Displacement Blues: An Apartment on the Moon

By Tarin Towers

“Displacement Blues” is a project by San Francisco writer Tarin Towers, who spent almost a year and a half fighting to keep her rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District, a neighborhood on the forefront of the extreme gentrification taking place in a city that has—gradually and then all at once—become the most expensive place to live in the United States. “Displacement Blues” began its life as an email newsletter on TinyLetter, and Lumpen is excited to be publishing this mini-magazine in its entirety. 

A little background to catch you up on the story: Tarin has spent the last several weeks housesitting at various apartments around the Mission District as she looks for a new room to call home. Technically homeless, Tarin is housed by friends for the foreseeable future. We hope you’ll join her as she navigates the waters of displacement in San Francisco. Previous issues can be found in the Displacement Blues archive.

For the last week, I occupied a delicious space where I was housesitting in one place, a place of both responsibilities and luxury, but my friends with the guest room were still out of the country for work. I had the option in my head of being able to go, if I needed to, to the other house a few blocks away simply for a nap or a shower or to watch Netflix on a movie screen.

Of course, this current abode is plenty grand for a nap, and a shower, and Netflix on a movie screen. I guess it reminded me of my normal state of being when housesitting, which is also having a place to live, to stop by and pick up my for instance feminine hygiene needs if I need to retrieve them. Which is what I just discovered I have to do today, without awakening my jet-lagged compatriots.

I did go over to the other place and do a little housecleaning in the time I “had” both places, but for instance I forgot to throw away the aging cucumber in the fridge that they left when they left. I meant to go back today and finish cleaning out the fridge, but guess what? They came back today, not next week. In the scheme of being responsible to someone else’s home, leaving a dying vegetable wrapped in plastic in the fridge is a small sin, and one of omission, but still not up to what I’d like my standards to be. I thought I had the luxury of time as well as space, but I did not. I mopped half the kitchen floor. I left it better than I found it, just not as I would like to have left it.

Lesson learned: Don’t put off chores.

Newsier news, bigger news: I looked at two places this week. Did all of this really happen just this week? I spent one entire day doing exactly nothin’, unless you call reading and tweeting something, which I kind of do and I kind of don’t. I was completely out of sorts like I’d be if I was sick or mourning, but I was neither. It was okay. I would have rather been doing other things, but I did none of them.

Anyway, Tuesday I went to see a place in Oakland. I mentioned this to a friend last weekend who said, “I’m so glad you’re looking over there, [something something],” something that I didn’t hear because it felt like “I’m so glad you’re giving up” or “I’m so glad you’re moving far from what you love,” or “We won’t miss you,” even though that’s not what she meant; she’d never say any of those things, much less mean them. She meant, I think, “I’m so glad you’re cutting yourself some slack” or “I’m so glad you’re broadening your search to make it more feasible” or “I’m so glad you’re not becoming so attached to a particular outcome that you’ll never, ever find a place to live.”

The search wasn’t fruitful. I’m glad I didn’t get the place.

I looked at this particular place in Oakland because, for the same rent I was paying for my room on South Van Ness plus my storage locker, I could rent a medium-small room and a largish home office. The two housemates sounded nice; they were looking to rent two bedrooms, one of which came with that office. The house had “a backyard the size of a small park” and multiple common areas where I could teach classes or have meetings. It had a lot going for it.

The biggest con, perhaps the only con, was big. It’s not that it was in Oakland, it’s that it was half an hour from BART, and therefore at least 45-60 minutes to the Mission depending on the timing of both BART and the bus. I missed the 62 by a few minutes, which runs half-hourly from West Oakland, so I stayed on until 12th St and caught the 18 only because I ran for it.

I had this sinking feeling, about my future that would be spent trying to catch these two buses. The 18 made a turn, just touching Lake Merritt, and went up Park Boulevard. I got off a stop early, as I had time to spare, and went in the nearest grocery store by a mile, which was a largish mini-mart. The fact that it had the word “groceries” in its name was somewhere between an exaggeration and a brag. Across Park from the “grocery” store was a massage parlor. There was a hair salon that looked half boarded up. That was it for businesses.

Then there was a hill to walk up to get to the house. Every house and apartment building on Park—and 90 percent of them on the sloping hill—was a bit dilapidated. There was a three-car garage that, on further inspection, was a free-standing facade protecting a pile of rubble, the house long since gone and not soon to be replaced. This was not an “up-and-coming” neighborhood, and I felt glad for its residents that their houses weren’t teetering just above the chopping block, yet. But it wasn’t a neighborhood at all in the way I feel at home in neighborhoods, with food to eat, both retail and in cafes, and the staples of small towns and large (bank, library, post office, drugstore) and neighbors walking by even at dusk.

I was talking myself out of it the whole way there. “THIS would be your view getting off the bus every day. THIS would be your grocery store. THIS would be the hill you have to walk up with your groceries. There is no Walgreens. There is no produce. There is no coffee. There are no tacos.” It was hot on top of that hill at 8:30 at night, and it hadn’t been a hot day in San Francisco.

But it was the sidewalks that made me seriously almost enter the interview sobbing. They were plunging into and bobbing out of the ground as if there had been a major earthquake that morning. “No one walks here,” was what the sidewalks said. “People have parking in their driveways or right in front of their homes, and nobody walks any farther than their cars.”

Whatever, I said to myself. Put on your social face, be your kindest and cleverest self, do a good interview, see what the place feels like, give it a shot just to give it a shot.

It was gorgeous. The room and the bedroom were both laid out wonderfully, with a lot of windows facing south and west. The kitchen and living room and sun room and decks felt plush. The guys were nice. We talked for half an hour and got along well. I thought, maybe this could be me, here. I could definitely write here.

And then it came time to leave, and I had to keep my eyes on the cliffs and vales of sidewalk in the waning light, and I had to cross a wide boulevard with no light or stop sign to get to the bus stop, and I had to wait 10 minutes for the bus in front of a blank concrete wall with a chain link fence on top of it, the back of a school or someone’s large yard. It took me an hour to get home.

I made considerations. How often could I housesit. Could I keep a suitcase in storage somewhere for when I did, since it would be a real effort to take more than a backpack back and forth to SF.

“I’d never leave the house,” I told Mr. Bunny when I got home. “I’d love it inside but I’d never even go to the store.”

“It’s too hot in there,” said Mr. Bunny. “They have too many chairs.”


I’m glad I didn’t have to turn it down; they picked other people, people with cars I’m pretty sure. They seemed unsettled that I had taken the bus and kept thanking me for doing so.

The other place I looked at was in the Mission. I can have it if I want it. That’s a big deal; it’s not a simple rental arrangement, however, and so I have some serious thinking to do. You might think I’m burying the lede here, Oh my god she found a place and she didn’t even tell us, but that’s not exactly true. Nothing is settled yet, not my decision and not me. I’m going to leave out the details for now, because it won’t be ready for me to occupy for a couple months or so. I have those couple months to keep looking if I want to; I have my whole life to keep looking if I want to.

Gleaner’s Index: The Week in Numbers

Hours of TV I watched this week: 12

Hours of TV I watched in the rest of 2015: Basically 0

Number of times I’ve listened to Buena Vista Social Club this week: 2

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus: 1

Milk Cult Dispatch: 2

To Pimp a Butterfly: 1

Number of times I’ve listened to the latter in the last 3 weeks: About 12


Age I decided I wanted to be a writer: 8

Published first poem: 18

Had first poem anthologized: 22

Became a full-time writer: 23

Became a freelance writer: 24

Published first how-to book: 24

Published first book of poetry: 26

Retired from freelance writing: 32


Regrets I’ve had: A few


This photo is from the Market Street Prototyping Festival. My friend Brett Bowman took this on April 11. Time runs away from me, and I try to think about the best way to write about art events that are no longer news, while I keep telling you how I’m going to write about art and then not really doing it. Anyway, I’ve been holding this picture in reserve. Different neighborhoods were represented in kiosks like this one up and down Market Street, and the Mission ambassador kept it simple and showcased some mural artists. I’ve been holding on to this one for addressing the question, “How attached to the Mission am I?” Pretty attached so far. There are ways I can make staying here happen, while I try to figure out what compromises I’m willing to make. The Ravens jacket? Shoutout to my compadres in my home state of Maryland, which I no longer think of as home but still call my home state. Is there a lesson in there?

unnamed (1)

This would be the view from my bus stop on Park Boulevard in Oakland if I’d moved into the place I looked at on Tuesday. This is not at all representative of Oakland, so Oakland fans, please don’t take this as a diss, and people who have never been there: I dunno, maybe note the similarity to parts of Pittsburgh, PA. What this is is the expanse of disrepair and asphalt I’d contemplate every time I got home from visiting San Francisco, before walking up the hill made of broken sidewalks and big driveways.

advice for men (I always have some):

Selfie of the Week

unnamed (2)

Here’s a snap from the same house where I’m housesitting now, only this was Christmas Eve. Digging through selfies and thinking about how this is going to go on the World Wide Web in front of strangers, I got both a little self-conscious about posting purposefully unflattering ones (I had a great scary one this week that I’ll hold on to) and a little more aware of technical aspects and fuzziness of low-light selfies, and I spent a long time scrolling through camera rolls on my Mac and saying Nah. So, I landed on the gnome. Gnome, sweet gnome. Happy Friday.

Writing from a fortune cookie factory

THIS HERE NEWSLETTER IS SYNDICATED NOW! Here’s the first Displacement Blues on Lumpen, which is Episode 14; if you’ve ever thought (and some people have asked me), is there a regular link I can send my friends? Is there a way I can google this? Now you can.

Writing for small people

So I found myself writing a children’s book, I think. I wrote 4,900 words in two afternoons, which were both grueling and flew by, which is an odd combo. It’s a mythic story based in both science and legends, about how the first caterpillars became monarch butterflies. The challenge in this story is that the team I’m working with felt very clearly we wanted to work with two transformative creatures, the butterfly and the Phoenix, and so getting these two to meet has been a puzzle to solve. The inspiration and the reason for writing this story at this time is a camp I help to organize every summer called Redwood Magic Family Camp, which is a project of Reclaiming, the community witchcraft organization I have worked with since 2005 and taught with since 2009. You can read more about it on the Redwood Magic homepage, and if you’re interested in helping send some teens and young adults to spend time making magic in the redwoods, check out our IndieGoGo campaign and consider donating toward the camp. Or, you know, you could register and go.

The best things I’ve read since last we spoke

I got my book back! My one-book stack is still Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I hope to have a report for you next week.

Jenny Diski’s End Notes (NYT Magazine) I was not familiar with the British essayist Jenny Diski before reading this article, and now I’m eager to consume her work. One question a writer needs to be able to answer, even and especially a journalist, is why this story now? Giles Harvey interviewed Diski now because the prognosis for her lung cancer is that she has a year left to live; it had metastasized to her lymph nodes by the time it was detected. “It’s a unique experience,” she said of dying. “I’ve never done it before, and I won’t be doing it again.” She has been writing a diary about her diagnosis and about dying of it for the London Review of Books, which has published dozens of essays by her over the years. Diski for a time lived with the writer Doris Lessing as a sort of foster daughter, and part of Diski’s process writing about the end of her own life is writing about her fraught relationship with her first mentor. This essay is an enticing introduction to a writer who’s new to me (and she tweets!), but it’s also a humane profile and interview that I’m grateful to have read regardless.

Sense8 And The Failure Of Global Domination (Racialicious) STOP! Don’t read this essay unless or until you’ve watched the entire 12-episode original series on Netflix. Or, if you have no desire to watch the show, you could still read this essay about diversity and “diversity.” “Sense8” is certainly not for everyone; it’s extremely violent, for one thing, and some of the graphic sex scenes might be too much for say, some of my older relatives. The Wachowskis mastered cartoon violence in The Matrix; in moments when Keanu Reeves’s Neo was really on the brink of having his chips cashed in, he might get a bit of a nosebleed, but “Sense8” features so much blood that it at times seems to be about blood or committing some sort of metaphor about blood as a universal tie between all us humans here on earth. I say not to read this essay until you’ve watched the series, and that’s not because of a few mild spoilers but rather because the writer Claire Like’s take on how the series views the world is best considered after one has formed one’s own opinion of the show. I watched two or three episodes a day until I’d consumed the whole thing in less than a week, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s innovative in many ways, and if you do like fight sequences, you have a great many kung fu battles to cheer on ahead of you. As with most ambitious science fiction, Sense8 is both political commentary and meditation on identity and humanness. And like most ambitious science fiction, it’s imperfect, but compelling, and somehow both idealistic and cynical. Anyway, I’ve avoided spoilers here not just for the show, but for the essay, which let me spell this out for you: My prescription is to watch the show and then to read this essay. It’s a good companion piece, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but it’s part of the daunting task of considering perspectives other than one’s own. So here you go.

Off Diamond Head (The New Yorker) What was it like to be a teenaged white boy learning how to surf in Hawaii in the 1960s? William Finnegan has contributed a staggering amount of Important Journalism to the New Yorker over the past 30 years, reporting from all over the world. He has a book coming out next month not about warlords or drug trafficking but about surfing, and this essay is about more than just what it means for a kid new to Hawaii to catch a wave in OMG HAWAII. It’s about being haole and what haole means. Reading a white guy talking about his own white privilege without defensiveness is a rare enough thing, but to write as Finnegan does, at a remove of almost 50 years—he grants himself perspective, he grants himself permission to reexamine events from his childhood without casting himself as fully hero or fully villain. He was a bullied minority who still benefited from the structural privilege of whiteness on the colonized Hawaiian Islands. It’s also a great story just about being 13.

With the city mourning a massacre, the Charleston RiverDogs say ‘play ball!’ (Washington Post) Clinton Yates went to Charleston three years ago when he was writing about minor league baseball, and this piece is about what it means, particularly to a Black man, when a Southern town uses the wrong pieces of history to justify its decision not to cancel a baseball game.

Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now (The Atlantic) Ta Nehisi-Coates on why the symbol of oppression and slavery has no place flying over a state capitol. Not noted specifically in this article is the fact that the Confederate flag is, unlike the South Carolina and US flags, is not flying at half mast. Why, in part, is that it’s chained to the top of the flagpole and cannot be lowered, only removed, which can only be authorized by an act of the State Legislature.

If you have to read something about Rachel Dolezal—and opinions are split about whether her ability to turn blackness on and off is more or less relevant this week than it was last—I have two pieces for you. Black Like Her, by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, and Let’s Talk About Rachel Dolezal’s Parents, by Libby Anne, on Patheos.

Everything Really Hit Rock Bottom: How Nasty Gal’s Culture Went Nasty (Jezebel) In the few days before this story was published, I saw three different people tweet (none approvingly) about the title of the book #GIRLBOSS. None of them seemed to have anything to say about the book or its author, and I may be revealing how unhip I am by saying I wasn’t familiar with the Nasty Gal “lifestyle brand” until I read this. Anna Merlan writes about the ironies of a woman being lauded for her generosity and feminism neglecting her company and its female employees in order to become a celebrity CEO, losing most of her valued employees in the process. This piece reminded me of what is probably Jezebel’s best investigative piece or labor article or both: Unicorns, Rainbows, and Cocaine: The Rise and Fall of Lisa Frank.

I can’t believe 2015 is half over, either


You may also like...