Last week, my 22-year-old niece came to San Francisco from the East Coast. Before her trip out here, the farthest she had traveled from Hamden, CT was North Carolina. This cross-country trek was her first by herself and her mom and I traded nervous phone calls during her flight–wondering if she made her connection in Detroit and if they had made her lighten her load at check-in (somehow twenty-somethings have not quite mastered the concept of traveling light).
I wanted this trip to be special for her. A week in San Francisco can change a person’s perspective about a lot of things. It can widen your horizons or send you scurrying in fear back to the confines of your carefully constructed worldview. I wanted her to see and appreciate the disparities of this city that is so different from the New Haven, Connecticut where I grew up and, like Hamden today, is more like Oakland than San Francisco.
While close, there are some 20 years between me and my niece, and the things I like to do are not necessarily the things she enjoys. Creating a fun-filled week of activities for my niece was a little daunting and I decided to play it by ear.
Our first stop, after she unloaded her stuff at my house and stood staring out at the view (I can see Mount Diablo on a clear day), downtown. Powell Street at Market with its street dancers, cable cars, panhandlers, and political fanatics shoving pamphlets and ideologies in your face snapped her neck like Dorothy after she landed in Oz. She seemed relieved when she saw Old Navy, a familiar haven in a strange land. The next evening, as we cabbed it down Castro near Harvey’s on the corner of 18th, she spotted three naked men (except for their fanny packs, socks, and sneakers) casually smoking cigarettes. Taylor did a double take and asked me if that happened a lot and I shrugged.
I always bring people to the Haight to show them the birthplace of free love and the hippie generation, but soon realized that this part town held little appeal for her and that the only things that intrigued her in the neighborhood were a few stores, and Ben and Jerry’s. The pop-culture, almost Disney-esque vibe that coats the neighborhood now did not add to her desire to stay there and explore. The Jimmy Hendrix posters and infamous Haight-Ashbury street signs that so many of my contemporaries must see and take pictures of and with were nothing like the faux Forrest Gump sneakers and box of chocolates at the front of Bubba Gump’s in Fisherman’s Wharf (even more Disney themery).
That night we hung out at one of my favorite little divey bars in the Mission. The place is a crossroads where San Francisco’s hip-hop heads and hipsters mingle with nine-to-fivers and recently released convicts over beers and the DJs re-mix old favorites. Music is something we have in common, and, at Skylark, our favorite tunes blended in a thumping mix, and we danced – our differences not mattering, our time together almost at an end.
As we packed her bag with what seemed like five extra pounds of souvenirs, she shared with me how this trip pushed her comfort zones and opened her up trying new things and different kinds of people. She told me what she learned during our tramp in the Haight and as we toured the city – this trip, she said, opened something in her. I hope this will not be her last trip alone or past the borders of her small town and I believe, that no matter where her travels take her, she will remember the things she found out about herself during her week in San Francisco.