MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people, each with their own experience of the Mission. It’s part of a soon-to-be-published zine, MyMission, I Know My Streets, which will include resource, memory and cultural maps.
Since Michelle Tea arrived in San Francisco, she’s written seven books, edited three, started a poetry night that has became a traveling roadshow, and made writing seem like something that is, if not effortless, extremely fun. She currently organizes the RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library.
Mission Local: Why did you move to the Mission?
Michelle Tea: It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted — like almost all of the storefronts were closed.
I was trying to make money by reading tarot on Haight Street, but I didn’t want to be too commercial and so I would say, just pay me what you can. And people would actually give me a rock. Like, “Here. I want you to have this rock.” Or they would give me a single cigarette, but I didn’t smoke.
While I was doing this I met this guy. He was a little weird, but he told me about how to get food stamps. I remember getting my first little envelope of them and going into the old Rainbow Grocery. I came out with this huge bag of groceries, including a bunch of carrots that had the little leafy tops still on them.
I’d grown up in a working-class, urban area. I’d never seen a carrot with the top on it before. It was the most exotic food I had ever purchased. I was like, “Thanks, government!”
ML: Did you ever go out to eat?
MT: I mostly ate at Pancho Villa at 16th and Valencia. Although it took me until a year ago to try the chicken chile verde. I’ve eaten that for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And I would eat in cafés. There was a place called Mission Grounds that was on 16th Street right next door to Adobe Books. I wrote a bunch of books there. There was all this outside seating and you could sit there all day. I would order iced coffee and then just get refill after refill.
ML: You sat outside? On the sidewalk?
ML: How do you avoid that whole problem of people walking up to you and asking you what you’re writing about?
MT: That happens more in bars. And when it happens I am always just an asshole right away, because it’s always dudes and they’re always coming up to you because a woman, and you’re alone, and they’re fascinated by that.
ML: We just did a story on how Valencia Street used to be full of lesbian businesses. Were any of them still around when you lived there?
MT: There were no specifically lesbian spots in the Mission in the early ’90s. Except for the Bearded Lady, which was so amazing. And the bookstore, Old Wives’ Tales. I think that might have been one of those bookstores that refused to carry On Our Backs [PDF] because of second-wave feminist damage. Though you should fact-check that. It could also be that I went into Old Wives’ Tales, saw a copy of On Our Backs, and was horribly offended because I had second-wave damage, and therefore never went back.
Anyway, I do remember going in there when I first moved to the city and seeing this woman, Dani, that I knew from UMass Boston. I’d only gone there for one semester before dropping out, but Dani hooked me up. She found me a house-sit for a week. She told me to go to the Bearded Lady. And she found me a job.
ML: Where was it?
MT: It was at the IWW — the Wobblies’ office. The IWW is this anarchist labor union. It exists more for history’s sake than for actual organizing. It’s not very functional. Dani told them all these lies that I had done all this organizing in Boston that I hadn’t actually done.
ML: Did you do any organizing at the IWW?
MT: No. I was actually running their office. I wrote letters. I stamped cards. People would join the union not because it gave them actual protection, but because it had this cool history. I don’t know quite what I did there. Oh — I know. I used their copy machine to make poetry chapbooks for me and my friends. I felt that I was reappropriating their technology for something that was very much in line with what the original Wobblies would have done.
ML: And why was the Bearded Lady so great?
MT: It wasn’t a bar, for one thing. It was started by three punk queers with no resources. They were pirating electricity half of the time, and making eggs in the espresso steamer. It had good art. It was friendly, and welcoming. It had great performances at night. Kris Kovick would put on these bizarre shows. I would spend all day there. I would get there, order drinks at the counter, and by the end of the night I’d be performing on the counter.
There was another gay spot, now that I’m remembering. The first place I kissed a female in San Francisco is now the Kilowatt, but back then it was a queer punk dance club called Paula’s Clubhouse. Every Tuesday there was a night called Junk, and before that there was something called the Underground 99 Cent Video Club. It was run by this guy called Jeffrey Winter, who had this alter ego called Fabian, who would wear all these leisure suits. You could go to the Video Club, pay your 99 cents, and Fabian would show all these weird short underground queer films. And then you could stay for the dance party.
So I went there, and I remember that some girl asked me if I wanted to get spanked for charity. I still had my second-wave feminist damage and was horrified — like, spanking is bad! And then there were all these punk girls there. I couldn’t believe it. Punk queer girls! We started moshing and then this girl and I were swinging each other around and we wound up making out.
Paula’s didn’t last long after I moved to SF, but it was magical. I remember walking by there once on a warm night and hearing the sound of singing through the open doors. I peeked inside and it was Justin Bond. Now he’s a Tony-award winner, and lives in New York, but then he was just performing at Paula’s.
ML: Why did Paula’s close?
MT: I don’t know. Gentrification gets blamed, but gentrification wasn’t always the reason we lost places. The reason we lost the Chameleon was because the owner had a really bad drug problem, spiraled out of control, and lost the bar. The reason we lost the Bearded Lady is that it was never really a sustainable business, although people tried really hard to make it one.
ML: Now you work as a writer full-time. When was your last non-writer job?
MT: Well, only part of what I do now is writing. I do a lot of readings and literary organizing through RADAR Productions. We have federal funding through the NEA, and San Francisco Arts Commission funding, and that’s enough to pay me and Elizabeth Pickens.
I think 2007 is when I finally stopped my last day job. I was keeping one day a week at Books, Inc. in the Castro, but it was a Sunday, and I kept having to turn down reading gigs that would have paid me more than a day at Books, Inc., and so I finally quit. Even though I was terrified that without a “real job” I was going to lapse into poverty.
Then I had one weird last gasp of a job handing out free Camel cigarettes to people. I’d started smoking again, so that was great. But I had to — every time I gave out a pack of cigarettes I would have to take a photograph of the person I’d given them to holding their ID. And people would look at me like I was a narc or or something. Or they would recognize me and say things like, “I read your book The Chelsea Whistle. What are you doing here?”
And people were so sanctimonious. “How can you respect yourself and do this job at the same time?” And I’m like, “I used to be a prostitute!” It was actually, prostitution aside, the best hourly I ever made — $15.
ML: What was the best of the day jobs?
MT: Working at Books, Inc., definitely. Being around books all day…handling books all day…shelving books very slowly so that I had time to read the books while I was shelving them. They liked that I was a writer. They understood. Unlike — I worked at Clothes Contact once for about a week. When I handed in my résumé it was held together with a little hair clippy, which I thought was really clever.
ML: It got you the job.
MT: It got me the job. But it was one of those jobs where there was nothing to do and so they made you pretend to do things. Like, “Go color-coordinate those flannels.”
ML: So where’s the first place you read your writing?
MT: The first bar I ever performed at was the Chameleon at 17th and Valencia. It was at Bucky Sinister’s poetry night.
ML: Oh, is that the bar where the owner used to just spontaneously kick people out for no reason?
MT: No. A lot of people should have been kicked out, but you would actually have to stab someone in the neck with a knife until they were dead to get kicked out of the Chameleon. People would actually brawl at the Chameleon. I remember one where poets were hitting each other over the head with chairs.
ML: What was the brawl about?
MT: I don’t know. In the early ’90s there was something about the accessibility of the open mic poetry night, combined with the coolness it had then. A lot of incredibly cool people did perform there — Ali Liebegott, Beth Lisick — but it also attracted a lot of people with drinking problems, and more problems beyond that — people who had fallen through the social services cracks. Like Omer Travers, that guy who runs around the Mission playing the guitar who looks kind of like David Lee Roth? He would perform there.
And there were a lot of guys who would read incredibly sexist poetry. One of the poets actually stenciled “Sexist Poetry Night” outside the door of the Chameleon. Her name was Delta O’Hare. She was a good poet.
ML: How was their poetry sexist?
MT: You know, these guys read a little Bukowski and thought that getting drunk and playing grab-ass was what poets did. It’s like that great Exene Cervenka line, “Not every drunk is going to write a poem.” The reason Sini Anderson and I started Sister Spit was because we knew there were a lot of women who were never going to perform at the Chameleon.
ML: But you kept performing there.
MT: It was great. It was very combative. And it was impossible for it to not be combative, because someone would read something so offensive that you had to start heckling them. I was so mad when that place got sold and renamed Amnesia. To me, that summed up everything about the Mission and gentrification. Amnesia! They actually named the bar Amnesia!
ML: So where did Sister Spit start?
MT: This is really funny. It actually started at Blondie’s, which is the grossest bar on Valencia. Before it was reinvented as a chocolate martini bar, it was a completely dead bar — just a few old guys and maybe three working-class dykes. And because it was dead, it was incredibly easy to get a night. But the woman who owned the place was so crazy. I remember her coming down in her bathrobe or her terrycloth towel and her tattooed-on eyeliner, yelling at us. Like, she didn’t want us to go behind the bar and touch the stereo, but we needed to use the stereo because we ran our mics through the stereo. That sort of thing. We brought her bar so much business, and she just hated us.
But then one of the first acts who performed there brought a decapitated pig’s head with her. We put down tarps. They were going to cut it in half with a chainsaw as I think some kind of statement against oppression. But there happened to be an animal rights activist in the audience who was totally traumatized and — counterintuitively — stole the pig’s head and ran down Valencia Street with it. So the owner of Blondie’s may have had more reason to hate us than I’m letting on.