“No two people live in the same city.”
– Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City.
“A city is many worlds in the same place.”
“Many worlds” because in the same way that every experience is remembered in a different way by each person who was there, every place is an infinite number of places, folded by its layers of infinite, individual stories.
“A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to live in multiple worlds.”
We come to a place already with our own experiences and expectations. We make our own experiences while we’re there – over time we paint, in faint layers of watercolor, our own version of a place. And we come to places with the outlines of paintings already in mind.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours…. We select, and a map is a selection of relevant data that arises from relevant desires and questions.”
Here is “my” San Francisco. This is why I came:
I wouldn’t want to live in any era but my own. But when I’m pressed to choose another, I say that I would pick the western US, during the late 19th Century. During the excitement and enterprising and risk-enduring pioneering of the gold rush era.
I would’ve wanted to run the railroad, of course. Offer infrastructure to those doing the mining. This would be my first choice. If it couldn’t be the railroad, maybe I would have run a hotel where the mining men would have stayed when they came to town once a month to get paid and then spend their paychecks – i.e., the sort of hotel that was more a bar and mostly a brothel. (I would be a madam, just to be clear.) Business as best a woman could in those days. The keeper and protector of the underbelly as well as the purveyor – even exploiter – of indulgence.
I would have lived against the land – against it. This, a preposition and relationship of both intimacy and tension. This is the way I would have regarded the earth – because this is the way I regard my playgrounds.
Where doing anything worthwhile requires both touch and tension.
Movement requires friction – pushing against and away from a surface – and, likewise, to build something, you have to have something to push against: rock yields to an ax, flesh yields to a touch, markets accommodate an offering.
The making of something from something, against something, in relation to something.
And this sort of thing is what brought me to San Francisco.
Meaning, more importantly: this is what I brought to it with me. This was my “question.” Regardless of era.
Solnit sees the timelessness too, naming the modern day tech professional transplant the “latecomer brother to the gold miner.” She calls out quintessential San Franciscans as: “these people who were self-made men and women, and sometimes self-invented, or just made up.”
They – we – are all people who are something out of nothing. And that endeavor itself is one of the most pure and honest ones we can undertake.
Because everything, even nothing, is something. The endeavor only gives it a name. We create ourselves. We map our own ideas of “place.”
Things exist in “white space” or “emptiness” – the cut of a valley or ravine has a significance – a word, a mental picture – that is the thing itself rather than the absence of another thing (in this case, perhaps the earth.) Zero is a number – a quantity. Before we had the idea of zero, there were things we couldn’t do. Nil – meaning “nothing” both informally in jargon and formally in software – stands for something. And sometimes “never” can have just as much significance, maybe more, as “forever.” Maps are rendered meaningless without white space.
And all of these things exist whether we acknowledge them or not. Zero means something. Zero Zero does, too.
We can claim a thing means nothing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still there.
Solnit’s atlas of San Francisco is titled “Infinite City,” which she claims, without explanation, is for Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” effectively asserting with saying: “infinite” and “invisible” are complementary, if not one and the same.
“Nothing” and “everything” are similar, if not synonymous, in their significance and potential.
I tell you why I came here. And that the questions that brought me are shared by others. And I can also tell you that it’s personal – that my atlas has already diverged from others’, including Solnit’s – that I live in a neighborhood I almost spastically adore but she wrote off (saying that she almost never goes there.) That I work in and walk through SOMA every day, and that it inspires mixed feelings in me: opportunity and yet recognition of the blandness; rejection and embracing and a feeling of disorientation. Uncertainty. Inspiration. That the city is not yet and yet already mine.
To capture a place and its meaning onto paper is both a wholly personal and yet still impossible task: “an atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible.”
Each of us “possesses his or her own map of the place, a world of amities, amours, transit routes, resources, and perils, radiating out from home. But even to say this is to vastly underestimate. San Francisco contains many more than eight hundred thousand living maps, because each of these citizens contains multiple maps: areas of knowledge, rumors, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate versions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional discovery, the past versus the present, the map of this place in relation to others that could be confined to a few neighborhoods or could include multiple continents of ancestral origin.”
In creating our own histories, we may call things out or we may suppress them, layer over them with new paint, make something into nothing; pretend that something else is all there is. But there is never a true nothing. The invisible is infinite.
Everything, even nothing, is something. And if that’s true, then nothing is everything, too.