Noe Valley Voice September 1999

Flowers in Her Hair

By Diana Wynne

I have never loved a man the way that I have loved San Francisco. Thirteen years ago, in June of '86, I came to this town a tourist. I fell hard. Within two weeks, I had rented a room in a residence club, gotten a job proofreading, and tossed my return ticket to Miami -- all before July 4, which I spent at Crissy Field searching for fireworks in the fog.

I was 22 years old, and the city represented all that I might become. After shivering through summer in a fuzzy pink coat from Casual Corner, I broke down and bought a real leather coat. A huge black jacket with a fur collar, it kept me warm like an enduring embrace. Even at half price, it cost a whole month's rent. I wore it daily for 10 years.

Properly clothed, I grew to love the fog in August, the way it curled over Daly City like just another wave from the sea. I loved driving home on the freeway, past ever-growing stacks of condominiums on hillsides in Fairfield and Corte Madera. Walking the aisles of the Alemany Farmers' Market, listening to five or six languages, buying mystery vegetables simply because I had never seen them before, I felt how much I belonged here. In this wonderland, my paisley bell-bottomed jumpsuits, my strident individualism no longer marked me a malcontent. No one even looked twice.

Growing up in Florida, I was always hiding from the sun. Seeing a film with subtitles meant driving to the other end of the county. I visited relatives in New York whenever possible. As each vacation ended, I would sob on the way to the airport because I had to go back to Miami.

But in my mid-20s, flying home to San Francisco, circling Mt. Tam and the Bay like a shorebird, I'd feel the relief of knowing that the Bay Area was superior to wherever I had come from.

Later, that same smugness began to imprison me. It kept me from considering living elsewhere. There was so much I loved here: salsa dancing Sunday afternoons on the patio at El Rio. Blocks of pristine Victorians on dead-end streets in up-and-coming neighborhoods. The ongoing drama provided by the Board of Supervisors. The blanket permission San Francisco gave to be resolutely myself.

And yet I had begun to tire of its eccentricities, which the city wore like a badge of honor. I'd seen too many bad dye jobs, too many unspeakable piercings. My Honda was 18 inches too long to squeeze between driveways. I'd spent 10 long years talking about traffic. I had seen too many people, all trying to be different in exactly the same way.

And I worried: If I stayed here, would no one else ever love me? It was as if the city held a possessive grip on me. I should have put down roots. I should have bought that house on Henry Street, even though it needed a new roof, even though the man I was going to buy it with no longer spoke to me. I should have joined a neighborhood association or bought a Jack Russell terrier. But something held me back from making that kind of commitment.

Now, in order to be able to afford living here, I worked so much I never had time to do any of the things I lived here for. I could tell you which bands were playing at what dance parties and when the film festival tickets went on sale. I knew when Opera in the Park was and which restaurants served the best ahi carpaccio. But I didn't have time to go there. My sportscar had less than 20,000 miles on it. I left my apartment only to go to work or leave the country.

So two years ago I quit my high-tech job, to find out who those people filling cafes at 11 a.m. were, to rediscover my relationship to my first love.

At first I relished my freedom. After years of deprivation, I drove to the Castro and North Beach in the middle of the day and parked effortlessly. I walked on Ocean Beach, marveling at huge winter crests, driftwood the size of telephone poles. I visited a different cafe every day. But the people sipping chai lattes at the next table discussed their web sites. The tarot card reader ran a multimedia business on the side. Work had become inescapable.

1998 began with 60 days and nights of rain. During that time, I did not leave the safety of my living room, except to go to the library and take out books like Best Places to Live in the USA. I did all the quizzes, suspecting that perhaps, after all this time, I had outgrown my city.

In the daily downpour, dressed in matching gold raincoat and umbrella, I sensed that San Francisco had ceased to love me. Friends stayed home to sulk, or feed infants. I, in turn, sent away for brochures on cruising the Panama Canal and teaching business skills to Polish entrepreneurs. Perhaps another city was the answer. I had reached that stage in my love affair with San Francisco where only distance made the heart grow fonder.

I bought a Eurail pass and headed east, fascinated by the citizens of European capitals who dressed so much better than people at home. I visited ex-
patriate friends and examined their lives. One woman spent the entire weekend talking about her job at a German software company, and how stressed she was because she had so little free time when stores were open. Her friends all worked at the same company.

In Switzerland, the familiar notes of "If you come to San Francisco" played on a store stereo, and I felt a guilty pang, flirting with other cities. Did I really intend to take up residence abroad?

In Amsterdam I met professional people who worked four days a week, vacationing for months at a time. I sat at a cafe on a weekday and listened to a free concert. On that 70-degree day, the Dutch appeared en masse, dressed in shorts and tank tops, legs dangling from apartment windows over the canals. They were so relaxed, it made me long to be Dutch. But then I faced the truth: Blond and leggy I was not. I hated pickled herring. I would always be an outsider here.

Suddenly I wanted to go home.

Recently I had my black leather coat re-lined. The style seemed dated, but I couldn't waste such good leather. I forgot to have the shoulder pads removed, though, so wearing it made me feel like Jerry Rice. I'd outgrown that coat. But I could not part with it, just as I cannot let go of this captivating town, and my uneasy life within its confines.

I have loved San Francisco, as I have loved no person or place in my lifetime.

And in return, San Francisco has loved me ... like a man.

Diana Wynne has lived in Noe Valley for the past 10 years. A product management consultant to Internet startups, she is finishing a book of creative nonfiction, titled Opals & Oysters.