You have to earn San Francisco, it can’t be bought. The Techies came, sent rents and house prices soaring into the stratosphere, and then ran with the fires and the pandemic. They didn’t buy San Francisco, they rented it a while, and when they found they could not twist it and re-forge it into a pale simulacrum of itself minus the grit, and the hobos, the poor hardworking communities that keep this city chugging alone with their hustle and sweat, they hit the road in a reverse dustbowl refugee scrum, out to Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas…Tennessee. If you got that do re mi, boys, you don’t have to tolerate the crime, the feces and the homelessness messing up your morning commute.
San Francisco still has large numbers of people arriving in exchange for these fleeing techies, they come here because the weather makes living rough tolerable. Try living outside in a Minnesota winter, an Arizona summer, an Idaho snow storm, it is possible, but you are far more likely to either freeze or boil to death in the extremes of weather. Why try to survive in a car or a tent in extremely tough conditions when temperate coastal California is there for the picking?
People flock here still with stars in their eyes, for a little Hollywood dreaming
People drift ever westwards looking for a little California sun and freedom.
People knock on this great sanctuary city’s door looking for refuge, succor, help and understanding. People like me. Once faced with having no option but to request sanctuary there are few options open to you in this beautiful country. I looked at an open map and drew in red around the possible landing spots. Sanctuary states where it was possible I could survive. Past that large urban centers are necessary in order to find the help needed, or at least the resources available to survive. I looped around New York, Illinois, and then drew a large circle in red pen around the great western block of sanctuary states: Washington, Oregon, California. Smaller blue dots marked sanctuary cities out, places like Minneapolis where the state might not be so sympathetic, but the city was safer. Coming into Los Angeles, I was the illegal luggage carrying myself into that which I had no intention of leaving willingly. More than a few keys of weed in the case of Arlo Guthrie, my very existence became illegal by virtue of the act of survival.
I purchased my map in Walmart. I earnt it on the byways, highways and freeways of America. Driving whilst undocumented through hostile territory, check the lights, check the paperwork, act as if you are carrying illegal cargo. Stay quiet, stay careful. Every request for personal information by a stranger became a threat to my existence, “where are you from” became existentially dangerous. My accent lives on the borders. My accent which I cannot ditch betrays me. “Why are you here, where are you from…and WHEN ARE YOU GOING BACK THERE.”
The refrain was the same from Oregon to Washington, from Idaho through Montana, all the way past the Dakotas into Minnesota, and it made me hostile in return. I just wanted to live. I just wanted a chance to survive. I was no threat, I was not even a drain at that time. Here in California, here in San Francisco, I am a drain, but I am treated like a human. Here in San Francisco the question is only asked by other immigrants who want to know how far I have come, and exchange war stories about surviving in Trump’s America whilst being seen as illegal. Survival stories about trying to keep families together. The amount of loss I have heard gets added to the pile of loss that I own all by myself, I keep it close and guard it well. This land is not my land when I am travelling through hostile states in a 26 foot RV with an old American societal reject, however much I wanted it to be. I love America. It did not love me back, at least not until now. It is a good job, that SF was willing to take me on.
These stories which are mine are also of a state which descended into fascism, flirted with autocracy and is not wholly out the other side. This history is now woven into my own, a sharp thread of suffering and fear. Woody Guthrie lived in a housing community in NY owned by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father. Woody hated old man Trump, hated the racial segregation policies Fred Trump set in place in his slum housing communities. He wrote a song about it. Guthrie wrote the lyrics, but no recording survives of him singing the entire song. Here is a recording of the song:
In San Francisco I found community. I owe SF’s black community a love letter of appreciation. The hands extended to me, hands which understood suffering and fear, unfairness and being hunted by the state which should protect not destroy and hurt, and took me in with my son who is not white, and white as I am, I was treated family when I proved I deserved mutual respect and acceptance and thus helped saved my life, but that is a subject for another day. “Paltry, you are white…but you are not like white white” might well have been the most beautiful compliment I have ever received. “Not a Karen” is the highest accolade. I’ll take it and hope I wear it well. My past cannot be shed. My status as below society, as much as it suits me, has me living in a state of nothingness. I will say this much, right here and now, a black American woman in a mostly white shelter seeking refuge under similar circumstances, I can guarantee would not have received such tender concern.
San Francisco helped fill that void with love and care. I almost believe in a future in which I can function as a member of the tribe of people that make this city great. I want to help SF find out who it is after the tide of money ran for the hills away from fire and plague.
To think of oneself as inherently illegal takes a leap of bad faith and misunderstanding. It is a label, like any other. It is a label like “dust bowl refugee” given to those that are not at the top of the food chain, who are unwanted in an area by those who are established there and not only embedded but successfully so. It is a label given out by those who are protecting their standing, their slices of the pie. They see this country as the expression of a zero sum game – if someone else is winning, they have to be losing. No different from the signs of the Great Depression, “Jobless men keep going. We can’t take care of our own. (Chamber of Commerce)” the signs read at the roadside telling the Oki’s and the Arki’s to not bother coming into California if they didn’t have the money. Gatekeeping at it’s most brutal.
Yet the sugar bowl of the country, the garden of Eden that is California remains the most possible of the options to the poor, the oppressed, the desperate. California will either embrace you, or spit you out if you are too hot or cold, or else unlucky, or undisciplined, but at least here in California, you have a chance. There are at least two California’s. There are the dusty eastern old gold rush towns, and the rural portions to the north, the small towns and remote communities where strangers rarely come. I drove through these places on the road, and sometimes stayed there – the Tule Lake’s, the Tionesta’s, the Forks of Salmon, the Placervilles and Orovilles. TheyThese are not the California where possibility lives. Possibility is squeezed into Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and it is eaten up in the less hip and more blue collar Stockton, Modesto and Sacramento. Those cities devour people and dreams. Smackremento as my druggie friends used to refer to it, is a horror of violent crime and grey oppressive urban sprawl. It drains every drop of possibility out of people’s lives.
The beauty of the rushing rivers, the mountain passes, the waterfalls and lakes is a far cry from the streets of San Francisco, or the promise precipice of LA. I never made it down as far as San Diego. People flock here for asylum, for political progressive thinking, they come here because unlike, say North Dakota, a little LSD or weed won’t get you thrown inside a jail cell to sit out life for an obscenely long period of time. They come here for money. They come here for fame. They come here and keep on coming because California, the California of the large progressive cities, is opportunity and possibility.
After almost eight months here in San Francisco, and only a few short trips here before that, it strikes me that San Francisco acts as a filter for who it wants to embrace and who it wants to spit out. Come here wanting to make money, but complaining that it is not a conservative clean and disciplined city is not going to win you friends in this town, let alone influence people. SF prizes creativity and hustle over discipline and conformity. It is still California, it still loves the gold making machine American capitalist dream, it just isn’t quite so hardcore about it all. Sure it will take the money, and wait for the interlopers to run, and sometimes grudgingly, sometimes foot-draggingly, but generally ploughs it back into helping the refugees from a more brutal world, and indeed from a more brutal America.
How many of the boys in the Castro, our male gay center of the universe, have fled more conservative places in order to live free and happy in the way they want to live? What might well still get you beaten in rural Colorado will get you a round of applause and a warm embrace here in the City on the Bay.
To run out here, shoeless and ragged, in whatever way that expresses itself takes guts, takes balls, takes bravery and effort. This bravery is rewarded by acceptance.
One of the young men at the shelter turned around and said to me “hey, you are family now!” Family by dint of having got my dirty wings surviving downtown, and not running and looking for easier digs somewhere less ‘real’, less accepting. As much as SF has scared me, and chased me down streets, it has also taken me under it’s bedraggled wing and told me I can stay here too. As much of a psychopathic mother hen this city can be at times, it is still an accepting old bird, that loves it’s inhabitants, legal or illegal, straight or gay, destitute or rich. This city loves you, if you love it.
Trying to change SF is a bit like trying to change a lover. “You would be perfect, just IF….” If you were cleaner. If you were quieter. If you were less tolerant. If you were less kind. If you were less than you are. I feel somewhat ashamed, after years of being beaten, for men on four different occasions to threaten me and my child with violence engendered such extreme fear, metallic and blinding, that I almost forgot to be kind.
The kind of place that will help me get into housing, that supports my creative life, that gives so freely of itself, is also the place that loves you even if you are cracked out and howling at the rain, and I am not innocent of being cracked out…just not recently, that is all. “Poor Boy!” it soothes…walking down the road, it might not be too cold or too hot here, poor boy. Poor girl, poor child of humanity, fleeing towards possibility, you have arrived. You might still have to run, but you won’t have to run far.” San Francisco made me into a Wharf Rat, nibbling at the edges of the city, sniping along the gutter, but finally OF somewhere, instead of nowhere at all, nowhere quite at all.
SF is the machine of love that kills fascists. Woody might have counselled to stay back at home instead of coming out west without the do re mi to pay the border guards off and make a life here, but that was the past, which makes a foreign country out of the familiar. I am not politician, I don’t have answers better minds than me should be coming up with. The poor residents of downtown deserve safety. The tent dwellers deserve better. The party goes on, but it should not have to be all so dangerous. What we really need is a revolution of concern, of working together to help those who cannot participate in a mutually beneficial and safe society. Pigs might as well fly I suppose, but you know what, San Francisco has seen stranger things. I might have been too harsh on Boudin….