Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Country Mouse in the City

Recently my husband and I visited San Francisco, a celebration of our fifth anniversary. Our trip was delightful, our hosts pleasant, and our library greatly expanded. Oh, the bookstores--we visited so many excellent vendors of reading material, it shall take me months to process all the material we picked up. I especially enjoyed the anarchist bookstore "Bound Together" with the requisite baby boomer anarchist with Real Life Experience at the counter. This was on the Haight, a street with lots of history and lots of people celebrating freedom at every possible opportunity. We also explored Lawrence Ferlenghetti's bookstore City Lights, and I discovered that the Beat Generation had an amazing woman poet--Diane di Prima. I devoured her book of poetry I found there and may dedicate the rest of my days to amateur scholarship of her, Ruth Ozeki, and Jeanette Winterson.

Anyway. I also loved the Mission district, which is the home of many immigrants from Latin America (and other places, but that seemed to be the dominant influence). It resembled Mexico's beauty, with abundant murals on historical and cultural themes. One church in the district had a magnificent mural on its front which had verses and images from the Genesis creation myth and the Popul Vuh together.

The Castro inspired me to remember that people have banded together and fought for and often won collective liberation and acceptance. Coming over a hill and suddenly seeing the rainbow flags up and down the street sent chills up and down my spine. This testimony to inclusiveness warmed the heart, and made me sad for all those who do not yet benefit from warm, caring, accepting environments. I cried a little bit at the Harvey Milk memorial, his old apartment. We visited the GLBT history museum there as well. There was a section on the gay liberation movement transitioning from advocating for revolution, to a transition for advocating for equal rights in marriage, employment, housing, and so on. Sometimes I hear criticism of this move from people on the left; however, this exhibit drove home for me that equality does mean no one should be compelled to activism simply to live his or her life. I might (and do) wish that people of all sexual orientations and genders and races would clamour for our collective liberation. But if a person who is gay wishes to pursue a quiet life with a spouse, or a corporate career, or even a capitalist identity (shudder), s/he should be able to pursue that life regardless of sexual orientation. The complete transformation of society is the goal, but making sure that all people are able to participate in the flawed society that we have is an intermediary goal. May the Supreme Court do something useful for once and encourage that to happen.

Like most trips, our trip to San Francisco encouraged reflection on the situation of homelessness. In no way do I mean that the pleasurable situation of bourgeoise tourists wandering for fun and education is analogous to people who do not have a home to return to after the wandering. But when I am home in Larryville, I have many places and relationships where I "belong" regardless of my ability to pay that person or place at that moment. In a strange city, the ties of human connection disappear and only the economic connection remains. As I walked the hills of San Francisco, I was acutely aware that my presence there was tolerated only because I had means. When we wanted to sit down, we had to be able to purchase our seat with a cup of coffee. The necessity of renting space to put my feet at all times became clear. I cannot truly imagine the situation of homelessness, but the degradation of having no right to exist in a space without paying for it is clearer when I travel. I cannot imagine the pain of perpetually wandering from place to place, your presence always unwelcome, your space unransomed and therefore undesirable. I cannot imagine it, and no one should have to live it. In California, posters and signs related to the housing crisis and forclosure were everywhere, yet the articles in the paper about people without homes were no less accusatory or cruel than in places where capitalism's inability to provide housing is less obvious.

Seeing beautiful San Francisco almost made me sad that, four years ago, I was determined to move back to Kansas rather than California. Alas, we don't have birds of paradise and calla lilies and redwoods growing naturally around us. But I actually came away believing that our life is more similar to a typical young couple in San Francisco than we would have expected. Our friends several times asked us, oh, you can't <go to poetry readings/shop at a natural foods store/get that product/etc> in Kansas, can you, and the vast majority of those things, we were able to say, "We do that all the time in Lawrence!" Sure, we don't have a *lot* of good Thai restaurants to choose from, but we do have one or two. We don't have the variety of San Francisco, but we still have good food and good arts and good music. Now, living in the hinterlands of Kansas would be different, but I am not convinced that we would lead a dramatically different existence in San Francisco. I have this weird sense of an actual national culture. Thanks, California, for reminding me of all the things I love about my home.