Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

Three Days in San Francisco in 2015


A homeless man, screaming. The taxi driver and I can hear him from down the block as the cab comes in for a stop. Looking out the window at the screaming man, the driver chuckles as I traverse payment screens. “He’s angry about something,” the driver says, smiling. I haul my suitcase into a Scandinavian chain brewpub down the block from where the screaming man is attempting to stand.

My evening is spent with people I’ve known for years. Three of them I’ve barely met in person before. That hasn’t kept us from maintaining windows into each other’s lives as we’ve changed jobs, moved around, started and ended relationships. The photos from my life that I won’t share with just anyone, I share with these people. I’ve come straight from the airport so I don’t miss even a few minutes of their company.

A friend’s wife is a therapist. Her colleagues are trying to figure out how technology fits into their practices. Can they, as therapists, help programmers in particular? Is a person who works in technology fundamentally different from any other patient? I learn that the therapists of San Francisco don’t know how technology will change what they do, but they know it will, somehow.

Our night ends in a taqueria on an untended block of Market Street. The other customers are not like us, or we’re not like them, the differences conspicuous but only silently addressed through the positioning of our bodies within the narrow, crowded space in front of the counter. One customer paces intensely, mobile phone to his ear. While we wait for our food, at least two people walk in, get no more than a few paces past the door, and turn back. They forgot their orders, or they forgot how to order, or they forgot that they couldn’t pay. The taqueria closes up as we leave, hours before the app that pointed me there claimed it would.

I had already checked into my hotel room before I got dressed this morning, 637 miles away. I don’t talk to anyone at the front desk, leaving me feeling like an intruder as I roll my suitcase into the elevator and down a hall. My phone tells me the room number, and it is also my room key. I wave it near the lock and the two devices eventually agree to let me in after a seemingly fraught negotiation.

A former employer put me up in this hotel the first time I visited the city. It’s still where I stay when I come back. My San Francisco radiates outwards from this hotel. The decor and branding is overdone. On weekends the lobby dins with generic brand dance music, reminding me of living on 3rd Street, the triumphant cries of 2 AM nightclub heroines and heroes soaring over fading bass thumps into the single window of my studio apartment. A place comfortingly familiar even in its irritations.


I sleep in just a few too many minutes to walk the completely reasonable walk to the water, so I pay for a taxi in dollars and guilt. My friend arrives by ferry, which is, right, why they call it the Ferry Building. When we try to buy vegan donuts the vendor’s card reader doesn’t work; my friend pays cash. We buy chai from a cart, walk and talk.

A few minutes later I’m sweating. I’d forgotten the humidity that sets in after the fog pours down the hills. My friend tells me about his newborn, his house on the other side of the Bay in a neighborhood where people still know their neighbors. Our conversation is interrupted by jackhammer blasts on every block.

People I used to work with invested in a coffee shop that’s now always full. When I first came here, the coffee shop was two benches and a stand. Now it’s two massive wood-clad stories, as if the benches and stand joined forces and swelled steroidally into a warehouse. The roasting machine is always going, reminding the olfactory that roasting coffee beans don’t smell quite like coffee but do smell a little bit like burnt shit. You have to wait for a startup pitch to end before you can sit down here. I’m being pitched a startup too, but we stand. It turns out that the two founders and I know all the same people; of course we do, that’s how this works. I’m surprised at the sweetness of what they’re building. I drop my guard and help brainstorm revenue models. The sweet ones are rare and I want them to succeed.

My lunch meeting is at a vegetarian Thai restaurant in that unfeasibly bland part of town where the dense human suffering of the Tenderloin gives way to wide boulevards of auto dealerships that have no business being in the city center. Another set of founders – younger, still white and male – walk me through what they’ve built, and I like it. I wasn’t expecting to like much today. The founders are ambitious but practical economics majors who taught themselves to code. We poke at a laptop in the otherwise empty restaurant. Just two people can do so much more now than they could just a few years ago. People say that when they’re selling something but sometimes you get to see that it’s really true.

I buy eyedrops from a pharmacy. I take a taxi to a possible future.

Up the street from where I used to work is a lab that’s an extension of another lab. The lab’s current funding is improbable, its future funding uncertain. Inside, I’m shown things that – no, it’s not magic, because you can see how it works, but still. They’ve made a room into a computer program and vice versa. You can walk up to the room-code and read it. I’m trying so hard to come up with questions because I know that in a few minutes I’ll have to leave and I might never see anything like this again. I just want to stand there with my mouth open and gawp until they make me go home. The few people in this lab have made something so humane and approachable that it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming part of the vulgar world outside. Like the pause before closing a favorite childhood storybook, I don’t want to leave.

Another person I’ve known of for years online but have never met in person has invited me to a hipster Jewish deli in a neighborhood that is every day less Mexican. Some of us believe so much in what technology can do for people that we get scared and angry when we see it going wrong. We each can’t say enough, purge enough, in the presence of another person who feels the same. It’s a roasted mushroom reuben confessional. The waitress, bearing a freshly bandaged tattoo, rightfully glares at us when our voices rise with concerned enthusiasm.

I go to the water again, this time to the east. At what looks like a yacht club that someone long ago gave up on, I reconnect with people I used to work with and meet the people they used to work with. We’re all here to put faces to names on a list of people we hope we’ll make some money with. I joke with a venture capitalist about the food. She almost steals a french fry from a tray carried by a passing server before realizing it wasn’t for our group. The sun starts to go down, the humidity is gone, everyone and the french fries gets cold, apps summon cars.


The VC’s assistant did such a good job picking a desirable place for our breakfast meeting that we can’t get a table for all the weekday brunch-goers. We talk in a deserted generic deli nearby instead. There are a few investors whose portfolios I respect, to the slim extent that it’s reasonable and right to respect a set of informed bets on the projected profits of other people’s labor. I learn over breakfast that the people who put money into the hands of VCs are best treated as individuals and not a herd. The VC sounds wistful for a time when he worked alone.

The neighborhood I first lived in when I arrived in San Francisco has become even more precious than it used to be. It is a cartoon place now. The core of the neighborhood is the sort of intentionally-planned public space that somehow feels less humane for all the effort. Twentysomethings in a fitness program run in circles in front of a jutting, angular sign-sculpture that maybe claims its surrounding area for open air theater, sometimes? A friend tells me that the temple-like structure in the center of the planned space will be ignited at Burning Man, that the names scrawled in marker on its laser-cut pale wood frame are the names of the dead, and that their memories will symbolically go up in smoke out there in the desert. Then he tells me about his new startup.

A few blocks over, I meet another friend for lunch. My friend proposes a bottle of wine because he’s off to a music festival that afternoon so fuck it. He’s been traveling and has gone shaggy, more than a bit Val Kilmer. Tight lines extending from our eyes now, gray hairs creeping in. We’ve had a similar past few years. Now he’s trying to build something again, but knows better what that costs, so cautiously, cautiously.

The smell of trash wafts over the restaurant’s patio, masking the rosé, and I want to go home.

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