Displacement Blues: The Ghost Not Taken

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.

Sometimes like an ex-girlfriend I walk past my old building at 1084, staring at it from across the street. It’s not that I’m stalking my old life or my old landlord, or not exactly. I’m looking for signs of something, perhaps construction or rather demolition, and now and then I see an odd thing, a window that was open where it wasn’t before, and recently, a large high-backed chair sitting in the front window of the second floor flat, back up against the window like someone had been sitting there reading in the Eastern light.

I can’t swear the chair wasn’t there before, but when Josh & family moved out, they took everything. They took brass doorknobs and hinges, they took the fireplace mirror, they took a section of wall that had 37 years of height marks for all the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and cousins who had frequented the apartment over the years since their abuela, now in her eighties, had moved in there with her children. It’s a magical item. I would have taken it too.

What I didn’t take, what I kick myself for, is more pictures, is not documenting all the Victorian gingerbread, the cornices and picture rails, the plaster ceiling medallions above the hanging light fixtures, and most of all the pristine fireplaces with inlaid marble tile and mantlepieces with hand-rounded spokes that cry out the name of the tool—spokeshave!—in the form of Solomonic and Doric columns and sunbursts and ships’ wheels. The wood of the fireplace in the living room was ineptly painted several times, but the one in the front bedroom, Ramona’s old room, had if not the original finish then a painstaking restoration from long before she moved in in 1992. The wood glowed in the light.

I don’t know why I didn’t go camera crazy with the apartment like I did with its contents. First the rooms were piled with boxes, and then it seemed always to be night, and then it was time to go. I took dozens of pictures of the construction in the basement, the common areas down there piled high with garbage, and pictures of ephemera I unearthed in envelopes and pocketbooks while I was packing, but I didn’t shoot the unique and destructible beauty of the home itself. That is a regret.

A friend took some pictures, with empty shoeboxes still balanced on the fireplace mantle and shelf for easy retrieval while packing. She took them at night with an older digital camera, so they will be slightly out-of-focus. Perhaps that’s apt.

I still don’t know what I was thinking, not laying claim with pixels to the fixtures I publicly lamented the loss of, because Voldemort’s intentions were perfectly displayed in the already-rehabbed apartments next door, gutted to the studs and beyond. It’s a sin of omission I’ll live with and not forget, like other objects I still mourn the loss of to this day (my entire art major, basically, a box of photographs left behind at a bar; my first iPod, 16 gigs pocketed while I was moving out of rehab; a book written by a friend I left on a garbage can while waiting for a bus; an address book I left on a payphone at LAX with numbers I’ll never have again; an art book purloined by an ex for blackmail that ended up, with time, not working in his favor).

At any rate, Voldemort still hasn’t applied for the permits that would enable him to rip out the walls and floors and ceilings and fixtures and fireplaces and plumbing and sockets and mirrors. He’s losing $10,000 a month for each month he cannot rent my apartment, or $30,000/month for our side of the building, and the more he stalls construction, he more money he loses. Perhaps he’s reselling it, selling half a building while renting the other half. Perhaps the new crack-down of short-term rentals has him re-thinking his entire strategy, or has his sub-leasing company pulling out of the deal. 

If he does sell, maybe he’ll sell to a lover of Victoriana. Perhaps the next buyer will restore this stuff instead of paying day laborers the least they can get away with to knock it all down with sledgehammers. 

We, my friends and I, speculated frequently: Did Voldemort call Urban Ore or Discount Builders to come in and pry the other six fireplaces away with care to be preserved and reinstalled? Or were they smashed to pieces with the drywall and floorboards. We’ll never know. 

The contract that as far as I know I cannot discuss the terms of yet may or may not contain a provision that says I am not to cooperate with government agencies as regards the property in question. 

So if he were to be sneaking in contractors before dawn to smash away as much as they could fit in the bins that Recology takes out once a week? I wouldn’t know, and I couldn’t report it, but sometimes I am still drawn to walk by. Like an ex-lover or an orphaned child. I’m still attached. I hope the fireplaces are.

Gleaner’s Index: The Week in Numbers

Pounds of oatmeal I consume per week: 1/3

Gallons of coffee: 1.75

Cubic feet of half-and-half: 0.0334201

Metric tons of garlic (supplement): 1.54e-5


My height, in nautical miles: 0.000917927

My weight, in carats: 362,874

My age, in days: 15,645

In nanoseconds: 1.352e+18

Number of parsecs the light from a distant star has traveled through space, if the light left the star when I was born and continued uninterrupted through a vacuum: 12.9439930563062


Age of my grandmother, in years: 90

Age of my grandfather: 89 5/6

Number of children they raised: 8

Number still living: 7

Number of first cousins I have on this side of the family: I’ve lost count

Number I’m sure about: 17

First cousins, once removed, AKA my grandmother’s great-grandchildren: like, a lot


unnamed (1)

When I moved to San Francisco, there was a sign on top of the Thrift Town building that just said “17 Reasons.” (It’s since been taken down and replaced by a normal, boring billboard.) The sign used to say “17 Reasons Why.” This, here, is the Why, in all its glory. It’s being “stored” in the yard of my current hosts. I find it comforting. The Y in WHY is full of pigeons. They roost there. My hosts seem to have stopped trying to shoo them; the letters keep filling up with birds.


I seem to have tweeted about nothing but mosquitos all week: About waking up in the middle of the night with my hand on fire and having to ice it, for instance. About not being able to fall asleep because they’re dive-bombing my head. About the decision whether to leave the doors open for the weather or closed against the skeeters. People have two attitudes about mosquitos in San Francisco: They either commiserate with how vicious and voracious the blood-suckers are, or they don’t believe you when you say you got bit even once, much less constantly. Why are mosquitos a thing people “believe in,” like ghosts? I remember my ex shaking his head and trying to tell me I wasn’t getting bitten, or was getting bitten by something else, or was developing a rash one hive at a time, as if I had never seen a mosquito before and had no way of judging what it was that was biting me. I became really good at catching mosquitos with my bare hands, snatching them out of the air and walking back into my bedroom with a tiny corpse in my hand. Habeas corpus, motherfucker. Here is the mosquito you requested.

advice for men (I always have some):

Selfie of the Week

unnamed (2)

Sometimes you you take a selfie and you need a haircut and all your hair looks gray in the light—it’s not that gray yet!—and your skin looks weird, maybe you’re tired, but your eye makeup is good and your eyebrows are powerful, so you pick the least beleaguered-looking of the three you took to make sure one came out okay, because you’ve been taking selfies since 2002 and you know that the key to why you have so many good one is you keep shooting until you’re fabulous, and you dick around with the light settings in the Photos app, of which there are more than there were in iPhoto even though a couple key ones are gone forever, and anyway your selfie looks overprocessed but pretty much expresses everything about the week you had.

Things typed

Finished the draft of the children’s story I’ve been working on. It’s good!  I also did a lot of nothing. It’s bad! Actually, it’s fine. I feel like I wrote a whole lot, but that was probably twitter. I investigated some apartment situations. Nothing came of anything yet. But I got plenty of advice about things. In completely unrelated news, I travel unarmed at all times.


The best things I’ve read since last we spoke

I finished the book! Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a novel by Ben Fountain published in 2012, and I bought it on the recommendation of Paul LaFarge, who also recommended The Dog Stars, which, if you like post-apocalyptic books, run don’t walk. Anyway, Billy Lynn is the kind of book I may not have picked up on my own, because it’s a novel about dudes and war and football and money. But on the other hand, at least three of my favorite books—Slaughterhouse-Five, Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22—are also nominally war novels. Billy Lynn takes place not in the fog of war but in an interim period of leave for the men of Bravo Company, the nickname for a regiment that accomplished an act of bravery and savagery in the Iraq War sometime in the early 2000s that was so singular and heroic that these young men and their Sergeant are dispatched on a victory tour of the US, a non-stop meet-and-greet that both exhilarates and exhausts the soldiers. The action occurs on Thanksgiving Day, mostly in Texas Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys until 2009. The voice of the book initially seems to be a sort of collective third-person interior monologue, until the voice distills into that of Billy, the main character, and it took me a chapter or two before I bought that this expansive and far-wandering introspection would belong to a largely uneducated 19-year-old private. But after a while, the voice seemed to me both perfect and inevitable: Of course these are Billy’s thoughts; he’s earned them. The movie version of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is due out next year, directed by Ang Lee and featuring a cast of largely unknown actors, aside from The Rock, who will be playing the role of a sort of wise man who died in conflict. I recommend reading the book now, so you can be detached enough from it to watch the movie without bitching about how it doesn’t live up to the book. I think the movie will be amazing, but the book is so completely about one guy’s interior experience that it’ll be a different document altogether. And of course, the irony of this is that one of the threads that snakes through the book is the possibility of a movie being made about Bravo Company’s heroics, and Billy’s in particular. Expect skewering.


The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning (New York Times) Claudia Rankine wrote what I say without qualification is the most important book of poetry to be published in my lifetime: Citizen: An American Lyric. It’s an extended meditation on how blackness makes an individual both utterly invisible and completely unable to blend in to white America, how a black person can be overlooked in line at the drugstore but become an intrusive menace in the front yard of the house next door. Rankine’s new essay in the New York Times is about the lives and deaths of African-Americans, how a literal habeas corpus has been necessary for black deaths to be counted, from Emmett Till to Eric Garner. The Black Lives Matter movement formed in part because Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for so long: Incontrovertible evidence of a murder people still claimed could not have been committed, on view for hours like strange fruit, just out of reach of his mother.

“The unarmed, slain black bodies in public spaces turn grief into our everyday feeling that something is wrong everywhere and all the time, even if locally things appear normal.”

Snapshots from the Other California (Bitter Empire) Kaleb Horton is one of those confounding online presences that I only would have encountered through Twitter, so if you haven’t yet been introduced, today is your lucky day. I first encountered him as the author of what one might call a post-apocalyptic parody of Dilbert called “The Liars Are Coming,” except it wasn’t so much funny as fearsome. Scott Adams didn’t like it! So I cannot link you to an archive of this. Kaleb Horton popped up again when he fooled some conservative bloggers with a Thorstein Veblen quote that he attributed to Lena Dunham and when he posted a supposed screenshot of the erstwhile Facebook-killing app, Ello. (That’s the post that made me finally follow him.) And that’s not to mention his sort of gonzo TV and movie criticism that appears on Bitter Empire, which also published this photo essay about the part of California that really is the American West, the land around Bakersfield and ____ that time forgot somewhere between the 1950s and last week. You might swear these are photos of the original Route 66, if civilization had fallen around 1962. Maybe it did. The writing and the photos echo each other’s waywardness. The web is for stuff like this.

“California is a myth. People write songs about it the way people used to write songs about John Henry.”

Bloody Hell: Does Religion Punish Women for Menstruating? (Vice) [CW: This is Vice, so a couple of the photographs are sensationalistic, meaning in this case they feature artistic use of blood. Nothing too out of line, unless you’re squeamish, but I could see otherwise reasonable people taking offense.] Beenish Ahmed starts out with a premise I was unaware of: Women are excused from fasting during Ramadan if they are menstruating. Her question is: Is this a prohibition or a balm? Were women seen to be too unclean to participate in a holy rite, or was the idea that they were under enough physical strain already and they should take care of themselves and their bodies by continuing to eat while they bled? Ahmed looks at the ancient dictates about menstruating women in several religions, and asks the same question: Are these sanctions or sanctions?

“Talking about menstruation like the normal, healthy, and even miraculous thing that it is might help separate it from the shame it’s come to bear.”

Wikibooks: Cookbook (Wikimedia Project) Yes, Wikipedia has a cookbook, and I am excited about it. In a world where you can google the name of any dish, or any two ingredients, and get a recipe, why is this big news? Because most recipe databases and cookbooks, no matter how user-friendly, only go so far in instructing the novice cook. Your standard paper cookbook probably has a preface to each section where they discuss more or less advanced methods, and the nuances of using this ingredient over that, and these are sections meant to be read before you try out the recipes, not when you’re hungry and already have the onions chopped. I’m not sure whether kids still get home-ec in middle school, but I do know that a lot of kids don’t have the privilege of growing up with a mother who has a bachelor of science in home ec, like my mom does. I learned a lot of what I know about mass and volume in terms of the way you measure flour for this recipe vs. that one, and if you see “level teaspoon” or “fluid ounce” in a recipe in the Wikibooks Cookbook, you can click it and find out what it is the recipe’s author wants you to do. I found this cookbook because I googled “shortbread,” because I wanted to know what kind of shortening goes in it, and whether shortening just means vegetable shortening, and whether all of the latter is a trans fat now; the answers are “usually butter or Crisco,” “no,” and “no,” and the word “shortening” may come from shortbread itself. I also looked up gingerbread to see an example recipe and was delighted that you could click such things as “medium difficulty” and “oven temperatures,” not to mention “ginger” and “eggs.” Anyway, the site is of course still in progress and still filling up its recipe boxes with cuisines from around the world. (And it started in 2004, so why have I not run across mention of it until now? Maybe I don’t google food often enough.)

32 Special Feelings, Ranked (The Hairpin) Alexandra Moloktow, you are a genius. This is a silly list and I’ve read it like five times. It’s ephemeral poetry but poetry nonetheless. (I hate to say it, but these special feelings may not all be relatable if you’re not a young city-dwelling woman who likes sex.)

This Week, a Testimonial

“I’m pretty sure Displacement Blues is the only email newsletter-type-thing I get that I actually read.”

— Matthew Towers, brother of the author

Notes and Errata: I changed my Twitter display name away from “Boho Hobo” even though it is PERFECT because unfortunately I kept getting followed by accounts thinking I was their target market for “boho” clothing, which is short for “lace and hippy crap and whatever we can appropriate from like, ethnic cultures without being too blatant about it.” Coachella, in other words. I’m not convinced by the new name but I’m not seeking advice about it, so. If you have an opinion, though, I like reasoned opinions that don’t assume things about my intelligence, life experience, or ability to google things. I almost apologized just now for returning to this topic, but being without a home and having people tell you what to do gets overwhelming after a while. EVERYONE MEANS WELL, SO MUCH. If you want to tell people what to do, writing is a great way to do that. If I may vent for one more sentence: I’m almost 43 years old and I have literally written books about how to Internet, so take my advice: Ask someone if they want advice before you pile on, because maybe the person just wants to file a bug report, not have you fix their ticket.



You may also like...