Posted: November 3, 2021
After every visit, I tell myself that I am done with San Francisco, that I don’t care about coming back. But an invisible force field keeps pulling me back to the city, as if wanting to prove me wrong. This year, I finally responded.
As a child, I took two trips with my parents to the City by the Bay. I can only pick up scattered pieces of my 8 and 12-year-old memories. We took photos at common places on the tourist hitlist: Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Twin Peaks. We rode a tourist boat around the bay. We bought low-quality San Francisco-branded windbreakers that didn’t make a damn difference when we were fighting against the winds. We struggled to find car parking.
To the young, naïve Meggie, all urban areas were stressful and had rude people, especially after trying to stumble their way through the city with their small-town touristic family.
The moment that turned me off from SF was when my family hunted for a toilet, only to get refused by shop owners (even though we had bought their stuff). Our search ended at a Safeway grocery store, which had a long line of people waiting for one unisex, pee-ridden toilet.
I hadn’t set foot in the city ever since. But it was only a matter of time. Nine years had passed, and many signs were telling me to come back as a 21-year-old.
My aunt, who lives in nearby San Jose, asked me to help clean her house and sell items. In return, I could stay with her.
My older cousins, who have lived all over the Bay Area, offered their insider knowledge about SF, including restaurant recommendations, local hideaways, practical navigational information, fun facts about life here, and even an apartment stay in the residential Richmond District.
So, how could I say no — especially to free accommodation in the most expensive area to live in the US?
This wouldn’t be any ol’ city tour, though. I wanted San Francisco to be my experiment.
At first, I simply wanted to practice the solo travel life in baby steps. Not only was this city of nearly 900,000 people in my own country, but I was already slightly familiar with this urban metropolis.
But I soon realized that was just a teensy part of the experiment. I wanted to see if visiting the city as a lone adult would snap me out of my old ideas about San Francisco. I was only a clueless child who had followed my touristic parents and smiled for the camera. The Golden Gate City had always been a stressful, boring city to visit, according to my small-town mentality. Now I was an adult traveling solo with insights, knowledge, and a greater passion to learn about a place and its people. Could I look at this city through a different lens?
My first change of mind: San Francisco was much smaller than I had originally thought. For a major American metropolis, the city is a small swath of a peninsula of only almost 50 square miles. It takes about a 25-30-minute drive to get from one side of the city to the other. Every time I wanted to get to the next destination on my list, I was surprised as to how close it already was!
Beforehand, I had only seen my stressed parents driving through traffic, finding a parking spot, worrying about getting towed, and paying a hefty fee. But now, I felt light and loose using the vast network of frequent and fast MUNI buses for only $5 a day. All over the town, I rode with locals who were simply trying to get their errands done. Meanwhile, I was focused on catching the city sights whizzing outside the window and people-watching on the bus.
The MUNI wasn’t only a bus system that took me around town. If I opened my mind to it, the MUNI rewarded me with an access pass to places, people, and perspectives tourists might have missed.
It helped me in my experiment when I wanted to return to a touristy spot I once visited as a kid, Twin Peaks. I was surprised at how Twin Peaks and its MUNI rides helped me pivot a mindset shift from childhood to adult Meggie.
I hopped on a bus from the queer Castro District to Twin Peaks. It winded around twisty neighborhood roads along the side of the Twin Peaks. When the bus driver stopped in one of these streets and announced it was for Twin Peaks, I was confused. I thought it would take us to the visitor parking lot, not drop us off on a residential street!
But a loud group of preteen skateboarding boys politely shouted “THANK YOU” to the driver and got off at this stop. They knew way more than I did, and wanted to trust them. So this random person silently followed the young, foulmouthed boys who said “fuck” every three sentences off the bus, down the street, and up a staircase etched into the mountainside. One of them sprayed white curvy letters that spelled “PURE” on a hiking sign, the latest coat on top of a colorful blend of older paint from other graffiti-bearing skaters.
The stairs ended at an unassuming white-walled barrier along the road. We had to twist our bodies over to the other side. Cars took every spot in the little parking lot between the two peaks. I imagined my parents a decade ago trying to find one, then hopping out of their car to take pictures of the vista points with other families for five minutes, then driving down the mountain in a rush.
I no longer felt like that oblivious child who assumed that we had to drive to a touristy spot. I looked down the hidden staircase that the skater boys and local runners took every day, some of them taking a MUNI to get there. Now, that was the way to reach Twin Peaks!
Because I didn’t have a car to encourage me to get off the mountain quickly like my fellow tourists, I vowed to stay around longer. Instead of hanging around for ten minutes, I was here for two hours. Without any reason to be in a hurry, I claimed a spot on one of the peaks, scouted around the city using binoculars, took in all the activity, and munched on snacks. Menacing birds of prey hovered still in the air over a ravine, catching the air currents. A white drone appeared out of nowhere. Families asked me to take their photos.
And of course, the skater boys did their thing. After doing epic jump tricks nearby the parking lot, they zig-zagged down the curvy mountain road, the rolling wheels against the pavement piercing through the wind. I cheered them on. Unlike me, they didn’t need a bus back down!
Oh, the wind though! It gave me several different hairstyles, including a mohawk. The agonizing whoosh kept penetrating my thoughts. I gritted my teeth as I tried to stay balanced on top of the peak and hold onto my lightweight camera. I think the forceful rush in the air wanted to push me off the mountain, as if to tell me, “Get out of here!” It might have been mad at me for peeing next to a small bush on one of the peaks. (Hey, I gotta do it somewhere.)
Eventually, I listened to the wind’s command. One more glance of the water from the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay wrapping around SF on three sides, then I hiked back down to the residential street. I looked at the gratified hiking sign, wishing I had a canister to spray “THANK YOU” to the skater boys who let me follow them.
I approached a bus stop with an idle bus and a driver who just took a bathroom break. I could tell by their quiet voice that they were tired, deadbeat, and most of all, lonely.
“Long day, huh? You deserve the break,” I said.
“I only have a five-minute break for the bathroom,” they said. “No lunch break for me, I’m surviving on snack food, grapes and nuts. Started at seven this morning, another 10-hour shift for me.”
I let them do all the talking on the way down to my next stop. Their voice grew more and more happy and energetic. They went on and on about helping their friend with a construction project, loving to drive, navigating a huge bus around tight corners, doing this job for 11 years, missing the businesses on their bus route closed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, I kept asking them questions and praising them for their hard work. They enjoyed having me as a passenger, someone who actually cared about their life in SF. It made me wonder how many passengers were actually willing to strike up a random conversation with a driver. We were both sad to split when the bus arrived at my stop. We made sure to get each other’s names.
Cecelia, the driver told me, “I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna see my bed tonight. We need more people like you, and I’m saying that after meeting lots of people in my life. Stay safe out there and God bless you.”
“You’d better have a good night’s rest tonight! Do it for me!” I said as I hopped off nearby the Mission District.
So it looked like not all urban folks kept to themselves. I was thrilled to share a chat with a San Franciscan who spent their days driving through this densely packed city, wanting to help their fellow people get around town, including me. Cecilia was the first stranger in this city who opened up to me, made me feel welcome to tour San Francisco. Cecilia confirmed it for me that my SF return was worth it, that it would teach me a thing or two.
I was still thinking about the skater boys and Cecilia as I looked at my phone map directions for the Mission District. Then, I saw that my phone battery was at 30%. How come it wasn’t charging to the power bank? Oh, oops. Even that ran out of power. I abandoned my plans to wander the Mission and thought about the necessities on my phone that would die on me soon: my bus ticket, a call to my cousin, navigational directions back to her apartment.
After the Twin Peaks trip, there ought to be a nice San Franciscan on this street! One of them could let me borrow their power bank or charging cord. I had a platter of businesses to choose from. I decided on a store that handled mail packages because a sign in the windowfront advertised phone repairs. Unfortunately, the clerk didn’t have anything that could help me. What kind of phone repair place doesn’t have a USB wall adapter or power bank?!
Feeling dejected, I headed to the store entrance. Then, my eyes rested on something that was as valuable as a chest of gold doubloons. An iPhone wire sticking out of a black briefcase. It belonged to a skinny, bald guy with round glasses and a tidy white shirt. He was packing and unpacking loads of boxes and mail slips. This customer was going to be here for a long time.
“Hi sir. My phone is almost dead, but I need to call my family. Do you have a power bank for charging?”
“Sure.” He pulled out the wire which was attached to a heavy, black power bank. “I’ll be here for another ten minutes.”
Thank goodness he was there for much longer than that. I hoped that his packing duties would never end, as if he was pulling infinite packages out of a magical hole. One more package, one more percent for my phone.
While my battery was slowly inching its way up, I patiently sat cross-legged against a wall of metal mailboxes and watched people come in and out, package in hand. Some of them may have thought that I was the guy’s teenage daughter since we had similar facial features.
When he stood straight, cleaned the table, and zip-closed his briefcase, I knew my phone wouldn’t getting any more battery. As I handed back his power bank, he asked how much charge my phone had. When I told him 55%, he said, “That’s good! I’m glad you got more.”
At that moment, my cousin (finally) called me back. I told her my plans to head back to her place. As I left the package business, I thought of the 8 and 12-year-old me making my way through SF without much regard for the people. I was still too young at the time to think of travel outside the tourist life and make an effort to know the people. It took three SF trips, but I finally gained a fair, balanced outlook on this city.
San Francisco wasn’t a stressful sightseeing city for the family photo book, after all. Twin Peaks showed me that even a touristy place has its hidden areas and local communities, too. I was inspired to seek them out with other childhood tourist spots, even at the Golden Gate Bridge, of all places. And of course, the city’s small size and MUNI bus system debunked my ideas about SF being a tough place to navigate around.
Sure, San Francisco has its rough areas. During my 21-year-old visit, I saw a homeless tent city next to the prestigious Asian Art Museum, which sprouted during the financially straining COVID-19 pandemic, according to my cousin who worked at the museum. Not all bus drivers were as friendly as Cecelia — one of them complained constantly about bad drivers. Two car drivers fought each other, a middle finger flick here, a shout there.
But no city is a utopia. And every city has plenty of friendly folks, including San Francisco. I look toward them with gratitude. Each of them helped me one way or another.
Not only did the skaters lead me to Twin Peaks, they kickstarted my habit of saying “thank you” to the MUNI drivers.
One of those drivers, Cecelia, showed me that the world always needs more empathy.
And the man at the package place taught me that strangers are willing to help you, especially if you ask for it.
Meeting some of the locals even made me realize that I needed to change my gender pronouns to include the gender-neutral “they.”
I felt grateful that the San Franciscans weren’t only willing to share a compliment and a chat, but also some phone battery with a needy traveler!
Though vigilant as ever, this small-city person has become more trusting and open-minded to big city folks.
The San Francisco experiment was a success. It’s time for a harder one, which will start in two weeks. The Jersey City/New York City metro is unfamiliar to me and much larger than here. But San Francisco has me ready.
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