Accordion, Instrument of the Gods It Happened to Me

San Francisco and I are on Speaking Terms Again

A Bone to Pick

I had a bone to pick with San Francisco. The entire damned seven-by-seven miles of the city from the yuppie ghetto of the Marina to the no-man’s land known as South San Francisco. (Don’t get me started on the Valley — especially San Jose.)

It’s not any one thing that brought about the rift between me and what I like to call “The Richest city in the Third World”, but a combination of its many annoyances:

And let me tell you, even the lowest of the low in the shantytowns surrounding Manila do not take a dump in the middle of the sidewalk the way San Francisco homeless do.

It’s all that, along with what happened to me during my abruptly terminated stay in the city.

Westward ho!

Like most of my stories, it starts with an accordion. One of its many powers is to attract job offers, and in 2000, it got me promoted from programmer to programmer-and-developer-relations-guy. In a fit of needing to be where the action is, the company decided to open a San Francisco office and send its best or loudest spokespeople — namely Cory, me and our white-guy-who-drops-a-lot-of-black-urban-lingo-for-street-cred Chief Strategist — down there to shill our not-yet-existent and often-changing product. There was a short period, maybe a day or two, where I was leaning towards turning down the transfer when my then-girlfriend sagely pointed out this important fact: if I didn’t at least give it a try, I would regret it later.

I moved to San Francisco on December 28th, 2000. I was put in charge of taking care of the corporate apartment, a two-bedroom townhouse in a complex right by Alamo Square Park, whose Victorian houses you’ve probably seen in San Francisco pictures and postcards, as well as the opening shot for the intro to the TV series Full House (brr). The company was constantly sending people from Toronto to San Francisco, and the bean-counters figured that it would be cheaper to maintain a corporate apartment than to book them into hotels. My caretaker role meant that I lived rent-free in a new place equidistant from Soma, the Haight, the Marina and downtown. It was an arrangement not unlike the way Higgins looked after Robin Masters’ estate in Magnum, P.I., the differences being that I was not a stuffy Englishman and my Hawaiian shirt collection puts me in the Magnum fashion camp. (I suppose that Cory was my Robin Masters.)

By February, we had moved to the best damned office I’d ever worked in, made a big splash at a major conference and were being courted by the Beast of Redmond. It was all going accordion to plan.

The E! True Hollywood Story Turning Point, or: It All Goes Wrong

My girlfriend at the time and I were maintaining a long-distance relationship and had decided to shorten that distance considerably. She moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco in early March. About a week and a half later, horrified at everything about the city that makes Cory refer to it as “San Fran-scarcity”, she told me how much she hated the place and that she suddenly had some very serious doubts about the relationship. I asked her to think it over. After all, she hadn’t been there two weeks and it may just be a case of homesickness. I tried to tell her that although it’s not New York — no city is — it wasn’t as if she were suddenly moving to a cardboard box in downtown Calcutta. However, after a couple of hours of talking it over with her, it seemed that she was determined to flake out and I was resigned to the fact that she was going to move back. She booked a flight home for the following Monday.

That weekend could’ve been a miserable one, but it wasn’t. I “officially” broke up with her on Thursday, thereby demoting my status back to “um friend“, a role that made her considerably more comfortable. We spent a very debauched St. Patrick’s Day weekend weekend painting the town red. The bars were serving Irish whiskey, Guinness and green beer, the street parties were great raucous affairs, and playing The Wild Rover on the accordion got us a lot of free drinks. It was one of my better turn-lemons-into-lemonade moments.

Monday was difficult, to say the least. I took her to the airport, said goodbye to her and watched her plane disappear, A few hours shy of two weeks after she’d arrived in San Francisco, she was gone. It was the lowest I’d felt in a very long time.

I didn’t even get the chance to take a couple of days off to cry in my beer; the company had scheduled a series of very important meetings with to-die-for clients: an on-line auction company of some repute and a portal whose name is an expression of glee. I’d written some user interface prototypes that I would be demonstrating at these meetings, as well as talking tech with their developers. I spent the rest of the week putting on my happy face and burying my woes with demos and work.

At the end of that week, it was decided that I should fly back to Toronto for a couple of weeks to meet with the rest of the team that would be developing the 1.0 version of our software. About a week into my visit to Toronto, the company laid off a dozen people in Toronto, cancelled the lease on our San Francisco office, and downsized the San Francsico team to just me and Cory, who would work out of an office at our VC’s headquarters in Palo Alto.

I saw which way the wind was blowing and decided it would be better for me (and even earn me some points with management) if I volunteered to move back to Toronto. They thought it was a good idea, but said that they couldn’t spare me for enough time for me to fly back and pack my stuff. They dispatched our office manager Amy to pack up the office and my apartment and ship it back. About five weeks after I had come to Toronto for a visit, an moving truck packed with all the evidence that I’d ever lived in San Francisco brought my stuff to Toronto. Within the span of four months, I had moved from Toronto to San Francisco and back again.

I spent a week in an “I’m not supposed to be here!” daze. Having lost a girlfriend and then being involuntarily displaced, I felt as if I’d been harshly dumped by San Francisco too. The bitch!

From that point on, I associated San Francisco with unpleasant memories and heartbreak, as if I’d been through some kind of neo-Pavlovian negative reinforcement experiment in which the city was the gerbil cage (whose liner needs changing very badly).

The Return

Just over a week ago, I made my first trip to San Francisco since my abrupt move back to Toronto. I was there to present Peekabooty at CodeCon, do some developer relations with the various hackers who would be attending, and maybe even make my peace with the city.

(Yes, I realize I’m anthropomorphizing a seven-by-seven mile clump of hilly land, its people and its human urine- and feces-stained sidewalks. Don’t tell me you haven’t done something similar.)

Cory gave me the keys to his apartment, where I dropped off all my stuff save the accordion. I had plenty of time to kill before meeting Jillzilla for dinner, so I decided to spent the afternoon walking about the city that was supposed to be my home.

I stopped by Brain Wash, and old hangout of mine located across the street from the old office. Its back half is a laundromat and its front half is a cafe. I’ve eaten just about everything on their menu, spent many afternoons writing prototype software at their tables and even did a couple of accordion-assisted stand-up routines at their regular amateur comedy nights. (For the brave or the shameless, performing in front of an audience is a great way to meet people if you’re new in town.)

The place was silent. Normally, the sounds of the kitchen, stereo and washing machines fill the place. Something wrong happened with the power grid, leaving the entire block without electricity.

Amy, one of the cute punkish staff, was talking to a co-worker. I used to fantasize about her, wearing nothing but Doc Martens, softly kicking me in the head. But I digress.

“It’s too quiet here. If I don’t hear some music soon, I’m going to go crazy,” she complained as I walked in the door.

That was my cue. I switched the accordion from backpack mode to ready-to-rock mode, unstrapped the bellows and said “Did someone say music?”

“You! Free cookies and drinks if you play!”

That’s when I knew that San Francisco was about to make it up to me in many weird and wonderful ways.

San Francisco, you are forgiven. (Now, if you can do something about your personal hygiene…)

Next: The bustling metropolis known as downtown Mountain View, CodeCon, children trust me, matter and panty-matter and entertaining a room full of naked women.

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