Streets of San Francisco: A Personal Geography
Issue #17, November 1994
Case in Point
In the late '80's, I go up to North Beach with a bunch of Berkeley students. They all think it's hip to play Bohemian and go to Vesuvio's, Spec's, City Lights, etc. None of these people are from San Francisco, but they all love North Beach. It's funny. I grew up here. Lived on the very streets on which my friends are walking now, and I didn't even know Vesuvio's or any of the other landmark hotbeds of Beatnik 'splendor' existed. I must have walked by City Lights hundreds of times. It meant nothing to me. Just a building I passed on the street. No Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg here. No candle lit Bohemian romance.
My friends are sitting in Vesuvio's drinking dark beer and talking Leftist politics. I go out and stand on the street. At this point, the only Left I know is what is 'left' of me — smear on the wall or stain on the mattress in one of those hotel rooms on Broadway. I am crying real tears while the people upstairs order another round of drinks. My friend comes out and asks me what's wrong. 'Do you know what these streets mean to me?' I ask. Nevermind.
Once upon a time...
Because I was born in San Francisco and have spent almost my entire 32 year life in San Francisco and the Bay Area, you'd think that this is where I'd feel most comfortable, most at home. Right? This is where I'd feel most like 'me' and be the most grounded. Right? Wrong. My life here has been as broken as the landscape. Like the remnants of the 'big quake,' I am constantly stumbling over the detours, road blocks, gaping holes, and general debris of my personal 'earthquakes' that litter my psyche, history, my relation to the geography of the Bay Area. Many of the 'rifts' are the usual ones for kids from my generation — broken home, split identity between parents/step-parents, drugs, etc. But I'm not writing my autobiography here. I'm mapping myself or attempting to show you how my 'self' is mapped on the streets of San Francisco.
But mapping my life with its never ending string of melodrama is, at best, an impossible task, yet alone containing it in the limited space of this article. So let's just look through one window and see where it takes us. There was one 'fracture' in my life that maybe wasn't so normal. At fifteen, I ran away from home to spend my teenage years on the streets of San Francisco in the drug infested sex industry of the mid-late '70's. I split myself from my family entirely, just kind of disappeared into the streets. I took on an entire new identity, changed my name, and became invisible. My high-school years are not documented in any yearbook, no class picture to remember 'myself' with. My first job wasn't at McDonald's with its assembly line of burgers and fries; it was at the Condor with Carol Doda and her line of tits and legs. I didn't go to high-school and learn Shakespeare and algebra; I went to the Tenderloin and learned to sell my smooth teen ass and shoot dope. I would walk the streets back then and think, 'If I get arrested or killed, no one will know who I really I am. No one will save me. No one will go to my funeral.' Kim Nicolini no longer existed. Now I'm trying to revive her.
Flash, Flicker, Stop
I fled San Francisco in 1978 and returned in 1982 as a 'new' person, ready to begin a 'new' life. But there's no such thing as a new life; the old one is always right around the corner. The minute I stepped back onto the old streets, I felt the split; I still do. It's like I'm watching myself on a mental screen, some internal 'replay' mechanism. Each neighborhood, each street, contains a different slice of me, fragments scattered all over the place. I cannot stand on many corners without being two places at once. One of me, 3-D, experiencing the place in the present, the other, 2-D, parading across the film clip in my head of the past. To this day, when I am on certain streets, I feel the pull, myself separating from myself, from the people I am with, from the here and now.
In the mid-1980's, me and my current 'love' are on our way to see the Psychedelic Furs at the Warfield. Somehow we end up on the corner of Leavenworth and Eddy, and I am no longer with my lover. I'm somewhere/some 'time' else. We're waiting for the light to change, and I'm looking in the gutter: just a bunch of shit — food wrappers, condoms, cigarette butts. But I see something else — a shoe heel. 'I lost my shoe heel in that gutter,' I say. 'Running from a trick I robbed with a knife. You know, it was one of those moments when I just couldn't take it anymore.' It was either fuck him for the money, run out without the money, or rob him. I took the money and ran. I remember the snap of my heel as I jumped into the cab crying, 'Fuck! I broke my shoe.' What I really meant was, 'I'm breaking myself. Do you have any glue?'
And this is how I experience the landscape I occupy. 'Me now' floating somewhere between 'me then' and always out of reach from 'them now' — the people who share this landscape with me. It's like geographically we are tied — we are both standing on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth — but our individual experiences of that geography are worlds apart. We're caught in different dimensions that can never really intersect.
Teach an Old Dog
I have spent the last twelve years trying to put myself back together, 'map' my parts into a coherent whole. I've gone to college, taught teenage runaways and addicts how to paint and write, so they can deal with their lives. I've tried to deal with mine. I've written myself into poems, performed myself on stage, painted myself on canvas. I'm trying to rebuild myself now, as I write this piece. I lay this portion here, that fragment there, assemble it and present it to the public. They applaud their approval or gasp their shock in voyeuristic satisfaction. But when it's over, they get to leave. When it's over, you get to leave. I cart the parts home and try to rebuild me, again.
As I write this article, one of my biggest paintings stares me in the face — 'Puzzle Dot' — multiple 'me's' hobbling through a paint and collage landscape caught up in all this self-historical debris and personal detritus. One of me walks through the street, bleeding, naked, surrounded by the 'film' monsters I grew up with — Bride of Frankenstein, Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Freaks, and more. Another jumps out of the canvas — stark, distorted doll roughly pieced together, tacked and glued, arms like little sticks, torso and tits much too large for the containing frame. O-Mouthed and aghast. Still others stare blankly back at me, empty and mirror eyed, or hang loosely strung together, a series of rough-cut paper dolls. The whole thing is a mess, loose puzzle pieces looking for a coherent geography.
But you can't see my art, and I'm not writing a poem, so maybe you can understand better if I draw you a map. Let's say you're on a bus, touring the Wonderful World of 'Kim's San Francisco' — my life in the City reduced to a system of signs. It would look something like this:
GENEVA & ATHENS — Before: Where I lived with Grandma & brother Kevin who shot all Grandma's money up his arms in heroin. After: A place I drive by on my way to do social outreach to kids living in Visitacion Valley housing projects.
MISSION & 24TH — Before: Tattoo City — where I disappeared to when days got real bad at Grandma's and started the painful process of really mapping my body with roses, crosses, etc. After: Cool store with gaudy Catholic memorabilia I can use for collages. (i.e. winking Virgin Mary decal)
16TH & MARKET — Before: Lived with midget Chi Chi until he died of overdose in bed next to me. After: The Castro — great movies, good books, shop 'til you drop.
MISSION DISTRICT — Before: Lived from apartment to apartment, music studio to music studio, anywhere I could have a bed to sleep in for the small price of sex and pretending I enjoyed it. After: Where to go for multi-cultural food and politically aware books.
BROADWAY & KEARNY — First job as cocktail waitress at Condor, quick regression from barker to dancer to junkie to whore. After: Good books, good pasta, good pastries, and damn good coffee.
THE TENDERLOIN — Before: Where I hit the streets — was pimped, prostituted, robbed, raped, etc. After: A neighborhood I walk through on my way to concerts at the Warfield.
FRANKLIN & EDDY — Before: The short but hard 'jet set' life as call girl for Mafia ring leader. Final chapter before departing S.F. After: Somewhere I drive by on my way to somewhere else.
One thing worth noting about this 'map' is that the 'after' constructions are primarily defined by consumer interests. I guess that's what happens when you become 'legit.' You move from the realm of the 'consumed' (by drugs, violence, the sex industry, yourself, etc.) to the realm of the 'consumer' where you get to purchase your identity. The other distinction worth mentioning is that, for the most part, I didn't even know the 'afters' existed when I was living in the 'befores.' I mean, going out for Salvadoran food or browsing for anthologies of Marxist film theory had nothing to do with my life on the streets of the Mission in 1977.
Terribly Melodramatic, Don't You Think?
When my friend asked my what was wrong back at Vesuvio's in 1989, maybe I should have told him what I was seeing when I looked out onto Broadway that night or any night: The flicker of 25 cent porn. Bodies of junkies piled on a single mattress. Eating french fries at Coffee Ron's at 3 a.m. waiting for the rain to stop. Dancing naked in a glass booth while an invisible stranger jerks off. The warm dark brown of a fresh fix. The dry fingers of my first trick. And the list goes on.
But my friend probably wouldn't have understood, would have thought I was describing some overblown, over-the-top, tawdry 70's movie. He would have been right. That's me — a bunch of melodramatic film strips poorly thrown together and flickering as I walk the streets of SF. While in college, I once applied for a poetry class with a famous & prestigious white male poet, but didn't get in. When I asked why, he retorted, 'Terribly melodramatic don't you think. Unless, of course, you lived that way.' His utter sarcasm and disdain shut out any possibility of a reply. I couldn't say, 'Well yes, as a matter of fact, I have' because to him that realm of existence simply wasn't a possibility. And if it was, it had no place in academia.
So now I'm trying again. Editing myself, piecing myself together for you. Moving the parts to present the proper picture. That's the joy of mapping myself. I decide how you perceive me. Like in Wayne's World, will I give you the 'Scooby Doo' ending or the 'Scabby Doom' ending? I choose. Whatever the ending is, however, I can tell you this. As I write the final words of this article, I feel more chunks of myself slipping into place, connecting the three 'me's' — the 'me then,' the 'me now,' and the 'me caught between then and now.' I feel myself moving a little closer to myself.
But what does this have to do with academia, 'political education for everyday life'? Well, I guess we all need to look at the streets differently, see what's flickering below the surface. People really do live this way. Take this map with you when you go to San Francisco. Next time you're on Broadway or in the Tenderloin, look at those girls outside the clubs, the girls walking the streets. How old do you think they are? What will they be doing when they're thirty-two? Maybe they'll be writing an article about their personal geography for some university 'zine. Maybe they'll be dead.
A native San Franciscan, Kim Nicolini is a poet and artist. She has self-published five books of poetry — Black Drum, Dirt, Bad, In My Mouth, and Hard. She would love to hear from you