I could tell you that I started riding my bike to work because I wanted to save the planet. But really, it was an article in The New York Times Style section. (My significant other swears I will do anything if it appears in The New York Times Style section. However, I have yet to take up shower-skipping-as-fashion-statement, a concept that appeared in an issue this past fall.) This story featured a number of stylish young women from Brooklyn (where else?) who managed to turn bicycling into a catwalk-worthy event. These two-wheeled fashionistas could be found pedaling their vintage cruisers across the five boroughs in Prada skirts, bibbed sweaters, and kitten heels. Studying the photographs of these excruciatingly chic women whizzing through NYC traffic sans helmets, I desperately wanted to be one of them, despite the fact that my closet contained not one of the aforementioned items of clothing. And that I was somewhat fuzzy on the definition of a kitten heel.
Nevertheless, the following morning, I pumped up the tires of my granny-geared bike—because SF is hillier than all five New York boroughs put together. I pulled on an Athleta yoga skirt, which, while not Prada, does possess its own stretchy style, and opted for my usual SF footwear: cowboy boots. Thanks to the pointy toes, they turned out to be surprisingly easy for navigating toe clips. Following the example of the chic young Brooklynites, I also chose to ride sans helmet, a decision I amended after two days, realizing that a massive head injury is very difficult to render stylish.
Outside the Peet’s in Potrero Center, there’s a flock of birds that perches on the empty chairbacks near people sitting and sipping their espresso. It’s easy to take them for blackbirds looking for food, but they’re not. Blackbirds are like New Yorkers: restless, quick, aggressively biting at opportunities. These slower and more patient creatures are cowbirds, who might grab a crumb if it lands near them but are generally content just to sit near people, as if enjoying their company, which they are, in a way. Cowbirds evolved to survive on the insects startled out of the grass by herds of bison and cattle, equipping them with an instinct to hang around groups of large, sedentary mammals.
Looking out my home office window on an improbable, fourth consecutive day of beautiful San Francisco weather, I’m reminded of the Tolstoy biopic from a couple of years ago, The Last Station. In the movie’s opening moments, James McAvoy, playing the idealistic secretary Valentin, beams to his colleague Sergeyenko, “It’s a beautiful day.” Sergeyenko responds, “Yes, but we’ll pay for it.”
I knew the look: slumped shoulders, crossed arms, glazed eyes. It was the teenage expression of tortured captivity, most often reserved for roadside attractions, railroad museums, and family reunion slide shows. Now the look was directed at me.
It was like that all day. My only response was to try harder.
I gathered the four blond heads of my cousins around a salon-style montage of art bulging from the SFMOMA’s wall like some sort of counterculture potbelly. “This,” I said while making an elaborate Vanna White gesture, “is Barry McGee.”
It’s the classic San Francisco story. In your early 20s, you leave home—some flyover state you’d just as soon forget—and move west, without a plan, which is the point. You stop where Interstate 80 stops, right on the edge of the continent, and unpack the U-Haul into a cramped room in a draughty flat in the Mission or the Lower Haight or the Outer Sunset. You share the space with roommates you’ve never met, work some meaningless job to pay the rent, and use the remaining hours to make art, or fantasize about making art, or just roam around the city, marveling at its fairy-tale beauty and strangeness—and at the fact that you get to call it home.
The first time I saw San Francisco, I knew I wanted to live here for the rest of my life. It was during the peak of the dot-com bubble, and I was a reporter on a two-week loan from a business weekly in Memphis. Those two weeks would turn into four, which would turn into more than a decade.
Much of my attraction had to do with the region’s celebration of entrepreneurship and culture of meritocracy—a huge departure from the old boys’ club of the South. No matter how big the bubble inflated or how bad the bust hurt, people in San Francisco were always entrepreneurial—even if they weren’t starting companies. I wasn’t surrounded by anyone punching a clock. I was among men and women who believed that if you didn’t like your reality, you should work hard every day to change it. I’ve always told people it’s something in the water here.