San Francisco Is My Biggest, Proudest Failure


I’ve been thinking about San Francisco.

My friend and I have a pact to get tattoos next May and the only symbol I can imagine marking myself with permanently is the Golden Gate Bridge, a doodle I’ve been sketching for years. The City by the Bay was the first city I ever fell in love with, liberal and artsy and historically progressive. I tagged along with my dad on a business trip as a teenager and decided it was where I was meant to be. I could just picture it, listening to podcasts as I dangled from the back of a cable car, the sun setting on the water behind me. And why not? Why couldn’t I, a New Englander, transplant out West? There was no snow in San Francisco, and I understood the public transit system, and I always got the cutest haircut in the Mission when I visited the city once a year. If I wanted to be a sex writer, there was no better place in the world to put down roots.

I lasted a little over two months in San Francisco. More accurately, I moved to Berkeley in the East Bay (which is not San Francisco) a week after I graduated college, and I had a slow-motion mental breakdown. Blog posts from that summer read like love letters from a drowning woman. My undiagnosed anxiety was exacerbated by daily street harassment, and I felt totally and utterly alone in this city where I knew no one. Friends had scattered across the globe, my parents were in a different time zone, and my then partner bore the brunt of supporting me through my post-grad depression. I hated Berkeley, and I hated myself even more for not being able to make it work. I had never truly failed at anything before. To this day, my time in California still feels like a deep, personal failure—my biggest and mine alone.

There are valid reasons it didn’t work: isolation at a time when I needed my support networks more than ever, being an unpaid intern in a very expensive city, and the Bay Area’s legitimate problem with violence against women. I can see very clearly why moving there was a bad call, born of naivety and privilege and a burning, youthful optimism. I can also see why it was the bravest risk I had ever taken. The girl who never lived less than an hour drive away from her family flew thousands of miles away for a city she had a good feeling about. I still can’t believe I did it. It’s hard to see something that required that much courage as a fuckup.

There are also memories from that summer that I would never trade. How I lost my breath driving over the Golden Gate for the first time. How bright and fragile the city looked from Twin Peaks. How many erotica anthologies every bookstore had. And how much of a relief it was to finally fly away.

The Strand Bookstore in New York City has a reel of “vintage” prints and my eyes lit up when I found an old Golden Gate Bridge travel poster. It’s above my desk now. I also have a San Francisco shot glass and snow globe on my bedside table. These mementos of past trips still mean the world to me, and I outline the same bridge over and over again across my journal. It seems I have unfinished business with San Francisco, and I hope I get another shot at living there when I’m older and wiser (with more savings). It is still a symbol of a possible future, a parallel home. But more than that, San Francisco is a reminder that all challenges can be survived, all adventures can be readjusted, and all bridges are fucking pretty.

So here’s to moving to San Francisco, and all the other mistakes that show us who we are.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

2 thoughts on “San Francisco Is My Biggest, Proudest Failure

  1. I sometimes feel the same. I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to complete my round two of going to college. I went to CSUN for Film and TV. I worked very hard, was very miserable, made a crap senior project and worked for free on commercial sets for a year before becoming a receptionist at a reality/documentary television company. I worked my way up to Assistant to the President of the company and was also a Development Coordinator and Researcher. Big titles for no pay and tons of hours. Was in a very toxic relationship for 6 years and had a nervous breakdown all at the same time. HOWEVER, I fell fondly of the friends that I did make in the time there. I loved the weather and hated the traffic. I moved back home to Ohio after 10 years feeling like an utter failure. It took some years to forgive myself and realize that I had an adventure that others hadn’t. I haven’t been back since I left and miss it sometimes.

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