This wasn’t the first time that I had gotten into a car with a near stranger. It was late, far past bedtime, and I watched as the hills of San Francisco rose and fell beneath me. We passed dark rowhomes, quiet trolley lines. It was a cold summer night and had just started to drizzle, the drops lightly peppering the windshield. Details, I thought, worth remembering about the place that would soon become home.
In the driver’s seat was a man named Daniel*. He was tall and muscular, with light brown hair and a dimple that made his smile look just slightly crooked. I had met Daniel the night before, at a salsa social in the heart of San Francisco, but tonight was the first time we really got to talk. Daniel asked me about my work, my relationships, my plans for California. Simple yet vulnerable questions. I answered each one honestly. I’m looking for a job. I’m still a little heartbroken. I’m hoping to make this place my home. He told me about himself too. His life, his work, his family. And, you know, big and important things like his favorite salsa song and the best place to get pupusas in the Bay Area.
In spite of his appearance in this blog post, Daniel is not a particularly important character in my life. In fact, after our car ride together that night in San Francisco, I never really spoke with him again, save for a few cordial “hi, how are you?” text messages. However, I feel a considerable amount of gratitude towards the Daniels that we meet while traveling. The humans who we stumble across who make us feel, whether intentionally or not, almost at home in an unfamiliar place. Those who remind us that there are friendships to be made and communities to be found, in a place called home, wherever that may be.
Mid-afternoon prologue, of sorts
Earlier that day, I wrapped my coat even tighter around my frame and trudged up a hill in Pacific Heights. The mid-May sun was strong, but the winds were stronger. I felt beads of sweat form at my back, while my nose threatened to run from the cold whipping at my face. San Francisco weather was weird. Fickle. Hot and cold, simultaneously.
And why had I found myself mid-May and trudging up a hill in Pacific Heights? Well, I was pretty determined to make San Francisco my home. I had already sent out dozens of job applications, had already set up interviews, had already checked craigslist to see exactly how much a room in a Pacific Heights rowhome would cost (the answer: a lot, and probably a lot more than I would be able to afford). But still, I wanted to walk around the neighborhood and see it for myself. There are plenty of beautiful photos on google, but it’s a totally different experience when you walk around the neighborhood yourself.
I had just moved out of Baltimore, and for good this time. Baltimore is the epitome of home for me. It’s a city in which every block seems to hold some sort of memory. It’s the world in which I feel like I first established myself as an adult, or maybe as a human. So many of my important firsts happened in Baltimore: first job, first lease signed on an apartment, first time really living alone, first time buying a car, first time freaking out at an outrageously high electric bill, first time making friends in the “real world”, first real heartbreak of my adult life, first real emotional recovery of my adult life, first this, first that. I think that we will always hold “first” places in a special nook in our hearts: those places where we managed to establish ourselves as adults, where we arrived alone but carved out spaces and found community.
And so Baltimore was in my head during my walk around San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. Which was perhaps unfair to Pacific Heights. And San Francisco. When another place feels like home, it’s hard for anywhere else to measure up.
But somehow, it seemed like San Francisco might be the place for me. At the very least, it seemed like I was going to make San Francisco the place for me. Home doesn’t become home overnight. But I had a plan, which I earnestly explained to anyone during my trip to California: “I’m from New York. And Maryland, sort of. It’s complicated. But I’m thinking about moving here, to California.”
My trip conveniently occurred a few weeks after an almost-crushing heartbreak, which veered my plans to stay in Maryland fairly off-course. You see, I had just returned from almost a year of on and off travel, and one week after returning home, my (then) relationship ended. So, jobless, partnerless, and soon to be homeless, I left Maryland. The logical next step was to return to New York. But New York wasn’t possibly a place where I could live. It was loud, crowded, and absurdly lonely. Millions of people crammed into a few tiny boroughs who never talk to each other. After homey Baltimore, New York seemed not just wrong, but impossible.
What I needed, I thought, was a fresh start. Somewhere new. Somewhere warm. (Have I mentioned that I absolutely hate winter?). Somewhere that would, conveniently, put an entire continent in between myself and my ex. I could go anywhere, so why not take this moment to move across the country?
But I started with a quick trip, to feel it out. I would start in the Bay Area, visiting friends and revisiting the city, since the last time I had been to California was years before, during a completely different phase of my life. After San Francisco I would go down to Southern California, visiting Los Angeles and San Diego for the first time. You know, to give them an honest shot. But I was thinking it would be San Francisco. And the job search and the interviews seemed to corroborate that thought. I had wondered if a job in the Presidio meant that I could live someplace close by, like Pacific Heights. But the combination of the sweat on my back and the mucus starting to drip from my nostrils was perhaps telling me otherwise. I wiped my nose on the sleeve of my coat and made a mental note to myself: Pacific Heights is really cold, maybe too cold.
But that’s okay. San Francisco is a big city. Instead of walking farther into Pacific Heights, I turned and started walking south. I would find someplace else to live.
New spaces and familiar faces
Later that night, I walked into a bar in a desolate part of South San Francisco. It wasn’t nearly as windy here, but the streets were deserted by 9:30 p.m., so I had powerwalked the couple of dark blocks between the bus stop and the bar. Another requirement for a place to call home? A solid dance scene. The previous night I had danced salsa, and tonight I would try out a bachata social.
I arrived right at the end of a small bachata class, and soon afterwards the DJ took over, playing familiar bachata after familiar bachata. I put on my dance shoes and immediately asked someone to dance. It felt great to be dancing bachata. There’s something about shaking my hips to the sounds of the güira and bongo that just feels right. Happy hips. Soon enough I had a big, goofy smile on my face. I sang along to the music and chatted amicably with my dance partners. I was in the zone.
After a while, I noticed that Daniel had come into the bar. I bounded over to him. “Hi!” I exclaimed, and we gave each other a big bear hug as if we were the best of friends. Maybe it’s a consequence of travel, when everything and everyone is new, but the sight of a familiar face in such an unfamiliar city felt outrageously comforting.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Good! I’m so glad you came! You should put your stuff down so we can dance,” I told him with a smile. And so he did, and dance we did. I loved dancing with Daniel. He was noticeably bigger than me, tall and full-bodied. Dancing with him, you could feel his strength, but his movements never felt forceful. We had great connection, the kind of great connection that allows for lots of trust on the dance floor.
The social was small, with maybe only 25 people or so in attendance. But it was fun, in spite of there not being many dancers. I danced a few songs with Daniel, and continued working my way through the rest of the crowd, trying to dance with everyone at least once. But still, Daniel was my favorite person to dance with. As the night wore on, the other dancers started to trickle out, until there were just a few of us left. I grabbed Daniel for one last dance.
It was a slow, smooth bachata. We started stepping in time with the music, meandering our way through some simple turn patterns. He pulled me closer, his hand clutching my shoulder blade, my arm draped across his shoulder. Torsos touching, legs intertwined. The music dropped down, and he grabbed my shoulders with both hands, lowering me down into a dip. Slowly, he pulled me up, first torso to torso, then cheek to cheek, the sweat from his face touching the sweat from my face. I gripped his shoulders, and together our hips settled back into that familiar bachata rhythm. Right left right pause. Step step step tap. The music faded out, and after a beat, we let each other go.
My heart may have been racing a little bit. But then I said, “thanks for the dance,” and grinned. We hugged in that familiar way, like the best of friends.
San Francisco surprises
Because the bachata social ended earlier than we thought, Daniel asked if I wanted to go somewhere else. “There are a few other places to dance,” he said. “Do you like timba?”
I rarely danced timba, but I was up for anything. Timba it was. We went out to his car and drove the short distance to the Mission, where Daniel promised me a good spot for timba. “But don’t wear your high heels,” he said. “You’re better off in those.” He pointed to my combat boots.
Bissap Baobab, the club that hosted the timba social, was pretty wild. There were hundreds of people there, on a Wednesday night, dancing Cuban salsa and reggaetón. The place had the dirtiest dance floor imaginable, splattered with spilled drinks and probably some broken glass. You could barely move, let alone spin, there were so many people. And while normally this would bother me, tonight it didn’t. There was just so much energy in the room. Just hearing the upbeat music and bearing witness to a room full of happy dancers was enough.
Daniel introduced me to some friends of his. I danced a little, and chatted a little, and spent a lot of time looking out over the mass of dancers, tapping my feet in time to the music.
Finally, it was time to go. I walked out with Daniel. “I can’t believe how many people were here!” I marveled to him as we walked to the car, the skies of San Francisco finally opening up into a light drizzle.
“It’s a good place, huh? Something different,” Daniel said, and I nodded. But now I was officially tired. The next morning I would have to get up early to make my bus to Los Angeles. Daniel offered to give me a ride back to the Fisherman’s Wharf. We piled into the car and headed north.
And so I found myself in the car with Daniel, really talking to him for the first time. Sure, we had talked a little bit the previous night when I first met him at the salsa social, and we had talked a little bit tonight, but being off the dance floor, in the quiet of a car, was completely different. No shouting above the music, no distraction of dance. Just two people sharing small pieces of themselves.
I told him the abridged but honest version of why I was in California, and what I was looking for. I told him about my recent heartbreak, about moving back home to New York, about trying to find work in California. I told him about an interview that I was hoping to get, and my plans for the rest of my trip. And he shared bits of himself too. He told me about his last relationship and why it didn’t work out. He told me about his work. His thoughts on the dance scene. His love of California, and specifically the Bay Area. “This is a great place to live,” he said. “I hope you get that interview. I hope it works out for you here.”
We pulled up in front of my hotel, but we just sat in the car, still talking. There was so much to talk about, between salsa and San Francisco, work and job searching, family and relationships, love and heartbreak. Ten minutes went by, twenty, thirty. At times I burst out laughing, at other times I just nodded my head, serious. But it felt natural, the kind of natural that you feel when actually connecting with another human being on a non-superficial level.
But it was late, and in just a few hours I would have to get up and get on a bus to Los Angeles. So eventually, I put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder and said, “I think it’s time.”
He nodded. “The next time you come to San Francisco we’ll go out for pupusas,” he told me earnestly. I laughed.
“That sounds great.”
And so I gave him a hug and thanked him for the ride and the dances and the great night, and then I got out of the car and walked up the driveway into my hotel.
And I couldn’t stop smiling, the entire walk up to my room, and while brushing my teeth and washing my face, and while lying in bed that night, just a few hours away from having to wake up. The night’s events played over and over in my mind. Snippets from the bachata social, and the feeling of a torso pressed against my torso, and a cheek pressed against my cheek. Snippets from Bissap Baobab, with the blast of timba music and room fully of sweaty bodies and smiling faces moving across a drink-soaked floor. And snippets from the car, parked across the street from my hotel, as I laughed with and listened to and confided in a near stranger.
And I felt, in that moment, a sense of peace. Because San Francisco was practically foreign to me. I knew almost no one there, and had spent less than three weeks there in my entire life. But still, in those few days in the city, I had stumbled across positive spaces, and potential new friendships. If I were to move here, I thought, there would be so many more moments like these. Moments of happiness. Moments in which you can’t help but smile and think, “how exactly did I find myself in this situation, with this person?” yet there you are and you’re grateful for it.
In the end, I never ended up moving to San Francisco. But eventually I managed to calm my racing thoughts and drift off to sleep, smiling at the thought of what could be.
*Not his real name