EACH TIME I RETURN to San Francisco, I begin to sweat. As the 5 gives way to the 580, cutting west between yellow hills that insulate the Central Valley, my vision slows. As chrome windmills, a hundred feet tall, glint the tips of their blades in an unhurried spin, I hunch lower in my seat. As the bus descends into a hazy field of buildings along a cool, tinny shore, my shoulders tense. And even though I can’t place the source of pressure along my back, I accept it. Hold it close. Like a fetish, I savor it. Because the weight has become familiar to me.
I’ve fled this city more times than I can count, but each time I return, the water is still shallow. Still the same, milky green. Its deep currents flow toward the mouth of the bay where, under the arc of a bridge more ochre than gold, the silt floor drops to the ocean’s bottom 150 feet below. Maybe it’s that invisible suction, the confluence of small waves from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, that pulls me back. Each time I succumb to this gravitational tug, I am reminded of the simple fact that this is no longer my city, although I wanted it to be — my foreverland. Now, when I cross the Bay Bridge high above the city’s protective waters, I enter as a visitor. It may feel like a homecoming, but it’s a home no longer inviting. No longer viable. Gliding through the skyscrapers that clump along the Embarcadero, I can hardly breathe. The anxiety of remembering presses against the windows: how the rooms of this town made me, molded my view of the world as a place ruled not only by law or politics but by magic.
A pure, queer divine.
All languages have a word for nostalgia, but I prefer the Welsh term hiraeth because it can be used to describe homesickness. The internet says it cannot be translated into English well, but I’ve been told it has, infused within it, a taste of missing time. Memories are like words in the way their flavor shifts as we age. San Francisco was sweet once, then bitter, salty, and suddenly, a flooding umami, earthy and warm. Recently, though, it’s taken on another flavor — metallic, like iron — with a shift so subtle I didn’t notice it in my mouth, over my skin, in my nose, but now, entering the city again, it covers me.
If there were a word that combined forever visitor, missing time, and schizophrenic undoing, I’d use that instead to describe this sensation I can only call dread. The streets, dizzying in their rise and fall between apartments that cover the hills like an apron, domestic and orderly, are now littered with the bodies of those used, like batteries, for the digital revolution planned and executed along the peninsula. Getting off the bus at Fifth Street and Townsend, I see the number of these people grow. In storefronts, across sidewalks, hunched in alleyways, unconscious or staring into foot traffic at rush hour that has no place for them, they become objects for people to step over: a millionaire’s game of hopscotch.
But there’s nothing playful about the desperation that rises from the streets at morning and hovers deep into the night. It’s easy to forget that these people under cardboard and torn wool blankets came to this city for a reason. Some came on a bus, like I do now. Others were dropped here from jail or abandoned in waves as mental hospitals and halfway houses lost government funding. For them, the reason was beyond their control. But some were allowed to choose — drawn here, like I was — with a yearning to thrive. We shared a fantasy of a place immersed with that queer divine that rose from these shores and covered the continent like a promise. And those of us that choose and those of us without choice pile and intermingle.
San Francisco has always accepted, like the shell mounds that rise along its shores, the country’s unusable bits: discharged sailors who found their way to the basements of YMCAs, penniless miners, foreign launderers, railway workers, drifters and outlaws, women wanting nothing to do with skirts and decency, men wanting nothing to do with pants and decency, and those in between who came to be what no hometown could ever allow them to imagine as real.
Some struck it rich and built palaces on the crests of the 48 hills that waver the horizon. Some came poor and stayed that way. In the valleys, where streams once flowed to the water’s edge, the unusable found a place to hide. People are like small trinkets: with the right placement, they can remain invisible in plain sight. Monstrous, these misfits came and drank and spit and wandered the cliffs and beaches and made love and huddled against the cold Pacific wind.
Someone could write a hagiography of outcasts that found in this city a refuge. A chronicler might trace a mythology of those called here, as if this land were a theremin emitting queer signals only castaways could feel. A golden legend of the inevitable detritus of progress. But I don’t know if it happened that way. Nobody has told me. I haven’t read about it in history books. Perhaps newcomers became queer because of underground vibrations, the low violet light at sunset, the brine-soaked air that causes disturbances in one’s fantasies to make them desire what has been withheld from them. Perhaps they finally found solace in a body similar to theirs and different from all others, a unique being that transcends medical anatomy diagrams of flat, gendered bodies pricked with needle-thin lines pointing to terms that determine, before we are born, who we should desire.
The city understands and opens equally, a firm and subtle magnetism radiates along the beaches and bay inlets, the marshes and wooded parks, all small and cold. Giving into this magnetism, once again, I feel like I’m trying to cradle in my arms something slippery, a body that can’t be held, pinned down, made to speak the way I want it to. Constantly in motion, the city, too, seems unable to settle, as if the earthquakes that formed its hills have never stopped. Instead, they have become subtler in their vibrations, catching each building and park and streetlight in a constant, slow-motion hum.
Decades ago, the city was loose, built on wet boards of ships sunk in the bay that turned into docks and then wooden sidewalks and then firm ground, expanding the sandy slip of land well past its original eastern shore. The city juts into the water and stops as if held by invisible ropes. Maybe it’s that unspoken feeling of suspension that makes living here so precarious. As if we’re all stowaways on a ship barely docked to solid ground. As if we’re constantly on the verge of falling into the sea.
Some streets in North Beach are the unmarked pavers over hidden stories, wooden decks, rooms where a thousand ghosts wander. The Mission, too, with its two-story clapboard apartment buildings in a tight grid, hovers over a large lagoon fed by the Islais Creek named for wild cherries that grew along its banks once, where the Ohlone lived in the villages of Chutchui and Sitlintac. Covering imperfections, permeable surfaces too soft for urban enterprise were filled and hardened atop riparian habitats now squeezed between the water table and poured cement of municipal commerce: race tracks and baseball stadiums. Bridges. A zoo. A garbage dump where the diagonal streets turn abruptly south.
In this way, San Francisco was built twice. While Los Angeles was fabricated from painted cardboard and New York was formed from stacks of dollar bills casting shadows in the shape of skyscrapers, San Francisco emerged from deep within salty rock: a mythological creation, a place of upsurge, an energy field built by forces in the earth that people felt and amplified. Settlers have changed the landscape, planted trees, moved graveyards, but the land and its contours, its hidden creeks and valleys, are there, vibrating, and it’s these layers that sometimes converge and rise.
When a chill comes over rocks that stand darkly over small bays notched into the shoreline, you can feel it. Monterey Cypress planted by the city to beautify this otherwise barren landscape can’t hide the flow of energy underfoot. Heaves of sand have been paved over and edged with houses and cafés and hydroelectric metro lines, but the undulations of beach dunes still mark the city with soft curves at its hazy edge.
And covering it, fog shrouds everything in fantasy and reflects, from below, a cold mystery, as if the ocean wishes to hide the intensity and strangeness of this land from the rest of the continent: a neverland.
It might have been this chill that drove everyone inside, laid the foundation for a palace of belief that anything goes, every closed door inviting fantasy, a world held within a frame and therefore made sacred. I imagine the city quite dark then, everyone covered in mud from streets mucked and heavy from the weight of salt spray in a constant wash against the timber facades of hastily built homes with the hopes of gilded futures. Think of the number of strangers getting lost as they squinted in the mist, mid-afternoon struck with the noir of a streetlight haloed gray at the mouth of an endless alley.
Newcomers must have had to look for candles in storefront windows to find a refuge from the damp. But when you found that candle in the window; when you entered that dark bar and, as your eyes adjusted, noticed silhouettes of bodies with shapes to match your desires; when you sat far from the stage, lit to show every contour of an obsession you’d only seen in the back of magazines; when you thought of others walking outside in the chill with no knowledge of these bodies in illegal fabrics cut in criminal designs; when you admired their sway lit in a warm glow while two women, like subtle statues, caress rough pant legs, palm on inner thigh as they watch in their periphery a flourish of skirt and heels; when you settle and breathe and feel at home in an otherwise monstrous population where even the most lewd entertainment spilling out barroom windows and sailboat-brothels are allowed to spill, allowed to grace the sight of passersby because that type of debauchery falls within decent and natural lusts; when you know the culture outside helped compound the darkness of mist and fog with a violent and circumspect villainy against the very bodies that currently sing and nuzzle and dance around you; when you finally saw this network unfolding beneath the darkness, pulsing with a prismatic glow, a dog star within the underground, you knew, just by entering, you had made an irrevocable choice. This room, this bar, irradiated outward, through time, across neighborhoods, that underlayer, rising: to house us, to hide us behind cheap siding so that the chill of others might stay distant. Away from our bodies that might only find touch: here.
And as these rooms proliferated, those candlelit windows became lights along an analog circuit board, each singer and performer a node in an otherwise dark and mystifying background. It’s like each one of them was powerful enough to conjure around them a magic circle that, if you got close enough, would protect you. At least, for a little while.
All cities have an underlayer that pulses. And we pulsed with it, not knowing the lines of heritage that went into making it possible to have parties like these, raging into the air wet and sagging. These lines of inheritance are drawn not through bloodlines and genetics but makeup tips, fashion advice, the way hands might move on stage, a quiver of a lip, the slip of a finger against one’s back in public. These were passed not down but across generations, a type of horizontal inheritance personified through the performance of glamour, the fluidity of identity, and the way power is also fluid in how bodies are seen and recognized and used or abused or respected or made invisible or all too visible and problematic and the target of annihilative thinking. The way a mother to a drag daughter may be younger than the daughter herself. The way a drag queen may be a faux queen and thus a woman dressing as a woman, or a trans performer who becomes more of who he is when in full regalia, butch boots, and a mustache for days. Images and bodies and dresses and costumes and glitter and feathers and black paint and rubber and papier-mâché props and fans and confetti swirling from dance floor to stage and back again and up and down these small rooms we inhabited night after night lifted us — and in that rise, each of our bodies began to open.
There were bars and speakeasies and burlesque shows and strip clubs. And there were people wearing clothes tailored for bodies of a different shape and with different appendages, and the little brigades that rose up to check this sartorial betrayal were violent and sometimes took control. They would shoot to kill what was different and beat those they would discreetly ogle and tip with crisp dollars in a North Beach club after dark the night before.
José Sarria, in a handmade dress, would lead a pack of drunks in singing “God Save Us Nellie Queens” for the men jailed across from the bar, the ones caught touching another man’s skin in the sudden beam of a copper’s flashlight. A block away, handsome Gladys Bentley in her pristine, white tuxedo serenaded femme-lipped fans in Mona’s 440, while down the street, a swarm of female impersonators rushed Finocchio’s stage in a thunderous encore for visitors raucously forgetting their small-town lives in the bright lights reflecting off powdered faces. Through the tunnel under Nob Hill, Polk Street became a backdrop for streetwalkers and hustlers, baby faced, yet rough, cash handed from sweaty palm to clenched fist, while trans women slinked the shoulder slip of a camisole just slightly to show a nipple at Divas. And toward the supple mounds of Twin Peaks, where the fog begins its descent each afternoon, Sylvester would sing at the Elephant Walk, her beaded wig and dark skin shimmering in the spotlight, disco beats cascading through the valleys that lead toward the flatlands of SOMA with its leather bars and dirty dives that held the city close as bodies began piling up in hospitals and bay-windowed bedrooms along the quiet streets. In Hayes Valley, the House of Fish shot futurist scenes for Vegas in Space dressed in gowns collected from garbage cans in alleyways named for hookers a hundred years dead, with cityscapes made of perfume bottles and lipstick and sets covered in faux fur from overstock shops in New York in magenta, lime green, yellow, and hot pink.
And through time and around corners, the magic flowed and emerged as if the peninsula itself trapped the energy as it moved north and, stopped by the waves on three sides, it rose to the surface in spurts. Some turned away, sickened by the smell. Others gathered round and closed their eyes and inhaled. And the magic moved from land to mouth to stage to barfly in a buzz that, on an especially quiet night, one might mistake as a low purr, as if the city were alive and dreaming.
By society’s standards, we were headed down a road of decadent destruction. And we were okay with that, expanding days and weeks through wasting time. The gift of misusing time is perfected by those who trickle it through their fingers as they wait for a potential lover, an evening to wear their latest thrift store gem, a drink, a dance. When you are raised to believe that time is money, then wasting time is a capitalist crime. And we indulged in it daily. Each and every action ended with that night, that look, that number, that photograph becoming a marker of our ability to create, over and over again, a monumental tapestry of identities and faces. Around midnight, the line between dance floor and stage dissolved. I’ve read about medieval royal theater parties where performers and audience members, dressed in the same finery, would mingle after the play and dance together and make love in frilly corners while duchesses and actors pretended to care with a show of mock indignation. We, likewise, created and watched simultaneously, a miasma of bodies that reinvented ourselves as the night wore on, branching out, severing into pieces, then melting back again, lights flashing and fog machines whirring syrupy smoke in between our legs.
There was a sense of needing to feel like we had a place, where we wouldn’t have to feel the daytime feeling. And suddenly, after sunset and the calming of breezes in the dark, we could finally breathe again, vigilant under streetlamps.
I knew nothing of this San Francisco when I moved to the East Bay years ago, but I felt its pulse, a rusted jewel tucked under the Bay Bridge. At night, the lights across the water twinkled like the sound of laughter and clinking of champagne glasses prisoners at Alcatraz could hear when the breeze shifted north. That’s a story I’ve heard. I don’t know if it is true. But the way the wind moves made me think it possible, since I too received those lights as if I was witnessing a world withheld from me.
This all changed when I let the flow of those rivers take me toward the city, the power suck me there. Soon, I was deep, our pint bottle of whiskey glinting streetlamp yellow as we passed it around, our fake furs rising up and down our shoulders as we laughed, chests exposed to the cool wet night, our real fur keeping us warm with the booze in our bellies, the parties pinpoints of light, glowing embers emerging from behind concrete pillars and dark wooden stairs, from storefronts with a string of multicolored bulbs above the door, a lit-up arrow, a small crowd of smokers standing against a blank blue wall. The parties drew us to them, but even before we arrived, as we narrowed down our outfits, chose our gold chains, plucked our nose hair and poured a drink, and wandered — the long way — through empty streets at midnight, we were there.
They say San Francisco is built on a crystal pyramid buried somewhere below the sloping streets. As the sun rises, its refracted rays sparkle like a gem to remind you of its presence underfoot. The thick air muffles daylight and flattens trees into silhouettes that melt into sea-brine and breeze. The buildings rise with the rents, but that crystal feeling still flows underground and, as you open, it rises through your feet and enters your heart, anchoring you in a city afloat on a rising and falling tide of uncertainty washing this city in money that swept so many of us away.
And the dread appears again like the stench of low tide — the desperation of a city whose magic is constantly tilting toward the edge of catastrophe. But is it an inevitable earthquake or dot-com coup d’état that keeps everyone alert, one hand along a wall to give some stability? As I do, now, walking down Sixth Street, street people chatting, knocked out in heaps, blasting music, nudging cigarette butts out of the gutter with a bandaged toe. As I approach the warehome once again and play the game of hop-the-body, the buzz of history crushes me.
Not because we are helpless.
Not because we have entered a devil’s deal with technology, digitizing our freedom away with each passing app.
It’s because that crystal pyramid is still there, underground, vibrating the air, the streets, the fog, the skyscrapers. The dread comes from its glint withheld: that constant wash of gold and brine, a magic that might save us, invisible yet humming somewhere just out of reach.
JH Phrydas is a writer, poet, and queer preservationist. He is the author of Levitations (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), Empire in Shade (Essay Press, 2017), and Imperial Physique (Punctum Books, 2019).
Banner image: "west san francisco fog" by Ed Schipul is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.