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The first move

About a week ago, I moved to San Francisco ten years ago. I didn’t intend to make a big deal out of it—it’s a random day in a random year that happens to coincide with the moment when I got an opportunity to move—but the concept of 2006 San Francisco is so bizarre to outsiders that I felt the urge to put down some words.

Saroyan has this great quote about his time in San Francisco: “I am a young man in an old city.” For the first few years I lived in San Francisco, this same refrain ran through my head. It was beautiful. On any given day you could walk through a neighborhood and absorb its layers of history. What I mean is, the past here is comprehensible. San Francisco has a good one hundred fifty or sixty years as a port of California. Most of that life is recorded and plaqued all across the city. And it helps that it isn’t very large. You really can just walk through half the city in a few hours and learn a lot. You’re not sitting in a car and driving between different points. You’re not bogged down by four hundred years of events.

I almost didn’t get here myself. When I left college I was certain I would move to Portland. I thought that Portland and San Francisco were the only two cities with a nice blend of art and technology. It was never about money. It was about trying incredibly new things. I was interviewing with OHSU when a job in San Rafael wanted me first, so within a week, I packed everything into my compact car and drove up in a day. I knew I only wanted to be in San Francisco and refused to move anywhere remotely close to work. There was a coworker nearby who took me via carpool, and, when he quit, I rode a bus for ninety minutes to get to the office. No one could understand why I was paying $900 a month for the privilege of living with four other people, but I didn’t care. A few months later I was paying $650 for the privilege of living with six other people. And I thought I was living exactly where I needed to be. Everything I loved was right in front of me. City Lights and Star Wars. About two months later, I sold the car and haven’t wanted to own one since.

In the ten years I’ve lived here, I’ve had six different addresses; four of those have been in the same two block radius. That’s nearly a third of my life living in a neighborhood I’ve chosen and loved.

But even in the early years, no one thought about staying here. Even at 23 or 24 we called it Neverland, a place for people who didn’t want to grow old. San Francisco was always a place where hordes of strugglers came, discovered themselves, and then left. And the ones who did stay became warped.

Though, the weird thing is, after all these years, I’m the only one who stayed.

It’s a funny thing if you talk to people who lived through the first dotcom crash. They’ll all say the same thing: that San Francisco wasn’t like this one. It’s true that some of the chaos has dissipated—where did all the Cacophony Society events go? I think what changes, though, is that you start to care more about the place you’re living. That sounds so dull. But you create your own history, and it’s personal, and when you walk down those neighborhoods you walk down, you add your own layer on top of the others that originally brought you here. What bothers you isn’t the countless apps and services, the inhumanity, the flashy new money folks. It’s that people don’t care about where they’re living. They see it as a vehicle to get rich and leave. It’s more profitable to siphon the land instead of invest in it.

My second year living here, I was fed up. I wanted to move and live in New York. Saroyan had done this, too. (He moved back four months later.)

I don’t regret not moving. I might not have met María if I hadn’t stayed. I might not have found an incredibly privileged job if I hadn’t stayed. I might not have been at my mother’s final moments if I hadn’t stayed.

It does bother me that people couldn’t stick past the two or three years they were here before writing it off. The City’s in another weird transition right now. The only way to keep anything the way you want it to be is to fight to preserve all the reasons it attracted you.

I’m not much of a fighter, though.