San Francisco is Slowly Shifting Away From Being Our Neverland
I originally did this piece for The Bold Italic in March of 2015. Shortly afterwards it closed down. And now it’s back open. This piece went crazy viral and even garnered a hit piece written about me. I guess that’s how you know people are paying attention. This excellent illustration was done by Cate Andrews.
My mom always asks me when she’s going to be a grandmother. Most of the time it’s in jest, but sometimes, when it’s just she and I in the car running errands, she gets more serious about it. “You’re not so young anymore,” she tells me, not in a mean way, but in a mom way — meaning that it comes from a place of love, but also that she won’t be dancing around some shit. And she’s right that I’m not so young anymore. I’m 34 years old and living like I’m 24. I have three roommates that I met off Craigslist, I’m in an often unsteady relationship (due in part to my Peter Pan Syndrome), and I want nothing to do with anything that requires me to be responsible for anything or anyone other than myself. And the thing is, I can’t imagine having any other kind of life … and I’m not sure I want to.
We always refer to San Francisco as Neverland. But as more and more Peters and Wendys and Lost Boys and Tinker Bells are pushed out of the city, I wonder if we can continue with this fantasy. Can a Peter Pan like myself survive in a Neverland diaspora? It’s easy to be forever young when the landscape that you live in doesn’t support adulthood. Shirking grown-up responsibilities like car payments is simple when you can ride a purple fuzzy bike everywhere. When the concept of owning a home is unfathomable, you just continue living with a bunch of roommates like a college student. But if I were suddenly evicted and forced out of this bubble of Victorians, fog, and hills, would I find that maybe my development had been arrested after all?
Before the current housing crisis, most of the people I knew who left San Francisco did so because, for them, it was time to escape the fantasy. They wanted normal grown-up shit like dishwashers and laundry machines and a multiple-bedroom house with a yard where their Tenderloin-studio-conceived kid could play. A cultural rift developed between those who decided they wanted out and those who wanted to continue playing make-believe. Many of us who stayed continued to do things like go out drinking on weeknights, have casual sex, and fuck around with mind-altering substances. A savings account was just the place where your money hung out until you transferred it to your checking account, and the concept of a retirement fund was ludicrous, because who the fuck has any money for that anyways? If you’re never gonna grow up, who needs a 401 (k)? Lately, though, for those of us who continue to play along, it’s felt like there’s a crack in the snow globe, and the vagaries of time are slipping in.
“A savings account was just the place where your money hung out until you transferred it to your checking account. Lately, though, for those of us who continue to play along, it’s felt like there’s a crack in the snow globe, and the vagaries of time are slipping in.”
These days it seems possible to play at Peter Pan only if you’ve got VC funding. Silicon Valley bankrolls buy the trappings of eternal youth, like foosball tables and PlayStations at open offices. But it all seems contrived: going to an office in the first place and working for someone else sounds a lot like growing up.
I may not have realized it at the time, but I made a choice a long time ago to live a life devoted to creating things. Stories, poetry, spectacles, moon dances; the wild stuff that makes being alive worth it. I’ve always been content being monetarily broke but creatively and experientially rich. The things I make (books, TV shows, articles, poetry, web things) are highly consumed, and because of this popularity, my lifestyle far exceeds my bank account. From free meals to free booze to free tickets to shows, I get taken care of very well everywhere I go in SF, and that, combined with rent control, has always made being a broke artist viable. But here’s the thing: I am terrified of being evicted. I’ve managed to cobble together a life where bartending a few times a week supplements the little bit of money I make through my endeavors. But if I lose my rent control, I pretty much have to move out of the city, and I worry that I’m too old to start all over again and build this someplace else.
I have always been a motherfucking hustler, but right now I’m hustling harder than I’ve ever had to in my life. The fear of losing my apartment and the torment of having been so successful artistically yet so broke, is pushing me to work 12-hour days most weeks. I’ve always worked under the assumption that if I just keep making dope shit, I will finally pass over the tipping point that my career has been on for so long. But faced with the reality that San Francisco now only seems to support your dreams if you dream in code, I’m grinding doubly hard, trying to make my projects profitable instead of just cool. Because I’m not ready to leave.
“I look at some of my heroes and I see my future in them and it terrifies me, because if it’s this hard now, I don’t see how it can get any easier as I get older. These are the people who, given the choice between chutes and ladders, chose the chutes every time because it was always a hell of a lot more fun than climbing up somebody else’s fucking rungs.”
The strange thing about worrying when I’ll get pushed out of Neverland is that I’m just as nervous about what happens if I don’t. I’ve seen a lot of people who, like me, never fancied the idea of growing up, and they are still living in the same broke-as-fuck situation as I am. I look at some of my heroes and I see my future in them and it terrifies me, because if it’s this hard now, I don’t see how it can get any easier as I get older. These are the people who, given the choice between chutes and ladders, chose the chutes every time because it was always a hell of a lot more fun than climbing up somebody else’s fucking rungs. Idealism can be a dangerous thing when you live in a place that so thoroughly encourages it, but it’s even more treacherous when it feels like that place is crumbling away. When you’ve built your whole life around living in San Francisco and not ever really growing up, what do you do when San Francisco grows up without you?
No matter how much I want to stay young and play make-believe forever, the forces of time and economics are conspiring against me. And as the city that so supports our fantasies also succumbs under the weight of gold, it makes me wonder what to do next. Do I leave Neverland and finally grow up? Or do I stay here with what’s left of the pirates and the fairies pretending to be young forever, until one day when I just can’t pretend anymore?
Riding in the car with my mom, going onto whatever the next errand is, we continue to talk about her nonexistent grandchildren. “I look at Harriet and she’s my current hero,” she smiles at me. “She didn’t become a grandmother until she was 70. To be honest, honey, I just want you to be happy,” she says. For the moment, living this weird life of uncertainty, where I hustle hard every day to both pay rent and create meaningful art, I think that might be exactly what I am. Happy. Let’s just hope I can figure out how to make this shit last.
Do you still love San Francisco like I do? Then get one of these shirts to show your pride.
Howdy! My name is Katy Atchison and I'm an Associate Editor for Broke-Ass Stuart.
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