Golden Cities, Golden Towns: A San Francisco Memoir

Solvency is a magic potion. I’m already feeling more relaxed and creative, ready to do things that (gasp!) may not make money – like write this post. This article in the New York Times got me thinking about my own time in San Francisco, from 1987-99.

It’s funny. Back then, I would read a book about artists in New York in the Fifties, and pine for a bygone time of creative energy, cheap rents, easy living on small incomes, never realizing I was in exactly such a time and place myself…a place that’s been swept away as completely as it was in New York.

The greatest tragedy of the new San Francisco, where a one bedroom apartment is now $3,500 a month, is that it has shut the door on “internal exiles” like me. Once upon a time, there was a magic kingdom, to which we could escape from our dreary, oppressive lives in Redneckistan. Not just “the gays” but the Freaks and Geeks of the world, who were just as doomed to lives of condemnation, ridicule…or worse, where they came from.

Rents were cheap in 1987, when I moved there. AIDS was taking such a toll on the population that it opened obscene vacancies, but properties were plentiful as the city had lost its white (mostly Irish), middle class, blue collar laborers (the shipyards and docks now vacant, abandoned, toxic) to the suburbs.

Every ten years or so, San Francisco had been the “it” place to be, before subsiding back into its naturally sleepy, provincial state. It was swarmed in the 40s by soldiers and sailors on their way to the Pacific, and then again on their return – many of them, especially gays and lesbians, deciding they weren’t going back to their old lives in Dustbin, Texas after all. In the 50s, it was the home of the Beats, then quiet again till the Summer of Love and Haight Street in the 60s. That burned out, and then nothing, until the gays revived it in the 70s, and national interest returned to the peninsula.

Then AIDS came in the 80s, the first unwelcome visitor after so many years of waxing and waning positivity. For those who had lived through all that, it must have felt in 1987 like a city under siege – straight couples were just then coming in to snap up “estate sale” properties, and gay newspapers (both of them, their publishers heated and hated rivals) reacted with horror at the sight of strollers and (awful things) babies on Castro Street.

But I was 24 years old, innocent of history, and though I’d see the occasional “AIDS victim” (as they were called at the time) swaddled in blankets, being wheeled down the street, for the most part all I could see was freedom and beauty. The way the morning fog retreated, but only as far as Twin Peaks, a living thing that bided its time for a few hours, granting sunlight until 3 or 4 in the afternoon when like a tide it rolled back in. The “microclimates” like Potrero Hill, where the temperature was 5 or even 10 degrees warmer than it was in the Castro. Golden Gate Park, infinitely large and long, ending only at the truly infinite Pacific Ocean.

A friend and I rented a two bedroom railroad car flat on 18th Street between Noe and Sanchez for $800 a month. The landlord was no saintly Anna Madrigal out of Tales of the City, by any stretch: Our first nights in the apartment found our calves riddled with flea bites, a legacy of the former tenant, and said landlord was barely willing to take the cost of a couple cans of Raid off the rent. All the same, it was on the top floor, with a skylight in the living room, and a fairly large deck. Let me reiterate: for $800.

I’d been to San Francisco a dozen times before that, mostly with my parents. But I had no idea what was behind those tight rows of three story Victorians, block after block, until we checked out that apartment. Between Noe and Sanchez and 18th and 19th Street were a set of large back yards, gardens mostly, the whole of which would match the size of a public park in most cities. I was absolutely astonished. On 18th Street, right outside my window, the bus ran on an overhead electrical wire, roaring and clanking all night, and 2 am brought drunken screaming queens reeling down the sidewalk. But just a few feet away, you might as well have been in Versailles, it was so quiet and peaceful – a secret kingdom, for $400 a month per person.

I got work as a temp right away. I’d had a personal computer since there was one, and not only was I adept at WordPerfect and WordStar, but I’d found myself in the role of trainer for any hapless secretary in Reno who found herself (always herself there) confronted with the death knell for her IBM Selectric. I was a good hand holder, surprisingly – I don’t know where I got it, I wasn’t a saintly or kind person by any means, but I seemed to have a knack for explaining things in order, in plain English, without scorn or impatience, to people who didn’t know what I knew (a skill that’s come in very handy as a novelist and an editor).

One of the first things that overwhelmed me about The City, as it pompously and, yes, provincially referred to itself, was that everyone but me had a college degree. There were so many universities within the city limits I couldn’t count them all. I found out the hard way that when people asked you where you went “to school,” and you said Reno High School, that they would look at you as if you were mildly developmentally disabled. Because after all, why else wouldn’t anyone intelligent have gone “to school,” back in the day when a student loan package for a state university didn’t involve a lifetime of debt bondage?

I’d been an indifferent student in any class I wasn’t interested in (US Government? Yawn…) or didn’t “get” (math and science, possibly compounded by poor teaching). I wasn’t a member of that elite American religion, Transcriptarianism, that fetishizes GPAs and test scores over creativity and ingenuity. I had shit math scores on the SAT but, more importantly, at the time I saw college as useless if it didn’t provide what it was providing my classmates – a ticket out of the small, right wing town that was Reno at the time, or at least out of my unhappy strife-filled home (my war with my father for “control” is a whole nother subject). I was a restless student – not exactly ADD but definitely not someone who would apply myself to anything that didn’t inherently hold my interest. Looking at the first two years of college, they looked like a rerun of the last two years of high school – US History, again (naught but propaganda in 1970s high schools)? Math, again? I just took math! I don’t need to endure any more! I couldn’t stand the thought. I was going to be a writer and (already undiagnosed bipolar) my Conquest of Literature and Coronation as Emperor of Everything was imminent – why postpone that four years, especially if it meant four more years living at home?

When I got to SF, I didn’t need to lie on my resume to get a temp job, at the then-fantastic rate of $13 an hour for my skill set (about $28 today, or more, really, when you weigh the difference in cost of living there now). And yet, when I registered with the biggest agency in town, I did lie. They called me the day after I’d interviewed and taken all their (computerized!) typing and spelling and skills test. “You tested at the highest percentile,” the lady said. “Your work references are stellar. But as for your BA in English… UNR has never heard of you.” These were, remember, the days when all this had to be done by telephone, so often it just…wasn’t done, or not so rigorously.

Stunned, I simply blurted the truth. Everyone here had a degree but me, even the temps. Most of them were liberal arts graduates, working day jobs to subsidize their artistic projects. I’d already been looked at funny, at an engineering firm where I’d done a WordPerfect job – the software’s super and subscripting functions was perfect for documents with mathematical formulas, heretofore painfully inserted on typewriters into specifications that were always changing. I was functionally mechanically illiterate, just transcribing what I saw with no clue what I was reading. But I was clever, my solutions were impressive, and so that was where I’d first been asked where I went “to school,” and had given my naïve answer, and had first seen the unmistakable looks of embarrassment and pity.

And then something happened that would never happen today. The lady at the temp agency said, “Well, it’s like this. You’re about one of ten people in this city who have the PC skills you have, and our demand is so high, with so many people converting over, that we need you. But…don’t ever lie again.” And I never did lie on a resume again, because of course the first time I did, I got caught.

San Francisco was not a city that inspired a work ethic. I remember a TV commercial from the early 80s, for Bank of America I think. Lots of shots of joggers at sunset and the Golden Gate Bridge, and a man saying in a “hey baby” voice: “California! Where the livin’ is easy!”

And it was. The combination of cheap rents and readily available temporary or part time work attracted, or maybe even created, a “lower leisure class.” You worked to live, you didn’t live to work. Most people I knew were “artistic” without actually building up any serious portfolios. You puttered at projects, like zines or club promotion or a band or some such. And the ethos of the city really encouraged it. You lived at the end of the rainbow, so what else do you want?

And, more importantly, where else would you want to be? That was the underside of the dream – that smug, self-satisfied picture The City had of itself.

I remember listening to local public radio, and hearing some queen enthusing about her trip to Paris, the greatest city in the world. “After San Francisco, of course,” the host said half-jokingly. “Oh, yes!” the queen said anxiously, terrified of the shunning he might receive from his peers. “Of course! After San Francisco!”

When Serious Artist Nayland Blake left SF for New York City, he had to justify it, defend his move, by saying he needed a “bigger canvas.” Because careerism was “selling out,” after all. Leaving SF was a betrayal of…something.

Between my gay generation and the last, there was a clash of civilizations, for sure. I was born in 1962, so, demographically a baby boomer. But…look. When you turn 18 a few weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president? You’re not culturally a boomer. You’re “Generation X.”

The previous generations of gay men in San Francisco were, to a startlingly high degree from my unscientific observations, from the Midwest. They weren’t the type to flee to New York and go to war to make a life there. What they wanted, what they saw and loved when it was reflected to them in Tales of the City, was the same white, quiet, middle-American town that had kicked them out for being gay – only with the addition of sex, and marijuana. They snapped up their Castro houses for $75K from fleeing Irish families, built small businesses, voted the Democratic ticket, and, until AIDS, were content with such provincial lives.

We weren’t like them. The numbers in my peer group still skewed Midwestern (in my SFCC gay lit class, I was one of two people who weren’t from the Midwest), but the politics had changed. We’d grown up with punk rock, with anarchy, with 70s childhoods of recessions and scandals. We were more radical, less interested in “careers” and “security.” We were the first generation to see that there were no more “jobs for life,” nor would there ever be. And what point to being a “company man” if you were just a number to the company? “Work hard, play by the rules, and be rewarded” was no longer true, though the desire for it resonated strongly enough that Bill Clinton would ride that phrase to the Presidency.

I remember one striking scene, on Haight Street, around 1989 or so. Younger gay people were becoming radicalized, as in like Marxist radicalized. The older generation of gay men hated us, hated our noisy protests and lax work ethics and indifference to property, ambition, all of it.

This dyke (and that would have been her own proudly self-proclaimed moniker) was “wheatpasting” flyers for a protest on a telephone pole, outside a small business. She was in an argument with an older gay man, the owner of the store in front of which stood the pole. He had a neat, “nice” haircut, the brushy moustache, now grey, he’d surely adopted on arrival ten or twenty years earlier. He’d grown comfortably chunky in his prosperity; in his house there was, he’d think proudly, always meat on the table. He was angry that she was “defacing property,” one of the few sins left in the eyes of his class.

“Just what do you do, anyway?” he demanded of her. It was a middle class question, because to him, work was what you do, what defined you.

She stood there, and stared at him for a moment, and then she said, “I live in this city, and I fucking protest!”

Because in that place, that time, for that generation, that was what we “did.” We defined ourselves by what we were not. We were not going to end up in Cubicle City, we were not going to own a small business and underpay employees, we would not spend our days dreaming of ways to skin a nickel to make six pennies, we were not going to own houses and vote against property taxes that might cost us said nickel to keep decent public schools functional.

That’s not to say that we did nothing. Art did flourish, in its small weird ways. Little nightclubs put on camp but clever shows (a completely illegal drag version of Valley of the Dolls, for instance, to celebrate its release on VHS cartridge), small galleries showed bold if amateurish art, fanzines pushed the envelope of what the new Macintosh computers could do in the graphic arts (and, incidentally, gave people like me experience with tools like PageMaker that actually translated into marketable skills). But none of it really paid anything, other than in terms of cultural capital and prestige. It wasn’t supposed to. That wasn’t the point.

The goal was to be free. Not “hippie free,” living in the mud; we loathed all that, we loved urban life. And of course yesterday’s hippies were now today’s yuppies, so fuck them, the hypocrites. But we wanted to free all the same. Free to work, or not work, to “take time off” to finish a project. Sitting in Café Flore, writing in your journal, wasn’t a respite from a hectic day – it was your day.

Of course the specter of AIDS hung over us – real, effective medications wouldn’t arrive until 1995. And to no small degree, that probably stunted ambition, too. There was, amidst all the beauty and creativity and freedom and leisure, a calm sense of doom. It wasn’t just AIDS, though, but something in the air there. For the 1970s characters in Tales of the City, it was the impending Big One, the earthquake that would wipe California off the map. We’re all going to die anyway was a pretty powerful reason not to lose what life you had left to Cubicle City, chained to the wheel of pointless labor. Safe sex messages were everywhere, but nobody was perfect all the time, and everyone knew that the political attempt to eroticize the condom was a folly, that it would always be a sacrifice of intimacy to wear one. People got drunk, or fell in love, or were lied to, sometimes by people who lied to themselves, and they “slipped,” safe sex education using the same term used by addicts, and they got infected.

For a lot of us, becoming poz was a relief. I don’t have to worry about that anymore, was a common reaction. “Welcome to the club,” was what one of my best friends said to me after I tested poz after four years in the city. Because, yeah, at that time, the majority of gay men in SF were positive. The stress, the pressure of staying negative, in a generation that was determinedly pro-sex and determined not to “miss out” on the fun every other generation had been given… It was a lot to ask of sexy young people in a liberated city, especially one that had so fetishized its own sense of itself as the capital of freedom and fun.

When I left in 1999, the tide was turning. The first Internet boom was coming, and rents were rising. Once again San Francisco had its moment-per-decade, it was in the world’s eye, and the first licks of financial fear began to touch the backs of our necks. To our astonishment, we discovered how many people in our generation did want to work. Yes, they were like us in refusing the old life, and they had found the way to do it without becoming company men – they were entrepreneurs, they took risks, and, yes, lots of us joined them. Like us, they refused to live in Silicon Fucking Valley in some fucking tract home in some fucking suburb. And who could blame them?

My studio apartment, when I left it in 1999, cost me a little less than $500 a month, having risen to that over 12 years via 4% rent-control-capped increases from the initial $450. After I left, it immediately went for $900 to, no doubt, one of the new technological overclass. I’d stayed in that apartment not because I loved it, but because by that time it was already financially impossible for me to move.

That boom would start to go bust in 2000, and no doubt rents collapsed again. But the die was cast. Ordering fifty pounds of pet food online to be hand-delivered to your door wasn’t a sustainable idea, but the Internet wasn’t going away. And the people who drove it wanted to live here, where the action was.

The tragedy isn’t that people like me are now priced out of “real” cities. The tragedy is that all those kids out there, the queers and faggots and freaks and geeks who still live in places that are just as awful today as they were thirty years ago, now have nowhere to escape to, unless they have the skill set required to pay $3,500 in rent. Portland, Austin, the same story all over…

And now, sitting here in my comfortable, affordable, rented house in Reno’s “cool part of town,” I watch the news about the arrival of the Tesla factory, and the (admittedly dubious) number of tech jobs it’ll bring to the city, I see the news about the TEDx event that’s just booted up here, and I wonder if I’m in a Golden Age now, too, that’s soon to end, if I’ll need to flee again…

6 Comments on Golden Cities, Golden Towns: A San Francisco Memoir

  1. Susan Reaves // March 9, 2016 at 9:35 am // Reply

    Excellent blog. I lived in SF from 1973 to 1989. My first apartment (on 17th/Hartford, where Market/Castro and 17th come together near the Twin Peaks bar) rented for $150.00 per month. It was a one bedroom and I could afford it at nineteen years old in 1974. I, too, miss the glory days where I could purchase film and flashbulbs in Harvey Milk’s camera shop and follow him and a large crowd down Market Street in a pre-AIDs march for LGBT rights. I still have kitchen items and Christmas tree ornaments purchased at Cliff’s Hardware on Castro for that first nest of my very own, a one bedroom apartment with hardwood floors and the muni cars rattling the windows as they went by. I had “real” jobs but also would give them up and temp if they didn’t suit me for some reason. Ah, the beauty of it all when your rent is so low.

    I am a sixty year old woman now. A woman who got to live in Herb Caen’s San Francisco. I still have dreams about that first apartment. In fact, I had an elaborate one night before last. It definitely branded my soul and psyche to have lived in San Francisco during the time span that I did.

    I still have a cousin who lives in SF and last year we housesat (yes she rents a house) while she was out of the country, taking care of her pets. It was fun to be a “resident” for a bit, once again. My BFF, a gay man, still lives there. He is in a rent controlled apartment in a decent neighborhood and just retired. Life has changed much there, but some things remain the same. I will always hold San Francisco close to my heart.

    • Yes, Cliff’s Hardware! Staffed by hunky gay men who know about tools n stuff 🙂 It’s strange to think that a place and time 30 years ago could feel like it was a hundred years ago…

  2. Susan Reaves // March 9, 2016 at 9:42 am // Reply

    Cliff’s is still there and thriving! I visited it a couple of years ago when I visited the city to spread the ashes of an old SF neighbor (gay man) in Sutro Park, where he wanted to be.

  3. Nice piece, as always everything waxes and wanes, the ebb and flow, always eternal

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