Party of One
According to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, 56% of San Franciscans either live alone or with roommates in unrelated households. As the solo occupant of my own little corner of San Francisco, I happily count myself in that number. This is urban living: At some point everyone must navigate San Francisco’s city streets and the many activities our fair city has to offer, all by themselves.
And yet, going solo still carries a stigma. For instance, I recently went alone to a small political fundraiser, one where I knew many of the attendees, and I talked to a woman who confessed she could never have gone alone. Why, I wondered. Another time, I heard a guy tell his buddy, “It makes me sad to see people eating alone.”
My very favorite story is the time my friend’s mother asked her studio-dwelling daughter if she actually sat down to eat a proper meal when she was home – she’d heard that people living on their own tended to eat standing at the kitchen counter. Should we be embarrassed to lack a dinner date in our own homes?
Lately, maybe in reaction to those preconceived notions about singledom being sad or scary, I’ve been feeling that I could use
alone time. I’ve actually spent most of my adult life in a relationship, but now single, in some ways I find myself less alone than when coupled-up. So I decided to make more of an effort to hang out with the person I really couldn’t escape: me. I launched myself into a few different directions to see what it would be like to hit the town as a party of one.
Trouble Coffee Company is a tiny nest of a coffee shop on Judah in the Outer Sunset. Regulars hang out at the counter on bar stools, folks on bikes stop off for a fresh coconut beverage and a slab of cinnamon toast, and yours truly enters and takes over a coveted window seat. I feel pretty comfortable on my own in this spot as I gaze out on what feels like the furthest reaches of San Francisco. But this is not your typical San Francisco.
At Trouble, the atmosphere conjures an alternate universe where I can imagine myself a shaman surfer – my skin weathered from the sun, my feet calloused from years of walking barefoot through the sand, living in a sort of ocean-daze with the sound of the surf echoing in my ears. The truth? I will never surf; Jaws has permanently scarred me for any future sea sport ventures. But at Trouble one can dream…of Gidget, summer bonfires, and tiki huts on the beach.
Coffee in hand, I make my way to the nearby General Store, a place made for mellow meanderings. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it’s quiet and I hope that the Sunset can sustain such a gem. Inside I find carved wooden radios, miniature cacti, vintage Mexican blankets, and ceramic bowls your hippy mom could make.
A block over, I visit Mollusk Surf Shop. It’s got a vast selection of Vans, surf T-shirts, surfboards, surf videos, and art books about surfing and California beach culture. The décor includes an enormous wall mosaic by Mission School artist Margaret Kilgallen and there’s a small gallery with ocean- and surf-themed art in the back.
Mollusk makes me feel like California is this mysterious place where some wild beach party is happening, but somehow I never got my invite. Truly confusing, since – hell –I’m a native! After Mollusk, the only thing to do is walk to the beach, dig my toes into the sand, and stare into the surf.
One of the best resources for a solo person, especially one on a budget, is oddly, a record store: it's easy to get lost in your own reverie, walking the aisles and flipping through records. The mighty Amoeba on Haight Street offers free shows from touring bands in addition to the lure of vinyl, used CDs, music magazines, and vintage posters.
After scanning the events calendar, I choose to see Surfer Blood , a five-piece band from West Palm Beach with pop tunes about love and carnivores. During Surfer Blood’s set, I luxuriously browse the used bins and people-watch at my leisure. I leave with a few records I hadn’t planned on buying, and like Surfer Blood more than I thought I would.
I then head a few doors down to Murio’s to treat myself to a beer. Inside it’s a tad dank –an unpretentious dive bar with an excellent jukebox that selectively plays everything from Mastodon to ’60s R&B. When I enter, Radiohead is playing at severe decibels and a couple is making out at the bar. The bartender is immediately attentive to me. I write in my jumbo-sized red journal, imagining that drinking alone can transform me into Bukowski. I have five good ideas and two dumb ones, and I think I’m brilliant for a moment. The truth is, I’m buzzed; after flipping through every song on the jukebox, I head across the street for dinner.
The Citrus Club is the perfect spot for solo dining. The windows are fogged with condensation from the steam emitting from heaping bowls of cheap, soupy concoctions. You don’t even need a book or a crossword puzzle to feel comfortable here; this is unabashed, blissful, lowbrow dining. I order a bowl of Pho-Ga and sit at the counter watching the cooks manhandle rice noodles and lemon grass broths, spring rolls, and salads. The portions are so large I take leftovers home in a doggy bag, even though I don’t have a dog of any kind. Not even a cat.
My signature date with myself always includes a visit to Japantown. It's there that my ultimate solo trifecta takes place: a visit to the Kabuki Springs & Spa, a meal at the tiny restaurant Maki, and a flick at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema.
It’s Sunday, ladies day at the Kabuki Springs & Spa. This means I get naked with a bunch of strangers. I’m simultaneously extremely exposed and completely invisible – no one seems to look at my body, or even look me in the eye. At Kabuki, I feel more alone than when I’m completely alone. It’s a serene aloneness, contemplative – the sort that goes well with wind chimes and dream catchers.
I spend a few hours wandering listlessly from the steam room, to a nap in the sauna, to brief dips in and out of some shockingly cold baths. I delight in the natural salt scrub and pitchers of cucumber water. I’m as clean as a human can get.
After, I visit Maki for a heaping bowl of sukiyaki. Maki’s little bar makes me feel like a Japanese businessman eating alone in Little Tokyo after an 80-hour workweek. I symbolically loosen my tie, dig into the fragrant Japanese stew of thinly sliced beef, yam noodles, tofu, green onions, and sukiyaki sauce. I think to myself, I’ve said only 10 words all day.
Stomach full, I head to the Sundance to see Greenberg . I purchase a seat as close to the epicenter of the theater as I can get. But there’s some sort of glitch: Soon after sitting down, I’m surrounded by strangers on every side. For the entire movie, I battle quietly for my armrest.
This is one of those times when I’m alone, but not quite enough. I imagine the situation had I chosen a less popular film – one that would make weekend ticket sales slower and maybe clear the theater. But the truly unfortunate issue here is that I can’t skip out on this excruciating film without causing a ruckus among my snuggling neighbors.
Alone time has exhausted me but I’ve learned a few things – I idealize surf culture, I need to drink more beer, and I like Ben Stiller only in The Royal Tenenbaums and when he’s hanging out with Janeane Garofalo. I’ve also been reminded of the importance of balance. I need to be alone in order to be with others, but also I need to be with others.
Despite the conventional wisdom about solo outings, it didn’t feel bad to be alone, particularly in the right setting. But I was surprised to experience some fear at times – maybe at the bar or surrounded by strangers in the theater. Sometimes my boundaries got pushed, or I felt unsure or self-conscious finding myself in uncharted territory. But in general I found I’m okay on my own. I’m actually good. And when I saw someone else who was alone, I sensed an immediate kinship – they weren’t sad or lonely. They looked cool and maybe even a tad brave.
One thing I suspect? My alone time really just turns out to be fodder for future connections. Somehow it wasn’t enough to just have solo adventures or explore San Francisco by myself: Until I share my experiences – with friends, family, and you, dear reader – they might as well never have happened at all.
You actually don’t have to be a loner to visit any of the places mentioned above – they’ll let you in even if you happen to have friends and lovers in tow. But it’s nice that folks at Amoeba, Murio’s Trophy Room, the Citrus Club, Kabuki Springs & Spa, Maki, and Sundance Kabuki don’t go out of their way to make you feel dumb for showing up solo – like someone’s mom probably would. And it’s even nicer that the gents at Trouble Coffee, General Store, and Mollusk don’t make you feel like an idiot just because you don’t surf.