The Mission

I was walking home at midnight on the empty sidewalks of this sleepy city bathed in the dark rainbow of neon light. Bars and a few tacquerias still opened their doors, but most shops were glass-encased jewels waiting for the morning hour and another day of commerce. A few stragglers passed me by, and we watched one another as one does when someone passes by at midnight. In a moment of clarity, I returned to that feeling that this was my home.

I've never had anywhere else feel so much at home as the Mission. From the midwestern suburb where I grew up to the ultra-hip art meets ghetto neighborhoods I lived in New York, they were not my home. I've liked a lot of places I lived, some of them quite a bit. But they did not feel like home, a feeling I never knew could be attached to a neighborhood until I knew the Mission.

I most recently moved from New York. Overall, I like New York much more than San Francisco. It's open later. It has good public transportation. There is more anonymity in New York. People don't annoy me as much there. But though I explored much of Greater New York, there is not one place there that is as close to my heart as the Mission. My last NY apartment in Washington Heights had a lot going for it, but though I loved the area I never quite felt I could roll myself up in it.

I lived in the Mission right before New York, so my years there are now sandwiched between Mission apartments. The first time I walked down Mission street coming under the overpass, even though it was daylight (though probably foggy) a blackness hung in the air that was not for lack of light. it is often there, just as Washington Heights has a strange grayness to it, as if everything was dissolving slightly incoherent.

Arriving back in San Francisco and trying to tell the taxi driver (with some disdain) how had missed my street three times, I sat on my stoop with a suitcase and a confused cat in a carrier while waiting for the the realtor to arrive. Much of the time I spent comforting my cat. But the remainder I restlessly watched, eager to explore my new -- and old -- neighborhood. Atlas Cafe, once far and esoteric, was now just down the street. Pirate Cat Radio Cafe had not yet been there the last time I lived in the Mission. I watched it from my corner, curious if it could live up to its awesome name.

After getting into my place and letting my cat know that this is where we'd be living, I spilt out of my house as quickly as possible. I walked around, letting the feeling of being back soak into me. I had the nearly lusty sensation of, "Yes, I know what to do with this." These were my tacquerias, my cafes, my bars, my restaurants, my weird stores that sell taxidemy mice in Victorian dresses. There would be forever the fools who would point out the brush strokes as something to see, who would walk into Pirate Cat Radio Cafe and take pictures while they wait for their lattes ordered as an admission fee to a novelty. But there are idiots everywhere. The crack heads and the iron gates painted all the colors of San Francisco are a comforting backdrop.

One question that everyone asks me is "Has the Mission changed much?" It really hasn't. They're redoing Valencia Street so the hipsters and their moms and dads (and increasingly babies in thousand-dollar carriages) have more room on the sidewalk and the old custom of parking in the turning lane outside of Blondie's Bar and No Grill will be forever gone. But that's Valencia and I don't really care if they make it the hyper-art-eccentric-upscale oddity that it already is. As long as fog drifts through the fronds of the palms rustling above Mission and its decaying theatre marquees and grime, the neighborhood will be the same strange home in this empty city of fog, light, and glass. It does feel that those nights when the Mission was alight with strange happenings and everyone was both a player and an empty face do not seem as near. But every so often, when I least expect, the fog will drift in black overhead and people will become part of that soft machine.