the kink, it was this city’s frank, democratic love of hedonism in all its messiness, so hard to understand from the outside. San Francisco in those days was just as smug as it is now, but it was also second tier; people with real ambition quickly left for New York or LA. No, this was a place where scrappy creativity thrived, a place that attracted people whose biggest ambition was to live an interesting life.

I returned to college in Minnesota with one clear goal: moving back.

***

Looking back, the post-recession, pre-dot-com-boom San Francisco I settled in after graduation was short-lived. When I think of my 20s, I also realize how much my memories of that time are tinged with the aimlessness of my life before I fell into writing about food, as well as the shadow AIDS cast over queer life here. But I didn’t lack for an interesting life, and even more interesting people to share it with.

By 2006, my neighborhood of a decade, Hayes Valley, was morphing into precious boutiques. The communal household where I had lived for most of that time had drowned in a morass of breakups. I was single, and living in a studio next to an elementary school; I had to keep the blinds down to avoid a call from the police. I applied for a job in Seattle, thinking life had to be easier elsewhere.

I had no idea how difficult that first year in Seattle would be, or how exiled I would feel. At my going away party in San Francisco, the bar had been packed with friends, co-workers and exes. I arrived in the Northwest knowing only my sister, her husband, and my baby nephew, and Seattle was not an easy place to make friends. In those first few months, at the peak of my dislocation, I would think how I had lived in San Francisco for so long that every cell of my being was formed of its atoms. I had consumed this city. In turn, it had composed me.

Yet three and a half years later, when a job in San Francisco opened up, I finally lived in a Seattle where I could walk down the street and run into someone I knew. I adored my new friends. I started dating a handsome ginger. Every Sunday I cooked dinner for a baby niece as well as a nephew.

Just as the job opened up, the alt-weekly newspaper chain I worked for announced it was doubling our workload. I offered them a deal: Move me down to SF, pay me enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment here, and I’ll devote all my time and energy to my job.

I moved back in 2010 with the understanding that my time here was always going to be temporary, that San Francisco had gentrified beyond my means, but if I was going to write about food, this was the best place to pursue a career.

All of which, it turned out, was true.

My boyfriend and I dated for nine months before he moved south. He stayed with me for a couple weeks until he could find an apartment, and we quickly discovered neither of us wanted him to sign another lease. For our fifth anniversary, we married in City Hall.

The San Francisco we occupy now is so much bigger than the one I left in 2006. Where the city of my 20s was bordered by Bernal Heights and the Upper Haight, it now extends to the ocean, to Bayview, to the Excelsior. The longer I have lived here the more the enduring city of natives and lifers has emerged. Even as San Francisco has grown simultaneously wealthier and more destitute, and neighbors like George have been replaced by 25-year-olds making three times my salary, I have come to love San Francisco not as a playground but a complicated, infuriating, marvelous, organic entity.

Rent control has allowed Christian and me to stay in San Francisco, writing dissertations and books, working in nonprofits and newspapers. At the same time, we can’t move out of our apartment, and neither of us wants to be in our 60s, standing breathless on a step, waiting out a 30-year-old who needs to dash downstairs to catch her Lyft.

Of the friends who packed my going-away party in 2006, less than 10 remain in town. More leave every year. The city whose culinary history and geography I know better than almost everyone has made it clear that I will never own any piece of it. I am tired of steeling myself to leave.

So we’re moving to Portland, the city that holds the same place in my husband’s life as pre-dot-com San Francisco does in mine. We own a house there. So do all of his friends, who bought theirs decades before and stayed. Portland offers us a future: a chance to remake our lives, maybe not spend all our time working. My mother can walk up the stairs to our new house. In 30 more years, I may still be able to, too.

I am excited. I am grieving. I am, I remind myself constantly, almost gone.

[actually published 4/23/19]

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