Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair

In anticipation of the arrival of my best friend from college, who also visited me multiple times while I lived in San Francisco, I've been remembering living there, and I just wanted to write down some of my memories here for safekeeping. 

I lived in the Bay Area from 2006-2008, first in Redwood City, then in San Francisco proper. I should never have left, but an idiot boy I dated from the town where I went to high school convinced me to move back home right around the time my grandfather died and I was already vulnerable and kind of freaked out about living so far from my family. It was the perfect storm of emotional upheaval and then once I left it was too expensive to return. I've heard that since then, the city has changed because it got overrun with overpaid tech nerds, who, of course, ruin every city they infiltrate. (Except for ones like my anarchist musician friend from high school who needed to get a job that paid money and taught himself programming. You're not reading this, but you are still cool and you do not ruin cities. But the rest of you need to do some serious introspection.)

It's because of this that I hesitate to return for a visit. I've been told over and over again that it has changed so much I probably wouldn't even recognize it. The only person I know who still lives in the city proper got married in a castle in Italy and takes exotic vacations every year, so I guess whoever she ended up with is rich by my generation's standards and the rumors are true. 

It's a crying shame, because when I lived there, it was fantastic. 

I lived on Fulton Street between Divisadero and Alamo Square Park (where the "Painted Ladies" from the opening credits of Full House are). My roommate, whom I knew from college, managed a bakery and cafe in Hayes Valley, so we were all in the mix of small business owners from there up through Alamo Square and Divisadero. It was arguably the best neighborhood in the city at the time. Hayes Valley and Alamo Square were monied owners of gorgeous Victorian houses mixed with regular working class folks who rented apartments in smaller, plainer, Victorian houses, along with people in affordable housing and street people (who were valued members of the neighborhood at that time). Divisadero had cool funky shops (actual cool funky shops that had been there a long time, not nouveau-riche expensive boutiques that were pretending to be cool funky shops), some music venues (one of which was close enough that we could listen to bands from our rooftop on Friday and Saturday nights), restaurants of various price points, convenience stores, laundromats, etc. 

People got to know each other in the neighborhood. The places you went to eat, the stores you shopped in, people you bumped into on the sidewalk... You'd chat together, learn each other's names, they learned yours. Just about every place I went in my neighborhood, I knew at least one person who worked there by name, and they knew me, too. 

My roommate usually worked weekend days because she ran a cafe, so on days that I didn't walk down the hill to go for a visit and a snack, my time was my own and so was the apartment. Our place was so great. It was an amazing deal we had found online, a third floor walk-up in a three-story Victorian house. On our block was a Nepalese restaurant, a nice little corner bar that had food at happy hour, and a diner type place that had really good breakfast and a jukebox that only played soul records (original 45's, good lord). The apartment was basically a narrow hallway with rooms to either side that ended to form a T with our two bedrooms. We had a tiny square living room with two windows. One window faced the building next door that was just a few inches away, so if you opened it you could just reach right through and touch the next door building. It was for that reason that a previous tenant had painted the wall of the neighboring building bright turquoise just in the space of the window. So the window gave us a turquoise rectangle. If memory serves, the living room walls were kind of a light lime green. So it was a lime green living room with a turquoise rectangle framed by a window. Our kitchen was tiny but it had bright sunny windows (you could reach down and pass things through one of them if you were up on the roof), and a door that opened to stairs going all the way down to the laundry room. They were kind of creepy, wooden and in a tight spiral. The kind of stairs  I imagine servants would have used to go up and down back in the early days of the house. Our bathroom was also tiny, with a pedestal sink and a nice old tub. 

I couldn't resist, I looked it up. They painted it yellow! They added an awning!
Aww! So cute! Our place was on the 3rd floor around back.

Our bedrooms had probably once been the living room and dining room. They were huge, and separated by a wall with large french doors, which we covered with curtains for privacy. And we had bay windows that looked out into the backyard (and the backs of the surrounding houses) with a fire escape. I set up my bed so that my headboard was in the middle of the room and my feet pointed out the window. Terrible feng shui, but it allowed me to lie in bed at night and look out at the yard and watch my neighbors who didn't close their curtains after dark. (What? They did it, too.) Also, there were some trees and part of the night sky. It was just nice to be there in the dark and look out the window and hear music from the streets and to be basically in love with my city.

Where was I? Oh, right, so one Saturday morning, my roommate was at work, and I had been reading out on the fire escape when I got a hankering for something to drink. So I climbed back inside, threw on my shoes, and walked down to the convenience store right on the other side of Divisadero. 

I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed gal of no more than 24 or 25, bubbly and outgoing. I was a little too extroverted for my roommate, who, about a week or two after moving in together, grabbed me by the shoulders, looked in my eyes, and, punctuating her words by shaking me gently, said, "Inga! You have GOT to STOP inviting STRANGERS to our HOUSEwarming party!" 

To which I replied, "What are you talking about? He's not a stranger, he's Tim!" 
"He's our waiter, we just met him five minutes ago! We haven't even gotten our food yet!"
"Katie, please. I'm not a complete idiot. I'm not inviting just anyone, okay? LOOK at his AURA. It's totally clear, he's fine! Timothy, don't listen to her, you're coming on Saturday, and I'll have the lamb curry with samosas to start, thank you so much." 

So anyway, I bounced into the convenience store, said hi to the guy behind the counter whose name was something like Tom or Mike or one of those, went to the cooler, grabbed a coke in a glass bottle (that's my drink, it always has been, if it's available that's what I get, especially if it's from Mexico or Europe because they use real sugar and it tastes better) and set it on the counter. The guy, let's call him Mike, also knew me by name (that's how it was back then!) and looked at the bottle, then up at me.
"That's all you're getting?"
"Yep! I just got a little thirsty, thought I'd come by and grab a coke."
"You know what? You can have it."
"Coke in a glass bottle tastes the best. It's classic. Just go ahead and take it."
"Yeah, are you walking home right now?"
"Want me to open it for you?"
"Oh my god, totally! Thank you!"
"No problem, see you later."
"Thank you so much, Mike, omigod that's so nice of you, see you tomorrow probably, byeeee!"

So I walked back to my apartment in the beautiful California sunshine, swigging coke out of the glass bottle as I went. Right in the middle of the crosswalk, in fact, with a car stopped at the stop sign, I remember taking a drink and then looking at the driver of the car and smiling. Not for any reason other than that I was super happy. I realized that it was like I was living in a commercial at that moment. "Enjoy coca-cola in California in springtime while carefree in your early twenties, ding!" Hair toss, joyful laughter, hold up the bottle, freeze frame.

Maybe that was just part of being a friendly little lady in the prime of her youth, but I don't really think so. Part of the Bay Area culture was giving things away, trading things. It was the first city I'd lived in where I regularly saw things left out on the sidewalk for people to take for free. Not just like, old broken junk waiting for garbage day, but perfectly nice things they just didn't want anymore. And people talked to each other. You'd just meet someone on the sidewalk and become friends somehow. 

One night one of my girlfriends and I had been at a bar in Hayes valley (the bottom of Hayes street) and were making our way home, it was about one o'clock in the morning. Everything was closed, but we were dying for something to eat. As we crossed the street we found ourselves standing in front of a Mediterranean restaurant, I think it might have been Lebanese food, which was closed, but the lights were all on inside. We peered through the window and saw two men just inside, fixing some tiles on the floor. 

We walked up to the door, and I tapped on the glass. One of the guys looked up. I held my hands up like two little cat paws in front of my chin and kind of pawed at the air and said, "Meow! I'm hungry!" with a fake pouty face and big eyes while my friend giggled next to me. I laughed and was about to walk away, when the guy said, "Oh, okay," opened the door and invited us in! The man fixing the tiles took a break, and the four of us sat at a table by the window together. He brought out a bottle of wine and a huge platter of hummus and bread and olives, and we all ate and drank and talked for hours. It turned out that he and his brother owned the place, they were Kurdish, and we all told each other our life stories and had a great time. He even sent us home with a couple of to-go boxes to take with us! We couldn't believe it. 

After that, I went there all the time, I brought all my friends, and everyone who came into town for a visit. He always hooked us up when we dined in (we always over-tipped to make up for the deep discount, we weren't monsters). Sometimes I'd just pop in to say hello on my way down the street, or wave through the window as I walked by. It was so fun!

One weekend this association of Hayes Valley small business owners put on a little fair in the neighborhood to try and drum up some business. There was a Moroccan home decor place (out of my price range or I would have decorated every square inch of the apartment with their stuff) that furnished tents and seating and it was really nice. My roommate volunteered me to do fake fortune-telling for tips, but I ended up giving real mini-readings instead and made $100 both days. Woohoo!

I lived in the city proper after I finished my AmeriCorps volunteering, and I took the first job I could get, which was working in an ultra-corporate executive environment. It was not business casual dress, it was business professional, and you had to be super polished all the time. But I still made friends with some of my younger coworkers, and in fact I started a tradition of drinking beer at lunch on Fridays, which I later found out carried on for several years after I left the company. You're welcome, citizens. 

One of the girls I worked with was really nice, we're still in touch to this day. We went to a public pillow fight together once. It was on February 13th, the day before Valentine's Day, so that people could vent their anger at the holiday all together in a plaza down by the Marina. 

My coworker was from LA, and I remember her telling me, "Stuff like this is why I moved up here. We have to go." So that day after work in our giant glass tower in the Financial District, we rushed out of work in our required business attire, ran essentially across the street into Chinatown, and went from shop to shop looking for pillows to buy. They were surprisingly difficult to find. We finally found a couple in a furniture store, quickly bought them, and then basically sprinted (in work shoes with no problem, ah, sweet youth) all the way down to the park just in time for the pillow fight. 

It was the funniest thing ever. We became immediately separated as soon as the clock struck whatever the start time was. It was literally just strangers standing around this plaza hitting each other with pillows and laughing. The air was instantly filled with feathers. It lasted for maybe fifteen minutes or so, and by the time it was over, the feathers were inches thick on the ground. You could shuffle through them and kick them like autumn leaves. Many people had thought to wear goggles and face masks, because they kind of choked the air and made it hard to see. As I made my way to the edge of the fray, I'd occasionally come face-to-face with a stranger. We'd stop for a second, look at each other, then hit each other with our pillows a few times and keep walking. It was hilarious and so fun. It's impossible to hit somebody with a pillow and not laugh. Especially a stranger in the street at an agreed-upon time and location with hundreds of other strangers who met there for the same reason.

I reunited with my work friend, and as we were leaving she stopped and asked a guy who was cavalierly leaning against a street lamp, smoking, to take our picture with our pillows. He did, and that's how we met our Swiss-French friend! (Yes, I invited him to my housewarming party.) He was an executive chef on fancy middle eastern commercial and private jets, and was in town for a few weeks. He took us, along with my roommate, out to dinner and drinks multiple times and insisted on paying for it all on his credit card, asking nothing in return. My roommate did that thing again where she grabbed me by the shoulders and looked in my eyes and shook me, saying, "INGA! We CAN'T keep LETting him PAY for our DINners! It's TOO expENsive!" I grabbed her back and replied, "Katie! YES we CAN!"

And we did! 

One night the four of us were taking a cab from dinner to some party someone had heard about downtown. Swiss-Frenchie was like, "Oh, ziss reminds me of zat song, 'ow does eet go again, ze one about downtown? From ze sixties?" I started singing "Downtown," by Petula Clark, which I knew word-for-word by heart (come on, y'all know me well enough by now to know I knew that shit!), and everyone joined in. When we got to the chorus, I rolled down the window and belted out, "DOOOOOWNTOOOOOWN!" with my head hanging out and waving to people on the sidewalk. It might have been obnoxious, but even the cab driver laughed so it couldn't have been that bad. Swiss-Frenchie turned to my roommate and said, "Every time I 'ear zat song from now on, I vill remember zees moment viss Ing-GAH [that's how he said my name] singing out ze vindow at ze people in ze street." 

We all got along so well that we decided that if the world ended tomorrow and we were the last people on earth, we could all happily live in a manage-a-quatre and never feel jealous. Ha! Like, what kind of life was I living where that was part of dinner conversation? (We didn't do it, obviously, nothing happened, at least not with me.) Honestly... A great one. I was kind of broke, but it didn't matter. 

That's just how life was in that time and place. You went places and smiled and chatted to whoever was standing around, and before you knew it, they were bringing you over to their group and you were making friends and inviting them to your housewarming, they were inviting you to their birthday, you'd exchange numbers and people would actually CALL and you'd find out about all kinds of fun events that way, it was so great! 

One of my AmeriCorps roommates and I went and got tamales and bloody marys at this biker bar (bicyclists' beer garden, I mean) called Zeitgeist from time to time. She was even more outgoing than I was, and she sat next to a guy whose name turned out to be Gabe. He and his friends belonged to this sailing club that had a clubhouse down by the water somewhere. He invited us to his birthday party there, and we ended up meeting Ted who lived in Santa Cruz and became our friend for a while, another guy who named his son Francisco after the city itself, Vince from Swansea, some lady how was dating the father of Francisco... It was like, a whole group of people we hung out with for years afterwards. 

Things are so different now. Social media serves a purpose, but I fear it's given the introverts too much power. The scales have been tipped the other way. Now it's like, events you have to create online and get rsvp's and then like, answer a shit-ton of questions about dietary concerns and parking and crap like that, like literally who cares you guys. Just take a cab and eat before you get there.

After I made the mistake of leaving, I went back to Maryland for a little while and then picked up and went to Chicago. I met a lot of people there, too, but that was right when the financial crisis happened, so people were a lot more stressed out about money and things were less carefree. But it was still easy to make friends. 

I never had a problem meeting people and making new friends until I moved to that island in the North Atlantic. That was like, my first experience with social rejection, and in hindsight I think it low-key traumatized the shit out of me. Like, that was the first place I'd ever been where I'd be like, "Hi! My name is Inga! I like your shoes and we're both girls, let's take a shot together and give each other motivational speeches about how amazing we are in the bar bathroom with all the other girls! That's what we do here, right?" And the person would look at me like, "Uh, I already have a friend. We all have friends. We met them in kindergarten. The time of friend-making is done. You are too late, you absolute moron. You complete and utter imbecile. How dare you try to speak to me you piece of dog excrement on the bottom of the very shoe you like so much. What the fuck kind of a game is it that you're playing, anyway? Hm? Did you literally just smile at me with your teeth out in full display for all to see? Are you mentally ill? Your friendliness alarms me to the point of physically wanting to vomit. Go back over to your table and never look at me again." 

Um, wow, okay. Jesus Christ almighty. 

Luckily, I had a few friends before I arrived, but by the time I got out of there, between the darkness of winter and the near-constant social rejection I was too busy curling up in a ball and trying not to talk in a voice loud enough that would attract the attention of the nearest grammar nazi. (Foreigners making grammar mistakes are fair game and many people feel well within their rights to laugh in your face and look down on you for making them, fair warning. Not everyone, but a good enough amount that it made me decide that I really didn't give a shit about getting any better at it and to pursue other languages instead.) 

I remember my Chicago mom, Nancy, calling me to see how I was doing. I told her I had a job and that cohabiting with a guy for the first time was a little weird sometimes but mostly good, and I remember she said, "So are you making tons of friends and having so much fun?" and I told her, "Actually, I haven't made any new friends at all. Not even at work. Nobody talks to me, and if I talk to them they just get weirded out." A native of New York City, she got all protective jewish scorpio mom on me and went, "So what's everybody's problem?!" I was like, "I really don't know."

I didn't really realize what an impact that had on me until after I had come back to the States and we'd been in Texas for a few months and I still hadn't really made any new friends. I thought that was kind of strange, and then I realized that I was afraid to approach people. Once bitten, twice shy, that sort of thing. I finally snapped out of it and got back into the swing of socializing more, and now I know how to make friends again, but it was touch-and-go there for a minute.

I'm not trying to turn this into a whole complaining rant, though. It's just something that I've thought about because like, as I'm kind of going through this process of like, remembering who I am...

Every damn time.

...And like, then I was remembering San Francisco and how much fun I had, and I was like... wait a minute. The thing that was fun about living there wasn't just the city, it was my friends, and you know what I'm not ashamed to say it, it was also me. Like, I was fun as f*ck, you guys. I may or may not have accumulated several hundred dollars in parking tickets and my car got broken into regularly and someone peed in it one time, but at the same time all that was happening, I used to run through sprinklers in public parks, for example. Like, the city had these sprinklers in Alamo Square to keep the grass green and fresh, and they would go off at night. One night a bunch of us were walking back to my place (we were, in fact, completely sober) and I was like, "Sprinklers!!!! Come on, you guys!" and we all scampered around in the water until we were totally soaked through. I was so innocent, I didn't even think anything of it until one of my coworkers tried to kiss me and I was like, oh shit I just realized that my top is now see-through. From the sprinkler water. I had thought we were all just joyfully communing with nature like so many forest nymphs in the moonlight, but apparently Jeremy got the wrong idea. Whoops! See you at the office tomorrow, friendly colleague! I should go, um, dry my... hair... now.  (Seriously, though, what was his problem? Why would he pick that moment to try and put the moves on? Guess what, dudes, some girls run through sprinklers because it's fun and we're alive, not because they want you to make the moment about you and your genitals. So rude.) 

What happened to those times, you guys? Why can't I just go back to doing stuff like that, minus Jeremy?

Well guess what, I can and it starts months ago when my antidepressant supplements first kicked in. So it's already underway, betches. Obviously, I have, like, responsibilities now so I can't just invite strangers I literally meet in the street over to my apartment, or go out several nights of the week, every week. But I can start tipping the scales back in favor of the extroverts. Our time must come again, brothers and sisters! I scream, you scream, we all scream because sometimes it's a nice stress reliever and if we're honest with ourselves, we like the attention! 

I will say one thing, and that is that it's much easier to meet people when you live in a neighborhood that is [not in northern Europe and] walkable. When you don't have to drive to run simple errands and there are enough little local businesses and restaurants and things that you can get to on foot, everything opens up. So when my lease is up in June, I'm heading back towards town. It'll mean less space for my money, but it'll be so worth it to be able to walk places and be a regular at more than just one coffee shop. 

Look out, Austin and our recent influx of socially awkward tech nerds and completely soulless finance execs/real estate developers with dead, reptilian eyes. I'm an extrovert with a useless liberal arts degree, I embrace small talk as a valuable tool for assessing whether or not I feel comfortable fully opening up to someone before broaching deeper topics of conversation, and I will be engaging hundreds of you in said small talk until I find more cool people to regularly hang out with in a social setting. In other words, I'm your worst nightmare. 

Next up I gotta tell my stories from Berkeley, including but not limited to the Sandwich Place, the time I almost accidentally incited a small race riot, and the years my friend worked at the sex toy business founded by lesbians. 


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