Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Existential Terror of San Francisco

After I sold my company I decided to visit New York City one time before I moved out to San Francisco. The trip was a lot of fun, but at one point I found myself completely out of cash, my ATM/debit card snapped in half, my credit card deactivated for suspected fraud, and my phone out of batteries. Then I got off at the wrong subway stop and found myself deep in the wrong part of Harlem.

As scary as that was, it wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as the existential terror I feel every day walking the streets of San Francisco.

When I walked through the streets of Manhattan, I saw residents going for a stroll or walking their dog or playing with their kids and I thought “Ah, I could live here”. But even while I’m living in San Francisco I still can’t quite believe it can be done. I saw a mother out walking with her daughter and thought “What are you doing?! Don’t you know this is no place for a child?”

The whole city feels like some sort of movie set; oversized and fake. Every time I go out I worry that I might miss my mark or fumble my lines and on the rare occasions that I do, I am mercilessly excoriated by the city officials. When New Yorkers bark at you for screwing up, it’s because they’re impatient. But San Franciscans seem to do it much more frequently and with much more emotion. You’re not just wasting my time, their tone of voice says, you’re insulting me with your stupidity.

I’ve been to San Francisco before, of course, but always on very carefully planned excursions. Go to this place, take this subway, get off here. I realized after I moved here that this was the first day I’d really woken up in the city and it was terrifying. I ran down the street to catch my train to work and (after getting barked at by city employees for waiting in the wrong place) found the train packed to the edges, with barely enough space for me to stand.

The city maltreats you even when you’re not doing anything wrong. I tried to take a bus from the place I was staying to downtown one night and, after everyone else got off at earlier stops, the bus driver noticed I was the only one left in the bus and kicked me out before he’d finished the route. “Yeah, this is the last stop now,” he said. “Get out.”

Of course the downtown district is a den of filth and vice, shops with names like “Tenderloin Liquors” and “Adult Show Superstore” with gangs of leering indigents sitting on every streetcorner. In Harlem, people mostly kept their eyes down and kept walking. Here everyone calls out to me, like a dark postapocalyptic scene from Blade Runner or A.I..

Of course, San Francisco isn’t all pain. Every time I begin to think it’s too much to bear and that I have to get out of town now, it does some little thing to redeem itself. I’m spit on by every drunk and transit worker, rained on from the entirely cloud-covered sky, splashed on by the busses refusing to follow their routes, but then I’m wonderfully treated by the staff of the soaring San Francisco Library and then I’m cheerful again until the next guy spits in my face.

One night, the friend I’m staying with invited me to go with her to San Francisco’s Midnight Riders and lent me a bike to do so. The bike was a road bike, which I didn’t know how to use, and I didn’t have a helmet. We sped down hills as I peddled furiously and met up with a group of drunk people (some of whom were also on cocaine) carrying axes (the theme was “I Married an Axe Murderer”) as we sped around the city, culminating at the pier, where some of them stripped down and jumped into the freezing water.

After that terrifying night, San Francisco didn’t really scare me anymore, but it still felt wrong. Perhaps a movie set is a fairly safe place to actually be, but when you live on-stage it’s difficult to get any privacy. Having to live my life on stage in this dark, cartoony, mask-filled world seems like a more terrifying nightmare than anything an axe-wielding gang of cocaine-high bikers could do.

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 14, 2006


Go to Green Apple and take a rest at Red A? bakery cafe. It’s a place like no other.

posted by gag on November 14, 2006 #

I know plenty of people who felt their existence threatened most of the time in NYC but are for the most part happy in the crappier parts of the Mission. Maybe you look too friendly/peaceful and get grief because of that?

I also think most cities suck when you first move to them.

Kudos for publicly declaring that SF isn’t perfect. Most people are too hip to do that.

posted by Dan Stowell on November 14, 2006 #

Well Aaron, now we’ve completely traded places. Since I spend a lot of my time wistfully remembering the good things about San Francisco, and harping on Boston, it helps to be reminded of some of the negatives. It’s true that San Francisco has an attitude problem. Big time. I can’t say that the angry Massholes I occasionally run into are much of a delight, but the psychological dysfunctions of San Francisco do seem more universal and widespread.

posted by Daniel Jalkut on November 14, 2006 #

My recommendation would be to hang out around the nice parks: Dolores, Duboce, Alamo Square. I’m sitting in Duboce Park Cafe right now and was struck by how magical this place can seem sometimes (and not in the movie-magic sense). I’d also have to say that any event involving more than 4 people on bikes is asking for disaster. I’ve never lived in NY, but based on what other people tell me, it’s far far less livable than SF. I second what danny-dan said about this place not being perfect, but I can’t really imagine a better place (at least in the US) to be.

posted by Mikeymike on November 14, 2006 #

Since you liked Boston critical mass so much, you should try SF critical mass. I haven’t been, but I hear nothing but good things about it. (well, except for bad things that you wouldn’t consider bad because if you did, you wouldn’t have enjoyed Boston critical mass either).

posted by Mark on November 14, 2006 #

It sounds like you hang out around the tenderloin and on market around 6th st, which are about the worst parts of the city outside of bayview. As dannydan said I spent the better part of last year a stone’s throw away from those parts on shotwell st. Walking home at night it was like night of living dead, with everyone stumbling around on crack. But there were also mothers and babies, mostly hispanic, which [should] make one realize that many people are not fortunate enough to choose their surroundings.

Anyway, you might just not be a “city person.” Most people I know that spent any time there hated palo alto, and spent every waking moment wishing they were in “the city.” As a suburban kid myself, I find the experience of living in a neighborhood where everyone has Bush/Cheney signs on their lawns and enjoys their walled-up all-white exurb to be terrifying itself. But that’s just me.

Btw, if you think San Francisco is bad I really don’t think you’d like brooklyn, where the liquor stores are seedier AND the cocaine bikers more pretentious. In fact, as Dave Chapelle has noted, a quick BART trip to oaktown might give you a fresh perspective on your sf environs.

posted by am on November 15, 2006 #

Can I get a what what!(?)

Ameeth: we should invite this guy to poker.

posted by Mikeymike on November 15, 2006 #

tortured-psyche fiction piece?

posted by confused on November 15, 2006 #

Aaron — While I enjoy your posts, I feel like you overintellectualize many issues.

I would have to agree with the prior commenter. This feels like pure fiction to me — a desire to have a nice blog post that’s written like fiction. Come on, how many people really spit on you? I’ve lived here for 18 years and it’s never happened once.

It feels like you were on the hunt for interesting material to make this post engaging.

It feels like you were writing this post while walking around instead of living there in the moment.

Food for thought.

posted by Ben Casnocha on November 15, 2006 #

Aaron, where in the world are you living? I’ll certainly agree that the Tenderloin is unpleasant, bus drivers sometimes mean (and sometimes surprisingly nice), and the SF attitude annoying in different ways from Mass-holes, but I can’t express how easy it is to avoid the nastier parts of the city in favor of the beautiful, warm parts.

[Subtext: You should have moved in early Sept., so you would have had two months of beautiful weather to move in with…]

Have you spent much time in the parks? I quite like Duboce and Golden Gate, of course, both of which are easy to get to on the N-line [don’t even get me started on how much better the Muni is that the T…].

If you’re looking for streets without hookers, try anywhere west of Market other than the ‘loin. In particular, I’d expect that you’d find the Inner Sunset (9th street, really) quite reminiscent of Porter/Davis.

posted by Keith Fahlgren on November 15, 2006 #

Of course there are millions of stories in the naked city … all of them different. San Francisco is small … not a giant behemoth like NY … it is scaled to a single human’s size … you can walk in one day from one end to the other … try it, you’ll love it. Start downtown … go down Market street … turn down Height to Golden Gate Park … walk through the park to the beech … spend some time at the museum or One Dog Night, if it’s still there … walk back … or take your sleeping bag and sleep in the park or on the beech. Next time go the other direction … out Stockton … spend some time in upper Grant Avenue … through China Town to Fisherman’s Wharf … don’t be afraid of the street … nobody is going to hurt you. San Francisco is a town small enough to swallow … almost whole … bond with it. If you look at it straight on, with no tremble in your eye, what you see will be a surprising contrast to the awful isolation of suburbia. Like NY, San Francisco is alive, yet still small enough for a single man to thoroughly tread with his two feet … or at least it was a couple decades ago. Btw, congrats on reddit.

posted by Seth Russell on November 15, 2006 #

This is of course too little, too late, but… it’s nicer in Oakland. Try the Lake Merritt area.

posted by misuba on November 15, 2006 #

you became a millionaire and now work in a cube in SOMA and live in an apartment in the Loin? WTF??

anyway. SF is way better than Cambridge, at least you have real crazy people instead of a bunch of fake academics and lame college students.

However, the market street corridor and the tenderloin truly are scenes from “28 Days Later”… maybe you should just move to a nicer part of town. noe valley, cole valley, alamo square, etc.

posted by chupacabra on November 16, 2006 #

Hi Aaron,

I’ve been to SF before and I know how you feel. A lot of my friends live in the East Bay and take Bart over to SF for their jobs. Anyway, if you’re not too keen on living in SF, maybe head over to the East Bay and check things out. Albany, El Cerrito and Berkeley are all pretty mellow compared to SF. I’ve lived in the Berkeley area for about 10 years and I really like the atmosphere that comes with being close to a University.

On a completely different note, if you get a chance, you should try watching—Haibane Renmei—I think you might dig it.

Anyway, good luck with your new job. If things get really crappy, just quit and go to school at Cal. :-)

Regards, Steven

posted by Steven on November 16, 2006 #

Although I understand the different reaction to both cities, I find SFO orders of magnitude a much more congenial city than NYC: IN SFO you naturally flock to people with similar ideas, people are friendly even when confrontational, and although no supermodels (as in NYC), it also means fewer supermodels. Yeah, that is a bummer. NYC was always hostile, always fake and trying to show off. SFO can not be more boring with all its political correctness, but it has all this brainy weight to it that enamors me to it. Although, I must say, SFO is always thinking about its next Big Earthquake. Now that is its existential terror.

posted by Camilo on November 16, 2006 #

San Francisco is not the place for anyone to live if you plan on having a family anytime soon. its great if you are single but then again SF is becoming more ‘single’ every year as well as more unfriendly to families. i suspect a lot of this has to do with the overwhelming general perverseness, homosexual and immoral culture that is seeping into every corner of the city and this includes everyone in the judicial system there.

Now, not even innocent little kids and their parents can make up their own mind as to joining Junior ROTC. i could write a book about how wacky the whole political and cultural landscape is there but i dont need to since many have already talked and written about it.

posted by SFO on November 16, 2006 #

I walk through the Tenderloin every morning on my way to the work shuttle. It’s generally the worst part of my day. I hope your lease is short because I think you should consider finding a better neighborhood.

If you are working in Soma, consider living in North Beach or the Haight or the inner sunset or inner richmond. Heck, I like the Richmond district so much that I bought a house there but it’s hard to see my friends who live in the Mission because cross-town transit is poor here.

Generally, anywhere that’s less than 20 minutes downtown by Muni/BART would probably work out better than living in the TL.

posted by Steve Jenson on November 17, 2006 #

Yeah, SF can be full of self-appointed officials who want to tell you what to do and how to do it. I remember one encounter with the “Cool Police” back when I lived in the Lower Haight in about 1992. I was walking home one evening, returning from a job interview, wearing khaki pants and a white shirt. About a half block from my flat, a teenage punk in a spiky mohawk grabbed me and said, “you can’t walk down this street dressed like THAT, you’ll get killed!” Yeah right. I told him “I LIVE on this street, do YOU?” What I should have said was, “hey that mohawk was really cool.. back in 1977 when I had one.”

posted by Charles on November 17, 2006 #

You’re insane. You’re also probably projecting your own insecurities onto the city around you. I’ve lived, worked, or partied here for all of the past ten years, and my own experience was that when SF was unfamiliar, it was chaotic, beautiful, and endlessly inviting. When it grew familiar, it did so like an old glove.

The Tenderloin is indeed a dump of epic concentration, but it’s just a few square blocks, surrounded by perfectly acceptable (and even quite posh) neighborhoods on all sides, and home to some of the best indian & south asian food I’ve ever had.

posted by Michal Migurski on November 18, 2006 #

m.migurski —

if your post was directed towards me then ill have to respectfully disagree and for you or anyone in here to tell me when or where i am wrong when i say SF is becoming less family friendly and more focused on singles and more specifically gays.

look i am not a gay basher but i am not blind either. get with the program. SF is different than any other city ive been to or lived in and not in a good way.

posted by SFO on November 20, 2006 #

@SFO - the comment definitely wasn’t directed at you at all. I think what you’re bringing up is unrelated to Aaron’s “terror”. A terrifying city isn’t family friendly, but an unterrifying city isn’t necessarily family UNfriendly either. =)

I don’t know if SFO is family unfriendly. I have friends happily bringing up kids here, and the weekday afternoon latte-toting Noe Valley mom with stroller and golden retriever in tow is a familiar cliche, so someone must think it’s a good idea. Obviously if you’re the kind of person who thinks that all gays and singles are immoral perverts, then you’re going to prefer the family-friendliness of a Walnut Creek ranch home and a two hour commute. ;)

posted by Michal Migurski on November 20, 2006 #

Er, “an unterrifying city isn’t necessarily family friendly either.” Damn contrapositives.

posted by Michal Migurski on November 20, 2006 #

(quote)Your favorite city sucks.(unquote) There, it’s been said.

Aaron, you remind me of my suburban friends who used to tell me how awful New York was. When I asked them how on earth they got that impression, the answer was always the same: “well, I drove into Manhattan, and [insert horrible car-related story here]”. Taking public transportation in San Francisco is asking for pain. Those of us from real cities who moved here have learned to love it despite that flaw. I’ve lived here 14 years and can hardly imagine living anywhere else.

In time you’ll come to see the error of your ways: either you’ll lighten up and start enjoying the good life, or you’ll get fed up and leave. No biggie either way. But thanks for the funny and entertaining flashback to the culture shock I felt in my first few months in town! Really takes me back. Ah, to be young again.

posted by Cassidy on November 21, 2006 #

You are polarized. You will attract what you feel because that is how these things are. Instead of having a bad thing happen and putting it behind you, you dwell on it and it attracts more, which attracts more, ad infinitum. It works both ways, expect good and it will happen. BTW, I was with Midnight Riders, and you, and they are what you paint as some sort of gang from “The Warriors”. Kids having fun, drinking, not on coke. They had paper axes for spoke cards and learned the song from “So I Married an Axe Murderer” so they could do a jig. It was harmless fun with some skinny dipping. Loosen up and allow the world around you to be itself and see the good and fun in it. It will despise you if you despise it. It will love you if- oh hell, what’s the Golden Rule?

posted by PDX on December 27, 2006 #

I meant that they aren’t some sort of gang…oops.

posted by PDX on December 27, 2006 #

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