Over the years I’ve periodically encountered cheek kissers; people whose preferred greeting consists of a series of puckered lipped head maneuvers. When I was younger the kissers were usually someone’s girlfriend, a “glamourous” White girl from Seattle or Los Angeles who pronounced “Nicaragua” as if ordering a fancy cocktail and blurted out “Guatemala” so that each syllable crashed into the next. Deploying these place names, with the right enunciation, apparently signaled a certain wokeness, akin to the pleasure composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, got in the 1960s from introducing “my dear friend, who is in the Black Panthers.” A delicious mixture of naughty coolness. Today’s similar thrill might be captured by having a dinner guest who used to be a chief or native princess on an island that no longer exists, drowned by rising seas.
In a cheek kiss, you’re supposed to lean forward and either (1) lightly touch cheek to cheek or (2) lip to cheek. The gesture is then repeated with the other cheek, alternating cheeks, two, three, even four times. Simultaneous handshaking might be involved, if the cheek kisser is a man. A gratuitous hug could be thrown in, of the rounded shoulder variety, with all serious contact strictly avoided. Not a hug of affection, but of the kind that suggests perhaps one of the parties is an insect.
No matter how many times I’ve encountered glamorous White girl from Seattle, the Londoner with the artificially thickened British accent, or that guy from France who smiled way too fiercely, I always messed things up. My lips would miss their cheek, and accidently hit their lip; I’d prematurely stop at two kisses, leaving them puckered up in mid-air awaiting the third. I’d hug too much air, or too little.
I suspect that the cheek kissing crowd was purposely messing with me, changing their choreography each time, no doubt guided by the latest Cheek Kisser Today magazine or app. The encounter felt like a battle between two barnyard fowl, which the cheek kissing promulgator always won, strutting off in triumph, leaving me humiliated and smaller.
And that, my friends, sums up my relationship with San Francisco.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for more than half my life. I own property here, publish a community newspaper, raised a daughter, even ran for City Supervisor. Yet I still feel like the guy who wasn’t invited to the party being held right next door by cheek kissers who insist that we’re dear friends. In San Francisco FOMO isn’t a form of paranoia. It’s real.
I’m not alone in this feeling. There are lots of people, rich and poor, black, white, brown who know, deep in their San Franciscan hearts, that the City wouldn’t cross the street to say hello to them, or worse, might stop abruptly in front of them, pause for a long moment, turn on hazard lights, and pretend that no one’s behind them.
Old school lesbians, with their ill-fitting jeans and fondness for unfashionable vests, were chased to the East Bay long ago, replaced by drag queens, who gamely took over the job of portraying womanhood’s best characteristics. African Americans? Forget about it. San Francisco, reluctantly made aware that almost its entire black population had been displaced by redevelopment and home foreclosures, came up with the most San Francisco of solutions. Buy the Golden State Warriors and move them from Oakland, thereby doubling the City’s black population. A bonus is that every one of the players has a sponsor to watch over them!
San Francisco is like an exquisitely attired man, woman, or gender-binary-being sitting at a lux-artsy bar, carelessly anticipating the next round of complimentary handcrafted cocktails, inevitably sent over by a new admirer. He, she, they are always faux-happy to see you, ready to give the most elaborate of cheek kisses, but quickly gets distracted, looking over your shoulder to scrutinize that cute billionaire-philosopher-creative-entheogenic drug dealer who just walked in. If you don’t have a show, you may as well not show up.
The best metaphor for San Francisco politics might be a large, unruly, dog kennel. A cacophony of small dogs constantly barking, with a whiff of filth and corruption hanging in the air. Most of the important things – preparing school lunches, deciding what streets to clean, and who gets playtime – happens behind closed doors, decided by largely unseen powers. Occasionally, an outsized “woof” is heard – the FBI arrests a City Supervisor or department head; a homeless person dies of exposure under a playground’s monkey bars – momentarily stunning the smaller creatures into silence. But never for long.
Large corporations regularly swagger into San Francisco as if they own it, only to ultimately wake up on the sidewalk, drool pooling at their mouths, pockets empty, regretting that they ever bought that first round of drinks. Each of them thought they were indispensable to San Francisco’s economy and culture. Until quite suddenly, they weren’t. The list of buildings etched with the names of former grand occupants would fill a Colma cemetery: Bank of America, Bechtel, Caterpillar, Esprit, Folgers, Hills Brothers Coffee. Who knows who’s next? Charles Schwab? Uber? Visa?
Everyone’s disposable in San Francisco. Perhaps the only one who wasn’t was the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. His Twitter-anticipating style of journalism pulled together San Francisco’s knotted cultural strands in a way that, for a snappy moment, seemed to suggest that the City had a soul. If it did it left a long time ago, decamping to Santa Fee, maybe, or Boise, where the schools are better.
San Francisco alters its personality more often than most people wash their clothes. The 1980s Bacchanalian celebration of gay liberation was abruptly chopped down by the HIV/AIDs epidemic, effectively ruining sex for the next few decades. San Franciscans naturally turned to the next best sins, gluttony and greed. The City morphed from being a place in which scoring a delicious burrito or plate of chow mien for less than $5 gave one bragging rights, to one where it’s considered normal to pay a day’s worth of minimum wage for a burger soaked in rare truffles topped with foam spat up by an irritated oyster. So expensively yummy! Artsy Burning Man types pushed back, with ideas about the “gift economy” and radical participation, only to be themselves pushed out, their live-work warehouses transformed into million-dollar condominiums, crafted by the cup coffeemakers at the retail level.
San Francisco’s natural loveliness used to be accentuated by its built environment. But we no longer seem to know how to properly put on makeup, slathering it on too thick, using the wrong products. Everything beautiful that’s constructed here was erected long ago. The Golden Gate Bridge, Victorians, Alamo Square, Golden Gate Park, the Cliff House, all creations of people who are dead. The one big exception, the recently renovated Crissy Field, reflects an attempt to undue past mistakes, returning marshland to what it was before we messed it up. The effect is like living in a great-aunt’s graciously appointed mansion, filled with doilies and sliding doors that pretend to serve as walls, but never enough plugs to charge your phone.
Most of what’s new is at least slightly parasitic, feeding off past beauty and still present wonderous topographies and vistas. San Francisco tolerates Mission Bay because it produces enough wealth to buy the next round of drinks. Plus, we had to put the Warriors somewhere. The Salesforce Tower speaks for itself. The residents of freshly built South-of-Market lux-rises, admiring their vast views, don’t really live in San Francisco, but occupy it. The famous foggy air neither enters nor departs their hermetically sealed edifices.
Then there’s the excruciating wealth/technology divide that produces an uncomfortable science fiction effect. Great expectations unfolding on top of a bewildering present. Not long ago I was walking down the 18th Street pedestrian bridge over Highway 101. As I entered the downhill slope, I heard what sounded like a deranged voice shouting from a source I couldn’t see. At the bottom of the ramp, I encountered a screaming man lying on a tattered sleeping bag, just as a driverless Waymo vehicle glided silently past on the adjacent street.
It’s was an apt tableau. San Francisco’s perfect future might well be driverless and passenger-less vehicles, continually traversing an elegant city that’s at its best when gleefully ignoring potential disturbances. Which is why tourists have always loved San Francisco most. They know they’re short-timers, temporary visitors who are happy to just bask for a while in the glow of such a wonderful city. The hearts they leave behind are quickly sautéed and served on a bed of Yamashita spinach.
This angry comic rant, which was written before the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e., a lifetime ago) was inspired by conversations Moss had with several individuals about San Francisco: a Haight Street native who is itching to move to Oregon, fed up with “how hard” the City is; a venture capitalist who claimed that every San Francisco-based company he’s working with wants to relocate; an import from Michigan, who for decades insisted that she’d never leave San Francisco, but is now “done.”