Dear San Francisco:
Hi. I’m back for a couple of days. I’m writing this in an apartment facing the bay, and Alcatraz is about 300 feet below me, and the Golden Gate to the left and the Bay Bridge to the right. As you know, the world is currently a fearful place and there are horrors uncoiling and spooling out of dark tunnels all around us, and shortly there’s going to be a struggle for whether or not we’re going to destroy ourselves once and for all. We’ve been there before, but never using the tools provided here (think tech, think that ‘disruption’ concept) and so this particular metamorphosis of the human condition feels personal to me.
Why “personal?” I love San Francisco and I feel about this place the way a spurned lover does. My girlfriend feels the same way. She calls it “the hot dude who says all the right things and makes you feel special, but then you realize he’s just saying you’re special because you’re hanging out with him.” She’s said it differently, sometimes: He keeps saying he’s going to change, but never calls when he should and breaks all his promises. It turns out it was never that he liked scoundrels and outsiders – he liked intrigue and power. San Francisco, you’re scaring me right now. Not forever, but right now.
And Hey, what a time to be coming out with a memoir, huh? Yeah, I have a memoir coming out today. It’s called I WILL BE COMPLETE, it’s from @aaknopf, and the ways to order it are all over this page. I’m used to chaos like this – my first novel, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL, had a pub date of September 11, 2001, so I am used to questioning whether the world needs something like a book, or, more cringingly, an author promoting his book these days.
I never really answered that question for myself beyond the general “art is good in times of crisis” bromide, even if a fancier way to put it, “In the dark times -- will there be singing -- yes there will be singing about the dark times” comes to a similar conclusion. I woke up this morning knowing I should promote my book, and I’ve been doing all the social media stuff but there’s something else I wanted to say, and it’s to you, San Francisco.
I was born in Southern California in 1964, and I lived by the beach until my parents divorced. Mom and I moved north when I was 10. When our cab left the high deck of the Embarcadero freeway, tires touching Columbus and Broadway, a pimp and a prostitute got into a scuffle, and one of them slammed against the hood and the window and that THUMP set into motion something in my brain, an awareness of the narrative tickertape in my head. I was able for the first time to track the space between when something happens and when words assemble, then are somehow rehearsed, then come to mind to describe what happened. That was the moment – a moment – I became a writer, so thank you for giving me that, San Francisco.
That’s in the memoir, btw. A lot of San Francisco stuff is. In fact, the first volume is called THE LAST KINGS OF SAN FRANCISCO. I called it that because when I was twelve, I lived on my own on and off for a bit. I keep flinching when reviews and interviews say “his mother abandoned him” because it really didn’t feel like that. She got an exciting offer to go help her boyfriend, she got on a plane, and only after her feet were on the ground in New York did she seem to realize that it wouldn’t be an overnight trip but something longer. Most of the time I was fine, except for the moments where I was fucking terrified, and you, San Francisco, are the reason it was mostly fine.
You know what was hardest about the book? Getting me as a character. You were easy, you were great, I love you, San Francisco. You’re a kind-hearted debutante who knows it isn’t your fault how pretty you are, as you catch your reflection in every store window while we’re walking down the street, and even if you aren’t paying attention to the conversation I think we’re having, you’re at least enough of a friend to make me look hotter by standing with you.
I used to walk across the city before the sun came up, and from my current vista point, I recognize a pathway down then up Union that I used to take past Washington Square Park (which isn’t a Square, which has a statue that isn’t Washington, and the statue is only there to distract from the much-hated “temperance fountain” that some guy named Cogswell put up to discourage drinking – god, I love SF history). I called this part of my story “the last kings” because I used to imagine there were other kids who felt similarly – excited, ready for adventure, ready to learn things, eager for friendship, and (though this was unspoken) ready to make a new family. The next year, when I was 13, I put myself into boarding school, Thacher, where I had my first attempt at making a family.
I tried again when I got a job at Hunter’s Books in Westwood, in 1983. This is the second volume of the memoir, THE COUNTERFEIT CHILD. San Francisco, you get bored easily, especially when the topic isn’t you, but don’t worry, you’re coming back soon, and this will end up being an anecdote you can tell at parties (I did!). I was 19 and looking for a pathway to interior calm. I had the attraction to Japanese philosophy that a lot of white boys did at the time, and it helped me understand that I wanted to be a writer to sort out and describe my weird life in a way that made sense. At the bookstore I made a new family of other writers, artists, dancers, musicians, performance artists, and a guy who had imaginary children. Yep. After he got fired, the imaginary children wrote me letters, and what fine letters they were. They told me more than I could have DREAMED of about the links among fiction, ambition, desolation, love, family, mortality and responsibility. I fell in love there with a woman who refused to love me back, and you could say that this was a lesson I learned about myself: don’t love the person who won’t love you back, and HELLO SAN FRANCISCO. It’s a funny and more lightweight volume, comparatively, but maybe that’s because it’s set in Los Angeles (ha, gotcha!)
The third volume, THE BOOK OF REVELATION, is about how, when I was 22, I met the woman I thought I would marry and my mother, at almost the same time, met her soulmate, a guy a couple years older than me who was violent with crystal meth. It’s dark. I tend to say as little as possible about this volume because pulling out details minus context is salacious (I’m already uncomfortable with what I’ve said and what I’ve read in reviews) but it’s necessary for understanding where all this goes: for a great deal of my life I thought I could help my mother, and every time that went south I blamed myself, thinking there had to be something else I could have done. Sure, it’s easy to say, from a distance, that it wasn’t my job to save her, but it’s more than that – it’s about finding autonomy and knowing that, no matter what I do, I am forever a bad son. (You know what’s funny – I can spot other bad kids who are actually good kids who failed like I did, and it’s so easy, such a relief, to look at them and say ‘it’s not your fault – embrace being a bad kid’ but I had to write a whole three-volume 175,000 word memoir to get there myself).
What I had to drill down into was this: the phrase “I’m fine.” I armored myself with “I’m fine” every time some horrible thing happened around me, some bombshell of information, some new outrage my mother or one of her tribe had inflicted against her. By the end of the book, I figured out how to parse all of the individual, emotional, highly resonant threads that goes into all the different shades of “I’m fine,” and my analysis of it isn’t just for me, but for all the other kids who could imagine themselves walking alone at night through city streets, hoping for company, anxious about the dark alleys and beckoning hands. “I’m fine” is like a shield, but you need to know what’s under it, all the sadness, the love, the fear, the hunger, the vulnerability, the disappointment, the joy, all of that. When you’ve understood all that it tends to make the rest bearable. Me, I found autonomy. I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.
I WILL BE COMPLETE is those three volumes all together, and like I said it comes out today, and what a day we’re having, when all the assumptions we made about how our society is made up have been upended and every day is bringing a fresh horror, or, worse, a horror that’s always been under our beds, unacknowledged, unexamined, because the soothing emotional response of WE’RE FINE could lie atop it without it being disturbed. We aren’t fine. We’re all fucking messes. In my case, I tried to accommodate con men and mental illness and call it a worldview. Maybe that’s what we’re all doing now, but I need to immediately pull back before it sounds like I’m saying “If you want to survive, read my book.” I’d just say that I learned some lessons that are creepily useful and familiar. They aren’t enough, but they give me a frame of reference, which is alternately terrifying and comforting, and isn’t that what memory is all about?
Today I’m back to do some readings in the old neighborhood. From here I can just about see my 1970s stomping grounds (Comics & Comix on Columbus is long gone but the coffee roaster is still there) and my last apartment on Telegraph Hill (a one-bedroom now renting for $4500 a month) and the fictional homes I put my fiction characters James Carter and Tom Crandell (or is it Crandall?) and Ledocq and Leland Wheeler and such. You have helped me generate so many ideas I wanted to thank you for giving me a home. Even even in your decline (sorry!) I love you. I loathe you too, but that’s only because I know you pretty well.
San Francisco runs on zany dreams. Always has. Come here for the gold rush, or the wide-open 1870s capitalism, or the gay movement, or the Beats, or the hippies, the human potential movement, the rise of every wave of tech. We tend to start stuff here that sweeps across the country. The wave we are currently having ripple outward from us and toward the rest of society is pretty damned two-edged. It’s like this: what if there’s not going to be a future? How do we profit from that right now? Why not tilt the pool table so all the money goes one way only? And yet, if someone is having a baby right now, they’re banking on 2100 being a pretty cush time for an 83 year old. There’s some cognitive capacity to exploit somehow, right?
In between writing paragraphs of this, I am updating my social media (THANK YOU SAN FRANCISCO and SAN FRANCISCO ADJACENT FIRMS) and noticing the waves of horror and paranoia and accusation and dehumanization that are popping up (THANK YOU SAN FRANCISCO and SAN FRANCISCO ADJACENT FIRMS) along with my inadequate attempts to say “Hi, got a book here that will either help you figure something out or distract you from the rest of this shit show and yeah, maybe ignore it, maybe it’s not that important, but I think we’re all in this together and I think that every gesture toward figuring each other out is a good gesture. I think every sincere attempt to account for why we do things, even if it’s harsh, is a tiny hope for a better world.” It’s not 280 characters but any truth with a dependent clause tends to be castrated in the marketplace of ideas.
This is one of the most betraying things about on-line media – reading on line isn’t the same thing as reading paper. Flashbulbs and kaleidoscopes of single-line ideas might fuck with you in a way we’re only now accounting for. I'm wondering if for some people, brains are wired so that reading with all that flack going on around it makes them defensive and separates them from their natural urge to embrace other ideas. Maybe being bombarded with ideas creates fear. Hmm.
Reading books on the other hand builds empathy. There aren’t many writers left in San Francisco (oh, don’t get me started!) but while I’m here I just want to say that reading is a personal communion, a place you and your conscience can be quiet together. I’ve heard a definition of sanity that goes like this: it’s the ability to take someone else’s point of view. That’s what reading is, too. Reading books builds sanity. San Francisco, I’m going to leave you with that thought. Because I think you might want to ponder it a bit. Whatever else I’ve done in my memoir, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how other people might feel, and in doing so I’ve better understood where I end and they begin.
Which brings us back to my first moment on the streets of San Francisco, North Beach, November 1974. You, San Francisco, are the place where I started learning how to think. I began to understand that faith and reason aren’t enemies – they’re tools at the ends of a very cool cognitive spectrum – and how I started to see other people, even people who want to do me harm, as people themselves. Those are very powerful things to learn. You’re teaching people how to think again, and wow I hope you think about that responsibility a bit more. You might, you might not, but I know it’s not my job to save or fix or help you. It’s my job to know what my job is. Autonomy is my job.
And SF, it’s your job to reflect the mood of the people within your boundaries. You are brilliant and magnificent and you do things with fog and twilight that painters and writers and dancers and geniuses and tourists and historians and drunks and the homeless people and monsters all bow down to with amazement. You’re a melting pot, and I love you, and, oh, I'll close with the very words Jerry Brown used when swearing in Ed Lee. "I leave you to your fate."
It’s very very nice to visit you from your natural frenemy, Los Angeles.
PS To everyone else, Hi, this is Glen -- I’m a writer and my first memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE, about my hunt for autonomy, comes out today. It’s a book, an audiobook, an eBook, all those things. I hope you enjoy it and, honestly, I hope it it leaves you feeling more positive, more known, more able, more energized, more and more and more.