A personal essay written while living in San Francisco.
Growing up in rural America, I imagined San Francisco as a far off fairytale land with sacred Meccas such as the City Lights bookstore, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Castro – all as mythical as the television show, “Full House.” In college, my girlfriends and I fantasized about a pilgrimage to a place where our futures didn’t depend on hiding our identities. But, when I arrived in 2014, my image of a Gay Promise Land shattered.
I first noticed not the architecture, nor the blending of cultures I envisioned in collegiate daydreams. In all directions, advertisements or billboards smacked me upside the brain with some internet meme derived slogan or, yet another iPhone advertisement. Then, the overwhelming smell of burning marijuana stole a close second, with the thousands of homeless, suffering daily from police brutality visible through the smoke.
Now here, I watch humans drown in advertisements screaming memes from once-trending YouTube videos specific to the ages of the targeted audiences. Municipal transit lives and breathes what once resided within the confines of magazines and television. To survive, I wear my indifference like scuba gear. Yet, the materialism and the artificial state of California seeps through my protective barriers. Classic business attire implies age because physical appearance cannot be trusted here. Saving money exists as a hobby-like pastime for those wealthy enough to have any part of their paycheck left after paying the costs of living. At the ripe old age of 24, someone assumes I’m in my 30s because I wear east coast style business attire when instructed to dress “business casual” instead of seasonal fast fashion trends business-appropriate enough to pass.
In San Francisco, I learn that to be a member of my community I have to choose: be a walking advertisement and suffer the professional consequences, or be myself and exist just under the calibrated range for Gay-dar. San Francisco redefines Pride for me as between two communities, unable to belong to either – hated by both.
While trying to eat my lunch at work, I listen to a group of San Franciscans talk about how they “totally judge” every single person they meet by their shoes. I try to tune out, but their voices echo in the open floor plan. Tevas, Chacos, Vibram 5-fingers, and Birkenstocks are on their “this person is not worth my time” list – each person shares their particular nuances. I try not to listen and shove my face with Safeway Alaska Roll, hoping the chewing will drown them out. It doesn’t.
According to these white, San Franciscan women, the first offense by anyone wearing these shoes is their lack of fashion sense. Mortal sin if they combine these shoes with socks. The second offense? The price paid for these shoes. Why? Don’t worry. They share that too. Apparently, “anyone choosing to wear any of these brands should be spending their money on much nicer looking shoes” that don’t make them look like “wanna-be outdoorsy people who can’t stand to be in the office.”
One woman, her Brazilian blowout blonde hair quivering, charges into a rant about a man she sat next to at a conference in Seattle. He wore Vibram 5-finger toes that, without saying anything, conveyed the message, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m too good to be here.”
I look down at my feet. Having owned a nice pair of black nylon-strap Teva sandals, I listen as these women continue voicing their prejudices against those that prefer durable, comfortable footwear. But this is normal. In San Francisco, I don’t know if the consistency helps. Perhaps I should take comfort in knowing that I can expect strangers will always be judging me based on the appearance of my feet and not on any other qualities of my existence – they are literally looking down on me even when I’m at a shared eye level.
On the train home, I gaze out at this fallen Mecca with its urine-soaked streets and drug numbed population. How did I get it so wrong? “That’s just wrong,” someone echoes. Finding a spot along the seawall overlooking the Bay Bridge, I sit at the Embarcadero. The bay glistens, dancing blues absent of humans. Others find happiness here. Why not me?
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