San Francisco Stories: The literary life - Page 2

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

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This week's cover poem by Alejandro Murguia

The Guardian was always more of a reporter's paper than a writer's paper — we wanted news, facts, information more than we wanted flair. And that's as it should be in a newspaper. But we've also always appreciated the local literary scene, and have always been a place where young (and old) writers could find their voices and tell stories.

Now the paper's under new ownership, and for our birthday, we contacted some of the best writers we could find in town and asked them to tell us their San Francisco story. What is the city's literary narrative? What, to use a horrible cliché, do we talk about when we talk about San Francisco?

I'm not surprised that some of what we got was about rent — about the fact that nobody like us can live here anymore without rent control, that the housing crisis brought on by the latest tech boom has made it a terribly unfriendly city for writers.

But they also talked about beauty and passion and the reasons that, despite it all, we remain.

*****

One day after I'd been in San Francisco a few years, my brother called me from Boulder, Colorado, where he'd enrolled as a University of Colorado student. "I can't stand it here," he said. "There aren't any fucking problems."

Yep — everyone he saw in Boulder was rich and white and clean and educated and healthy. He dropped out pretty quickly, and went back to his America, where it's nasty and you fight for every scrap and life sucks and then you die — but along the way, you meet the greatest people in the world and you live and love and get in some awesome kicks.

Me, I stayed in my city, a place worth fighting for.

I spent my childhood and college years in New York and Connecticut; I grew up in San Francisco. This is my place in the world, and, as the late great John D. MacDonald said of Florida, "It is where I am and where I will stay, right up to the point where the Neptune Society sprinkles me into the dilute sewage off the Fun Coast."

And for better and for worse, San Francisco is a great story, a world of love and hope and fear and greed and all these people who wake up every morning and try to make it and the world a better place, often against the greatest possible odds.

Herb Caen said it once: "Love makes this town go 'round. Love and hate, pot and booze, despair and buckets of coffee, most of it stale." We are strange, and we are proud, and we are freaks, and while our local politicians try to tamp us down and make us normal, the rest of the world treats us as special because of who and what we are.

We are immigrants, most of us, and we all love the city we once knew, and those of us who have been here a while are the worst kind of radicals, the ones who hate change ... but inside us, inside the ones who know and care and believe, there's a heartbeat that says: We have something special here, and part of it comes from tradition, and part of it comes from the shabby underclass side of life, from the fight against greed and landlords and smart-eyed speculators who want to charge for what San Francisco once gave away free.

And that's a kind of style and class that doesn't fit into anyone's portfolio of stock options.

I can talk about policy options all night. It's a disease you get when writing becomes journalism and the fight goes out of the pen in your hand and into the pen where the decisions that change your life get made. I could tell you a thousand ways that San Francisco can stop becoming a city of the rich and too fucking cool for words and could give a little, tiny bit of its soul to the population that made it great.

I could say that the dot.com booms that ruined so much of this city's crazy madness would never have happened without the Beats and the Summer of Love, and that we ought to honor our ancestors — even if it means the newcomers have to do what everyone else did, and live a little lower for a while.

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