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I left my heart in San Francisco . . . No, wait, in L.A. No, wait . . .

As she pined for the south she was bonding with the north. Then she realized she could love the whole big state.

July 16, 2006|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a senior writer for West.

I caught myself pining the other day for a street in San Francisco, a potholed stretch memorable only for the summer during which I cursed it every day.

It was our first year as Northern Californians. We'd been uprooted from Los Angeles by corporate consolidation. To say we had mixed feelings was like saying that Cuban exiles can get a little emotional when you mention Castro. Each morning, while family and friends back home were padding barefoot down some big, warm, sunny driveway to pick up the paper--or feeding the dog on some big, warm, sunny back porch, or hearing the shhhk-shhhk-shhhk of the lawn sprinkler under some big, warm, sunny palm tree--we would awaken to a bone-chilling, maritime fog bank.

There it would sit, the antithesis of summer as we defined it. Forcing us into wool socks and fleece jackets, sending us out with cups of tea and hot chocolate clutched to our chests, scarves wound around our necks to keep the icy July fog from pouring down our sweatshirt collars. Off we'd rattle each day in our wet car through That Other California's version of July and August, infamous since Mark Twain endured it. Through the whipping white clouds. Down the dripping hill by the bus stop. Over the Muni-tracked paving. Past the padlocked schools of Irish step-dancing and the bums in the restaurant doorways. The grime and drear and pitted asphalt never varied as we ferried the kids to a day camp in which they knew no one.

It was the summer of that "Hey Baby" song, sung by Orange County's own Gwen Stefani, and she sounded to us like a little blond call from what we thought of as Our California. The car radio played her hit ditty over and over in those lonely months, and while she sang, I'd drive my children along the route to their new camp, along our new home's cold, cloudy landscape, and under my breath I'd mutter the bitter lament of exiles the world over:

"We'll never belong."

Oh, we were a sad, sorry lot that summer. Who worries about belonging in a place as storied as San Francisco? When circumstance dictated that we move there, our landing sounded so enviable that we boasted, blatantly.

Clean air, good bread, good coffee, cable cars, a "real" city with "real" history, not some sprawling ganglia of half-baked suburbs--what was to question? But as the months passed we just couldn't stop being homesick for the California we'd left on the other side of the Tehachapi Mountains. Nothing pleased us, it seemed.

The houses were too old. There wasn't enough sunshine. The supermarkets were cramped and drab and didn't have enough parking spots. The schools seemed to have gone to wrack and ruin. Pedestrians kept running around in the crosswalks, something they had the good sense not to do, we sniffed, back in Southern California. The drivers seemed as incompetent as they were honk-happy. All the true action and power and money suddenly seemed to be back in L.A., which, as cities went, was quite "real," as it turned out.

"Everyone I know who has moved from L.A. to San Francisco either loves it or takes one look and runs for their lives, shrieking," laughed a friend back in the big, warm, sunny south.

Heartache beset us. Shuffling around in our fleece-lined you-name-it, we'd take our summer clothes out of the closet and lovingly stroke them, like mourners running their fingers across the keepsakes of the dearly beloved. Our kids would wax on about the abundance of great fast food back home to Bay Area children who, thoroughly inculcated, asked if we were aware that "poisoned grease" was "pumped into those places" each night by evil "tanker trucks with gigantic hoses."

We'd drive south to visit family and burst into tears when we hit the Grapevine, rolling down the windows to smell--yes, it had come to that, smell!--the freeway. We'd crank up the car stereo with odes to our beloved Southern California: Joni Mitchell. The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Beck. Our Lady of the O.C, Gwen Stefani.

"Hey-ba-by, hey-ba-by, hey!" we'd wail past the exit to Magic Mountain, sobbing at the beautiful, bruise-colored smog.

Then, one day, we were hit with another job-related upheaval. Suddenly, work required that we move back to Southern California. Bags were packed, boxes loaded, new schools found, real estate agents contacted. Fond farewells were bid to neighbors and friends.

Down the interstate we trekked, ready to pick up where we had left off. But four years had, incredibly, all but erased Southern California as we'd known it, and had left us more Northern Californian than we would have guessed.

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