San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City

On the morning of Tuesday, 6 November 2012, I walked to Joslyn Park to cast my ballot for the US Presidential elections for the last time in Santa Monica. I then visited my parents up the road and had lunch with them. After taking a picture with them wearing their little “I Voted” stickers, I got in my car and drove up to San Francisco.

The move to San Francisco was a belated one. As early as 2009, I had ventured up north and checked out an apartment a friend was getting with the idea of becoming housemates. He wanted an answer the next day, I wasn’t ready to make a decision that fast, and perhaps not entirely willing to trade in my two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachside pad for a 10’x10’ room in a shared apartment. The opportunity passed.

And yet, I repeatedly found myself in San Francisco which favorably impressed me each time. TEDx SF invited me to come speak on creativity in November of 2009, and the people I met were very interesting indeed. Then, every other month, I’d find myself in the Bay Area to visit friends for weddings and other special events. In fact, I had three sets of close married friends (two in Oakland, one in San Francisco) who always welcomed me and subtly campaigned for my move to the Bay. Two other close friends also made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles and made murmurs of approbation.

Moreover, all these great conferences I wanted to attend were in San Francisco. In addition to TEDx San Francisco, there was Wisdom 2.0 and Being Human. The latter conference, in the final week of March 2012, was part of a particular one-two punch that felled my resistance and got me to make the move.

The one-day conference itself was lots of fun. If it were up to me, I couldn’t have curated a more compelling lineup of speakers. Amongst them: neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of some of my favorite books like Sum and Incognito; Paul Ekman, pioneering psychologist and developer of the Facial Action Coding System; Richie Davidson, the scientist who started the field of quantitative mindfulness research; Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are and one of the early exponents of Buddhism in the West; and the brilliant neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.

Through luck and the generosity of my friends Christine Mason and Terri Hinton, that evening I ended up at the event’s afterparty. This was at the very serious pad of the founders of a well-known former startup. There was lots of great food and drink, and an indoor pool, of course – a reminder that the San Francisco gold rush of 1849 still goes on.

But there’s lavishness to be had everywhere in the world, so that’s not what impressed me. The extraordinary moment that stays with me from that evening is a particular 6-person conversation. We were all standing in a circle, and I brought up The Red Queen, the book by Matt Ridley that explains the evolutionary purpose of sex (short version: staying one step ahead of the parasites). The person next to me said, “Yeah, I read that.” And then, the next person, and the next, all the way around the circle like a bunch of tumbling dominoes, they said, “Yup, read it.”

I thought to myself, “This could never happen in Los Angeles.” In fact, I couldn’t think of anywhere else this could happen (New York? Cambridge?). Not only did they all read, but they had all read the same slightly esoteric science book published ten years before. Granted, this was at an afterparty for a science and psychology conference, so there was some selective enrichment in the crowd. I chose to be delightfully floored nonetheless.

A few days later, on the Wednesday of that week, I received an invitation to a book launch party for The Charisma Myth at the San Francisco pied-à-terre of Marissa Mayer. Who was I to miss this? The folks at this party turned out to be interesting world-changers as much as those at the Being Human party, perhaps on an even bigger scale. “If this is going to be my life in San Francisco every week,” I thought to myself, “I need to get my ass out here stat.”

Except for one thing: moving is hard. It figures pretty high on the Holmes-Rahe stress scale. Like a spinal tap or barium enema, it’s one of the least pleasant experiences one can undergo voluntarily. Also, my spot in Santa Monica was pretty peachy: temperate weather, ocean view, great food, beautiful beachy surroundings, big circle of friends, great yoga studios in walking distance, and proximity to my parents. It wasn’t for nothing that I had stayed there for 9 consecutive years – the longest stay of my adult life in one city.

And yet, I hadn’t come to LA entirely by design. My first job after the Cambridge masters program was in the healthcare practice of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which was based in downtown Los Angeles. I had simply stayed on after leaving McKinsey, so LA was a bit of a default choice. Comfortable it was, but comfort had never impelled anyone to greatness.

Still, I needed to get off my butt and sell off most of my belongings, move the rest up north 550km, find an apartment and a roommate and re-establish my social circle and and and… Hello world, please give me a sign…

And the sign came in the form of – a breakup. Not mine, but that of my friend Alex who lived in London. Who was going to take former significant other to see the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, for which he had won tickets in the lottery, who was now willing to take me instead. I had been to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics before, but never had been able to score opening ceremony tickets.

Providence had spoken. And it said, “You’re finally moving to Europe, you lazy bum.”

Why such gratuitous abuse, Providence? What had I ever done to you? Oh, but she had a point. See, I’d arranged my whole writerly, non-corporate life so I could sit down at any café, anywhere in the world, and do my work. And where had I stayed for 9 consecutive years? Los Angeles. There was the occasional foray beyond, but I wasn’t exactly globetrotting here. If dreams were meant to be lived, it was time to get on Craigslist and liquidate my superfluous belongings, stash the rest in storage, and live the summer in Europe.

So that’s what I did. I stayed a few weeks with Alex in London for the Olympics, then moved to Amsterdam, one of my favorite cities in the world. In October, I was ready to head back to California to start my new life in San Francisco.

Why San Francisco?

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go? For me, San Francisco and the Bay Area were a good fit. I had friends there. Book-readin’ people lived there. And it was a lot of fun.

But the main reason I moved to San Francisco is because it’s the epicenter of an unprecedented global movement. Let me elaborate.

Imagine it’s fin-de-siècle 15th century Florence, and you’re an artist/scientist (the distinction was blurry then). Where would you want to live?

Well, in Florence, a certain Leonardo da Vinci is working on some amazing stuff – engineering designs, anatomical sketches, paintings. Michelangelo Buonarroti is starting up his artistic career, making some epic sculpture and getting a commission to do the ceiling frescoes of a chapel in the Vatican. This young whippersnapper Raffaello Sanzio is spying on his work, and coming up with some great stuff of his own for rooms in the papal library. The goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi didn’t get the commission for the doors of the Florence Baptistery, but he nabbed the project for this completely insane dome so huge that nobody thinks he can build it. The Medici family and Pope Julius II, not to mention other prosperous Florentines, seem willing to bankroll this flourishing of the arts and sciences. Later generations call this whole era a time of rebirth of the human spirit – renaissance in French.

Or let’s say you’re a talented writer or artist in the 1920s. Where would you want to be? Perhaps the city that is home to 27 rue de Fleurus would do, where a certain American by the name of Gertrude Stein hosts a salon where the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso like to hang out. It’s where Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were raising hell with works they commissioned to Stravinsky, jazz was in its heyday, and consumption had become quite conspicuous. During these années folles, you definitely wanted to be in Paris. Some call this the beginning of the modern era.

And then, there is 2012. People carry around these gizmos called smartphones that are transforming the way their brains are wired. Bay Area companies invent the gizmos and create their operating systems. Young entrepreneurs in the Bay Area create the apps that make the gizmos useful – and addictive. These developments are molding minds and the very nature of human interaction, billions of users at a time. It’s a brain revolution unprecedented in scale, and it’s happening right now. To you, who may even be reading this on one of said gizmos.

Whether as cause or effect, talented technologists and entrepreneurs have converged upon the Bay Area such that it’s now a nexus for innovation. Talent corridors like SoMa (south of Market), Stanford and Berkeley facilitate the exchange and collision of ideas. Massive amounts of capital sloshes around in the form of venture funds, angel investor networks and wealthy individuals willing to place a bet on the Next Huge Thing. Some of the bets succeed, creating even more wealth and risk capital, and an upward spiral of innovation perpetuates itself.

San Francisco was also home to the human potential and counter-culture movements. Several decades hence, those movements have matured into established institutions promoting mindfulness and higher consciousness – Esalen, Spirit Rock, San Francisco Zen Center. More recently, institutions like UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) promote positive psychology and mindfulness training.

In other words, the San Francisco Bay Area has the talent, the capital, the connectedness and the infrastructure to foment the next revolution in human consciousness. So if that’s what you’re interested in, it’s a good spot.

The Quest for Housing

A lot of people seem to agree that San Francisco is one of the coolest places to live. That’s great, except that it creates virtually unlimited demand for housing. And you know what demand does: it drives prices up. Add to that height limits on buildings and a byzantine regulatory regime preventing the creation of new housing, and you get yourself a serious housing shortage.

San Francisco proper – about 49 square miles, or 127 km2 — is already tiny compared to behemoths like Los Angeles and Berlin. To live in the center of the action, you basically stay on the northeastern part of the city – about a quarter of the area of San Francisco proper. Areas like the Sunset and the Richmond are already considered the boonies in some circles.


That leaves a tiny part of an already tiny city as the desirable place to live. And if you’re picky like me and require such extravagances as a parking spot and a gas stove for your abode, you have just cut down the available housing stock by another 80%.

But no worries: I was an old hand at this. Within days of landing in town, I had found a nice bedroom in a new, large, luxury townhouse at an acceptable price. The twentysomething programmer roommates seemed to like me enough to offer the room to me, and asked me for a deposit to hold it, which I gave to them. And there was a spot in the parking garage! But, oh, that would cost me another $250. But neither of them had a car, so that didn’t make any sense – the spot was already empty. Oh, and utilities would be another $150 a month.

Now waitasec. $150 a month in utilities for 3 people means that the total cost would be $450 a month. Unless someone’s doing serious indoors horticulture or running a meth lab, that’s just ridiculous ($150 total would be more reasonable). At this point, I started to suspect that my future roommates were gouging me for far more than my fair share of the rent. My guess is that they were paying around $3200 for the place, and asking me to pay them around $2500 of it.

So in the spirit of transparency, I asked if I could take a look at the lease agreement and utility bills. Immediately I got an email from them saying the deal was off and they had found another person – even though I had already given them the deposit.

Amidst the scarcity and greed of the housing market, I’m sure this happens a lot. But still, that was some seriously bad form. People – I would suggest you think twice before doing business with Phil Plante and his roommate Troy, formerly of 49 Stevenson St. They did not do right by me.

Over the next 5 months, I must have queried over 500 different properties online and seen about 80 of them in person. Why did it take so long? Several factors were involved. First, I was a little picky. Requiring a parking spot and gas stove (for serious cooking!) eliminates most properties in the city.

Second, the competition was fierce. Some open houses I went to already had 20 people looking at the property. It’s not unusual to hear stories about people showing up with cash for the first year’s whole rent in hand, or even to propose a higher rent than the landlord is asking for.

Third, many of the properties weren’t quite the same as how they were listed. One of them that I was particularly excited about claimed to have 2 bedrooms. But the second bedroom happened to be a tiny living room that had French doors partitioning it from the kitchen. Not quite the same as a second bedroom. Four, shit happens. Twice I came close to leasing a place, and twice the process got derailed because – who knows.

I could probably write a novella about the housing ordeal. There are demographic issues. Oh no! Culturally-insensitive brogrammers taking over ethnic neighborhoods, gentrifying them and sending rents so sky-high that the original occupants can’t live there anymore. Oh no! People trying to build high-rises that mar the 3-story high San Francisco skyline. Oh no! “Real” San Franciscans being oblivious to the fact that they can’t oppose both gentrification and new housing and still make any sense in this earthly dimension.

There are legal issues (Ellis Act), socioeconomic issues (Google and Facebook buses, accidental trillionaires), geologic issues (landfill and liquefaction), and more stuff I don’t even know about yet. If you’re truly interested in understanding all the dimensions of the San Francisco housing crisis, this article is the best one I’ve read on the subject.

All I know is that finding me a dwelling was dastardly hard work and quite dispiriting. If you’re on the market for a place to rent, this is what I recommend you do:

  • Have with you at all times a copy of your current credit report, bank account balances, standard renter’s application, and a letter from your last landlord singing your praises as a model tenant. Others are doing this, and if you aren’t, you’re at a big disadvantage.
  • If you’re going to lease a place with more than one bedroom and plan on splitting the rent, have a housemate in mind. One of my deals fell through because the landlord insisted on meeting the housemate I did not yet have.
  • Use all online and offline tools at your disposal. Craigslist is helpful, but usually by the time something lists there, friends and family have already taken a look and passed on it. It’s still possible to find something good here, but expect about 1 response for every 4 inquiries.
  • ApartmentList app: Great resource with a lot of listings, but many of them will be stale by the time you get to them. Monitor the app like a hawk and watch for new listings as they pop up, then pounce on them early.
  • LiveLovely: Another iPhone app which has listings overlaid on a city map.
  • Real estate agents: These folks have access to rental information before it hits the market. They are excellent resources.
  • Property Managers: These are the ultimate insiders, since they know about upcoming vacancies in a building months in advance. Walk the neighborhood you like, write down the numbers of the property managers of desirable spots, and call them up. You just might strike gold.
  • Friends & family: Acquaintances know far in advance when someone is going to move out, and this insider information is essential in giving you a jump on the competition. This is how I finally landed my living space. A friend heard about my search, told me about a colleague who was looking for a housemate, and the deal was struck.



When I first landed in San Francisco, I didn’t have a very good feel for the city. All I knew was there were nice neighborhoods and less-nice neighborhoods, and I wanted to live in one of the nice ones.

One and a half years later, I have a better appreciation of what the neighborhoods in this town signify. One thing to know: San Franciscans take their neighborhoods very seriously. In the same way that New Yorkers ask where you live to put you on a mental socioeconomic/coolness grid, San Franciscans do the same. Granted, most city dwellers probably do something similar, but the exactness of the delineation and the meaning ascribed to it are particularly pronounced in this town. It’s probably like that in any city with a high enough population density.

For example, the Mission is scruffy and mostly Hispanic but being gentrified by the influx of tech money. So if you get a place there, it will be overpriced while still being somewhat unsafe (gangs!). But your neighborhood’s hip! South of Market is even more scruffy and dangerous, and even more expensive, since a bunch of high-rises went up there and lots of startups, attracted by the once-cheap rents, call it home. The Castro is for gays; Bernal Heights is for lesbians. Noe Valley is Strollerville for thirtysomething yuppies with kids. North Beach is Little Italy, with the requisite restaurants, party atmosphere and perpetual tourist influx.

Then there is the Marina, at the northern lip of the city, east of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a tidy, clean, neighborhood with lots of recognizable brand stores, medium-fancy women’s clothing shops, and eateries that are best described as American Meh. The denizens are consumer-class twentysomething yuppies, many fresh out of college and commensurately good-looking. It looks like the semi-posh neighborhoods of other cities like Santa Monica or Charleston: bland, but essentially harmless.

And yet, I have never heard so much anathema heaped upon a neighborhood. “Omigod, those Marina people are awful! They’re all just a bunch of pretty sorority girls and frat boys! Can you believe they made The Exploratorium move out of the neighborhood? They all wear J. Crew and baseball caps!” There may be some truth to that, and there is at least one bar in the Marina (called Bar None) which has a permanent installation of fraternity-style drinking games like flip cup and beer pong. But it’s surprising that a city that celebrates its tolerance can be so vehemently intolerant of some of its residents. The stigma’s bad enough that people who live in the Marina either pre-apologize for living there (“I’m on Chestnut Street, but I’m really not as awful as you think”) or just lie outright (“I live in Cow Hollow”, a fictional neighborhood specifically invented for this purpose, although I hear that once upon a time, cows grazed on the asphalt there).

The Marina is built on top of reclaimed land, and there is this whole liquefaction issue which I don’t quite understand. I think it means that if the ground shakes or Mother Earth is otherwise in a testy mood, terra firma melts and your house sinks into a giant vat of glowing-red lava. As exciting as that sounds, that’s a compelling enough reason for me not to live there. On a more serious note, the Marina sustained the most damage and fires in the 1989 earthquake. Otherwise, it seems like a reasonable place to live with plenty to offer.

The one thing I can’t explain away or excuse is how dirty the city of San Francisco is compared to a European city or even Los Angeles. Upon my arrival, what struck me was the amount of poop on the sidewalks everywhere. It’s so bad that people even play a game called “dog or human” when walking down the streets. For the amount of rent people pay for the privilege of living there and the myriad taxes that San Francisco charges, it’s a pretty incongruous detail.


I’ve driven a car for many years in Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles, and it’s safe to say that I have never seen worse drivers than those in San Francisco. It seems as if the standards for obtaining a license are completely suspended for Bay Area residents. You can open the door to your car? Congratulations! Here’s your license to double park, not use your turn signal pretty much ever, stop capriciously in the middle of the road instead of pulling over, and noodle on your cell phone while operating a steel street missile at 30mph.

That said, the drivers may not be entirely to blame: San Francisco driving is weird. There are miles long stretches of road where you can’t make a legal left turn (e.g. Mission St from Embarcadero to the 101) and right turns get you nowhere. This means that if you miss your crucial turn or are reluctant to make a kamikaze U-turn, you will end up in Fresno. This has happened to me; luckily, I like raisins.

Of any city I’ve seen, San Francisco seems to have the most streets that dead end into themselves. What does that mean? It means you’re going your merry way down Howard St, or Leavenworth St, and next thing you now, there’s oncoming traffic facing you. This is a most disconcerting experience if you’re not expecting it, since basically you need to make a quick right or left to dodge the oncoming Dodge (or Toyota Prius, more likely).

This means that conventional route planning doesn’t necessarily work here. In New York City or LA, you can reliably take a street from Point A to Point B without the street going poof on you. In San Francisco, there is no such luxury. As such, even after 1.5 years of driving here, I always calculate the route to my destination via GPS to avoid these kinds of nasty surprises. Google Maps, you are a godsend.

Traffic flow in San Francisco is also weird. Most streets are too narrow to have left turn lanes, so you either aren’t allowed to make the left or have to block your lane of traffic to make the turn – probably why they ban it in the first place. But then there’s always someone double-parked to unload groceries or wait for grandma, effectively blocking both lanes. Add to that the infuriating and mostly underutilized “Bus or Taxi Only” lanes, which may or may not be enforced, and streets where the stoplights are totally not synchronized at all, and you start to arrive at a simple conclusion: somebody doesn’t actually want me to drive here.

That suspicion is rapidly confirmed as soon as you stop driving and try to leave your car on terra firma. Parking in San Francisco is hard. According to a 2010 survey, there are 441,541 parking spots in San Francisco. Of those, only 280,000 are on-street spaces.

Now there are 380,000 cars registered in San Francisco, and an additional 61,000 trucks and motorcycles. And another 35,000 commuter vehicles come into the city during work hours.

Simple math says that we’re going to have a parking shortage. And then some genius came along and thought – I know how to solve this problem! Let’s make the parking meters even more expensive. And have them operate forever – till midnight in some neighborhoods, and on Sundays everywhere. Parking meters within a half-mile of AT&T Ballpark (home of the San Francisco Giants) will run you $7/hr – the most I’ve seen anywhere. I’m not entirely sure, but something about that just feels wrong.

The other thing that feels wrong is the missionary zeal with which San Francisco issues parking citations. In 2013, SFMTA issued $89 million worth of fines. That’s about $175 per year for every man, woman and child living in the city. The prices on these tickets are punitively high — $74 for a meter violation (versus, say, $25 for the same violation in Boston, a city of similar size and feel). After a while, you start to get this weird feeling that this city is trying to milk its residents for every possible penny so it can make up for its gargantuan budget shortfalls. Have they considered laying off some of the thousands of parking enforcement officers driving around in their little golf carts?

Granted, there are places that are even worse for parking – Manhattan, Amsterdam (or any European city really). But at least those cities provide viable transportation alternatives to driving. The NYC subway and bus system really work. Amsterdam is not only fantastically bike-friendly, but it also has a beautiful streetcar system.

San Francisco’s public transport system is pretty anemic in comparison. The high-speed transit, BART, has one main artery that doesn’t go to a lot of places. It’s as if you just have the Red Line in Boston’s T. It doesn’t get you where you want to go. Also, its circa-1975 drab benches with cheap fabric does not bespeak “world-class city with stupendous amounts of wealth.” The MUNI buses have more extensive routes, but there’s something surreally unpleasant about riding them. Maybe it’s the combination of overcrowding, floridly psychotic fellow passengers, strange aromas and tortoise-like speed.


Cycling in an urban environment is already a daunting prospect. You are keeping track of moving objects that can hurt you but aren’t aware of you. The cars sometimes see you, but the buses are pretty oblivious, and you’re weaving in and out of the same traffic lanes as these blind behemoths. Then there are the smaller, slower objects that you can hurt. These are called people, and their movement patterns are highly unpredictable.

Then you want to keep track of the terrain, because small bumps in the road can disable your bike, and one man-eating pothole can actually kill you. And then there are traffic laws, which you are trying to selectively honor and circumvent to conserve momentum and minimize travel time while avoiding death.

There is also this thing called weather, which creates slippery wetness on the road, reduced visibility, as well as snow and ice, and ice hiding under snow, and water hiding under ice, and ice hiding under water (all of which I experienced firsthand in Boston).

And let’s not forget the other cyclists, some of whom are professional bike messengers – i.e. they have a death wish and have no qualms about prematurely taking you down with them to Bike Valhalla. So biking basically becomes a cross between a giant 3-dimensional game of Frogger crossed with Mad Max.

As a lifelong cyclist, I was looking forward to getting around on my bike. After all, San Francisco’s pretty tiny, and with its progressive culture, it should be pretty bike-friendly. Right?

So far, no. There are a few things that scare me about SF cycling – more than Boston, more than LA, more than anywhere else really:

1) The asphalt is horrendously lumpy. Twice in the same day, I got a flat just going down Van Ness. This is something that had happened maybe once in a couple of decades of cycling. Twice in the same day = uncool.

2) San Francisco has some insane hills. Going up them is hard enough, but going down them is life-threatening for a two-wheeler. There is this thing you can do called The Wiggle, which minimizes the hills from Market St to Golden Gate Park. Such a cute name! Still doesn’t help me get me to my home in one piece.


3) Did I mention that the car drivers are terrible? They are also oblivious to your existence as a cyclist.

4) There are a couple of protected and separated bike lanes in the city (eg Market St), but for the most part, a bike lane consists of some green paint that is magically supposed to protect you from a 20-ton bus about to streetpizza you. Places like Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen have figured out this bike lane thing. Of course they’re so much smarter than us… wait, are they? Well then, we should be able to figure it out, too.


Combine these four, and I have become a very reluctant cyclist indeed – partially because I live on top of a series of very steep hills at this time. Perhaps when I move to a more bike-friendly neighborhood, I’ll hop back on.


Before moving to San Francisco, everyone told me that there are far more single men there than single women. And, according to the US Census Bureau and the excellent Interactive Singles Map, as of 2013 there are 44,696 more single men than single women in San Francisco.

How did this explain my observation that every time I visited San Francisco, I always saw large clumps of stylish single women dining, drinking and chatting amongst themselves with no men in sight? In fact, talking to the single ladies, you couldn’t be faulted to think that there’s a shortage of single men.

Well, there can’t be both an excess and shortage of the same thing. After a year and a half in the city, I have a better sense of what may be going on.

First of all, many of the unmarried men in San Francisco are interested in other men, not women. So the census numbers may be underrepresenting the number of single straight men.

Second, there may be a lot of boys, but a shortage of men. The women complain of a pandemic of Peter Pan syndrome, where the guys don’t feel compelled to accouter themselves with traditional hallmarks of adulthood: committed relationship, marriage, kids, house, minivan.

There’s some truth to that. I sense a subtle but pervasive attitude that the city belongs to singles, with families an anomaly that’s consigned to certain parts of town like Noe Valley and Diamond Heights.

What I have noticed is that there is a great diversity in romantic relationships in the city. Alternative lifestyles like polyamory and BDSM seem to flourish, to the point that there are entire street festivals catering to them. Homosexuals are established, and sex-positivity has the status of a legitimate movement. The populace fully embraces online and mobile dating means such as and Tinder (both based in the Bay Area); practically all singles I know have some kind of online presence.

Of course, all this freedom, tolerance and tech-forwardness comes at a price. There seems to be a general aversion to commitment or anything approximating it – say, making a promise in advance to show up at a certain time and place. The commoditizing, ephemeralizing effect of smartphone apps like Tinder, Grindr or OKCupid can’t be helping the substance or longevity of relationships either.

That said, San Francisco is full of educated, motivated young singles doing interesting things. Sure, there’s a lot of loneliness like any major city, and sometimes people work too hard. But there’s also a lot of freedom and fantastic folks looking for meaningful connection, so take heart.

All Things Artisanal

As I recall, the top of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was something like self-actualization. That means that once you have clothes on your back, food in your belly and some decent companionship, you start to worry about higher concerns – like giving your life meaning and stuff.

Clearly, Dr Maslow hadn’t tried artisanal cheese, unlike San Franciscans. And they have many stores to cater to their discriminating palates: artisanal chocolate, coffee, ice cream, bread, bread pudding, soap, cupcakes, mustache wax, and toast, just to name a few. These artisans treat their craft as religion, and some of them crank out some interesting results indeed.

It makes sense that as a city gets more and more affluent, people seek more and more rarefied treats. Forget really good coffee – who’s got the best coffee: Blue Bottle, Sightglass, Four Barrel or Ritual? This kind of thing can be fun and even joyous for a while, as long as it doesn’t cloy the palate and turn “Foodie” into a full-time job description. Artisanal anything – food, bedsheets, sex – is a kind of stimulant, and all stimulants have an upside-down U-shaped effectiveness curve: big gains in the middle range that diminish at higher doses. Overindulgence often translates as not getting as big as a kick out of the simple stuff, which paradoxically reduces the amount of pleasure you get out of life.

For those of you finding yourself in our fine city, I have a few recommendations. The local cheeses of Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building are well worth trying. I’ve been to Dandelion Chocolate once, and it was fun. And the ice cream at Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe and Smitten (made-to-order with liquid nitrogen!) are definitely worth writing home about.

A Festive City

In the end, what makes the cost, filth and occasional user-hostility of San Francisco bearable is that it’s a fun city. Where else do you get a 100-year old footrace of over 50,000 runners dressed up in costumes? People from all over the world come to run Bay to Breakers, and they all have a ball. Burning Man started here in 1986, and its spirit of giving and inclusion permeate the city throughout the year. There’s hardly a weekend without some major street or musical festival going on, all the way from the super-mainstream to the highly specialized: the huge Golden Gate Park festivals Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Outside Lands; Howeird Street Faire; Folsom Street Fair, the world’s biggest leather event; BottleRock Napa; Oyster Fest; SF Sketchfest; Stern Grove; and about 100 more.

All told, San Francisco’s a vibrant place that I’m happy to call home. As I write this, I’m taking a break in Hawaii and will soon be looking for a new apartment for an Oct 1 start (2 or 3 bedrooms in a nice neighborhood to share with 1 or 2 people, up to $2200/month for my share). So if you know of any leads, do send them my way so I can invite friends like you for dinner or have a place for you to crash when you visit.

*Only one of these is made up.

1 thought on “San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City

  1. Mike


    A lot of Soma is amazing and extremely safe (Yerba Buena and South Beach). No comparison in safety here vs the mission!

    Are you still in SF? Good luck to you!

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