California Dreaming

finding a new home on the west coast

I wasn’t ready yet. I told myself that I would not fall in love again so soon.

But as I stood at the top of Battery Spencer, surrounded by the vast blueness of the sky and the water engulfing the land of San Francisco, there was no denying it.

Compared to the immenseness I was seeing, I felt helplessly infinitesimal. I was used to this. In the sea of super intellectual, accomplished, and talented students back on campus, I’ve had my share of grappling with humility churned into inferiority, doubting my self-worth, and constantly feeling inadequate and insignificant.

But, unlike before, I now found solace in this familiar smallness: I was just one individual who could occupy so little within this breath of beauty that we’ve come to inhabit and call Earth. This is the law of nature.

Never have I felt more powerful and alive. It made my knees weak, and I could barely stand still from the adrenaline rushing through my body.

At first a stubborn New Yorker, I was hung up on making my way back home before halfheartedly pursuing an internship in San Francisco instead. In hindsight, perhaps my low expectations set me up for a summer of wonder and appreciation.

I was astounded that something as simple as the newness of a place could be so potent. Charmed by the warmth of the weather, the sunlight just grazing my skin, and the cool breeze playfully rustling my hair, I became less afraid and more willing and daring to venture. Tracing the inclines of North Beach, observing the intricate design of houses in Alamo Square, I hungrily took in the contours and curvatures of the cityscape. Even after a full day at work, I still met friends for dinner and then climbed up the Bernal Heights for a breathtaking view of downtown glimmering against the dark, foggy night. Another day, I embarked on an hour-long walk from Legion of Honors, at the northwestern part of the city, to Baker Beach, just to get another view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s just so nice here,” I would gush to colleagues, again and again, when they asked me how I was doing. It could be exhausting having the same questions—“How are you liking the city? How long are you going to be here?”—thrust at you repeatedly as the newcomer. It was hard for me to resist the smile creeping onto my face as I purred each time, telling everyone about my newfound romantic interest —“Yes, I found someplace new. Yes, I’m very in love.”

“Yes,” colleagues would nod, rhythmically, slightly hesitant. “But—”

Here it was. San Francisco’s “but,” my colleague’s concession to the “uglier” side of San Francisco, despite all the beauty that the city seems to offer.

“—there’s just so many homeless people,” they would continue. “It makes sense, considering how the weather’s warm and nice enough for people to stay and sleep outside. Not that it makes you unsafe per se, but still uncomfortable anyway.”

As my colleagues suggested, San Francisco has an undeniable homeless crisis. There’s little policing done to care for the homeless, and the hospitals fail to properly care for the mentally ill, who are then prone to ending up on the streets instead. The city can’t keep up with the surge of the homeless, as well as the rise of property value.

My colleagues would complain, turning sideways as they faltered, and the conversation would end with an air of defeat, shrugging shoulders, “Oh well, what can you do.”

You would think this might be nothing new for someone who has spent years in major cities like New York and Providence. Yet, there was something different about the homeless in San Francisco: many of them operate together, forming mini communities across whole blocks, sprawled across subway stops or coffee shops.

The first time I walked into a coffee shop in San Francisco, I looked out the window and had a full view of a dozen people, unshaven and in ripped, disheveled clothes, conversing and sitting in circles along with their extremely skinny dogs. They were just minding their business, none of them ever coming inside nor stopping passersbys to solicit money. Yet the juxtaposition of the well-dressed coffee shop patrons, circled around the tables, and the huddled homeless, separated only by the thin wall of glass, was uncannily jarring.

I wonder what my next experience will be like, if I were to return to San Francisco. Because this summer was my first visit, I allowed myself to be swayed by the pretty parts of the city, which I’ll now miss and long for. But the next time I return, I know that, with the initial infatuation worn off, I cannot stay blind to the problems and challenges that the city faces. I wonder if I’ll be ready to see San Francisco for what it truly is, beneath its surface, and embrace both its charms and its flaws.