I used to drive into San Francisco from the southern side. Having grown up 40 miles south of the city and gone to college another 200 past that, the city always represented this northern beacon of future possibility. The drive up the 101 is long and gray and culturally desolate, but as you near the city borders the road starts to wind and slow down. The city is basically hidden from view until you hit this one particular curve, when it’s suddenly, jarringly presented to you, as if you’ve just flipped the page in a 3D pop-up storybook.
The city is small, a modest 7 by 7 miles. But growing up that spread of tall buildings and rolling hills and sparkling lights always seemed expansive and unending to me. They would send a chill down my spine and make my heart skip a beat. The city from 5 miles out was the crescendo to a beautiful song. It could make the hair on my arms stand on end.
When I finally moved to San Francisco I was 22 and full of ideas about the philosophical implications of living there. I just knew I would love it, that I would embody that spirit I’d admired in the locals for so long. And I did. For a while. If not organically then definitely by pure strong-headed will. You will live in this city and you will love it. But it faded. And I still always preferred the city from a distance. From the grassy peaks of Dolores Park and Alamo Square, from the roof of my office, from the top of Bernal Hill or Sutro Tower, out the window of my third-floor walk-up or my moving train. It was from those quiet, isolated places that I most enjoyed the city. But most of life is not lived from a distance, and so after three years I left.
Now I drive in from the east. Every day my bus makes its way over the bay bridge and I, again, get to admire the city from a distance. From the water the view might as well be the google image search for San Francisco. The jagged coast line, flanked by sail boats and docks, snakes around the colorful city. The sun glints off the tall buildings and dapples the pastel neighborhoods and rolling green hills, casting little intermittent shadows on crowded pockets until the seven square miles look like a smeary urban painting. It still takes my breath away and makes my heart beat. But I know better than to assign any divine meaning to it.
My favorite part of San Francisco is no longer the infinite possibilities it presents as I approach it, but how pretty it looks when I’m leaving it. The bit in between never compared for me. And I guess I left because I didn’t want to keep chasing after an idea that never quite materialized. There is a certain beauty, if you look for it, to the distance between the present and an old dream, if you’ve purposely created that space.
Now when I sit on the crowded bus every night, squished into the rear-facing window seat at the end of a long day, I stare at the sparkling city slipping away from me and think it’s never looked so beautiful. And when I get back to my quiet home in the east my heart beats calmly, rhythmically, and I know I’m where I belong. And one day, when I find that the ease with which I interact with this home becomes forced. When I find I’m grasping for fulfillment through the romantic stories I create in my head as I idly pass through it. When the space between reality and my perception of it becomes a tale I tell myself rather than a genuine feeling of rightness, of home…then I’ll know it’s time to move on.