San Francisco Diaries: How I met the pigeon version of me
Being an adult isn’t easy, especially when you live in San Francisco where “everyone is perpetually in their late-20s to mid-30s.” So when you’re 22 and end up in San Francisco alone, you do what anyone would do: Go wild and make age-22 type of mistakes.
“Looking back now, it’s a miracle I didn’t die. I got in a lot of shady situations. I lost my beloved leather jacket. I left my Blackberry in a cab. In recovery, they say you have to hit rock bottom before you can get better. But my rock bottom just kept getting lower and lower. I drunkenly ran through the surf on Ocean Beach at 1 a.m. and almost got swept out to sea. I hooked up with a Santa Con Santa on the back patio of Mad Dog in the Fog. I was 22 and alone and nobody was around to stop me so I kept going and kept pushing the limits of what I could get away with and still live.”
Today’s story is from Vivian Ho, who you may remember was the criminal justice reporter at The San Francisco Chronicle from 2011 through 2017. She’s reported on the Mario Woods shooting, the San Francisco Police Department, wildfires, and she recently published an incredible investigative piece called “A Life on the Line.”
She’s seen a lot of San Francisco, from the incredibly serious and life-and-death moments to the more quirky and offbeat happenings around town. This story falls under the more quirky side of the spectrum—and we’ve never felt more spiritually connected to the cooing pigeons on our fire escapes.
Listen to her story here:
Special thanks to Vivian for sending over the first photo she’s ever taken with Drew, before the pigeons came into their lives.
You, too, can add an entry to our collective journal. San Francisco Diaries is looking for your personal stories about what it means to live here, and what makes our city “so San Francisco.” Tag us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Our email inbox is always open!
Transcript of Vivian’s story
Whenever I mentor younger kids, I always tell them that the most dangerous time of your life is not, as everyone likes to think, college. It’s once you graduate and leave that protective cocoon of a campus and have to adult for reals with no safety net to catch you when you inevitably fall.
For me, this coincided with my move to San Francisco. I had just gotten my first job, an internship with the San Francisco Chronicle, and on a sunny Tuesday in June, I left New England, the place I called home since I was 9. I moved into a friend of a friend’s living room on Cesar Chavez that had no wifi but cost 500 bucks a month. Yay, 2011!
So here’s the thing: the problem with being 22 and trying to figure your shit out in San Francisco is that everybody in this city seems to perpetually be in their late-20s to mid-30s.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. That’s not THAT big of an age gap. Well, the difference between a 22-year-old and a 27-year-old is the same as a high school senior and an eighth grader, and it’s pretty much the same maturity wise. I had just learned how to drink at bars. I ordered whiskey sours because I thought that made me sound cool. It was hard to connect with anybody who understood what I was going through. Sure, I had a few intern friends here and there. But I was, for the most part, alone. For the first time in my incredibly sheltered and privileged life, I was alone, in a strange city with no safety net.
So I did what any 22-year-old trying to figure her shit out would do: I went fucking wild. I drank. A lot. I sucked down whiskey sours until my stomach curdled, and stumbled around the Mission completely blackout. I made out with random boys in dark rooms that smelled like stale beer. I’d wake up on my inflatable mattress each morning, feeling hangover awful and more alone than ever. And then I’d do it all again the next night.
Looking back now, it’s a miracle I didn’t die. I got in a lot of shady situations. I lost my beloved leather jacket. I left my Blackberry in a cab. In recovery, they say you have to hit rock bottom before you can get better. But my rock bottom just kept getting lower and lower. I drunkenly ran through the surf on Ocean Beach at 1 a.m. and almost got swept out to sea. I hooked up with a Santa Con Santa on the back patio of Mad Dog in the Fog. I was 22 and alone and nobody was around to stop me so I kept going and kept pushing the limits of what I could get away with and still live.
It was in this state that I met my now-fiancé. I remember only brief snippets of that night. There was punch. There was happy hour. There was a friend of a friend, egging me on at Danny Coyle’s. And for the first time in my life, I woke up next to a stranger with no memory whatsoever of how I got there or how to get home. I remembered all the serial killer crime dramas I used to watch with my mom and thought, for sure, that this was how I was going to be murdered. Honestly, in the realm of rock bottoms, this is about as rock bottom as it gets. But the universe takes care of you in the funniest ways sometimes, and it turned out that the man I was convinced was going to be my murderer ended up being just a 23-year-old kid who was just as confused as I was. And we fell in love.
Falling is a risky business when you have no safety net, but it doesn’t really feel like falling when you’re doing it with someone else. We spent every night together after that first terrifying morning, and soon I was hopping on BART after work each day to stay over at his place. We never meant to move in with each other as quickly as we did, but San Francisco rents, man. So within four months of me blacking out and going home with a stranger, we were shacking up in a 150-square-foot studio on Haight Street.
Let me tell you, I loved that studio. It was tiny, it had ants, but it was perfect. The closet was so small that we had to hang our clothes sideways because the hangers wouldn’t fit. The dryer in the basement was constantly overheating and catching fire. But I was living with my best friend and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. I stopped drinking as much. I stopped going out every night. Instead, we made excuses so we could stay in and watch Netflix naked.
We had been living like this for about a year when the pigeons came. You get used to certain sounds after some time in San Francisco. The rumble of the F car down Market Street. The screech of Muni turning a corner. And pigeons. God, the pigeons. You can hear those motherfuckers cooing and flapping about anywhere downtown. But we woke up one morning and it sounded like they were in bed with us. Coo. Coo. “Huh, that’s weird,” we said. But then the next morning, it was the same. Coo. Coo. And the morning after that. Coo. Coo.
“I think some pigeons set up a nest over our kitchen window,” he said.
“How do you know it’s the kitchen window?” I asked.
“Because there’s bird shit dripping down it.”
I made a note to call the landlord, but I kept forgetting to do it. And then the next morning. Coo. Coo. Without fail. Coo. Coo.
One day I had enough and I threw open the window as soon as the cooing began. I had a broom in one hand and I was ready to take down some pigeon ass, but the noise spooked them and they flew away. It was then I realized there were two of them. Two pigeons. Just two pigeons, setting up a home together in the big, bad city. Just two kids, trying to make it in the world.
“Drew,” I whispered. “Drew! They’re a couple! Just like us!”
I started calling them Pigeon Drew and Pigeon Vivian. It didn’t make them any less annoying, but soon, I learned to differentiate who was who. Pigeon Vivian had a more frenzied sort of coo, while Pigeon Drew’s coo was a little lower.
“We should call the landlord,” Drew kept saying.
“And evict them?! Throw them out on the streets with nothing?!”
One morning, we woke up to even more coos than usual. “They had babies! Drew, Pigeon Vivian and Pigeon Drew had babies!” Now whenever Drew would suggest calling the landlord, I would scream, “And throw their babies out on the street?! They’re a young family, Drew! They’re just trying to raise their kids!” We agreed that we would wait until the chicks grew up and flew the coop before we took any action. And for the next few weeks, the cooing became incessant.
Then, tragedy struck. We took a weekend trip to Portland, and when we came back, there was blood mixed in with the bird shit on our window, like some sort of snuff porn horror show. We spoke to some of our local friends, who said Pigeon Drew and Pigeon Vivian were probably attacked by a chicken hawk. Drew was relieved, thinking that meant an end to the cooing. I got a little teary eyed. But the next morning: Coo. Coo. It was Pigeon Vivian! She was a fighter! A survivor!
“We should call the landlord,” Drew said.
“SHE’S A SINGLE MOTHER AND SHE’S IN MOURNING, DREW!”
We went back to the original plan of waiting out the babies. But then something kind of weird happened. Pigeon Vivian…Pigeon Vivian had a gentleman caller. It was clear as day. There were man coos mixing in with her familiar coos. “She’s just acting out because she’s in mourning,” I thought. But good lord. Coo. Coo. These were like coos in the throes of passion. These were fucking coos.
Soon, I could tell, she was having different gentlemen pigeons over. Like, home girl could get it. “She’s working through some stuff,” I thought. Coo. Coo. And, eventually, you know. With some fucking, there’s going to be some babies. And so we got trapped in the cycle again, of not calling the landlord until the babies left the nest. There were always babies now. Just fucking and fucking and babies and more fucking. Nonstop. And always. Always. Coo. Coo.
Around this time, unrelated to Pigeon Vivian, Drew and I started arguing a lot. A 150-square-foot studio wears on you after a while, and we were well past the honeymoon stage of the relationship. I felt myself reverting to 22-year-old me’s old ways. Drinking a lot, though not whiskey sours anymore, thank god. Making scenes at bars, usually by getting into a fight with Drew. A piece of me missed it, you know? I was a disaster at 22, but I was young and free and limitless. Boys were buying me drinks and paying attention to me. Now, I was this boring old girlfriend, staying in and watching TV instead of wilding out.
I became more forgiving of Pigeon Vivian, in that sense. She was living her life. It probably wasn’t her best life, but home girl was doing it and doing what she wanted. So one night, Drew was working late and I tried picturing my life without him. I’d have more space in the studio, first off. More room in the closet, and less laundry to do. I’d have time to read books, go on more adventures.
And then I started blubbering. Like full on ugly-girl snot and tears. Just gasping and sobbing and crying. Drew came home and thought I had been fired.
“Oh my god, what happened? What’s wrong?” he asked, and I sobbed harder.
“I DON’T WANT A CHICKEN HAWK TO EAT YOU.”
It’s been four years since this great epiphany of mine, and you know what, four years later, I still don’t want a chicken hawk to eat him. I don’t want to wild out and drink all night and dance on tables like 22-year-old me either. Because here’s the thing. We can look back on our early 20s with all the nostalgia in the world. But 28-year-old me? 28-year-old me is pretty awesome. Because 28-year-old me had six years to grow and live and learn with 29-year-old Drew. I’ll always have a piece of 22-year-old in me in that I’ll always be a bit of a disaster. And the fact that I have somebody who knows that and knew 22-year-old me and still hasn’t kicked me out of the nest? Well, it feels less like falling without a safety net now. It feels like the wind pushing up under our little pigeon wings, and lifting us higher and higher in the sky.
In March, I’ll be marrying him under the redwoods at Stern Grove. No pigeons invited.
Oh, and Pigeon Vivian? I left the window open one day and she flew in and shat on our bed. I called the landlord immediately. Don’t cross me, bitch.