Those who know me well roll their eyes whenever they hear my answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
I was conceived in Pamplona Spain, born in Heidelberg Germany, lived shortly in Illinois and South Dakota, then St. Paul and Minneapolis. Eventually I graduated from high school in rural Alabama. After I left home my parents kept moving and so I spent holidays and summer vacations in New York, San Francisco and San Antonio. Like Bob Dylan, my three children were all born in Duluth, Minnesota. But when I was 27 we decided to migrate west to put down roots in California and we’ve been in San Francisco for the past 19 years.
I plan on living in the same house with the same woman for the rest of my life– though I frequently entertain fantasies of spending a year in Paris, working in an orphanage in El Salvador or living on beach in the Caribbean. When I travel I compulsively check the local real estate listings just to see what a house might cost in Detroit or Indianapolis, Wichita or Palm Springs. If I ever mention relocation, my wife grimaces with pain and says, “Well, I’m not leaving.”
We bought our home in the Mission District of San Francisco with a promise to ourselves to stay for at least 25 years. We had heard that it often takes that long to become part of a complex and established urban neighborhood. With weekly gunfights and people slinging heroin and crack on our front steps, back in the nineties the Mission wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for a caucasian religious family from the midwest to land. Walking through the Castro with three blond children in tow, strangers would mumble “breeders” under their breath as they passed. In the Mission, we were considered “yuppies” because of the color of our skin even while our financial background made us solidly working class. Old vatos drove by randomly shouting, “Get the f#%! out of the Mission!,“ from open car windows. The neighborhood didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon and many of our efforts to be friendly were met with suspicious glances or open hostility. Gradually we made friends, sharing meals, watching neighbors children and celebrating holidays and birthdays. These relationships often began with a crisis, like an eviction notice, cancer diagnosis, a robbery or drunken argument where I intervened. Nothing brings neighbors together like a house fire or homicide. Once, a woman around the corner got shot four times in the chest. As a result, Buzz and Ed, who lived on the other side of the blood splattered wall, became our new best friends.
When I walk the streets of my town I see what it is now, but also carry with me ghost-like memories of the sights, sounds and feelings I’ve collected over many years among these boulevards and buildings. I am aware that certain places exert a particular force on my psyche, and nowhere have I felt more raptured or tormented by these forces than in my own city.
What effect has this place had on the shape of my soul?
Like the well known micro climates of San Francisco, every neighborhood seems to pull at my soul like a dog on a leash. In times past I have felt subtly judged by the reigning values of each district. Not activist enough for the protest marches in the Mission. Not Zen enough for Marin County hills. Not creative or entrepreneurial enough for the Soma start-up scene. Not successful or well educated enough for the Saint Frances wood dinner parties. Not rich enough for Specific Whites, (or rather, Pacific Heights), nor ethnic, indigenous, brown or broken down enough to blend in to the crowds along the miracle mile of Mission street. When unclear about my own identity, I have been tossed like a plastic shopping bag born on the winds and whims of the cities diversity. And yet, being a San Franciscan, at times, has been so central to my identity that I have been viscerally uncomfortable anywhere else.
One of the great temptations of living in a global city is becoming consciously or unconsciously pretentious. Let’s just admit that we urban dwellers think we know more about the world, have acquired more refined tastes, preferences and politics that our suburban or rural relatives and friends who often experience us as aloof, unfriendly and overly opinionated. The urban jungle has hardened us, and we shield ourselves with symbolic costumes, ear buds and sunglasses, warily walking, head down, with no eye contact or greeting for the passersby. Everyday I have opportunities to cross boundaries of race, class, culture and beliefs. When I am open-hearted, sans sun glasses and ear buds, I have a chance to really see and be seen, to give and receive love as common children in one family. But in the constant crush of bodies and noise I am tempted to turn inward and become a stranger.
San Francisco pulled at my heart like a magnet, a mesmerizing european style city of hills with bay views where anything is possible and everyone is welcome. Something draws us to the lands we inhabit. I feel pulled to many places and am deeply affected by the mood, food, climate and culture of wherever I am. I feel the divine nearness in particular places.There is a soulful turquoise enchantedness to the high desert East of Albuquerque or along the pueblo roads weaving north from Sante Fe. There is wonderment in the quality and depth of the color blue in the sky above Paris. In the Scottish highlands above the sea I feel the chill of solitude and the warmth of sacred longing. The hot sun, white sands and palm trees of Pacific beaches make me feel alive, fecund and sexy, as if I might live forever in this paradise without a worry. Mountain heights make me feel finite, put me in awe and take my breath away. The unforgiving winter of the great plains brings a somberness to my being. When you can die by exposure the mind quickly turns to finality. Summer heat and winter cold exercise a yearly judgement on humanity. It’s no wonder that people who taste these extremes tend to be more religious or apocalyptic than we who live in more temperate climates. I’ll confess that it’s hard to be sober, guilty or forlorn when the weather is a perfect Mediterranean seventy degrees. Other landscapes haunt me— abandoned steel towns, suburban strip malls, Indian casinos and the spooky thorn and kudzu covered swamplands of the American south. In these places God at first seems absent, as if good and evil are at battle –or perhaps it is in these landscapes that I am most in touch with the war within myself.
I smirk when I hear people talk romantically about stability. I’ve lived in the same house with the same people for nineteen years, but everything around us, it seems, has changed or is about to. We’ve greeted and bid farewell to most of the neighbors on our block in a cycle that repeats itself every 2 to 3 years. I’ve eaten in the same restaurant spaces under three or four different names and menus. What is now Beretta was once The Last Supper Club and before that, a bohemian cafe called Radio Valencia. Stability is a curious aspiration in the midst of such a transience. I’ve often been told that 20% of San Francisco residents move away each year, which means, theoretically, that this is a completely new city every five years. A new comer sees hip restaurants and graffiti art and million dollar apartments. The few older residents that remain carry fleeting memories of Irish families, Latin Dance halls, 70’s low riders, Paletas stands, Marriachi bands and the names of family members shot down by gangs on almost every corner. We receive farewell party invitations with a sense of fatigue and dread because they signal a time to begin rebuilding our local community again. If home was measured by relationships and not geography then parts of me live in Portland, New Orleans, Oakland, Oslo, London, and L.A.
I am a peripatetic wanderer. For my work I travel to 30 or 40 cities each year. Sometimes I find more stability on the road that I do in my own neighborhood. There are cities I visit almost every year and few American cities that I have not passed through once before. By repetition places like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles and New York have become part of my larger neighborhood. In each city I have my regular spots and a community of friends. In New York its El Beit Cafe in Williamsburg, an adventist church near Union square, Ben’s pizza in SoHo and the Metropolitan museum. In Salt Lake it’s the mole at the Red Iguana that is so good it almost makes me weep. In Portland and Seattle it’s the apartments and houses of good friends who leave the lights on and always have a room for me with an open bottle of wine whenever I arrive.
Although I travel often, I always come back home, to the embrace of my family and the lively sights and sounds of my neighborhood. I never feel completely settled until I’ve roamed the streets, making a circuit of my favorite cafe’s, thrift shops and taco joints— and greet old man Stevens who always sits on the corner. My hope, whether at home or away, is to be fully present, open hearted, honoring of history, embracing of people and awake to to the activity of the divine.