A few weeks into my adventure out west, trying to build a playlist of upbeat songs to listen to while at work, I decided to search Spotify for songs about San Francisco. One of the first hits, unsurprisingly, was a song by a band I’d never heard of before named the Mowglis called “San Francisco.” Loving the band name’s inherent reference to the Jungle Book character, I clicked ‘play.’ I loved it so much that I clicked ‘play’ again and continued to do so until I’d committed it to memory.
It ended up being the song of my summer: the one I’d hum semi-consciously on the weekday walks to work, bound for the third floor of 525 Market; the song that swirled in my head while waiting in line at Blue Bottle Coffee or ambling on the Embarcadero on a quest to sample stone fruits at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. It was the song that saw me through the early morning mist and drowned out the sound of the creaking bunkbed on which I slept all summer, the harmonious voices singing the opening lines: “I’ve been in love with love and the idea of something binding us together, you know that love is strong enough...”
I grew up in the academic and professional pressure cooker of the tri-state area, where the old generation’s idea of "living the dream" is making it in Manhattan, retiring in places like Westchester, Greenwich, or Alpine, and summering in the Hamptons. But that was never my dream, and twenty-two years of my life spent within 90 minutes’ commute of Manhattan and two experiences living there left me believing there was something more in store for me beyond the New York City skyline and suburbs.
After college, I had the gift of getting to move to Boston for work. Though not so far away from my roots, the five-hour driving distance between me and New Jersey gave me space to grow up, and between a new job and, later on, a new degree program, I found favorite places and loving friends that transformed Boston from the place where I lived into a place that I loved. But ever since a 4th-grade project for which we were assigned to research a state in the U.S. and write a report on it, I’d dreamt of what it would be like to live out in California.
I’d been to California three times before beginning my internship: the first time to see a friend at Stanford, another time to do startup research and visit business schools, and the last time to get away from the East Coast winter while flirting with internship recruiting. None of these trips left me with California love, save for the first--and that was mostly the result of being infatuated with the person I was visiting at the time.
Last year at school, I was surrounded by people who talked about the Bay in the spirit of worship--and not just as a refuge from the winter’s cold It was the land of endless hills and eternal sunshine. The place of bountiful burritos and competing coffeehouses. It was the land of opportunity. Despite my lukewarm experiences in the past, after the snowiest winter on record in Boston, I nurtured visions of grandeur of San Francisco.
For many in the business of business—and especially the business of technology, San Francisco is considered Mecca, the pilgrimage of a lifetime for professional purposes. The rate at which newly-minted MBAs head out to the Bay Area, you’d think there was another gold rush in California. Much like 1848, 2015 brings forth a whole new generation of people prospecting opportunities on the Golden Coast (with the same problems of land and locals being displaced in the name of money and progress.)
If Frank Sinatra were alive today, he’d have to rename his song “New York, New York,” as “Frisco, Frisco.” Swapping in one city of the other, the lyrics would ring true all the same for many a yuppie: “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today/I want to be a part of it Frisco, Frisco…/If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,/It’s up to you, Frisco, Frisco.”
I met with a few of my old professors who know me well during my college reunions in May, and at least one of them joked, “You probably won’t come back [to the east coast].” So when I touched down on June 5 to start my summer in San Francisco, I was hoping something would suddenly shift in me and make me feel like that was the place where I belonged.
I was aggressive in my efforts to get to know the area. Over the course of the summer, I trekked from Noe Valley to Nob Hill and from the Mission to the Marina, exploring nearly the entire city by foot. I biked the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. I ventured by BART and by Caltrain to Berkeley and Palo Alto. I drank up in Napa, drove down to Big Sur and Monterey, swam in Lake Tahoe, and hiked Mt. Tam in Marin. Aside from exploring Death Valley, Twin Peaks, Muir Woods, and Yosemite I did everything I could have wanted to do on the weekends in the Bay.
Maybe, working in retail while many of my friends were in tech, I didn’t have enough money to feel comfortable. Maybe my living arrangement felt so unrealistic that I couldn’t get a sense of what it would be like to actually live in San Francisco. Maybe the knowledge that it was only 12 weeks and wouldn’t be forever meant I wasn’t incentivized to really settle in.
I wanted to see the city clearly and feel the excitement that so many close friends and family harbored for it. I desperately wanted to love San Francisco and to be loved back.
I was in love with the idea of loving San Francisco. But it didn’t work. I found myself lost in the fog.
Much unlike Boston, I never felt safe to walk around after dark where I lived: as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, I whipped out my Uber app, convinced that paying for a cab was worth the cost of not being cursed off, followed, or affronted yet again by a mentally ill person on the street. The late August sunshine wasn’t enough to cast a light on the darkness of it all.
I felt as unsafe as I did broken-hearted: the homelessness made me so upset that I made a point of writing a plan for a business to help eradicate it. All the while, the hoodie-clad computer ingenues on scooters reminded me that the money in this town wasn’t going toward solving its most immediate problems—just toward buying the best coding talent and funding yet another on-demand delivery service or cloud-based platform. The East Coast has its own version of superficiality, largely concentrated around Ivy League reputations and financial wealth. The West Coast has its own breed of pretension in tech entitlement.
As a peer of mine put so well that I had to add it into this post: "Software coders, newly minted deca-millionaires, and tech visionaries have failed to design and run the institutions needed for anyone, but particularly a lone female, to walk around after dark."
San Francisco is my Venus de Milo, I tell my friends. She sets the standard of beauty in the Western world as San Francisco does for opportunity and joie de vivre on the West Coast. You look at her and you can’t stop. But then you draw nearer to her, linger awhile, and the cracks begin to show. And the next time you see her, she’s still beautiful, but you can’t see her the same way. You realize that no matter how much you love her, you can’t help but remember that she's full of cracks and she’s not who you wanted her to be or thought she’d be. And that she doesn’t have arms to hold you, comfort you, and love you back.
None of this is to say I won’t return to San Francisco. I had a great experience on the job and made some excellent friends. The city has some of the baseline things I require for the next place I occupy after Boston, and I’d be crazy to forego the tremendous work opportunities out there, if offered to me. But it’s not the only place I can build a career and is far away from being the only place I could be happy. My post-MBA happiness depends on three things: getting paid to learn on the job, being near the water, and being within a few hours’ distance of people I love. And I’m grateful there’s more than one place that fits that bill.