Displacement Blues: Who Wants to Be a Capitalist

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 starting this week. (Future installations of “Displacement Blues” will run on Wednesdays.) 

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.

Advice! I get a lot of advice about my situation: About how to move and what to keep; about how to pack; about how to fight my eviction; about how to negotiate with my landlord; about how to negotiate the piranha-infested waters of the San Francisco rental market. I became an expert at all of these things over the last year-plus, and generally I’d listen and thank the person, although anyone on any of my Facebook threads who said something like “Do you have a lawyer?” or “You should really try talking to your landlord” got a bit of a talking-to. I ended some of my posts about my apartment drama with something like “I’m seeking support, not advice.”

One post, I ended with “The first person to tell me to check Craigslist for apartment listings is getting blocked and reported for spam.”

Because, no shit, someone suggested that at some point when I wasn’t even looking yet, but if I know one thing about the San Francisco rental market, it is this: I will not find my next place on Craigslist.

I know less about apartment hunting than I do about tenant law or how to pack a box, because I have never had to hunt for an apartment. The apartments I’ve lived in, I’ve found as follows:

  1. Called an acquaintance and asked her if she’d rent me her attic
  2. Got invited by acquaintances to be a third roommate in a new apartment
  3. Looked at the want-ads with a friend and moved into the second apartment we looked at
  4. Accepted a spontaneous invitation to house-sit for several months
  5. Called my old building manager and asked if there were any vacancies
  6. Moved across the hall
  7. Found a vacancy sign next door to the laundromat I frequented
  8. Applied to an agency for a halfway house
  9. Had a friend call me and say a mutual friend was subletting
  10. Had a friend call me and say a room was opening in her house

Everyone is well-meaning. Everyone wants me to be okay. I appreciate that. What I’m not as much of a fan of is spontaneous life coaching. That usually manifests as one of the following:

  • A disquisition on why Oakland, Berkeley, Portland, Vallejo, LA, Baltimore, or Queens is the next place I should live
  • A rant about how San Francisco is “over,” which turns into a lament because the speaker doesn’t want to live anywhere else, either
  • Puzzlement about why I don’t want to pay $1,000 to rent a room, followed by exhortations to make more money (and subsequent unsolicited career counseling).

That last is the advice that kind of kills me inside: Yes, I could really, truly, and probably easily land a job that made me enough money to afford the rent that these bastards are charging now. But that would involve the following compromises:

  • I’d give up the amazing privilege of making ends meet in a way that allows me to spend most of my time on art and activism instead of chasing dollars
  • I’d have to either rearrange my ideals or hate my life
  • I’d contribute even more heartily to gentrification by paying market rate when that is not what the market should bear
  • I’d still be paying a thousand dollars a month for an apartment instead of doing something meaningful, worthwhile, exciting or prudent with that thousand dollars


I have learned, and do take note of this for yourself, dear readers: It is perfectly okay to interrupt someone and say, “I’m not actually looking for advice on that right now, but I appreciate your concern, I really do.”  I have written an advice column on Facebook for my friends, Free Advice Tuesday, most weeks since March 2009; I’m good at giving advice, and not springing forth with stuff I know, as an inveterate know-it-all, is sometimes difficult, but I’ve learned, mostly, to refrain or at least to ask if people want my help.

(If you hear yourself described in the above, please know that I know that what you want is for me to be okay, that you want the best for me, but I’m also pretty good at asking for help, I’ve discovered. Your expertise is noted and appreciated. Unless you’re giving me half-assed, incorrect advice about rent control. In future, in general, if you hear sentences that start with “I’ve been successfully fighting off eviction for a year now” you could consider that the speaker probably knows more about the subject than you do.)

My unsolicited advice to you: Preface your unsolicited advice with sympathy and acknowledgement, and then ask if the person is interested in advice.

What I have appreciated greatly, even though none of them have so far panned out, is leads on places, lots of leads, even expensive places, even far-away places, because I know that this is how my next place will come to me. It’s how nearly all my places have come to me: Word-of-mouth, AKA the grapevine, AKA my friends are looking out for me.

So, an update on that: Early next week I’m looking at two very different places, both at prices I can afford, both of which would allow me to keep most if not all of my stuff. They have cons, however, as every place does in this market. I’ll report back here next week. It may be an exciting report.

San Francisco Things

I posted last week about wanting to take advantage of living in San Francisco, since I still do. I spent one of my weekends sitting around in my bathrobe and had to twist my own arm to leave the house. It is the case that my community is one of the main reasons why I want to live here, rather than another town, but part of that community is built around the art and culture that I moved here for 20 years ago. So I thought I’d list some reasons I’ve found to leave the house the last couple weeks, so that I can remind myself when I’m feeling cynical that I do still have reasons to be here instead of in a trailer park on the side of a freeway somewhere.

The This is What I Want Festival at Counterpulse: People naked and partly so telling truth about desire and failure (I really did laugh and cry, but I can’t compare it to Cats because I haven’t seen Cats. I did, however, take the bait and tell a miniature story on stage about orgasms and longing.)

We Be Sushi with beloved local comedian Lisa Geduldig: I love being taken out to dinner! But to have such an invite arrive fortuitously from a person I admire because of a Facebook post was a welcome intervention, and fun to boot. Also? We Be Sushi has improved enormously since the last time I ate there, in 1996 or so, and their prices are still pretty good.

The Mountain Goats at the Great American Music Hall: I know why John Darnielle has such a cult following now. I do not know why people would pay $30 to see a show with a lot of quiet songs by a person people like for his lyrics and his storytelling and then sit at the bar talking over the concert the whole time.

Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant with Chris LaMay-West, in town from Vermont, and friends: Somehow, in all my years here, I had never visited Tommy’s, the old-school, sit-down Mexican place that brags about inventing the 2-oz pour Margarita, among other things. Their guacamole is divine and their flan will make you feel okay with dying after dinner. (I mean, don’t die, but your life will feel complete.)

Judy Blume in Conversation with Molly Ringwald at the Castro Theater: Everyone talks about how Judy Blume made them feel better about menstruation, or their parents’ divorce, or religion, but the book I remember the most clearly is “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t,” because it was the book about boys and explained the mechanics of male puberty in a way that almost made boys seem human. Molly Ringwald was the princess in most of the movies she was in, but she was still an iconic fixture of my teenaged years. Also? Her own novel is pretty good. You can listen to a podcast of their conversation!

Gleaner’s Index: The Week in Numbers

Year Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant was founded: 1965

Varieties of tequila Tommy’s pours: 311

Number of dinner guests in our party the other night: 9

Total bill, pre-tip: $159

Number of restaurant’s called Tommy’s on Geary Blvd in San Francisco: 2

Number of guests who ate at Tommy’s Joynt instead of Tommy’s Mexican: 4

Year Tommy’s Joynt was founded: 1947

Year in which I last had an alcoholic drink: 2005

Variety of bottled beer available: 60


Number of people at the sold-out Judy Blume appearance at the Castro: 1,400

Number of minutes the organizers spent asking for additional money: 10

Number of men who sat in the front row of the balcony, leaning forward, wearing a fedora, both caricaturing themselves and blocking the view of everyone behind them: 1

Cost per ticket: $30

Number of men in the audience: Less than 1 percent

Age at which Judy Blume got her first period: 16

Age at which Molly Ringwold did: 14

Age at which I did: 12

Age at which at least three of my friends in elementary school did: 10

Fruits of our labor


I’ve been returning to my favorite place in all of San Francisco, finally: The Heart of the City farmers market, every Wednesday and Sunday (and Friday morning) at the Civic Center Plaza. I used to go every week or two, stocking up on produce and eggs, and splurging on scallops or fish or fancy cheese, at prices much lower than either the grocery store or any of the other farmers markets around town. Stone fruit in the Bay Area is screaming with life and juice right now, and you can buy peaches of five varieties, nectarines, apricots, plums, pluots, cherries of all kinds, and eat them until you are covered in juice and weeping with joy. It was raining last Wednesday until shortly before this picture was taken, blessedly raining, and it was humid for sure under the canopies of the farm stands, and I would have chosen a different shot than the one of this worker wiping her brow, except in the next shot, her coworker was doing the same thing.


For the rest of the month, I’m in my favorite house-sitting spot. I’ve stayed here many times over the years taking care of this beautiful home, with and without cats to tend to, and so has Mr. Bunny. One of my clients/hosts/friends just celebrated a birthday, so the house was full of fresh flowers. Here is Mr. Bunny relaxing in the dining room, poet- like under a brilliance of lilies that he swore was a shade tree.

advice for men (I always have some):

Selfie of the Week: Snap out of it, you say


This picture is one of my first I took with Snapchat, back on April 1. This is in my old place on South Van Ness, in the period when we were waiting for our lawyer and Voldemort to produce an actual contract we could sign. It had become clear we wouldn’t be able to stay in our home, but we had no firm move-out date and no real confidence that anything would ever happen other than pervasive, constricting uncertainty creeping through our lives like English ivy and staying put. I’m posting this here to remind myself that that part is over, that that waiting and fretting over, that that depression and immobility are over and I’m actually by comparison moving as close to the speed of light as I can. I may have spent the last weekend of may in my bathrobe, but at least I got out of bed, and I’m doing pretty well for someone without a place to hang my hat.

Fingers on the buttons

I know you know how: A lot of mobile devices have an optional autocomplete feature where if you start typing a word, it will suggest the word you mean to type. This works with entire sentences, entire texts or tweets, entire poems if you take it far enough. While I was drafting this autocomplete poem on Twitter, two different people checked in to see if I was okay because what i was writing was colder and less sensical than usual. Anyway, here it is. I may add rules to the process, along the lines of Oulipo, and see if I can turn these into actual poems instead of just unsettling amusements.

The best things I’ve read since last we spoke

Paper: Just some issues of the New Yorker. Still haven’t retrieved my book from two house-sits ago.

Hotel Melancholia (aeon) Writer Suzanne Joinson spent a decade in a job that required near-constant travel, and for most of that period, starting in her 20s, she found the work and the travel and the hotels exciting, and the work of adapting to moving around so much to be part of what was building her character. Living out of suitcases and acclimating to new environs was exciting, worldly, until the day she—fleetingly, at first—felt completely unmoored. Joinson is struck by the surreality of her life in part because when she intends to bring things from home on her trips to feel tethered to a sense of place, she believes she has nothing that qualifies, other than books. This experience serves as a launching point for an essay about the women of the surrealist movement (and other artists and writers, such as Elizabeth Bishop) and the insanity that was so seductive for them and their male partners.

Why I’m finally convinced it’s time to stop saying “you guys” (Vox) A number of arguments can be made for not addressing a mixed-gender group as “you guys,” chief among them the idea that one is erasing women-as-equals from the room in the same way that using “he” and “man” as generics erase women, especially from categories such as science and writing. Think of a sentence such as “A writer should sharpen his pencils” and consider the work it asks a young female writer to do: Accept the fact that most (published) writers are male, and/or sit with the unease of being excluded from the category of “writer.” The author of this article, Jenee Desmond-harris, had until recently been okay with the grammatical generic of “you guys,” as it’s informal and generally is said without any harm or diminishment meant on the part of the speaker, but she discovers that not only does it feel more welcoming and inclusive to not say it, but that it’s an easy habit to change. Unfortunately, this article omits completely another central reason I try to use “you guys” less often: It necessarily misgenders any trans women in the crowd, takes their sometimes perpetual request to be accepted as women, and throws it out the window.

The Agency (NYT Magazine) A while ago, I read some articles about a plague of angry Russian commenters were infiltrating the comment sections of web sites ranging from The Huffington Post to FOX News, posting anti-US government and pro-Putin provocations, writing in poor English but purporting to be regular American readers. People speculated about there being an organized, paid group of trolls, but in this story, Adrian Chen unearths an entire Russian government-funded troll army, an collection of secretive agencies some people refer to as “troll farms.” They’ve branched out from simply posting inflammatory messages at home and abroad to concocting fake disasters and police incidents on Twitter, posting photos, retweeting each other, and even texting local residents to try to alarm them about toxic events. This is a story about reporting as much as it is about the trolls themselves, and Chen’s experience as, finally, a target of the trolls is chilling.

How a Fake Viral News Story Ruined Three People’s Lives (Buzzfeed) A hobbyist photographer who enjoyed documenting his remote Polish city happened to witness the aftermath of an accident one morning. Luckily no one was gravely injured in the accident itself, which involved a horse and an icy road. The same cannot be said for the reputations of both the photographer and the couple involved in the accident, for his pictures were picked up by the sleazy (but mainstream) British tabloid press and spread throughout the world without further fact-checking or attempt to contact the people involved. The paper gave a shrug and a correction, but the three Polish folks are still reeling from the aftermath.

Everything You Thought You Knew About Love Is Wrong, or Love, Online Dating, Modern Romance and the Internet (Time) Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari has written a well-researched and thoughtful book about modern love, and it’s both funny and humane about a topic that sometimes feels like neither for people who are convinced they’re unlucky in love. He starts with the idea that his parents’ arranged marriage really might not be that different than finding a match online using an app, and continues this line of thought around Tinder. Why is getting just a glimpse of a nearby person online that different from getting just a glimpse of a nearby person across the room? He considers whether people are too picky, too shallow, too pessimistic, or too optimistic, and his voice throughout is compassionate and curious.

Notes and ErrataLast week I wrote about Ferris Bueller and how I quoted him in a speech once. I did not realize that the date of last week’s newsletter was in fact the 30th anniversary of “Ferris Bueller Day,” June 5,1985 being the day an intrepid baseball reporter decided must be the day of the Cubs-Braves game pictured in the movie (which didn’t come out until 1986, adding a much-needed time-travel element to our hero’s quest). On the other hand, there’s also a parade in the movie that takes place in September, which is not quite right for a plot about being almost graduated from high school. Over at Tribune Publishing, however, two different cranks think we should not celebrate anything about Ferris Bueller, since he’s a spoiled kid who hardly “deserves” a day off. One calls him depraved for having his own bedroom; the other calls Chicago’s current celebration of its “universally beloved” antihero “revisionist history” and lists choice bits from all the bad reviews—none of which as far as I can tell, were written by teenagers, and one of which was written by David Denby, for crying out loud. You know, I’m all for lining up an adult Ferris against the wall with the other hoarders of capital, but teenage Ferris was a hero of mine when I was working at the Amish deli and counting the days until graduation.

In Conclusion

My advice to you this week is to share this newsletter with one of your friends who likes or dislikes giving or receiving advice.

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