HAVE A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP with the City by the Bay. It is the very first place where I felt like a real grown-up. As a 21-year-old, many moons ago, I was juggling college, two part-time jobs and a serious romantic relationship I wanted to end, but didn’t know how. I needed to blow off some steam, badly. My friend invited me up for a few days of shenanigans, and she didn’t need to ask twice. I jumped in my white Subaru Justy and drove eight hours to her apartment across from the Panhandle, one block from Haight-Ashbury. I had never done anything so bold, so spur of the moment, and I was ready for all the city had to offer.
In no time at all, we were parked on barstools at an Irish dive bar, drinking exotic concoctions. The establishment’s dim lights, sticky floors, bathroom stalls covered in graffiti and pervasive scent of grease and cigarette smoke only added to the charm.
In the days following, we shopped, ate, drank and flirted our way across the city. The final night, we ended our antics at the swanky bar at Boulevard restaurant, sipping cosmopolitans. It all felt so big-league, so grown-up. On the drive home I was emboldened. I ended my relationship and changed course.
It took me another 15 years to get back to San Francisco, and this trip was equally as epic. I was now married with kids and living in Orlando, Florida. I had signed on to run the Nike Women’s Marathon with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, which required me to raise a substantial donation while training for the hilly terrain on Florida trails with elevations no higher than an ant hill in the throes of midsummer humidity. It took me five and a half hours to run across San Francisco and was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done, but it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
A decade later, it was a work trip that brought me back once more. I went for a run at dawn the first morning, excited to see my city again, but this time, it was different. I saw the dirt, the litter, the graffiti and the homeless. I rented a car and drove the marathon route, and my only feeling was disbelief that I had run that far. To top it off, my friend had moved and the Irish bar had closed. I ended up at Boulevard hoping to tap into my nostalgia, but just felt wistful as I sipped a drink all by myself. And just like that, San Francisco morphed from my coming-of-age mecca and the site of my greatest physical achievement to just a city.
I felt jaded and disappointed, but after some soul-searching, I realized why. It takes two ingredients to make Kool-Aid, and on this trip, without my young adult angst searching for more, or the physical challenge of my life, I was missing the sugar in the mixture. It wasn’t San Francisco’s fault, it was mine. I had expectations she couldn’t possibly live up to. Perhaps instead of expecting so much of her, maybe it was time to expect more of what gave me those feelings in the first place—me.
Though I’m fairly certain I’m past finding awe in a dive bar, and I’m not looking to cross another marathon finish line unless a lion is chasing me, the world is a big place and the thrill of discovery is mine for the taking. I’m in. But no matter where my future adventures take me, there will always be a special place in my heart for my City by the Bay.
Michelle Thompson is a children’s book author, freelance writer, marketing guru. She resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, two children, a dog and a tarantula.