An illustrated narrative of neighborhood life in San Francisco.
I think I miss the fog the most. It was like the city’s signature at the end of every day, this pluming blanket coming home to tuck me in.
. . .
One time, just as Karl was rolling in, I was walking through Golden Gate Park when a stranger approached me. He asked if I’d seen a tree with a plaque dedicated to his late brother. I hadn’t, so in return I asked him if he knew what type of tree it was. The man smiled. Even if he never found it, he said, he’d be just as happy imagining it could be any one of them. He waved his hand toward the treetops and together we gazed. Somewhere in those misty evergreens, his brother was memorialized.
. . .
In 2011 I left LA to pursue an undergrad degree at USF. After being raised in the oppressive heat of the San Fernando Valley, I was quick to embrace the Bay Area’s cooler climate. Cooler still was the relaxed friendliness of San Franciscans like the man I met in the park that foggy afternoon. Harder to embrace was the occasional odor of pretentiousness, but in a city of great progressive heights, I knew I’d be in for a few inflated egos. I took it as trading one brand of hot air for another. Thankfully, my older brother had already been going to USF for two years and so laid the groundwork for my osmosis into San Francisco’s sweeter side. The city’s culture of ground-level authenticity—greasy spoons, artist communities, and mom-and-pop shops—empowered my modest inner sense of self and showed me the beauty of humble truths. Enrapt, I took root.
3rd Avenue & Geary
It was an era of selective responsibility. A full night’s sleep was fully negotiable, a good education not so much. On weekdays I studied for school and on weekends I studied fellow students at house parties, bar crawls, and major events like Outside Lands. I swear those chaotic three-day music festivals were still easier to navigate than social cues. Most of this study took place at my brother’s apartment at 3rd Ave and Geary, a moldy, dilapidated place with fading wood floors that whined crankily at the sheer audacity of a footstep. I’d look up and half expect to see stalactites hanging from the ceiling. But hey, it was an affordable, veritable cave of wonders that I spent much of my time in, until I officially came to live there for its last summer as our homestead. Sweet memories of it conjure smells of fried food, bong rips, and the stale beer of a forgotten 40-ounce—the “wounded soldier.” Wounded though we were the mornings after, the engines of our youth soldiered on.
Central Ave & Page St
By the grace of Craigslist I found a cozy sublet on the corner of Central and Page, two blocks from the Panhandle. The people-watching on Haight was always a treat, but during Bay to Breakers it was an absolute sugar rush. One of many annual participants was my roommate, a kindergarten teacher by day and belly dancer by night. Her spotless apartment smelled like lavender oil and tasted of Eastern sensibilities, a far cry from the flavors of my last home peopled with “blossoming” young men. By royal decree I routinely watered the many plants in my fully furnished bedroom. I’m proud to say they flourished more under my care than any other tenant before me, and happily used that fact to validate my otherwise lack of discipline. All the while, a large red parasol levitated above my bed and watched me like some frilly sentry. I remember pacing beneath it many times while trying to force entire term papers due the next day. Managing money was an education all its own, pushing me to find another place more within my means. And so, with memories of incense and east Asian decor stowed away, I left the splendor of Central and Page behind.
8th Ave & Balboa St
I returned to live with my brother, this time at 8th Ave and Balboa. Our rent-controlled apartment sat like a jewel in baby-stroller suburbia, a stone’s throw from Clement Street’s colorful string of family-owned restaurants and businesses. It was also my first signed lease in the city. At last I’d achieved some level of stability and permanence that made me feel like a functioning adult with a home to lay claim to. And hell, who even needs a dining room table when any surface will do? Together with our two other roommates, my brother and I created something like a familial household, complete with coordinated dinner plans and movie nights. Gone were the zany characters of Upper Haight, but in their place was my brother’s extensive network of friends, all of whom were making lives for themselves. By then my brother was so fully attuned to the many underground wonders of San Francisco that naturally, I was compelled to follow his lead. However, this led me to grow overreliant on him. His ready-made group of friends caused me to neglect making friends of my own. In an effort to rediscover my independence, I struck out on my own again.
Haight St & Steiner St
I decided to take a chance on a sublet at Haight and Steiner, in the Lower Haight’s worn and battered epicenter, where I lived for three years with a dodgy leaseholder. The entire neighborhood felt lived-in, like an old shoe, but with a high thread count of charm. I was greeted daily by a tapestry of local color, from the rotation of squatters who sat on my stoop to the barkeeps at Molotov’s and Toronado to the sausage vendors at Rosamunde. One of the block’s regulars was an elderly homeless woman we’d all take turns buying dinner for (and occasionally call the paramedics for). I would stay in to avoid the teeming droves from 420, Hardly Strictly, and SantaCon as they flooded the street. To be fair, the block was tailor-made for them: four bars in a single stretch and cheap eats to match. The block was more like an oasis every day, surrounded by high-end housing complexes that pushed the old guard out and raised the cost of living. My unemployed leaseholder-roommate felt the pressure and decided he’d had enough of moral ambiguity. He stole two months’ worth of my rent money and completely disappeared on me. As a subtenant left in a tricky situation, I exercised my limited rights to just get the hell out of there.
In 2019, I moved into my last little foothold in San Francisco, an apartment on Arguello directly above Velo Rouge Café. It exuded a fittingly calm and relaxed atmosphere for my “sunset year” in the Bay Area, as I fattened up on nostalgia and breakfast food alike. I contemplated my time in the city and wondered why, for all its warmth and richness, I had never achieved much beyond a nomadic lifestyle there. None of my prospective homes had seemed to stick. I’d long since graduated from USF, so was my love for the city my only remaining tether to it? Or perhaps my love for it had really just been infatuation.
It was different for my brother. He didn’t assimilate into the Bay Area; he became an embodiment of it. He fought to keep his artistic community afloat amidst the torrential tech boom. He improvised to keep pace with the climbing cost of living. He made it work, and that was love. In those last few months I saw it in him as strongly as I had in earlier days, in contrast to my own shaky resolve. For some reflection on that, I toured my old stomping grounds, especially at Haight and Steiner, to invoke something. Outside the liquor store beside Molotov’s I came upon a makeshift shrine. The homeless woman who I used buy dinner for and give blankets to on cold nights had passed on.
. . .
I’ve been back in LA since 2020. The heat still doesn’t agree with me. I miss Karl, and my brother. But even in this uncertain time of my life, made so untenable by the ensuing pandemic, I’ve chosen to simply move forward as I always have, but this time with the wisdom of the path I was on in San Francisco. If anything, the unknown seems ripe with possibility. I look forward to all the places I might have to pass through before finding where I belong, and I’m just as happy imagining it could be any one of them. ♦
Armanda Chavira is a self-taught artist and self-targeting humorist originally from Los Angeles. He’s currently sharpening his creative edge as a production coordinator at Titmouse Inc. animation studio. His hobbies include writing and illustrating comics and zines.