By Samantha English '19
25 Baker Street is bright blue and falling apart. The three levels are lopsided and the concrete steps are dusted with a layer of dirt. The building may not be up to code and it desperately needs to be cleaned, but there’s a simple charm to it, a sort of cheeriness that old colorful houses create for me in their unremembered nostalgia. I stare up past its beautiful disrepair to the topmost window, where Mom is currently pointing.
“That one was mine,” she exclaims, pulling out her iPhone. She’s sweaty but smiley with a kind of prettiness I’ve never seen before, a sweet contentment that is unfamiliar to me. “Get on the steps, I’m going to take your picture.”
We’ve been in California for less than three hours. I’m ten days from nineteen and I haven’t been to San Francisco since I was six. After thirteen years of absence, only a few snippets of memory remain for me: of a brightly lit Mexican restaurant and the banner of Happy Days Preschool and that time I nearly drowned in Judy Scudder’s pool. I had been begging Mom to take me back on her yearly visits since I was twelve, but I gave up when we started paying for college tuition. Mom was the one who decided I needed to go back now. It’s your birthday present, she told me. A mother-daughter trip.
I jump onto the steps and put on a smile as she struggles with her camera. Lovely Victorians line the uphill street like multicolored bakery cakes. It really is a beautiful city, I think, gazing down the street just as a middle-aged man sticks his head around the corner. His ancient stare has an overly personal feel to it that screams “this is my house.” He gives us a confused look that almost seems angry, and I’m suddenly nervous. Ugh no, I knew this was a bad idea. I start to move my left foot down to the next step, ready for the guy to start yelling at us to get off his property, when Mom points at him.
“Do you live here?” she asks, a half-grin on her face.
The guy walks up quite close to her, staring deeply into her face. Oh no. My nervousness quickly hikes up into full-blown anxiety that this creepy-looking man has to be an axe murderer - and I better start screaming now before Mom gets killed in broad daylight - but before I can even open my mouth, he bursts into a huge smile.
“You’re my neighbor!” he exclaims in a heavy French accent, sticking out his hand to shake Mom’s. “You’re my neighbor, oh my god!”
His name is Tristan, I learn, and he moved into the building twenty years ago, a year before Mom moved out. He is about as worn and jolly as the house is. His blue shirt and flowy tan pants look like something out of a George Clooney beach movie, except that they are greased-stained and rumpled. He’s gray-stubbled and salt-and-pepper-haired and unshaven in a way that probably makes him look older than he actually is. However, despite his messy appearance, his enthusiasm is infectious. This is the most exciting thing ever to him, that his old twenty-something neighbor who got knocked up and married and had a little baby is now forty-something and has brought her own twenty-something daughter back to visit.
He begins to exuberantly tell Mom the history of the house since she left. He explains how the old owner had died and how her nephews had decided to add apartments to the basement and how the contractor they hired almost destroyed the foundation of the house next door. How he had lived for a few months with a hole in his ceiling and how he had stayed in his apartment even when the house wasn’t connected to the ground. How the construction had to be taken over by the city and how the place got sold. How he stays under rent control while the basement apartments went up to $1500 a room and how he utilizes the benefits of rent control over a long period of time to pay a lot less than that. He talks for nearly thirty minutes before asking if we want to see the apartment.
“Yes,” Mom and I say at the same time. I’m in an amused awe, she’s in an odd half-heaven, and suddenly, we are following this middle-aged motorcyclist up the back steps. How did this happen? I think, shaking my head and smirking.
The apartment is filthy, covered with old documents and grime, but its structure is exquisite. Tristan shows us a computer monitor that probably older than me, a hole in the bookshelf that leads to the attic, and the tiled front stairs in front of Mom’s apartment. As he takes us to the front door, he tells us of finding an unopened letter from Italy written in 1980s and tracking down its intended recipient only a few blocks away. He stands in the entryway and tells us how “fucking stupid” it is that the old door was taken away.
“That’s my fault, actually,” Mom speaks up. I turn my enthralled gaze from the man I don’t know to the woman I think I do. She suddenly launches into her first fully formed story of the day, one about a night spent out, a door that lacked a lock, a disturbing guy knocking on her apartment door, and a landlady who threw out the original door for a new one. The story isn’t striking, but this moment somehow is. I had known for awhile, as all children at some point learn, that my mother had a life before she had me and that my mother was someone else before she was my mother, but I had never had the chance to step into that life that she once lived until now. I feel a sort of sadness, standing there, the only one in the room who doesn’t remember this past. Here I am, I think, literally living in her history.
We are in San Francisco for a full week, and event after event feels like a misplaced memory for me. I walk the streets of the Mission District that change as you walk down them, avenues which change from a style of colorful authenticity to a gentrified upscale to alleys on alleys of wall art commenting on what happened between the blocks. I go to Baker Beach, the location of my favorite baby picture, and witness the foggy bridge I only remember through pictures. I eat my favorite dinner, Scudder Pasta, with Judy and John Scudder, my mother’s best friends, and feel as if they know me like one knows a niece, even though I haven’t seen them for thirteen years. I visit the three homes I lived in and stand in the shadows of my childhood for old photograph recreations. The Sunset House used to be yellow. The window on Seventeenth Avenue doesn’t look as big as I thought it would. Isn’t that where that cherry blossom tree used to be?
Place after place, walk after walk, I feel as if I see my mother change before my eyes into someone I do not recognize. She used to be this person, this content Californian who taught at Catholic school and rode the bus and read literature in parks across the city. Even more so, though, I see who she is and who I am and what we could have been had we never moved to Chicago. I would have been a San Francisco girl. I would have rode this bus to the Haight to buy books at The Booksmith. I would have had my first cup of coffee here. Mom and I would have gone to this dance class together. John and Judy would be my surrogate uncle and aunt in an even stronger way. I could have become this person, but would I really have been any different? Would I truly like this person better than the person I am?
When I bring up my comments to Mom, she shrugs. “Well, we can’t change the past, can we?”
“Of course not, that’s not what I’m saying,” I argue, switching from staring out the bus to looking at her. “I just...I feel like I belong here, even though I didn’t grow up here.”
“You were born here,” she replies. “You can still come back.”
I turn back to the bus window and look outside at the independent shops and pastel homes surrounding me. As the city blurs past me in a watercolor rush, I recall a conversation about a memoir with my mother years ago, a memoir that partially takes place in this very city. We had sat at the dinner table, me in frustration, her in amusement, as I explained my exasperation with students in my sophomore English class.
“Why don’t they get that it’s an autobiography?” I say in anger, staring at the school-issued copy of The Woman Warrior.
“Because they don’t understand the idea that the story of your life is the story you want to tell,” she laughs. “They don’t understand that what Kingston is arguing is that your story can be your mother’s story, or your grandmother’s story, or the stories you were told as a child. Your story is more than just what you remember.”
I smile against the bus window. My story is more than my memories, I think, watching San Francisco pass by and knowing suddenly that I will be coming back-- sooner rather than later. And my story isn’t anywhere near over yet.
From September 2016 issue