2 weeks ago

Girl Offline: The Changing Face of San Francisco

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The road has turned over on me again, sixteen hours from Tokyo to Dublin, three days rest at home, then ten hours to San Francisco. That’s to say nothing of the time gained and lost through changes to the clock as we went. It’s been some week for the long days, and I am jetlagged beyond all reasonable belief. My eyes feel strange, like they belong to somebody else and are just sitting in my body temporarily, uncomfortably. Every few hours, I put little dots of eye-drops on the back of my hand like tequila salt and tip it into my sockets, hoping some catches in my whites and softens their presence. I can’t look at my phone, like I’ve a fever: the blue light and text are particularly stressful. I am very, very fragile. I don’t think I’ve known what time it is for four days. I fought the clock and the clock won.

We arrived into SF, to CB’s corporate hotel in the Financial District yesterday evening and today I took to the city to place myself, trace out some roots in my old home. I lasted, with this time-nausea, around two hours. Then, I had to crawl back to the hotel and pray over the dead body of my circadian rhythm. And lie down.

The city is different, though what organic thing doesn’t change over eight years? We moved here in 2012, a world which gets further and further away by the minute. The first thing I noticed, was as we rolled into town via the highway, was the presence of new skyscrapers in a previously short-stacked city. Salesforce Tower – the name of which includes Sales, and Force, neither of which are particularly warm words (I know it’s a company, I know) is sixty one floors high and now the tallest building in San Francisco. When we were here last year, it hadn’t risen yet, and is now like a strange, futuristic obelisk set apart from the skyline. At night, the top floor windows become screens which play ambient visuals. 

The stark contrast between tech-wealth and the abject poverty on the streets of this city is impossible to ignore.

When we went outside to look for some food last night, the extent of the homeless crisis of the city shocked me to my core – as it always did, as I had forgotten it could, turning my blood cold. To write in detail about my experience as a now tourist encountering the most vulnerable people in San Francisco would be exploitative, and potentially hypocritical, because Dublin does the very same thing to its disenfranchised, too. Though here there is a long-standing culture of neglect, and to witness it feels like being complicit in it. Above us, the silver new Salesforce Building stood proud, and utterly oblivious. The stark contrast between tech-wealth and the abject poverty on the streets of this city is impossible to ignore.

I made some of the best friends of my life in this town: people I keep in touch with at varying degrees, people I hold in my heart. I did some very serious growing here: I started to become the person I am today in the hills and poetry shows and speakeasies and strange sun of it. But it is a wounded city, and it feels like nobody has helped it. There is such pain here.

In my short walk today, I ate at a diner, went to Target, and in my old homesickness routine, went to the Westfield Mall. I used to go there when I lived here to feel like I was anywhere else in the world, so anonymous was the space. The basement connects to Powell Street Bart Station, and there was an expensive grocery down there, adjacent to the food court. Powell is the most central station, the Downtown station. On the escalator, I realised that the grocery isn’t there anymore. Instead, right there, right by the train station, was an Amazon store.

It is a wounded city, and it feels like nobody has helped it. There is such pain here.

To get inside you have to have an Amazon Go account: there are gates. There are no cashiers. You just pick things up, and go. No staff interaction, just intelligent sensors that work out who you are and what you owe from your phone. I stood, staring at it, the slowness of jetlag like a gauze between me and reality. This is where the internet and real life join at the seams, flawlessly. It fills me with dread.

Removing cashiers from a grocery implies that those who purchase things from this store should not have to encounter low-waged workers. In order to access this store, to set foot inside, you must own a smartphone with an active Amazon Go account. Think of how this is separating people from other people, think of how this is splitting classes apart. This is a very particular kind of gentrification of retail: a separatist practice, almost. This space had previously been a high-priced market, certainly, but somehow it became something much worse, right here in the centre of the city, right here at the downtown station. Underground too, indoors, integrated. At the heart, like a sore.

I don’t like to be negative in this column: I prefer to try and remain exploratory, curious, optimistic. And to love a city is a naïve thing, because cities cannot love you back, they can only change. People can love you, though, and this is what I am holding like a light: that this week I will take breakfast and down beers with old friends with whom somehow a connection hasn’t flickered out even an ocean and a continent and a changing world later. That the internet keeps us in each other’s lives and now we get to sit down for real and be people together, not just pixels, not just hearts on one another’s photos, not just memes in the DMs or rallying comments below selfies or pictures of their children. The joy of this trip comes from these friends, these human beings and this city is made of human beings, not just skyscrapers and stores: I know that for sure, even if the people who are making the changes to this town might not.

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