Returning to a city you used to inhabit after a few months away is akin to focusing a manual camera- a twisting of the lens that causes the world around you to expand and contract, blur and sharpen, until the truth of the scene is finally revealed. This striving to adjust to rhythms that were once familiar sometimes becomes an out of body experience, a strange realization that a past version of yourself used to live in the locale you are visiting- walk its streets, climb its hills, board its buses, purchase food at its grocery stores, dance at its bars…and that one version of yourself once and still remains a “native resident.”
I experienced this feeling over Thanksgiving week when I drove down I-5 to visit San Francisco. It manifested as a sudden jolt in my body when I was boarding the 24 bus and tapped my newly loaded Clipper Card, as the realization that, “I used to live in this city!” hit me. Not only did I one live here, but I took this very bus up Castro and Divisadero to choir practice or to visit a friend in NoPA. Ascending the stairs of my familiar bus once again, I found my seat and immediately begin to question my fellow riders (silently) as I reacquainted myself to the setting. Are these visitors? Residents? Natives? What is their purpose on this bus? Where are they heading, this very moment, at a time that I just happen to cross paths with them? Do they think I’m a local? After all, I did swing my bag so nonchalantly over my shoulder and slump down it the plastic seat, the tell-tale electric whine and melodic release of the bus’s breaks echoing in all of our ears. We all sat in silence, except for the subtle melody of dozens of songs leaking out of iPod earbuds. We were in this temporary communal space together, people who could be friends but who I will probably never talk to. Sometimes this contemplative mystery of possibility is just too much to handle, as my constant swirling of thoughts goes into overdrive. So this time, I pulled the exit cord and stepped down into the bus stairwell. My weight signals the doors to open with a hiss, and I step down into the swirling of bodies that is the Castro at rush hour. I am part of the mass of people living their everyday lives, en route to the grocery store, on and off the bus, transferring, going off to their next destination. We touch and part ways as I cross the street, down into Harvey Milk Plaza to catch the L Train to the Sunset neighborhood. I feel like an informed foreigner, in cognito.
Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco resident and author of a book called Infinite City that I have cited frequently, discusses this idea of infinite interconnecting paths throughout cities in her brilliant introduction to the book called “On the Inexhaustability of a City.” The predominant premise of this essay is that how we perceive cities is the result of our changing landscape- because cities are constantly transitioning, there can never be one concise impression of it. Instead, there are infinite observations and experiences of the same city, as infinite as the course of human history. After all, “No two people live in the same city” (5). We all inhabit our own spaces and cover different ground. Even if this ground is the same every day, we all come from different backgrounds, and carry different maps, before this one. And this difference of experience in an ever-changing landscape is what makes the maps of a place infinite. Solnit says, “San Francisco has eight hundred thousand inhabitants, more or less, and each of them possesses his or her own map of a place, a world of amities, amours, transit routes, resources, and perils, radiating out from home […] each of these citizens contains multiple maps: areas of knowledge, rumors, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate visions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional discovery, the past versus the present” (3). These concepts of connection and reconnection are absolutely fascinating to me, which probably explains why I like riding public transit so much. No other activity is as revealing to the nature of people’s everyday lives than when we ride transit- a glimpse into the way strangers dress, talk, converse, work, and play in real time as our maps collide.
These ever-moving, teeming, interconnected maps and paths that city inhabitants are constantly creating are sometimes overwhelming to think about. There are so many people and places to discover! Though we are often immersed in our wireless lives- texting, reading articles on our phones, checking in with our friends’ every moves on social media, oblivious to the possibility of community that may be sitting right next to us, there is nothing else like it- a multifaceted dynamic that is more apparent in San Francisco than any other city I’ve been to. Though its a real metropolitan city like LA or NYC, there is a certain humanness, a lived-in quality, sometimes even a wildness that sets it apart from other metropolises. When I was writing this in the coffee shop of Powells Books, two friends sat down beside me and, to my surprise, actually began talking about this very topic! I overheard them discussing the merits of living in different cities (including San Francisco, Sydney, and Portland)- their varying characters and personalities. It is true- we constantly compare the cities in which we live. One of the friends talked about how its important to find your own little “niche” amidst a big city, wherever this may be, or what I think of as your cozy place, your home space, whether this be physical, mental or emotional. This is directly in agreement with what Solnit says in her book- there are infinite cities we can each live in within one metropolitan area, starting at our home space and radiating out from there. We each have our own versions of our cities, a distinct imagined character encompassing the built, the scenic, the cultural, the human, the animal, the plant, and inanimate aspects.
I feel like I am always conducting an exhilarating love affair with the Tri-Cities of the West Coast. My affections oscillate between San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, never pinning one down as my ultimate city love. There’s the pastel beauty of San Francisco where I always feel like I’m part of some greater, bustling, crowded, busy whole with 8-foot wreaths in the windows of Macy’s and where I can climb a wild mountain to see the whole city at my feet, touch the Pacific Ocean, or disappear into a eucalyptus forest. When I return here, the familiarity of it, because of months of exploration, comes back in a rush and I breathe easy, my heart fluttering in my chest, excited to do my favorite things. But I have never truly felt at home here. And then there’s Seattle, with its stunning natural grandeur, neighborhood spots, insurmountable geography, and ever-present water, a place I visit to connect with friends, the place where I became me. And finally, there’s Portland, my true love, the one I’ll always come back to at the end of the day after exploring “more exciting” places. It is comfort, it is small town city, it is walking and biking, it is wild forest and parks, it is home.
I’ll probably always be doing this questioning about why I love each of my infinite cities, as I have in the past, but I don’t think I’ll ever quite know- as there’s always newness to explore, new people to show you new things, and an infinite number of people to show us their infinite cities.