Running Away in San Francisco: "The First Man"

By Evelyn Manangan

It’s easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is not longer as optimistic as she once was. — Joan Didion, 1967

As it was, I came from New York to San Francisco. In the summer of 1997, just before they all came. I carried Joan Didion’s essays in my bag on the plane from LaGuardia to LAX and then later on the Green Tortoise bus from Hollywood to San Fran. For at any point if I needed a reminder on why I came—not just to San Francisco, but California—I could feel in her words the Truth of the World of orphans and runaways taking acid on hillsides in Golden Gate Park, and the honest craving for simplicity and space which was just not possible in a place like New York. I am ashamed to say that in retrospect, I blatantly disregarded all of her other admonitions underscored by the most despairing of Yeats’ verse. For “what rough beast” did finally guide San Francisco from its arrested progressive development? Perhaps, if I had sought that answer first, the business of “finding oneself” may have been—will be—less excruciating. Instead, I pictured people, quite like myself, collapsing gratefully to the green Earth something like marathon runners who have just recorded time. The race finally over, kissing the ground, coming Home.

When I arrived at the sprawling tail-end of the nineties, no one told me that I was a generation too late, and it was mostly because they, too, had come to be “turned on.” They, too, pictured waking up on futon in the Haight Ashbury to the smell of fresh bread, folk rock music and “family.” By the time a four-inch blurb in the Bay Guardian appeared to promote the “30th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, 1967-1997” organized by Chet Helms and The Council for the Summer of Love, the machines were already rising from the basements and the chips were already in transit from the semi-conductor fabs in Silicon Valley. New media publications were touting new prophets like Po Bronson, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And, by 1999 Bronson revealed that the twenty-seven-year-olds in untucked soccer shirts and Nike Airwalks were really the missing link between Linux and the global business interface inspiring overactive minds everywhere. Po landed on magazine covers just like Didion did in the ’60s, but I want you to know—it was Didion who brought me here.

“The beginning of things,” she wrote. As predicted, I was unable or unwilling to see the ends.

Standing on First Street outside the Transbay Terminal in June 1997 with two black suitcases and my new Skechers sneakers stained with sand: the baby blue sneakers replacing the black suede Italian loafers symbolized the new Me. The Me that bought overalls and sneakers at Nordstrom in Los Angeles and vowed to grow her dark, wavy hair loose and long down her back—hippie-style.

Was anyone’s transformation ever so deliberate?

Of course there were boys. In San Francisco, there was a good chance of dating the children of hippies, so I did because I thought they wanted children. Visualizing future self-portraits: Me, brown-skinned and barefoot, with longhaired mestiza babies posing on a redwood deck in Sonoma Valley. I would live there with the father of said children, the man I first loved in San Francisco. But, fortunately or unfortunately, everyone in the city who had read Po Bronson or at least heard of him was dumping investor dollars into “live-work lofts.” The lofts mostly had to be rewired because the painters and potters who had lived there did not have big TVs or even little computers because in the years before they were driven out, they had survived on bare lights and the teakettle. In South of Market, Kellogg MBA holders, Arthur Andersen refugees and a handful of programmers spat down a business plan for integrated website start-ups. Then, multi-million dollar corporations launched programming divisions in the city’s re-allocated taxi depots and haunted saloons. Suddenly, instead of children, everyone was having parties. The first waves of digital industry transplants were celebrating. Five, maybe seven thousand transplants were set loose in the Bay Area—high on relocation cash.

For Adam, to go from a gig parking cars at a rib joint for $10 an hour to a job in cellular phone sales with a starting base of $700 a week plus 10% without ever having completed his BA was also a reason to celebrate. And, this is the exact moment when I met Adam—high on cash and other things—at the Lucky 13 Bar on Market Street. After sharing a sole goblet of Lucifer Ale between us (even though we had just met, we quarreled over who would pay) and without knowing last names, we went home together. Sometimes, meeting your soulmate is disguised as the cheapest encounter.

Now, fast-forward with me two and a half years. Transmit yourself on a fiber-optic cable that will deliver you there before you stop reading this paragraph. Silicon Valley and its noiseless chip production industry has tripled. The ever paperless San Francisco streets come alive seven nights a week. Bug-eyed Internet workers go from computer screen to cocktail hours because the parties have gotten bigger and splashier, and the trend of the moment is high-end vodkas like Grey Goose, Belvedere and VOX. And, the soulmate, love of my life has dropped off the radar, slowly then suddenly, following his forced hasty exit from behind the well-dusted kiosks of Cellular Connection.

Are you still with me?

It’s two and a half Summers of Love from my faded overalls and baby blue shoes, and there are no barefoot children in my life to speak of. My sister in New York, who is making her fortune on Etrade, calls to announce that it’s time to “join the Internet bandwagon.”

"Don’t you want to get yours?" she asks ignoring her incoming lines.

"Don’t you have a Lexus SUV to pay off?" I say, trying to shake her.

Later, when I’m skimming an article in WIRED in which Po Bronson advises everyone with a computer, "an idea and some people skills" to do the exact same thing, I realize that she was quoting off ZD-dot-net. And, even though I try earnestly to take their advice, while I’m getting ready to go to the right cocktail parties, make the right friends and meet the right people, I remember that he is gone. Cue "Lost Love Instrumental, #1."

“If I’m Adam,” he says, “then you must be Eve.”

“I am Eve,” I say. “Welcome to Paradise.”

“This is San Francisco,” he says.

“Exactly,” I say.

What happens next is inevitable, textbook and laughable all at once because some cynical fuck at the Lucky 13 says, “There’s are long-haired guys with goatees stepping off every other street corner in San Francisco. And, the good news is that all the long-hairs are hetero. Go get another one!”

So, I did.

Since he was not Adam—The First Man; Adam of the Earth, my Adam—I drink enough to pretend he is. I grow bitter at Nicholas’ (not “Nick”) lack of tattoos. I develop desperate cravings for Adam’s stories about crossing the East and West German border before the Wall came down and gun sales in New Orleans. I hate this man who is not Adam, but I turn all my hate into love, lust—Need. Nicholas is a sensitive would-be painter, and he is genuinely interested in the heft of my thighs, which should count for something, but ultimately he is also non-committal and functioning without a bank account. Once it is said and done and we can no longer drink enough to suppress what goes unsaid, he is spotted with another Asian girl from New York. Apparently, she can banter about Russell Simmons, Talib Kweli and she knows all the lyrics to the saddest Isley Brother’s cuts.

“She looked kind of Japanese,” sources said.

But, what they really meant is that she had a much lighter complexion.

In my ode to his unreturned phone calls and his penniless ass I write, “We (collective ethnic-female We) are not samples on the Platter of Life.” Then, I promptly set out to invite myself to cocktail parties, elbow my way into happy hours and use my opener, “Being from New York…” to find another painter/artist/guy who wears old t-shirts and can converse smoothly about Marcus Garvey or Apocalypse Now (or both).

“Just give me someone who isn’t blind drunk seven nights a week,” I ask.

When Bill—Tall Bill with porcelain-smooth cheeks and dark Irish eyes—didn’t kiss me, I knew I had really lost my touch. He walked me from the club to my doorstep while the rain floated like powder. If someone would have stopped and taken our picture: a tangle of MUNI wires overhead, lamps blazing against the wet street and his silent face—my expectant look.

“Good night kiss?” I ask.

The picture would have been a mistake. It would be an untruth in the myth of the city of free love, scalloped hillsides, Gold Coasts, Bay mists and twinkling locals with flowers in their hair. In 1999, the City of San Francisco was dripping with lonely transplants from Kentucky, New York, India, and Ireland who had heard about the “new Gold Rush” in Northern California. Instead of panning and silting, they are click, click, drag-clicking their way to IPO on the NYSE. San Francisco has become a “Safety School” in a globe full of prestigious Ivy League cities—London, New York, Hong Kong—where total immersion in a new language or two like HTML, JAVA or FLASH might mean you could still “make it.” PR and destination management companies luring unsuspecting HB1-VISA holders with shots of the Rice-a-Roni Cable car and dungeness crab cakes perpetuate the free love and twinkling locals’ myth. And, they come. Eventually, they will make so much money that the sciatica they contract from non-ergonomic cubicle furniture does not seem to matter in the face of the thirty-inch widescreen entertainment center with Dolby surround-sound. Meanwhile, I imagine that Bill and I will write poetry and paint canvases (while meditating on the "rejection of materialism”) that will never see the light of day.

Bill looked down Church Street. A crew of exhausted busboys leaned against the pulled-down gate at the fruit market waiting for the J-train. The gate, like every other one in the Lower Haight was covered in graffiti tags. Every neighborhood from Potrero Hill to Hunter’s Point had “taggers”—punks, kids, artists—who rolled with SuperSharpie markers in the pockets or Crafter’s Enamel Spray Paint in their packs to “tag” the neighbourhood with their symbol. Like a collective “Thought of the Day,” tags kind of said, “You are here” without an information booth. Lately, someone calling herself SadGirl was around spraying in long blue strokes: a sloped nose framed by twists of blue hair, a round blue eye and one, single blue tear dropping beneath it. SadGirl had tagged half the lampposts from Duboce to Divisadero. Now, slick with fresh rain, SadGirl’s tear rolled down the fruit market gate.

Bill turned back.

I envisioned him with angel’s wings.

“Call me,” he said backing off my steps. “Call me if you get lonely.”

“And I was so close to rejecting materialism and having your babies,” I think pushing open the front door.

The loneliness is palpable. The spare apartment, the stark absence of books on bookshelves, fresh fruit in hanging baskets, wall-hangings and window treatments belie the camaraderie of roommates and the warmth of communal living. This domestic life is shuttered and cold— a testament of’s failure to bind the rampant Internet community.

After an unsuccessful attempt to cry myself to sleep, I call Adam because there’s always time to repair this mistake. Soulmate is a loaded term, but before any significant articles of clothing are removed he sits back with a glass of wine and listens to the story of Bill, Café Du Nord door guy and former model, who I have unsuccessfully swooned. Bill leaked his crush on me among the staff until I showed up in the after-hours and asked Blond-Angela to make rounds of green-apple martinis.

Adam pours the rest of the wine into his glass.

“And, then when I’m good an drunk," I say continuing, "and he’s walking me home, he says to me, ‘Why do you drink so much?’ And, I say, ‘Why do you ask? Do you think I have a problem?’ And, he says, ‘Do you think you have a problem?’ And, then we both know we’re not getting anywhere, and then a block from my house, he’s all, ‘You should go to a meeting.’ And, I’m thinking a meeting? What meeting? I want you to fuck me!”

“Serves you right,” Adam says. “And, don’t you be dropping pamphlets in my mailbox.”

We make love to Coltrane’s “Wise One” and the memory that once upon a time in San Francisco we sat on a fire escape on 18th street, smoked a joint and without a word between us watched the sky darken over the faded Edwardians. Two Christmases ago, when Mission apartments were still cheap and not crawling with SUV’s double-parking in front of tacquerias, we rented a car and drove to North Hollywood. And, on the way back up, somewhere along the Santa Ynez Mountains, we had to stop the car because a double rainbow was stretching across the sky—totally unbroken.

“Make me feel good,” I whisper to him before we fall asleep. “Make me forget that I’m not who I came here to be.”

But then I wake up at eight a.m. and it’s Season of Yuletide in 1999, and I’ve got to be at my new gig in an hour in the old Convention Center building on Third Street that’s filled with New Media companies.

Adam wakes with a start, and by the way he’s squinting at the ceiling I know he has no idea where he is. I’ve seen this before.

"How drunk were you anyway?" I want to ask him. But, I’ve asked him before, and he doesn’t appreciate the "D" word.

I’m decked in a baby blue cashmere, black butt-pants, diamond-like studs.

“Look,” he says, pulling on his shorts and pants slowly, deliberately, scanning the room, “I know last night was a booty call.”

I used to make three-hour long-distance calls to my girlfriends to confess how much I loved Adam. I used to write him love letters and mail them to his house—four and a half blocks away. It was not a “booty call.” But I’m not sure if I have a spare lifetime to work out what “It” really is. And I don’t want to blow my new gig.

I hand him his coat.

He shakes his head and looks down at his polished shoes. He is sad, hung-over, and out of work again.

“Anytime, ma’am,” he drawls. “It’s my pleasure to serve you.”

We walk through the still empty apartment. The checker-tiled kitchen gleams with the forced tidiness of people struggling not to piss each other off.

“Where are your roommates?”

“I don’t know.”

“The bald guy?”

“I don’t fucking know.”

I search my purse for MUNI fare, coffee money.

“What about Jacob—the Palestinian—the one with the hot girlfriend?”

I scan for change in the plastic “The Sands” casino cup. I started collecting in it over a year ago when I first moved in. I turn it over. It’s perpetually empty, raided by Diesel’s—the bald guy’s—“friends” who have been coming over after dancing at the “Come-Unity” party at “1015’” all night. The lot of them who are coming off Ecstasy drink all the bottled water in the house and talk to each other until they pass out. In the morning they wash up, use all the paper towels and then empty the change cup.

“Look, Adam, this is not the House of Peace, Love and Understanding like it is at your place—“

“All right, calm down, I was just asking.”

As if reading my mind, he pushes me against the kitchen counter, sinking his teeth playfully into my neck. I lift myself up on the counter, and he rips at my chest. I am falling backward in time again: the summer of 1997 and Adam, sweet Adam, undressing me on the dining room floor while my roommate shops at Safeway. Parquet floors will always have a soft spot in my heart.

“Call me again,” he says breaking away, “if you get lonely.”