This was 1998. My dad had found work with something called Third Age, an ill-defined sort of company that didn't really do anything (and, of course, collapsed maybe a year later). But its dot-com money had brought us out to San Francisco, and put us up in highly desirable accommodations. Not that I would notice this until a few days later—the night of our arrival, I was just trying to keep my eyes open in the mirrored elevator that took us up to the twenty-fifth floor.
There's some background here that needs to be established. Up until my dad's assignment in the city by the bay, our family had lived on a farm, of sorts, in rural south-central Pennsylvania. It was a pretty idyllic setting—the house was large, and my dad's aesthetic sensibilities ensured that it looked as much like a Victorian hunting lodge as possible: Wood paneling, prints of Gordon, lots of pine trees—he even had a set of articulated monkey bones in his office from his time in Africa. It was a pretty isolated spot, and most of my friends lived about half an hour away, in Bedford, the county seat (population, 5,000, give or take). Most of my time, though, was spent prancing around the farm, playing with the horseys and wearing tutus and weird leggings. The people I knew were either respectable members of the community or else rural archetypes from whom my dad bought vintage tractors and picturesque livestock. It was a very small circle, and I can count the families I knew well on one hand.
I had also been home schooled since pre-school. So though I knew my way around a library, and could tell a Bosch from a Bruegel, I hadn't the faintest idea what those little schedules in the front of composition notebooks signified, nor had I been exposed to the idea of lots of people in a small-ish place. I didn't really get the concept of not getting to know the people with whom I came into contact, because the number of people I was in contact with was very small.
So to me, San Francisco was a massive shock. I knew, in a general kind of way, about things like public transport and homeless people, but I had never experienced these things first hand. Really, I had barely experienced other people first hand—that charmed little circle of family and friends, though nurturing, was about to be blown wide open.
The first "stranger" I met was the Newspaper Lady. She used to stand in a kind of square a few blocks from our apartment building, and it was within the first few days of our arrival that my mom first bought her newspaper. It was some kind of politically extreme rag—the only thing I remember about it was an image of a man sleeping in the street, using the American flag as a blanket, that appeared on the front page—but my mom bought it because the Newspaper Lady was so nice and always happy to see fresh-faced little kids like my sisters and I.
Then, later, there was the Girl on the Bus. The first punk I'd ever seen, she had blue-dyed hair, blue lipstick, black leather jacket, black miniskirt, facial piercings . . . The whole works. My mom, younger sisters, and I were taking the bus over to Golden Gate Park, I think, when one of my sisters ventured too close to the door at a stop. She was about to fall when the Girl on the Bus reached out and pulled her back. This punk-rock fairy then flashed us a brief grin and stepped off the bus, never to be seen again.
Of course, there were many others. San Francisco is a very large city, especially for an eight-year-old from Pennsylvania. So there was the lady at the coffee place, near where my sisters and I took Irish Dancing lessons. There was the gold-painted girl outside the Nordstrom's I don't remember going to. There was the man on the streetcar, who gave his card to my dad and wore an impeccable suit. There were scarier people, too, like the guy who wandered into the kid's bookstore, wearing nothing but hearted boxers and a tee-shirt and carrying a very large stuffed animal version of Simba the lion, muttering to himself. Nearer to home—and much less distressing—was Michael, the doorman of 1 Pine Street, an Irishman with heavy, dark eyebrows and a very soft voice. I could go on, but I think you're getting the idea.
Now, the reason I'm talking about this is because living in this city, in such a privileged way, at such a young age, is much more than just an interesting early experience. Remember what I said about coming from a very sheltered environment in Pennsylvania? I hadn't been to a "normal" school; I hadn't seen the press of lots of kids, all in one place, all at the same time. My first exposure to lots of humans all in one place came rather later than it does for most, and this is the sole reason I can say what I'm going to.
Going to San Francisco, living in that strange city of mad hills and mad people, of the Transamerica Pyramid and the Coit Tower, of parrots and seals, parks and piers, gave me something at eight that most people get much earlier. In the few months we lived there—it was only from February to May or June—I learned that proximity does not have to equal friendship. Through this cast of real-life characters, Dickensian in number and vivacity, I learned that people can live close together and never be friends. But that's not all. I also learned that, in spite of this, people can still deal with each other in a friendly way. We may never meet again and I will never learn your name, but for the five minutes it takes to buy your newspaper, or the split second it takes for you to catch a falling kid and shoot a smile over your shoulder as you walk away, we've forged a little connection. These threads stretch across years, and though perhaps you never feel the pull of them, they're still there.
This, to me, is one of the central features of human life. Since living in San Francisco, I've lived many different places and seen even more in passing—from Mankato, Kansas, for three months, to four memorable days with a group of missionaries in Dürres, Albania—but those momentary connections are what make a place valuable to me. I have a hard time in deeply rural areas because it is so difficult to find a place so full of life that these connections can even come into being. In a small town, you have no choice but to forge semi-long term connections to all the people you meet, whether you like those people or not. In a bigger town, that necessity isn't there. You're free, then, to send out tiny grappling hooks that can latch on to others without any harm being done or any real friendship being assumed or even expected. It's a beautiful thing: That a little courtesy and a simple smile can imprint a person on your memory, indelible as a tattoo but invisible as a good night kiss the morning after it happened.
After San Francisco, my family began traveling around more and more: First three years spent dividing our time between the farm and an apartment in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania (again, Dad's job makes us travel), then the six years we've gone back and forth between the states and Europe, with a change of stateside scenery from Pennsylvania to Kansas somewhere along the way. And though much of this time has been spent in rural areas, like the mist-bound northern reaches of France and broad, flat plains of Kansas, I relish the time I've spent in more populous areas. Every trip to Paris, to DC, even Little Rock, Arkansas, I bring out my spinnerets and cast out my web.
I don't expect to be your friend, but I'll give you a dollar and a smile if you'll give me a minute's conversation and a paper.
I think it's a pretty fair deal.
Edgar Mason notes that every word of this piece is true, and the streets of Dürres are paved with mud.
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