Tuesday, October 20, 2009


When Laurie and I moved into the new apartment, the new apartment in the Mission, this was the beginning, the beginning of all our dreams coming together except our dreams together were already coming apart. But when your dreams are coming apart, that’s the best time for dreams, right? So let’s talk about the Mission, in the early ‘90s -- when we first moved to San Francisco, we did live in the Mission, but we didn’t know what that meant yet. We were living in the Outer Mission, so mostly it meant that we were white people in a Latino neighborhood, when we walked down 24th Street everyone stared. A three month sublet and we moved to the Inner Richmond, which meant extremely cheap rent, but it way too far away from everything else we wanted. Although we didn’t leave because of the distance we left because we were getting evicted. We were running out of time with our rent strike.

But now I’m not talking about Laurie and me anymore, or not just Laurie and me, but a whole generation of queers who came to San Francisco to try and cope, we were scarred and broken and brutalized but determined to create something else, something we could live with, something we could call home or healing or even just help, I need help here, can you help? We were incest survivors, whores, vegans, runaways, anarchists, dropouts, drug addicts, sluts, activists and freaks trying not to disappear. We paraded down the streets in bold and ragged clothes too big or too small, we shared thriftstore treasures and recipes and strategies for getting day-glow hair dye to last. We exchanged manifestos and ‘zines and fliers and gossip, got in dramatic fights over politics, over the weather, over clothing, over who was sleeping with whom, we held each other, we painted each other's nails and broke down, honey we broke down.

We were the first generation of queers to grow up knowing that desire meant AIDS meant death, and so it made sense that when we got away from the other death, the one that meant marriage, house in the suburbs, a lifetime of brutality both interior and exterior and call this success or keep trying, keep trying for more brutality but when we got away it made sense that everywhere people were dying of AIDS and drug addiction and suicide because we had only known death. Some of the dead were among us, just like us, just trying to survive. Others were more in the distance, the elders we barely got to know except through their loss. We went crazy and cried a lot, or went crazy and stopped crying, or just went crazy. Some of us talked about surviving rape and childhood; some of us organized potlucks and office takeovers; some of us fought for syringe distribution and universal healthcare; some of us fought against police brutality, gentrification and prison; we all fought one another.

We knew that the world wanted us dead, but we were ready for something else -- we didn't always know what it was, but we were ready -- if we weren't ready, then we were getting ready. We were huddled and dreaming outside of the status quo, plotting shoplifting expeditions and travelers check scams, creating defiant and desperate ways to love and lust for and take care of one another in crowded, crumbling apartments painted in garish hues and decorated with other people's trash. But still we were gentrifiers -- we knew that. Some of us had grown up rich and more of us poor, but we could see the way that queer freaks and artists and activists made the Mission a safer place for the yuppies we despised. We had crazy hair and strange piercings and facial tattoos, but still we were mostly white and young and hip, even if we would have denied the young and hip part. We brought the trendy restaurants and boutiques that we gazed at with anguish and disgust, the partying suburbanites we scorned -- it was our fault that the Mission was no longer known primarily as a high-crime Latino neighborhood or just a place for thugs and welfare cheats and crack addicts on disability. We were the beginning of the end and we didn't know what to do because we'd just found the beginning.

It was us against them, that’s what we believed. They were straight people, they were abusers, they were rapists and landlords and cops, they were parents and politicians and anyone with designer clothes. They were the gay people who congregated in the Castro -- apathetic, straight-acting gay men who went to the gym and dressed like clones in white t-shirts and baseball caps, who bought new Doc Martens because they were trendy and not because they knew anything else, gay men who hated women and fat people and people of color and sissies and anyone who was different, really, and we were different -- we were absolutely certain of that -- we were different.

We weren’t different, and that was the problem. I mean we were different, but not different enough. That’s why I’m writing this. Even now, now that the Mission is rarely or barely the same place it’s still the same place in the imagination, more than 15 years of gentrification later. Not in my imagination; I try not to go there at all. Not just because it’s the partying suburbanites who live there now. They live everywhere. We were once partying suburbanites too, many of us, but we came to San Francisco to escape. We thought we were creating our own system of understanding the world, our own values, our own ways of challenging the status quo.

We were vicious and vibrant, we judged with a purity that can only be imagined when you’re really imagining. We held elaborate conversations, debates really, about when and where it was appropriate to shoplift. Some of us thought that anywhere was okay, because the actual crime was the selling and marketing, we didn’t want to get caught up in that violence. Unless we had control over it, and were selling something like time in the bodies we were learning to call home: sex work didn’t feel like shopping, at least not for us because we were the ones selling. Sometimes there was a store for sex work to, and then it was just as exploitative -- they stole from us, but usually we got paid better than a coffee house, although it changed us too and that wasn’t always a good thing. Some of us thought that you could steal from chain stores, but not independent stores; some of us thought that anything that was posh made a legitimate target, or maybe someone we knew got fired so that meant we had free reign and maybe even insider tips, but it’s also true that people ended friendships when they thought someone was getting carried away, not carried away in the glamorous way, like when you walked into a store and put a futon in your car and drove away -- that made you a legend. Or stole CDs from one store and went down the street and sold them at another. But if you started stealing from your friends, that wasn’t the same thing. You were becoming someone to avoid.

We considered all jobs bad, one of the most popular posters at the time was the one that said I Don’t Think I’m Going to Work Today -- I Don’t Think I’ll Go to Work Tomorrow, although Your Body Is a Battleground was also popular; my favorites were the Homocult posters -- Give Us Your Children -- What We Can’t Fuck, We Eat, and the one that said Bent Fucker: Stolen Bent Cheap Filth. Most people thought the best job was welfare if you could still afford your rent, even better if you proved yourself crazy and got SSI because that was permanent although those of us who got arrested doing civil disobedience were worried about SSI because we thought maybe it meant it would be easier for them to take us away. If you grew up on welfare, then most people didn’t look down on you, even if you had a corporate job. Better to work at somewhere dead-end that could still be used as a resource, like a copy shop or coffeehouse. A corporate job could be overlooked, as long as you didn’t care about it, and you brought home free office supplies and complained all the time and then maybe you eventually became a stripper, or you became a stripper while you were still working at the corporate job, but if you started moving up at the corporate job, not just something like data entry or telemarketing, then you might be getting kind of suspicious. Unemployment was definitely a good thing, although the worst thing anyone could say about someone was that they might have a trust fund, that meant they couldn’t be trusted. No, the worst thing that people could say was that you were a rapist, a rapist with a trust fund.

We argued about revolution -- most of us thought it was the stupidest thing we’d ever heard of, you’d just take power and oppress everyone else, right? But then there were the ones who believed we were the stupid ones because we didn’t believe. We argued about drugs -- drinking and pot were always okay, unless you started flaking out and couldn’t leave the house, and some of us liked all drugs, the more the better, but then others liked all drugs except crystal and heroin, or all drugs except heroin. Coke wasn’t around, even though I was always looking. Most people thought that heroin meant you would eventually steal from your friends, which was almost as bad as having a trust fund.

Some of us were vegans, and we looked at everyone else like they just didn’t have enough courage. Some of us believed in activism, it was the central thing in our lives, it was the dream we believed in more than anything really, sometimes even more than our friends, our friends who weren’t activists but then some of us thought activism was stupid too, we would never get anywhere, we must have trust funds if that’s what we believed in. We were all sluts, or if we weren’t sluts then we were trying to be sluts, and if we weren’t trying to be sluts then we were talking about sexual abuse and that was even better, although we could also talk about sexual abuse and sluttiness, the two together and we definitely believed in that. Obviously we believed in attitude, if someone said something about not wanting to judge people, they were New Age garbage, New Age garbage was almost as bad as a trust fund, it was the same thing as stealing from your friends because you were stealing their rage and rage was one of the most important things, as long as we embraced it then it could embrace us. There was good drama and bad drama, but there was always drama and this didn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable to us because we had always known drama.


Brina said...

wow, a lot that stuff has been stuff that I've been thinking about lately. Particularly now that I'm living in the Mission and hearing people's stories of the way things are going. It seems like it is harder to navigate here more than ever before.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Brina, so lovely to hear from you, and so glad to hear that you've been thinking similar thoughts -- similar thoughts, and a different time...

Love --