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PHYLLIS THEROUX: Growing up in San Francisco, I was not immune to its charms, but it seemed too small and self-evolved, like my own family, for me to want to stay in any longer than I had to. And I spent a lot of my youth plotting how to escape and begin my real life on the opposite Eastern Coast that had the breadth and depth and diversity that San Francisco couldn’t offer, plus snow. Snow was fog to the 10th power, and I wanted a 10th power life.
Here is one portrait of San Francisco in 1950, my fourth grade class picture at Madison School. It is predominantly white anglo-saxon and Jewish, although there are several Asian and Italian children, plus one black child, who solved his identity problem by being the class clown. My best friend was Catholic. I was a Protestant, and if I could have changed places with anybody, it would have been with one of the Jewish children, because they had the prettiest houses, the nicest mothers, and the best birthday parties.
But in the San Francisco of 1950, nobody changed places with anybody, even on the playground where we grouped ourselves like birds according to the similarity of our markings, nor was I, despite my longing for a more exciting life, in advance of anyone else in this regard. The only children I wanted to expand my circle to know and be friends with were those who made me look better than I knew myself to be, and better was not different, better was the same, only better than what I was. What I was, was a middle class Protestant child from a white family that had always lived in the same section of San Francisco.
My knowledge of the city was as narrow and undeviating as the tracks of the cable car that took me the only place I ever went beyond my own neighborhood, downtown to Union Square and back again. But to get there, I skimmed past a half dozen other San Franciscos that I didn’t know existed, except as the source of bad news, like the Fillmore District or good restaurants, like Chinatown. To this day, I couldn’t tell you how to get to Twin Peaks without consulting a map. The city I couldn’t wait to live I didn’t really know.
Here’s something else, they say. You can’t go home again. But here I am, after being away for 30 years, and the flat in which I grew up is not only unchanged but painted the same gun-metal gray and white. Only the bushes which my father planted in 1945 are full-grown, as am I.
Here’s what you can’t do. You can’t shrink your consciousness back down to the size it was before you left. Thirty years ago, when I left San Francisco, taking my heart with me, I took along a lot of black and white photographs and memories.
I have returned because my daughter has reversed my history, leaving the East Coast to find her heart and be married in the same city I couldn’t wait to get out of. The impressions I had of San Francisco remain true, as far as they went. It is still, to my way of thinking, too self-absorbed for its own good.
But that’s the way it is with people in cities endowed with so many gifts. And San Francisco is not just as beautiful as I remember it. It is more beautiful. One might even say heartbreakingly beautiful. But I had to leave town and have my own heart broken a few times before I was capable of seeing in all its breadth, depth, and diversity what had been there for me to see all along. I’m sure this is true for anyone who returns home no matter where it is.
My home is San Francisco, although I cannot claim any special knowledge, but I know how to find it. And that’s the difference between who I was when I left town and who I am now.
I’m Phyllis Theroux.