a different kind of commute

Recent discussions with friends about commuting reminded me of an essay I wrote in grad school, about living in San Francisco. The essay as a whole did not go over very well with my classmates or my professor, and when I reread it I understand better some of the reasons why. But whatever its flaws it included a description of the best commute I ever had (when I first moved to San Francisco), which I thought I’d post here.

Most mornings I walked to work, purposefully leaving early because the city on spring mornings was something that had to be absorbed before ducking into a climate-controlled office. When describing the brightness of the buildings against clarity of the blue sky or the soft outlines of the verdant hills across the Bay, it is hard to resist using words that have no concrete meaning: spectacular, glorious, beautiful. And yet every morning I whispered these words to myself.

I did not walk straight to work. Instead, like a distracted school girl, I wove my way up and over Nob Hill, across still-sleepy Chinatown and through parks and playgrounds. My path on a map might have looked like a maze, like the wanderings of a scavenging cat. I chose to climb the steepest streets; hills at such an angle that stairs had been carved into the sidewalks, that cars had to be parked perpendicular to the curb. At the top I blinked at the view of the Victorian-style apartment buildings — all bevel and trim and bay windows — spread before me, tumbling, it seemed, into the sparkling blue of the water. Here was Greece, or Italy, or some impossibly foreign city in which I could not quite place myself. And yet I was there.

Some days I climbed to the crest of California Street and looked down on the tops of skyscrapers. In a trick of geology and architecture, the tallest portion of the city lay below me, and I watched the famous cable car descend into that promise in the pastel of early morning light.

It seems like I did not write that essay so long ago, but already it’s been two years. When I re-read it, I can see how my writing has changed since then. It’s so hard to quantify what I learned in grad school; how my writing was altered by the experience. People are always asking me that, and there’s no simple answer. Some days I feel lost in my writing and I think that I learned nothing; some days I am grateful to have had the chance to spend so much time practicing writing, and that my writing is better for it. Rarely can I identify particular differences. I tend to tell people that I learned to write longer in grad school, and that seems to satisfy them.

I know that if I wrote this essay again the writing would be different now: the sentences more varied, less sculpted, rawer. I tended to over-edit my work (and it is a tendency I have to resist still), and I couldn’t for a long time break out of certain rhythms in my writing. I think — I hope — that this has changed.

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