The last time I drove past the lake that separates San Francisco from the peninsula below it, I was heading out of town in the back of a cab at five in the morning. The sun hadn’t come up yet, and a glowing red sign on the Unisys building beside the road was the last thing I saw before I spiraled up and away in a plane bound for New Jersey. When I looked out the plane window, I saw the huge building South of Market where I worked dwindling away to nothing, and I felt a door close behind me.
Now, I’m sitting in an airport shuttle with eight other travelers, heading north past the lake again. I look around for the Unisys building, but I can’t find it. I imagine a lot of things will be different this time around.
Last time, it was the summer of 1996. Dot-com was a new-sounding term, and an undercurrent of excitement pervaded the city like a live wire. It seemed that any conversation you started, anywhere you happened to be, would eventually come round to technology. People really believed they could change the world — and their world was changing all around them, so there was no reason to doubt it.
The mood is different now, even in the airport shuttle. When I climbed in, an old man was talking about Nokia stock, which has plunged precipitously from its peak. A young woman in a black shirt turned around and chimed in, “Everything’s down.”
We’re driving straight toward the China Basin building, where I interned five years earlier in the heady startup days. For a moment, I feel like I am missing my stop. If I get off here, I think, I could take the elevator up and walk right into work. I notice the same old vacant lot on my left, and a new baseball stadium on the right. Then we turn left onto Third Street, and I see that my favorite lunch haunt has been replaced by a McDonald’s, although the trendy Primo Patio Cafe still holds the fort across the street.
I get off the shuttle at Market Street and walk as directed to my old employer’s new home. Inside the building, I wait for the security guard to stop me, an obvious impostor with my carry-on bag, but I go unchallenged past his desk to the elevators. My stomach twists. What the hell do I think I am doing? The elevator doors slide open, and I step out.
It looks different, of course. Much bigger, with many more employees and a vastly hipper vibe than the small, staid offices South of Market. I wander aimlessly, introducing myself awkwardly a few times, until I see someone I know. He returns my wave but doesn’t recognize me. Somewhere between eager intern and in-progress adult, I’ve changed a lot.
I talk myself out of leaving — but only just — and decide to re-introduce myself. Once identified, I am warmly greeted. Eventually, I’m glad I didn’t leave right away, though they’ve changed as much as I have. Still good, but different. Strange, unknown.
I get lost on my way to the MUNI stop. By the time I realize I’ve gone the wrong way, I’m five blocks east of Stockton Street and have to ask for directions. When I finally get on the bus, I’m relieved to collapse into a seat and stare out the window as Chinatown passes, and North Beach with its park that is a lot smaller than I remembered. I struggle to remember street names and sequences as we drive through the Marina. I pull out my map and decide to look like a tourist.
The hotel is right where the map and my fuzzy brain tell me it should be, on the corner of Lombard and Buchanan. I think it is the same hotel my mom stayed at when she flew out to San Francisco with me five years ago, but I can’t say for sure, even though that’s why I chose it. She wanted to help me get settled and make sure I wasn’t living in a rathole.
I wasn’t. I hike up Union Street toward Scott Street after checking in at the hotel. The buildings around here qualify as mansions, well kept and near a crowd of shops and restaurants. I walk up Scott Street, exhausted by the climb, and find the building after a moment of uncertainty. It’s nicer than I remembered, with marble steps and wrought metal covering a glass door.
When I try the knob, it’s locked. I peer through the grating and see it is just as I pictured it, but darkened, with no desk visible in the front room. In the back of the house, I can see the kitchen, where we would all eat breakfast and dinner together, Mondays through Fridays, included in the rent. The big marble staircase curves up to the right. It seems deserted. I am here at the wrong time, perhaps, and no one is passing through the lobby. Business hours may be over. I walk down the steps and back to Union Street. I had wanted to see my old room.
As I walk down Union, I see small changes. A for-rent sign here — unheard-of in the days of jam-packed apartment showings — a vacant shop there. When I reach my favorite dessert place, Bepples Pies, it isn’t there. A friendly waiter at next-door Perry’s tells me it closed about a year ago.
I can’t go back to the hotel without finding something I remember, so I walk down to Chestnut Street, where my friend Kyle and I met up for a movie and ice cream. Like a one-two punch, there they are — the movie theater and the Ben & Jerry’s — so I stop in for an ice cream and a limeade, and then I can go to sleep.
I feel less like a stranger today, more in balance, when I board the bus from my hotel to North Beach. When I get off at my stop, there’s an art show going on in the park, so I meander past some paintings on my way to Grant Street, where I expect to find a great breakfast and maybe even an early-morning gelato.
But Grant Street is depressing. Homeless men sit on steps, and vacant storefronts are plentiful. I step into a vintage clothing store to browse but am accosted by the Russian proprietress as I pull a shirt out of a tightly bunched rack. “Let me do that for you,” she says. I assure her I am being careful, but she pulls the hanger out of my hand as I try to replace the shirt. “Is too tight, you will never get it in,” she says. “Can I help you find something?” I tell her I’m just browsing. “Browsing here is quite impossible,” she says. I wish her a pleasant day and leave before I am kicked out.
Hoping for better luck on Columbus, I head west. Almost immediately, I find Caffe Greco, where I ate once before, and have the great breakfast I was looking for. For the first time, I feel like I am home.
Afterward, I visit City Lights bookstore and find that I like it even more than I used to. I buy “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — how could anyone *not* buy a book called “Love in the Time of Cholera”? — and wonder if I will run into any old acquaintances, but most of them are gone, too.
I walk back to Grant and pass Chinatown shops selling tourist junk and others selling unidentified objects. I stop in an art store and buy a wedding card for two friends. It’s cheap until the cashier gives me too much change. I hold out the four dollars she gave me and tell her to take one; she grabs three and refuses to return any. I give up and leave the store, laughing. She tells me I am very nice.
Down Grant beyond Market to the SFMoMA, a place I always intended to visit but never actually did. I spend a few good hours wandering around the museum, then buy an Ansel Adams print without thinking about how I will get it on the plane.
I walk toward Nob Hill, planning to catch the bus, but I feel great, so I keep walking all the way back to the hotel, stopping along the way for Swensen’s ice cream (Swiss Orange Chip) and Jamba Juice (strawberry tsunami with protein boost). Once I get there, my feet hurt and I’m tired, but I feel an urge not to waste time, to keep moving.
I decide to try my old apartment again. I go up the hill, and this time there’s a car parked in the driveway. No one answers the doorbell, though, and the front room is dark and quiet, although two newspapers lie on the table just inside the door.
I turn toward the Presidio and then down to the Marina. Two weddings are in progress at the Palace of Fine Arts — the only remnants of San Francisco’s World’s Fair — but other tourists are streaming past, so I join the flow of people and remember when I was new here. Then I’m hungry, so I grab dinner and head back to my hotel.
When my wake-up call comes, I’ve actually gotten enough sleep. I get dressed and walk toward the church that’s a block away from where I used to live. The streets are almost deserted. A few cars, flowers, a light breeze, and the occasional pedestrian walking past closed shops.
When I get to the church, I can’t seem to find the door, and when I do find one that looks promising, it’s locked. Maybe I am just here at the wrong time. I see a couple of black-clad clergymen, old as always, in the parking lot as I turn the corner and leave.
I’m passing Rose’s Cafe for the umpteenth time when I decide to stop. I order french toast with strawberries and cream, and silver needles tea, and watch the city wake up at an outdoor table. I realize this is an easy city to sink into. It would be very easy to stay.
I go back to the hotel. I call a cab and sit in the lobby, watching people check in and out. When the car arrives, I climb in and leave the city behind. I still don’t know if I really have.