A Tale of Two Cities

Pretty much my whole life has been on the move, and aside from a brief period in the mid-’90s when I had a desire for stability, I’ve always liked it that way. I’m not meant to stay still. I want to see the world, it’s what I desire out of life. But above all I am a realist so, I’ve made my bucket list to see all 50 states and take a photo that represents each one. I’d like to think that one of these days I’ll get the chance to gallivant around Europe and explore South America, but I’m not holding my breath.

For a very long time, since long before I settled on my bucket list, there have been two cities in particular that I have wanted to visit. Mostly Because I’ve read so many books where these two cities were as much characters as as any of the people in the book. It happens with other places, but with these two cities it seems to happen in every book they are in, or should I say, that are set in them. Those two cities are Boston and San Francisco.

Boston skyline, taken from  near BU
“A Boston man is the east wind made flesh.” -Thomas Appleton

Yeah, sure New York is unique and “the best city in the world.” A lot of people are in love with the it, dream about it, and there are plenty of books set there. I’ve read many books that are as much about New York City as they are about people. But in every book New York is different. Maybe that’s because it’s so large and there are so many different ways to experience it. Maybe New York is only what you make of it. I’ve read plenty of books that are basically love stories about Paris, but they are always so idealized that it doesn’t come across as even a real place. Joyce’s Dublin feels like a very real place, but different from every other book I’ve read about Dublin, even if I enjoyed as much.

San Francisco's Dolores Park on a Saturday Night
“If I do go to heaven, I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to heaven. He looks around and says, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'” -Herb Caen

Somehow every book I’ve read, every movie or television show I’ve seen that is set in Boston or San Francisco feels … not the same, because that implies boredom, but similar in an amazing way. Like every story set there could be happening simultaneously with the next. And it’s wonderful. It seems to me that every author who falls in love with one of these two cities is able to perfectly capture the essence, the spirit, of the city and put it into words. From the most basic internet short story to masterpieces of literature, from colonial times to futuristic sci-fi, Boston and San Francisco come alive in a way that other cities just don’t.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge
Boston's Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge
Boston’s Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

That abstract (and probably insane) reason is why I have always wanted to visit Boston and San Francisco. And, honestly, I was expecting to be disappointed. These amazing cities that remain the same, that have this almost palpable spirit,  personalities even – would they be the same in person as they are on paper? I’m not really a writer, would I be able to experience the cities I’ve read so much about? Would I get that feeling of familiarity I get when I read a book set there? It didn’t really seem possible, like maybe it was all in my head. I’d get there and it would be the same as when I went to Seattle or New York, fun and exciting, but just a cool city with an interesting history.

So I was expecting to be disappointed, but I wasn’t, they were amazing!

A view of Boston from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument
“Massachusetts has been the wheel within New England, and Boston the wheel within Massachusetts. Boston therefore is often called the “hub of the world,” since it has been the source and fountain of the ideas that have reared and made America.” -Rev. F. B. Zinckle, Last Winter in the United States

Maybe the circumstances surrounding my visits to these cities colored my perspective, or maybe they are just as marvelous as I thought they would be. Les and I visited  Boston the week of my 26th birthday, and we visited San Francisco for our 10th anniversary. Both were fantastic times, we had saved up and worked very hard to take an entire week off to explore Boston and when we were in San Francisco we got the news that Les got the job he had been hoping for and that we would be moving to the southwest, another longtime travel themed desire of mine.

A view of San Francisco from the Twin Peaks Overlook
“A city on hills has it over flat-land places. . . . This gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing, like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.” -John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley


The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
And the western ocean breaks in thunder,
And the western stars go slowly under,
And her gaze is ever West
In the dream of her young unrest.
Her sea is a voice that calls,
And her star a voice above,
And her wind a voice on her walls–
My cool, grey city of love.
-George Sterling, The Cool, Grey City of Love


The sea returning day by day
Restores the world-wide mart.
So let each dweller on the Bay
Fold Boston in his heart
Till these echoes be choked with snows
Or over the town blue ocean flows.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston

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