Coming back to The City on the 280 after an airport run, I take the Sixth Street exit, which offers one of the best money shots of San Francisco.
As I head down Brannan to check out the cabstand at Caltrain, I start to think about the first time I saw this jagged city spread out across the sky like a stately pleasuredome.
Hey, it’s easy to feel nostalgic after making 50 bucks on one ride.
During a road trip in 1991, while going to college in Alabama, I investigated all the major cities west of the Mississippi. None captured my imagination like San Francisco.
Two years later, I stepped off the Greyhound with no money and even less experience. Just an English degree and a backpack filled with all my worldly possessions.
My horoscope that day offered one word of advice: surrender.
For the next eight months, I stayed at the Green Tortoise hostel rent-free. I did light housekeeping in exchange for a bunk. Too broke to afford Muni, unless I found a discarded transfer, I spent my days wandering the neighborhoods of The City.
When I wasn’t mingling with the Beat ghosts in North Beach, I lingered in the psychedelic revival of Haight Street. Some days I’d sit on top of Russian Hill and watch the light change. I killed time at Buena Vista Park or the Panhandle until the fog rolled in. I wasn’t even reading anymore. I just sat there, thinking. I was 23.
My entire future was ahead of me, but I was confused and hurt. I had just lost the first woman I’d ever loved and trusted. I was devastated. I felt betrayed.
The only consolation was San Francisco. No matter how bad things got, each morning I woke up and The City was always outside waiting for me. The air itself was a comforting embrace.
Eventually, the Green Tortoise manager threw me out for selling pot to the foreign backpackers. That night, I rode the 38 bus from downtown to the beach until dawn. I didn’t know what else to do. Since the Grateful Dead were playing the Oakland Coliseum over the weekend, I figured I could hitch a ride home to LA with one of the Deadheads on tour. Penniless, I jumped the BART turnstiles.
For three nights, before we left town, I slept in some guy’s van with his dogs in the parking lot of the airport Holiday Inn. Over the next two decades, I came back to San Francisco every chance I could, hoping to make an inroad. I got close during the dot-com bust. And shortly after we got married, Irina and I considered an apartment in Noe Valley for $1,125 a month. But then she got promoted at work.
They offered her the kind of money you don’t turn down at the height of a recession. When she was laid off in 2012, though, we immediately started looking for a place in San Francisco.
We got as close as Temescal. While Oakland offers a sense of stability, driving a taxi keeps me connected to The City. That’s why I don’t play the “airport game.”
I’m a city driver. I can’t stop exploring. As much as things have changed here, an exhilarating madness continues to permeate the streets. And everywhere you look, there’s shameful poverty.
San Francisco is no place to stumble, much less fall. Like so many other Bay Area residents, new and old, Irina and I had been barely scraping by.
Even though I started making decent money once I got in a cab, there are always unexpected twists. Like the best laid plans. Or a busted-up marriage. Now that my life has taken a nosedive, I hope to find the same solace I did the last time I was brokenhearted in San Francisco. But I still can’t shake the feeling I’m just one misstep from ending up in some guy’s van again.
Sometimes it seems living in a boomtown is the same as being in love. It probably won’t last forever, and you’re going to miss her like hell when she’s gone. But what can you do except admire the view while you can.
This article originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner.