San Francisco Summer
It doesn’t take long for a cloud to travel across the San Francisco sky — starting at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge (the city’s only fog machine right now, but I heard Sequoia is investing in a new competitor), across the Presidio, up and over Nob Hill, and finally slowing down a bit over Mission Dolores Park for a quick coffee chat with the picnickers only to zoom away, down the peninsula towards the bay. In a city that Moves Fast and Breaks Things, even the clouds have places to be, and back-to-back calendar meetings to schedule. One second you’re cussing out the invisible gusts of wind that tear through your sundress (because per usual, you saw the azure blue sky outside the second story window of your light-yellow Italianate row house and tricked yourself into ambitiously thinking that “today it would be different” and San Francisco would finally get its summer), the next moment the air is still, heavy with the scent of unwashed bodies in makeshift tents outside your metal-barricaded door and the silence of an apocalyptic post-Saturday night morning. By then, the clouds have long gone, carried by the same transience that bring millions of people to the city each year, chasing the Next Big Thing.
San Francisco is a city that people move through. As a result, the city feels tired–– like a patron who had overextended his hospitality and now just wanted to close up shop for the night –– with its sweat-stained pavement and eyebags heavy under rusty fire-escape landings. The neon-colored mural of Jimi Hendrix across the street from the sharp mint, baby blue, and electric yellow townhouses carry echoes of their past life as the backdrop to 1967’s unforgettable ‘Summer of Love.’ That was a summer of LSD and lawlessness, marijuana and music, love and liberal politics, carried by tides of young hippies rolling through Haight-Ashbury and Mission streets chanting peace, love and freedom. It became an overcrowded summer, and the streets filled with the hungry and the homeless, and crime rates soared. The exodus began; in wake of the event, a funeral called “Death of the Hippie” was held. Even back then, people were moving through. Like me, they were only there for the summer.
I took the bus up Mission Street for the first time on a Monday morning during rush hour. We jolted to a halt in the Tenderloin, and a screaming duo boarded the bus from the back doors. “YOU TOOK MY KIDS AWAY, YOU FUCKER” “YOU SON OF A BITCH, I’M GOING TO FIND YOUR FAMILY AND FUCK YOU UP”. The bus driver yelled for them to quiet down or find another bus. The duo obliged, shuffled to the back, and I thought that would be the end of it. A short while after, the screaming started again. This time, it was much more incoherent- I couldn’t quite catch what was said, but I understood they were high. I looked around with confusion (tinged with fear), expecting someone to meet my eye. I was met with everyone’s focused stare ahead. It was no one’s responsibility. You don’t let it disturb you if you don’t think about it. Even the bus driver was tired. She had just yelled at someone else earlier who had boarded the bus without wearing a mask— which had gotten a good round of dirty looks. This is a city where more than 2 people die a day from drug overdose. Everyone is crazy, and it’s nobody’s business. Glare at the jogger running past without a mask. But man with the tattered shirt, laying on a battered tarp held down by a shopping cart on one end and a spring-exposed couch on the other, injecting themselves in the neck on a Tenderloin sidewalk, and preaching to passerby’s about the Other-Worldly Kingdom that was about to rain death and destruction upon the world, who on second glance you realize can only be a few years older than your friends in college? Eyes Intensely Ahead, Small Quick Steps, and you’ll be left alone –– that was the social contract.
This Insanity extends beyond the back of the bus. It coursed through the veins of counter- culture hippies decades earlier, and courses through the spirit of the city now: the world is our oyster and the future holds greatness. Crazy isn't a new normal; it's always been championed, celebrated, demanded. Employers look for crazy people to hire. VCs look for crazy ideas to invest in. The crazier the better. Just a different kind of crazy. The opioid epidemic is crazy, but it wasn’t a sexy crazy. It was a sore-eyed crazy; it was too crazy.
There is equality in this craziness. Anyone can raise a venture round from a16z (everyone who has a ‘friend who just raised’). Anyone can build The Next Big Thing (and be the next big thing). Anyone can get into clubs: this is a city where people pre-buy their tickets or wait in line patiently for entry, without the fanfare of promoters and friends-with-tables and knowing-the- owner.
I’ve always thought about the irony in the name ‘Temple Nightclub.’ After a long weekend at work, San Francisco goes to Temple. To cleanse the soul, loosen the body. In the same way someone might frequent a mosque, church or temple in the mornings as part of a routine, this was ours. It gave us rhythm. We clocked in and out; we were devotees.
The main room, basketball-court in length and two stories high, is plastered with LED screens on all walls, enshrining us, trapping us. We were transfixed and hypnotized by the brilliance and the excess. The crowd moved as one; we worshipped the altar. And when the DJ yelled: “SAN FRANCISCO ARE YOU READY,” no one dared to yell otherwise. This city leaves behind those who aren’t ready. So with throbbing temples and subdued hearing, we yelled back: yes we are. The sheer ecstasy of the drop made us feel like the main characters we all wanted to be, in the future we were busy building.
The neighboring room was a temporary place of respite. Slightly more relaxed EDM music played — deep house –– perfect for a Friday evening “Builders and Founders Party,” booked out by your standard tier 1 fund and complete with a respectable representation of Patagonia vests zipped over checkered shirts. Generic abstract watercolor blobs line the walls; dim neon lights alternating between pink, green and blue insisted: We’re In A Different Space Now. This room was an art gallery in the day time. The club is nuanced; it wasn’t just for ‘raging’. It was artistic and sophisticated, in the same way that ‘culture fit’ questions at tech companies now ask you about your philosophical musings and phenomenological outlooks on your idea of self. We Talk About Art And Understand The World’s Problems, they insist. (“How would you design the governance system of a Mars Colony?” someone asked for an interview once. The world is on fire, but we can build our way out of it, was the correct answer). Sadly, the plastic frames and cheap prints gave them away.
With this optimism comes a refreshing openness to San Francisco. If anyone can be the future, who you know becomes the ultimate ‘investment.’ This is a bread and butter currency everyone is willing to buy in to. From the man deadlifting in the rack next to you at FitnessSF, to the group in their mid 20s each wearing shirts emblazoned with different startup-logos trudging along in front of you on the Mt. Tam hiking path on a Saturday morning, when anyone can be your next co-founder of employer, conversations are charged with opportunity. A more fitting descriptor may be opportunism; ”What do you do?" and "What are your side projects?" are the standard conversation openers.
The first time I was un-ironically asked, “who do you know” at a sunset founders dinner, I scoffed and replied indignantly: “who do YOU know.” The straightforwardness is almost refreshing. As always, it’s a city of “who do you knows.” But coming from the East Coast and cities like Hong Kong built on generational wealth, there’s an equality to San Francisco’s social climbing. This is a city that cares less about who you are, but more about what you’ve done.
Or at least it tries to be. My time here has also shown me that SF’s equality excludes. Everyone is furiously building solutions to 'make the world a better place', but it just so happens that this 'world' does not include the streets of the very city they live in. 'This world' consists only of niche banking products, health tracking app that allows us to be more 'data-driven' with our body, and NFT trading platform that allows you to breed your own digital cows. Everything else is boring. Everything else is the present, not the future.
A cliff landing in the Marin Headlands overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. My roommate and I drove up late one night, with an itch for adventure and a yearning for a taste of the freedom that had drawn so many before us to the city. Windows down, we blasted EDM remixes of popular songs the entire way up. When we arrived, it was very windy; anything that left my lips was swept away immediately into the darkness below. Consequently, I spoke courageously.
It was summer, but it was cold. The onslaught of wind left us huddled in our sweatshirts with the sleeves flapping in the wind as we held our bodies. We gasped for air, but we were not shivering. I was awake, feet planted firmly on the granite, bright eyes locked on the hazy future that rolled on under the night. We could not tear our gaze away from the grandiosity: the deep rusted red - a color of a sunrise in its infancy and the sacrifice of my parents, of a world in flames. We couldn’t tell the fog from the fire, but this was our view. Here before us was the highway to the golden land of opportunity, and all we had to do was drive.