My last apartment in San Francisco was on Folsom Street. It was a dark, barn of a Victorian with an unfinished wood floor that collected dirt. I swept the floors a lot and mopped, but the result was an antiseptic Pine Sol smell that seeped in and stayed.
My room was robin egg blue, nearly turquoise, a relentlessly cheerful sky in a wet grey city. I painted my fake fireplace lemon-meringue-pie-topping yellow (sugar, egg whites and Vanilla colored). My impulse was to brighten the dark cave room with touches of muted sunflower light. Later, yellow became the intrusive warning sign of cancer and misery. The astonished yellow blaze of death. Every cracked yoke for the next three years reminded me of my mother’s neighbor with the chickens—the one who noticed her turn yellow. I found the brutish yellow of rebirth. Sometimes sadness has the last word.
My one small window had a view of a concrete nook—the space between my house and the apartment building next door. On the weekends, the neighbors screamed at each other in one high shrill pitch. I wondered how they could breathe while screaming like that: a screeching yellow cry for a last hit of crack. Even with earplugs, I heard their chainsaw voices. They gave me recurring sound dreams. A furious thwack, thwack—the beating of wings.
I’d always wanted a red kitchen but was told red would ignite fights. I painted the kitchen anyway. Chose a feisty bright red and put up gingham curtains to match. In my red kitchen, I collected vintage mugs and overpriced 70’s dishes from Valencia Street shops. My kitchen was a place of whistling kettles and negotiation—my first paid date. I also cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen of my friends. One September, my dad called at 6.a.m. and told me to get out of the city and hide somewhere quiet. His breaths were short and his voice stern. I didn’t go anywhere. I sat on the floor and watched the twin towers collapse from my dark wooden floor.
I get so excited when I receive Rumpus Letters in the mail. I rip them open like a love letter from a secret admirer. Do you subscribe to Rumpus Letters in the Mail? The latest one was from Sari Botton. I love her patient prose and raw honesty. In her letter, she wrote that she doesn’t like children or pets. Sari Botton and I have discussed the risks inherent in writing memoir. When writing memoir or even autobiographical fiction, someone always gets hurt. Ask Justin Torres.
I’ve heard it’s best to write in a way that protects people in your life. That they may recognize themselves but it’s not good if their friends recognize them (Stephen Elliott’s Daily Rumpus, entry 4/19/12).
This isn’t always possible. For instance, I wrote an essay about sex work. The essay described a place where I worked. In point of fact, I gave handjobs for cash. The place, the job and the women—all heavily coded and insular. In my essay, I defined our sex worker lingo and the job. It wouldn’t have mattered if I wrote that my boss was a Hoopa Indian who bred Greyhounds in Malibu or a man who owned most of Walnut Creek because every single woman who has worked there knows what/whom I referred to.
Another example: When my mother turned yellow, her friend noticed. The town where my mother died has a population of less than 30,000 people. If I wrote that a Latina woman who lived on a dairy farm noticed my mom’s yellow skin, every single one of my mom’s friends would know whom I meant. Some things cannot be veiled. Janet Malcolm in her book, “The Journalist and the Murderer” wrote about the role of the writer in a frank way. She claims “The journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy” (Malcolm, 143). It’s not my job to recreate my subjects (I can’t), but to tell an emotional truth. It’s scary to piss people off, but it happens. I have the hate mail to prove it.
I intended to write about financial terror. Tell you about a day last week when I stood in my kitchen on the reddish orange floor and lamented my college degrees and my subsequent three digits of debt. I yelled that I’m a loser and a financial hazard to my boyfriend—who is neither of those things.
They are no so far apart: Financial terror and writing terror.
My undergrad experience? It was so goddamn pristine. Pillars and fountains and grass fields in the middle of Oakland; fancy buildings from the 1800’s with wooden floors that creaked when I walked to classes. The lady ghosts at Mills were rumored to float on the lawns holding chastity belts that they refused to wear. Our rocker brand of feminism challenged the laced and gloved, high-tea setting. I shaved my head and eyebrows. I pierced my face. It was Courtney Love feminism— angry miniskirts and femme clans. We wore fishnets and quoted Bell Hooks. Got pre-law degrees.
In my Folsom Street apartment, I finished my Women’s Studies degree. When I did, my mom brought a green pot of African Lilies as a gift. I kept them alive for eight years. In my light blue room, I believed my fancy education would mean something. My degrees would make it easier to land a job with bennies.
“I’m startled awake from my yellow-fog denial with the sun in my eyes. Full of wonder. I have a memoir. It ends in a handjob parlor—my happy ending.”