Tag Archives: The New Yorker

San Francisco Is Beautiful

16 Aug

(And other Week 1 observations from an East Coast transplant)

Dolores Park

Last Thursday morning I hopped on a Virgin America flight and moved from Boston to San Francisco, with two suitcases of clothes, my laptop, a frisbee, the July 23 issue of The New Yorker, a Timbuk2 shoulder bag that my sister gave me, and a neon green bike helmet. 

Have you ever flown Virgin America?  It’s bliss; it’s the closest a not-rich American like me can come to feeling like they’re doing all right in life.  You walk on the plane and it’s like you’re at a spa run by Thievery Corporation.  The overhead lights are purple.  Some real chill electronic music is playing in the background, and a cool breeze is flowing from above (or below—perhaps both).  The leather seats (in coach!) are comfortable, the leg room is spacious, the red pocket (which includes an inner mesh bag) is perfect for holding a magazine and a Moleskine and a water bottle, the latch on the tray table works perfectly, even the little red puke bag is cute.  By the time they play that wonderful animated safety video (“In the .0001% chance that you don’t know how to put on a seatbelt…”), everyone on the plane looks like they just got a massage.

The purple lights dim, and it’s time to sleep—or use the sauna— your choice.  I sleep, and when I wake up I read Junot Díaz’ piece The Cheater’s Guide To Love, which makes me feel slightly nervous about being single while all my friends are getting engaged and married, but his line, “When winter rolls in, a part of you fears that you’ll fold—Boston winters are on some terrorism shit—but you need the activity more than anything, so you keep at it…,” reaffirms my decision to move to California.  Junot Díaz is raw, brutal, and real; his prose oscillates between the casual and the prolific so naturally, so easily, that the conversation you just had at the bar with your boy, the conversation on the street between two nobodys, instantly becomes poetry. 

Then the pilot gets on the mic and says, “We’re about 30 minutes early as we make our descent into the San Francisco area.  That’s how we roll here at Virgin America.”  Indeed.  And I’m in California. 

People here are so nice, everyone is happy in San Francisco.

The first thing I notice about SF is that everyone here is so nice, so happy to be here, so happy to be alive.  Now, to be fair, I’m coming from spending the most of the previous 29 years of my life living on the East Coast, so a happiness comparison may be unfair. 

First, the Virgin America flight attendant strikes up a conversation with me as we’re making our descent, welcomes me to the Bay, and says “you’ve finally seen the light my friend, you’re gonna love it here!”  Then, when I’m getting my bags at baggage claim, a very attractive young woman strikes up a conversation with me, welcomes me to paradise, and offers to watch my bags while I check to see if my friend Zeb is there to pick me up.  When Zeb arrives he gives me a huge hug, and I throw my arms up in the air, kiss the sky, and scream “I LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO!” and another group of three (attractive) women give a rousing applause and respond, “Welcome, welcome to San Francisco!”  What is this, a fairy tale?  Have I died and gone to heaven?  (Yes.)

Usually, when I land at Logan Airport in Boston, I am greeted by a bitter bus driver yelling, “Get the fuck on the bus kid!  Next staaaap, South Station!  I didn’t have my ahhhh Dunkin ahhhh Donuts coffee this morning, and the Red Sox have lost three in a row, go fuck yaself!”  No such harshness in SF, only love. 

I never know what to wear.

Fog on the San Francisco Bay Trail

Weird does not even begin describe the weather in San Francisco.  Microclimates = what the fuck.  When I got off the plane at SFO wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I wished I had worn my cut-off shorts because it was 75 degrees and sunny, absolutely perfect weather.  Then, Zeb drove me up to Twin Peaks to check out the view of the city and the wind was brutal and I was like dammit, where’s my flannel shirt?  An hour later, we were sitting in the sun on a bench in Golden Gate Park and I was hot again and had to roll up my jeans. 

When we got back to my house in NoPA, the fog started to roll in and it felt like a storm was coming and I had to bust out my hoodie and slippers, my body was freezing.  Then, the next morning I had coffee sitting in the warm California sun, and it was once again, 75 degrees and sunny with a breeze.  But, sure enough, later that afternoon, the fog rolled in and I put on my fleece again.  So, yes, as the San Franciscans say:  always bring a jacket with you, always. 

San Francisco is beautiful.

Alamo Square Park

If anything, the constantly changing weather only increases the natural beauty of this city.  To watch the morning fog fade away to bright blue sky, on my morning run in the wild jungle that is Golden Gate Park, is a joy.  There is beauty everywhere you look (everywhere you look): the painted Victorians, the palm trees, the eucalyptus trees, laying out in the hot Mission sun starting at the city from Dolores Park, the fog obscuring all but the bottom third of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, the bikers zooming through the Panhandle, smiles on the faces of couples spending Sunday morning at Thorough Bread & Pastry, the avocado in my garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua (a gringo burrito, not a real burrito, I was told, but call me a gringo, it was delicious), the piece of mint perched on top of my cup of Philz coffee (no coffee has ever given me such a rush—I nearly ran down 24th St. like a mad man after three sips), the green compost bins in front of every house on trash day, beauty is everywhere in San Francisco. 

Nobody asks “what do you do?” 

Having spent the last three years living in Washington, DC, I grew accustomed to answering the requisite, “So what do you do?”  If you ever happen to find yourself anywhere in the Dupont Circle vicinity, it may take someone less than (not joking) five seconds to ask what you do.  In fact, I once met a woman in DC who asked me for my business card before she even shook my hand, before she even got my name, as if actually even meeting me was dependent on what my job title was. 

Not so in SF.  People just say hi to you and what’s up, and through the course of talking about what neighborhood you live in or where you used to live or what you’re interested in (walking around, climbing, biking, blogging, eating good food, gardening, coding, Beck, apps) you maybe get into “what do you do,” but that’s like 15-20 minutes into the conversation.  What someone does for money does not define them or their reason for being.  People out here would much rather talk about what they care about, and so would I. 

I have no idea what to call my neighborhood.

I live two blocks North of the Panhandle, in what, according to Google, is now called “NoPA.”  However, when I told a San Franciscan that I lived in NoPA, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s just what bourgeois people call it since there is a delicious restaurant called NOPA and the gentrifiers don’t like saying Western Addition.”  But then when I told another local that I lived in Western Addition, they were like, “Dude, you don’t live in Western Addition, you live in NoPA.”  Another friend just told me to play it safe and say, “By the Panhandle.” 

Call it what you will, it’s amazing, I love its mellow mood, the painted houses, my wonderful roommates, the smell of eucalyptus, and that I can basically step outside and be inside Golden Gate Park.

San Franciscans take their bikes and their bike signs seriously.  (Helmets, not so much).

I knew people in SF were into bikes, but I’m not sure I realized just how obsessed they were.  Everyone has a bike.  Everyone.   And not only that, everyone knows the bike routes, and the bike signals.  Riding on The Wiggle, a bike lane marked with bright green paint, which zig-zags for a mile from near my house in NoPA to Market St., following a posse of seven random bikers, all experts who used the correct bike signals and wiggled in unison, felt so progressive, so badass, so post-climate change, that I couldn’t help but wonder if I had suddenly been teleported to The Netherlands. 

I also noticed that while my biking companions each were riding $1000+ bikes and sporting $100+ Chrome shoulder bags, only two of them were wearing bike helmets.  The East Coaster in me nearly commented:  “Excuse me, hipster biker dude.  Your bike is a lot nicer than mine and you are intense with your biker bag, and you kind of scare me when you ride so fast.  But you might want to spend $30 on a bike helmet so you don’t embarrass yourself.”

But I didn’t, best to keep things West Coast when on The Wiggle. 

Garlic shrimp burrito at Little Chihuahua

Free Minds: Empowering Young Writers in Prison

25 Mar

Recently, I volunteered with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization that introduces teenage boys at the DC Jail and in federal prison to the life-changing power of books and creative writing.  Free Minds inspires these young people to see their potential by organizing book clubs at the DC Jail where 16 and 17 year-olds discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing, pairing youth with a volunteer writing mentor from the community.  Free Minds mentors these 16 and 17 year-olds (who have been tried and incarcerated as adults) throughout their incarceration and beyond release, providing reentry support, life skills workshops, and education referrals for life after prison.

At the Free Minds “Write Night” we provided comments and positive feedback on poems that these youth had written.  Free Minds then takes the volunteers’ comments and gives them to the authors behind bars– the positive feedback is meant to help the authors find their voices as writers and to continue writing.  We all know it’s gratifying to have someone commend your writing (or like your Facebook status), but can you imagine the transformative power in having someone comment on your words when you are in prison?  Knowing that someone out there is actually listening, that someone is listening to you, must be truly validating and empowering.

One talented young poet had written this line in his poem, which particularly grabbed me:  “In what adult mind frame is it justified to send juveniles to an adult prison? That’s what I’m trying to see.”  We should all ask ourselves the same question.  Lawyer and equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, in an inspiring TED talk about injustice in America, notes that the United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13 year-olds to die in prison, and have life imprisonment without parole for kids.  How can we even begin to talk about justice when over 2200 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole?

Many of the poems I read at Write Night featured poignant reflections on the history of racial injustice in America, and the devastating impact of prison on the black community.  In a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in AmericaAdam Gopnik notes that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. “Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.”

As their readers on the outside, we need to not only listen to the voices of incarcerated youth, but take action so that young people are not tried and incarcerated as adults.   Our for-profit prison system, supported by racially biased stop-and-frisk policing and sentencing disparities, locks up too many young people of color (often for minor offenses like marijuana possession), inhibiting their ability to get a job or education or vote or receive social services upon release, thus perpetuating a system of racial control that Alexander likens to slavery.  I’ll close with one of the poems published in the Free Minds anthology; to read inspiring poems by incarcerated youth, post comments that will be given to the authors in jail, or learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the Free Minds blog.

Confined as a Youth

by Antwon

When you think about childhood

You ‘posed to be able to smile

But never in my life was I taught how

I was always around anger that led to pain

I was always confined

At least that’s how it felt to my brain

The streets not only took me,  but they took my mother too

Confined as a youth, so tell me what I ‘posed to do?

Some people say they love the streets because the game is all they know

I will never label myself until I give myself time to grow

And sometimes I wonder why do it always have to be me?

Then I hear my great grandma’s voice saying

“You wasn’t the only one that wasn’t free”

It’s crazy how people put lies in our heads

Trying to get to believe this is who we are

When, for real, every living thing was meant to be a star

I hope one day we will see there’s no limit to what we all can do

But until that day comes, I’m here on earth, “confined as a youth”

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