My recent trip to San Francisco was a speculative one based on insecure work ties. A journey I made while I still had the chance. For my life belongs to quick, futile moments that burn out quickly. I cannot plan any further than three months at a time.
Over the past two years, I have worked remotely in four European cities and travelled sporadically throughout. Stuffing my job into my rucksack and pocket, following friend’s footsteps and sometimes just my own.
Like when I boarded a night train to Oakland, and the carriage steered through a vast mechanised wasteland. Surrounded by two suitcases, there was a low budget cinema quality to the train. Despite being a seasoned traveller in Europe, I felt skittish and paranoid, weighed down by fear and loathing.
Edging through the darkness, I sat opposite a large African-American man chatting up a working girl thirty years his junior. Swigging a bottle of prosecco, he claimed to be a professor of anthropology at Berkeley while slapping his thigh with glee.
Across the aisle, three grimy punks were snorting meth together, and with only my phone for company, I foresaw my death warrant on their wrinkled brows.
My first night in California was a tense, nervy affair. I did not trust my shadow at all. I have never felt so relieved to see the sunrise.
The next morning in glorious light, I took the BART downtown and walked up Columbus Avenue towards Presidio, when a vagrant shouted from the sidewalk: “I feel liberated out here mister. I don’t have to live in a fucking cage like you.”
Broken souls loiter hopelessly around San Francisco as commuters walk on by oblivious. You develop a heightened sensitivity to mental illness over here. I have never seen so many damaged people in one place.
LinkedIn and anti-suicide helplines compete for advertising space on the metro. Poets recite verses for dollar bills as you switch tram lines. Black Lives Matter stickers decorate gender fluid toilets. You have tramps and tourists; crackheads and coders; methheads and moms. It’s a city torn by jazzy and violent contradictions.
You can have offbeat conversations that you would struggle to have anywhere else. Like when a transgender antique owner told me about her summer house in Giudecca, and how locals don’t appreciate the breadth and beauty of Venetian churches.
While I was browsing in her store, the Navy Blue Angels were performing a dick swinging contest over the Fisherman’s Wharf. As they performed a loop-to-loop for the umpteenth time, she sighed “Jesus there go my taxes,” before the phone rang and I left empty handed.
America is a massive weird pond with more room for dispossessed voices than Britain. There is a natural affinity with human difference. That’s what I enjoyed the most about San Francisco. It’s a soulful, bratty city with boundless energy, and the possibilities are endless.
When I booked my flights, it was the Beat literary scene that whetted my wanderlust more than anything else. I loved Kerouac and Ginsberg as a teenager, but after visiting their old haunts and the Beat museum, they felt stale and irrelevant. Internet activism is the electric drama of modern times. Everyone wants their story to be heard now. Not just poetic white men in smoky jazz bars.
San Francisco’s bookshops were fantastic though, and the Berkeley stores, in particular, possessed a depth and soul lacking in the UK.
Afterwards I found myself eyeing up 1950’s baseball plaques in Italian cafes, watching rich couples dine on lobsters and cheese steaks, while beggars gorge out tin food with their bare hands. These have/have not scenarios occur in every society. Not just in San Francisco, but for some reason it feels more tangible here.
With so much emphasis on being a success, there’s a cavernous sense of loss for those who don’t make it.
After pressing the flesh at my Presidio office, I looped past the Golden Gate Bridge towards the North Beach district. A starry night emerged from the rosy sky. Listening to the cries of baseball fans in saloon bars, I watched the streets collide into one, as humanity’s best intentions lay rusting in the blue bay.
Baseball feels as alien to me as Saturn or Jupiter. I couldn’t relate to the euphoria and wanted to go home and hear the cry of my own tribe. Transience can catch you at the most unsuspecting moments. But you need to take your chances and explore places while you can. As you never know when the opportunity will come again or cease entirely.