Home is Inside Me
"Yeah Hi Sono ____calling. Um, yeah I've posted an eviction notice on your door, and you're getting one in the mail. I'm just calling to let you know that it's really nothing to worry about . . . just a formality It's just a precautionary measure on my part to protect my position in case our talks break down."
THE THEFT OF HOME(STEAD) (dwelling)*
For the past ten years, I have lived in one of the most beautiful studios in the Bay Area. But what made it beautiful were not just the high ceilings, the expanse of its 2,500 square feet of space and the view from the windows of the East Bay Hills that lined its northeastern walls - it was the history. The building emerged in three parts: first as a print shop in the 1880's, with gorgeous arched windows, then with an addition of offices built by Gardner Manufacturing during the boom of the Oakland Port in the 1920's, and finally the addition of a barn-like structure on the roof, built by Jay deFeo when she lived there in the 1980's. It was this space, formerly the last studio of Jay deFeo, before her untimely death in1989, that I moved into in the winter of 1990. Jay means a lot to a lot of people because she was an amazing artist and a dear person. She has become an icon in the history of Bay Area Art, perhaps more than any other, because she was taken from us sooner than anyone, including her, was ready. She is remembered for her indomitable spirit and determination, and the art she left behind that embodied it: this tiny woman who after six years of work, completed a12 foot high, 2000 pound painting entitled "The Rose," when she was 37. This studio was very special because of its pedigree, and because art had been made there consistently for twenty years. It was filled with layers of memories, steeped in the intensity of concentration, creative energy, and all those parties.
The first thing I did when I moved in was make a talisman to keep Jay's spirit in residence. It was a little placard that had a blob of paint that had fallen to the floor during one of Jay's work sessions stuck next to a blob of paint that had fallen during one of mine. Each blob was properly labeled: "Jay's Blob / My blob." I placed it over the threshold of the studio: the first thing I put up when I moved in and the last thing I took down when I moved out.
Gone were the sounds of Steve and Lynn on the other side of my walls. I could not hear Ruby's goofy meow. I could not hear Steve rehearsing the same song over and over until I began to hum along. I couldn't hear the soothing sound of Lynn flushing after her midnight pee. I could not hear their putter, which had wrapped around me like a blanket for so many years. Every vestige of sweetness and calm was being taken away from me, bit by bit, day by day. I no longer saw Lynn's lavender roses outside my window, Jiri hanging out his laundry, or glowing lights across the roof.
Soon after I lost my neighbors, the building became a dark shell. The street, bereft of street lamps was dark too. When I came home late at night from work, I would leave my truck, the sole vehicle on my street, struggle with a degenerating lock and walk up the stairs in complete blackness. Each night I would do this with a rapid heart beat and a hum of fear looming in the background of my consciousness . . . that if anyone confronted me on the street, or lay waiting inside, I would come face to face with violence, and no one would hear my cries. It was at this point that I took up kick-boxing and developed a mean round-house.
The roof that I once crossed to get to my door had been ripped out. I had to enter from a ledge along that parapet, through a hole in the back side of my studio. My gaze out my front door was not the deck, our garden in pots, or Lynn's silhouette, laundry basket wedged on her hip as she moved in a sauntering toddle towards the washer. I stared straight down a precipice, an unforgiving cliff that insured a dead drop two stories below. This vertigo was an outward manifestation of the vulnerability and loss that I was experiencing inside myself. It was a free-fall, and the only ledge I could rely on was faith.
"Yeah Hi Sono, this is_______ calling, you know I just realized, that there's something else we didn't talk about It didn't become, in my consciousness, until just this last meeting that... that... the dog. I didn't know that you had one at all when we talked, you know, at the beginning of the building, and I guess I just didn't... it didn't register as I... maybe seen you on the street walking it um. The building is not going to be we're not going to be having dogs in the building, and um, I just found over the years that that dogs are the biggest source of problems in um... in shared buildings, um so that... that won't be possible to have... to keep the dog and I just... I don't know what your position is on this... but, but I just didn't want you to... that, that is a fact to be put into all the other stuff that we're talking about, so I just I'm sorry that that has problems. . . but it's the position that will be So, before we meet on Monday, I just wanted to let you know that...so... that's going to be part of what we're talking about. "
I lived in this tiny apartment for 6 months... waiting to get my real home back. There were little things to be thankful for. My toilet actually worked. The distance from the outside door to my apartment, still in the dark, was not as long. And the end was in site.
Friday, May 14, around 10:30 AM I had a conversation with my landlord in which I asked him how much a unit would be rented for, based upon a roster of rents that he had presented to the original tenants of the building. My friends were very interested in the unit next to me, and I wanted to make sure the price for square foot was what I remembered. He told me that he had no recollection of that meeting, the roster, or the promised rent structure. He told me that he was considering opening up each unit to the highest bidder. When I reminded him that he had stated at this meeting that he intended to keep the rents a little bit beneath market so that artists could afford to live there, he claimed that not only did he not say that but he wasn't even at the meeting. He also told me that he no longer cared whether or not it would remain an artists' building his bottom line was money.
I think of home as a series of layers spiraling out from the center of one's spirit, through our body to the walls that envelope us when we close the door. Beyond that, it's our neighborhood, the people we smile for everyday, and then our broader environment. For me, that broader environment has been the Bay Area since 1983. Things change, and I am not a curmudgeon. But the loss of my studio is a reflection on an intimate scale of a much greater loss that is sweeping through a place that I have loved and have called my home for seventeen years. Evictions have become an epidemic as life stylers and looky loos pour into neighborhood after neighborhood. My friend Carol calls them posers...
(e-mail from a friend and colleague: "This whole eviction situation has been devastating! Yesterday while working in my studio (which is in my house) I happened to look outside just as a man doubled parked his ridiculously oversized white SUV with blacked out windows directly in front of my house. He rolled down his window and stared up obviously looking at "the property." I felt my blood curdling. This place has been our home, our sanctuary and my studio for the past 7 years and suddenly strangers are treating us like dust mites which need to be evacuated as soon as possible. Being the "Tenants," we are either treated as an income or as a nuisance instead of people with lives, histories, jobs and families. After 7 years of a supposedly good relationship with our landlady, she didn't even have the decency to give us reasonable notice regarding the sale of the house. Instead, she called me late on a Friday afternoon and told me the house would be for sale the following Monday, after admitting that she had thought about it for months. "The realtor will erect the sign on Monday and we have scheduled 4 open houses next week so we can quickly get the whole thing over with, and then we can all just move on with our lives. As you know the real estate market is hot-hot-hot, and I can't afford to miss any opportunities here!"...silence. Dead silence on my end. I was dumbfounded. Over the course of the next week I had to endure not only the shock of being displaced from my home, I was also told that I must cooperate with the intrusion of numerous open houses (which legally I have no right to refuse if given 24 hour notice.) During one of these open houses I overheard a realtor loudly exclaim to his client just how easy it will be to evict tenants from the property. He was sitting on my sofa looking at a copy of our rental agreement, which had been copied numerous times and stapled to each copy of the listing information given away as a handout. The text from the listing actually read, "Live in the HOT-HOT Mission! Live in the Super-Hot Mission near the scene, restaurants and dot-coms!" There is that word again, irritatingly used in multiples. It's disconcerting to think that I am completely invisible but the space which I inhabit is 'hot.'"
Carol is a struggling writer who lives between the Mission and Castro districts of San Francisco on Sanchez Street. She agreed to critique this story and as we went over paragraph after paragraph, she began to riff about her feelings on the subject of gentrification. For her, it's an issue of deep aesthetics, because a neighborhood, such as the Mission in San Francisco, or West Oakland, is a living organism. Beneath its surface is a pulse, a hidden force of creativity that emerges from history, community and the common struggle to carve out a life. This underlying mesh of rhythm is fundamentally beautiful and it is what gives a neighborhood its complex potency and flavor that pours into every detail, every smell, every sound, and every passing moment. Posers move into a neighborhood because they are drawn to its heartbeat. They want to appropriate its color and flavor; to buy it and wear it as fashion, because there is no genuine color or flavor inside of themselves. But they don't participate or give anything back and what ends up happening is that they suck all the life out of the neighborhood upon which they feed. It's utterly parasitic. Posers have a distorted sense of entitlement and what they don't understand is that they are trying to buy something that cannot be bought and cannot be replaced. That force; that surge of creativity, authenticity, and dynamic cultural range, which sustains the core of the Bay Area's character, is being evicted. It is literally being suffocated by greed. Carol's reference to deep aesthetics is not only about the beatitude and integrity of a life force, but what it consists of. The vitality of a neighborhood is generated by the people who live there and among them must be a ground level population. These people are the ones who produce culture, not merely live off of it, and when they are pushed out by a hostile, insipid and unreciprocal demographic, there's nothing left but fluff.
She boiled it all down to the personal scale of my studio,
reminding me that when I leave, I will take the spirit that resided inside
those walls with me.
Loss can be very clarifying. As each layer peeled back, either through the force of my circumstances or my acceptance of them, I began to understand what truly matters. I constantly had to make decisions about what to purge and what to keep, and I was under too much pressure to quibble. Now I'm less attached to the small stuff, because I almost lost everything. Or at least it felt that way, many times, in the solitude of my sadness, fear and anger.
It has been a free fall. And it continues to be. Yet I search for no ledge because there isn't one. Part of the loss is a loss of innocence. No longer is there the faith that others will take care of me, solve my problems, or keep their word. Loss triggers grief, and grief can feel insurmountable times...a solid block. But grief can also be very cleansing if it passes through, and for me, it has been my right of passage. I finally inhabit my own skin. I know what means the most to me, I am trying to live in accord with it, and most of the time, I can provide my own containment. There is no ledge, but there's a bottom line, and I've earned it, because I fought like hell for it and I'm still sane.
I am not my stuff: I am my heart......my little box of treasures...... full of pale, almost peach pink roses....the first thing I open, and the first thing I put in the room...no matter what. And I'll continue to keep it safe. I won a settlement from my landlord, but part of the agreement was that I had to leave my studio. I'm very sad about that. But I've taken my box with me to Athens, Georgia, where I'll be teaching at the University next semester. I need a slower, simpler pace for a while. Then, I'm going to New York, for over stimulation and a stir of the pot.
Pandora got a bad rap...because opening boxes is a
good thing, and I did alot of it, for seventeen years in the Bay Area.
Time will tell if the Bay Area is truly my home; if I'll miss it so badly
that I have to come back for good.
...What's the next line???