When the story of my life is at last told by someone other than myself (and it will be told that way, because I have already sold the rights in seven different languages), let me be immortalized not as prurient legend would desire, or as base consumer need would demand, but as I wish to be remembered: As a hero, as a powerful moral figure, as an excellent card player. And please let the heavens recall the 125 noble men and women whom I have left behind in the Bay Area, on a remote island untouched by developers, as I journey to find that rarest of northland commodities, affordable housing. If I do not return from this quest, if I am consumed by thirst or run over by a snack-food supply truck, do not leave these people to perish. They deserve, at least, a cot in your garage, and most of them like to eat beef jerky. To them I say, chin up, chums. I will come through. To you, my readers, I say, remember, always, remember, and now I present this morning’s tale.
I arrived in San Francisco full of pluck and vigor, buoyed by the success of my book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, sales of which, by early October, had already topped 100,000. Now, as I invaded the west with my army of trained publicists and professional book-tour roadies, I was certain that by the time the tour ended, I would sell a million copies, perhaps more.
But within an hour of checking in at my $600-a-night hotel, I discovered that of the eight readings I had scheduled that week in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, six had been canceled. Three of the bookstores had lost their leases, two had been demolished without permit, and one simply, mysteriously, evaporated during lunchtime. Overnight, they had been replaced, respectively, by a Jamba Juice, a Starbucks, a Container Store, a juvenile prison, a warehouse for an Internet shopping venture, and a condo complex with wellness center, Japanese rock garden, and electric security fence that could sense unauthorized Hispanics at 200 yards. One-bedroom apartments in this complex, I learned, went for $450,000, 50 percent down. They sold out in fewer than three minutes.
Only two bookstores remained. Booksmith, on Haight Street, was well funded by the Nobel committee and faced no immediate danger. Then, in North Beach, City Lights still cowered, able to keep the evil real-estate hounds away only through the sheer power of poetry.
I arrived at City Lights on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, munching on a calamari fajita and trying to make sense of the Bay Area real-estate boom. In the upstairs offices, my old friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti, usually such a lively presence, sat on the floor of his office, knees against his chest, rocking softly. He was surrounded by several empty bottles of whiskey, and was being attended to by a young publishing associate named Stacey Lewis, who appeared to be keeping her head.
“What’s the matter, L.F.?” I said.
“They have come for me,” he said. “My apartment is no more. My precious pad where Neal Cassady learned to shave, where Ginsberg first experimented with a dildo, from which Kerouac called his mother collect, is gone. They gave it to a 22-year-old content manager for a home-decorating website. All I got in return was a shopping cart for $1500 a month, and that’s without dogs. There are no more poems in my soul.”
I put my hand on his back. He munched on a hash cake.
“But the store,” I said. “They haven’t got the store yet.”
“Oh, they will, soon,” he said. “They’ll say we have toxic waste buried here or that we don’t hire enough black people, or they’ll just nail us in a drug bust. They will triumph. They always do.”
“He’s right,” Stacey said. “People who love to read in San Francisco have no hope.”
The Bay Area appeared to have beaten the Beats. As I ate my alligator couscous back at the hotel that night, I wondered how I could beat the dot-com yuppies and win back some property for the people. Reversing this phenomenon would require all my powers of leadership, and also of literature.
I searched in alleys and under bridges, plumbed the former honky-tonks, the most obscure Oakland neighborhoods, and the dry-goods aisles of organic grocery stores, all for a listing, a sign, a prayer that my good friend Ferlinghetti could once again find a home. But instead, I merely accumulated acolytes, approximately ten at a time. They all had good jobs, were all sensitive and thoughtful readers, and were all desperately, hopelessly homeless. Only I could help them, or so I thought.
“I can afford nothing,” said Elizabeth Field, a Berkeley lawyer specializing in technology issues. “I live in an abandoned refrigerator in the Presidio.”
“My dot-com folded on me two weeks ago,” said a writer named Demian Linn, “and that same day, a professional football player purchased my apartment and threw me out the window.”
“I study 9th-Century Islamic literature,” said Adriana Valencia.
Naturally, she was homeless, too.
Matters grew uncomfortable as I soon had more than 100 people crashing in my hotel room, and the hotel ran out of cots, not to mention the burden we placed on room service. I was scheduled to leave town soon, was running out of money, and had to find a place for these people.
Then, from my bay window, I saw the island.
The early days were rough, but my men and women remained hearty. Clint Marsh and Heather Schlegel kept everyone relaxed with a steady dose of Kava drinks, while Lars, their Swedish bodyguard, amused the crowd with rough jokes. Several members of the All Wrecked Up Bluegrass Orchestra played tunes that we all recalled from college, and Matt, whose last name I don’t recall, brought along his cat Clayton, who proved to be a favorite among the weaker-willed. Ferlinghetti was in good spirits, though the winds off the bay sometimes made him a bit chilly, and the dampness of the ground caused him to remember his childhood with some bitterness.
On day three, we ran out of food.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
Jamie Berger killed a harbor seal with his bare hands, and that provided sustenance for about five hours. Then we caught a few fish, which helped, but the whining started up again the next morning.
“We need shelter,” said Marny Requa, a complete stranger to me, “without the promise of eviction, and within range of a good burrito place.”
I knew I was going to have to swim for it.
I left Stacey Lewis in charge, as she seemed to have her act together fairly well. Then I placed my backpack strap between my teeth and plunged into the chilly waters. A baseball splashed down next to me, and I knew that Barry Bonds had done it again.
As I swam away, the desperate, noble readers of the Bay Area waved wanly behind me. I would get to land, that much I knew, but where to after that? What solutions could I find for these people who deserved an authentic bohemia, not to mention a nice backyard?
I didn’t know, and I still don’t. But people of San Francisco, and beyond, do not fear, and do not starve. We will have affordable urban housing again in this country! As an American, I demand it, and Americans always get what they demand.
People of San Francisco, heed my solemn cry! Affordable housing is your right by birth! And you will not be denied!