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Brittany and Eric@silkworm69 via Instagram

Fighting for a fantasy life in San Francisco

Brittany Newell continues her Dazed series with thoughts on why we fall in love with cities and what drives us to remain in places that can chew us up

Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, will be published by The Borough Press (HarperCollins) in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US and Canada, both in 2017. She is working on a new novel about asexuality and CCTV.  

These are perplexing times to be alive. From freaky-hot weather to unabated violence to shitshow presidential debates on TV, I find myself struggling to focus — the stakes are too high, and my desires too simple. In the wise words of ABBA, should I laugh or should I cry?

These days, I do neither: instead, when feeling overwhelmed, I sit out on my porch. I love my little fucking porch. Finding her was not easy. My partner and I moved in to the top floor of a hastily-painted, slightly slanted, surprisingly well-lit unit in San Francisco just shy of two weeks ago. We nicknamed our new home Boobytrap for her innumerable fire code violations. Despite the stuck cupboard doors and ominously ripped-out smoke detectors, the rodent free-loaders (we hear them colluding in our shoes) and barren concrete yard, we love her. 

How could we not? House-hunting in the Bay Area was a seemingly endless, spirit-breaking affair. As we trudged from Berkeley bungalow to Bernal Heights closet, a phrase kept appearing in my head, as simple and clear as the neon Coca-Cola sign abutting the onramp towards the Bay Bridge: what makes a life worth living? We had been wearing our responsible please-rent-to-me outfits (no makeup for Eric, long sleeves for me) for five days straight; they were starting to stink, betraying the riff-raff who wore them. We were tired of smiling, of selling ourselves in a chirrupy tagline (two young artists!) to landlords who tapped their nails on new granite counters.

I can’t blame them for writing us off. Without a good tech job or Silicon Valley sugar daddy, we could never afford the going rate and everybody knew it. The sense of rejection was intense. Our privilege as mobile college graduates made the whole thing even bleaker — how could someone with less get anywhere in this market, this city, this world? Slumped in the passenger seat, I found myself considering a move to the Midwest. I’d heard Iowa was cheap as hell. What made the Bay Area worth it, I wondered. What exactly were we zipping around in pursuit of?

The answer, I see now, is romance. We had a crush on San Francisco and we couldn’t, wouldn’t, let it go. If one can’t have a professional relationship to a city (it’s sensible, it’s safe, it’s cheap, it’s the only place that one can go), then odds are one has a romance with it — or else what’s the point of the fuss and the hustle? Underneath our house-hunting button-downs, we wore slinky things for Miss Frisco. We were helplessly drawn to her dive bars and long drives. 

I started thinking about my friends, why they live where they do and what fills their days. My friend Jonathan once claimed that The Devil Wears Prada is the #1 reason she moved to New York. She worked full-time at a magazine and then walked dogs in the evening to make enough money for rent. “Sometimes I would just leave them all in my room!” she laughs hysterically. My heart melts with love when I think of Nevin and his houseplants, spritzing their leaves on a glowy Los Angeles morning. 

Of course, I might be projecting. But it’s not a bad question to ask oneself, especially in confusing times: what romances sustain or drive you? What misplaced love (towards a trope, a myth, a place, a plant) makes the contingent bullshit (of outrageous rent, cheating landlords, gentrification worries, earthquake country, looming fascist leaders) worth it?

“My friend Jonathan once claimed that The Devil Wears Prada is the #1 reason she moved to New York. She worked full-time at a magazine and then walked dogs in the evening to make enough money for rent”

Jonathan eventually moved to Berlin, where she pays tearfully little for rent and wears thrift store curtains to three-day-long parties. A new romance has bloomed for her, with new reference points — cabaret. Maybe these media are stupid, and certainly inaccurate; but who can claim to have never been moved by a fantasy? The San Francisco fantasy is one I find myself working to make work. The rewards for my stubbornness are subtle and many.

For example: trapped in traffic one evening, “Age of Aquarius” came on the radio, followed by Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” Eric and I both found ourselves unironically welling up. Garage sales in our neighborhood, diverse families selling everything from Cher wigs to soiled china, inspire a similar swoon in me. An elderly woman gave Eric all her costume jewelry for free, along with a 1992 Aids Walk pin. It was 80 degrees out, a San Francisco miracle. We three sweated together, sharing, in our different ways, the queer legacy of this city.

“A genderfucked goddess in stripper heels, eating edamame while watching an old man get flogged. Every third person stops to tell her she’s beautiful, annunciating over his whimpers”

Last Sunday’s Folsom Street Fair, the world’s biggest leather and fetish event, gets to the core of the San Francisco appeal: something naughty, in-your-face, but tender too. People in rubber giving high-fives. A weirdness so weird that it becomes NBD. A genderfucked goddess in stripper heels, eating edamame while watching an old man get flogged. Every third person stops to tell her she’s beautiful, annunciating over his whimpers. 

To note, it's not important that we believe these abiding romances of queer utopia or surfer chill or sexual freedom. To treat these romantic notions as fact would be to cave to nostalgia, a whitewashing force. The Castro is made gross by nostalgia: rainbows galore for sale, gay life as a gag gift. I do think, however, that there’s something to be said for acknowledging what these semi-delusional dreamscapes stir up in us, what feelings they produce, what they compel us to suffer, where they force us to go. I’m interested in how inanimate romances guide us. 

When everything feels fucked, we might try acknowledging these underground sentiments. We might let the full stupid force of our feelings shine forth, and then frankly examine where we’ve been led by them. Attention paid to these hot spots of affect, no matter how sappy, seems a better route to making sense of this mad world than casting everything in irony or caving to despair. 

The Stud Bar in SoMa is a perfect example of something I’m in love with and willing to fight for. Built in 1904, it’s one of the oldest continuously-running gay bars in the city. Its future is now threatened by a switchover in owners and sharp increase in rent. The barstaff stamps DRAG SAVES LIVES on its one-dollar bills; this statement is not the least bit ironic. All week I look forward to the hugs that the honey-voiced bouncer, Lambert, gives Eric and me. When I wonder what makes life in the Bay Area worth living, The Stud’s sparkly drapes and low ceilings come quickly to mind. My heart’s hunched there forevermore.

We should give credit to desire — queers certainly know how to do this. The Stud itself is one big beautiful homage to desire and the funky ways it manifests. From the bare-assed performers onstage to the miniskirted sixty-something sitting quietly in a corner, we’ve all somehow been pulled here, seeking much more than a drink. When the rent increase was announced, a co-op of regulars formed with shocking speed to buy and try to save The Stud. To write off one’s desires as silly or inconsequential is to underestimate their hold on us–or perhaps I just lead a less morally-disciplined life and let lyrics like golden living dreams of visions/mystic crystal revelation go to my head. 

I can’t deny that writing in my new apartment, pecking on the loveseat in a splatter of noon light, makes me feel a bit like Carrie Bradshaw (the West Coast edition, hopefully less whiny and more intersectional). I’m not proud of this cliché; but it’s there, in my brain, alongside visions of Joan Didion and acidheads and assless chaps and drag queens dancing to ABBA that help explain me, or rather, my choices and limits, to myself. Just because a dream is silly doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick. Mine stick, and they’re strong, and they led me here, to this glitter-caked barstool, to this off-kilter porch. For as long as I’m able, I’ll try my hardest to stay.