Families

Published on August 24th, 2016 | by Melissa Chandler

9

You Can Take the Girl Out of San Francisco…Or Can You? MELISSA CHANDLER Questions the Meaning of Home

I moved to San Francisco’s Russian Hill back when it was still possible to find an affordable one-bedroom apartment. The place is old, built in the 20s. Everything is creaky and uneven. The walls are bumpy as topographical maps, with decades of overlapping quick paint jobs. There’s a special nook carved into the hallway, from a time when telephones were so bulky they needed a dedicated space.

I’ve been in the city for 14 years, and in this apartment for six, thanks to rent control. I feel lucky to be in my neighborhood, now that the rental market has gone insane. Times are changing, or I guess they always have been, but it seems like in this era of apps, the changes are delivered to our doorsteps at lightning speed. Russian Hill has transformed, with storefronts going vacant, leaving unexpected voids so often that I think of my neighborhood as a small child prone to losing teeth. No more Big Foot Lodge. No more Red Devil Lounge. No more open-air Yoga on the rooftop of Lombardi Sports. Shiny new wine bars have grown in, and an Acai bowl place. I stand in line with my friend while she tells me how to pronounce it: “Oss-Ai-Eeee,” and I feel inexplicably clumsy.

My partner moved in with me. We had a baby. We brought her home to our bumpy old flat, and it’s hers now. She has claimed 100% of our living space and 200% of our time, with the confidence of a military chief. Her father and I do her bidding like new cadets, sleep deprived and scared shitless and proud.

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The days feel blurry, hazy like the fog that that sits over our back window’s morning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our daughter is a year old. She loves that north-facing window. She stands at it grinning, beating her tiny palms against the glass, shouting things that only she understands at the trees and the cars and the people outside. I don’t suppose she has ever looked at our neighborhood and thought, “I’m lucky to be here at all,” and I’m so glad. It can tire you out, the constant gratitude that you are surviving in a place. I grew up in foster care, and gratitude was a particular theme of my childhood. I always had the sense that I had better not take off my grateful hat for long. Thank you for letting me live with you. Thank you for the school clothes. Thanks so much for my backpack. Thank you for dinner.

It’s not that I don’t want my daughter to have gratitude for these things; it’s just that I want her gratitude to spill over into larger vessels. I want her to go to the Academy of Sciences with her dad, and maybe on the car ride home, they’ll talk about how grateful they are for penguins. I want her to read a book about space, and when she closes it at the end, I want her to revel in gratitude for all the delicious mysteries of the universe. I want her to give thanks for pancakes on Sundays, not because her father and I provided them, but just for the simple fact that pancakes exist, that if the mood strikes you, you can drop chocolate chips into the batter while they’re cooking.

We think of moving. We weigh versions of our daughter’s life in our hands: city girl or suburban girl or small-town girl. I lived in many homes as a kid, but nearly all of the schools I attended were within walking distance. I want the same for my daughter. I want to make trades on her behalf: I’ll trade you a crowded 49 bus with a guy whose hairy legs spill over into her seat because he won’t close them for a nice tree-lined street, and a short walk to school with her friends, and maybe you could throw in some autumn leaves? I’ll trade you the alley at the side of our building with its three pairs of soiled underwear and shit smeared into the sidewalk for a backyard with grass and a patio. Summertime barbecues, and she and the neighbor kids collecting bugs in jars. A creek! I’ll trade you everything I have for a creek.

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And yet she’s a San Francisco girl already. She was a regular at a cafe on Polk Street nearly every morning of her in-utero life, and to this day, it’s her happy place, the smell of the coffee and the clanging of dishes and banging of portafilters being her version of a lullaby. There’s a photo of her from the week we brought her home from the hospital, nestled against her dad’s chest in an Ergo while the cable car rounds the corner behind them on Hyde Street. There’s another of her dad and I each kissing one of her cheeks at the top of the De Young tower, the city sprawled out below. She has been in Golden Gate park on a sunny day when it was studded with hidden pianos, passed between the arms of her parents, her Nonna, and family friends, while pianists bestowed concerts amid the trees. We have a series of shots of her looking thoroughly unimpressed, the way only a blobby newborn can, in front of San Francisco landmarks: the Painted Ladies, the Chinatown gates, the Ghirardelli sign. She attends daycare in North Beach, so every weekday, I push her stroller up several quintessential San Francisco hills to get us home. Shortly after she was born, her dad and I held her up next to the big window in our fifth floor hospital room like Simba in the Lion King, proud of her and proud of our killer view, too. Who could the city belong to more than this baby girl?

I imagine her growing up tough and confident and wise in that special way my city-raised friends always were. I see her coming of age here where odds are the person she’ll make small talk with at the grocery store is from another country, practices a different religion, is a different race from her, and I want that for her, too. I want her to grow up taking diversity for granted.

How do we choose a childhood? I think about it all the time. I see snippets of her future. She’s five and we’re teaching her how to ride a bike on the path lining Chrissy Field. She’s seven and spraying her dad with a garden hose in a big grassy back yard. Thirteen, and she’s waking up way too early every morning because we didn’t get our choice in the lottery, and her middle school’s a long bus ride away. She’s seventeen and holding up a sign of support at the Pride parade. All of the possible lives she’ll lead are so different from one another, they present such varied versions of people she might become. I look at her now and she’s so small and my heart says, choose carefully for her, choose carefully, be careful.

Of course, in the end, reality may dictate that we don’t get to choose, that life will simply keep happening to us, instead. When I close my eyes to picture all the places I lived as a kid, I don’t see yards or streets or traffic, as much as I see the faces of the people who were kind to me. City girl or small-town girl, the emotional currents carrying my daughter through her childhood will likely be stronger than any geographical ones.

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Today we’re at a café on Chestnut Street. Strangers smile at her. She smiles back so hard her nose wrinkles. A baby can make someone’s whole day. I see it happen all the time. She reminds people of a happy part of their past, or a treasured hope for their future, and maybe the job we’re left with is to ease up on the big-picture worries. To hold sacred her sense of wonder at the small things.

I feed her half a banana in small bites, and she sobs, heartbroken, when I won’t let her mash the rest between her fingers. I give in and let her mash the rest between her fingers. She falls asleep to the warm hisses and rattles of the espresso machine, holding her own sticky hands.

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About the Author

Melissa Chandler

Melissa Chandler holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work can be seen at The Hairpin, The Toast, and The Bold Italic. She’s working on a novel, which is coming along slowly with the help of mochas from all over San Francisco. She tweets @melchandler.



9 Responses to You Can Take the Girl Out of San Francisco…Or Can You? MELISSA CHANDLER Questions the Meaning of Home

  1. Kathi Appelt says:

    What a lovely tribute to both a baby and a city. So much heart in this essay, and so beautifully written.

  2. JodyL says:

    Such a beautifully joyous celebration of place and how it affects lives. Too often, people who do not live in a big city misinterpret what Melissa Chandler (and I!) see as positives, especially when raising a child.

  3. Chubby's Mom says:

    This is a lovely piece. The weight of motherhood and responsibility for another life, the impression the environment would have on a person in their childhood… it’s so interesting. I do often wonder what I would have turned out like if my parents didn’t uproot all of us to come to North America. Wherever it is, your daughter will grow to be who she is meant to be, when you are in her heart.

  4. Rachel says:

    Great piece. Thanks. I moved to Larkin & Sacramento in 2003. What a different Polk Gulch/Russian Hill that was! My 20s were spent reading in the dive-y coffee shops up and down that stretch. Met someone in 2011, got married, had a kid, moved to Portland….yada yada. I miss it daily. Sad to hear that both Red Devil and Bigfoot are gone. Really, really tough to imagine raising my son there, though, as much as I adored it. So much ambiguity. Best of luck with hanging in. SF is such a gem, gentrification and all.

  5. Cristina says:

    I don’t think about moving. EVER! You share the exact reasons I want to raise a child in SF. I love this story. We can’t control what cards we’re dealt. But as long as I am able, I will make every sacrifice possible to stay in Russian Hill too. I hope our paths cross, it’s always great to have more familiar faces in the neighborhood.

    • Melissa says:

      Thank you for reading it, and for what you said! We are living really similar lifestyles! We’re still in our 1-bedroom here in Russian Hill, and my daughter in the article is two now, and we have a baby on the way, due in about a week! Would love to get together sometime if I can figure out how to get out of the apartment juggling two babies. : )

  6. Deirdre says:

    Thanks for this piece.!This really resonates with me and made me teary. I moved to Polk street in 2005 solo. and today I’m sitting in my 1 bedroom rent controlled 1930’s apartment with a 4 m old and another on the way- + husband and two orange tabbys. Beautiful views- awesome neighborhoods- 2 blocks from aquatic park. This captures my exhilaration about feeling fortunate about life in general and living in this beautiful and vibrant city and the tension between that and sometimes nagging thoughts wondering about if I am depriving the baby of a backyard, sprinklers, and room to roam- and how to create the conditions for an ideal childhood for our littles- what will happen when we have to deal with school- etc… how will we amass the funds for a bigger place- etc…

    • Melissa says:

      Thank you for reading it, and for what you said! We are living really similar lifestyles! We’re still in our 1-bedroom here in Russian Hill, and my daughter in the article is two now, and we have a baby on the way, due in about a week! Would love to get together sometime if I can figure out how to get out of the apartment juggling two babies. : )

      • Deirdre says:

        Sounds great! By now you are snuggling your newest addition!!
        Im due 7/30 And as soon as I’m able will be strolling up polk so let’s do it!

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