Things I miss about Florida, part 1: Cuban sandwiches

Florida takes a hell of a lot of abuse these days. I lived there for 26 years, and I will readily concede that most of that abuse is well-deserved. When I packed up and lit out for the west coast four years ago, I thought I’d never miss anything about the Sunshine State once I got here.

Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out, Florida does have a few things that I can’t find or replicate easily (or at all) here in San Francisco. Like, for example, the Cuban sandwich.

It took me a while to warm up to the idea of the Cuban sandwich, mostly because the junior high and high schools I attended all served a weak-ass knockoff of a Cuban sandwich in their cafeterias: an unpressed, not-even-warmed hoagie roll bisected by a micrometer-thin layer of ham, mayo, mustard and pickle. There might have been a sliver of salami in there too, but I wouldn’t swear to it. These things were dry and chewy and utterly bland, and having moved from Michigan in the 7th grade, I assumed this is what Cubanos were supposed to taste like. So I ignored them.

Of course, once I had a proper Cuban sandwich, there was no going back. Crap on Tampa all you want (and I do), but they do know how to do up a Cubano there. And they are everywhere, on both sides of the bay. It was almost impossible to go wrong when ordering a Cuban sandwich, and when that did happen, it was usually because the restaurant was owned by a transplanted New Yorker (or some shlub from Orlando, where they don’t know anything about anything) who’d never actually had one.

After four years in San Francisco, I can say I have – finally – found two restaurants that serve Cuban sandwiches I can recommend without reservation. One is Cha Cha Cha, in the Upper Haight, and the other is Caña in Oakland, east of Lake Merritt, though theirs is slightly less authentic. (There is also another place in the Mission that I have to check out again; I tried that Cubano right before going to see Flipper at the Elbo Room, where I had a decent amount to drink, but that’s another story.) But there’s no place I know of downtown, where my day job is, so my lunch hours are apparently doomed to be Cuban sandwich-free for the foreseeable future.

I will say, however, that San Francisco taught me why people care about burritos at all. Never understood the appeal when I lived in Florida, but I get it now. So there is that.


The 3 bus lines that define San Francisco

I moved to San Francisco about three and a half years ago, from the almost completely car-dependent state of Florida. In that time, I have not owned a car and have driven sparingly, basically only when I leave town to go on vacation. We have a transit system here which is … okay, all things considered. Yes, I know it’s far superior to anything any city Florida could ever put together, but on the other hand, a city like San Francisco needs more than that, and more than this; and yes, I am well aware I’m spoiled now.

In any case, it works well enough to get me from point A to point B most of the time. We do have intracity rail here—two different systems run by two different agencies requiring two separate fare payments, because of course it’s like that—but there are vast sections of the city not served by either. So we ride buses. We ride buses a lot.

You can see a lot of San Francisco from a Muni bus. In fact, if you choose your routes wisely and are paying attention, you can get a surprisingly good feel for the city before you climb even a single hill. Here are the three lines that, in my opinion, do the best job (collectively speaking) of showing you the city for just $2.50. Ride them all from one end to the other. Then ride them back again.

  1. 30 Stockton.
    Neighborhoods: SOMA, Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, The Marina
    The 30 is an excellent “starter” line for first-time visitors to San Francisco. It doesn’t go anywhere you might consider scary, for one thing, avoiding the Tenderloin altogether and bypassing the grittier sections of SOMA. And where it does go will deliver just enough of the city’s iconic sights (including Coit Tower, if you happen to be sitting on the correct side of the bus and look in the right direction at just the right moment) to make you feel like you’ve really been here. One interesting thing you’ll see on the 30: Galileo High School, whose football field was once named for notable alumnus OJ Simpson. (They changed that around 1995 or so. Not sure why.) The towers across the street were apparently designed specifically to amplify crowd noise at football games, which is something I’d expect to see in Texas or Florida more than San Francisco.
  2. 33 Ashbury / 18th.
    Neighborhoods: Potrero Hill, The Mission, The Castro, Diamond Heights, The Haight, Inner Richmond, Lower Pacific Heights
    I ride the 33 all the time: it’s my pipeline to Mission Dolores Park and, further down, Pop’s Bar, which are two of my go-to attractions in the city. On this line, you’ll see how all segments of San Francisco society lives, from the still-rowdy-and-not-quite-fully-gentrified Mission all the way to fancy-pants Lower Pac Heights. The ridership can get a little more lively than what you’d be likely to see on the 30, especially through the Mission, but it’s nothing to worry about, so just sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of life in the big city. Speaking of which, this line gives you what is, for my money, the best view (pictured above) of the actual city itself from a bus, as your driver makes the hairpin turn coming down from Clayton onto Market Street before descending into the Castro.img_3321
  3. 38 Geary.
    Neighborhoods: FiDi, Tenderloin, Western Addition, Fillmore, Japantown, Richmond
    Geary Boulevard puts on no airs; it does not pretend that it exists for any reason other than to funnel as many cars as possible between the Richmond and downtown, with as little hindrance as possible. The 38 runs from the beach to the Transbay – the full width of the city – and is a workhorse of a line, one that shuttles thousands of riders from home to work and back again every day, or to one cluster or another of less-presumptuous restaurants and bars that generally cater to people who live nearby. This is not a line that puts much of the beauty of San Francisco on display. However, if you want to see how the city goes about its daily and mostly un-glamorous business, the 38 will show you that.

Honorable mention: 22 Fillmore.
Neighborhoods: Dogpatch, The Mission, Duboce Triangle, Lower Haight, The Fillmore, Japantown, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, The Marina
I’ve only ridden the 22 a handful of times, which is why it only gets an honorable mention from me: it doesn’t go all that close to my apartment, and I dislike transfers and try to avoid them whenever possible. That said, the 22 gives you a quick tour of some historically-significant neighborhoods (like The Fillmore, which was once the West Coast jazz capital) as well as the same basic cross-section of San Francisco society that you’ll get with the 33, with a view of the skyline that’s almost as good.

So that’s it, then: my completely objective, not-at-all-subject-to-debate list that settles, once and for all, a question that has torn San Francisco apart since time immemorial. But if you somehow have your own opinions, I’d love to read them in the comments.

These Are My Records: True Stories

Talking Heads: True Stories

Imagine if, in 1985 or so, all four members of the Talking Heads were abducted by aliens who accidentally erased their memories, and then their A&R guy at EMI Records found them wandering in a pasture somewhere, so he loaded them into his Beemer and played the entire Talking Heads back catalog for them and said, “now go back in the studio and make the record that that band would make.” True Stories would be that record: an album made to be a TH album by people who know what it should sound like, but nonetheless misses the mark. The single from this one, “Wild Wild Life,” was all over the radio station I listened to growing up, which may explain why I was so late in developing an appreciation of the general greatness of the Talking Heads.

This popular saying is one of the worst things you can say to a person with depression

(Note: The headline of this post is an experiment in writing clickbait. Let me know if it worked on you! #ScientificMethod)

I had been thinking about writing this post for at least a couple of weeks but kept putting it off, in keeping with my usual approach to blogging. But with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this past week, it seemed like it would never be more appropriate, or at least not until the next (and there always does seem to be a next, doesn’t there?) cluster of depression-driven celebrity suicides.

Though this post is not about them. It’s about me.

So. I’ve been suffering from depression from about as long as I can remember. Most of my friends know this, and I’m not shy about discussing it on Twitter, even though my therapist from years ago strongly cautioned me against doing that (sorry Justine, if you’re reading, but I gotta be me, you know?). It was really bad – to include very occasional suicidal ideation, but never any actual attempts – from about 2010 to 2013 or 2014, and has dramatically improved since I moved to San Francisco. But it still affects me sometimes, though like I said, not as bad as it did when I was in Florida.

I have mostly learned to live with it. When it was bad, though, I definitely sought treatment (thanks, Justine!). I was in therapy for a couple years. I was on antidepressants for a while, and those helped until they didn’t anymore, which was maybe eight months or so. Treatment helped, and I know people who have been helped by it even more than I was. I also know people who got absolutely nothing out of years of therapy, various drugs, countless lifestyle changes, you name it. Everyone is different.

There are a lot more of us than I knew before admitting that I needed help. That’s comforting, in a way. But there are an awful lot more who don’t know what we are going through, and will probably never know. They can’t, really – they think depression means “feeling blue” or some other kind of trivial, superficial mood swing. It doesn’t. Instead, depression is a constant and often overwhelming force in your life, sucking the joy out of everything you ever loved about life and telling you that you don’t matter, that you’ve failed at everything you’ve ever tried, that you’ll never get what you want out of life, that nothing has any point, that no one will miss you if you were to just vanish overnight.

It tells you this, over and over and over. And the thing is, depression is strong enough to make you believe it. No matter how many nice things you have, or how much money you make, or how loving and attractive your partner is, depression will completely convince you that it doesn’t matter at all.

So when I read those insipid inspirational Facebook posts / memes / Tweets / whatever that say happiness is a choice, I get pissed.

I know you know what I’m talking about, even if you haven’t seen it online. There is a certain mindset out there that holds that for each of us, our happiness is solely under our control, and therefore solely our responsibility. If you aren’t happy, the thinking goes, it’s your own damn fault.

Happiness is a choice.

You could easily choose to interpret this mindset as advice to keep a positive attitude. Which is good advice. Don’t get me wrong. Negative attitudes are self-reinforcing, and can really make an episode of depression extremely hard to climb out of. But that’s not what a depressed person hears. Instead, he hears “the way you’re feeling right now is your own fault, and you could stop it right now if you really wanted to. Since you haven’t done that, you clearly want to feel this way, probably for the attention. Or maybe it’s because you like having this excuse for being such a failure in life. Is that it, loser?”

I try to make this point whenever I encounter this pablum during my travels online. It doesn’t always go super well:

Pro tip: If you want to double down on being offensive as hell, imply that the reason you are depressed is that you can’t or won’t use the tools God gave you.

I have no idea if this person actually suffers from depression or just went through a rough patch in life, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their experience was what they described it to be. Frankly, that’s even more discouraging, because it means even those of us who have been through this can be completely oblivious to how things affect the suffering of others.

In a way, I agree that happiness is a choice. For depressed people, that choice involves getting treatment and doing a lot of hard work to manage and overcome a disease they were born with, and that science knows little about. And even after we make that choice, there is still a good chance we’ll fail. It’s not just as simple as saying “I choose to be happy,” and then flipping a switch in our brains.

But I can promise you, we all wish it were.

My top five travel moments

A few days ago, I got back from a vacation to Southeast Asia (you can see all the photos I took on my Instagram, if you like). The trip home was long: 21 hours of flying or layover time, and since I can never sleep on planes, I had plenty of time to process the events of the previous ten days or so. Somewhere over Japan, I shifted to thinking about the other places I’d been (I’m not all that well-traveled, at least by the standards of my friend group in San Francisco; by my count, I’ve been to fifteen foreign countries, not counting Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or St. Croix, both of which are still technically the US, but counting various British overseas territories as individual countries), and which moments from all those trips stood out as the most memorable for me.

Now, when I say “most memorable,” I don’t necessarily mean most fun, or most idyllic, or most postcard-worthy, or the like. I mean the things I will never forget: not just the things I’d never have seen if I hadn’t made the trip, but the things I’d have never even known I missed. The experiences that made me more uncomfortable than I would have liked. And yes, a few postcard-worthy moments too.

After much deliberation, I whittled the list down to five, with a second list of honorable mentions. So here it is, in no particular order:

1. The Ice Cave of Scarisoara, Romania (2006). This cave, located near the town of Scarisoara along the southern edge of the Apuseni Natural Park, is widely considered to be one of Romania’s great natural wonders. Most people will never get to fully understand why, though. That’s because the general public is limited to visiting a pair of upper-level rooms that, while beautiful enough in their own right, are nothing compared to the lower chambers that are accessible only by special scientific permit. As luck would have it, on my visit, we had such a permit. The only ways down to those chambers are to rappel sixty feet down, or to tie a rope around your waist and have someone else lower you down. I do not know how to rappel.
There is, of course, no natural source of light at the bottom of the cave, so the researchers we were with had to bring their own. The way those lights illuminated the rippling, translucent ice formations in a spectrum of shimmering blues and pinks is something that will stay with me forever (which is a good thing, since I seem to have lost the photos I took). I still feel bad for the poor bastards who had to pull me back up.

2. The Roof nightclub, Ocho Rios, Jamaica (1994 or 1995). On a three-day break from our duties patrolling the Caribbean in our shiny white Coast Guard cutter, several of my shipmates and I spent a couple days exploring the city of Ocho Rios. One night we stumbled across what appeared to be a nightclub in an old water tower. The stairs were rickety and beginning to suffer from dry rot; the music from above was aggressive and dissonant and not at all like any of the reggae I was familiar with. When the four of us made it to the top of the stairs and went inside, we were the only white people in the place. This wasn’t a problem for any of us, but it seemed to be an issue for some of the people already there. Sensing the hostility, we made a quick agreement among ourselves to have one round and then leave, but then one of us (and no, it wasn’t me) decided it’d be a great idea to flirt with one of the local women sitting alone at the bar. We managed to avoid getting tossed out over the railing, but probably not by much. Good times.

3. Random hot springs in the middle of the woods, Romania (2006). I was in Romania for an academic conference. One night, the lot of us piled into as many cars and vans as we could get our hands on and drove deep into the woods, well away from paved roads, until we came to a small clearing where there was a medium-sized hot spring. There were no lights, no parking spaces, nothing but the hole in the ground. We all stripped down to various levels of undress (the more prepared among us had brought bathing suits) and soaked in the warm sulfur water and drank warm Romanian beer and plum brandy for hours. This may very well be the best memory from all my years as an academic, now that I think about it.

4. The floating villages on the Siem Reap River, Cambodia (2018). The Siem Reap river feeds into Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia’s largest lake. The river is home to countless houses perched on wooden stilts along the riverbanks; during the high-water season, the water level rises to just beneath floor level. But when you are taking a boat along the river during low-water season, the houses are twenty or thirty feet above you. People use the space under their houses for storage or garbage disposal; kids and dogs play among the pilings. The river itself is so thick with plastic and other trash that our boatswain had to clear the propeller three separate times on our journey to the lake and back.

5. The London Tube bombing, London (2005). I was hungover that morning but had promised we’d go see the National Portrait Gallery that day. I asked if we could walk at least part of the way instead of taking the tube (I was pretty sure the fumes and heat and motion would have made me puke all over the other passengers). As it turned out, the Tube was already closed, though nobody really knew why yet. So we had to walk the entire way, and we didn’t find out what had happened until after lunch. My parents – also on the trip – had gone out to the Tower of London before any of the rest of us had gotten up. They were apparently a single train behind one of the bomb-carrying ones. We had no idea if they were all right until they made it back to the hotel hours later, having walked the six or seven miles from Tower Bridge to Kensington.

And here are the honorable mentions:

  • New Orleans, 1997. I ate a steak stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat in a restaurant with no sign on the door and only four tables inside. It was truly a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, and I would never be able to find it again, no matter how long I looked. The steak was bigger than the plate it was served on.
  • Italy, 2017. One of the greatest meals of my life was at a restaurant in Tuscany called David’s. The trip’s organizer knew the owner well enough to get him to open for lunch (apparently the place only serves dinner) just for us. The twenty of us spent the next two hours devouring the best Italian food I have ever eaten and polishing off god only knows how many bottles of wine. I love Italy so freaking much.
  • Dublin, 2001. Sitting in the lobby of the Gresham Hotel for afternoon tea or pints of Guinness, watching the assorted Dubliners who’d gathered there drink, smoke, and read the paper. We don’t use hotel lobbies as public space in the US like this. I think that’s a shame. There was something very evocative and nostalgic about it.
  • Key West, 2003. I was the best man at the wedding of one of my closest friends. He and his bride paid for my hotel room, which happened to be in a guest house with a clothing-optional pool (I didn’t know this until I checked in). The people who took advantage of this liberty were exactly the type you’d expect to do so, i.e., not at all the people you’d want to see lounging around a clothing-optional pool.
  • Romania, 2006. Two more moments from that Romania trip:
    1. We found a tiny Eastern Orthodox church in a remote mountain region one Wednesday afternoon, inside of which there was a mass in progress. The church’s interior was almost completely dark, except for the dim lights from the candles and the tiny stained glass windows high above. Four or five elderly women dressed completely in black knelt and rocked back and forth and rubbed what I assumed were rosary beads while the priest stood in front of them and spoke in a rapid-fire monotone, almost like he was chanting. It was more than a little creepy, even for church, which has always felt at least a little creepy to me even in more familiar circumstances.
    2. I rode the train alone from Oradea to Timisoara, where I would catch my flight home the next morning. I had a compartment all to myself. Twice, legless beggars in little wheelie carts yanked open my compartment door and tried to convince me to give them some money. The whole trip, I had a hell of a time figuring out where I was, and I nearly missed getting off in Timisoara because I was afraid to leave the compartment without my luggage to find out the name of the station.

I’d love to hear about your own top travel memories, so leave them in the comments if you are so inclined.