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While I am a native Californian, born in West Covina and raised in Covina until we moved to Florida when I was 10, I never considered myself a Californian until I moved to San Francisco.
And apart from a brief hiatus in Washington DC (2 years, ten months and 30 days, but who counted?) I have lived in San Francisco for just about half my life.
What first brought me back to California, specifically to Hayward in 1985, was a one-year domestic Peace Corps-like program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame (where I had just graduated from) that had me teaching in a predominately black Catholic elementary school in West Oakland.
By June 1988, I was finally living in San Francisco.
I first became involved in HIV/AIDS work before I ever knew anyone who was infected or who had died. My first involvement was in 1985 through the Shanti Project as an emotional/practical support volunteer. Interestingly enough, while I was an undergrad at Notre Dame, I was a teaching assistant in the Biology lab for two and ½ years (a required course for pre-med students). The lab lecture both semesters of my senior year that I taught was about this new and emerging threat, AIDS.
Once in the Bay Area, AIDS became much more profoundly personal and real. One could not help but note that the Bay Area was hard hit by the epidemic. One could ignore it, certainly, but it took effort to make-believe it was not real.
Then October 1985 came around. And my world changed.
While in a demonstration in San Francisco regarding the US involvement in El Salvador (I was doing a little volunteer work with the Sanctuary Movement when not teaching), we were walking through UN Plaza towards the Federal Building when I encountered something that would forever change my perspective and politics and soul -- the ARC/AIDS Vigil.
In late October 1985, a group of homeless and nearly homeless gay men who had AIDS and ARC chained themselves to the doors of one of the buildings in UN Plaza in protest to the inaction of the US government in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It was the second act of civil disobedience ever in the history of the epidemic, the first having transpired a few months earlier with a gay man chaining himself to the doors of one of the federal buildings in similar protest only exception being that the first man was arrested while the men who set up the ARC/AIDS Vigil were not.
As our contingent of protesters marched through UN Plaza, past the Vigil, one of the men who was part of the group there stood up and cheered us on, clapping in solidarity. To reach across that divide by such a simple gesture, I was blown away.
By 1988 I was actively involved in AIDS, not only professionally, but as an activist, an advocate, but also as a person living with HIV disease. (BTW, I have now lived with HIV for 23 years of my life.)
Fast forward to December 1995 to my last official function in San Francisco before I moved to Washington DC. As Health Commissioner and executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS (the organization that had sponsored the men who created the ARC/AIDS Vigil back in 1985), I was invited to help christen the South Portal of the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.
What was once an eyesore in the park was now a beautiful living memorial to those who had died of AIDS.
Returning to SF in late 1998 was the best thing I ever did for myself. I wish I could say that my last eleven years home have been smooth sailing but in fact, just the opposite – I spent several of the past years sick or recovering.
The past decade has been one of dealing with very personal losses as well as my own decline in health (although now my health is stable and pretty darn good I’d say). I retired from AIDS work in 2001, swearing that I had put in my time and was tired and needed to take care of myself.
Through a friend, I was coaxed out of retirement to join the Board of Directors of the now National AIDS Memorial Grove (President Clinton signing the Congressional resolution deeming the Grove to be one of the 44 National such memorials in 1996).
Like other parts of my life, the Grove now brings me full circle. Just as I say that when I am in San Francisco I am alive, the same holds true for the Grove.
What the Grove embodies is that inexplicable but unmistakable reason why I live in San Francisco. When I am in the Grove I am alive.
I know the City has flaws and challenges and its own problems, but this City has more of one thing than any other city I have ever been to – heroes.
San Francisco is a terribly fortunate city – terribly because of the tremendous loss that we have experienced as a city because of AIDS and yet fortunate because we as a city have been lucky enough to have had an entire city decide to be heroic, from the beginning of the epidemic and even until now. Heroism in the face of the AIDS epidemic often is to be found in the ordinary.
At its core, San Francisco is defined by its response to AIDS and that response, that legacy is pretty astonishing -- at its core the legacy of MY San Francisco is one of ordinary people rising to an extraordinary challenge solely because of concern and compassion for their neighbor, lover, friend, family member, co-worker, child.
An extraordinary city brimming with extraordinary people who just believe themselves to be doing nothing out of the ordinary – that is my San Francisco.
There are moments that never fade with time. You can call them up in an instant over years, over decades, and their colors remain as brilliant as ever.
It has been ten years now since our big yellow moving truck lumbered out of the Waldo Tunnel and I caught my breath as the bright towers of the Golden Gate Bridge shot into view. That was the moment I came home for the first time.
I grew up in one of those wholesome towns in the Midwest, surrounded by a vast green ocean of cornfields. Despite a storybook childhood replete with fuzzy puppies and devoted parents, I hit puberty feeling like there might be something profoundly wrong with me.
I almost fit in, but not quite. Something was always off. I was never on the same page, the same boat, the same planet as the rest of my classmates, my friends or my fellow 4-H’ers.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I was living near Chicago, writing copy for an ad agency, spending my weekends as a black-clad club kid and penning maudlin poetry about my inability to find happiness.
Happiness isn’t a place, according to conventional wisdom. But I never was one for conventions.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of leaving Illinois sooner. Perhaps I was waiting for some kind of permission, some indisputable sign. It came in 1998 in the form of a guy named Bruce. We weren’t yet married when he pulled out a map of the United States, spread it open on the table and said, “If you could move anywhere in the country, where would you go?”
It took me about two seconds to say, “San Francisco.”
I had never been to the city, but I had heard the stories. I read the books. And as soon as I said it, I knew it was right.
Two years later, I sat weeping and astonished in the front seat of a moving truck as we rolled across the bridge, the fog reaching out to welcome us.
I can’t imagine myself anyplace else. This is where I belong, here in this beautiful city of misfits.
This city is more than famous landmarks and steep hills. It’s more than eclectic architecture and summer fog. It’s more than hippies and beatniks and liberals and homeless. It’s more than a muse, more than a melting pot. There is something inexpressible about this city, something virtually magical.
In San Francisco, you are allowed to be whoever you really are. This city will give you the chance to find yourself and the inspiration to make that self a better person.
From that very first day to this, I am constantly overcome with miniature love epiphanies as I wander around San Francisco streets. Topping Twin Peaks to see the whole bay stretched out before me like a promise. Watching the fog creep up Judah Street like a damp, benevolent cat. Running through Golden Gate Park in the early morning as the light begins to glimmer through the green. Feeling the salt coat my face as the waves throw themselves again and again onto the sand at Ocean Beach.
Every time it happens is new. No matter how many times I’ve seen it before, I fall in love all over again.
And so I’ve built a life here, at land’s end. I’ve discovered who I am. I’ve learned to be happy. I’ve come home.
You call it what you want. It’s just as simple as that, period. I been here for 27 years; born at General Hospital and been raised here ever since. I told a friend one time “I’m going to buy a house here in the city and I don’t care if I have to use candles to light my house and be the poorest home owner on that block. I will own in SF.” It’s still my goal after all these debts disappear...
Ever since I was younger, I have never been one for school books. School books in my opinion seem cold; impersonal, lots of writing, and no pictures. Granted though, their job was to give us information that we may use at some point in our lives. But I guess I’m a person that needs pictures. I need imagery to let me understand or relate to something that is read or something that is described to me. That is why San Francisco cannot be put into words. It is a place that can’t be explained on paper and if you try to, you risk missing something about this city that may be dear to someone else. Also, on the flip side of that if I were to put what San Francisco is famous for on paper, the next person could say “I have a bridge in my city,” or “ I have a pier/wharf/(insert similar item common between cities here)What’s the big deal?” Well…it is a big deal. San Francisco has to be experienced firsthand. This place is DIFFERENT than anywhere else. You may walk down one block and see a guy and a girl kissing and on the next block two girls (or guys) are doing the same thing. You could be on one side of town and it could be foggy as hell but about 3 miles down, it’s clear and sunny. You could see the rich on one side of town with the million dollar mansions and on the other you got the homeless sitting on a bench asking for money when you pass by. Every moment in this city is an experience – a mental picture that the person was able to capture.
Now some people may argue that things are changing in the city for the better and others will say it’s for the worse. A friend of mine gets mad when he walks by Pops bar on 24th because it used to be neighborhood regulars and drunks and now its fixies and more fixies. Some things are for the better though – years back the Mission used to be VERY heavily gang populated and I remember when the park near my house had initiations that had huge crowds that rivaled something like Dia De Los Muertos crowds. Police would come around and they would scatter like ants from under a rock. Now the same park has a soccer field and a basketball court and the same area has a ton of coffee shops next to the taquerias and liquor stores. Change is inevitable I guess but change also brings out new things and better things that make this city stand out from the others.
San Francisco is magical. It is mysterious. It is grimy. It is beautiful. It is just there like an old friend or it is like that new opportunity that is placed in front of you. It is something that is planned or something that is at a moment's notice. It emits an aura that brings people from all around the world to come see and experience it. Just drive back into the city on one of the bridges and you can just feel San Francisco radiate just because it is one of a kind.
People want to come to San Francisco and I think you should too.
Today it’s been 9 years since I moved from Paris to Pacifica, and then San Francisco. I left Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport on November 09 and arrived one day later, after 2 planes broke and the last one missed our last connection in Pittsburg, on November 10th. Since then, for nine years, every single day I walk outside and meet somebody new, wherever it is, whoever they are, no matter how short our interaction, they systematically ask me the same question: “what brought you here?” This is why I decided to write this, and to participate to Julie’s project. To tell you my story about why “I Live here: San Francisco…”
I came here for love.
In 1998 I fell for an American man in Paris, he was on vacation, extremely long karmic story short: I commuted two years from Paris to Redwood City, “Deadwood City”, before deciding to leave everything I had built and adored to live with him in California. We bought a house in Pacifica, I got married in this red silk dress, and here I was, the Parisian girl on a coastal retreat. None of my French friends could believe it! Me neither.
At first I thought I will not survive. I could not even look though the windows: all these small houses and the big ocean were so scary too me. I was looking desperately for high energy, crowds, and tall buildings! Despite my job in San Francisco, I felt so isolated, dying inside. Then step by step, I met incredible people, developed new true friendships. I began yoga, enrolled in a 3-year Feng Shui program which I graduated from and uncovered my spiritual path. I founded Your French Accent, my “Decorator Extraordinaire and Beyond” consulting company. I learned so much during these Pacifican years…
When we divorced in very good terms in January 2008, I decided to stay in California against all odds, and moved to “The City.” I picked or actually I got picked by a studio on Potrero Hill, the place where I always wanted to live since I discovered San Francisco. I saw this apartment waiting for me in a dream before it got even posted on Craigslist! I got it despite the other 13 applicants. I moved close to the railroad, close to 280, and the noise and the pollution welcomed me as a longtime lost friend. I was back to my own life of a joyful city girl: I was back to Moi, better!
Here I learned more. The gentleman on the pictures is a close friend who I very rarely see but who opened up my heart on a new world of possibilities, revealing a part of my soul that I never acknowledged before. This is why I asked him to be part of this photo shoot. When I met him, he told me: “Catherine, you are free, nobody can claim you as his own, and nor can you claim anybody either. Now live your own life, and enjoy, fully.”
After more new beautiful heart filling karmic encounters on the hill and… a lot more meditation and introspection, I finally integrated that no love has to be possessive and exclusive to be real and durable. I understood that the biggest act of love is to set the person you want for yourself totally free. I realized that watching the seeds you planted grow on their own is more important than to gate a dry garden. It feels so good! My love and my respect for every person in my life, past/present/future, is sincere and intact, for ever.
Voilà. Now you know my story. I came here for Love. I came here for me… I have absolutely no clue where I will be in a month, a year. Times are shaking and with this boots I bought in 2000, I am walking through ruins and miracles. But you know what? Today, I live here: San Francisco. I mean: I LIVE here, and I am thankful for every second of it!
Namaste. Be good and never behave!
Catherine's website is http://www.yourfrenchaccent.com/
Her vlog is http://www.frenchshuicafe.com/
I can tell you the exact place and moment when I first said I was going to move to San Francisco.
My friend's and I had taken the trip from Sacramento to San Francisco, and (as tourists) of course our first stop had to be Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. After getting clam chowder in a bread bowl from Guardino's, we snagged some empty tables outside of Castagnolia's. Looking up Jones St. toward Russian Hill, that was my moment.
That was the infatuation. The love of San Francisco came from seeing the people who inhabit it. The idealist's and the dreamers. The artists and the musicians and the writers, and even the waiters like me. The people who envisioned a better world, a world that was possible within our little city.
I went to Africa on a mission trip the summer after my freshman year of college, and after that eye-opener I could no longer accept the cookie-cutter lifestyle of the Sacramento suburb I was living in at the time. It was fake. I needed authentic.
San Francisco was authentic.
Growing up as a Christian, you find lots of people who are anything but authentic. I didn't want to be a fake Christian, and after going to Africa, I knew I had to do something that mattered with my life.
One amazing thing about San Francisco is that it has more non-profits than any other city in the nation. It has people who care. Who dream. I wanted to be like the people in San Francisco. I wanted to dream, to do things that mattered.
One thing that separated San Francisco from other places that I've lived is that in other places, if you share an idea with someone, they'll give you all the reasons why it won't work. They'll shoot you down more often than not.
In San Francisco, when you share an idea with someone, more often then not they are excited. People comment on how unique or original an idea may be. They ask what they can do to help.
I'm at a point where I'm asking you to help me. You see I'm committed to being one of those dreamers who do things that matter. I've been accepted to an internship in Belize, which will give me the chance to learn and grow, not only as a Christian, but as someone who cares about our world and our city. I know there are others out there with these same cares. I've seen you and I've met you, and you're what makes this city what it is.
I don't want to ask for your money, but I need to. So I want to give something back. My 1hundredproject gives me the chance to give something back to you. I'm going to ask for $100, but I want to make your trouble worthwhile. I want to make your life easier, and hopefully you can get to know me a little bit along the way. Allow me to help you with something. I'll paint your garage, babysit your dog, even take your daughter to homecoming. I might be asking for your money, I'm desperate to show why I hope you find me worth it.
1hundredproject is my idea to help make my dream of going to Belize a reality. I'd love for you to check out my idea, and maybe tell me some of yours, and maybe together all of us dreamers can make a better city and a better world.
Follow Clare at http://twitter.com/clarebear
Which is all to say, sometimes I don't feel as though I live in San Francisco. Even in quintessential San Francisco moments I can be caught off guard, wondering suddenly if it is really me there on Muni, if this really is San Francisco or if I will, at some point, wake up and walk out of my apartment and find the city I imagined I knew before I got here.
And the cool thing about all of this? I don't think I'm alone in this experience, or that any two people really know the same San Francisco. In a city of transplants, almost everyone has this story. It becomes a ritual, a familiar moment in every introduction. We trade our San Francisco origin stories along with our names and neighborhoods. We draw out the paths that led us here. Even the ones who have been here all along, the ones born near the bay, can tell a story about leaving and returning, or the moment they knew they couldn't go.
Living on an edge is a must for me. Something to do with my Viking ancestry, no doubt. I was born and raised in Florida, lucky to have a warm beach to walk every day after school or work. When I moved to San Francisco 20 years ago, I fell in love with the Marina at first sight. A lot of people live in The Marina; I live IN the marina.
My piece of San Francisco is 39’ long by 15’ wide. In this slip lies my sailboat, a 1968 Islander 37, designed by renowned yacht designer and naval architect Bruce King. Though she’s a fiberglass sloop, her classic exterior lines, swoopy stern, ample beam and teak bits give her the air of a more traditional wooden boat. Down below, her salon is warm and cozy. I sleep here, lulled by the foghorn and the rhythmic thrumming of the halyards against the masts. It’s best when raindrops join these to create a hypnotic symphony. The salon also serves as a reading room, home office, and when friends come to visit, an intimate wine bar.
On sunny days, the view from the boat’s cockpit rivals that of any of my land-loving neighbors. Look left, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge. Swivel right and the sky is filled with kites above Marina Green. Gaze across Marina Boulevard at the barrel tile roofs against the sharp blue sky, it’s easy to imagine being in my beloved south of France.
While the boat herself gives me as much pleasure as I can stand, my little marina ’neighborhood’ has its own tempo, which changes depending on the day of the week. Weekdays are special to me since they are typically quiet—there are boat owners who go out during the week, but they are few. Most Monday-through-Friday action comes from the intrepid guys who don a wet suit and tank and brave the murky harbor waters to scrub boat bottoms, or the occasional marine electrician or refinisher out to fix bad wiring or refinish someone’s teak.
Weekends, though, the marina is a Happening. Boats wander in and out all day. Friends bring their friends to share an afternoon on the bay, a trip to Angel Island or maybe sail over to Sausalito to dock at Sam’s for lunch. Kids learning to sail brave the distinct possibility of capsizing to work on their mastery of this most enthralling sport. We have periodic festivals or exhibitions or film crews on Marina Green-and those ubiquitous kites. Volleyball games here, regattas there, those funny little yellow rent-a-scooters navigating the traffic—it’s an extravaganza starring all of us who love being by the Bay.
Marina Boulevard, our very own parade route, draws tourists and locals looking for views, views and views. And maybe a flat place to run, walk or bike. The runners run, from sun up long into the evening, weather be damned.. The wide sidewalk that extends all along the waterfront lures locals to pedal and tourists to rent bikes—Blazing Saddles must be doing box office, since every rental bike in the Marina sports its signature Blazing Saddles handlebar bag, complete with a trusty map. Segway tours pass often-I shouldn’t but I have to giggle every time I see these clots of peoplemovers, since they do look kind of silly and the mandatory helmets and vests are so matchy-matchy, and I still don’t understand how those things stay up anyway, so I watch and wait, expecting a brutal Segway pile up at any time.
Park, who works in the Harbor Master’s office, pops out every few hours to check on the boats, or to get some fresh air—he has worked in the office at least as long as I have. Park is a wealth of local knowledge. He told me about the weekly emergency alert signal one day when I was passing by him, it blared, and I shot several feet straight up. He gives me the skinny on the jumper situation when there are emergency rescue personnel at the marina. Most importantly, he knows who belongs in the marina and who does not: our one-man security force and guardian angel.
I love to walk to Greens for a cup of soup or a cookie, up to Chestnut for coffee, down to Crissy Field, along the beach and the warming hut at the end of the path. I belong to a boating club that is close by also; I’ve made so many good friends here. There’s something special about people joined by a mutual passion. Walking from the boat, I can be alone or with friends, in the middle of urban or at the end of the world within minutes. Where else can you do that?
I met Lee in 1997. He squatted at the bus stop shelter by my house in San Francisco’s Lower Haight.
Lee was a tall, exceptionally fit brother, mid-to-late forties, with natty shoulder-length dreads and a long, scraggly beard to match. He was missing most of his top and bottom front teeth.
I was 18 and living in a sectioned off hallway of an old Victorian. The hallway was nicknamed “The Taco” because the walls were so narrow that my hand-me-down futon mattress folded up on both sides resembling a taco shell. The space cost me $150 a month, utilities included.
The living situation was suitable for me back then. I worked only part-time at a bagel shop downtown, making just enough to get by. I was broke, but content. I had ample time to skate with my friends, plenty of bagels to keep my stomach full and a running tab at the corner store.
Lee was without question one of the hardest working recyclers in town. He had Upper and Lower Haight, Hayes Valley and the Upper Market/Castro area on lockdown, scavenging the recycling from these neighborhoods hours before the garbage men arrived. Afterwards, he cashed his collection in at the buy-back center on Market and Church streets. He then spent his evenings lounging at the bus stop shelter by my house, smoking rollie cigs and weed and listening to the classic soul and R&B station on his portable radio.
One evening, while waiting for the bus to Upper Haight, Lee told me that he’d been living on the streets of S.F. for over fifteen years. I know he made decent money recycling, probably as much or more than I was making at the bagel shop, so why he remained homeless, I don’t know. I guess he preferred it. During this same conversation, Lee said the only three things he ever spent money on were tobacco, weed and batteries for his radio. That’s it. Everything else, including food, he scavenged out of the trash.
In the summer of 2000, my landlord sold the old Victorian to a real-estate developer who wasted no time giving me, my roommates and the other tenants the boot.
I ended up couch surfing for a month before finding an affordable room in a skate house in The City’s Richmond District.
Close to four months went by before I saw Lee again. It was a Thursday afternoon. I had just finished eating lunch by myself in Upper Haight. Lee was posted up on the corner of Haight and Masonic. He had five large, heavy-duty garbage bags overflowing with recycling tied down to his cart.
I was feeling down this particular day because I had just received word two days earlier that my old friend, Rubin “Peanuts” Grimes, died of a heroin overdose. The news didn’t come as much of a surprise. It was only a matter of time, really. He overdosed twice before. I was scheduled to leave town early the following morning to attend his funeral on Sunday.
Rubin and I were the same age. We actually started skating together in the sixth grade. His nickname was “Peanuts” because he was obsessed with the Charles Schulz Peanuts comics. He even had a tattoo on his right-shoulder of Snoopy (as “Joe Cool”) doing a wheelie on a skateboard. The tattoo was corny as hell, yet fitting.
Rubin was a natural on the skateboard, definitely good enough in the mid-90s be sponsored, but quit senior year of high school to shoot junk fulltime. He started dabbling with the drug junior year, snorting a little here, smoking a little there. By mid-senior year, he was shooting it. It was all down hill from there. He never did graduate.
Pretty much everyone had long since given up on Rubin, his family included.
Although Rubin and I lived in different states, we talked on the phone every so often. We’d reminisce about the old days, and he would always tell me that he was going to start skating again, maybe even come visit me in S.F. That obviously never happened.
Given the circumstances, I wasn’t in the mood to socialize with anyone, but decided I would at least say Hi to Lee before heading home to pack for my trip.
“What up, Lee?” I said as I approached.
An immense smile came over Lee’s face, revealing his missing front teeth. “How the hell are you, my man?” he replied.
We shook hands.
“I’m good,” I said, trying hard not to look sad. “How ‘bout you?”
“I’m blessed,” he replied, pointing towards the bags of recycling tied down to his cart. “Too blessed to be stressed. Business is good.”
“I see that.”
“Where’ve you been hiding?” Lee asked.
“I moved. The landlord sold the building and the new owner gave us the boot. I’m living out in the Avenues now, Richmond side. It’s much quieter, you know.”
“I’m glad I finally ran into you,” he said. “I got something for ya’. Been holding onto it for a while now.”
Lee dug deep into the bottom of his cart and pulled out an old beat-up skateboard.
“I found it in the trash over on McAllister Street,” he said handing me the board.
All at once, I felt extremely emotional. The skateboard was a Peanuts-themed Nash from the mid-80s. The faded, scratched and peeling graphics were of Snoopy (as “Joe Cool”) sporting shades, a Hawaiian shirt, jam shorts and full pads, busting an ollie off the side of his doghouse. The die-cut griptape read “Joe Cool” in bubble letters. The trucks, bearing and bolts were rusty; the yellow and green swirled wheels coned.
“What do ya’ think?” Lee asked. “I don’t know nothin’ about boards, but it looks like a good one to me.”
So much was going through my mind that I could barely speak, but somehow, in a shaky voice, managed to murmur, “I love it.”
Lee smiled and said, “Can you believe someone would throw a good board like that out?”
I shook my head.