02 April 2006

Where I Am From



This past week an academic gathering brought me back to San Francisco, and California, for the first time in three years. The conference passed in a blur, due to a number of different reasons, but did make me think I should probably learn to schmooze a bit more, or at least a bit more effectively. I was joined by the fabulous La Vickstrix, who like the colonial Doña she is, never travels without a retinue, which in this case consisted of an ex, a wannabe ex, several wool suits, a panic attack over a missing name tag, and the rest of the panel (including me). The panel itself was an exercise in academic performativity (aside from the funny frisson of sexual separation by one degree for the presenters, which we strangely figured out only right before the panel), moderated by someone none of us knew who was clearly disinterested (not part of the various sexual histories, clearly), and an anemic Q and A that garnered exactly 0 questions for my paper (and only a smattering, well, OK, two other questions total, for the other three papers). For a nanosecond afterwards, I was consumed with questions: Didn’t I say mean things? Wasn’t I provocative? Then we went to lunch, and the thread was lost in a scallop salad.


The members of the panel were an interesting gathering of fellow travelers engineered by La Vickstrix, who is nothing is not a playa, but only reasserted in some ways the primacies of the academic conference form: a reunion with old friends now distant (networks, baby! Sexual, professional, sartorial, or otherwise) and a simultaneous reinforcement of the genuflections of the profession (i.e. yes, there’s no one here at your panel or there’s no one interested/interesting here at your panel, but this performative work is what keeps the Shop running: Knowledge, moving forward, into a vacuum of cheap hotel pens and rancid water in banal hotel glassware and tax deductions and really ugly canvas conference bags). A later panel with my old doublegood LL and her crew from her current university was much livelier (Pop Culture, hoorah!), but after the first day I decamped into the City for shopping, introspection, and much needed visiting with friends. Yet another aspect of the academic conference: if a panel presents in an incredibly ugly hotel “conference” room, does it make a sound? It indeed may, but not if you’re getting a pedicure at Saks.


The week before the trip had been full of work stresses and tensions, as well as a strange and growing emotional vibration surrounding the impending return to a city that I lived in seemingly as a different person, at a different time in my life. Tying up the last minute loose ends in Cold City, having a lovely last minute bon voyage lunch with Prancilla (new culinary theme: BBQ), and making my way to the airport, the vibration built, and I spent the uncomfortably full flight (a middle seat, natch) immersed in an emotional fog of depression, anticipation, and introspection. Upon arrival, I took BART into the City, transferred to MUNI at Embarcadero, and made my way under Market Street to Castro Station, ostensibly to rendezvous with La Connaire, my hostess for the week, but in reality to retrace a movement that always brought me a thrilling frisson when I lived there: the crowded rush hour K, L, and M trams full of the coifed and poised and self-possessed creatures seemingly specific to San Francisco: The City Homosexual, a decidedly diverse niche in the global homosexual ecology, similar to other variants (the LA Homo, the New York Homo, the London Homo, et al.) yet strangely unique.


And as the trams emptied out their homosexuals onto the platform, leaving behind relieved str8 Asian Americans headed out to the western “Avenues,” the rush up, and up, of dozens and dozens of LGBT folks of various genres (“beautiful and pierced,” bears, cubs, white queens, femmes, daddies, suit queens, twinks, Black queens, leather queens, tranny boys, trolls, beauties, hair queens, realness girls, butches, Asian queens, gym bunnies, Latin@ queens, tech nerds, shop girls and lawyers and doctors and gay fathers with Chinese or Romanian babies and prostitutes) in a synchronized movement, up the escalator and through the turnstiles and newspaper vendors and into the fray of Castro Street and Market. Next Stop: Gay Ground Zero. Upon my reenactment of this ritual, done in a deeply appreciative scopophilia, a hyperawareness of the reenactment itself, I was greeted with the sight of the etoile, the meeting place of Market, Castro, and 17th streets, with the huge rainbow flag and the marquee of the Castro Theatre rising above, and suddenly overwhelmed with the fecund smell of spring and rain and greenery and soil and the distinctive odour of a San Francisco sewer. Cold City, still in the dying grip of winter and brown and dead, this was definitely not. As I attempted to explain this emotional vibration to La Connaire later, as she prepared dinner Chez elle that evening, she deadpanned while dumping some exquisitely expensive pasta in a roiling pot of water, “Oh girl, you’re always verklempt when you come back here.”

Although I am was not born and raised in San Francisco, I am a native Californian, and San Francisco, in retrospect, made sense as a place of residence for an Angeleno displaced into the East and returning with different ideas of the spatial organization of the city, for it is after all the only classic city in the US West. Upon my graduation from Prestigious Eastern U., terrified of moving to New York like so many PU go-getters and not having a better plan, I joined a group of non-westerners who had set their sights on San Francisco as a landing pad for their gap year between college and professional school. I, having no such plan but not wanting to be alone, decided to join them, much to the consternation of my mother, who recognized the move for what it was: a solidification of the permanence of my homosexual state. This was most definitely not a phase now.

That summer subsequent to my graduation from PU, I had been involved in a desperate relationship with a confused boy, and my arrival in this unknown city, away from him yet not at home really, triggered a panic attack. All of a sudden, it all seemed like a really bad idea. My first evening, decamping with an older PU grad in Dolores Heights and confronted by my panic, I rang my Big Sis, slaving away in her own hell for a lunatic Broadway producer with lodging in a maid’s room in a super swank Park Avenue apartment. Big Sis, always practical in an extravagant sort of way, told me “Just get back on the plane tomorrow. We’ll find a place for you here in New York and that will be that. I told you before it was a bad idea!” Caught between feeling suffocated by the enormity of the move, but also aware that all my stuff was currently en route courtesy of UPS (as well as the distinct paucity of a future with confused boy), I demurred on the invitation and stuck it out (much to the kvetching of Big Sis), for what turned out to be the first of many years in San Francisco.


San Francisco is where, in many ways, I became myself. I lost my virginity here, to a kindly but trollish man in Alameda with a beautifully appointed Victorian mansion and a discreet “play room.” I learned how to smoke here, grace à La Connaire and her stale ass Canadian cigarettes. Before grad school, I managed the wage slavery of temping, job searching, and living up to the lowest expectations in a full-time office job, as the put upon receptionist slash office manager for a non-profit. I struggled with my grad school comps here (finishing the final draft, with my girlfriend Mahku running edits, a small earthquake rumbled the flat, marking the moment), I negotiated shared living with idiosyncratic and/or depressed roommates and the equally strange rhythms of dating, tricking, and gay sexual culture. Here I learned what it was to be gay, to be one of the fabulous creatures of the gay ghetto. Here I walked the streets in high-heeled clogs and learned the fine art of pawning one’s material possessions for a fancy dinner or a pack of cigarettes between paychecks. In this city I grew close to La Connaire, and Mahku, and distant from others formerly close. Here I lived on a shoestring and high on the hog, as well as falling into a dark depression over finishing the thesis that eventually drove me out of the City, and out of California, back to Eastern grey decomposition (California may offer its own delights, but for its native children, it can become uncomfortably like living under glass, or as Dusty Springfield so memorably put it on having to move from California, “Too many of my friends were turning into handbags.”). It was here that I learned the initial lessons of becoming an academic and a professional intellectual and university instructor, in the seminar room as well as through the heated and pitched battles among the graduate students in my program. It was here.


Yet, the simple fact is I haven’t lived in San Francisco for almost a decade, and the coterie of friends and places has changed, for like all cities, San Francisco is driven forward through its own dynamic energy. Bars have closed, and reopened, and closed again. Stores have shifted, or are gone, or have moved. A whole generation of new LGBT transplants is making the City their home, while the ones I knew have gone away, to New York or Chicago or Seattle or Vancouver or Berlin or Tokyo or the East Bay or wherever. I moved away right at the beginning of the dot com boom, although I was a visitor enough during those years to see the deleterious change in attitude, the me-ism and greed and fanatic attachment to things that threatened to topple the quaint leftist qualities of the City as the last redoubt of unapologetic US radicality: a contentious experiment in living. By the turn of the century, those values had been scattered by so many shiny Land Rovers and ambitious young millionaires with bad attitudes and too much cash braying on cell phones about the next “deal.”


Of course, for those of us who had slaved away the nineties working on PhDs and TAing for peanuts and selling CDs to eat, the bursting of that particular bubble brought a delicious schadenfraude, although the bubble’s effects are still written on the City, in terms of the continual extremely high cost of living. San Francisco has always been precious, a toy city, more Amsterdam than America, contained within seven small square miles, rows of Edwardians and Victorians marching up and down the streets, interspersed with uninspired apartment blocks from the fifties and sixties and seventies. It has also always been a bourgeois and cliquish city, proudly drawing open the drapery to display the finery of a restored living room, and the excellent decorative taste of its inhabitants, the vivid life of candlelight and fresh flowers. This also gave it a decidedly voyeuristic pleasure as well, which was not limited to furnishings, as you gazed out your own windows (also open) to see the human dramas of sex, bodies, celebrations, and mournings, displayed without self-consciousness for the audience of the City itself, windows and buildings piled upon one another. Yet, when I knew it, it also seemed a place where one could eek out a living, and still enjoy.


With my old girlfriend La Zeez, I walked through my old neighborhood of Dolores Park and paid a call at my former flat, still dismally painted and seemingly unchanged, and except for the clues of the new sconce over the porch (a reproduction of the original Edwardiana) and the luscious velvet draw curtains, I could still be living there. These small symbols of the dissolution of the building’s typically San Franciscan community of leftist truck drivers, pensioners, grad students and shop girls, arranged under rent control and the bad reputation of the neighborhood, has been replaced sometime over the last ten years by rising property values and Pottery Barn aesthetics. The drug dealers were gone, the ugly headache brown and orange apartment buildings on the street have been repainted with Martha’s palette of colours, and my presence on the street, my constant comings and goings, seem so distant.


My last visit here, three years ago, was with Mr. Gordo, his first visit to California, and I choreographed our entry and initial tour of the streets of San Francisco as a seduction, with an eye towards the secret experiences of the living, breathing City, away from the cheap façade of tourism, the ungainly statement of a “San Francisco” baseball cap on the heads of people (tourists) on my flight back to Cold City. This seduction was grounded in my own experiences living here, the hidden but delicious side of life in one of the world’s unique places, a fact again reasserted for me during this past trip, when I could stand back and truly appreciate San Francisco as beautiful and dense and wonderfully pleasurable to the eye. Cold City is an All-American place, functional and business-like and, quite frankly, completely uninspired visually (i.e. ugly). The freeways, buildings, parks, malls, and roads present a uniform and utilitarian image of a place that suffers through long winters and a decided lack of imagination. No nonsense and easily plowed, an architectural form matched by the society that inhabits the space. By contrast, San Francisco, with its catholic pleasures and visual seductions, seems almost too alive, too fecund, too exotic, too vibrant to live outside of its particular greenhouse. Perhaps this is one reason why non-Californians consider the state, to put it generously, a nut house.

Unlike Cold City, with its mall culture and atomized freeway experiences and its neat but flavourless public places, San Francisco is almost universally described as a city of idiosyncratic neighborhoods, a city of planes and angles and intimacies: a city of inhabitants, not commuters. For me, the symbols of the City are not the Cable Cars (which unless you live or work on Nob Hill, no resident would have use for), or Union Square, or Finocchio’s, or heaven forbid Fisherman’s Wharf, although these places are the image for the non-resident, communicated both through the shrewd marketing of the City as well as by our popular culture (You can’t have a San Francisco filmic or televisual scene without the obligatory clanging of the Cable car bells someplace in the sound design).


In my memory, the City expresses itself more clearly through Sutro Tower, the utilitarian three-pronged television tower rising from Twin Peaks above the city, or the twang of the wires of the trolley buses as they silently prowl up and down the streets. Or the secret cat universes of San Francisco back yards and the lush hidden gardens contained within, behind the façade of 19th century propriety: Tasmanian tree and Mother ferns, jasmine vine and honeysuckle. Dolores “Beach” on a sunny day filled with homos and mothers and kids and cholos and cholas, going to Cole Valley via the 37 Corbett rising and falling on the slopes of Twin Peaks, and the huge, lively Safeway on Market, behind which stands the solemn US Mint, marooned on a rock. It is the green mystery of Telegraph Hill gardens and the sixties sterility of Jackson Square. It is Vietnamese pork, jicama, and cilantro sandwiches on Clement Street and the unparalleled Green Apple Bookstore. The glorious marching of the palms down Dolores Street and movies at the Kabuki and cheap eats in J-town and evil MUNI drivers and CD shopping at Streetlight and the dusty smell of a San Francisco flat and greasy breakfasts at Sparky’s and the space-age futurism (now worn) of BART and coffee houses with overly strong coffee and crowds of the seemingly underemployed and overemployed taking up all the tables and the homo scene at Café Flore and waiting forever for the J-Church and Thai food on 16th Street and Eric’s for Chinese and cinnamon croissant French Toast at Chloé’s and fancy restaurants and holes in the wall and bear bars and twink bars and troll bars and lesbian bars and the magnificent Castro Theatre, where queens recite aloud the lines to camp classics.

This is where I am from.

12 comments:

MaggieMay said...

Beautiful post, gorgeous writing. Thanks.

G. Doll said...

You write like an eminent Victorian. Love your writing. Long live to Joan Didion!

Frank said...

Beautiful writing as always, Oso Raro! You really take my breath away.

Still, I couldn't help but sigh at a few places. Why does a city/neighborhood have to be run-down and dangerous to be "real"? Why is safer, more valuable real estate a thing to be abhorred? Why is a city only cool if it's "eccentric" and "progressive" and "radical"? Why is it so great if it's "more Amsterdam than America"? I've never been to San Francisco, I'm sure it's lovely, I adore eccentricity, I certainly don't want every American city to be Houston, say, but the smug sense of superiority (as lampooned in last week's South Park, BTW, though I can't say I really found the episode all that great) does stick in one's craw.

Oso Raro said...

Dear Frank,

Thanks for the kudos! As for your critical points, I would say that I wholeheartedly agree. My post was in some ways a romantic appreciation of San Francisco, my San Francisco, the city of memory. But as a place (like California in general, IMHO), it also can drive one nuts, which I allude to a bit when I speak of having to move away. And the reason as to why really is located in the annoying habit of Californians, especially Bay Area Californians, to believe that they have the best of all possible worlds.

This utopian smugness is indeed disturbing, not only because California is, in many ways, NOT the best of all possible worlds, but also because it prevents Californians from identifying the problems and tensions that need to be resolved in order to improve life in the state. I would also say that this smugness has lead to a distressing amount of nanny-state control over personal behaviours (as opposed to the corporate looting of the public treasury) that speaks to the limitations of all nanny-state rules and regulations, which is to say primarily the ridiculousness of these know-it-all attitudes that leads to a sort of collective neurosis (I am thinking primarily here of the smoking debate as well as questions of personal health and fitness linked to moral goodness and hence superiority, more pronounced in California but a national phenomenon).

One could argue that the California of legend, of Pat Brown and the sixties and the funding of Higher Ed and BART and optimism about the future is the California that represents best the state's potentials. The later, pessimistic and angry California of Proposition 13 and defunding and stingy NIMBYisms ironically paralleled on both sides of the political divide, is the California of today. While I love California because I am Californian, I would argue that it is also a mean, provincial place.

That said, I would also say I am probably as bougie as any other academic, and don't romanticise poverty, as I came from poverty, and also I like my things (objects/commerce/buying/consumerism). My lament over my old neighbourhood was really an articulation that affordable spaces of any kind are becoming increasingly rare in the city proper, which tends to become a vicious cycle that turns places like San Francisco into doll houses for the privileged, and eliminates the diversity so important to an active urbanity. I'm not just speaking of the well-off versus the destitute, but increasingly the well-off versus everyone else, period. As anyone who has witnessed the dulling effect of Condo conversions on urban neighbourhood and street life, upper middle-class Americans generally do not wish to associate with the "riff-raff" (which includes a whole bunch of people: renters, workers, students, children), and so therefore kills the very thing that draws them to the city (any city). Of course this is the urban version of suburbanization, which originally was precisely a move away from the chaotic and threatening diversity of urban life for homogeneity.

But then this speaks to the general problem of urbanity in America, which is to say Americans seemingly don't really like other people, especially people in cities. A nation of misanthropes? There is certainly something in that idea. And as anyone who has seen both can tell you, Amsterdam is a much more beautiful place than, say, Winnipeg or Houston. North Americans seem to want their beauty personalised, private, exclusive. This is the difference between European cities and North American cities. So, my exaltation of San Francisco was to foreground its public, shared pleasures, but those are pleasures I think many American cities could have a variation on, if they weren't so firmly hated both by people in the suburbs and by themselves. American cities used to be, until very recently, beautiful AND functional places. The general national desires towards autonomy, the car, the suburb, as well as racism and class hatred (always hard to trace in our society) led to their destruction in the 1950s and 1960s.

Only a few places, San Francisco among them, have been able to preserve something of themselves, although as anyone can tell you the Bay Area is as sprawling and ugly as any other American megalopolis. So the point of the aesthetic observation was to highlight the general paucity of visual pleasure in American life, which like all pleasures, is both highly desired yet deeply distrusted (as sinful, viz. the Puritans). No one says Americans have to live in ugly cities with little to please the eye, yet we seem to want it that way. This is not the way it always was in this country, and hopefully does not represent the totality of our future(s). And connected to this is the laudable idea of the public, the shared space, which we have really lost here.

Best, Oso

Frank said...

Even your blog comments are overwhelmingly articulate!

Thank you for the fascinating reply. I think you might be on to something with the "nation of misanthropes" idea. I know *I* certainly have my moments of misanthropy. Maybe that's why I'm a committed suburbanite. I just don't feel comfortable in cities; New York makes me panic and even my local city, Philadelphia, gives me the jitters. (I don't enjoy rural areas, either; I like the idea of nature, but not the actuality.)

I also more clearly understand, now, your point about condo-style gentrification: it drains away the uniqueness and dynamism of a place (which is what attracts the condo-dwellers in the first place) by driving out all but those who can afford the sky-high prices. A "doll house" city isn't really something to strive for; I just get annoyed sometimes when overprivileged white (mostly) people romanticize poor people and places. "It's just so quaint!" is the subtextual exclamation. I'm, by many measures, an overprivileged white person myself, but I know enough to know that poverty ain't quaint! Like you, I'm proudly bourgeois (as my blog title attests) and I like my stuff!

Thanks again for the reply!

GayProf said...

an anemic Q and A that garnered exactly 0 questions for my paper (and only a smattering, well, OK, two other questions total, for the other three papers).

That’s nothing. I once present on a panel that outnumbered the total audience in attendance. Yep, a panel of five surpassed the three people attending (two of whom were friends of one of the panelists).

San Francisco, in the immortal words of Shania, don’t impress me much. It’s nice and has its charms, to be sure. Still, it’s no Chicago or Montreal.

No Chaser said...

Oh honey, this makes me homesick. Beautiful as always.

pi said...

A really stunning piece of writing.

And maybe the most brilliant description of academic conferences I've read:

"Knowledge, moving forward, into a vacuum of cheap hotel pens and rancid water in banal hotel glassware and tax deductions and really ugly canvas conference bags)"

Anonymous said...

Dammit, I just want to know if you anonymous academic bloggers are my profs!

Lezzie Grad Student

Oso Raro said...

Well, LGS, we're somebody's prof, somewhere :-)

Joanna said...

Wah! I'm from SF and I totally get it when you talk about the Sutro tower! First scene in Maxine Hong Kingston's novel Tripmaster Monkey is about riding a bus through Golden Gate Park in the fog, and that's what I miss. My family still lives there and I go back to visit every year, but I could never afford to live as well there as I do where I am now. I love the amazing food, but I hate waiting an hour to get into a restaurant. I love it that the plum trees bloom in February (what do you mean, we have no seasons?) but now I love watching the haze of pale green on the trees by the river when spring finally arrives. I've made my peace with not living in SF, but yeah, it's where I'm from.

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