Goodbye to San Francisco, Self-Driving Cars, and Solitude

After a dozen years, I left the lonely city of San Francisco, where I found an odd companionship with self-driving cars on late pandemic nights.
Goodbye to San Francisco, Self-Driving Cars, and Solitude
Illustration: Karl Gustafon/Gizmodo
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There is a loneliness to San Francisco. During the day, life bustles about in busy exercise. At night, the city abandons itself. The streets empty out. San Francisco is a city that sleeps—an early to bed, early to yoga city. If you are inclined to stay awake in the darkened hours, you will find yourself often in solitude, as I did living in the Bay Area for a dozen years. I left for New York City on the first day of May.

Driving, riding the bus, walking home becomes a bleak endeavor in a city that disappears after dark. My only companions on those liminal treks were self-driving cars, dispatched to scan the roads over and over again in service of a vast digital map. I looked down on them, and then, over time, I took comfort in them. In the last two years that I lived in the city, an acute feeling of loneliness had come over me. In my desperation, I imagined that a piece of technology, a car, was my friend.

I had been in search of a map myself, just like the cars. I arrived at Stanford at 18 with a full head of curly blonde hair in September 2010. I left San Francisco in May at age 30, bald as a cue ball—perhaps wiser, but likely not. I was very young there, and then I was not. I had wanted to leave for a long time.

The loneliness began when I started working weeknights and half the weekend. My job was to cover breaking news. A great deal of news did break. Humans contracted a new respiratory virus, first in China and then across the globe. Americans were especially prone to infection. I wrote stories notching each hundred thousand deaths, nearly 10 of them. All the while, my life continued in ways both normal and abnormal—both disconcerting. Typing as the yolk-yellow sun would set, I wondered what I was supposed to be doing. The world had split open like a dropped, oozing egg.

San Francisco was shielded, for a time, from the worst of the pandemic. We gave thanks for a lack of a discernible winter. I lost count of the number of times I made grateful small talk about how being able to meet friends in parks at any time of year saved our mental health—likely our respiratory health as well—from further decline. What San Franciscans also did was forgo traditional nighttime pleasures. Bars were closed. Clubs shut their doors, boarded up their windows, and started GoFundMes. Theaters darkened. My book club of eight met over Zoom. When the sun went down, a chill blanketed the city, and we could not convene.

Weeknights, weekends—such timely tweaks to the schedule of a single life are not interesting in and of themselves, especially when thrown into relief against the grand and terrible sweep of the coronavirus pandemic. I found them manageable at first, their effects on my mind, I would later realize, were outsized. They skewed the logistics of my life just enough to exclude the chance encounters that might have made me happy. Running into friends, meeting new people, and dating fell by the wayside. Instead, I walked for hours alone in the dark. The times I could go walking were during others’ workdays or after the sun had set and they had gone to bed. I was often drunk when I took my first step out of the house on a given day; the chilly black morass of night weighed heavy. I saw my friends less often. I was alone far more than before, far more than I had ever been. When I finished work in the late evening, I roved through the night. It seemed the hours I spent in the dark outweighed those in the light. I have always had a propensity to stay up and sleep late. I drove to Pacifica Beach and ordered things I would not eat from the beautiful Taco Bell Cantina there, the only restaurant on the beach. I sat and watched the remnants of the sunset on its deck as the waves lapped at the wooden beams.

I became meaner. I drank too much. I had less patience with my friends. I became uninterested in those close to me. I could not fall asleep. When I did, my brain played safe harbor to an armada of nightmares. I woke up often, the darkness the same as when I had been working. The less I spoke to other people, the less I wanted to speak to other people. Spending so much time alone made the lives of others seem foreign and impossible. The world as I could conceive of it shrank.

I lived in the neighborhood of Glen Park. South of the Mission and home to the last BART stop in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district, the area was unfashionable—if San Francisco can be said to even care about fashion. It was suburban and sleepy. The last restaurant on the main strip of the neighborhood closed at 9 p.m. The only person on the path, I would run beside the nighted eucalyptus trees along the curves of Glen Canyon Park. Only they, of all the things in the world, seemed undisturbed.

By contrast, the neighborhoods of San Francisco that host crowds past 9 o’clock—the Castro, the Mission, certain sectors of SoMa (I speak mostly from a gay perspective)—are anomalous. I was once kicked out of a restaurant in Bernal Heights at nine after arriving at 8:30 for a date. I never saw the date again. I blame the restaurant.

Isolated and hungry to see more, the self-driving cars and I would notch our miles side by side in the night. We were the only things awake. I felt better, less alone, whenever I saw one. There were few alternatives in the hours I would walk. The cars are not so advanced as to drive without humans, so someone, anyone, was traversing the streets with me, even briefly.

I sneered at the self-driving cars at first. They are strange and unnerving. They were funny to see. They seemed like a joke. They are unmistakable. They sport huge, whirling headgear like a cartoonish nerd in a 1980s Molly Ringwald flick. Glossy white paint—their most common color—gleams under streetlights. Some are painted all black to match black hubcaps. I did not understand them. Why the cars chose a specific road, what their spinning, purring Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) apparatuses could collect from such mundane streets.

The question of whether they are actually autonomously driving beside you never diminishes. I kept my distance. I would wait an uncomfortable amount of time for one to go ahead; I would walk a block away, imagining one swerving like a drunk driver. How adept the cars’ brains are at driving remains a mystery—how much of their route is the safety driver’s doing—which begged the question of whether they would sideswipe you at the sluggish 20 mph they never seem to exceed. They are a visible marker of technology’s permanent incursion on physical space. The technology industry is inescapable in San Francisco, as you well know.

Like many of Silicon Valley’s products, the cars crept into our lives until they became ubiquitous. They began appearing after I graduated from college.

Waymo was first to receive its license to test vehicles on the streets of San Francisco in 2014, entirely autonomously since 2018. I would see them once a month, then once a week, then at least once a day. I became accustomed to them, less nervous. I would encounter them along the panoramic view of Portola Avenue, among the darkened restaurants of Divisadero Street, beside the water on Marina Boulevard. I drove beside them on the 101 and the 280. I sighed behind them in Golden Gate Park, in the Sunset, and in the Richmond, where they always seemed to trundle slower. They seemed to like San Jose Avenue near my apartment, maybe because the bike lanes were separated from the road by concrete barriers. I rarely spotted them on Mission or Castro Street in the evenings, when crosswalks are disregarded as mere extra paint, but they would scuttle in later under cover of quiet darkness. In all, 60 companies have obtained the right to test their self-driving cars with safety drivers, according to TechCrunch. Be fruitful and multiply, said the billionaires.

Shunted into the dim streets, I grew fond of seeing self-driving cars. It became a slight thrill to encounter them, as it would a friendly neighborhood cat. I would wave dorkily from my own driver’s seat. They became a constant in a time and place when there were few. They signaled that the night did not have to end because no one else was around, that there were others still aware of how the moonlight was hitting the jasmine outside Taqueria Cancun just so. Their minor mystery enticed me. I thought of them like a warlock’s familiar. We kept watch over the city with very different eyes. It was, simply put, nice to know I was not as alone as I had believed. It was not a cure for the loneliness that I felt, but it was a type of companionship, the sighting of a fellow traveler. I am grateful for San Francisco and its self-driving cars. It is kind of a city to provide companionship in whatever way it can.

I came to recognize the cars as a distinctive element of the place I had called home for so long, my entire adult life. Self-driving cars are something I think I will not soon see elsewhere. I will not drive alongside them for a long time, I am sure. I sold my own car in San Francisco. The cars were, even before I departed, already a reminder of what I would leave behind, of what I would lose. I missed their unexpected companionship, though they had not disappeared from my nightly line of sight. I was nostalgic for San Francisco while I still lived there, for a period of my life that was not yet over. I had not expected our goodbye to feel so protracted.

I have yet to ride in one of the cars, though I would like to. I do wonder about what the safety drivers feel as they perform a task for the express purpose of automating it. I imagine the position of “self-driving car babysitter” must carry with it a certain doomed feeling. I do want one someday. I hate driving.

I saw three or four of them bumper-to-bumper on the Great Highway once. I wondered if their drivers were taking in the gorgeous sunset view of Ocean Beach as the car did all the work or vice versa.

Had the circumstances been different, and had I been different, it might have been a city like Los Angeles or Chicago or Austin or Portland or Miami—I might even find myself writing a cliche goodbye to New York City—but because I am speaking of myself, I am speaking of San Francisco and of self-driving cars.

There is the life I might have lived, there is the life I did, and somewhere in between is how I think about myself. That is where you and I now meet. The interest in the comings and goings of young people in cities has waxed and waned as writers like me have danced around and rewritten versions of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” the apotheosis of farewell essays.

Didion describes being unable to sleep and walking the streets: “I had a friend who could not sleep, and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning light, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained the night before? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals.”

The feeling of those 50-year-old lines grabs by the collar and shakes me. The pitiful drink with no ice, that moving loneliness, and the strangeness of the streets are all familiar. I am not alone even in my loneliest, most private ruminations. I like to think she would have felt the same about self-driving cars. She died in December 2021.

All that is to say I lived in San Francisco as self-driving cars began to appear there. As I prepared to move, life began to retake the form we had enjoyed before sheltering in place. I received the doses of the vaccine. I became kinder. I drank less. Thumping clubs reopened—sweaty crowds and all. Gay bars served bad drinks again. I saw my friends again. They held dinner parties full of strangers. I contracted covid at one of them. It was not a big deal.

My resentment of the cars did not return. I looked for them on the streets. When I would see one during the day, we shared an imagined mutual agreement we would meet again come night. I did not understand them; I did not need to. We behaved as acquaintances who might wave to one another but not stop to chat long. They were, in the end, only a product and only an object of my misplaced longing for human connection. When I began associating with humans again, I did not need them. So what that they were a reminder of Silicon Valley’s supremacy; so were my iPhone and the SalesForce Tower. Those markers are everywhere, should I choose to search for them, my job has changed from breaking news to once again covering the technology industry, anyway.

All this is to say that I once lived in San Francisco, and then I did not. To know that you are visiting places you once frequented for the last time is a displacing feeling. I have been to my favorite beach for the last time. I have hiked my favorite trail. I have sipped my final farewell drinks at White Cap. I may revisit these places, these memories in the coming decade. I may not. The pandemic is not over, but most Americans have regained the rhythms of their lives beforehand. I am less alone than I was. Another city beckoned to me, full of people and promises I have yet to keep but have not broken.