My first memories of San Francisco are contained within Union Square. My aunt, the one with no children, allowed me to accompany her on shopping sprees around the City. We would start at Gump’s, where she’d ask for my 9-year-old opinion on plateware, and end our excursions at the Westfield Shopping Center food court. My picks were always the same - Loving Hut for vegan Chinese food, then cream puffs from Beard Papa’s, which I’d have for breakfast the next day. I would tear off a piece of the choux, scoop the custard into a soup spoon, eat the hollowed shell, then slowly savor the filling as if it was a pudding. It was particularly tasty with a side of cantaloupe.
All food courts are the same. A child bangs on the table. Parents rest their shopping bags on the chairs next to them or sling them over the back. Someone in a suit scrolls on their phone and shovels food into their mouth with the other hand, not looking at what they’re eating. Custodians spray the tables, wipe them down with white cloths. I try to smile at them, but sometimes I let them pass like ghosts. It makes me sad when they are old, already hunched, but still cleaning because they need the money. When I see them, I have the melancholic sense that all my joys come at the cost of someone else’s hard work.
It’s the metropolitan, I think. It creates this system.
My mom worked in the Excelsior throughout my childhood. She had a job at a Jewish nursing home, despite being Vietnamese in ethnicity and Catholic-ish in religion. The elevator to her office was an old rickety one with a metal folding door that you needed to slide shut before it would move, the kind that displayed its health inspection check in order to assure you that everything was going to be okay. Once a month (and on every major Jewish holiday), my mom brought home matzo ball soup and farro salad from the facility’s cafeteria.
There’s an El Farolito in that area too, which meant she also brought me the second half of a super suiza every now and again - the name of which I only learned in adulthood. Sorry, Mom, for insisting that it was a quesadilla all those years, despite your protests that it was called something else and you just couldn’t recall exactly what.
Two jobs after that one, Mom worked in the Transamerica Pyramid, which is pretty neat, but not quite as neat as matzo ball soup.
My early conceptions of SF began with a three-block radius around every BART station. Transportation, when designed strategically, is an equalizing force. It directs the commerce of goods and thoughts. Routes tell us where’s good and what’s good.
For me, these are the most important stations: Walnut Creek, 12th Street/Oakland City Center, Downtown Berkeley, Civic Center, Daly City, South San Francisco, Warm Springs/South Fremont. My line is Pittsburg/Baypoint; it’s the one that takes me home. I have lived my life around these clusters.
The best seats are the sections that face each other, designed for you and your three closest friends to make eye contact as you hurl across space and time. There, I’ve played cards, read fan fiction, settled debts, and simply stared at the person across from me, entirely exhausted by our big day out. In my mind, the high-pitched screech of rail corrugation is synonymous with getting around the Bay. It’s the backing track of exploration.
The tourist parts of San Francisco come to me like a fever dream. In my recollections, I am with cousins (or “cousins”) whose names I forget, whose faces I only recommit to memory when I see them once every four years.
Pier 39 is the travel destination for distant relatives who need constant activity to prevent awkward lulls. I endorse the clam chowder bread bowl at Boudin’s and stopping to watch the bakers make gigantic sourdough alligators and turtles. I’m less fond of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! and the dozens of souvenir stores on every street.
Lombard Street is just driving on hard mode, which can also be achieved by driving down any street that is shared with MUNI, trolleybuses, or heritage streetcars.
There’s that steakhouse by the bow and arrow sculpture near the water that tourists adore. It’s the kind of place that’s formal, but not upscale. You can tell the difference based on how many jokes the waiter tries to make. Try the cheese spaetzle. It’s fun to say. Spaetzle.
The needless accumulation of knick-knacks raises my blood pressure, which is why I have only been to Haight-Ashbury once. At what point does commercializing nostalgia cheapen real experience?
When I find myself in the Ghirardelli Marketplace, I order an enormous ice cream sundae, a double-whammy of cloying sweetness and American portion sizing. Some foods taste better when they’re really, really big. Ghirardelli belongs to that specific category of almost-fancy, like The Cheesecake Factory and Coach purses and those fishbowl mixed drinks with rubber ducks and sparklers and rainbow-striped lollipops sticking out of them. Things I once described as luxury, before I saw how much higher the ladder extends.
I’ve never been to Alcatraz. If you think about it, choosing to spend your holiday in a prison makes no sense.
The first time I saw a naked man, I was in the Castro. I was eight years old, sitting in the backseat of my family’s Honda Odyssey when we drove past an old dude riding a bicycle in the nude. I remember thinking, huh, it’s kind of cool that we’ve collectively decided that he shouldn’t get in trouble for that.
I went to Pride in 2015, the same year gay marriage was legalized in the US. It was hot, and I ate a lot of free ube ice cream. Platitudes aside, I am grateful to have grown up in an environment that taught me it is a right to show up as my full and honest self - whomever that may be.
My conspiracy theory about Chinatown is that all those stores selling pottery are fronts. I mean, think about it. SF Chinatown is mainly frequented by tourists and old Asian people, neither of which are in an ideal position to lug a 200-pound vase back to their residence. I have never been on vacation and thought to myself, “yes, this $3000, easily breakable piece of art that cannot fit inside of a checked bag is the perfect souvenir to bring home.” Those shops are hiding something. Probably money laundering. Or drugs.
Nearby Golden Gate Park, there’s a stretch of street where I nearly died thrice on a single drive, my newly 16-year-old friend behind the wheel. For a short period thereafter, I lost my place as the worst driver in my friend group.
A year before that, I had a cross-country meet in the area. It was muddy, and I wore a neon orange dri-fit shirt before changing into my racing singlet. An attractive upperclassman tied my racing chip into my shoelace for me. I PR'd. After my race, I spent the rest of the day cheering on other heats and eating those tiny cinnamon rolls that come in thin plastic tubs.
This part of the stream of consciousness is brought to you by 2016 SF food trends. Sushiritto was a revelation the first three times I ate it, and just okay every time thereafter. Mixt salad. I fucking love Mixt salad, still. I’ll die on that hill. Plentea, and its business model of letting you keep the glass bottle, plus giving you a small discount if you brought it back to reuse. Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. The cruffin. Boba Guys. Bo. Ba. Guys. The one in the Mission specifically, the one that gets its windows smashed in all the time.
If you are underage in Las Vegas, you go to M&M World because it’s the only thing to do. If you are underage in San Francisco, you go to MOMA because it’s free when you’re under 18.
At this point, the only highlight of MOMA is getting to righteously tell first-time visitors that actually, that’s Roy Lichtenstein, not Andy Warhol, but no worries, it’s a common mistake to get your pop artists mixed up.
A summary of my sophomore year AP Human Geography field trip to the City, as told through sentence fragments:
Free Loacker’s wafers for following their social media accounts. Posing in Clarion Alley. My puffy permed hair, tortoiseshell frames, vintage plaid flannels, maroon backpack, and accidental adherence to “hipster” stereotypes. Timer pics on a public park bench. Walking in the middle of residential streets lined with Italianate houses. Reminiscing on The Book of Mormon, which we saw at the Orpheum months earlier. Those tiny plastic hands you put on your fingers. Saltwater taffy.
What that class instilled in me, at large, as told through sentence fragments:
My belief that cities are the ultimate tribute to human ingenuity, optimism, and progress. (In college, I added folly, ego, and greed to that list.) A reverence for the built environment. The undeniable urge to say “wind tunnel” every time I walk through a wind tunnel. My most Urban Studies-pilled trait: the automatic interpretation of “CBD” as “central business district” and not “cannabidiol”.
Upon second thought, today’s yuppies probably think of cannabidiol first. Am I washed up already?
The Beat Museum in North Beach is a place (and subject matter) I need to revisit. Spiritual questing, rejection of economic materialism, psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation all sound pretty appealing right now.
I am enamored by people who see and say things as they are, even when it's unpopular - especially when it’s unpopular. It is hard not to romanticize a motley crew of writers getting drunk and high in pursuit of the right words.
Oh, words. For young people and lovers, there is no goal nobler than words.
That being said, if a man tells you that his favorite book is On The Road by Jack Kerouac, run.
A windy day at Golden Beach.
On that day, for some unknown reason, hundreds of partially drowned bees washed onto shore, as if someone had taken a hive and chucked it into the ocean. My friends and I coaxed the insects onto sticks and deposited them on dry logs a safe distance away from the incoming tide.
I ate a slice of quiche with a side salad, then evaded the MUNI fare on my return trip home. I was caught at the end of the line. A police officer spoke to me sternly, delivered the sitcom-worthy line “Are you planning on starting a life of crime?” then let me go without a ticket because I was a minor.
“I'm sorry,” I lied. “I'm new in town.”
In San Francisco’s Japantown, I lived the same day 30 times. It follows this pattern: browsing, lunch, more browsing, buying something that I don’t need to get validated parking, entering Daiso with intentions to “just look around” and leaving with an entire bag of semi-useful objects, ending the day by eating something sweet.
Belly Good Crepes is my favorite, mostly because of the little animal face they fashion out of toppings on your ice cream scoop. Matcha Cafe Maiko is where I take out-of-towners because it has that sophisticated, well-branded air that people on vacation are looking for. Mochill is for millennials and people who use the “highlights” feature on Instagram. Mochill’s predecessor, the taiyaki stand, was my dad’s favorite. My stealth pick is the creamy french bread from Andersen’s Bakery, which is just a soft baguette with buttery custardy spread in the middle, but don’t let the simplicity fool you - it’s really tasty. Lastly, I’d like to pay my respects to Benkyodo Mochi Shop. You will be missed.
Someone important to me and I took a series of mirror selfies in the same spot in Japantown over the course of a couple of years. His hair grew out, mine got shorter, and both of us became progressively less indie-looking. We posted the photos in a tweet, and it got nearly 100k likes. If I had known that so many people would see it, I would have tried a little harder to look cute.
At the time, the pictures were a testament to the constancy of our companionship in an ever-changing environment. But we changed a lot, too, and the tweet is gone now.
The memory is still there, though.
There’s that one park that everyone flocks to when the weather warms up, El Niño or La Niña or whichever one is right for this description - I get them mixed up. The city spray-painted circles onto the grass during the height of COVID, prompting everyone to make the same joke for two weeks: “What if we kissed inside the social distancing circles?”
Mission Dolores. That’s it.
It doesn’t matter who you go with (old friends, new friends, work friends, first dates, and long-time lovers all welcome) but certain elements are mandatory: a sandwich with chewy bread, a cold beverage, a JBL speaker playing something “chill”, and the weed truffle man pedaling his goods in the background.
In SF, there are three conversation topics that are always relevant: crypto, athleisure, and the smashing of car windows - namely, who it happened to, when it happened, a quick disparage of the drug addict who surely did it, something about fentanyl, a couple sympathetic sentences on the housing crisis, and an impassioned rant on what we absolutely need to or definitely, under no circumstances, should ever do about it.
YIMBY and NIMBY are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They are both points on a complete circle: the ouroboros eating its own tail.
On my first visit to Hayes Valley, I decided that it’s the best part of San Francisco that nobody goes to. There’s no better place to spend $100 on leggings and $10 on dessert. Plus, it’s walkable. I’m a slut for walkable neighborhoods.
For a half-year span of my life, I made the trek out to Salt & Straw on a monthly basis. My level of commitment was so high that I subscribed for email notifications so I could anticipate what flavors were coming to the rotating menu. Birthday Cake & Blackberries is undeniably the best. Salted Caramel Cupcake and Strawberry Tres Leches also get a nod. Maybe I just like cake in my ice cream.
Everyone raves about San Tung's chicken wings and Golden Boy Pizza and House of Prime Rib and that one fancy restaurant where they serve everything on dim sum carts. I still haven’t been to any of them. Where does one find the time, where does one find the money? An entire genre of restaurants in SF can be characterized as such: reasonably priced for a birthday celebration, but too expensive for literally every other day of the year.
Stonestown Galleria, oh Stonestown. Do you even count as San Francisco? Or are you Daly City? Regardless, you’re part of the San Francisco imagination to me. The memories bleed together. I remember eating Marugame udon and sweet things with a lot of carbs. And being with someone who I liked a lot.
One time, we were walking home from the mall when people started running out of a house party. Someone must have shot into the air, we deduced. The person who I liked grabbed my hand, yanked it in urgency, and caused me to trip. Briefly, while getting off of the ground, I thought of what I told him one of the very first times we met - that I don’t like hand-holding because it limits independent movement. We ran the rest of the way home, despite the fact that we weren’t in danger, not really.
Back in the safety of the apartment, I got mad at him for causing me to fall, but only teasingly, and only because all ended well, and only because it amused me to return to the domestic pattern of a small, trivial fight after an encounter with mortality.
I saw Hozier at the Masonic after winning tickets from 99.7 NOW. I parked the car sideways on a near-vertical slope, turned the wheels all the way in, and yanked the handbrake as hard as I could.
Years later, after graduating, I did the paperwork for the installation of no less than eight satellites on the rooftop of the Masonic. I like getting a glimpse of behind-the-scenes moments like that, becoming a moving part in the metaphorical assembly line that puts our infrastructure together.
I permitted the cell site inside the chicken shop sign on Lombard Street. “Original Buffalo Wings,” it proclaims, with months of my administrative expertise sending out 5G (or the literal coronavirus, depending on your allegiance to conspiracy) to people who contract with T-mobile.
I placed satellites on Columbus, 15th, Harrison, Ocean, and more. My work is mounted to Sutro Tower, the Kabuki Hotel, and some random Greek cafe that is owned by a rude and unfriendly woman, despite San Francisco Chronicle articles where she puts on a charming air.
I waited outside the Building Department on windy mornings, rolls of 24” x 36” construction plans in hand. I argued my way through expired conditional use permits, filled out carbonless copy applications using my knees as a surface, exchanged friendly banter with the front doorman who used to work as a Neiman Marcus shoe salesman and complimented my 97s in the waiting lobby. On every visit, my company gave me $15 to spend on lunch, which I often used to buy $15 worth of boba.
I ate Basa Seafood Express on Crissy Field. I ran the length of that lawn once, years ago, whooping and cheering on a friend’s birthday, us teenagers paying a stupid amount for the Uber there and back.
I crossed the shit-stained streets of the Tenderloin in pursuit of $5 banh mi from Saigon Sandwich on Larkin, where the shopkeepers immediately infer that I am an English-only speaker, much to my chagrin. It might not be obvious what kind of Asian I am, but it’s unmistakable that I am of the second-gen, white-washed variety. (P.S. If you ask for no pate, you’re uncultured.)
I fell down social media threads of PTA moms and “concerned community members” yelling about SFUSD school board drama with all the nuance of late-night reality TV. “Think of the children!” is a great argument; despite having zero substance, it’s extremely difficult to rebut. There’s a lesson in race relations somewhere in that mess. But, not my circus, so I’ll stop here.
I adjudicated presidential election ballots inside City Hall at midnight, ripped open hundreds, if not thousands of envelopes with a letter opener. I learned that if you don’t sign the outside of your mail-in ballot, it doesn’t count, so don’t make that mistake.
I spied on people getting married there, too. The courthouse wedding, whether through candor or necessity, is romantic in its own way.
I skipped past the Soulja Boy tree planted in the sidewalk around Civic Center, perpetually “crankin’ dat” as button-ed and stocking-ed guests file into the Symphony Building.
I enjoyed a quiet, tea-filled afternoon at Stonemill Matcha and loved it so much that I considered defending gentrification, if only for the sake of this one cafe.
I looked up at penthouses and fantasized about what it might be like to live inside one, the whole of the city framed inside a floor-to-ceiling window. These high-up places, so far above the common pedestrian, inspire both envy and repulsion.
I spent two hours in the Marina and suddenly understood the potency of the source material Overheard SF is working with.
For that brief span of time when offices were toying with the idea of reopening, I was an employee in the Presidio. I even had my very own ID lanyard to buzz me in and out, though my name was misspelled on it. Not great for the ‘ol imposter syndrome, when even the most official thing you have does not corroborate your right to be in the building.
Our office’s main room had a view of the Palace of Fine Arts, which reminded me of the Atomic Bomb Dome every time I looked at it. It made me think about cruelty and human-inflicted suffering, how uncannily capitalism exemplifies both, and how stupid humanity is to have created it. At that point, the desire to quit my job would intensify.
Then, the free DoorDash would arrive, and I’d put it out of my mind for an hour.
The drive to and from the City is infamous.
I’m from the East Bay, so I take the Bay Bridge. In my imagination, it’s nighttime. My dad is driving. He’s taking me home.
I’m in the back seat. The seats are leather, and it smells like it.
It’s a quiet drive.
But I don’t start a conversation. Or pull out my phone. I stare out of the window, press my middle finger and thumb together every time a line on the car window falls between two of the suspension ropes. It’s my own version of the “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” game.
I never take pictures of the Bay Bridge. It’s not that pretty from street level, just some cords and some white beams. You need distance to appreciate the magnitude, to see the full scope of what’s got you to where you’re going.
We’re crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Dave Bixby’s “Morning Sun” plays from the AUX.
His strung-out vocals blare from the car speakers, the acoustic chords dragging us across the thin traffic lanes.
I looked Dave up recently. He self-reports that he fried his brain with LSD, then turned to Jesus to fix it.
That’s the artist’s dilemma. You have to fuck some things up before you get good.
We are so young at heart,
And living is an art -
To be good at.
The FasTrak beeps. Takes my $6 without any hesitation. It’s okay, I tell myself. I believe in paying for public goods, I tell myself.
We get our strength in the daytime,
By the sun's golden rays.
Do you still listen to this song when you drive into the City? Are you listening to it with her?
That lasts us into the nighttime,
We find ourselves in many ways.
Does any part of the City belong to me? Did it ever? Is all of it yours now?
The sun in the morning,
A new day’s a dawning!
Look out your window,
And see yourself walking
Through fields of love!
Will you remember me kindly? Will you tend to the hearth of my hushed reverie?
And the sky up above,
Is with you.
I rest my hand on the parking brake, palm up, as an offering. The fog mists over the ugliness underneath. The music cascades.
I think about potential, and how it’s better shared.
The tires spin, bring us closer to the unnameable something on the other side.
We take the exit and stop at the traffic light, the first halting after an uninterrupted span of flow. The words “promise” and “despair” enter my mind.
The drive is over.
It is time to yield to the frightening and beautiful day.
Oh God, we love you.
How can we say?
We love you,
We love you.
How can these bodies say?