I was born in San Francisco, and don’t you forget it. I came into this world in the UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion, right on Divisadero. This makes me a native, gosh darnit! That’s right—I have a ton of street cred.
Then, when I was 6 months old, I moved to Marin County, where I stayed until I was 18. I didn’t establish permanent residency in the actual city of San Francisco again until I was 29 years of age. When I used to live outside of the Bay Area, and particularly outside of the country, if somebody asked where I was from I would reply “San Francisco.” But I can’t do that living here, because in the very, very off-chance that the person asking is a native, he or she will further grill me about where I grew up, and eventually I’ll have to sheepishly admit that most of my youth was spent not in San Francisco, but in Marin. Make no mistake—I’m more of a native than all of the “San Franciscans” here from Boston, Maryland, LA, Ohio and even San Jose, but I’d be lying to myself and to you if I said I grew up in the city.
Nope, I’m “from” Marin County. There, I said it. For those of you who don’t know Marin County, have you heard of the Golden Gate Bridge? If you’re in San Francisco, and you go north across the Golden Gate Bridge, you end up in Marin County. No, not Sausalito. Not necessarily Sausalito, anyway. Sausalito is a town. Marin is a county, comprised of numerous towns. Sausalito is very touristy and not representative of all of Marin.
Since I know many of you are NY-centric, perhaps this map can help:
Here, Marin is unfairly and inaccurately analogized to Westchester County. Yes, I’ll admit that like Westchester, Marin is north of a major city and very wealthy. However, there are two key differences between Marin and Westchester. (1) Westchester was founded by puritans and Marin was founded by hippies, and (2) Westchester Country sucks. Item (2) is not true of Marin. Remember that band Stroke 9, who sang that “Little Black Backpack” song? Long before they hit the big time, they wrote a song in which they declared, once and for all, that “Marin County’s a-ok.” True story. You can listen to the song here, on Stroke 9’s myspace page. I’m sure you can find them on Friendster as well.
I’d like to write a little bit about Marin, because for what it’s worth, growing up there had a profound effect on me and played an integral part in making me who I am today, for better or for worse. I don’t know if this post will dispel any myths about Marin County or if it will just reinforce the tired stereotypes. I also don’t know if anybody who is not from Marin will find this entertaining or informative. Hell, I’m not sure if anybody who is not from Marin will even read this. But if you are from Marin, I hope that this makes you smile, nod your head, and say, “yup, that’s just about sums it up.”
I think it’s best to start by pointing out that Marin County is completely beautiful. Take a look:
That’s pretty much anywhere in Marin. We also have a coastline:
This is our Civic Center. You know, where you go when you get a speeding ticket:
Our Civic Center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Who designed your county’s Civic Center? Was it somebody famous? Because Frank Lloyd Wright is pretty famous.
Most people who grow up in Marin (excluding, funnily enough, many of my closest friends) develop an early love for hiking and the outdoors, just by virtue of living so close to exquisite nature. If you’re into mountain biking, we practically invented it, so I’ve been told. I actually have friends from Westchester who told me that they’d go drive several hours to the Catskills to go hiking. From my parents’ house in Marin (and most people’s houses), you can walk a very short distance to get to the Mt. Tamalpais watershed, with its 5 lakes. Speaking of which, this is Mt. Tam:
This is a statute in front of the Bon Air shopping center in Greenbrae that is supposed to depict Mt. Tam (speaking of “completely beautiful”):
But Marin County is not all about natural beauty and hot naked statue chicks. If it was, nobody would make fun of you when you mentioned that you’re from Marin. Unfortunately, people do make fun of you if you’re from Marin, mainly because Marin is known for being very rich and very white. On the latter, consider this: I went to a public high school and in my graduating class of 250, we had two black students, two girls who both had the same first and last names.
I didn’t understand how rich and privileged we were in Marin until I finally left the confines of Marin and headed to New York for college. Actually, that didn’t help much, because most of my classmates were from Westchester and were even more rich and privileged than me. But that is neither here nor there. I was one of the “poorer” kids in my high school in that I didn’t get my own Beamer or green Ford Explorer when I turned 16, and instead had to drive my mom’s Subaru hatchback to school. Or maybe my dad’s Audi A4. Dammit.
My high school was very suburban “in-crowd / out-crowd,” and given my general bitterness at the world in my early 30s, I bet you can tell where I fell in that spectrum as an angsty, awkward teenager. I do chortle a bit when I see pictures of groups of folks I knew growing up in Marin who are still friends with each other today, banded together drinking red wine in Napa or in the ski lodge in Tahoe, looking like a J. Crew ad. So that’s why they make fun of us!
You don’t have to skim the WASP-y, Westchester-like surface of Marin too far to find the seedy underbelly. My boss at the law firm now often jokes that because I’m from Marin, I must be some kind of drug addict (she is from Berkeley, but like many other law firm partners has lost her sense of irony over the years). While I am not and have never been a pothead, alcoholic, cigarette smoker, or addict of any other sort (hell, I don’t even drink coffee, which is very rare for a LAWYER in SAN FRANCISCO), I can understand where she was coming from. While my yuppie classmates were putting on their polo shirts and getting rides from their drivers to the racquet club on the weekends, my pals and I, with our long hair and Converse All Stars, were taking bus #20 or hitchhiking to the now-defunct Marin City flea market to buy Zippos, knives and old rock and roll T-shirts (I had a great black Led Zeppelin tee I wore for many years, as well as a Sonic Youth one that said “Pretty F*ckin’ Dirty” on it, which was totally awesome).
While my white bread classmates were going to the polo fields in Golden Gate Park to actually play polo, my buddies and I were hanging out on Haight Street, eating cheap Chinese food and buying Doc Martens, or as we called them, “Docs.” You know, before it was cool. Note: I never actually bought Docs. I did however, have long hair down to my shoulders, and I constantly listened to the Grateful Dead and Phish. I was also really into flannel and Seattle grunge. Basically, my friends and I were badass compared to everybody else in Marin.
There’s a downside to all of that badassery, as you might expect. I had a lot of friends with drug problems. I had a few friends who ended up in jail, and a few who O.D.’d. Believe it or not, but money doesn’t cure all of life’s and society’s problems, and in some cases potentially exacerbates them. Take this little anecdote: last month I had a wonderful reunion with two of my very close friends from the old country (let’s call them L and S), two kids whom I’ve known for over 20 years each. We were sitting in my one friend’s apartment in Oakland, as he smoked cigarettes and played some Lee Fields on his record player. I sat far away on the opposite end of the couch, avoiding the cigarette smoke although I knew it had infected my clothing the second I walked through the front door. “I’d ask if we should get some beer,” I said, “but I think both of you are sober, right?”
“Yup,” said L, “I got sober in the city 6 years ago, B got sober in Marin 5 years ago, and S got sober in the east bay 4 years ago.”
“That’s right, J,” added S. “When are you gonna join the club? You’re the only one who still drinks.”
“That’s true,” said L, “but on the other hand, J is the only one who didn’t completely fuck up his life at one point.” To think that I survived drug addiction, even though I grew up in Marin! Every time another friend goes to rehab, I always think, there but for the grace of G-d go I. I remember getting to college and being amazed by how sheltered the rest of my class seemed. I was the guy from the lily-white super-rich suburb—should I have been the sheltered one? Then again, what do you expect from the county that invented the concept of “4:20”?
I don’t like cops—Marin taught me that. To this day, I get nervous when I see a cop car, whether I’m driving or walking. Marin cops don’t have much in the way of serious crime to attend to, so they spend their time breaking up high school house parties, giving out tickets for rolling stop signs at 2 AM, and confiscating forties of malt liquor. Such experiences taught an already rebellious young J to further question authority. For all of last month, there was constantly at least one cop car on my block, to prevent squatters/homeless/protestors/lords-knows-who from getting into the empty lot that was formerly the Hayes Valley Farm. Just seeing those cop cars made me feel less safe, and with good reason: for every cop in Hayes Valley, there was one less cop in Hunter’s Point or the Mission or some other neighborhood that actually can use cops. Whether in a yuppie suburb or in a yuppie neighborhood of a big city, cops without real crime are bad news.
My parents still live in Marin (in the same house!), and I also have a few close friends there, so I find myself heading over the bridge usually around once a month. Have you ever gone back to the place of your childhood? It can be very bizarre. There are memories hiding everywhere that leap out at you when you least expect them, triggered by a sight or location you haven’t seen or been to in years, and on surprisingly not-so-rare occasion they knock you flat on your ass.
Sometimes I’ll get a full-blown flashblack, like the time I went to the Candy Stop in Corte Madera and got a slush puppy and then went to the picnic table and remembered that time that A got super drunk in the middle of the day and started harassing people and P, sporting a pink mohawk, chased him down and awkwardly swung his fists down onto A’s shoulders, knocking him down and into a state of unconsciousness.
Sometimes I’ll have a vision that’s like a montage of “greatest hits” moments, like the time I drove past the spot where Old West (a.k.a. “Old Meth”) pool hall used to be and I remembered the time I won a mini four-person pool tournament with my friends and the time I got the high score on the Cyclone pinball machine and the time I kissed my third girl ever in the parking lot and the time we went onto that houseboat and A ended up huffing VHS tape head cleaner at the suggestion of this really tall black gay dude who looked kind of like Grace Jones and then fell onto the floor and started shouting “I feel warm! I feel warm!”
And sometimes I won’t have a specific memory, but a general overwhelming flood of emotion, like when I drive past my old high school (Redwood High School—Go Giants!) and I suddenly feel like I have long hair and zits and I’m awkward and lonely and depressed and terrified of girls. It’s a really unpleasant feeling for me, thinking of the way I was in high school, but at the same time there’s this strange comfort. To this day I often feel like I’m cheating fate or really lying to myself when I display any sort of self-confidence or extroverted tendencies. It’s funny, people who meet me today don’t believe me when I tell them I’m shy, but people who met me in high school don’t believe me when I tell them I’m not.
I get a little sad when I go to my parents’ house and I realize that I would have to make ten times more money than they ever did to have a house like theirs in Marin (or anywhere in the Bay Area, really). Marin County would be a wonderful place to raise your kids. I remember one time when I was 14 or 15 and I wanted to sneak out to meet some friends on a Saturday night. I put on my clothes and tried to quietly sneak down the stairs, but when I got near the front door my parents came out of the T.V. room and saw me. “Where are you going?” my mom asked. “Uh…I was just getting a snack.” “Then why did you get all dressed up, just to get some oreos?” “Uh…I…” “J, you don’t need to sneak out. Just tell us where you’re going. We don’t care.” You wouldn’t tell your kid that if you lived in a big city, would you?
Of course, my mom probably wouldn’t have let me out that night if she had known that I was going to meet up with two of my more hoodlumesque friends, and that we were going to hitchhike to Larkspur, get an older person to buy us a fifth of rum, get wasted on the picnic table behind the fire station and then go to Denny’s for a Moons Over My Hammy (or if we were feeling adventurous, a “Moons Over My Bacon”).
Kids who grow up in the suburbs always complain about how boring their hometowns are. And yes, underage drinking and trips to all-night chain restaurants do not exactly make for the most exciting childhood. Nonetheless, I must have gotten some enjoyment from those halcyon days of my youth because to this day, when I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and back into Marin, I almost always can’t help but smile. I guess there’s something to be said about that.
Oh, also, apparently my hometown is no longer boring.