City on hiatus

Published 19 Jun 2020, last modified 15 Sep 2020

Upper Great Highway in San Francisco, temporarily closed to vehicle traffic to encouraged socially distanced exercise

I believe San Francisco officially began to allow outdoor dining at restaurants during our last full day in the city; I didn’t actually see any restaurants doing it while we were there. Reopening of “non-essential” retail to walk-in customers wouldn’t happen until we had left. Though there were some nights we heard some faint noise from the streets, some distant drumbeats or even the eventual firecracker, by the time we left the 8pm curfew had been lifted and the nights were mostly quiet in Outer Sunset. Sometimes during my walks I would anxiously side-step a small crowd of people waiting to take out food from a restaurant or bar—all the more anxiously if they were loitering mere inches apart across the width of the sidewalk with no masks, or with their masks dangling uselessly below the chin. But the doors at Safeway were patrolled at all times by store employees or even police, refusing entry to anyone who didn’t have their mouth & nose covered. At one Safeway store I visited on Noriega in Sunset I even saw a patron in a full face shield in addition to the mask.

While I had expected to spend much of my downtime during the trip reading novels or writing letters, I spent more of it on little technical projects—like creating this blog itself, which is a very simple Django app I wrote from scratch—or on walks about town. I didn’t hit a lot of city landmarks; mostly I just saw what I could get to by walking. One especially long and meandering walk eventually took me along El Camino del Mar and Sea Cliff, through a neighborhood of otherworldly mansions where I felt entirely alien, and to the edge of the Presidio, which fascinated me though by that time I’d clearly gone too far and had to get back to my sister.

A trend I noticed throughout our stay was hand-drawn or hand-painted rainbows displayed in the windows of many homes across the city. At first I saw a number of them accompanied by some message like “Thank you, healthcare workers” but increasingly throughout my stay the message beside them was “Black lives matter.” It was heartening to see public sympathy to this movement awoken so widely.

For me, the charm of the place never wore off for the two weeks I spent there, but over time certain realities I knew about it came into sharper focus: that this was a city on hiatus, that while new cases of COVID-19 reported daily were falling in my home state they were rising in the Bay Area, that institutional racism was at least as alive there as it was at home, and that this was not a city I or most of my friends & family could realistically afford to live in. There were moments when I was tempted to wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to live in San Francisco, but there were two really obvious reasons that always came to mind immediately: money & racism.

Months before I came to San Francisco I read Lauren Smiley’s long-form article in The Atlantic, “The Porch Pirate of Potrero Hill Can’t Believe It Came To This.” Its subject, San Francisco-born Ganave Fairley, has a personal history with faint echos of Jean Valjean at the outset of Les Misérables. Accused of a string of petty thefts in which packages were stolen from the doorsteps of her neighbors in Potrero Hill, her life was completely upended and her family torn apart by the criminal system; she lost her home and her daughter and eventually went to prison.I often think of this, but thought of it in San Francisco especially, how what seems to be a generous community of kind neighbors can wield such disproportionate violence when someone’s delivery of assorted hot sauces goes missing. And, truthfully, it’s hard to imagine a white woman in these United States today facing some of the comments and legal actions leveled against Fairley.

Still, I do hope to visit the city again, sometime when COVID-19 cases are no longer on the rise, sometime when the Japanese Tea Garden is open and I wouldn’t feel irresponsible riding a crowded bus to see it.

The last meal I ate before leaving the city was a ridiculously decadent fast food feast I could never get at home: spam musubi, curly fries, a Nutella-flavored mochi waffle, and a “Hokkaido caramel” milk tea with boba, all from Quickly in Sunset. II kept thinking about it for days afterward.

The journey back home was even stranger than the flight out west, not because things were further from pre-pandemic norms but precisely because they were a little bit closer. Our nonstop flight had been cancelled and we’d been left with a four-hour layout in Seattle, in an airport I knew from a pre-9/11 period of my childhood when one could go all the way to the gates without a boarding pass, to meet an arriving passenger or just to watch takeoffs and landings. It seemed busy as ever, with not nearly enough seats for us to stay six feet apart from other passengers waiting at the gate, and most of the airport shops were open. Nearly everyone was masked but I overheard other passengers complaining about it in cell phone conversations. I bought a few cheesy postcards from Hudson News, postcards with views of Seattle that I probably could have purchased in 2003 when I last lived in the area, and some food to sneak onto our next meal-service-less six hour flight. On the plane I listened to a “cosmic country” playlist, the voices of singers like John Prine and Yola lulling me halfway to sleep as the sun rapidly disappeared behind us.


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