During the long, cold summer that San Francisco experiences, I’m reminded how this city is not like others. Though we’re connected by peninsula to sunny San Mateo County, the disconnect to the rest of California is often evident. It’s not just the drizzle and the fog of the summer months – it’s the culture, the politics and the attitudes here. I sometimes wish we could disconnect ourselves from the attitudes here.
Years ago, the BBC aired a documentary called San Francisco: The City That Waits To Die. It was about how San Franciscans oddly, perhaps thoughtlessly, continue to live atop the San Andreas Fault.
The fault lies just off the coast, under water, beyond the Golden Gate. I’ve looked for traces of that fault line many times. All I see are waves. I’ve been fishing for Pacific salmon off the coast; I’ve attended ceremonies on boats where people’s ashes are cast to the wind. I’ve stood on the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge and looked westward into the Pacific. The bridge itself, rusty red, is magnificent, holding mightily in the relentless gusts, like a great dance partner to hold onto when one feels unsteady after too much vin ordinaire.
I never liked dancing.
Silly me. I live in California – land of faults and no-fault divorces. Truth is, most of the rest of California despises us. Mostly because of politics. I gather the outsiders have a sense of moral indignation. Oh, right, that gay marriage thing. Isn’t that ridiculous? Can you imagine how medieval it is to assess who may marry and who may not? Let everyone marry: Let God decide.
Many Americans are angry because it appears that we’re having a better time than they are.
I once asked a priest what St. Francis of Assisi might say if he learned that San Francisco had been named in his honor.
“I don’t know,” the good father said sincerely, “whether St. Francis would laugh or cry.”
Cities here, as well as the fault lines, are named after saints. I guess St. Andreas is the patron saint of broken dishes. Fortunately, the San Andreas Fault sleeps a lot. I have to tell you, though. San Franciscans don’t lose a lot of sleep over it.
George Will once asked me how I could live here, knowing an earthquake “could throw you and me out the window at any time.” We were on the 32nd floor of a high-rise in San Francisco.
I responded, “Gee, George, I could move to Kansas and die of boredom. That’s just as inevitable.”
He nodded knowingly, and then quickly winged back to Washington, where a shake-up might be a good thing.
Mr. Will, strangely, did not ask me how I could live in a town infamous for the deification of Harvey Milk, for the protection of illegal immigrants, for the legalization of marijuana, for the support of nuclear-free ice cubes – or for forgiving Karl Marx, Hugo Chavez, Leon Trotsky, Fidel Castro or any of their perceived crimes in their past or in their future, specious as the prognosis may be.
Many of us came here to get away. The Puritans tried to get away from their European oppressors during the 17th century. They found their way to the eastern shores of America, no good restaurant in sight. Would Puritans like good cuisine anyway? Forget the vin ordinaire.
Centuries later, many young Americans, and Europeans, trundled themselves here to San Francisco by any method to get away from the Puritans.
Janis Joplin was one of them.
She found that not only was San Francisco a great town, it was a community. Small enough to be a city, but not so small you couldn’t call anyone a village idiot. As the Summer of Love burgeoned in 1967, village idiots were no longer a rare commodity. People still talk about how sweet Janis was. Careful. There are hazards here. One can be swallowed up in all the swallowing.
“I love this city,” announced a young woman bartender in the Tenderloin. “It’s a real city. I can walk around; I don’t have to rent a car like L.A. I know where I’m going here; I don’t need any GPS.”
I have a feeling that people in San Francisco figure out why they’re here. The earthquake 20 years ago was not a lot of fun, but most of us stayed to pick up the pieces.
I wandered up California Street this afternoon, top of Nob Hill. The hills are as high as the rents. I thought that it could be the windiest street in the world. Just a few blocks away, on Russian Hill, is Lombard Street. It’s known at “the crookedest street in the world.” And I thought that was Wall Street.
I get a certain glee on the faces of the tourists who are freezing in their seersucker suits in the July chill.
Is this a city that waits to die? Hardly. Why wait for anything? We can go for a walk, have breakfast, gaze at the water all around us. It’s more like a city that’s dying to live.
Bruce Bellingham is a columnist, and arts editor for this paper, and a writer for the Marina Times.