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My hometown is not the San Francisco of glossy magazines and “10 best things to do” lists. There are no cable cars or rolling hills, no raw vegan restaurants or fair trade coffee joints, no Pride flags or startup entrepreneurs on their Cross Fit lunch breaks. It is neither hipster nor posh, gentrified nor shabby chic.
I grew up in a part of the city known as the Richmond District. It stretches west to the ocean and is sandwiched between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. When Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, he must have been referring to my perpetually fog shrouded neighborhood.
In the mornings, elderly Chinese ladies in red and orange down jackets push their grocery carts along Clement street, to dig through crates of bitter melon, gai lan, and bok choy at the May Wah supermarket. Construction workers and college students line up at Good Luck Dim Sum for their shrimp dumplings, barbecued pork dumplings, and steamed taro cakes. The Guatemalan grocer a few doors down my block speaks his Spanish inflected Cantonese to his staff, instructing them to stock more mango juice and Oaxacan hot chocolate mix.
By late morning, the Moscow Bakery is sold out of its bloated piroshkis and poppy seed rolls. Functional alcoholics in Banana Republic sweaters wait in their cars for the Blarney Stone to open, while the less functional sit on the sidewalk and eat black bread from the Irish bakery next door. My local donut shop, aptly named The Donut Shop, and still the same shade of Tang orange after all these decades, remains a hangout for elderly Vietnamese men, who curse Ho Chi Minh over styrofoam coffee cups and apple fritters.
By late afternoon, the barber is sharpening his blades and trading stories with the old timers about the now closed but once majestic Alexandria Theater, where Star Wars premiered in 1975. Men in black robes huddle outside the Holy Virgin Cathedral.
By twilight, the Korean Barbecue House lights up my street with its red lanterns and neon hangul letters. Coming home late from school, I always knew it was time to get off the bus when I smelled bulgogi wafting down the street.
My friends and I knew every corner of our neighborhood, every homeless person, every flavor of Bubblicious that the Korean liquor store owner carried, and every piss smelling bus stand.
When our world felt suffocating, with our immigrant parents who understood sacrifice and hand-me-downs more than they understood the allure of MTV or Disneyland, we would take the 38 bus all the way to Ocean Beach, where sea gull shit covered the asphalt and surfers in thick neoprene paddled out towards the gray horizon.
When I return now, I smile when I pass the Russian Jewish deli. I remember my mother, in her broken English, asking the butcher for pigs feet. She left instead with her very first loaf of rye bread. That evening, she taught my father what the word “kosher” meant.
My San Francisco is not the one I hear about in the press these days–the one of Google pushing out the poor, cars sporting pink mustaches, and upscale farmers markets selling twenty dollar bottles of jam. My city is the one where both broken and audacious immigrants jostled every day with each other, figuring out a rhythm for co-existence, creating a pidgin of language and life together. This is the hometown that I recognize. The one I miss.