By Michelle Tea from The Bold Italic
It can be trippy to try to remember what San Francisco first looked like through your wide, virgin eyes. In trying to conjure your first impressions here, you might realize that the town has never stopped looking alien to you. If the Mission has been the center of your San Francisco universe, you may have had to mellow into a mystical “stability is change” mantra in order to not feel shaken every time a new pastry shop pops up. The speed with which businesses flare and fizzle can make a girl feel like she’s losing her mind, becoming the doomed heroine of a neighborhood-wide horror movie: “I swear the coffee shop was . . . right here! Wait – this Tex-Mex-themed restaurant with the fire pit wasn’t here yesterday!” Cue to a cut of raw-denim-clad zombies lumbering your way, stinking of artisanal juniper-berry cologne, wielding whimsical vintage electronics, a bit of egg from a crazy biscuit that bakery sells drooling from the corners of their mouths. They don’t want your blood, these zombies. They want something else . . . something harder to put your finger on, harder to locate – they want your cool.
Do I sound bitter? I’m actually not. I mean, I used to be, but then I realized that the Mission’s downward (or upward, depending on which side of the cultural divide you’re planted on) spiral has been doing the twist ever since I took the Valencia bus down the boulevard in 1993 to see about a vacant room on Albion Street. I remember how desolate Valencia looked. I worried briefly that someone would jump me. I’d grown up in a touchy place, but a recent stint in Tucson had softened me. I was wearing cotton sandals. If I was going to live in this place, I was going to have to invest in a pair of boots.
I heard the Mission was where the queers lived. Not the gays—they lived in the Castro. The queers. It seemed like I should be there too. I got the room on Albion, hopeful that I could make the $250-a-month rent. Some people, I heard, were paying $400! There were some cool places nearby, some of which still stand. Pancho Villa and Truly Mediterranean were my main sources of nourishment. I ducked into the back room at Dalva – a place where queer people never really hung out – and wrote for hours, undisturbed, in my notebook, while smoking copious cigarettes. The Albion is now called Delirium, but a pissoir by any other name would smell as rank. Amnesia was called The Chameleon and was ruled by poets. Red Dora’s Bearded Lady was an actual San Francisco dyke coffeehouse, and I could not believe such a thing existed. But to hear the folks who’d been in town a little longer than I had, I’d already missed everything.