I was dog-sitting in San Francisco for most of last week, and for a while, I pretended that I actually lived there. The apartment was on Van Ness, which runs all the way through the city. After a party one night, I took the bus and got off a few stops after my friends. I spent a while wandering alone in the part that changes from being thick with pedestrians to being clogged with traffic. The fog made the air thick and soggy, and moisture clung to my hair. The entire city was open to me.
Walking alone on the edge of downtown without a plan or direction felt like an act of defiance. There was no one to worry about me or wonder where I was. There were no parents texting about my whereabouts, there was no curfew, just me and the sleepless city.
A lot of people would see this as liberating. But the more I walked, the more I realized how alone I was. Despite all the activity and the traffic, I was the only moving person. All the other human beings were asleep under blankets in doorways. If this was a moment of total freedom, it didn’t feel that way. Loneliness is a burden, and all of us on the street were alone together.
I’ve decided that whatever San Francisco’s type of freedom is, it doesn’t feel like mine. This city has always left me cold. Its size just ends up being isolating. Even when it’s one in the morning and I’m 19 years old and I’ve got 20 dollars in my wallet, I don’t feel free.
Maybe it’s because I know another taste of freedom that has nothing to do with the big city. The summer after my freshman year of high school, my family rented a house for a month in Walla Walla, Washington. It was just my parents, my dog, and me for four whole weeks. Walla Walla is a small town in wine country that played perfect host to all of my nostalgic feelings about America and small-town life and the sort of childhood my dad had in Kansas. I had spent so much time pining for a life that resembled The Sandlot or Stand By Me, so a vacation in which I spent all my time biking the back roads to the tennis courts, lying in the park with my dog, and going to the ice cream parlor on Main Street seemed like magic. I was far away from my social life, and I didn’t really make any new friends, either. It was a good kind of isolation: I had the space to do all of my thinking. I spent 90 percent of my time by myself and in the sun; it was the most solitary—and yet the happiest—month of my life.
San Francisco is the densest city I’ve experienced, the other extreme, and I’m contrasting the two so that I can figure out what I really want. I’m obsessed with thinking about where I belong. Every day I spend in San Francisco I find myself wishing I could go back to that small town, or find another place like it.
I will never feel at home in city solitude, but when I glorify that small-town experience, am I ignoring the rewards that San Francisco offers? I know I’m romanticizing a way of life that might not even really exist, and I fear that I’ll never be satisfied with any town. All I know is that 24-hour corner stores and congested bus routes don’t offer the freedom I’m looking for. Maybe what’s important is being able to have the space to think and a place to belong, rather than being just another body walking through the fog at one in the morning. ♦