San Francisco Stories: The literary life

On our 46th anniversary, we tell tales of the city

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This week's cover poem by Alejandro Murguia

tredmond@sfbg.com

A few months before I graduated from college, a group of Distinguished Literary Figures came to my Fancy Eastern University and gave a special seminar on careers in literature. At least 150 of my classmates showed up in their $80 Frye boots and their shirts with the alligators on them and the attitudes they'd carefully honed during a life in which things pretty much went their way.

After an erudite discussion of the lofty (the philosophy of writing) and the mundane (write every day and don't send bad photocopies of your manuscript to your publisher), one of the DLF's asked for a show of hands: How many of you are planning a career as a writer?

Every hand in the room shot up. And I looked around and said to myself:

No you aren't.

No, most of you people will never be writers. Because you're too fucking happy. Because you're all well-adjusted young men and women with real futures, who will want jobs that pay and apartments with heat and decent food and cars that start and clothes that look cool, and cappuccino that someone else makes for you, and vacations in nice places where the sun always shines.

You'll never be writers. You don't know enough about life.

*****

A year or so later, I was sitting in the makeshift loft of my $175-a-month illegal storefront apartment, and my fingers were so cold that I couldn't work the cheap and nasty typewriter very well, and there wasn't any heat and the only way to get rid of the chill was to turn on the oven, which was a very bad idea because a banged-up British motorcycle shared the concrete floor of my room with me and the gas tank leaked, not enough to spill but enough that after five or six hours the collected aromatic hydrocarbons in the air were probably enough to ignite and consume me and half the neighborhood in a cataclysmic fireball. So: we sat in the cold.

My girlfriend had left me; her cat was gone but the place was full of fleas, and I'd picked one out of my mustache that morning when I tried to shave. I was finishing a story about antinuclear protests for a magazine that would soon fold, but maybe not before I got my $200 check, and all I could think about was:

I still have a couple cold beers, and Brian Eno on the box, the toilet hadn't overflowed yet this week — and fuck: This is about as good as it gets.

This is how young writers live.

We don't ask for much, writers. We don't need better iPhones or wifi at Union Square or tax breaks. What we need, and have always needed, is chaos, misery, and grit. We need places where money doesn't rule and where everything isn't comfortable. We need, more than anything, a kind of cheap that isn't cool.

You go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill these days and you don't see many writers who have day jobs as temps in the Zone buying the crummiest suits and ties they can get away with; it's all, like, hipster fashion.

Writers need real cheap. They need $2 beers and $4 burritos and crappy places to live that cost less than you can make selling a story or two a month. They need to exist, for real, not just for fun, in a world outside the bubble — and they need a city that makes room for that to happen.

I love where I live, but it's failing me. And I sometimes think that nobody in charge really cares.

*****

The Bay Guardian turns 46 this week. I've been part of it for more than half its life, since I sold my first story to the paper in 1982, a shocking expose about police harassing homeless people for sitting on the sidewalk. I got paid $50. It was a huge deal. I ran right out and bought a bottle of whiskey.

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