I stole an umbrella in San Francisco; I’m not proud of it. Maybe I didn’t steal it – maybe it had legitimately been abandoned and the theft was that rarest of things, a victimless crime. The umbrella itself was smallish and red and lying on top of a news-stand outside the Walgreen’s on the corner of Castro and 18th. It was raining, I didn’t have an umbrella of my own, and the dry circle at the front of the Walgreen’s was a lonely oasis on a sidewalk where flooding gutters and dripping roofs stretched away in all directions. Motive met opportunity met intent and while it was hardly the heist of the century, I was more than a little worried that someone was going to yell out after me ‘Hey! Hey asshole! Yeah, you! The Australian asshole!’
But they didn’t, and, guiltily dry in the pouring rain, I gripped my new umbrella tight and walked quickly away, and home.
My Facebook feed is currently filled with information on the weather in California. People in LA talk about monsoon-like winds and minor hurricanes roaming the town, moaning their way between apartment buildings. People in the greater SoCal area status update about wild nights and fierce days, about seeing trees blown over and powerlines disabled. And my friends in San Francisco mostly talk about the rain, the grey downpour that hasn’t stopped for days.
I arrived in San Francisco on November 29, 2008. It was my first time in America; my first time outside Australia. Before leaving Australia I’d sold everything I owned that could be sold – my CD collection, my DVDs, my car. This was to be my big move, my big Next Step on my life path – I had a hard-won two-year working visa, and I was emigrating to the US under the auspices of a company that had hired me as a contractor. The job I’d currently been contracted to do? Working on reviews of porn sites.
The flight from Australia to the US is a long one. I’ve done it six times in fourteen months now, and my advice to those making the trip is to get a flight with Virgin Pacific or Air New Zealand if you can – there’s noticeably more legroom and the food is better. My flight to SF the first time around consisted of a brief stopover in Sydney, then a fourteen-hour trek over the Pacific – and after four hours in the air that inch of extra space makes a world of difference.
The line through immigration at SFO was no joke. Hundreds of people, bleary and tired, waited to get into America; a long, long line of people standing in a meandering snake of a queue, hemmed in by bright yellow guide ropes, moving forward in halting, seemingly endless steps. Children cried, young men and women laughed in private groups, parents sighed and adjusted the straps of carry-on baggage that dragged at their shoulders.
Given I was neither a tourist nor a returning citizen, I was in for a longer wait than anyone else coming off my flight, a specialty case in a category of one. By the time I was processed, I was the only person standing in that wide, open room, the long and empty walkway back to the international concourse stretching out behind me. I dealt with an older official; he looked to be of Japanese origin and he joked with me a little as he took my fingerprints and snapped my photo to compare with the information in my passport.
The enormity of what I was doing sank in as I cleared customs and walked out into the bright and air-conditioned expanse of San Francisco International. In this adventure into the great unknown, immigration was my last airlock before the vast and unfamiliar world of the USA, and as soon as I was through those doors, the realisation truly hit me for the first time. I had no Social Security Number, no bank account, no insurance. I had nowhere to live, no knowledge of where to go (or, maybe more importantly, where not to go), and I knew – as in, really, properly, knew – no one. Tom, a friend from high school was living in New York; that was it. And I had a Moleskine guide to San Francisco; a going-away present from my friend Tamara, who knew from experience just how valuable they could be.
I bought a bottle of water from the SFO Starbuck’s, mainly because I needed change. I remembered to tip the cashier (I’d seen it done on TV), but I had no idea how to calculate the correct amount. I ended up slipped him a couple of bucks and found a payphone to call Sara, who I’d met online and who had very kindly agreed to come and pick me up. I struggled with dialing the number, at first, forgetting I no longer had to dial 1 for the international prefix.
I don’t know how long Sara had been circling SFO but within minutes, as I waited outside in the chill San Franciscan sunshine, her car pulled up. I’d met Sara through Zoe Brock. She’d laughed at some of the pieces I used to post when I still ran a MySpace site, I’d been impressed with the quality of the photos she took, and so we became friends and communicated on a semi-regular basis. From Sacramento, she and her son were in town visiting her sister and her sister’s partner in SF, and that family were the kindest people a traveling Australian could ask for.
The afternoon was just getting underway, and after dropping my bags off at the house, Sara took me out to Haight-Ashbury for lunch, where the very first thing to strike me was that I was surrounded by American accents.
Oh, I thought. Yeah. That makes sense.
The Haight was alive with colour and movement; tattoo artists in black t-shirts and tattooed customers with huge plastic hoops in the lobes of their ears lounged out the front of tattoo parlours, earnestly discussing inks and piercings. Clothing stores and the smell of pot vied for the attention of passers-by, as did walls full of vivid graffiti and gracefully-shaped wooden houses unlike anything I’d seen back home. It was that afternoon and evening, I think, that I first started to realise how much I love Americans. After I’d stowed my bags and ordered another in a growing succession of Starbucks lattes, Sara and her family took me out to eat and see the city; as we waited for the Muni to come and take us into the city centre we grabbed a six-pack from a bottle shop across the street and stood at the stop, drinking in public.
Cool! I thought. Six hours in the country and I’m already committing a felony. This place is awesome.
A stoned-looking (and sounding) hipster girl with long brown hair spilling out from her woollen beanie broke from her path along the intersection crossing and wandered up to us as we waited on the Muni platform in the middle of the street. ‘Do you guys know the way to DP?’ she drawled. ‘Dolores Park?’
I shook my head. Man, did she have the wrong guy.
We went to the Ferry Building for a dinner of American cheeseburgers and walked the Financial District under the glow of Christmas lights that lit up row after tall row of skyscrapers. I saw the Bay Bridge and assumed it was the Golden Gate, only to find out there is more than one bridge in San Francisco. We went ice-skating on a rink set up for Christmas in the open air of the downtown square, and I impressed no one. Flailing on the ice like a drunk on rollerskates, clutching at the railings, being passed (and easily) by five year-olds, I offered the only excuse I had: ‘Come on! Like we have ice in Australia.’
At nine, as we waited to get the Muni back home, the jetlag hit me. In the space between one moment and the next, I lost the power of coherent speech. A weight like a sack of concrete dust settled inside my head, and my muscles turned leaden. Feeling tranquil and anaesthetised, I blearily looked at the Muni timetable. M? L? J? What the hell did these letters mean? Inbound, outbound, Powell Street, Church Street, Castro Street… I figured sooner or later I’d have to work out what this information meant, but the time was not now.
My new American friends put me up for the night, and, after expressing myself monosyllabically – the only way I could any longer communicate – all the way home, I gratefully collapsed into the bed that was given me. I woke at 3 am, wide awake and my body, still on Australian time, insisting it was morning.
The next day Sara took me to check out a place I’d found on Craigslist; a three-bedroom on the corner of 18th and Church. Sara’s sister’s partner pointed it out to me on the map.
‘Right on the border of the Mission and the Castro,’ he said. ‘If you end up living there, you’re going to have a truly San Franciscan experience.’
The landlord was a Chinese guy named Peter, who was having an open inspection while the existing occupants were out. He showed me through the house and asked me gently interrogative questions about my background.
‘There are usually three girls living here,’ he said. ‘One of them has just had to move back home, and if the other two girls get along with you, then, I guess having a guy live here would be OK.’
The house itself was older, but in good repair, a cream and white, classically-San Franciscan split-level. There were three floors, five residents, a terrifying and dark corridor to walk through to take the trash out, and Dolores Park was about ten steps away from my front door. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to live there.
I spent the next night in a hostel in Chinatown; the Pacific Tradewinds on Sacramento. It slept four to a room, each door bearing a cheerfully tired and nautically-themed plaque with a cute name like ‘Starboard Deck’. I met another Australian and we joined forces to go and find a supermarket; while there I made the decision I would temporarily un-quit smoking so I could try American cigarettes, I befriended my new room-mate, a blonde girl from Europe (I forget where, exactly) who was traveling the US and missing her boyfriend. We got breakfast at Union Square the next day and pointed at all the things we’d heard of but never seen – newspaper stands on the street, Gold’s Gym, Macy’s. From what I’ve heard, I never could have gotten away with the way I acted in New York – stopping every two seconds to point and say ‘Oh, shit! I’ve seen that on TV!’
While my new friend was taking a bus tour of San Francisco, I was working out how to catch the J down to meet and be interviewed by my prospective new housemates when they got home from work, which left me the day to wander the city. By the time I caught the J out to the Castro, early evening was closing in. The sun had gone down as I walked down Market to 18th, and I was very aware that the night air in my new city was cold and clear. Everything – the street signs, the lit-up store displays, the accents and the people and the roads and the streets – was unfamiliar, and strange, and yet, as I sit here and write this, I miss it with a feeling that tugs at my chest.
Brittainy answered the door, a shy girl from Massachusetts who was getting ready to head to yoga. We talked awkwardly about Bikram in the kitchen while Laurel from Portland, who, I found out later, had power of decision over whether I would be living in the house or not, and was sick at the time, emerged from her bedroom to meet and vet me.
Laurel’s boyfriend Steve and his dog arrived, and, with nothing else to do, sat in on the meeting. Afterwards, Steve and I smoked in the backyard while the two other prospective new tenants came through and disbarred themselves in one way or another in the space of five minutes. Laurel and Steve and Peter excused themselves to take private counsel in the living room while I waited and smoked a little more, and then Steve came out to talk to me.
‘Let’s go get your stuff from the hostel,’ he said. ‘And have a shot of tequila to celebrate.’
After retrieving my laptop, my books, and the bag of clothes that was all I had with me, Laurel and Steve took me to In ‘N’ Out Burger in Daly City. Driving back, jetlagged, a little drunk, sitting in the back of Steve’s SUV and with the lights surrounding the freeway stretching out around us as we drove back home, I looked out the window and started to laugh. I’d traveled further than I’d ever traveled, found my way to a new city and a new home, and everything was in its right place. I was in America, the home of the free, and the brave, and the American Dream. Anything could happen.
More than that, I wanted it to.
Since 2010 started, I’ve been missing America in general, and San Francisco in particular, like crazy, to the point where I can almost feel a pull, drawing me back. It’s a strange sensation, and unlike anything I’ve felt before – things like this time-lapse film, put together by a friend of a friend and something I stumbled across due to her Facebook updates, don’t help.