The Gentrification Rag

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Even as I was becoming a native of the Mission, in the winter of 1993–94, the Mission was changing, in part because so many people like me had moved there, but also because our presence in the neighborhood was a signal to other people, unlike me, I thought, back then, that it was safe to move in. They came from the Marina, from Pacific Heights, from Redwood City and Palo Alto and Menlo Park, from Burlingame, they came from El Cerrito and Chicago and Texas and New York. They drove up the rent and the price of shoes; they occupied all the tables at the junkie breakfast restaurant, which served eggs Benedict now, and not to junkies, the lights were turned up too bright for them, and the manager put a lock on the bathroom door and gave the key only to paying customers.

Money came to the Mission, leading women in high heels down Sixteenth Street on Saturday night. Money parked its car in the middle of Valencia Street and didn’t care if it got a ticket, there was nowhere else to park, even the garages were full. You might as well live in New York, money grumbled. Money waited for a cab, but all the cabs were taken. Money went into the new Temple of Faith Bar on Mission Street, which had replaced the old Templo de la Fé church in the same location, but preserved the mural on the rear wall, of Jesus reaching down from the clouds as though to pluck a bottle of pepper-infused vodka from the top shelf of the bar. Money came out at two in the morning and eyed the donut restaurant across the street, with a big sign over the counter expressly prohibiting the sale of stolen goods on the premises. Money wanted a donut but was afraid to go in. Money had intense conversations just below my window. I don’t want to go home with you, money said to money, I don’t care about your business model, just get me a cab; but the cabs were still scarce, and in the end money said, OK, but please don’t put the top down, it’s cold.

Money was coming, like the wave in the postcard my grandfather sent me each year, threatening to drown us. Overnight my friends sloughed off their part-time jobs and like wastrel princes ascending to the monarchy they became professionals. Josh worked for a construction company, filing plans in AutoCAD; Erin got a job at a Web startup which proffered folk remedies to people who couldn’t afford health insurance. In six months she went from half-time to full-time, from full-time to management, where she made a tacit policy of hiring only Wiccans. Even my housemate Victor, the medieval historian, started a company called MySky with some friends from Stanford. He wasn’t allowed to tell us what MySky did, but it carried him off six days a week at seven a.m. and returned him late at night, looking furious and pinched. A couple of years later I’d see billboards for MySky on Highway 101; I’d read about it in the Chronicle, in the Times, and I’d realize, with a kind of shock, that this was Victor’s company, that it belonged in part to the person who had lectured me about the hermeneutics of Saint Thomas Aquinas at our kitchen table. By then Victor was long gone from the apartment on Sixteenth Street. First he moved to Palo Alto; later, I heard, he bought a house in Sausalito, high on a bluff overlooking the bay.

By the middle of 1996 it seemed as if Alex I were the last people in the Mission not employed by the New Economy, and Alex was increasingly caught up in the purposiveness of academia. He flew off to conferences, proposed panels, worked on Stanford Historical Notes. I had passed my oral exams, but still hadn’t found a topic for my dissertation. In fact, I was coming to the depressing conclusion that nothing about nineteenth-century America excited me, apart from a few subjects which had been done to death. I told everyone I was working, but really I was drifting, and because I was drifting, I saw a lot of Swan.

Those were great days for him. Not only were the poor being forced out of their rental apartments to make way for airy live/work condominiums; not only was Congress gutting the American welfare system and dropping bombs on Bosnia, but his car, a green VW Beetle that he had inhabited, literally, since the mid eighties, had been towed, a consequence of too many unpaid parking tickets. Swan had never had so much to be angry about. When I saw him in the morning at Java Man, his fingers flew across the keyboard of the public computer, composing jeremiads in which he abandoned the doctrine of universal love and recruited the animals to go to war. He was so angry that he wouldn’t give his leaflets to human beings unless they begged him, sometimes not even then. He stood on the corner of Sixteenth and Valencia with a stack of them in his crooked arm, like a statue erected to commemorate an old battle. Generalissimo Swan, who fought the world to a standstill in the Battle of the Mission.

All small cute women are agents, he wrote. U can trust no one but creatures.

Concerned, I tried to interest Swan in other subjects. “Hey, Swan, any luck with the car?” Or: “Did you see the crowd outside Blondie’s last night? Man, they’re bringing them in by the busload now.” But he was completely caught up in his work, and I have to say I envied him for that.

Crews, take ur planes! Shoot the officers! Take ur tanks, men. Bomb all hi-rise+mansion areas! Get ready for the Coming of the Great Ghosts!

“What ghosts, Swan?” I asked.

He ignored me.

Bird Wars Rip City, Swan wrote. Riots Blood Flames!

“Hey Swan,” I said, “did you see, they’re towing cars in the middle of Valencia Street!”

“Only allowed to park there on Sundays,” Swan shot back. “Only for church.”

Despite my clumsy efforts at friendship, we were never as close as we’d been the rainy night when I brought him soup. We would never be even that close again. Swan was becoming a prophet, a role that distanced him from the rest of the world—you couldn’t get too close to a lighthouse. He typed furiously, monopolizing the computer in Java Man, and no one dared ask him to stop. I will burn Spain with a ray from the ether, he wrote, I will crumple your planet like paper. It was as if he were already living in a different world from the rest of us, a world where poets and animals had the power of gods. I’LL show you what blood is, miles of iodine roses piled upon the ocean. O live in the thunder & lightning. Then one day a man who’d been waiting to use Java Man’s computer for half an hour finally shouted at Swan, “Dude, it’s time for you to get up!”

Swan didn’t answer.

“I’m telling you, dude!” the man said. “Don’t you hear me?”

He grabbed Swan’s shoulder and some things happened very quickly: Swan stood up and reached out his hand, to steady himself, I thought. The man thought he was being attacked and shoved Swan, who fell to the ground and lay there motionless. “Damn,” the man said. He turned to the barista and said, “You better call an ambulance.”

I knelt by Swan’s head. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” Swan said.

He lay there with his eyes closed for a minute, then got to his feet. He gave us all a magnificent look of contempt and walked out, his shoulders high with prophetical rage. A minute later the ambulance pulled up outside Java Man, its lights flashing, and an EMT came in with his gear.

“Where is he?”

The barista nodded at the street. “He’s OK, I guess.”

The EMT laughed. “OK for now.”

The man who’d provoked the incident sat at the computer, not even typing. He didn’t look at anyone. It was as if nothing had happened. I think that was when I first felt the desire to disappear.

In the bad winter of 1997, when the days lightened imperceptibly out of wet dark and ended in droplets of water sparkling on the windowpanes, at some point in that winter of colds and molds and beaches white with storm-brought foam, I dreamed of sneaking out of my own life and leaving only an empty place behind. Victor and Alex would still fight about whose turn it was to buy toilet paper, buses would still pull up outside Blondie’s, the rain would still rattle the windows, everything would go on, but I would be elsewhere, becoming I knew not what. I daydreamed about renting a room in a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin, or staking a claim to one of the Mission’s many doorways. I thought about getting on an eastbound bus and seeing, for the last time, the white mound of San Francisco sink below the horizon. I don’t know why that tempted me so strongly. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe I was afraid to stop being a young man with the potential to become anything, and to be something in particular, an academic historian. Maybe everyone wants to disappear at some point in their lives, and maybe all of us do. Some drop out of sight; others stay in the same place but vanish from each other; still others, most of us, maybe, vanish slowly from ourselves. I don’t know. In the end, I went nowhere, and it was Swan who disappeared.

Ironically, it happened while I was working on my dissertation. After months of watching me mope around the Stanford library, Alex mentioned a grant, a Michigan historical society that invited scholars to peruse their collection of nineteenth-century newspapers. “What do I want with Michigan newspapers?” I asked, and Alex said, “A grant looks good on your C.V. Come on, you’ve got to do something.” I couldn’t disagree with him and remain in academia, so I applied, and to my mild surprise was accepted. My C.V. got to call me a Visiting Fellow, Wagner Center for Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, and I spent a month in East Lansing, a rolling terrain of frozen mud that made me think of the First World War.

I came back from Michigan in March, full, finally, of ideas for my dissertation, and when I looked around again, Swan was gone. He wasn’t at Java Man in the morning; he wasn’t asleep in an armchair at the back of the Latin Quarter Bookshop. At night Swan was not to be found on any of the doorsteps where he usually slept. I asked Peter when he had last seen Swan, but Peter couldn’t remember. It must have been a busy time for all of us. I asked Josh, who lived on Twenty-fourth Street, if Swan had migrated to another part of the Mission, but Josh hadn’t seen him either. In fact, he was going to ask me, had I seen Mr. Babylob? The one who stood on the corner of Twenty-fourth and Mission with a sign, whores of babylob, repent, fornication is death. Whether Babylob was a deliberate misspelling or not, no one could say. Had something happened to them both? Josh said he would ask his friend who worked at the needle exchange, and was in touch with a lot of the street people. Weeks passed; I saw Josh but he didn’t mention Swan.

When I remembered to ask, he admitted that he had been too busy: this full-time thing, you know, there was more truth in those words, full and time, than he had ever imagined. He was on it now. The rainy season dragged on, cutting the short days even shorter, leaving the sky, in the rainless intervals, a washed-out blue that was the closest thing to winter you could find on the California coast. I wondered if Swan had died, he was older than most street people, and he smoked foul brown cigarettes, and his skin was yellow like an old tooth. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to get pneumonia.

The thought that Swan might be dead would not leave me. It was a hollow feeling, as if I had skipped an important step in a complicated procedure and gone on to the next step, unaware that what I did now no longer mattered because the procedure was doomed to fail. It occurred to me that I could find out one way or the other, that people did not die without leaving a record, if there was one thing I knew from the study of history, it was that people left a record of their death, even when nothing else in their life was recorded. But I didn’t do anything. Then one day I had a fight with Alex about whether or not to buy a car that Peter was trying to get rid of, an ancient Volvo that had once belonged to Norman Mailer, at least that was what Peter said. Mailer had once come to the Bay Area to teach a class at Mills College, this was the story; he bought the Volvo, then he became smitten with one of his students, a nymphet who happened to be the heiress to a canned-pasta empire; and this girl, who, for the purposes of the story, is called Noodle Girl, insisted that he get rid of the Volvo, because it reminded her of her parents, the canned-pasta couple, who were about the same age as Norman Mailer. So Mailer sold the car almost new to Peter, who was in those days a local literary impresario. He, Mailer, bought an MG coupe, and drove to L.A. with Noodle Girl, who left him there, or was left by him, and later became a member of one of the new religions that believed the cosmos was friendly, at least in comparison to the earth. That was the story. And the car was majestic, it had a big, confident body painted the deep blue of the sky in a Northern Renaissance painting, the blue of an illumination in an illuminated manuscript. I had to buy it. Alex said I was an idiot, the story was obviously false, and even tweediness had its limit, which was the cause of our fight, the word tweediness, because I had to point out that I did not own a single tweed garment, or even a pair of flannel pants or a blazer or anything with elbow patches. Alex said it didn’t matter, I was a tweedy person, which cut me to the quick. I thought I dressed like an outlaw, and here my housemate was telling me that I was donnish.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “tweedy is good. This is just a case of taking it too far.”

I bought Norman Mailer’s car that afternoon for five hundred dollars and took it to a mechanic, who told me it would cost another twenty-five hundred to get it to the point where it would pass inspection. Fine, I said. And with the energy I’d got from winning that conflict, because it did seem to me that I’d won, with that rage, I looked up the City Records Office in the phone book and called them to see if they had a death certificate? “In what name?” the clerk asked. And of course I didn’t know. I went back through my file of leaflets. Swan, he called himself, or Saint Swan, or Swami, or Swhandi, or Sewanee, or Swan the Swain, or Mayor Swan. I asked Peter, who said, yes, Swan had told him his name, but it was a long time ago, and he didn’t remember it. David something? He thought it was a Jewish name, which surprised him, because he didn’t think of the Jews as homeless, an irony that he had savored from time to time, over the years.

I should have gone around to all the places where Swan had been and renewed my inquiries; I should have put up a sign, stapled it to the utility poles and hung it in the windows of the hipster shops, to let everyone know that Swan was missing. But I was ashamed to do these things. I didn’t want the neighborhood to know me as the person who was looking for Swan; and if there was some explanation, obvious to everyone but me, for Swan’s disappearance, then I didn’t want to be the asshole who didn’t know what it was. And it was still winter, and the rain still hadn’t stopped, and there was The Michigan Midnight Cry begging to be understood, and perhaps it was a kindness to let Swan alone. If he was not on the street in that ugly weather, maybe it was for the good; if he was unfindable in that dark season, maybe it was because he did not care to be found.

© 2008-2023 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.