People come to San Francisco for many reasons: a chance of employment and opportunity, the temperate weather, the lifestyle, the food. I came for love. But there’s always one thing each of we non-native San Franciscans have in common: we came seeking a fresh start, a chance to build a new life for ourselves.
San Francisco is a city of reinvention. You can be exactly who you want to be in this city. You can make yourself into a caricature of yourself, someone completely different or an enhanced version of yourself. It’s as though San Francisco put an ad in all of the newspapers around the nation, saying:
“Send me your creatives, your hippies, your LGBQT, your artists, your writers, your techies, your entrepreneurs and I’ll envelop them in love and acceptance and opportunity. Here they will meet other members of their tribe, and can carve out a niche in a supportive and loving environment. This is my promise to you.”
It’s a strange confluence of people and ideas and lifestyles. Yet it works, because SF people are tolerant, supportive and respectful of their fellow people. And most lean a little left. San Francisco is a little bubble of realness, progressiveness and normalcy in this crazy nation. And that brings its own problems, but that’s a story for another time.
So as you’d imagine in a city where you can be anyone or anything, that there’s plenty of characters in my neighborhood. My area lacks that certain ‘neighborhood’ feel and is a strange conglomeration of tourists, art students, young singles, young couples on a budget, and those that have inhabited the buildings since most of them were built in the 1910s and 1920s. My building manager is a sweet woman with a penchant for cigarettes, no laces on her sneakers and wears her much-loved shoulder-paded blazer on even the warmest San Francisco days. She has a cat named Simone that hisses at me each time I encounter her in the hallways. Nevertheless, I always greet Simone with a cheery “Hello, Simone!”.
Downstairs, there lives an old woman in an apartment behind the lift. For the first year I lived here, I never saw her when it was sunny outside. Consequently, I refer to her as the Vampire Lady. She is never seen without her red stylised turban and matching old-lady-shopping-cart. She looks as though she’s lived a disciplined life, and I’ve never been able to pick from where exactly in the world her accent is from. I imagine she’s a former ballerina from one of the countries in the Soviet bloc. She’s long since lost the graceful movements of a ballerina, and now lives subterraneously and shuffles around during the non-daytime hours.
When I was imagining my new neighbour before we had moved to The City, he was the stereotypical San Francisco neighbour: a gay hairdresser. And bingo! My neighbour is a gay man in his late 40s who works as a hairdresser in a spa of one of the major hotels in the area. He loves riding his motorbike around town, and I’ve had remarkably long conversations with him about the weather. I know so little about him, but that’s the way he likes it.
There’s a bloke in an apartment diagonally across the road who has very similar TV viewing habits to us. Law & Order, baseball, football, baseball, Law & Order. Only he likes to follow the sporting matches with about 45 minutes worth of porn. Lights off, blinds open. We call him Porn Man.
The apartments directly opposite us have interesting folks. One guy drops lit fireworks out of his window, and gets a kick out of freaking out the people on the street below. Another guy has nothing but a bed, a desk and a Mac Book Pro. Another person has cardboard taped to the windows, but I can still see that there’s Fox News playing on a plasma screen 24 hours a day. I think the girl who lives in the larger apartment with the great French doors is a flight attendant.
But the most fascinating person is one who lives diagonally opposite. Living in San Francisco, you are acutely aware that not everyone fits into the rigid male or female concept of sexuality. So I use the she/he designation for this particular neighbour because he both exists as a male, as well as a female. Sometimes she leaves her apartment dressed as a woman with a wig, other times dressed as a woman with no wig. But lately, we’ve been seeing him more often dressed as a man. It’s always interesting to see how he’s/she’s feeling — I think that dictates the external appearance. Nevertheless, she always looks a little disheveled, with her makeup smudged, her wig is often on wonky, and she wears ill-fitting dresses. Her choice of clothing skews young and she gravitates towards anything pink and purple. Preferably together.
But no matter if she’s presenting herself as a woman or as a man, the first thing people see is the permanent scowl. She/he generally seems unapproachable. We have seen her around town, having coffee on Polk Street, and buying her groceries. She/he smokes out in the alleyway across the street, alternating between pacing up and down the pathway, and sitting on the gutter. Rarely does she/he engage with the other smokers out there from the bar next door. Sometimes I think she’s trying to reach out, but there’s a real disconnect between craving people’s company and the tough sour exterior she/he displays. It’s sad that she/he seems so melancholy. I’ve always wanted to go up and speak to him/her and find out more about her life, but the tough exterior keeps me at arms length.