I don’t know specifically what the two millennials on the train yesterday were discussing as they categorised the world into ‘things that are badabooming’ and ‘things that are badaboring’, but San Francisco can certainly not be described as badaboring. Or, to use actual words, ‘boring’.
I arrived nearly a week ago, following two flights via budget Icelandic carrier Wow Air. These were notable for only three things: 1) they were delayed by hours; 2) Wow Air’s interior branding consists mainly of confused whimsy (such as the awkward Oasis reference below); and 3) the pilot temporarily forgot the phonetic alphabet. “Those passengers for San Francisco should go to gate D21. That’s… um… D for… Daniel. Daniel 21. Passengers for San Francisco: Daniel 21. Passengers for Los Angeles: gate… Daniel 27.”
I was collected from San Francisco airport by a colleague holding a sign with my name on it, thus ticking off an item from the lower divisions of my bucket list. For the first couple of nights I was kindly accommodated by a parent of my school, giving me a base from which to explore this magnificent city, and to dip my toes into both US government bureaucracy and the San Francisco property rental market.
Pretty much every form I’ve filled in since I got here asks for my social security number, yet after nearly a week and two visits to two different Social Security Administration offices, I still don’t actually have one. I won’t bore you (too late) with the reasons why I was twice rejected, but if these offices represent a citizen’s rare interaction with the federal government, it begins to explain why people here insist on maintaining enough personal weaponry to overthrow it should the need arise. One more failed visit and I’m joining the NRA.
By far the most annoying thing was that one of the assistants persistently failed to remember the number of her window. Every time she called the next number, “A22 to window… [she pauses to look up at her window number] five”. Every single time. And every single time she was still at window 5. She didn’t move, the window didn’t move, every person in the room could confidently tell her she was at window number 5. I’m definitely returning to that office when I next fail to get a social security number, just to see whether she always works at window 5.
The property market in San Francisco is famously booming. Or badabooming, as the locals would say. This is a small city, enclosed on three sides by water. On the fourth side is Silicon Valley. This adds up to a lot of well-paid people (plus students, hipsters and international school physics teachers) all wanting to live in a city that has limited housing, driving prices through the roof. Want a studio apartment, sir? Has sir got somewhere between $1500 and $2500 a month to spare? May I recommend this shoe box as an alternative: only $800 a month plus utilities?
Even if you are able and willing to spend this much, it’s an owners market. In Soviet Russia you don’t choose apartment, apartment chooses you. You fill in long forms (obviously requiring a social security number) to apply for an apartment, putting yourself at the mercy of landlords picking your name out of the hat. Having no US credit history makes this fraught process all the more tricky.
Throw into the mix a load of clearly fraudulent Craigslist adverts, usually from someone saying that they’ve moved to Ohio/Michigan/Florida at short notice but need to rent their apartment out. Unfortunately, you’ll not be able to look inside, but feel free to drive past, then wire us your $4000 deposit.
As I write, I’m in a 48 hour holding pattern, circling high above the housing market. The weekend brought an unwelcome interruption to a letting agent running their checks on me, so I just have to sit with my fingers crossed until Monday morning. There’s a tempting possibility that I’ll soon be of fixed abode, but there’s a daunting possibility that instead I’ll be thrown back to square one, still living in overpriced hotels by the time I start work on Wednesday.
In between visits to federal offices, filling in forms and hunting for houses, I’ve had a great time exploring this awesome city. I keep having to stop and remind myself that I actually (sort of) live here, because on a daily basis I’m seeing views that should rightly have no place outside of an annual holiday.
On my first morning I was struck by how unAmerican San Francisco feels. I mean that, of course, in a positive way. Having spent six weeks in 2007 travelling down the east coast, I became used to the endless identical strip malls filled with Burger Kings, Super 8s and Walmarts. San Francisco does have chains, especially along Market Street and in the Westfield Centre (where you can dine handsomely for free by circling around the food court eating food samples from cocktail sticks), but many areas of the city, such as along Haught Avenue and the Mission, are filled with interesting independent shops, restaurants and bars.
This variety feeds a virtuous circle, as the cool destinations attract more interesting people to the city, who go on to do other cool things here, such as inventing Twitter or performing a breakdance demonstration in the middle of a BART carriage. Maybe that was what the millennials on the train were discussing.