Bicoastal Debate: New York or San Francisco?

"It's so sleepy here -- like a big 'burb. New York's the only city worth living in."

"Manhattanites! Can't you survive off a 23-square-mile island? At least there's some peace and quiet here."

"Too much. In San Francisco, you can't get a decent meal after 10 p.m."

"Yeah, but how lame is your food? You've got the avocados from hell."

"Avocados, shmavocados. Gimme a slice of Ray's any day. And what's up with bagels with no holes?"

"News flash, dude: San Francisco isn't a colonial outpost of New York."

"Yeah, well, everyone here walks like a 90-year-old. Try going to Third and Market on a Monday morning. Slackers all. It's time to work, people."

"Time to chill out's more like it. I spent Saturday on a cliffside trail above the Pacific Ocean. Now that's life."

"Sounds a little far from civilization to me -- 2,913 miles to be exact. "

Few cities generate as much heated comparison as New York and San Francisco. They're intrinsically bonded. When the rest of the country relies on cars to get around, their inhabitants walk. When a rash turns others red, these two will undoubtedly stay blue.

But we, the outsiders in love with both, will always have to choose between them. Should we pick the bon vivant boyfriend, the one who keeps us up all night with his brash stories and neurotic energy? Or the thoughtful girlfriend who awes us with her beauty, kindness and knack for cooking with arugula and cardoons? 212 or 415?

In the last seven years, I've moved from New York, to San Francisco, to New York, to San Francisco. My husband grew up in the Bay Area; I, in New York. As soon as we were in one place, we started fantasizing about the other.

The thing is, we kept thinking the city we ended up in would define who we were. We were wrong.

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1998, a recent graduate of a top college, I wanted to be "the best," whatever that was. The dot-com boom was reaching sonic levels, and young Bay Area types sat in front of computer screens, creating "content" and muttering about "cross-branding." I was ready to construct the best Web site, be the best online editor in the valley.

Being a New Yorker, I naturally sped through my first Bay Area stint, at one point commuting more than two hours a day. But it wasn't enough. The "best" should be at the center of things, I thought, not out at the edge of the serene Pacific. How exciting it would be to join a magazine, to be back where there was a publishing opportunity around every corner. So off we went.

Pretty soon, I was living the quintessential New York life. An apartment near Gramercy Park. A position with a major entertainment magazine. On my way to making good money.

My husband, a medical resident, was guaranteed a future job. New York is like a drug: Parties, friends, family, movies, theater, lectures, museums. The whirl. I had made it in the city of cities.

On paper, everything was great, but something was missing.

One day, I happened upon a commencement speech by Anna Quindlen, a graduate of my New York college: "You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are," she said. "Get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you'd care so very much about those things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon or found a lump in your breast? Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger."

I started thinking about hawks and where I was more likely to find them. When I took trips out to the Bay Area -- I couldn't help myself; if New York was like cocaine, San Francisco was LSD -- I would grow quiet. I'd drive up the Marin Headlands to watch barges sweep lazily under the Golden Gate Bridge out to the never-ending expanse of ocean. I'd walk the gentle city, climbing hills I couldn't see beyond and marveling at the two-bedroom apartment I could rent for the price of a studio in New York. I felt in my blood a sense of hope, of unlimited opportunities, the freedom from tradition that has always been the essence of the city.

Maybe there I could stop earning a regular paycheck, start writing for myself, go back to school, while my husband pursued his dream in research.

So off we went again, trailed by a cacophony of phone calls telling us, "You'll drop off the face of the Earth."

In a way, we wanted to.

It's something San Francisco has always offered. It's a place of refuge, where people can leave their histories behind and reinvent themselves. You could work in the West and ask big questions, too. Like, who are we at heart? How do we want to be talked about after we die?

I love reading obits. The best are like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Recently, I came across two very different notices -- one in the New York Times, one in The Chronicle. Guess which was which?

Robert Smith, born in 1943, was described as having "descended from three generations of ... ice cream makers." What followed was a long litany of his career achievements, which included buying and selling various ice-cream companies. I also learned that he was "the consummate entrepreneur" and "a passionate and tireless worker," but nothing of what made him tick aside from his career, of what he did when he went home from all that entrepreneuring.

On the other hand, I barely knew anything about Edward Schellpeper's career except that he had fought in World War II and worked in the bedding industry. But in his 86 years, his obit said, he "led a simple and happy life. He walked daily, visiting with his neighbors and friends. He loved sitting in his sunny garden with his beloved cats. 'Life is just a bowl,' he used to say. 'Bring your own cherries.' "

You know in which cities they lived and died. Had they ever met, one could imagine Bob and Ed having a version of the conversation that began this piece.

But perhaps the best thing about these two cities is that just when you think you've defined them, they turn around and surprise you. What I think I now realize is this: It's not about constantly comparing. It's about finding what makes your heart soar right where you are.

Is it the flowers in mid-March bursting through that patch of soil just down the street or the crowded entrance to a club filling the air with energy? You can find flowers in New York and -- despite what Manhattanites think -- crowded clubs in San Francisco. You just have to look.


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