The End of San Francisco
by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Books, 2013
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s eighth book, The End of San Francisco, is filled with pain, angst and sorrow. Although it is a memoir, it follows a nonlinear trajectory, opening with the death of her father, closing with a description of her difficult childhood and exploring everything from activism to drug and alcohol abuse in its midsection.
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The narrative is organized into nine chapters, some of them written in a stream-of-consciousness rush of words while others are written with clipped, journalistic precision. Throughout, the author’s sense of anomie, of being an outsider in both heterosexual and LGBTQ enclaves, is palpable. A trenchant observer, her denunciation of racism, classism and homophobia is fierce and she does not spare queer communities for their refusal to reject hetero-normativity – marriage and children – or capitalist consumption.
Her disappointment, however, is largely focused on San Francisco, the city she moved to in 1992, when she was 19. After dropping out of Brown University, Sycamore headed west and dreamed of finding a gay utopia. It didn’t take long for reality to knock and, lo and behold, she discovered that the city was just another place, albeit one that was more tolerant than suburban Maryland, her birthplace, or Providence, Rhode Island, where she had briefly attended school. Crystal meth was everywhere, and heroin and booze. Still, there were jobs in the porn and sex industries, exciting at first but then little different from other labor.
Similarly, getting involved in political movements started on a high note, then morphed into drudgery when change failed to happen at the anticipated pace. Despite righteous anger over AIDS, unequal access to health care, and blatant discrimination on multiple fronts, political coalitions often fractured and progress stalled as movements lost momentum. In place of the slow slog of organizing, Sycamore writes: “we cultivated critique. We were dogmatic in our alliances, self-righteous in our beliefs. But the broader culture that we called queer, so much of it was about loyalty at any cost. Loyalty could mean safety but it could also mean re-enacting high school popularity contests and taking on the victors’ roles.”
It was a bitter pill, especially since her first organizational foray, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), not only introduced her to the headiness of working for change, but quickly became the most important thing in her life. “ACT UP meant politicizing everything, and that’s what queer meant to me,” she writes. “You learned by absorbing the room – generations of activism and relationships and contrasting ways of communication, the laughter between tense moments, the process of committees and affinity groups and consensus. ACT UP meant fighting AIDS because everyone was dying, and it also meant making connections – between government neglect of people with AIDS and structural homophobia and racism; between the US war machine and the lack of funding for healthcare; between misogyny and the absence of resources for women with AIDS; between the war on drugs and the abandonment of HIV-positive drug addicts and prisoners.”
Later, Sycamore brought the lessons she learned from ACT UP to another group, one she founded, called Gay Shame, meant as a counter to annual Pride parades held throughout the United States each June. As she saw it, Pride had devolved into a corporate-sponsored festival of sameness that had neither meaning nor edge. “Gay Shame was a conscious attempt to bring the politics back into the party,” she writes. That it failed to catch fire was the result of numerous things, not the least of them what Sycamore calls the elevation of “social status and scene over critical engagement.” Once again, Sycamore casts blame on San Francisco, once a haven for “marginalized queers.” By the late 1990s and early 2000s, she continues, the city had become a gentrified urban hotspot with little space for outsiders. She finds one particular transition particularly heinous: Polk Street was “one of the last remaining spaces for homeless youth, hustlers, transwomen, street queens, drug addicts, seniors on disability, and migrants of all types,” she writes. Then, in the space of a few years, it was transformed into “a hot destination for fashionistas and office drones to sip green apple martinis.” While this may ring a tad harsh – after all, apple martinis can be mighty tasty – it nonetheless offers an accurate portrait of a nationwide trend and illustrates what happens when real estate developers cater exclusively to an upscale clientele. While this shift has been noted by many social critics, Sycamore’s plea on behalf of those who live unconventional lives is heartfelt and impassioned.
That said, it is the book’s two deeply personal pieces that are the most affecting. In “The First Time,” Sycamore recalls a deathbed visit to her dad, a man who sexually abused her throughout her youth but refused to acknowledge the molestation. Sycamore’s conclusion is poignant: “Even though you’ve caused me more harm than anyone else in my life, I still love you and I don’t want you to die and I wish we could have a relationship.” Time, it seems, is always too short, even in situations that are fraught with conflict and trauma.
Similarly, the closing chapter, “The Beach,” is a kaleidoscopic review of Sycamore’s childhood and zeroes in on her anorexia, substance abuse, and the bullying she received from private school classmates and extended family. As puberty hit, she writes, she became “a broken toy,” appealing to older men but scarred by abuse and the tyranny of the masculine ideal. “I wanted to play with dolls and wear frilly sweaters and paint my room pink,” she explains. “I wanted to wear tights with cut-off shorts. I wanted dresses and make-up and moisturizer. I wanted to giggle and gossip and talk about boys and boobs and ask my friends if I looked fat. I wanted to eat nothing but carrot sticks and rice cakes and salads with lo-cal dressing and watch adults smile at me and think my diet was cute.”
At this point, Sycamore no longer lives in San Francisco – she does not disclose her current place of residence – and suffers from debilitating fibromyalgia. “I locked everything in my body,” she confesses, and today it “hurts to carry a bag, to type, to walk more than a few blocks, to sleep the wrong way.”
It sounds awful. Nonetheless, I closed The End of San Francisco feeling optimistic, thinking that writing the book has likely helped Sycamore to heal. I certainly hope so. In fact, I’m rooting that she not only recovers her health, but also continues to enjoy a place at the table of astute critics, mouthy gender-benders and determined boundary pushers.