Thursday, August 18, 2011

San Francisco and the Big Hill

I am pedaling to the Mission District to meet Kate Blake at her apartment and go to her favorite place in San Francisco. Kate takes her dog for a walk in this place every day in between working from home as a Career and Small Business coach. I met her at the Green Drinks event I went to the first day I arrived in town.  I was introduced to her by a man who introduced himself as someone who helps women find true love.  He said he had tried to work with men, but kept coming up against the same problem over and over: they didn't get it.  I am still not sure how his career figures into sustainability, (Green Drinks is a networking event for those in the sustainability industry), but, that is a relatively small concern in comparison to my questions regarding his chosen profession.

As I ride my sturdy bike through the streets of the Mission District, I am thrilled to see all sorts of small businesses in the store fronts and people on the streets.  There are fresh fruit and vegetable bins outside of small markets on the corners. Delicious aromas mingle with the smells and sounds that define the air of a big city.  I am thrilled to see the sun. I have been living in a place in the city where the fog hangs with the tree tops and the cold air settles on your skin like an afghan.  The sun whispers warm liberation, and I take off my jackets and my neck warmer, (yes, two jackets, and yes, neck warmer), in order to feel it on more of my incredibly white and neglected skin.

I arrive a bit early and wait outside of Kate's building.  Soon enough she comes out to get me and brings me back to her studio apartment.  It is very small, but incredibly comfortable and warm.  She moves quickly and grabs a jacket and her dog and we are out the door, hiking at what feels like lightning speed, up some very steep streets to an even steeper hill. Evidently, we are hiking up Bernal Hill. I have to crane my neck way back as I look up at it. As I lag along behind her, I am breathing heavily and notice that the dog is also lagging behind.  She keeps a pretty swift pace as she tells me about her living and working situation.

"I live in that tiny little studio apartment and work from there as well, so my desk is also my dining room table and my bureau, my laundry folding table and everything else.  It's nice in the middle of the day to go to a place to quiet your brain and your space and breathe.  I get out of the stress of the day, get out of whatever might not be working. I get up there and remember that I live in a really sweet place.  I'm in this amazing city and I can see it all from there. As a bonus, I get some exercise."

Exercise indeed.  I am still lagging behind her, and she is keeping up her Bataan Death March pace.  Her dark curls bouncing wildly in the wind as she walks, we talk for a bit about her career path and how she came to it. Her story is eerily similar to my own, the only difference being that she has stopped and settled, and I have not.

"I work primarily with women who aren't sure what they want in their career.  Culturally, we're taught to look outside of ourselves and find the right job. That we'll figure out what we want by chance. No one ever tells us that we have these gifts, things about each one of us that make us unique, a little different, things that come naturally to us that get us excited. Using those things and tapping into our strengths is what makes a great career. That's the work I do with people, how to figure that out, set goals, and actually accomplish what you want for yourself.     

"I love having my own business, being able to help people.  I have been doing this for three years, and much like many of my clients, before that, I wasn't sure what I wanted.  So I would keep myself busy, moving a lot, having all this external stimulation of a new town, getting an MBA, moving to Argentina for a while, teaching English, working for an NGO. After a while all that running gets old, and at some point you have to stop and deal with your own junk."  

We finally reach the top of the hill, and we sit and rest a bit as her dog goes to find some shade.  Breathless, I ask her why she has chosen San Francisco to settle in.

"For a long time, I felt like I was only really happy if I lived overseas.  I would think that I was the best version of me when I was totally excited, wandering down some random street, eating some food that I didn't even know what it was, hearing some language that I didn't recognize.  I thought I could only be happy in other cities.  Now, I don't think that's true.  I think we can look at life in that way from wherever we are.  That's part of what makes me who I am, it's not about where it is that I am located.  San Francisco is very diverse, lots of people from all over the world.  I think that is part of the reason that I live where I live in the city.  The Mission is a bit like living in a foreign country. I walk three blocks though and can be right back in North America."

We talk about the segmentation of San Francisco, and about the Mission district.  We discuss movement between the districts and the idea that the neighborhood you choose ends up being an expression of some segment of your personality.  Not surprisingly, she thinks her neighborhood is the best area in the city.

"The Mission is most definitely the best part of the city.  It's warm, awesome restaurants and food, and tons of culture. There is always something happening."

"People tend to hang out in the neighborhood where they live. So they kinda rotate in circles in their part of the city. I am never in the Marina or Twin Peaks, for example. Your neighborhood tends to be a reflection of the kind of person that you are, so it depends on who you are and what matches you the best.  

I finally catch my breath, but it is too windy to take off my jacket in order to soak up much of the sun. I ask Kate about a feeling of community in the Mission, and she attributes it to the background of the people who have migrated there.

"Latin culture tends to have more of a feeling of community for me. Neighbors talk to each other, there are tons of people walking around on the streets, and people sitting on their stoops. I love the fact that, having lived overseas and traveled so much, I do feel at home here.  I don't have that feeling in a lot of U.S. cities, probably because of the lack of diversity of language and culture. As big as San Francisco can feel, this neighborhood gives me a sense of connection.  Here in the Mission there are great taquerias, mercados, street fairs and parades. It's a vibrant community."

Though brisk, the day is bright and hopeful, which is mirrored in Kate's attitude.  It seems that a lot of people come to San Francisco by different and exotic routes, but in the end, all come together within this small city to create something they can feel good about, something they can belong to.  Kate sums it up perfectly:

"People who live in San Francisco LOVE San Francisco.  They love the city, they love the culture, the feel to it, the weather, and living here. Anywhere you live, it is more about what you make of it.  At the end of the day, it is all just your perspective and the way you are looking at it.  If you change your mind a little bit, anywhere can be awesome.  Any job can be awesome, any relationship." 

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