I played hooky that Friday to watch In the Mood for Love with my friend Mateo at the 4 Star Cinema, deep in San Francisco’s Richmond District. The ticket price was $4.50. It was raining when the film ended. We ran across the street to duck into a tiny noodle house, a no-name hole-in-the-wall with formica two-tops. Vietnamese men peered at open spreads of newspaper over bowls of pho. We hurried in from the damp chill, settling in at a table near the window. The glass had fogged on our side, fat, cold drops dotting it on the other.
The menu had four items on it: noodles in broth, fresh spring rolls, tea, beer. We ordered our noodles with tea. The steaming bowls arrived with a share-plate of sprouts, basil, jalapeño, wedges of lime. Paper-thin cuts of raw beef rested on rice noodles, cooking in the hot broth. We slurped it all up with sweet hoisin sauce and Sriracha while we talked about the film. Wong Kar Wai’s signature visual technique; rich, saturated color moving to a sweeping, moody score; the hurt in protagonist Su-Li-zhen’s face, in that one scene.
We lingered in conversation for over two hours, well after we’d finished our late lunch. We sipped our tea. When Mateo left table briefly, I stared out the window and thought about infidelity, Wai’s directorial style, cheongsams. We stood to leave when the rain lifted. The bill had come to under $15 for the both of us.
I used my Nokia 3390 to call a taxi, but the dispatcher was backlogged given the rain and didn’t answer. Mateo insisted on giving me a ride back to the Mission District, though it was out of his way. He decided that we would take a detour through Twin Peaks, where he lived, to show me the panorama of the gray San Francisco skyline. I leaned out the window, hair streaming out in a length of black, mouth open and upturned to the wind.
By the time I got back to my place, it was beginning to drizzle again. I was happy to go inside and turn the little furnace on, which toasted up the apartment quickly. My home was only about 500 square feet with a small south-facing patio. It overlooked a garden that I shared with three other young tenants. There was a beautiful O’Keefe & Merritt in the eat-in kitchen. The walls were thin and the carpet was spotted with dark, mysterious stains. Later on, we would have a mouse problem. It was my first ever apartment all to myself, and I loved it. I paid $850 a month.
Just around the corner, there was a pink-walled salon called Galama-rama!, popular with drag queens and burners; a small German restaurant called Walzwerk; a dive bar called Wilde Oscar’s. Across the street was an empty lot, a gutted gas station. I shelled out $90 a month to park my Volvo there after it got broken into twice. The old boaty hand-me-down would flame out only a year later, smoke pluming from under the hood, sidelined on the 101.
In the evening I wrote an entry for my blog. I uploaded it via a wireless modem called Ricochet. The freedom of being unwired was a novelty and I bore the speed of 5kbps by surfing through a text interface on a Linux laptop. It was the end of the week and I enjoyed winding down like this, quiet and alone.
The next day I went to dance rehearsal, then popped into Osento to take a soak for $12. On my way home, I picked up a samosa and rose-infused ice cream from Bombay Bazar on Valencia at 17th. My neighbor’s dog Sparky was out front when I got back home and I snapped a photo of him with my Digital Elph. I carried that camera with me everywhere, having purchased it for its portability and 2.1 MP resolution.
Sunday morning I walked to Hwa Lei, a family-run market on 16th between Capp and Mission. I picked up fat steaks of tofu to cut up and grill, later. They were very good to eat with a little sweet and spicy soy-sauce, garnished with finely-minced green onion.
I ran into Snow White at the corner of Capp. I called her that in private because of her pale skin and short black bob. I’d often see her while walking around the neighborhood. She’d be sitting up in her sleeping bag in a ragged brassiere, a friend or john passing her half of a burger. Her face and hands would be swollen. She might have a black smear on her cheek.
When I first saw her, she was in clean clothes and smoking a cigarette in the early morning near The Lab. I’d guessed her to be sixteen, seventeen. She had a pretty face with full cheeks. She was looking out at the street, blowing out a thin stream of smoke in the cold. I thought maybe she looked afraid, but her expression was too hard. I wanted to talk to her, to ask her questions, where she came from, how she got here. But I never did.
On Wednesday night I would go dancing at 111 Minna with Anya. On Thursday night, maybe DNA Lounge. The Glas Kat, 1015 Folsom, Blondie’s with the boys over the weekend. Zoe and I were going to watch Vampyros Lesbos at Cell Space, and we would maybe get spicy Senegalese food at Little Baobab on 19th Street afterward, washing it down with cold banana margaritas.
It was early 2001. Y2K had passed underwhelmingly. I’d been working for Sun Microsystems for over a year and had carpal tunnel from designing icons with a mouse. I maintained a landline. George Bush was president and Donald Trump, a Democrat. We could still bring bottles of water and wine onboard flights. Wikipedia was just coming into existence. Flip phones were a thing.
It would be six years before the debut of the iPhone. As many before Facebook and Twitter became media darlings and took over the world. In about eight, I would end up as an employee at the latter. Third-wave coffee would hit the Bay Area in about four.
I eventually moved on from living in the Mission District to the Castro. After that, to Duboce Triangle, a block away from Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon.
In the near two-decades I lived in San Francisco, many institutions and businesses came into being, shuttered, or changed to adapt to the times.
Chile Lindo, a small empanada shop on 16th Street between South Van Ness and Mission, is one that remained pretty much the same.
One night, hours after the shop must have closed, I was hurrying home in the rain (it used to rain a lot more back then). That stretch of Mission was a rough place. It was a transportation corridor, popular with junkies and dealers. There was a camera posed in a window above a US Bank. Plain-clothes cops with blond mustaches made busts all the time in their striped polos. Black tar heroin reached people within one degree of me. Some disappeared, then returned years later as if from the dead, like my friend Vanessa. Others, like my first San Francisco roommate John, did not.
That evening, the tail end of Paganini’s 24th and final Caprice was coming from a speaker above the shop’s awning. It was so unexpected that I stopped mid-step. High notes belled out over the corner where I’d been mugged only months prior. I have mild audio-to-visual synesthesia and pictured a slow spherical sheen cascading down, drawing a boundary around those within earshot. I stood there as violin elided into piano: Beethoven’s Emperor concerto was as low and tender as the Caprices had been nervous and high-strung. It swelled against everything. I felt an inexplicable and sudden kinship with others bearing witness to this sound; the message.
There was a man hunched in a nearby doorwell. A car was parked with its lights on, the driver’s face obscure. A bruised pigeon flitted in the gutter. I wondered where Snow White was. If the man in the shadows was awake, if something in the driver stirred, if the music changed anything. How I would be different, after. The rain fell in a constant and quiet murmur, the drops in glassy, shardy relief under yellow lamp light.
When the car’s engine started a moment later, the boundary was breached. The pigeon took wing, and the man in the shadows coughed. I walked on.
Some places that have disappeared or moved:
Cell Space Glas Kat Supperclub The original Glama-rama! Wilde Oscars Castro’s Halloween block party Thrift Town Cafe Cocomo Cinnabon Little Baobab Osento Bath house Bombay Bazar Chez Spencer Andalu Tokyo a GoGo Sun Microsystems
Some that have remained:
Burger King on 16th Street The Lab Walzwerk Cliff’s Variety Castro Theatre DNA Lounge 1015 Folsom Sunflower Vietnamese on 16th Street Taquería Cancún Hwa Lei Chile Lindo 4 Star Cinema The Roxy Yamo
This piece is a work in progress. It’s comprised of notes which attempt to piece together highlights and memories from my time in San Francisco. After nearly twenty years in the Bay Area, I’m fulfilling my dream of moving to the East Coast and living in Manhattan. Before leaving, I wanted to write something to honor this city, where I was always a reluctant resident but to which I owe my current self. I’ll always be grateful for getting to be a part of a rich history and a shifting of eras. Thank you, San Francisco. And good bye for now.