May 112011

photograph by Jessica Pezalla

When he was young (in the last century), dg had a thing for that 1936 (definitely before dg was born) Clark Gable movie San Francisco (with Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald). DG actually used to want to be Clark Gable when he grew up. Unfortunately, things turned out otherwise. But he did go around for a number of years humming that song to himself even though he lived in Ontario and did not see San Francisco until, um, 1969. But enough about dg. Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Danielle Frandina who actually lives in San Francisco and perhaps never even saw that ancient movie (forever twined in dg’s mind with SF)—a pleasant and striking contrast to the economic doom-sayers and the plate geologists who all see the state sliding into the Pacific figuratively or actually pretty soon. After reading Danielle’s words, I think we should all join Jeanette MacDonald for a rousing chorus or two of “San Francisco!”



What it’s like living here

From Danielle Frandina in San Francisco


I grew up in Colorado, and if you’re from the West, but not the West Coast, you’re born with an innate suspicion and resentment of Californians.  Back in high school, my boyfriend wanted us to move there after graduation, but I refused, choosing the deserts of New Mexico instead.  During the mudslides and fires that plagued the Golden State in the mid-Nineties, I remember thinking some very insensitive thoughts about Californians, something along the lines of, “They’re getting what they deserve.”  In my mind, California was Los Angeles, and Los Angeles represented all that was despicable and embarrassingly indulgent about Americans.  But eight years ago, I loaded up a borrowed car with little more than my clothes, books and music and headed to the Bay Area for the sweet shelter of my two best friends, the debris of my former life smoldering in the rear view mirror.


The Apartment

photograph by Joe Frandina

I live in a lemon-yellow building on Dearborn Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District.  It was built in 1910.  This date matters.  It means it was constructed after the 1906 earthquake, so I can’t gauge how the structure will hold up when another one of that magnitude hits. The Bay windows of my studio apartment face street-side onto three palm trees that guard a locally famous community garden, the oldest in the city.  During a storm, the palms sway and shake so violently that it’s easy to imagine I’m witnessing a tropical storm.  This sight always sends me back to the beach town of Mui Ne in Vietnam, where, as a lone backpacker, I was once bedridden for three days.  In my fevered state, all I had the energy to do was watch the palm trees dance through the glassless windows of my bungalow as monsoon season really took root.  Strangely, this is a soothing memory.  I recall feeling no fear, no resistance, just letting the illness course through my body, being completely at ease with my surroundings and circumstances.  I rarely feel that way.  At ease.

My apartment is around the corner from what is now called the Gourmet Ghetto.  Slow Foods Movement and Farm to Table restaurants line 18th Street.  To explain to San Franciscans where I live, I just tell them my street is catty corner to Tartine, arguably the best artisan bakery in the city.  On any given day, at any given time, there is a line around the block to get in and order a Morning Bun or Croque Monsieur.  And it’s worth the wait.

Just a block away from my apartment is Valencia Street, a fifteen-block strip of hip dive bars, mid-century furniture shops, independent bookstores and edgy clothing boutiques.  This is where the rest of the city comes for nightlife.  But my little side street, almost an alley really, is relatively quiet.  Perhaps I’m just desensitized.  I don’t even hear the sirens and car alarms anymore.  As I write, a couple is arguing outside my window, and I’m not even compelled to eavesdrop.  Only on weekend nights, when barhoppers use my street as a shortcut back to their cars, does it get obnoxiously loud.  No sound is more grating than the shrill pitch of a drunken girl at three in the morning.  But on Sundays, when I sleep in, I wake to the sounds of the gardeners working across the street: chit chat about compost and plot politics, pruning sheers snipping back the rose bushes that spill over the chain link fence, spades digging into the rich, black soil. I used to have a garden in Santa Fe.  I loved it.  Whenever people ask me why I don’t have a plot in the Dearborn Community Garden, I tell them that there’s a four-year waiting list.  I was shocked the other day to realize that I’ve been living in this apartment for six years now.

photograph by Joe Frandina

  This is the only place I have ever lived alone, the only place that has ever been entirely mine.  When I first moved in, I used to get this goofy smile on my face every time I unlocked my door, the kind of smile you get when you conjure up an image of the person you’re crushing on.  I had a crush on my apartment.  I’ve been a high school teacher for twelve years now. When I come home, I rarely take for granted having a quiet space where I don’t have to entertain or take care of anyone but myself for a while.

The Keepers of the Street are Doug and Sharon, two single tenants in their sixties who have lived in the building since the 1970s.  Thanks to rent control laws in this city, they pay next to nothing for their units.  Although they were suspicious and aloof when I first moved in, now they look out for me and my apartment, watering my plants when I’m away, placing UPS parcels at my door, stopping to chat when we cross each other’s paths in the hood.  They are  also the building’s historians: they tell me about the last big quake, Loma Prieta in 1989, how the building held up gallantly despite being on top of a lagoon rather than the much more desirable bedrock, how they smoked weed and listened to the news updates on Doug’s transistor radio, then snuck out after the city-wide curfew to go check out the mayhem in the Marina.   I am grateful to have them as neighbors.  But I do not want to be Doug or Sharon someday.

When small earthquakes have hit, as they do here, I’m always leveled afterwards by a fleeting, yet sharp, awareness that this is how it will happen, without warning, suddenly and swiftly. I could be doing anything; I could be anywhere in this city, but more terrifying, I could be alone in this apartment, with no one else here obligated to find me, call my name, dig me out of the rubble.


The 22


I gave up owning a car when I moved out here from Santa Fe.  I almost never miss it. And while the public transportation in the Bay Area doesn’t quite match New York in scope and efficiency, it gets the job done.

Most days, I get to work on the 22 MUNI Bus Line.   This is a notorious bus line in San Francisco.  My friend Stephanie calls it the “Fuck You Twenty-Two.”  The route begins way out in Potrero Hill, a traditionally Latino neighborhood with incredible views of the Bay; a lot of artists and young families are now moving to Potrero because it contains some of this town’s most affordable housing.  From there, the line crawls north through the Yelamu Indian-then Mexican-then Irish-then Italian-then Latino-now Hipster Mission District.  After that, the bus cruises across the flat lands of the primarily African-American Fillmore and Western Addition (where I get off for work).  Next is the brief, two-block stretch of Japantown before the bus climbs to the very wealthy, immaculate Pacific Heights until it finally descends into the picturesque, quintessentially San Franciscan Marina, home of some of the most expensive real estate in the city, the neighborhood that sustained the most damage from Loma Prieta.  The Marina is a long way from the Mission, not just in distance, but in neighborhood identity.

On any given morning, when I get on at 16th and Guerrero, the jam-packed, airless, stinking death trap that awaits me contains the following cast:

 1. Teenagers heading to school.  Nothing terrifies adults more than a knot of anonymous teenagers.  They are, without a doubt, at the top of the 22 food chain, the lions of the bus.  They sit in the back, eating Flaming Hot Cheetos and Big Macs at 8:00 am, throwing the pickles and wrappers on the floor or out the window, daring you to say something with their bold stares.  Instead of bothering with headphones, they blast shitty music out of their cell phones, where it comes out distorted and scratchy, the lyrics inaudible.  They scrawl their tags across the seats and glass. They loom, leer, strut; they shout at each other; they shout at the bus driver; they shout out the window.  They have mouths that make you want to throw in the towel as far as the youth of America is concerned.  But none of the adults on the bus say a word.  We simply grit our teeth, turn up our ipods and cower, waiting for the ride to be over.

2. The Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Dominican and Mexican housekeepers, nannies, house painters, construction workers and day laborers.  They get on in Potrero carrying brightly-hued oilcloth bags full of cleaning products, lunchboxes heavy with homemade tamales, platanos, tortas, papusas.  They get off after me, at the big, beautiful Victorians in Pacific Heights.

3. The elders, sitting in the front of the bus reserved for the old and infirm.  African American grannies and grandpas decked out in Sunday best—brightly-hues hats, loose-fitting suits and canes; stern-looking, bundled-up Russian couples; Chinese ladies clutching grocery bags full of fresh fish. Once in a while,white tourists clutching their purses and cameras close to their chests, maps sticking out of their front pockets, eyes wide as they take in the freak show that is San Francisco public transportation.  The old people chat, in various languages, about their children and grandchildren, the way the Fillmore has changed, who died, the Giants, their ailments, the bus driver, the kids in the back, the young, healthy-looking girl who won’t vacate her seat for a senior citizen.

4. Representatives of San Francisco’s enormous homeless population, thanks to the mild climate and liberal policies on vagrancy here.  Often, you smell them before you see them.  Sometimes, you jump at an open seat and realize only too late that the seat next to you is occupied by a sleeping man who hasn’t seen a shower in weeks, who has vomited on himself, who reeks of booze and other fluids.  The old women hold scented handkerchiefs to their noses or just wear surgical masks.  The rest of us breathe through our mouths, occasionally surprised to find that the ratio of disgust and irritation to compassion and concern has shifted dramatically since we started riding this bus.  Sometimes, these travelers look heart achingly embarrassed at the telltale signs of their bad luck–the dirty clothes, roller suitcases, trash bags of aluminum cans.  Other times, they are completely oblivious to their surroundings, agitated and afflicted, engaged in furious arguments with the voices in their heads.

I’ve seen a lot of ugliness on this bus–early morning grouchiness turn toxic with racial slurs, piss running down the aisle, nervous breakdowns, fist fights.  Once, I was trapped in a window seat by a guy jerking off next to me.   It took me a while to recognize the rhythmic way he kept bumping my thigh before I realized his hand was down his pants.  Another time, I briskly pushed aside a young guy’s coat that was spilling onto the seat next to him so I could sit down.  When he brushed past me to leave, he told me he would “cut me” if I ever “touched his shit” again.

Rarely does anything pleasant happen on this bus. Sometimes, the fifteen-minute ride can blacken my mood for the morning. But I also never buy the scooter I keep talking about or start biking to work.  I must get something out of it.  Perhaps it’s a penance of some sort.  Maybe it’s a sense of community—taking my place in the the cross-section of this city’s population.  Nothing is a more dramatic reminder that I no longer live in wide-open spaces with a big sky above me than this bus ride.   I know when I leave this city, the 22 will manifest as a sense memory that sends me back to the time I spent here.


Dolores Park


photograph by Joe Frandina

Dolores Park serves as my backyard.  This sloping patch of green next to Mission Dolores was a refugee camp after the 1906 earthquake for all the people whose houses burned in the fires that ravaged the city after the quake.  Now, dogs run and sometimes fight unleashed, old Chinese men practice tai chi, Burning Man enthusiasts practice tightrope walking, marijuana and mushroom merchants sell their wares openly alongside ice cream and cold beverage vendors.  There’s a man who’s been selling gourmet ganja truffles in four flavors out of beautiful silver Indian bowls as long as I’ve been coming here.  At the highest point of the park, you can catch a stunning view of the downtown skyline, the Bay Bridge and the water.  On a sunny day, it seems like half the city comes here to celebrate.  Golden Gate Park, in all its Eucalyptic grandeur, is often cloaked in fog and downright frigid.  But if the sun is shining anywhere in the city, it’s shining on Dolores Park.

 On the southwestern slope of the park, known as the Gay Beach, mostly men (and women who don’t want to be ogled) bronze their gorgeous, sculpted bodies.  The entire northern hemisphere of the park is dominated by hipsters, twenty and thirty-somethings in the neighborhood uniform: skinny jeans, Ray-Bans, boots and scarves.  They drink PBR out of brown paper bags—the bags a formality more than a requirement—smoke Parliaments or American Spirits and talk about what happened the night before.  They are beautiful, educated and unemployed.  Among them, teenagers can slip in and party without being hassled by cops.  I learned this by running into students of mine a few years ago.  I felt like my sacred space at been invaded.  They felt same way, I’m sure.

During my first five years in San Francisco,spontaneous gatherings at DP materialized any time we had a seventy-five degree day.  In San Francisco, this can happen as easily in January as it can in June.  Most of my friends lived within a ten-block radius back then.  Thirty minutes after a text message was sent, eight of us were sitting on a blanket drinking a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and spreading a triple cream cheese onto baguettes.  This rarely happens now.  Most of them got married, had babies and moved to the outskirts of the city or even the East Bay to live in homes they could afford to own.



Crossing The Bridge


photograph by John Curley

Whenever I get out of the city to explore the rest of Northern California, whether to hike Tennessee Valley, camp in Yosemite, snowboard in Tahoe or go tide pooling in Point Reyes, I still get giddy, just like I did when I first moved here.  The Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to this northern bounty, bespeaks the beauty that unfolds on the other side.   When I’m crossing that bridge, sailboats underneath me, the Marin Headlands beckoning,  I always think, milk and honey.  The Israelites got it wrong. It’s not in Canaan.  It’s right here. Or when I’m lucky enough to be cruising down Highway One, taking in those cliffs, the glittering waters below, the very curvature of the earth along the Pacific Ocean horizon, the ice plant blazing fuchsia blooms, the Redwoods, the golden rolling hills straight out of Steinbeck novels, the Central Valley vineyards drooping with ripened grapes, I know this is what it means to say “California.”  It’s too much of good thing.  And no one is sure we deserve it, and maybe we don’t.  Maybe we have it coming.  It can’t last forever.  Perhaps I’ll leave before the Big One hits, before this state drops into the sea, but I feel lucky to have had my time in the Promised Land.

photograph by Jessica Pezalla

—Danielle Frandina

  25 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Danielle Frandina in San Francisco”

  1. I was enchanted by this piece, Danielle. It really gave me a feel for a city I’ve never been to, but always knew was my kind of place. I love the way the San Francisco of which you write is so thoroughly lived in. Just great.

  2. Beautiful — and great photos. And that’s exactly how I felt about LA before I lived here. (I was going to live in the deserts of New Mexico, too, before I got sidetracked.) And so true, sadly, about how adults feel about groups of teens.

  3. I love this so much Danielle–your words invoke the falling-in-love-sensation I get whenever I walk through that city. The prospect of The Big One hitting has haunted me too– a sort of powerful dark undercurrent under all that beauty. Not so unlike love, is it? the vulnerability paired with the ecstasy.

  4. Thank you, Danielle. The tour is not complete without the ride on the 22, well rendered here.

  5. very enjoyable and poetic tour of the west coast’s crowning gem –

  6. In many ways San Francisco is home to my heart. i will read this again and again and again. touring with you this city that i love so.

  7. This essay evoked an emotional response in me, which is how I measure great art. Excellent. And beautiful photography that matches the tone of the essay so well.

  8. I’ve only been to SF once. Reading this, I cannot wait to return.

  9. Lovely, startling, vivid, real and full of sentiment–even for those at a distance.

  10. Stirring Danielle. As a native Californian (Northern), I appreciated you capturing the exquisite natural word and open, tolerance of SF (piss and all) that draws every soul in, somehow and envelopes. You illuminated the essence perfectly, along with the messy imperfection. Thank you for that.

  11. Danielle, I really admire the sheer breadth of your essay. Very well done. You’ve reignited fantasies I have about moving to the Bay.

  12. Just lovely. And complex. And thorough. Reading it was a roller-coaster: I DO want to live in California! I DON’T. I DO! I don’t. A tell-tale sign of a true rendering of place. Thank you.

  13. Great stuff, my friend. Look forward to my next visit…I’ll try to dress more appropriately. 🙂

  14. What a beautiful story…I am instantly there in such an authentic and special way. Truly captivating.

  15. This is a vivid description of San Francisco as well as daily life. You’ve managed to bring the mundane into sublime relief! I LOVE IT!

  16. This is an amazing story Danielle! Having experienced some of the things you so accurately described, (aside from those pleasant times on f.u.22) I found myself lost in my own memories and wanting to create more. I’m on my way out!

  17. Compelling read. I want more of this.

  18. Great job Danielle. you look just like your mom with a touch of your dad. the original ms

  19. I live a mere blocks from you, D. but I never knew about those ganja truffles in four flavors in D.P.! Gotta check those out! Thank you for the hot tip and helping me see the rich tapestry of this city through your eyes. It’s interesting how you help me feel like it’s my OWN eyes I’m looking through. I love the swaying palms, your lemon yellow building, the panoply of characters on the FU 22. But mostly I love how you convey ambivalence towards a city where you smell the piss mixed with the milk and honey.

  20. Hi Danielle, Great poignant only in San Francisco story! It makes me want to move back into San Francisco again and recapture the spirit of riding on the Muni bus in the Mission District. I am captivated with this idea about San Francisco neighborhood stories: the Mission, the Excelsior, the Outer Sunset, the Western Addition, the Tenderloin, the Cow Palace, Lake Merced and other uncool areas. You have really captured the spirit of the place. I have your story that I wrote up the Story workshop. Please email me and I will send it to you…. Hope you are well… You missed the final stories which were very moving. Hope to talk to you soon.


  21. Hi Danielle, Great poignant only in San Francisco story! It makes me want to move back into San Francisco again and recapture the spirit of riding on the Muni bus in the Mission District. I am captivated with this idea about San Francisco neighborhood stories: the Mission, the Excelsior, the Outer Sunset, the Western Addition, the Tenderloin, the Cow Palace, Lake Merced and other uncool areas. You have really captured the spirit of the place. I have your story that I wrote up the Story workshop. Please email me and I will send it to you…. Hope you are well… You missed the final stories which were very moving. Hope to talk to you soon.


  22. Hi Daniellle, .
    You are a great writer. I’ve lived in the Bronx all my life, except for a short visit to San Antonio, Texas for basic training in the Air Force.. Reading your wonderful essay, though, is like watching a movie of your neighborhood. Few people can write that well. It fills me with pride to know one them is my cousin.

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