Displacement Blues: Packed With Meaningless

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.

Not one, but two people texted me this week to tell me Voldemort had started construction on our old building. Closure, of a sort, since now my apartment is not only not mine, but no longer exists.

He’s gutting the interiors as you read this, or rather, his day laborers are; I hope he’s provided some abatement for the tech dorm next door from the lead and asbestos circulating in the air; I hope his workers know; I hope he’s at least said, “wear this mask, it’s dusty work.”

His brother would be the one saying it. Voldemort not only owns the building but also the construction and contracting company doing the work on it, and his brother is the one who managed the job for both the foundation replacement and the renovation of the other apartments while we still lived there.

The last I’d checked, Voldemort hadn’t even reapplied for permits yet, but as it turns out, he simply had to resubmit the ones he’d filed before and that we had revoked, and they were approved in a month.

If you know me, you know I was hoping he’d start construction without permits so that the Building Inspector could catch him at it. Certain persons at DBI probably hoped for the same thing, as they’ve been trying to catch him at things for a while now; rumor holds that he gets away with a lot.

If you’ve been following my story for a while here, you might recall that even after the Building Inspector revoked Voldemort’s permits, he brought in workers to do construction on the upstairs units, lead and asbestos swirling over our heads, and no regard for either letter or spirit of the law or human life.

My writing desk this week and next is in the enormous bay window of a house on top of a hill here in San Francisco; I mentioned a hill last week, but this new place requires walking up half a hill and then three flights of stairs from the bus stop. I have taken advantage of a grocery delivery app, and I’ve felt fine about it.

I had the odd-because-normal experience this week of packing for a housesit and not having to haul everything I own that’s not in storage with me. I’m in possession of the garden apartment in Bernal Heights until the end of August, but this month I also have cats to feed, so here I am, gazing out the window at the lights of the city. At night, straight ahead, I can see the hospital, the lights on the towers of the old power plant, a black expanse that’s the Bay, and then the lights of Alameda, due East of where I sit.

When I stand up to see over the bushes, or when I walk out on to the second-floor deck, to my left I see all of the Mission, City Hall, the pipelines of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue, all of Eastern San Francisco, all of Downtown, and the Bay Bridge itself rising into the air, really visible only when it’s full, a distinct lifting line made of backed-up headlights, clear by midnight on a weekday but otherwise looking like time has come to a standstill.

It’s a million-dollar view. When my friend bought this place, that wasn’t literally true, but now I bet it’s 2.5 or 3x true.

I don’t travel light these days; I could do better at that if I had to, but when I was packing to come here, instead of picking out a few outfits I could mix and match—like I would for air travel or when I lived in an apartment I could get extra socks from if I needed to—I kept unearthing beautiful clothes I hadn’t yet worn that somehow fit into the two suitcases I’ve been living out of, and I could’t find much I wanted to leave behind, such was my optimism and lack of will to cull, so I could go on two dates a day while I’m staying here, a man for lunch and one for dinner, maybe a third to go dancing on some days, and not repeat an outfit.

Those aren’t my plans, but why not?

I started writing regularly again, a few months ago, because packing up my apartment was like hand-sifting memories full of brain cells, coating my hands with emotional dust, and I started out wanting to document that process. I didn’t write as much about packing per se as I thought I would when I started sitting at my keyboard on the regular. Earlier this week, though, I wrote a whole essay I thought I was going to send to you all about how difficult it was for me to pack for a two-week housesit when I didn’t have to haul my whole life with me. It was too full of minutiae; it was like trying to pack everything into an encyclopedia of luggage.

I have too much stuff. I own too many things, I’m carrying too many at a time.

Paring down will have to happen again, still, more, but right now I’m allowing myself as many creature comforts as want to come with me in a taxi or a friend’s trunk at intervals.

This is not the assortment of belongings, I imagine, that I would carry if I were living out of a shopping cart, but who knows? Maybe this is why people end up with shopping carts, they’ve pared down their essentials to what fits in the trunk of a car, and then suddenly they don’t have access to cars anymore, having had their own car towed or having used up the charity of friends with cars and having lost enough income that a $10 cab ride is too much and then having used up the charity of friends with couches, ending up under a bridge or in the doorway of a bank or in a tent on the widest part of the sidewalk near the fire station.

This is not my plan, but I suppose it rarely is.

Gleaner’s Index: The Week in Numbers

Counting camping, number of domiciles I occupied in June: 3

Number I’ll occupy in July, excluding camping: 3

Including camping: 5

Other housesits I was offered for July: 2

Number of cats sat: 4

Other cats fed this month: 2

Children babysat: 1


Number of the 7 deadly sins I committed this month in my heart: 7

Sins I acted upon: 5


Hours of TV I watched this month, approximately: 8

Shows watched: 3

Days in which I watched those hours: 3

Hours of TV I watched in June: 12

Hours I watched in the 6 months before that: 0

Books I’ve read in 2015: 3

Books I read in 2014: +/- 0

Average books I read per year in each of the 10 years prior: 50

Viewpoint: Do you know how hard it is to get decent focus of a landscape on a sunny day when you’re trying to shoot with an iPad of all things? 

I have no photos of the view I just bragged about because I shot about 30 today and was satisfied with none of them; the ones in which the composition was stellar seemed to have no focal point and the ones with good foreground had poor light and on and on, and I’m not about to trash an important landscape painter (see below) and then submit to you mediocre landscape photos, so I’m going to spend some time being fussy as fuck about this and have something for you next week.


Ozzie here, my client this week and next, is a sweet scoundrel who in this shot just finished killing a pack of Kleenex he somehow retrieved from my purse even though I thought I zipped it. He demolished a personal hygiene product last night, also dug from my handbag, and left plastic wrapping and cotton fluff all over the house. Currently he’s hanging out in the garage, which my hosts said was a just fine and perfectly good place for him to hang out, saying so with such conviction that I’m quite sure they had to talk themselves into that being a habitat of his, because he’s satisfied to bolt into the garage instead of out the door and over the neighbor’s fence, which is good for everyone. Anyway, I don’t think they selected the cat to go with the piano, but they should probably say they did since he’s almost as glossy at it is and the combo really brings the room to life.

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Un-still life: A Calderesque mobile hangs over the stairs, and Mr. Bunny sits in contemplation of what it means to be an animate inanimate object. He likes this house even though last night, as he sat by my laptop and watched me compose this week’s essay, his leg danged over the leg of the desk and Ozzie pawed at it as if to snatch Mr. Bunny as if he were some kind of toy! Imagine! I’d rather give Ozzie all the maxi pads in Walgreens than leave my best companion to a miserable fate of fangs and claws.

advice for men (I always have some):

Selfie of the Week, or art history trumped by a restroom

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I went with a friend to the JMW Turner exhibit at the De Young Museum this week, and I would have loved to have taken a selfie with a favorite painting, but I really didn’t have one; I tried once or twice, but the one painting that really struck me looked smeary and unfortunate when I tried. Turner is the first major artist whose work, in my opinion, looks better in prints and reproductions than it does in person. The unfinished feel of his late canvases was surely an inspiration to the Impressionists, but their paintings feel intent with viewpoint and perspective and emotion, whereas Turner’s had the presentation of works dashed off for display and sale—small, indistinguishable figures (although I like the worker in this one), rather unforgivable when you’re telling the story of Greek myth and Mercury is just a blob; gimmicky depictions of scenes from European history or Ancient Rome or the Bible. I went online just now to try to figure out why I had a high estimation of Turner when studying him in art history classes (did I ever tell you I majored in art in college, along with English?). There in the Google image search are the rather majestic nighttime seascapes and still moonlight and countryside and pastoral scenes I held in my mind as his trademark, but in the last decade of his life, such seascapes were less than fully realized, although some still had dramatic appeal. His watercolors in this exhibit were more thoughtful, perhaps ironically; because his goal was to give a sketch of a landscape, he achieved more fully what his intention was, whereas when his goal was to upend painting by using dashes and mists of color, he achieved an upending but not an actual image. Plus, some of these were just so obviously gimmicks for sale that I feel almost cheap writing this paragraph itself. Anyway, that’s why I’m posting a selfie from the majestic bathroom at the De Young. Many of the patrons in the museum tossed out words like ecstasy and rapture and magnificent, but the highlight of the show for me was the older couple who walked up to a blotty painting of a whaling ship and proclaimed, “Now look, isn’t this awful?” But as my museum date said, “You don’t get a lot of 100-work retrospectives of major artists in San Francisco, so it’s still worth seeing.”

Again and again I ask myself why if I have all this time now I’m not writing more, and I swear I spent less time online but maybe this is like recovery or something

at any rate, still looking for places, although not literally at any rate

I wrote a poem on Twitter about Walgreens.

I also posted a short Twitter essay with photos of the place in Bernal Heights I’m staying pre- and post-catsitting.

Like, news

A long time ago I submitted a poem to an anthology; it got accepted and then the editors announced they were seeking a publisher for the whole thing. This week, the editors let us know that the anthology has been picked up for publication by Kasva Press, an Israeli house that as near as I can tell from my googling is okay. Veils, Halos, and Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women will be out in April 2016, and unlike the new phone book, I’m in it.

 I’ll be bringing Displacement Blues, or something like it, to LitQuake this fall: “Unsettling. Six writers on Home: Finding it, loving it, leaving it, losing it.” Unsettling will be part of LitCrawl, in which the literary festival takes over anything resembling a venue in the Valencia corridor for a few hours, for hundreds of events over three time slots. I’ll be reading at the SF Buddhist Center on 37 Bartlett on October 17 at 8:30. This message will be repeated.

The best things I’ve read since last we spoke

I went to the library this week! I swore I wouldn’t do that, when I own so many unread books, but I had to go there for a Displacement Blues-related reason, and so I found myself roaming the stacks like a predator of books, and I came away with a few volumes:

  • Grace Paley, The Collected Stories—I reread this every few years, and I’m due

  • Mary Jo Bang, The Last Two Seconds (Poems)—Literally the only book of poetry on the New Books shelf at the Mission Branch, luckily by a poet I’ve wanted to read more by for a while

  • Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t—Perhaps my favorite living author, and the only reason I haven’t read this 2014 book yet is that I wasn’t reading books in 2014, c’est la guerre

  • Karin Fossum, The Murder of Harriet Krohn—Nordic crime fiction in an accomplished series featuring one Inspector Sejer

From the Tubes:

The Really Big One: The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle (The New Yorker) First off, this is what good science writing looks like: Gripping, carefully reported, and combining things we know with things we haven’t heard of. If you’re most of us, you haven’t heard of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an earthquake fault deeper and more precipitous than San Andreas by a long shot. No one knew anything about this fault 30 years ago; there hasn’t been an earthquake there since the year 1700, in which an earthquake along that fault caused tsunamis in both the Pacific Northwest and Japan. Kathryn Schulz shows us how historical and geographic records were combed to piece together what happened. According to such seemingly arcane methods as studying tree rings and core samples of the ocean floor, the Cascadia suffers a major earthquake roughly 243 years, but 1700 is 315 years ago. Earthquake prediction more than 30 seconds ahead of a seismic event is kind of like using the Farmer’s Almanac as your weather forecast, but the scientists seem to agree that we’re overdue for some seismic settlement:

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Therapist, Know Thyself (The Morning News) What happens when a marriage and family therapist gets divorced and has a midlife crisis? In Janeen McGuire Nelson’s case, she went from frump to goth, getting a nose ring and a tattoo, and the way she tells it, most of her ongoing patients barely noticed her transition from beige to black. A prospective patient, on the other hand, made the kind of prejudgment of  Nelson as she was doing about her daughter’s new boyfriend: Judging character based on fashion. Nelson tells us her response to this was inappropriate, and then shares some adventures in impropriety from herself and her friends. Her message is this: Therapists are human, and they make mistakes, and they have to live with these,

And if therapists are their true selves, how can therapy be crap?

Fifty Shades of Racism (Starhawk’s blog) and I, Racist (Those People/Medium) I’ve had the experience lately, mostly online, of trying to talk about structural racism and being informed, entirely by white men, that a) Black people don’t have it so bad and b) just talking about racism is divisive and pedagogical, and—check this out—the real racists are the people who want to talk about White privilege.

I, Racist, by John Metta, is the text of a sermon he gave to an all-white congregation in San Francisco. The subtitle is “Why I don’t talk about racism with White people,” because he has found, over and over, that White people want to educate him, a Black man, about what racism is and how it’s not a problem anymore—because it’s not a problem that White people encounter on a personal basis, if at all. The problem as he sees it is that White people, especially liberals, have their feelings hurt and turn the problem around on themselves in order to deny it—I’m not racist, you’re calling me racist, you’re the problem, it’s not a problem except that you’re making it one. Or, even more subtle, the White narrative is seen as “normal,” the standard to be aspired to, and mostly, people play along to get along. This is what makes talking about race a problem with people who think they’re right-minded, who believe that since they’re not actively calling people names or denying them jobs, the problem is solved and it’s a scab that shouldn’t be excavated. Read this post if you want to know what having conversations about race can feel like from a Black perspective. If you’re one of those White men I almost blocked on Facebook this week, take note: You do not know what it’s like to be Black, and denying that this is the lived experience of Black people in order to say #NotAllWhitePeople is proving the point of this essay.

When I was at Witchcamp, Starhawk, one of the founders of the Reclaiming Tradition of witchcraft and the author of many books about using spirituality as a foundation for working in groups, came to Witchcamp to lead a discussion about racism and White privilege and how we can be inclusive in predominately White spiritual and political communities without fetishizing or tokenizing people of color. Her most recent post on her (outstanding) blog is about how pretending that we’re colorblind is actually being blind to the concerns of people enduring structural racism. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the difference between someone operating on personal prejudice about their feelings about people of other races and the predominant paradigm in the culture at large of the incarceration, ostracization, and diminishment of people of color in America, particularly Black people. Or, as she puts it, in the most visceral sense, it’s the difference between a cop shooting a Black man and the cop getting away with it. Read this essay if you want a deep and thoughtful explanation from a White person about how White people benefit from structural racism—that fact is what seems to be the hardest for White people to accept.

Meet the On-Demand Workers who Say They’re Living The Sharing Economy Dream (Buzzfeed) So TaskRabbit is an app where you can hire a handyman or a housekeeper or someone with a truck to move a piece of furniture, and it’s like using Craigslist or other classified ads, except the people listed are all vetted, and you can pay through the app’s verified payment system. On the other hand, TaskRabbit takes 20 percent of what you think you’re paying the worker. That’s a pretty hefty percentage of your labor, but the young folk featured in this story by Caroline O’Donovan feel like they’ve got it pretty good, making enough to pay the rent in San Francisco between epic hiking trips, and having each other as fallbacks in case they can’t finish or make it to a gig. Would TaskRabbit be a sustainable lifestyle for people not on such a team, however? Last year, Valleywag wrote about how TaskRabbit went from a good gig where clients had a lot of leeway in choosing a Tasker to jut another app that puts workers bodies on the line for less pay and less choice. The future of freelance labor over employment with benefits is being hammered out in courts as we speak. It’s certainly changed the landscape of San Francisco.

Notes and Errata: In my fantasy last week of moving to this current housesit—based on a memory of a Thanksgiving party in like 2007—this place had a hot tub on the deck. It does not. ||| I mentioned my brother’s short zombie film, “Lawn of the Dead,” last week. None of the handful of movies that are now available online with the same title are that work of genius, though. It is not currently available online, although I have put in a maintenance request.


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