Get a cup of coffee, this is a long one.
Last week Thursday
On a bus at 1800 to Chicago O'Hare to catch a flight early the next morning at 0600. I've lost track of the number of times I've taken the bus from Madison to Chicago, and added up with the number of times I've either made that drive or been a passenger, there's nothing between there and here that's new anymore. I'm asleep before the bus is off campus. There's a bus change in Janesville, and after making sure the LED sign on the front of the bus I'm getting on actually says "CHICAGO O'HARE", I'm asleep again.
I'd considered exploring a bit in Chicago, but sitting in an empty airport terminal has its charms. I have an e-reader that's holding about 8GB worth of books, so I settle in at the gate about nine hours early with a bottle of diet Dew and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Supper is double cheeseburgers from McDonald's, out of a bag of burgers in my backpack. A sandwich at ORD costs almost $10, where a cold burger from the golden arches costs $1.50.
I like airports-- my parents always made it a point to show me everything about an airport when I was in one as a kid, and I'd flown across the country by myself before I saw my ninth birthday. I'm also a USAF veteran who was trained to work on air traffic control radio, and so I've spent a decent amount of time on air force bases. Airports (and air travel in general) represent a large and intricate system of algorithms and big metal things flying around. There's actually a lot going on at an airport, even in the middle of the night. And, I just like airports, but I already said that.
Last week Friday morning -- early
My 0600 flight is on time-- the plane's been here waiting as long as I have. I'm flying United. I've had my boarding pass since yesterday afternoon, window seat at the back of the plane already picked out. The back of the plane as several advantages, including that no one ever really wants to sit at the back of the plane. This increases the chances that I sit next to an empty seat. It's also easier to get an extra can of Diet Coke since the galley is right there. (I'm not cheap, but I am a broke college student. Gotta survive somehow.) I'm asleep before the plane leaves the gate. Pro tip-- make sure that when you fall asleep, the cabin crew can see that your seat belt is buckled, otherwise they have to wake you up to buckle it.
The flight gets to SFO ahead of schedule, but the guy on the ground with the orange sticks guides the plane to a spot that's four inches away from the jetway. Everyone that's already stood up and started grabbing bags has to restow them and sit back down, and buckle up. As much as I'd like to get off this damn plane, I'm ok with the wait. If the lady flying the plane is doing things by the book, that's a good thing.
Once that excitement is over, I grab my backpack, say thanks to the crew, and I'm in California.
Last week Friday morning -- midday
San Francisco is one of those places where you get off the plane, and within minutes you're pointed in the direction you want to be pointed in. I've been here before, so I go find the train that zips me to the BART station. A stop at the ticket machine, and I'm standing on a platform waiting for the next train. A few minutes later, I'm on a train headed downtown.
I disembark at Embarcadero, and start wandering from there. It's Fleet Week, so the US Navy has several ships in town and the Blue Angels are flying later in the afternoon. The next couple of hours, I'm wandering along the waterfront. There's a lot of history here. San Francisco's waterfront was an important part of the war effort in WWII, both on offense and on defense. Now, it's a combination of warehouses and places for tourists to buy stuff and take boat rides. The ferries to Alcatraz are already booked, but I'm not that disappointed-- at a certain point I start getting hungry, and I've already decided lunch is going to require getting lost in Chinatown.
Getting to Chinatown is a matter of walking back towards the Bay Bridge to the sign I saw that said "Chinatown ->" and turning right. Embarcadero is starting to get crowded with people heading towards the water to see the air show, so it's probably a good time to go exploring elsewhere anyway. A few blocks farther, and I turn a corner and see a sign that advertises hunan chinese food. It's the only restaurant on the block, there's nowhere to park, and if I were a tourist I'd probably never go there-- meaning it's exactly what I'm looking for.
The menu has about 200 items, and instead of having a cute little pepper icon to show which dishes are spicy it has markers to show the ones that aren't. A pitcher of water and a hot pot of tea appear before I figure out where to put my backpack so it's not underfoot. I order the dinner portion of hot and sour beef, and the server smiles and nods. Minutes later I'm chowing down on a huge plate of hot and sour beef, quickly appreciating that there's a full pitcher of water and a pot of tea. Holy crap. Even the carrots are spicy, but damn this stuff is good. I put a star on Google Maps. Turns out this place has been here for a long time, and has a reputation for really good, really spicy food.
Last week Friday morning - afternoon
Chinatown. I wander for a couple of hours, just checking things out-- I've been to southwest Asia, but never the east and I realize I kinda wish I had been. I star about fifty places that I want to eat at someday. At some point I exit Chinatown proper, and I'm downtown around the banks and similar buildings. I figure I need to find somewhere to try to watch the Blue Angels, so I start walking up Montgomery towards Telegraph Hill.
A word about hills. San Francisco is all uphill. My calves still hurt.
I end up very close to Telegraph Hill, technically part way up. A few other people appear with cameras, proving that this was a pretty good spot to pick. I decide I want to live here. The Blue Angels are amazing as always. One of them passes so close overhead I'd swear he'd seen all of us watching and buzzed us to say hi. Those of us with cameras make small talk-- no one's particularly surprised that some hacker from Wisconsin has appeared in the middle of the neighborhood to watch the Navy show off.
After the Blue Angels are done, it's back down the hill-- almost as much an adventure as walking up was. I'm wearing Teva sandals, and walking slowly. No one's trying to pass me on the way down, so I figure I'm moving at a safe speed. I stop for coffee, plot my next move, and figure it's about time to go find BART and start heading towards Berkeley.
Last week Friday evening
I'm about to head downstairs to the BART station-- there's a steel drum band playing on the sidewalk. I'm thirsty, so I stop at a convenience store and get a huge bottle of sparking water, which I don't normally drink, but sounds really good. I'm standing outside the store when someone taps me on the shoulder and asks me how to get to the nearest BART station and how to get to the airport in Oakland. First, you're standing in it (or at least, above it). Second, I'm from a land far, far away. Third, I know the answer so you're lucky. I explain how to get tickets, which train to look for, etc. before I explain that I'm visiting from Wisconsin and this is only the second time I've ever been in SF. Random person remarks that I look like I belong here, that's why he asked me in particular.
Yes, Universe, I'm listening. We're on the same page.
Last week Friday night
I arrive in downtown Berkeley, and find a bagel place to get a bagel and coffee. There will be food at the hackathon. Berkeley is a different city, to be sure-- it reminds me a lot of Madison, only much more so. Downtown is in a tug of war between staying real and gentrifying. I see a lot of yellow signs proclaiming that this or that property is slated to be razed and rebuilt. I also see a lot of signs and posters that indicate that old school Berkeley isn't going without a fight. (Madison's been doing the same thing, although without the fight.) There's a lot of culture that Madison claims as its own that was clearly invented long before in Berkeley.
I find the local Mickey D's-- not because I'm hungry for another cheeseburger, but because it looks like it was put there for the benefit of people who need something familiar. If you're ever in Berkeley, for god's sake, don't limit yourself to Mickey D's.
The hackathon, Cal Hacks 2.0, is at Cal Memorial Stadium-- on the other end of campus. While I'm walking I see a group of guys who look like they're headed to a hackathon. I can't exactly quantify why people who look like they're headed to a hackathon look like they are, but they-- we-- have that look. We do our best to not get lost. I was at Cal Hacks 1.0, and it doesn't look like we're going the right way. Google Maps has the location as the other end of the stadium from where we need to be. After a couple of wrong turns we get there.
I sit at the same table I sat at last year, set my stuff down, and set off in search of sponsors and swag. Several different groups of people sit at my table, and then leave to sit somewhere else. Eventually several people have accumulated, all of us from different schools, and we decide to form a team and get to work.
The next 36 hours are a blur of Red Bull, code, water, code, food, code, coffee, and more Red Bull and code. The rest of the team goes off to get some sleep, I work most of the night.
Last Saturday -- daytime
Code, coffee, pee, repeat. I also talk to a lot of sponsors, companies that are hiring. I collect business cards, I submit resumes, I collect t-shirts and socks and other swag. I talk to a venture capital firm that I've run into at two other hackathons. I see people from Major League Hacking that I know, and bump into a few hackers that I don't really know, but that I keep bumping into at hackathons.
I don't see anyone else wearing Wisconsin colors. Maybe someone I don't know from Wisconsin is here.
At some point I sleep for a while. Once the hackathon starts, things are sort of a blur, due in part to the caffeine and the lack of sleep and the full bore dedication to build something.
Last Saturday - nighttime
Code, coffee, pee, repeat. I take a longer break at some point, and end up talking to one of the Cal athletics guest services people that's there to keep an eye on us. He works Cal football games, and also works at Oakland Raiders football games. This weekend is easy money, we're all well behaved. We tell stories. At one point the cops stop by, they're making an occasional pass through to make sure we're all okay. They think we're a little crazy, and they're probably right.
Around midnight, a shipment of churros arrives. I eat several more than I probably should, the kid in me knowing yummy sugary treats when he sees 'em.
There's no Red Bull or coffee left, so I scrounge around and
Last Sunday - morning
We've taken our hackathon project about as far as we can-- the API we're using just won't do what we want to do with it. I'm dead at this point, so I sleep for a while. When I wake up, it's almost time to break down and get set for judging. The team doesn't want to present the project-- it's vaporware-- but I decide to go for it anyway. I only get to pitch to a couple of judges, who seem to be at least a little impressed that I'm willing to pitch the project without a project to demonstrate.
I don't expect that we'll win anything, and we don't. I'm cool with that, though. We did take the project as far as it could go-- that's one of the challenges of hackathons, that you have to make the right choices early. Those choices aren't always easy.
Last Sunday - afternoon
We congregate outside while the judges deliberate. I'm sitting next to someone from the venture capital firm that I've been bumping into at hackathons the past several weeks, and we're talking about what the firm is doing, about venture capital in general. I'm soaking it all in. A couple of other hackers join in the conversation. I begin to think seriously about venture capital as something to be interested in-- I certainly have plenty of ideas.
Closing ceremonies happen. My teammates and I hug and swap contact information-- we'll all go our separate ways from here, but tech is a small world. Each of them is pretty awesome, I expect to read about what they're doing on Hacker News someday.
Most everyone heads to buses, or towards the airport. I head back into downtown Berkeley, and find a burrito place that smells amazing. The food is even better.
Last Sunday - evening
I'm sort on funds. I left for the trip short on funds, and I've been careful. Still, my plane doesn't leave until tomorrow afternoon and I don't have a hotel room. It's not hard to find a room pretty cheap in a place like Madison, but it's hard to find a cheap room in Berkeley. None of the hostels or AirBnB's I check out actually work out.
I wander Berkeley a while longer, eventually stopping at a Burger Meister for supper. It's a good burger, but it costs more than I really want to spend on a burger. The 49ers game is on, and I'm not sure if this is Niners territory or Raiders territory. The 49ers lose, and although there's some vocal disappointment there's no further emotional display. Life goes on, which is sort of unusual-- if the Badgers or Packers lose, it's noticeably quiet in Madison into the next day.
At a certain point, it's getting sort of late. I'm not having any luck finding a place to stay, and Berkeley doesn't look like a fun place to camp on the sidewalk. After I'm done with supper, I head for the BART station.
Last Sunday -- late evening
There's some adventure involved in getting from Berkeley back across (technically, under) the Bay to San Francisco. I don't have enough on my BART ticket, so I need to add funds and that pretty much taps me out. I have to transfer trains, since there isn't one that goes direct to SFO; the train I need is waiting on the other side of the platform. A little under an hour later, the train is stopping at SFO.
Airports, at least major ones, are open 24 hours even if the stuff inside like stores and restaurants are closed. I set up camp in one of the food courts, and watch TV on my iPhone. There's a meditation room, and I check that out. The quiet is nice, although I'm dead tired.
Monday - morning
I'm at SFO for the day. I sleep, mostly.
Monday - evening
On the plane. I'm asleep again before the plane leaves the gate. I wake up somewhere south of Chicago. My flight arrives an hour after the last bus to Madison left. I spend the next six hours in the bus transit center, where I've been stranded before. I sleep a bit more. I'm hungry, and at this point would buy a $9.00 sandwich from the only place that's open all night at O'Hare, the Starbucks on ground level at baggage claim, if I had $9.00 to spend.
Tuesday - morning
On the bus, asleep. The bus breaks down in South Beloit, and we have to get on a new bus-- on the new bus, the bus driver has the volume on the microphone turned way up. I'm not sure exactly what I said, but "what the flying fuck!!!" is a good guess. Then I'm asleep once the bus is moving. A couple of hours later, I'm asleep in my own bed.
I've said for a long time that when I was no longer happy to be coming home to Madison, that it would be time to leave. I've actually been here a long time now, eleven years. For much of that time, even when I was coming home to sleep in a shelter, I was happy to get back here. That happiness is fading, and it's fading fast.
One important part of my happiness to be here fading is the time I spent on the street, especially after I was evicted from transitional housing. It wasn't just Porchlight that kicked me to the curb-- the city did, too. It's hard to see the way Madison is treating its homeless. It took a lot of effort to get off the street, and I had to do it without help from all of the wonderful social progressiveness that Madison claims to possess. I like a lot of things about Madison, but I've seen the ugly side that most people never get to see.
I acknowledge that San Francisco has a lot of its own problems, homelessness being one of them. I know about some of the other problems-- it's a big city, and big cities have big problems. I'm not trying to whitewash that by any means. San Francisco might, and probably will, get hit by a major fuck-shit-up earthquake at some point in the future. Still, the city is a survivor. I felt that energy while I was there.
Madison, on the other hand, doesn't have that positive. I feel angrier here. I walk past the places where I slept outside, and the places where I hid from the rain and thunder, and while I feel proud of myself that I managed to survive those nights and days-- I feel dragged down by them, too. On football Saturdays, when Madison is busy being the "best college football town in America", I'm just annoyed by the noise and drunken idiots. I love me some cheese and sausage, and even an occasional beer, but there's got to be more to a place than that. I've been looking for the more, and I haven't found it.
A final note, before I go home and go to bed.
I'm sending out resumes and applying for jobs in California. I'm also looking at transferring schools to finish my degree. There's a point on the graph where, once you've gone past that point, you're no longer making forward progress by just continuing in the same direction. While I've been dealing with PTSD and being homeless and all of that, I've also been working my ass off to learn new things and get better at things I already know how to do.
I don't know, exactly, how I'm going to handle managing PTSD in a new city, a new state, and a new job. I do know that I'll figure it out. It won't be easy-- it never is-- but I'm not afraid to try.