San Francisco

We scouted San Francisco as a possible place to live. For us, it’s about a lot of things – the mass transit, the culture (and cultural attitude), my wife’s business (I can work anywhere), and access to lots and lots of things and more and more. San Francisco was in the running with Portland OR, Chicago IL, and New York City. We also considered Philadelphia, Seattle, and Minneapolis, but these were really our four possibilities.

san francisco - Daniel DiGrizIf it was going to be California, it would definitely be San Francisco. The transportation is excellent, between the Muni and the Bart, there’s prevalent and affordable Sushi, excellent authentic Mexican food, lots of hole in the wall places with great menus and low prices, and good independent film theatres. It was also quite friendly and open. We ate breakfast twice at the Cozy Cable Car Cafe on Powell, downtown – the food was that good – two days in a row I got the special of crepes filled with fresh strawberries, berries, and cream – and their coffee was the best I found anywhere in the city – I think it was Martha Brothers – superbly freshly ground. I walked around with it as often as possible.

We visited Japantown, Downtown, and Haight on the first day. Downtown in the evening had aggressive panhandlers every 10 feet. You might think that’s an exaggeration – I mean it literally – every 10 feet. Japantown was fun, but small, and a lot of tourist stuff there that doesn’t appeal to us. We had ramen in the Japan Cultural Center, which was good ramen but not great – the cookies at a little cafe upstairs were far better. There’s a neat Japanese film theatre in the basement of the biggest department store across from the center, which is fun to find. Haight was all right – we ate at El Balazo which had fantastic pico! – but the train was shut down in that area, and the bus was overcrowded to the point that I was wearing other people’s deodorant, which was quite sparse in a lot of cases – a lot of drunks with open containers on the bus, so close you had to get off the bus to let someone out, at which point someone got on and grabbed your spot (standing, of course), as the driver kept slamming the rear doors on you, because he couldn’t see through the mass of people. I’m used to standing room buses, so no problem there, just as I’m used to packed subway cars, but the crowd (and its condition) here was excessive. So at the end of the first evening, we weren’t impressed. Disappointed and pretty much ruling out San Francisco, is how I’d put it. We did buy nice, quite overpriced mufflers off the street downtown, with fake Vuitton labels. We knew they were overpriced (it’s 1/4 of that price in Chinatown) but these were of better quality than the stock in Chinatown, and of better design, so we’re still happy with them. Mufflers are essential for the stylish man – I’ll be borrowing the wife’s as much as she wears it, I’m sure.

The second day was better. We went to the Castro District, which was smaller and quainter than we thought it would be, but it did have a great independent theatre which I loved, some excellent cookies, some surprisingly unpleasant coffee at Castro Coffee, and excellent raviolis for me at the Sausage Factory (the sauce was delicious but too salty – the raviolis were locally made, not frozen) – raviolis are an essential food group, and Italian food is, of course, pretty much better than sex. There were some especially nice, helpful people in the Castro – our waiter at the Sausage included). We caught a bus to ZaZang – a Korean restaurant in Pacific Heights with real Ja Jang Myun for the wife’s lunch (I was jealous of how great it looked but quite full by then), then took another bus (3 day passes are a must) to Noe Valley which was a lot of high priced stuff, even if interesting and nice. Walked down to the Mission District, which we liked, though Mission Avenue starts to look pretty much the same after a few stores – with a few notable exceptions. I had pie before dinner at Mission Pie, which was quite satisfying – you can’t really look in the window without needing a slice of vegan mixed berry pie (or Chicken Pot Pie maybe).

We had dinner in SOMA (South of Market Area), then went back to the Mission – this time aiming for 16th & Valencia, which we liked a lot better. This was our kind of place – if we’d found Valencia in the Mission on day one, we might have had a different attitude about San Francisco for the first 24hrs. We liked the area enough that we had sushi (2nd dinner – you have 2nd dinner don’t you?) at We Be Sushi, even though we’d just eaten a big dinner and dessert. It’s OK, you burn calories when you walk, and sushi is pretty light. We Be, by the way, is fantastic – even the Miso soup is better than any I’ve had. That’s when we discovered the Bart (train) was even more useful (and pleasant) than the Muni, and took the train back to the hotel (Vintage Executive near Union Square).

The junkies at the 16th& Mission station are kind of offputting, and the bizarre freaks running around the city in general – I don’t mean unusual people – I mean people who spit on ATMs and run around swearing at thin air, for instance. But you kind of take a New York attitude to it, and keep going; the weirdness is much more aggressive than NYC. We also discovered that the trolley at Powell Station downtown is there expressly for the purpose of taking you up the long, incredibly steep hill that we climbed several times the first night, and it was a way through the panhandling gauntlet. Life was better.

The third day we went to Chinatown, which is frankly exhausting. Plan your bathroom breaks, and know where bathrooms are. Fortunately, it was right behind the hotel, and there is the automatic self-cleaning bathroom in the park (don’t expect toilet paper, but I’m used to that in public toilets elsewhere in the world, so no surprise), plus one or two others tucked away in various places.  After a while, every block in Chinatown starts to seem the same. Most people don’t keep going after the first few past the gate. We did, and found some nice gems. We ate custard pies at a place that speaks no English and seems to serve only elderly Chinese, which was great. Decidedly lousy tea but good pork buns. We got some fortune cookies at the Fortune Cookie Factory, by following our noses up an alley. We saw some things we didn’t like and had a harrowing incident (won’t detail it, but it had to do with an animal in distress) – that happens when you get off the beaten path, but there was a redeeming moment that came with doing so (we saved it, thanks be to God).

For our last evening, we went back to the Mission, and hit the Buffalo Exchange on Valencia – totally worth it – Buffalo always is. I chatted fashion on a budget with Jarrod there, who knows his stuff – liked him a lot. And we ate again at We Be Sushi (when you find something that good, there’s no point in guessing, if you’re up for more – we stuck with it) – the early bird special is great, and a great deal. About $8 for just a heaping lot of fish (I had all Ebi for my Nigiri – it’s my favorite – and a Valencia roll). We hit the Buffalo Exchange four times that afternoon and evening, actually, which really paid off with some great finds. Then we had coffee at Muddy’s Coffee House which was quite pleasing, and went back to the hotel to get a few winks before our 4am airport shuttle.

There’s not really an ideal app for the Muni that’s free on Android (I think there is for the Bart), but the Google Maps app helped a lot, and bus drivers were superbly helpful for clarifying what bus to take, as were a lot of people in general. A friendly place. Some dodgy folk every block or so (yes, literally), but a lot more kind, helpful, fun people than that. Oh, I almost forgot, stop by the little coffee place with outdoor seats (only) on Mission Ave in the Mission District – Grand Coffee at 2663 Mission St. That guy has great seltzer and makes Brooklyn egg creams and lime-ades with it, or he makes iced coffee too, all fresh for each person. Wonderful nice place to sit down, and fun to chat with him. I like small entrepreneurs like that – he swiped my card on his Square iphone attachment, and my receipt came immediately to my own phone via e-mail (I love that Square thing – I want one for my Android phone!).

This trip was quite helpful for us. We came away liking San Francisco. I liked meeting a New Yorker who’d relocated there just two weeks earlier – his observations and mine were the same. We both found a lot of things to appreciate, but a lot more of those things, and other things besides, in New York. Here’s what we decided:

Chicago: Second best choice for my wife’s business. I like the North Side, Andersonville, Bucktown, and parts of the Loop are favorites. You’ll never run out of things to do in Chicago. Great transportation, theatre, lots of little classes. Feels smaller than we’d like, overall, but quite affordable rents. Midwestern still, so less culturally my cup of tea, but big enough that it makes up for it. I think the government there is no more corrupt than the one where we live now – it’s just a matter of scale, so that’s a tie. It’s not far off from NYC, besides – corruptness and ineptness are bedfellows, so no one’s a clear winner in that category. Overall, Chicago is our fallback position – our second choice if for some bizarre reason we can’t grow where we’re going.

Portland: My favorite. Socially, the easiest to make friends. Great coffee. Lots of community attitude. Plenty of people who share my sympathies. Lots of independent film, people who read, clothing exchanges, great food, affordable rents, superb transportation, and best place for a local product-based business. It’s on the Pacific, so we like that. Not good for my wife’s business goals at the moment – I’d go there in a heartbeat, if I wasn’t married.

San Francisco: It’s on the Pacific, so that’s nice. California would let me work on some business projects for FAS, but we’ll be in all of our other key areas too, so not the deciding factor. Overall, it felt too small for us, and we found the street people just too aggressive. If it weren’t for the mass transit being so good, I think we’d maybe get bored with the city too soon and settle down to just sort of living there, but the top notch train and bus systems would mean we’d enjoy it – living in a society with superb public transportation really changes the whole cultural feel of a place, and how you live with it. We liked our trip, had a lot of fun, and found a lot of things to enjoy together, but this isn’t the one, at least for right now. And for my wife’s particular business, this seemed like it actually came in 4th of 4. Some real perks we liked about it were the weather – it was a bit warm for me, but the wife found late October quite comfortable – and the ocean air that sort of cleanses things with fog and lets you breathe.

New York: This is our future home, Lord willing. Our target date is in less than 11 months. We’ve got a house to sell, and other logistics to handle, but this is what we’re aiming for. Queens, specifically, and the wife can look to work, initially, in Manhattan. I could go on endlessly about New York, so I won’t do it here. My feeling about it is that there’s almost nothing you can’t do, find, or be in NYC. No more trying in vain to find dinner after 8pm on a week night, no more car and car culture, and yes to all of the things we love in exponentially present droves. The thing about New York, too, for people that are really ultra-urban in mindset, is that despite the benefit of its concentration, at least in Manhattan, but in general, on a neighborhood level in places like Queens, it also continues to constantly be new. By the time you walk the entire city, it has changed so much again, that it’s virtually impossible to feel that you’ve come to the end of it. I’m such that when I love a film, I’m always disappointed that it’s over. I want it to go on and on. I feel that way with cities I love. New York is the one place I’ve been that does that. It’s like a magical city that just never stops changing, and you never come to the end of. That, to me, is home. Home, for me, is a place that creates the sense of unlimited possibilities. The transportation is unparalleled, of course – that’s a huge benefit to the wife, who will also find no limit to her vocational path there. If it can be done, in the world, it can be done in New York.

I spent a chunk of my life listening to stereotypes about NYC that are as imaginary as the stereotypes of every other place I’ve been (except for Arkansas – those myths are all totally true). So San Francisco doesn’t feel at all like the “gay Mecca” with everyone walking around in leather or drag – it’s got a little superficially “gay” district, which employs all kinds of people, and the rest is just life in the city. It’s an integrated city, and there’s just more of everything than less densely populated places. I will say that San Francisco is accepting of alternative lifestyles in general, as is Portland, so lots of alternatives are sort of openly present – you’ll find various religious sects more widely accepted there, too. Nor is the Haight wall to wall hippies selling flowers on sidewalks – there are some hippies – and some are just there to sell “hippie” stuff to tourists from nice shops – I didn’t see any flowers left in people’s hair. Minneapolis isn’t terribly cold – I lived there for some time – Winters are sunny and moderate most of the time. Plus Minnesotans dress very comfortably in Winter, which is typically dry, so they’re out and about. Minneapolis also has one of the most thriving and growing creative and arts cultures anywhere.

Likewise, New York isn’t crime-ridden – it’s quite safe in most of Queens and Manhattan (my wife felt comfortable walking around all over the place alone at night) – nor are people there rude (they are busy, so if you ask for their attention, do have a point and be prepared to make it in a timely manner – they’re not interested in discussing the weather, which is lovely by the way, with a perfect stranger – it’s not polite, it’s just a confusing waste of time – they can just glance at their phone or glance up and see the weather, so what’s your point – do you have a point?) Yeah it’s nice, and we’re walking, and we’re walking… Also, recent information indicates that we can afford the rent there, once we’re there a bit – New Yorkers use informal social networks to exchange information on available and affordable apartments but, just as everything is available in New York, so are very high rents and high end apartments – you can spend as much as you want. There are plenty of people there doing fine on $30,000/year (someone has to) – eating well, going out, and paying their bills. You have to be reasonably savvy, but it’s definitely doable.

But, for a lot of other reasons, New York is the target now. My family doesn’t want any limits we can avoid, and we want opportunities all around us. That’s how New Yorkers live – surrounded continually by opportunities – it’s the secret to how ordinary people ‘make it’ there and learn to make it anywhere. I lived a long time thinking about limits – now I’m ready to think about opportunities. The wife is the same way. So New York it is. San Fran, you were nice, but we like you as a friend – we love New York. And Portland, you can be the mistress – I like a city that doesn’t shave its legs. Chicago, you can be New York’s hot Midwestern cousin.

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