Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Tender-Tenderloin

San Francisco's ghosts are as vibrant as the rainbow flags that fly from the tops of buildings on Market Street. Its ghosts cling to the basement of the Hotel St. Francis during the fire after the 1906 quake. They holed up in the wine cellar with a tiny dog, waiting for the rocking and the burning to be over.

The city absorbs everything and everyone. The ruins of the Central Freeway (US Route 101) that collapsed after the 89 Loma Prieta quake have become a green backdrop for the laundry mats and hair salons of the newly gentrified Hayes Valley. The city remembers its opium dens and its slave trade in immigrant labor. The city remembers Mark Twain and has yet to forgive him for his "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" comment. The city remembers the Beats. North Beach, which isn't what it was, still holds the sound of the pale, white alcoholics who tried to change the world -- or at least their perception of the world.

I walked through the Tenderloin last week with my friend, Dex, and my partner Keith. My current novel’s protagonist, Helen, lives there, and I wanted to get a visceral feel for the neighborhood. Helen is an alcoholic. Her baby, Ellie, drowned at her breast in 1969. Her daughter, Claire, has just packed up and moved to god-knows-where, she thinks somewhere in Oregon, and her husband, Frank, hasn't come home from work yet. He hasn't been late coming home in forty years. She rarely leaves her apartment, which she and Frank have lived in since the late 60's. Their marriage has become what many marriages become - a familiarity to be borne with a Catholic severity. She didn't know she relied on his presence until he didn't show up. This night, tonight, June 19, she is venturing out of her apartment. Forty years from the day she and Frank first landed in San Francisco and found themselves in the Haight at a Love-In, waiting for the wailing of Janis Joplin. She is stepping out, presumably to look for Frank, but even she knows that's only a story she's feeding herself. She is stepping out to find her city again -- the city that stole her heart -- first in the good way, then in the not-so-good way. The city that broke her on its jagged sidewalks and crooked streets. The city that summons her with the monotonous voice of the Muni announcer ... Approaching, outbound, four cars, J, J, in three minutes. The city that tricks her into believing she matters -- into believing that she has somewhere to go and someplace to be, simply because there are so many options for getting places. Who's to know that if she gets on a train she only rides from one end to the other, gets off, and waits for the train to turn around so she can reboard. She can ride all day like that in the underground. As long as she didn't come up the stairs into the light, she could ride forever. She thinks of a snippet of a song her father sang to her once -- something about someone riding forever through the streets of Boston -- but she can't quite remember the entire song. Something about the MTA.

My friend Dex is tall -- really tall -- which is great when you're walking through the Tenderloin at twilight and you're only 5'2". It's even greater when the twilight begins to deepen into dusk. Dex talks to us about the mayor's policy on homelessness. A motel painted in baby blue is blockaded with a black gate. There's a sign for a public hearing -- property to be changed from a tourist motel to a residence inn. A legless man in a wheelchair has the shakes across the street from us. New banners adorn the streetlights: Welcome to Little Saigon. The banners are professional and pastel and don't portray the street we're walking through. The street we're walking down has an occasional open Vietnamese restaurant, a barricaded half-way house.

"Got a light?" asked the skinny man in front of the building.

"You know I don't smoke," said a fat woman, walking into the building. "I tell you that every night."

I try to look without looking. Across the street is a perilously skinny woman, her limbs all angles and tattoos. She's pressed into the shoulder of a Latino man, larger, tattooed, and laughing. He pulls her across the street. She's wearing black hose that are ripped from knee to crotch. Her skirt is small enough to be a napkin. They touch, this man and this woman; they touch.

People group in fours and fives, rolling dice, pulling out cigarette after cigarette, puffing a few times, before crushing them out on the sidewalk. Hands slip into pockets and into the hands of men who appear and disappear faster than ghosts. The drugs move around us, a river we can choose to step into or step around. All of us feel the pull of the tide. I think of a warning sign at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon for "sneaker waves". Apparently these waves could emerge, fully formed, at the shore and crash over you, sweeping you out into riptides.

That's what the Tenderloin felt like. We (and I speak really for only myself here) were walking right along the edge of danger, armed with the illusion that we were immune to its siren call because we were employed and white, and separate somehow, from the reality that would give you a blow job for fifty cents. How many stars had to line up for the three of us to be able to walk through the neighborhood without being pulled into it? How many turns had to be taken correctly to be able to walk through it to the other side to our four-star hotel, (we got it for a steal on Travelocity, but it was still a four-star hotel), or to my friend's apartment in the Castro?

We're looking for Glide -- the famous Methodist Church. I'm thinking Helen might end up there. We walk too far in one direction, the literal truth that the higher we walked up the hill, the safer the neighborhood became. I wanted to see Glide, so we turned around and walked under bright green protected scaffolding down Eddy Street. The Tenderloin Police Station was on our right, the neighborhood patrolled by a young white cop, only a few inches taller than me. A woman is eating a sausage between two pieces of white bread. She's laughing and speaking to someone inside the building. It's Glide. The man has a bright yellow GLIDE STAFF jacket on. I peek as nonchalantly as I can into the room. It's decorated with pastel paintings and the one day at a time speech of recovery. The staff member is smiling and whistling. A lit cross is on top of the building. I imagine it can be seen for blocks. A man even taller than Dex approaches us. He is a cross between Jack Skellington and Edward Scissorhands.

"I'll stand on my head for thirty cents!" he declares.

Dex says softly, "Not today." We've been deferring all communication to Dex on this sojourn.

Jack Skelington looks shocked. "Shit!" he says, and mutters on down the street.

I walk between Dex and Keith, thinking what a raw deal it is for men to walk on the dangerous sides of things to protect me. I don't feel bad enough to trade places though; my feminist heart knows when she's out of her league. She also knows that if she'd taken this walk alone, there'd have been far more approaches by many more people, asking for more than thirty cents.

Does Helen know how close she is to Union Square? Does she know how close she is to the banking centers of the west coast? Does she only see 1967? Only see the Haight as it was with the Diggers and the electric light shows and the lost children looking for themselves in tie dye and glitter? Has she walked down the Haight since Ellie died?

San Francisco contains millions of worlds. Perhaps only small few are happening today. Many are happening decades ago, or continents ago; many are happening with long-gone relationships, long-dead friends. The Tenderloin is heavy. It isn't all cliched suffering and addiction. It's families trying to survive in one of the world's most expensive cities. It's first generation immigrants trying to make a better life for their kids. It's merchants and shopkeepers who don't, at least right now, have to compete with Target and Walmart and China Buffet to make a living. It's the glory of salvation in the cross and it's the glory of salvation in the needle and the pipe. It's the desperate, grabbing, love-me-now energy, which translates into see-me-now, see me please eyes and arms and feet.

I want to look everyone in the eye, but I admit to being afraid to be that vulnerable -- to give them an opening. Many of them are mentally ill. Many are our veterans. Team America. Fuck yeah.

The Tenderloin screams of what it could have been. Its streets hold the suffering of generations of men and women. You can hear the hunger, and it is far more than a physical hunger. The city's ghosts hang with the laundry that stretches across balconies. The slow suicides and the fast ones. The men whose shame fills the places in their bodies where love used to live. The breath of the Tenderloin is shallow and staccato. It chokes on its inhale and refuses to release all of its exhale.

It's getting darker. Shadows move in the park. Where would Helen go out here? Would she see herself reflected in the face of the homeless man who demanded a dime? Do I see myself in that man? I do. I have been privileged. I'm not hungry or homeless. I'm not addicted to drugs or alcohol. I'm employed. I'm educated. But when I walk down these streets (and yes, when you can walk through and out, you're not really in -- I know that) but when I walk down these streets I feel the two-steps away I am from being here. The fragility of our economy, of "America" and its hungry-ghost belly that is never, ever, ever satiated, the system I am a part of in educating people at a community college for low-wage jobs that I have never had to do. Yes, I do see myself in these streets. I see more than a passing "whew, thank god that's not me", and a more pressing "yes, yes, I am thou."

See me. See me please.

The too-skinny woman and the Latino man cross the street in front of us. They hold tight to each other. I stand between two men, all three of us passing through. All three of us, in our own way, saying "see me" in our fragment of the millions of worlds on the planet we circle in. All three of us appreciating the safety of an arm around our shoulders when the dusk becomes dark.

The lobby of our four-star hotel is just as hungry, just as frantic. Travelers pulling too many suitcases, searching for more to pack into them. People waiting for hours to eat at Michael Mina's for a minimum of $100 a plate. People drinking the acceptable drinks, from clean glasses with olives and tiny straws and $12.00 per drink prices. The acceptable addicts. The well-washed hungry ghosts. My shoes cost over $100. I'm wearing far more than that in jewelry. My Visa and I are welcome everywhere I want to be.

The doorman hopes we had a nice evening. The concierge hopes our stay has been pleasant. The manager of the hotel left us a voice mail welcoming us and telling us not to hesitate to ask if we need anything during our stay. The sheets are 400 thread count, white. The remote control isn't bolted to the nightstand. Neither is the flat screen plasma TV. The honor bar has $4.00 packs of peanut M&M's and baby cans of Pringles. Keith and I take off our $100 shoes and climb into the very white bed, two blocks from the Tenderloin. We touch each other in the darkness.

See me.

See me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sacred Listening

This is an excerpt from a chapter that I'm currently working on in Gathering Ghosts.

It begins when you first try to write. You take your #2 soft lead pencil and make fresh marks on the newsprint paper. A looping “P” can turn into an “R” which can become a “Q.” If you never lift the lead from the paper, you can join them all together in a song of harmony and grace, but then you show the world what you have made and they tell you it is jibberish. The beautiful loops and lines you dragged from your heart are worthless to them.

So, you learn, there is a way. There is a way to do things and a way not to do things. Your heart is sad, but you cover it up because when you make the loops and lines their way they smile at you and bring you juice. They tell you you are smart and show your paper to other people. The juice is cold, sweet, and sticky.
It no longer matters that you cannot understand what you wrote because your letters are mirrors of theirs.


I worry a lot about rules. I want to stand in the right line, drive in the right lane, and say the right things. I was raised to believe that if you did the right things you’d be rewarded. I could see the benefit of not driving in the lane facing oncoming traffic. I could see that it would be more efficient if only people with fewer than fifteen items went through the express checkout line. Healthy compromises of community living.

I do understand that we have to communally agree on what a “g” is – what it looks like, what sounds it can make, what words it’s a part of – in order to have communication at all. But I came of age in the last throes of grammar education in grade school. I learned odd things, such as:

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Each new paragraph should begin with a transitional word.
A paragraph contains five to seven sentences and always begins with a topic sentence.
An essay’s final paragraph must sum up all that has come before it.

Odd things, that had very little to do with writing, and very much to do with constructing.


It’s a hot day in Charlotte. I’m in the seventh grade. Our text is Warriner’s English Grammar. My English teacher, Mrs. Peeler, is a formidable woman who also happens to attend our church. She is the clich├ęd English teacher – gray hair pulled back into a bun, glasses on a silver chain around her neck, red lipstick which occasionally stained the surface of her teeth, and nude pantyhose and high heels, no matter how hot the day. She made us memorize poems and come to the front of the class and recite them. I still remember mine. William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils.”

She taught us to diagram sentences (a miraculous feat that has somehow fallen out of favor) and with that, she showed me that every word in a sentence has a purpose. You could see in your diagram if you had too many modifiers for your noun or verb. You could see if the subject of the sentence had no object. You could revise it and make a brand new structure – a brand new picture. Most of the kids loathed diagramming, but I thought it provided a door into language I’d never walked through before. (Oops, there I go, ending a sentence with a preposition – oops, no, “before” is used as an adverb there. How does one keep it straight?) In order to diagram a sentence well, you had to communicate with the words themselves. You had to ask the adjective, “What are you modifying?” And the adjective would answer. You had to ask the prepositional phrase which verb it connected with. You had to listen to the answers of the words. You couldn’t just randomly assign words to each other. They simply wouldn’t fit.

Contrary to what many students thought, I didn’t think diagramming sentences force-fed rules down our throats. I thought diagramming sentences taught us to listen to the beauty of an individual sentence – and even deeper than that – taught us to focus on the importance of each word choice and ask ourselves, “Does that word belong there? Is another word a better choice? If we take out the word, does the sentence change in meaning or aesthetics?” We couldn’t make those choices with our intellects. The choices come from our connections to the desires of the sentence itself.

How do we know what a sentence desires? We have to ask it. How does a sentence know what it desires? It asks the paragraph? And the paragraph? Well, yes, it asks the chapter. And the chapter must ask the work as a whole what it desires.

Huh? How the heck do you get there?

Remember when they told you how to write a paragraph? And they gave you rules such as don’t start a sentence with “and”. And they told you writing comes from somewhere out there involving sources and citations and documentation. And they told you that there were nine patterns of development for your work, and that the thesis statement is the last sentence in the opening paragraph. They told you these things not because they’re wrong or bad. They do, in fact, work, and they make a solid piece of writing for a composition student who has no interest in what language can do. But for a student who is a writer – for a student who loves what sentences do – the rules are the stones in the pockets of your jeans. Clear out your mind so you stop hearing the rules before you hear the writing. When you don’t know where to go next, look to the sentence you last wrote for clues. What does the verb denote for you? What image does the noun conjure up for you?

When I was seven, I went to visit my pediatrician, Dr. Huff, for my final dose of the polio vaccine. The vaccine was liquid. The doctor handed me the plastic packet of vaccine and told me to put it in my mouth. I did exactly that. A few minutes later he came back in the office. I still had the liquid in my mouth. He and my mother laughed at me.

“Why didn’t you swallow it?” he asked.

I swallowed, but I was bewildered. “You didn’t tell me to swallow it. You told me to put it in my mouth.”

My literal interpretation of the doctor’s instructions shows you how strongly I wanted to follow directions – how strongly I wanted to do everything right. My ninth grade English teacher counted off points if our cursive letters didn’t have all the appropriate tails. If she couldn’t tell our periods from our commas, she marked the whole sentence wrong. The church we belonged to taught me I was born in sin. My Southern culture taught me not to wear white after Labor Day, and that a lady should always wear a hat.

“Why didn’t you swallow it?” What a provocative question. I did swallow a lot of it. I swallowed rules and sins and fears and contractions. But all that swallowing left little room for listening. When you take the time to first be still and listen, the first things you’ll hear are the things you swallowed into your belly. You’ll hear the things you absorbed in utero. You’ll hear the scratches of your mother’s fears and your father’s rage. This chorus of uninvited voices is an avalanche of shoulds and shouldn’ts, dos and don’ts. Sit a while longer. What are you underneath that din? The clanking of other’s agendas is enough to make many a writer get up and decide this gig isn’t for him.

Stay. What’s under your mother’s sadness? What’s under your grandmother’s alcoholism? What’s under the programming of never beginning a sentence with “and”? The ideas you’ve swallowed built a wall. Shake it down. Move into your lungs and break the sadness off.

Stay. Stay longer than you ever thought you could. Sit cross-legged or not. Sit in a chair or on the floor. Sit in your bed or in your car. But sit. Stay. Look at each thing you’ve swallowed and ask yourself: Is it mine? Does it serve me? Then ask yourself what you feel is the next step. Ask your body not your mind.


This morning we stare at each other, my work and I. The winter weather has broken, likely only for a blink, but this week it's in the 60s and the ice and snow is melting and pouring into the creekbeds that have been dry for months. I am easily 50% feline, and can stare down the best of them. But I can't outstare my work. Today it's so close I feel I can reach out and snatch it up with one hand, and I want to. I want to grab it and keep it tight so I don't have to keep wondering about it. But instead I watch it watching me. I try (ah, so foolish!) to figure out what it's thinking. What it wants me to do.

My brain is beginning to swim with topic sentences, basic grammar, and the beginnings of student stories. Yesterday I spent two class periods working on paragraphs with my developmental students. What detail can we add here to make this memory more vivid? Can you see how we've got two separate thoughts here, joined only by a comma? Let's look at chapter 16 in the book - Run on Sentences. Do you see how your topic sentence is about how cell phones have changed in the past five years, but what you've written about is why you love your cell phone?

It's a slippery slope once we reach this point in the semester. I adore teaching, but I find myself stuffed with 90 different minds -- 90 different ways of thinking -- and it grows harder to hear myself and nearly impossible to hear my writing. I don't know any writers who teach writing full-time who don't struggle with this every semester. We must practice emptying out before going to work. Empty out after work. We have to shake the day off, shake the other minds out, so we can listen once again to our own work.

Today, the work glitters. It's a beautiful mirage -- Las Vegas like -- all glitz and facades. But Vegas lights mask the heartbeat of Nevada. I see shimmering covers for the book. I see glowing reviews. But I open the book and I see emptiness. I even think I hear laughter. What are you doing? What are you thinking? You're not even remotely ready to go where I want you to go, it says. Not even close. But there's all that sparkly red and purple glitter. There's the seduction of the writing itself. The "I love you-go away" push pull of the process that slams us, addicts all, up against its walls.

"What do you most not want to say?" It shouts. "Go on! Coward!"

I open my mouth. Nothing. I decide to click over to and look at expensive shoes. I click back. It's still waiting. What do you most not want to say? I feel it, whatever that answer is, banging against my ribs, pushing up underneath my tongue. I sneeze and cough today. It is beginning to move. It is beginning to eke out, letter by letter.

What do I most not want to say?

First, I'll listen. Then, I'll sit with it. And at last, I'll shake it free.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Ghosts We All Are

"Writers are often ghosts to their own cherished or bedeviling childhood homes."
- Brian Kiteley

I've been writing so much about home the past few months. What is it? What has it become? What could it be? Can we ever "find" one? Is this notion of home just one more piece of American mythology that's about as accurate as the cowboy out here in my not so wild wild west?

I received my $600 tax rebate (aka economic stimulus) yesterday. I don't think for a millisecond that this plan is going to save America from itself, but nonetheless, the check arrived electronically in the middle of the night. It'll just about cover my trip back home in July, so thanks, W.; I'll use it to do some serious ghost chasing and sweet tea drinking. I'll throw it at the myth. I'll use it to do my work.

Last night I found the Kiteley quote above in a book called The 3 A.M. Epiphany. I had a particularly good and most welcome day of writing yesterday. Summer's so close I can taste it. I've finished most of my student papers. I've turned down four different freelance gigs for the summer so I can be at peace with my own voice for three beautiful months. I began to weave a book yesterday at last. If I were that gospel and blues singer I wrote about in my last post, I'd have sung "Glory, glory hallelujah/'cause I laid my burden down", but instead I had a 20 ounce iced coffee and let that drug wiggle a little in my veins. When I returned home with enough caffeine in my body to stay up until 3 A.M. reading, Kiteley's quote hit me in that "no duh" way kids have of making you feel like a moron.

Writing about ghosts isn't just about the ghosts of others. It isn't just about the literary weight of ghosts as social issues, or ghosts as ancestors, or ghosts as spirits of long faded places. Writing about ghosts is also about (and perhaps more importantly about) the places I continue to haunt. Where have I left parts of my spirit hanging out and waiting? Instead of trying to pull places and people to me, maybe I need to go back to where I've left breadcrumbs. Maybe the foundation of Gathering Ghosts is my own fractured self. Maybe it's not the red clay mud of North Carolina that I can't get out of my body. Maybe the itch is the piece of me that still hangs out at Idlewild Elementary after school with her red 10 cent notebook from Family Dollar. Maybe the itch is the fragment of my belly that hasn't left my childhood bedroom on Springfield Drive. The portion of my spleen that hangs in the willow trees over our family cemetery at Masonboro Baptist Church in Wilmington. It's time to scratch and find out.

I want to leave you with this poem that came to me today courtesy of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac.


Would it surprise you to learn
that years beyond your longest winter
you still get letters from your bank, your old
philanthropies, cold flakes drifting
through the mail-slot with your name?
Though it's been a long time since your face
interrupted the light in my door-frame,
and the last tremblings of your voice
have drained from my telephone wire,
from the lists of the likely, your name
is not missing. It circles in the shadow-world
of the machines, a wind-blown ghost. For generosity
will be exalted, and good credit
outlasts death. Caribbean cruises, recipes,
low-interest loans. For you who asked
so much of life, who lived acutely
even in duress, the brimming world
awaits your signature. Cancer and heart disease
are still counting on you for a cure.
B'nai Brith numbers you among the blessed.
They miss you. They want you back.

"Posthumous" by Jean Nordhaus, from Innocence. © Ohio State University Press, 2006.

The places we've left ourselves linger long after we're gone. Let your writer's eye look deep enough to see where you've scattered yourselves along this life. Write about it. Bring it back to a new idea of home.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Six Things You Might Not Know

I was tagged this morning by Andi ( to participate in a 6 Things You Don't Know About Me posting.

I started thinking about audience. There are lots of things the average person in my life doesn't know about me. Lots of things my mother doesn't know about me. But they aren't the same things. For this post, I chose friends - not lovers or family - as the audience. We'll see if I can hit anything new for anyone.

1) My first award in writing came in the 7th grade. I wrote a short story called "A Heartbeat From Happiness" in which a black cat loses his family after the family moves west. (Hmmm... this was the last year we lived in NC before we moved west, and yes, we had a black cat named Charley, and yes, we left him in NC with friends). The cat in my story walked all the way across the United States. When he got within feet of the door of his family, he died. I won 1st place among all the 7th - 12th grade entries at my school. My dad helped me with the title. I still suck at titles. And, I still have issues with happy endings in fiction! (Charley never walked across the U.S. to find us. I think I'm still a little mad he didn't!)

2) When I was in the 9th grade I believed I used to be an oak tree in a previous life.

3) The first ghost (other worldly energy) I ever saw was when I was five. The ghost of a wolf was outside my window. No one believed me. I've never seen another wolf-ghost, but I've seen others. Very few people believe me still. :-)

4) More than anything else in the entire universe, I want to be a blues and gospel singer. This is one desire that won't be fulfilled in this lifetime. Maybe next time around! I always have someone singing in my novels, though.

5) For six months after my dad died, I put nothing in my body but plain M&Ms and diet coke. This "diet" gave me the opportunity to experience, albeit for a very short time, what it feels like to be a size 3. Haven't seen those days (or those jeans!) in many a moon. I got to experience how men look at a woman when she's a size 3 instead of a size 12. I got to experience the bones of my body without my flesh. I got to experience a whole year of going to the doctor without the doctor telling me I need to lose 20 pounds. I got to spend a year being able to pull ANYTHING off the rack I wanted and know it would look fabulous. (That part was pretty cool...)

Funny, though, the people I drew to me when I was tiny and empty were people with tiny and empty hearts. The people I draw to me now when I am my natural size are full and fluffy and large, no matter what their physical body size is.

6) I want to have a tail. I think about this at least once a week. How fabulous would it be to have a fluffy orange feline tail that curled around my waist, or swished behind me, or stroked my cheek. Think of the accessorizing I could do! Bracelets for tails! Flowers! Glitter! It's too thrilling to think about for too long. Losing the tail is an evolutionary error, I think. Perhaps we'll have it back one day. Until then, I try to walk like I've got one anyway!

My wish for you this weekend: Do the stray cat strut! Walk like you've got a tail and know how to use it!