A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 4 – The San Francisco Years

This is the final chapter of my story about my “relationship” with California. It’s been several months since I posted Chapter 3 and I procrastinated in finishing it because it’s not the most uplifting part of the story and I have a hunch that things I say will put some people off. But today is the one year anniversary of my departure from California and this seemed like the right time to finish the tale and close the book.

I moved from Long Beach to San Francisco on June 10, 1991. My friends Greg and Fritz were having relationship issues at the time and Fritz decided he wanted to move to San Francisco with me and be roommates. After looking at a couple of places that really did not appeal to me, we looked at a place at the top of Twin Peaks. Honestly, the place needed a paint job and new carpets – it was paved with gold shag from the 1970s – but the view of the Bay and the City from the living room and both bedrooms sold me instantly. I also liked that the unit was above only garages, with no one living above or below or beside me, so it was more like living in a house than an apartment. Fritz was hesitant, but I told him that if he didn’t like this place, I would start looking at one bedroom places on my own and he eventually agreed. With the help of our friends in southern California, we loaded a moving van and I drove it to San Francisco from Long Beach by myself. Fritz was planning to come up a few days later with Greg. When I arrived, the summer fog was swirling over the top of Twin Peaks and was so heavy that it was almost like drizzle. The wind was gusting at 30 or 40 MPH, and the city below was totally whited out.  I dragged my mattress, some bedding and a lamp upstairs and set them up in the living room, collapsing on the mattress in exhaustion. The wind howled outside, and the plate glass windows bowed and bended with the force of the winds. It was totally dark, as the city lights were totally obscured by the fog. I wondered aloud, “Where am I and what have I done?”

The sun and the view returned in the morning and after hiring some guys to unload the moving van, I began to feel like maybe things would be OK. But my first year or so in the city of my dreams was a rocky road. Greg and Fritz came up from Long Beach and got Fritz’s room set up, and had a seemingly nice weekend together in the city, despite the fact that Fritz was leaving Greg. On Sunday Greg headed back to southern California and before going to bed that evening, Fritz announced to me that San Francisco was not for him, and he was giving me 30 days’ notice that he was moving out! I was dumbfounded, and I remember just going into my room and closing the door without a word. However, within a week or so Fritz met a guy named John and they began to date, so Fritz decided he’d stay. For the next year, every time they had a fight, Fritz gave me 30 days’ notice. Every time they made up, he took it back. It was an unnerving roller coaster for me. Eventually at the end of a year Fritz did move out and returned to Long Beach and, and I ended up having to search for a new roommate. I was glad at least that I’d stuck to my guns initially and lobbied for the apartment I really wanted.

Meanwhile, having arrived in San Francisco in June, there were no teaching jobs available to me, as those positions are filled months in advance for the Fall Semester. However, I still had offers of part time teaching at several Cal State University campuses in southern California. So, when Fall arrived, I packed up my car and hit the road at 6AM every Monday, making the 6.5 hour drive to L.A. and arriving in time to teach a 2PM class and some additional evening classes. I spent Monday through Wednesday nights with friends, and after my last class ended at 5PM on Thursdays, I’d drive back up to San Francisco, often arriving in the wee hours of the morning! It sounds horrible, and in some ways it was. But it was income, and it also gave me a chance to continue spending time with my southern California friends while trying to make new friends in San Francisco on my long weekends. By Spring I found a position at Cal State Stanislaus, about a 2.5 hour trip from San Francisco each way. It was an 8AM class, three days a week. This too was a horrible commute, but ever so slightly less grueling than the drive to L.A.  Finally, by the following year I had landed part time positions at several Bay Area schools and my long commutes were over. One of those part-time gigs led to being hired for my first and only full time, tenure track position, where I remained for the next 27 years. Gradually things fell into place and San Francisco began to feel like home.

When Fritz left, I replaced him with Jerry, a flight attendant who was away approximately two weeks of every month. That gave me the quiet and privacy I loved, but the downside was that he’d come back and be home for two weeks. I will not go into the gory details, but Jerry seemed to thrive on romantic drama, and the people he’d bring home and the way he’d handle his relationships drove me crazy. He always kept the blinds in his room drawn, and that surprised me, as we had this amazing view of the city. When I inquired as to why he did this, I learned that from the window he could see the apartment building of a former lover and it was painful for him to look at it. I found myself spending most of my time in my room during the two weeks he was home.

Still, I was living in the city of my dreams and life was pretty good. Through Fritz, I’d become friends with John and soon met his roommate Joseph and a number of their friends. It became a close-knit family and there were seemingly endless theme and costume parties, Sunday brunches, holidays spent together, and long afternoons of hanging out at the city’s infamous Café Flore, I began hosting weekly card nights that often included dinner or dessert; I joined a gay bowling league, took square dance classes, and organized trips to the mountains or deserts with various members of our group. It was a very active social life.

Meanwhile I had joined a fun-loving and supportive department at the university. We were underpaid and overworked but shared countless laughs and the humor kept us going. I gradually got promotions and to secure tenure, I designed a research study on how people living in the vicinity of Italy’s famous volcanoes, Vesuvius and Etna, see their risk from the volcanic hazards and how much awareness of and confidence in the evacuation plans they have. I conducted this study with friends and colleagues from Rome and Naples, and because this was the first such study done in Italy, it landed me an appearance in a documentary on the Discovery Channel. It also marked the start of my love affair with Italy.

The University provided numerous opportunities for international travel with my students and colleagues. I was invited to do conference presentations about my research in exotic places like Japan, Tenerife, Ecuador and New Zealand. At one point I was sent to Paris for a month in the summer, provided with transportation, an apartment and a food allowance and asked to socialize with and keep an eye on a handful of our students who were doing summer study abroad. It was a terrible burden to meet students at the airport and take them out for lunches or dinners in the City of Light, but someone had to do it! Over the years I also led several student trips to Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Berlin and Prague, and these were some of the best experiences of my entire career. While I hated the meetings and the bureaucracy at the university, teaching was always the highlight of the job and I treasured the time spent with my students.

And so, within 3 years of moving to San Francisco, arriving without a job and not knowing a soul, I had created a pretty satisfying and successful life. Of course, not everything was perfect about life in the city. The AIDS crisis was in full swing during this time, and its presence was a constant factor in everyday life. Several of my friends were HIV positive, and over the course of the 1990s I lost approximately a dozen good friends to AIDS, including Fritz, John, and Joseph. Each week the Bay Times newspaper published pages of obituaries with small yearbook-sized photos of everyone who’d died that week and rarely did a week go by when I didn’t recognize at least a few people’s photos: the waiter at the restaurant I frequented, a funny bartender at a local pub, a person I just bumped into regularly at the grocery store or coffee shop. I recall attending a party and a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months was there, but when he walked in, I had to hold back a gasp, as I barely recognized him. He was suffering from the wasting syndrome that typifies the final stages of AIDS and this handsome young man who’d been so fit a year before looked like the victim of a concentration camp. He was gone within another couple of weeks. It was devastating and it was a regular part of life in the city.

The fear of AIDS affected my dating life as well, and sometimes led to conflicts with friends. I joined a support group for HIV negative men, which provided an opportunity to share our grief over lost friends or our fear of dating, but when my HIV positive friends found out, they were offended, even though they attended support groups for HIV positive people. Apart from a fear of HIV, my dating life was riddled with stories of failure, some funny, some sad. I met guys who were addicted to pot and/or meth, and one who was abused by his dad as a child and so could only be happy with a partner who would beat him. I met people living in “polyamorous” situations where there were three bedrooms in an apartment shared by five roommates and they simply rotated beds as their moods or desires changed. I sought out a therapist to whom I would pour my guts out on a weekly basis on my struggles to find a relationship. One weekend, while I was out at a bar, he entered the establishment dressed in full leather and leading a “boy” 30 years his junior around on a leash.  At our next session, my therapist said he was glad to have seen me out at a bar because he’d studied my body language and had a clue as to why I seemed so unapproachable. I could barely stifle an uproarious laugh and wanted to shout, “You were leading a boy around on a leash! Which one of us should be on this couch, buddy?”  

My only successful relationship lasted about 9 months and I was just starting to feel secure and content with how it was going. He invited me over one Friday night, poured me a glass of wine as he prepared a pot roast dinner, and offered to give me a backrub by the fireplace. I remember thinking to myself, “I could really get used to this.” At that very moment, he uttered the phrase nobody wants to hear: “We need to talk!”  Seems he’d been chatting with someone online for several weeks, they had finally met in person, and it was “love at first sight”, so he would not be able to see me anymore. I wondered if the pot roast dinner and back rub were some sort of consolation prize.  Of course, a few months later he’d broken up with his new love and called to say he missed me and wanted to get back together, but I declined. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

As the new millennium dawned, the world was changing, San Francisco was changing, and so was I. I think that for me, 9/11 was a turning point in terms of how I viewed the world. and it challenged my belief that we could all just get along and live happily together in a multi-cultural world. I was never particularly interested in politics and had basically just adopted the attitudes of friends and colleagues without really learning about the issues on my own, and as I began to do so, I found that increasingly I disagreed with the things that I had just accepted and taken for granted. It was a very gradual process but it influenced several aspects of my life.

First, I watched as San Francisco’s homeless problem began to get out of control. I’d wondered why so many homeless souls would stay on the streets of chilly, foggy San Francisco and learned that the city was literally giving out a considerable amount of cash to anyone who registered as a homeless person in the city. Even the very liberal Governor Gavin Newsom, when he became mayor of the city in 2004, called this policy absurd and canceled the cash payments in favor of vouchers for food and shelter, but the problem still got worse. Business owners in some neighborhoods asked patrons not to give money to the homeless, but to purchase vouchers that these people could trade for food. The activist group Act Up took to the streets protesting and condemning these businesses for being cruel to the homeless. I read in the paper that activist groups were also protesting the city’s soup kitchens for not providing vegan options on their menus. I’d like to think that were I homeless and starving and a vegan, that I would at least pick out the chunks of chicken in the soup, but have been told that I am being insensitive.

Over the next few years, I had my car broken into for clothes I’d carelessly left in the back seat, had to step over unconscious people to enter various businesses, watched with horror as out of control homeless people invaded grocery stores and cafes, terrorizing patrons, and learned to walk carefully to avoid the human feces that littered the sidewalk of some of the city’s neighborhoods. Friends told me that their front steps were soaked with urine, and that they were finding hypodermic needles in the plant pots on their front porches. My city still looked beautiful from my hilltop apartment, but the reality of life in the neighborhoods below grew uglier by the day.

My attitudes about the gay community also changed gradually over the next few years. Initially it was exciting to be living in a gay mecca where I felt such freedom to be myself, but that thrill wore off after awhile and I was left to question my values and beliefs about what was right or wrong, normal or abnormal. I found that many of the people I was associating with, despite being in their 30s, 40s and 50s acted like oversexed and immature teenagers. Everything revolved around sex. Grown men would stand outside cafes in the Castro District and “Woof!” and “Grrr!” at men walking by that they found attractive. One weekend I went to brunch at a local restaurant with three friends. We were the only patrons there when the restaurant opened. My companions thought the waiter was sexy, so, what did they do? All three of them unzipped their pants and placed their genitals atop their napkins. I wanted to simply die, and as the waiter approached the table, I anticipated an embarrassing scene and being asked to leave. But instead, the waiter said, “Oh, let me help you adjust your napkin, sir!” and began playing with one of my friend’s genitals. There was a Christmas day event at my place, attended by men and women, gay and straight when I’d left the living room for a few minutes to take a call from a family member. When I returned, a couple of guys had taken out their penises and were simulating sexual acts with the stuffed animals that had been innocently sitting around my Christmas tree. I stopped this nonsense in its tracks and took the stuffed animals away. These friends never spoke to me again, and I heard through the grapevine that it was because I had been such a “prude” and had embarrassed THEM.

San Francisco hosts several gay events, parades, and celebrations in the gay community each year, and one of them is the Folsom Street Leather Fair, which attracts a crowd that gravitates toward sado-masochism. While this theme was never even remotely of interest to me, for my first decade or so in the city I happily attended this event with my friends to look at half-naked people, drink beer and socialize. Over the years, my group of friends shrunk considerably due to AIDS, people moving away from the city, or people dropping me as a friend because of my “prudish” attitudes. One year I went to the fair alone and as I walked around, I happened to come upon a “Whipping Booth”. Altruistic volunteers agreed to be whipped by others who made a charitable donation for the privilege of being able to whip the person of their choice. As I walked by, a whip cracked against the already well-beaten back of a volunteer and blood splattered out onto the sidewalk. I felt like I was watching a 3-D version of The Passion of the Christ. I turned around and left the fair and never went back again. I remember describing the scene to a friend and he thought I was being “judgmental” because I thought this was abnormal.

On Easter Sunday one year, a group of drag queens called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who dress up as outrageously-attired nuns, held a “Hunkiest Jesus” contest in the city’s Castro neighborhood. Perhaps all in good fun, but then a group of these “nuns” invaded a Catholic church during Easter Mass, making a mockery of it and disrupting the service. When I dared to express to people that I thought this was in poor taste, I was told that The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence do a lot of good charity work and I should stop being so conservative and closed-minded.

Another interesting “tale of the city” involves the “naked guys.”  This group of about 6 men in their 50s wander the city stark naked, regardless of how windy and foggy the day might be. It seemed to me to be another example of people behaving in an almost adolescent manner, just walking around naked for shock value. I recall one spring day in the Castro when the Girl Scouts had set up a table and were selling cookies and these men sauntered up to the table, debating whether to get the Gauchos or the Thin Mints as the poor kids at the table tried to ignore what was at eye level. At one point the city passed an ordinance that forbid public nudity, forcing the men with Girl Scout cookie cravings or attendees of the Folsom Fair to at least put on a thong, But due to public outrage, the order was rescinded, and the law was rewritten: if you wanted to be naked in public, you had to carry a newspaper around to place under you if you sat on any public property.

As the city devolved into a filthy, unsafe horror show, becoming the car break-in capital of the nation, people shooting up on the streets and lying in their own feces and vomit, I began to think that maybe the level of liberalism and an “anything goes” mentality being employed in city and state government was not the greatest way to run things. But with all the city’s urgent issues, I recall the Board of Supervisors passing a “resolution” saluting Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for his “strides toward equality” in that country and spending its efforts trying to rename a sewage treatment plant after President Bush. My city tax dollars at work.

My changing viewpoints on city and national politics did not win me any popularity with the vast majority of my friends and colleagues. I tended to keep my opinions to myself unless asked, but people around me did not censor themselves in the same way. Whether it was among friends around my dinner table or during faculty meetings at my university, I listened to nasty comments about Christians, political conservatives, the police, the military, and anyone living in the South or the “flyover states.”

Within the course of about five years, I had a dozen people whom I regarded as close friends stop speaking to me because they didn’t like my political opinions. On campus, I knew only one other faculty member who was “openly conservative”, and a handful of other faculty and staff members who were conservative but chose to remain “in the closet” for fear of being ostracized or worse. This allusion to gay people choosing to be open vs. closeted is an apt one. I experienced far more discrimination and criticism in the Bay Area for having conservative views than I ever experienced for being gay in any other part of the country. And the irony was not lost on me that while I’d originally moved to San Francisco because it was a place where people were supposedly able to be themselves, I was becoming increasingly unhappy because I could NOT be myself any longer.

Meanwhile, higher education was changing across the country, and my university was in lock step with those changes. While I struggled to get my seniors to be able to write a clear paragraph devoid of grammatical or spelling errors, all we seemed to talk about at professional development retreats and workshops was diversity and ways to ensure that students were not threatened with ideas they might be uncomfortable with. At one memorable faculty meeting we discussed the need to use “trigger warnings” in our classes: in other words, we were urged to warn students in advance of discussing topics that might be controversial or that could trigger feelings of discomfort. I asked for an example of how I should handle this in a course like Human Sexuality, where virtually every topic we cover could be considered controversial to at least some of the students. I was told that for each topic that could trigger some students, like transgender issues, homosexuality, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, I should develop alternate readings and assignments for any student who did not feel comfortable learning about these things. I was stymied by this; it seemed to me to be the antithesis of what a university education should do. After the meeting I went to my Human Sexuality class and I shared with them what I had just heard at my meeting. The laughter was deafening, and some students thought I was making this all up. One outspoken woman asked, “If someone doesn’t want to learn about these topics, why in hell would they sign up for this class?” This gave me some hope for the future.

Still, I was approached by at least a few students every semester who felt they were being discriminated against because they did not agree with the opinions of their professors. I heard horror stories about things that some of my colleagues were saying and doing in the classroom, like going on tirades about the police or telling students how they should vote. One of my favorite students came to see me during office hours and in the course of our conversation, he sighed and said, “I miss the old Liberal Arts.” I asked what he meant and he elaborated, “I love music, art, literature… the old liberal arts. Today all the liberal arts are about is teaching people how to be angry and protest”. I wanted to put that on a t-shirt. Probably the most rewarding feedback I got from students over the last 15 or 20 years of my teaching career was that I presented them with both sides of issues; they often couldn’t tell where I stood on an issue, and I never pushed my own values upon them. From what I gathered, this was not the norm among many of their professors, and that didn’t surprise me given the way I was treated by my own colleagues.

And so, after 30 years of living in San Francisco and 28 years in my faculty position, I decided to throw in the towel. I was increasingly depressed and unhappy with the way my life was going. I no longer had a group of friends to pal around with on any sort of regular basis, and the state of the city led me to stop frequenting the neighborhood cafes and restaurants I once enjoyed. My one sanctuary was the beautiful beach in neighboring Pacifica, where I would go several times a week to walk the coast and enjoy the peace and solitude that the ocean always offers. I also pretended I was in Italy by dining at E` Tutto Qua, an Italian restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood where I was always greeted warmly upon arrival with a boisterous, “Matteo!” by the all-Italian waitstaff. It was my version of Cheers. Meanwhile, I was spending a small fortune on trips back east to see friends and family and within 48 hours of graduation ceremonies at the university, I was on a plane to Europe or Hawaii for most of the summer. When I’d return from a trip, I’d enjoy a few days in my apartment, and then feel the sense of loneliness and boredom that made me start planning the next getaway. I often said, “I used to cry when I had to leave San Francisco; now I cry when I have to come home to it.”

And so, probably a good 3 or 4 years sooner than was prudent given my age, I decided to take an early retirement and leave the university. And more importantly, I decided that after 38 years it was time to get out of the Golden State. This was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made and was accompanied by equal parts sadness and anger at what happened to this place that had been the object of so many of my hopes and dreams. But I had to acknowledge and accept the fact that California is no longer the place it used to be and that as I have changed, I simply did not belong there anymore.

I also know that I’m not alone; for the first time in its entire history, California lost residents this year. When I gave notice to my landlady, she told me that 7 other tenants in my building were leaving. She admitted that although she was born and raised in the city, she too is thinking of leaving, as conditions in the city continue to deteriorate and she sees no signs that things will get better anytime soon. Homelessness is at an all-time high, and since theft was decriminalized and bail is no longer required, crime has skyrocketed. The fires of the last few years have been devastating, and the declining quality of life no longer justifies the absurdly high cost of living.  And of course, the spectre of  the inevitable “big one” always looms. It just felt like the right time to go. As I write this final chapter of my California journey, it’s been exactly one year since I left and I can honestly say I have not looked back.

I hope that someday soon, better decisions and more common sense will be regained, and that California can be restored to some semblance of what it once was or what it has the potential to be. My California story did not end on a positive note, but despite that, I know that I owe a great deal to this place. It afforded me a career, countless opportunities that enriched my life greatly, and brought some amazing people into my life that I will continue to stay in contact with. It remains a beautiful place if one can escape the social chaos and appreciate its outstanding natural beauty. I sometimes look at California as an entity in and of itself, and I grieve for what we have done to it. For hundreds of years it has fueled dreams of being a paradise, of offering the promise of a better life to such an extreme that no place could ever live up to such expectations. And because of its popularity, we’ve ruined many of the things about it that drew us there in the first place. On their Hotel California album, the Eagles included a song called The Last Resort that laments how we make that same mistake over and over again. As I drove out of California for the last time, I was playing that song and the lyric that will stay lodged in my mind forever is, “They called it paradise, I don’t know why. You call some place paradise… kiss it goodbye.”

Goodbye, California.

2 thoughts on “A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 4 – The San Francisco Years

  1. Matt,

    This is wonderfully written and echos many of my feelings about California. I am just getting started with packing my house as I prepare to move to Oregon in the fall. Many friends have asked if I will miss California and I answer with confidence that I will not. That said, I am not going very far and will be back frequently to spend time with my daughter, her husband and the grandkids.

    I find it interesting that you label yourself a conservative. I do not consider myself a conservative, yet I agree with everything you said in this story. The people and the behaviors were absolutely unacceptable, policy that rewards bad behavior is idiotic and people that turn away from, or harass others because of a difference of opinion are small minded.

    This world needs neither more conservatives or liberals; we need people with common sense and compassion. Both qualities I have always believed you possess.

    I am glad you are enjoying retirement. Once I get past Steph wedding in October and get settled in the new house I plan to start doing some traveling. I would love to catch up with you somewhere. You are also always welcome to come visit me in Medford. The house will have 4 bedrooms so come stay a spell. The mountains are beautiful and Ashland with all it’s theater is 15 minutes away.

    Cheers,

    Sue Anderson

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Sue, Thank you for such a sweet and thoughtful response. What you said about conservatism is interesting. In another day and time the views you and I share would be considered normal and common sense. I came to CA as a liberal Democrat from a family of working class Democrats, but that party has moved so far left as to be unrecognizable. And “they” consider me a rabid conservative, so so be it. I am happy for you that you’re moving on, but also sad that like me, you won’t be looking back. All the best with the move and always stay in touch, please! – Matt

      Like

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