Red Emma’s reopens in Station North as Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore mourns the loss of radical community
Published: November 27, 2013
The End of San Francisco
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Red Emma’s new space on North Avenue is abuzz this Friday night in November. The place has the look of almost-done. The massive bookshelves lining the walls are less than half-full, cardboard boxes half unpacked and stacked on top of other boxes. The kitchen is serving up Thread Coffee to a line of folks who have clearly been waiting, waiting to get back in here with each other, whether they know each other or not. The author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is mingling at the front, dressed in her usual high-style color and pattern, brushing the bangs to the side of her forehead as she greets the audience hungry for her words, hungry to hear them in a space full of promise for radical community. The place isn’t ready to open officially, yet, but it is clear how much it is needed here.
I first met Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore 10 years ago, when she came through Portland, Ore. on a book tour for her then-recently released volume That’s Revolting: Strategies for Resisting Queer Assimilation. She stayed with me and my then-girlfriend, who had a piece in the collection. I still remember Sycamore’s uncanny ability to make herself at home, setting up the living room as a bedroom that would work and, if I remember correctly, boiling up a huge pot of kale long before I knew kale was something people ate. We attended her reading at a bookstore that night and watched ourselves and the rest of the queers hunger for words—from her and other readers—about how to be and stay queer amidst the steady call for assimilation and the growing chorus of voices demanding same-sex marriage and the right to fight in the military regardless of sexual orientation.
Fast forward to now, and same-sex marriage is the law in 16 states and LGB people are openly serving in the military and that drumbeat of assimilation bangs steadily on. Sycamore is still writing against this tide, but this time by writing about her own life and past in her new memoir, The End of San Francisco (City Lights).The book opens by recounting her visit with her father as he approaches death. Sycamore is asking for something from him that will help her live—she’s the one who’s going to keep living, after all—but he won’t give it to her. As readers, we are right there in the moment. And then the memoir skips and jumps, taking us from place to place, party to party, need to need to need. There is an intimacy to Sycamore’s writing that makes reading it feel like getting right next to her skin, sniffing, touching, feeling, and opening up ourselves. The book is all about cultivating precisely this vulnerability, hers and ours, together. For Sycamore, this shared vulnerability might be what we need to survive, to cope, together, holding on to queer dreams in a world that wants queers to disappear.
Ultimately, the book is about Sycamore’s own movement to and from San Francisco: “I was searching for other queer freaks and outsiders and outcasts fleeing childhood and our parents and everything we were supposed to be. I was looking for activism and sex and freedom and vitality. San Francisco became my home because I needed it, because I wanted it; it was the dream that I was creating.” Sycamore is not the only queer to turn up in that town looking for that sort of life—we queers still do that—and she is not the only one ultimately disappointed not to find it there. The End of San Francisco is about the end of that San Francisco, the end of the dream of a radical community refusing assimilation, enabling new ways of being oneself in the world, with each other. It is an end hastened by those old tricks of age and economy, gentrification and geography, and it is an end Sycamore refuses to redeem. There is no new San Francisco, no place to go where radical community will make its comeback and fulfill the fantasies shared by Sycamore and her community of freaks and queers, and Sycamore is pessimistic about the possibilities of building new ways of life in the hard shell of the old.
And build we must. It is fitting that Sycamore is reading at the not-quite-reopened Red Emma’s. It has been months since Baltimore’s radical residents and visitors have had a place to grab a cup of coffee and something with black beans, tofu, or hummus, and sit down with a book chosen from shelves crowded with work writing against capitalism, racism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and all the rest of the systems that narrow our vision of who and what we could be. But on this night the doors are open and the space is, in Sycamore’s words, “beautiful, aesthetically, politically, and emotionally.” The place is packed with folks eager to hear from Sycamore, of course, but they are also to be in a place where conversations like the ones Sycamore both engages and mourns the loss of can happen, openly and freely.
The reading is an absolute treat, especially, I think, for those of us who shared Sycamore’s world then. She resists nostalgia, and yet there is something nostalgic about remembering queer dreams, even if they turned out to be fantasies for many of us. Sycamore has a glint in her eyes and a steady smirk that refuses easy interpretation. There’s a sense that she’s poking fun, at herself and the rest of us, as her carefully crafted prose layers meaning upon meaning. She tells the story of club life where all sorts of people reveled, breaking down social identities in a play of bodies and pleasures and possibilities. And then she needed a ride home: “No one would give me a ride,” Sycamore reads. “The club was called . . . Together.” And that is just it, the gap between what we say and what we do, what our words mean and what the world does with them in the messy play of desire with the rest of things: safety, solitude, independence, that part where we want a good bus system, but if we’ve got one, we still take the car.
There is a feel of collectivity and possibility in the air at Red Emma’s. The questions all pushed toward ways of building communities of justice—how can we build queer worlds without hastening our own displacement? Without displacing others? While remaining cognizant of the fact that displacement is inevitable, that communities change over time, that nostalgia for Before always leaves out the violence, hunger, addiction, and desperation—not to mention the premature death? What world is being built in Station North and the rest of this city, and what happens when our San Francisco is someone else’s End? Thank you, Mattilda, for reminding us to wash the rose color off our glasses.
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