On History and Endurance

Living & Working

On History and Endurance

By Dodie Bellamy March 20, 2019

How does one survive and thrive as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area? Living & Working is a multi-platform column focusing on the experiences and strategies from those who continue to live and work in the Bay Area.


Living & Working is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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Recently I was walking through the Castro on a humid, blustery day. The wind made everything—street, buildings, pedestrians—exceptionally vivid. The Castro is a neighborhood I have been walking though since the late 70s, and I’ve seen many businesses and people rise and vanish. But this day, each closed storefront hit me with a pang. Not the luggage store where I used to buy my backpacks! It was there forever. Its owner used to have biweekly sex with a hustler friend of mine. They did it for years, long after my friend officially stopped hustling. My friend talked about the set up as if it were just business, but he was denying the tenderness in such longevity. Swept up in the fragmentation of rapid gentrification, I long for continuity as much as I long for love. I’m still in San Francisco because I’ve been in the same ratty apartment in a ratty neighborhood for twenty-eight years, and unlike the dozens of people I know who were in similar situations, I have not been booted out of my affordable housing by dicey Ellis Act evictions.

A couple of years ago I visited writer Francesca Rosa in her rent-controlled apartment when she was dying of cancer. She’d been given two months to live and was inviting old friends over to say goodbye; she had many, many friends who were taking excellent care of her. She told me, in her disconcertingly frank way, that it was a good time to die in San Francisco—for if she lived another twenty years, she’d end up in a hovel in the Tenderloin and have to count on an indifferent neighbor to help her out. The assumption was that everyone would leave, that San Francisco was this deflated balloon leaking goodness. So many people have come and gone, I sometimes feel like an angst-filled immortal in an Anne Rice vampire novel, everything evaporating except me.

Jono Weiss. Portrait of Francesca Rosa (year unknown).

In the 80s I would see Anne Rice in the Castro, strolling down the street in a pleated plaid skirt and a blue blazer, drenched in strong perfume. With her thick bangs and long straight black hair, she looked like an oversized Catholic school girl. I was enthralled, couldn’t believe I was sharing the same sidewalk as she. Rice was a faculty wife at San Francisco State, and then in 1976 when Interview with the Vampire was published, she became the most famous writer in America. In 1988 she left San Francisco for New Orleans, her birthplace. I too should have left a long time ago. Artists who care about their careers never stay in the city which raised them because they cannot control the narrative. There are eyes that see not the me of today, but a flailing girl with raging, uncontrollable emotions. "They take me seriously in London or New York," I want to shout.

I moved to San Francisco in October of 1978—a month before the Jonestown Massacre (November 18) and the shootings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk (November 27). Most people don’t realize these tragedies happened in the same month, but I’ll never forget. Back in Indiana, my mother was freaking out—her daughter who had as much sense as a goose, had moved to hell. Her assessment of me, which I found so unfair, was pretty accurate. I was immature, frightened, and had far too little money to make such a major move. But I knew if I stayed in the Midwest my spirit would die, and I had all these friends in San Francisco—gay men from college, who gave me a place to stay, found me a job. That same crazy November, my first Thanksgiving in San Francisco, my friend Terry put the turkey in the oven, then we all went downstairs to a bar on Polk Street and got drunk playing pinball while the turkey cooked, and I thought, how much better can things get?

Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian kiss at their City Hall wedding, observed by Maureen Killian and Evangeline Brown.

In 1986 I married writer Kevin Killian in City Hall, where Harvey Milk was shot, where Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in 1954. San Francisco is a city of ghosts; whenever I walk down the street, history wafts off sidewalks and buildings and my own shoulders. When I became a writer here, I joined a long heritage—the Beats, the hippies, the labor activists of the 30s, the Black Panthers, feminist collectives, the Chicano civil rights movement, gay rights, the lawless Barbary Coast, the triumph of Asian-American literature. I focus on groups rather than individuals for San Francisco’s historic ability to foster community undercuts the myth of individual geniuses or bad actors. I now live a few blocks from City Hall, which is lit up at night in an array of changing colors, each arrangement celebrating something. “Green, white, and red,” we say, “what could that be for?” “I know, it’s the Cinco de Mayo!” If I stayed in Indiana, I’d still be moaning in my journal how I wanted to be a poet and what a useless failure I was. Instead, I migrated here and found my people—people who said, "You want to write? What are you waiting for?"

Dodie Bellamy observes City Hall on Valentine’s Day. Photo: Kevin Killian

I’ve written about every neighborhood I’ve walked through here. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last writer in whose work San Francisco is more than a place; it infuses the writing to such a degree that it assumes the position of protagonist. In my first novel, The Letters of Mina Harker (a post-modern vampire novel; in a way my tribute to Anne Rice), my characters repeatedly have sex outdoors, overlooking scenic San Francisco vistas—the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Marina, Twin Peaks. My characters were making love to each other, but I was making love to San Francisco.

Recently I rode the number 9 San Bruno bus to the Golden Gate Theater to see Betty Buckley’s heartful performance in Hello, Dolly! I was particularly moved by the title song—a song I’ve been hearing since I was a child and which has always represented for me the ne plus ultra of suckiness. This rendition perfectly blended nostalgia with a commitment to seizing the present moment. After years of being exiled in Yonkers, Dolly’s homecoming to New York City is “nice,” filled with memories of old friends and favorite tunes. Time and loss and distance have not destroyed Dolly. She’s back full force, belting out: “Tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days.” I wonder if this is how Anne Rice felt when she returned to New Orleans.

Friends have moved or died, I’m surrounded by techies, the fear of eviction is ever-present, I take issue with various aesthetics trends. This may not be the same city I fell in love with in my twenties, but, like Dolly, I’m not stuck in the past. On Market Street, fronds of non-native palms bounce wildly in the wind, and cobwebs are swept from my brain. I feel remarkably alert, determined to embrace San Francisco and my life on their current terms. Will tomorrow will be brighter? I don’t know. But there’s more for me to do—books to write, self-help projects, dates with friends—and for now I’m happy to be doing it here.

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