When fellow Rogue Ro Cuzon reached out to San Francisco-based writer Tom Pitts to write a piece for the Rogue Reader, Ro gave him very specific instructions: write about whatever the hell you want. Given the fact that Tom moved to San Francisco when he was 17, and set his forthcoming novel Hustle there as well (rave reviews here and here), it shouldn’t have surprised me that Tom chose to reflect on the city he has called home for, well, a long time. What was surprising was that he said a few nice things about my novel Tenderloin along the way. Nobody knows the Tenderloin better than Tom, so to receive his stamp of authenticity meant I at least got a few things right.
So here’s Tom on the San Francisco he moved to in 1984, how he processed it as a teenager, and how he views that time now, as an adult. We all know the city was much different then than it is today. But even someone like Tom, who has lived through some dark times in San Francisco, is struck by how chaotic and dangerous the city once was:
The late seventies were a heady time for San Francisco. I moved to the city in 1984 and, looking back, I had no real perspective on my own place in the city’s history. The shift in culture and style from the seventies to the eighties made the two decades seem oceans apart, but, in reality, I landed in SF a mere six years after ’78—the year that changed San Francisco forever. I guess it’s true, a forty-seven year-old’s brain processes time differently than a seventeen year-old’s.
Court Haslett’s book, Tenderloin, takes place during that fateful summer. When I first heard about the book, I assumed it’d be another ’70s-style crime caper with plenty of references to disco and platform shoes; a Kojak-type tale wrapped up in a new urban setting. I was wrong. Tenderloin is not rife with the tropes and stereotypes of the era, but actually filled with real-life characters and the hard-learned history that brought me back to a time in San Francisco that will never be repeated. In case you forget, the calendar is its own character, each short chapter opens with a timestamp, reminding you that the city’s time and innocence are fleeting. The book’s backdrop is the summer building up to the nightmare that became known as the Jonestown Massacre. Not a lot of people outside San Francisco realize that the Guyana tragedy was almost entirely made up of residents of SF, particularly the Western Addition.
What I’d forgotten was the mass suicide in Guyana that sent the city reeling was followed up immediately by the Moscone/Milk assassinations. The killings at City Hall took place a mere ten days after the Jonestown Massacre. Ten days! When I think about sitting down and telling my parents I was moving to San Francisco at the tender age of seventeen, I wonder if their stomachs dropped as well as their hearts. When you compare those turbulent days with the safe haven for techies and nouveau riche San Francisco has become, the change is staggering.
Haslett has a great feel for reminding us of how turbulent those times were. Consider, in that short decade, how many headline stories were shocking the Bay. There was the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the follies of the SLA; the assassination attempt on Gerald Ford; the Golden Dragon Massacre; the Zodiac Killer was still at work; the city saw the Zebra Killings and the murderous Black Liberation Army, not to mention the good ol’ Black Panthers. Court reminds us that the idealistic ‘60s had been redefined and compartmentalized, morphing into something darker and out of control. Political scandal and radical activism drenched the newspapers with ink. And all of these things seem to culminate in one horrific month in November ’78.
It’s a considerable challenge for any writer to weave this all into a fictional tale that keeps pace with the real stories of the times. I sometimes think it’s easier to work within a framework of an era farther back in time, a time when no one can check up on you so easily. The San Francisco of the 1970s is still fresh in many of our minds; God knows there’re plenty of survivors and storytellers still out there on the street. And if it’s not fresh, Google is ready to help us fact-check on all the relevant data (and, trust me, I did.)
I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what had gone on in the city during the short years before I arrived. (The defunct People’s Temple building actually hosted punk rock shows in the early ‘80s. But by then the building was empty and the club was called: The People’s Temple. Thanks, Paul Ratt, for pulling that one off.) There was plenty of fallout from the seventies. Dan White was released in ‘85 and committed suicide shortly after, I remember that well, but only as a headline. Meeting people who had cousins and friends in the People’s Temple didn’t really sink in as it should have, either. It seemed, too, that everything in the city was getting named after Moscone or Milk, but the importance of these dedications was lost on a seventeen-year-old who thought what was going on at the Mabuhay Gardens was the most important thing in town. It was quite a while before I realized the cover for the Dead Kennedy’s seminal album (the row of flaming police cars) was actually a photo from the White Night riots taken in front of City Hall. There were other stories that I lived with and through in the eighties—the explosion of the AIDS epidemic, for instance—before the ’89 quake really shook things up again. But I get the feeling that nothing was quite like the summer and fall of ’78 in San Francisco. So thanks, Court, for bringing me back to a time and place that I never could have properly appreciated—even if I had been there.
Tom Pitts received his education firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, writing, working, and trying to survive. His shorts have been published in the usual spots by the usual suspects. His novella, Piggyback, is available from Snubnose Press. Tom is also co-editor at Out of the Gutter. His novel, HUSTLE, that also deals with San Francisco’s troubled neighborhood, the Tenderloin, is due out on Snubnose Press April 1st 2014. See more at TomPittsAuthor.com