SF Was Killing Me

Reading Larry Finn’s blog post on the San Francisco Bubble prompted me to resurrect this ~1640-word stream of consciousness from the Drafts folder of my WordPress installation. I wrote this approximately 4 months ago.

In lieu of tying up its ending into some nice concluding thoughts, I’ll just publish it here as is.


Almost exactly two months in The City, and I was through. I was on my way back to the city of big shoulders. “I like Chicago,” said someone at the other fund, “everything is bigger there.”

In my time I have seen real estate fliers earnestly touting the features of a $1.9 Million two-bedroom loft space smaller than the upstairs of my mom’s house. I’ve met people who pay the equivalent of a payment on a $1M mortgage per month to live in one-bedroom apartments with hardwood cabinets, granite countertops and low-flow toilets which cannot seem to get the job quite done. I’ve consumed a shameful number of $15 cocktails at twee bars and backroom speakeasies while speaking glibly about investing and sans serif typeface design. I have not, however, consumed a sufficient number of $15 cocktails –  replete with artisinal cherries, obscure spirits, some of which were mixed and barrel aged, as one SaaS-y CEO mentioned, “onPrem” – to forget that the air in the bubble is rarified.

When it pops, the whole City and its suburbs will be sprayed with raw unicorn burger.

The City scares me, not because of the bubble or the heinous real estate market, but the people. Maybe it’s not so much the people, the overwhelming majority of whom appear at face value to be good. And by “people” I mean the young and ambitious, kitted out in hoodies and jeans, transitively hacking apps, growth and life. They want their tech smaller, faster and Crunched. These people go hiking in the forest while never once remarking on the raw beauty of the redwoods. They talk about “profoundly disruptive” tech while overlooking the body-surfers at Half Moon Bay, then reminisce of a time when the traversal of information on the Web was once called surfing.

Those  $11 (compostable plastic) bottles of cold-pressed juice I’ve gawked at (never bought), aimless technical conversations and the wild-eyed paper millionaires… besides all of that, I’ve seen some shit and otherwise ignored reminders that there are people who don’t make a lot of money, who don’t work in offices with farm-to-table catered buffets and kombucha on tap. People dealt a shitty hand, let’s say. God forbid political incorrectness in a Tech Scene where people get offended on behalf of others, and pass on their umbrage to those who cannot access it, like canvas shoes or glasses: One To One.

I’ve seen a man open up a backpack of old television parts and wires to explain some alchemical process of turning aluminum into platinum which involved a rusty steel brush. During this lesson in street mysticism, I hoped to find the stainless steel lunchbox which someone broke my car window to purloin. This was the second time someone broke into my car in as many weeks; the first time, someone stole my laptop. I asked the man, “Why would someone break my window to steal a lunchbox, of all things?” He replied, eye twitching a bit, “Dude, the tweakers love shiny things.” And I bid him adieu.

I’ve seen a woman in tattered clothes convulse on dirty cardboard, curled semi-fetal as she groaned in pleasure or pain, or both mixed 1:1.

I’ve passed the guy at Pine and Van Ness, face tanned and reddened by the streets and his bottled succor, his eyes pleading from deep inside his sockets for the thing scrawled on his cardboard. Anything. Please. And, oh god, the smell, not of the Van Ness guy specifically, but of The City. The other week it rained a little and it released the pungent odor of dog piss and months of drought-accumulated grime, as if someone took a belt sander to the world’s most vile collection of scratch and sniff stickers. Just like the tattoo-sleeved bartender said: “Even just a dash of water can really open up the aroma. Trust me, it really brings out the middle notes.” You could almost taste it.

This past summer, I worked within a large and eponymous venture capital network, a tall man with half-million dollar eyebrows – insured, I’ve been told, as a joke from now-former founding partners of another eponymous venture capital firm through Lloyds of London – a booming voice and a 20-foot portrait of himself alongside superheroes from both the Marvel and DC Comics brand portfolios. A real connector, that guy. I’m serious. And yes, the rumors are true: the front desk really is a $70k Tesla, custom modified, which is to say chopped into a desk.

Admittedly, I sometimes fail to catch the idea being pitched at me. But not always. In my two months I’d worked with fresh-faced entrepreneurs working in fast-paced spaces: on-demand logistics, seamless online payments, Xiphosurida-derived biologics, and Bitcoin-backboned remittances platforms, among others. Basically, entrepreneurs working in parallel to help us save and spend, move things and heal ourselves.

I learned that the life of a low-level employee at a VC firm is a lot like graduate school in the social sciences. Writing reports, answering questions, and sussing out trends from lots and lots of hand-compiled data sets. I could un-ironically call myself an information artisan at this point, but that’d make me sound ‘very SF.’ There’s also having to deal with the fact that there’s always someone out there who knows way more than me… which I found very refreshing.

Quite honestly, I could do that for the rest of my life. Though, as much as I like the research and analysis stuff, I feel most at home elbow-deep in a business, parsing what an entrepreneur or employee says and providing the most helpful advice I can, like some kind of accoucher for ideas.

As for what transpired during my time there, it’s not my place to talk about it. What happened at the offices, the secrets of the offices, stay within the offices. Vegas rules apply. The only negative thing I’ll say is that the commute from San Francisco to the offices in the South Bay was not fun.

The 101, a clogged highway of information workers, is not terribly super.

I don’t know what will precipitate the “correction” in The City’s most famous sector. Perhaps we should be thankful that the tech IPO market isn’t what it was just a few years ago. Else we might see more cash-flush young people driving up the price of real estate. Then, it might make sense for me to rent my car out as a place to sleep on the street for $1000 per month. “Finding an affordable place to stay when you’re new to SF is really hard, which is why I want to do AirBNB but for cars. Trust me it’s going to be huge.” I’m sure it will be.

The thing is, a very clean-cut entrepreneur had already pitched me an astoundingly similar idea to that one. He had been living in a tent for the past month.

Contrast this with what I experienced in the week I drove cross-country back to Chicago. America is a huge country, through which I’ve driven to and fro. I’m by no means an expert in the art of road tripping, but I’ve seen glimpses of both hither and yon this summer. Out, at the beginning of July, I drove from Chicago to Omaha to Denver, spent some time in Vail with a college friend, and from there hit my own personal land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats, passed Deeth / Starr Valley and camped out at some state park in Nevada before driving through sweltering Sacramento (where I purchased a laundry bag) and then on to San Francisco.

Back, I drove a course northwest and camped on the leeward side of a mountain overlooking countless miles of desert. Retracing my steps on I-80, I passed Winnemucca – one of the most depressing towns I passed through – and one of the straightest, flattest stretches of highway near Battle Mountain, a town literally voted the “armpit of America”. Passing Carlin, Elko, Wellack and then at Wells I turned north, stopping in Contact, NV at a little diner for a late lunch and fresh, cool Wifi. Contact, in other words. Continuing north, I crossed the Idaho border and caught I-84 near Twin Falls. East another hour and I was setting up camp near Pocatello. The next morning I packed out and made my way toward Jackson, WY, where I shipped screens for a mobile app and ate buffalo chili.

That night, I stayed at an AirBNB and lost, badly, in many rounds of ping pong to an elderly Brazilian gentleman. “I probably should have warned you,” he said, “this is how I met my wife. I got good at table tennis to impress her. We’ve been together since 17.” Another man staying at Beth’s lodge, a transplant to San Jose, CA by way of Hong Kong, asked me about my summer. When I told him I had lived in SF and worked in the South Bay, the only thing he could talk about is the real estate situation. I know the subject well.

My mom called me the next day, as I drove out of the mist of the Rockies onto the vast expanse of eastern Wyoming and the Dakotas, to tell me that our family dog was going to be put down later that day. It would have been inhumane to keep her around long enough for me to say goodbye. I stopped by Wall Drug for its famous ice water and drove on. The rest of the trip, including a restive nighttime nap in a Walmart parking lot in Southern Minnesota and a failed attempt to rest at our usual weekend spot in Wisconsin, went by in a blur. The week after went by in a blur too. My sister came home. We picked up my dog’s ashes. We went to Wisconsin to look through pictures. And I went back to school for one last quarter.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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