A Short Way Back


In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.


“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.


Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.


The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”

Dan Meth – “Gimme the Nightclub”

When: 1 December 2009
Where: My dorm
Who: Madeleine Lucero-Simmons and Christopher Harriss
Weather: Cold, foggy

When December came around, there was a real feeling of excitement in the air. It didn’t matter whether I was in Northern or Southern California, everybody was coming together to celebrate: The 2000s were finally ending. And in San Francisco especially, people seemed to care about how they look, how they talk. No more muffin tops, no more manscaping, no more… well, you fill in what you think.

So this song was kind of perfect. I was in my dorm, I tried showing it to my friend Maddie, but she couldn’t get too excited about it.

We all had our own ways of coping. “In Da Club” and 50 Cent in general was a low point for our culture, but here Dan Meth had made something good with it. His production was actually part of a series of mashups celebrating the end of the decade. And unless you were really trashy, that was something we could all cheer.

Next time: A whole new decade, new friends, leaving again, the sudden scary rise of pop revival, and saying “baby we don’t speak of that” like a real aristocrat. 2010.

Vampire Weekend – “M79”

When: November 2009
Where: My student apartment at SF State
Who: Possibly my roommate
Weather: Cool, clear

Vampire Weekend had loomed over me for at least a year. My first roommate, the more eclectic of the two so far, had their album, and at least one of the guys pirated it back in high school. Probably Marc Meehan.

But I was faced with the challenge of coming back into contemporary, 2009 society from a long hibernation, and thanks to a recommendation from the MacQuarrie sisters I started here. I also started listening to SF’s local rock station Live 105, which was somewhat better than KROQ down south but still in the same vein.

I was coming back from buying groceries at the Stonestown Trader Joe’s while listening to this song, and as I returned to my room the same song was playing. I smiled approvingly. I was already on my way.

Next: Was Flight of the Conchords darker, or was I?

Arctic Monkeys – “Secret Door”

When: September 2009
Where: SF State, below the Cesar Chavez Center
Who: Nobody
Weather: Extremely foggy

Humbug was another dense, inaccessible album from 2009. In the face of the same hyperproduced late-noughties wilderness period that brought us Passion Pit, Arctic Monkeys retreated into the comfortable embrace of Josh Homme and his Palm Desert Sound. It can be argued whether or not the album is a failure, but I was going to see them in concert; I had to keep my hopes high.

Next: I am pleasantly surprised.

The Cars – “A Dream Away”

When: Late August 2009
Where: Bayshore station elevator, Brisbane, California
Who: Nobody
Weather: Warm, clear

When I got back to San Francisco, I made two decisions:

1. To take French class. I already spoke Spanish, which I figured would make French a lot easier. Apparently, a lot of my old freshman floormates had the same idea. And apparently, we were all wrong. Luckily, I got to sit next to a sultry Australian, who I went on a date with before discovering she was completely insane. Then again, she <i>was</i> from Queensland.

2. To ride the T-Car. T was a relatively new line in San Francisco, running the length of the harbor south from Downtown by way of Third Street, and serving the mostly black neighborhoods of Mission Bay, the Dogpatch, Bayview, and Visitacion Valley. Having learned long ago that the best neighborhoods in SF were the ones you never saw on TV, I decided that there must be something to th area and went off one day to give it a look.

My trusty Cars album playing on my iPod, I set out. What I found was a few antebellum houses, abandoned warehouses, boarded-up old brick storefronts, and reedy swamps. T, as it turned out, was part of a plan to revitalized the waterfront; there hadn’t been anything there in the first place. Disappointedly, I waited for the next CalTrain to take me back to the center of town, but none came, so I walked back to T in a disappointed state.

Next: Fools on Parade.

Cake – “Love You Madly”

When: April 2009
Where: My dorm
Who: Nobody…sort of
Weather: Cool

Lindsey was a peculiar girl. She was a gorgeous redhead and my next-door neighbor. In theory we slept six inches apart, but whereas I was fairly active in the 6th-floor Mary Ward Hall general social group, she never spoke to anyone and was rarely seen. The only thing I knew about her was that she listened to my iTunes library; I could hear it through the wall.

One night, she started playing a song… I could only make out the bass, but it was so catchy it drove me crazy not to know what the song was. It wasn’t one of mine. I went to sleep very irritated, and vowed never to forget that signature bass tune.

A month later I was moving my stuff out of the dorm, and into my Dad’s car while listening to my iPod and there it was. Cake. I had it all along. Overjoyed, I raced back up to my floor and knocked on Lindsay’s door. There she was, smiling, tossing a blue beach ball around with people I’d never seen. In the spirit that enraptures all of us when we suspect we may never see someone again, I gave her my sincere regret that I hadn’t taken the time to talk with her like I had with other people on the floor. She smiled, and tossed me the ball.

“Keep it,” she said. I still have it.

It wasn’t the first time an SF State girl gave me a blue ball.

Next: Weekend at Judah’s

The La’s – “Way Out”

When: Late April 2009
Where: Walking northbound on Junipero Serra Boulevard
Who: Nobody
Weather: Mild

There’s not much to say about this: It was during my Britpop phase and I was getting some shampoo, so I’d like to talk about Flower Girl.

Flower Girl was so called because she always had a flower in her hair. She was a foreign policy major from a rich family down the peninsula, but I knew her from a political science class I loved, and an art theory class that I hated more than any class I ever took. It lasted three hours, all incredibly boring for an art class. She was a big believer in art affecting social change. I was not, and I am not. And my vocal opposition in class took Flower Girl’s attention.

The breaking point came during finals. She invited me to breakfast at her place, but when I got there, she was still asleep and had to cancel. After my incident in the dorm hallway, I had my very last test in Poli Sci. My dorm was already cleared out and I was to be home by the afternoon, and we talked after the test. I had planned to go in for the kiss, but wasn’t so sure now that it came down to it. She texted me afterwards. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend,” she said, “I would have gone out with you.”

But she did go out with me, and would continue to go out with me whenever she damn well pleased. But that was later. For now it was April, and I was just getting some shampoo.

Next: What happens when you hear a song, you don’t know the name of the band, the song, or the lyrics. And you don’t even know you already have it?

The Clash – Lost in the Supermarket

When: 31 March 2009
Where: M Car inbound
Who: My ex
Weather: Mild, clear

San Francisco was beautiful, but quite cold as far as I was concerned. I was on the edge of town to begin with, and SF State didn’t suit me at all. How could people take it upon themselves to judge me for not taking drugs? I’d gotten the worst possible impression of the place, and I had to take whatever little victories I could get.

I was so bored it was making me sick, and I thought it best to steer clear of school. According to Buzzfeed, there was a contour in the exterior wall of St. Mary’s Cathedral so shaped that a female breast would appear in the form of a shadow every afternoon. It was better than nothing.

On the train ride up, I noticed my ex-girlfriend reading a book at the other end of the car, and for the misguided purpose of improving her comically bad impression of me, I decided to go over and be civil. The book was East of Eden, taken from a relative’s garage. I told her where I was going.

“Classy,” she said, before I awkwardly walked back to the other end of the car.

Next: Songs for Seafaring.