October 19, 2007

It’s always foggy in San Francisco

I have found in the month that I’ve been at the University of Chicago that my original home of some 18 years has shifted 20 miles south. No longer am I from the sunny suburbs of Greenbrae, California—no, I am now a proud resident of the foggy metropolis of San Francisco. That is not to say that my parents immediately seized their newly emptied nest and ran wildly across the Golden Gate Bridge with it; nor did any of my belongings beyond those that I carted with me to Illinois transfer locales. My bed is still in Greenbrae, as are my desk, cat, and little brother. The move stems instead from another cause that is, perhaps, rather less drastic: Few outside of my homely Marin County have heard of Greenbrae, whereas there are few Americans unfamiliar with San Francisco.

Familiar, of course, is a relative term. The general assumption seems to be that cable cars are my principal means of transportation, that I’ve been involved in at least two or three gay marriages, and that I eat a great deal of Rice-A-Roni. The odd connoisseur asks me, with a little nod of his head to show how much he learned in his weeklong stay in the City by the Bay three years ago, if I frequent Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, two of the larger tourist attractions in the city. I am met with revulsion when I confess that I have never been on a trolley and have only been down Lombard (“that really twisty street”) once, and only because I was showing a guest from out of town around; Horror ensues when I say that summers in San Francisco are a chilly 65 degrees and that we locals never use the terms “San Fran” or “Frisco.”

Postcard-inspired misconceptions aside, I am still not a San Franciscan. The city is close to my hometown, certainly, but I typically only venture across the bridge a few times a year for a play or a nice dinner. I do not know the names of all the different districts or my way around the tangle of streets; I am wary of the weather and have no idea how to use the bus system. Yet now I find myself declaring to all who ask that I am a native of hilly, breezy, nearby San Francisco, each time with less hesitation and more pride.

Hometowns, I’m discovering, are simply a gerrymandering of major cities. California is made up of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Colorado of Boulder and Denver, Pennsylvania of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and so on, each city-state with its own attenuations of “near” and “a couple hours from.” I have met dozens of San Franciscans since I’ve been here, only one of whom was from the city proper—the others’ homes ranged from my own 20-something miles away to 40 to even the 80 miles to California’s relatively unknown capital of Sacramento. It seems to me that one hails not from where one grew up but from the lowest common denominator.

I am from San Francisco only in the sense that the rest of Northern California exists in penumbral anonymity under the cover of the nearest landmark. Here in Chicago, nearly 2,000 miles from home, the vague recognition given by that lowest common denominator—tourism misconceptions and all—is the best I, or anybody, can get.