Photo by Lola M. Chavez

In the bruising tumult of San Francisco’s housing crisis, Paul Madonna’s On to the Next Dream is the absurdist balm to soothe your sore and weary soul.

Madonna is an artist who for 12 years had a drawing and short essay series called All Over Coffee in the San Francisco Chronicle. You might more immediately recognize him by his detailed sepia-tone line paintings, which have been exhibited at museums around the Bay Area and will enjoy another solo exhibition at the Legion of Honor.

When he was evicted from his home and studio in the Mission District, Madonna decided to reflect on the experience in his Chronicle series. Ultimately, he ended the series but turned those reflections into a book. It’s a ride through his own coming to terms with the fact that he must now move on, as the title implies, to the next dream, and more broadly, a reflection on loss. 

Madonna joined Mission Local on our bi-weekly radio program via to talk about the book. You can listen to that episode below or in our archives

The book is a healing experience, but not because it will make you feel better about yourself. In fact, you might find the stereotype you most identify with skewered on Madonna’s wry metaphor. No, it’s healing because the world that emerges under Madonna’s absurdist, exaggerating lens tells you it’s okay to feel terrible about what’s going on, and to be nonspecifically angry with everyone involved. Put away your economic theories and construction histories and solutions for a moment and just laugh at how ludicrous it all is.

Because the really engrossing thing about On to the Next Dream is how the exaggeration is just enough to nudge reality into the bizarre. I don’t know if someone who doesn’t live here will even get the same thing out of it because the observations are just (sigh) so San Francisco. From the woman who pretends to be pregnant to up her chances of clinching a rental deal, to the tween who buys and then rents out a tent to others waiting in line for an open house, to the startup that commissions Madonna to cover its office windows with paintings of what’s behind them.

But then there are the paintings to consider alongside the text. There are no silly office workers or crazy characters depicted on the pages. Instead, the images are meditations on place, a chance to see what Madonna sees – the beauty of a street corner with an old toy discarded on the corner, the rhythm of an old building’s facade, a dreamscape where you think you might have been before.

The book is not a tragedy of a man desperate to stay in the city he loves. Madonna, like all of us, has his moments where he decides the place is way overpriced and the real San Francisco is dead anyway, but something keeps it unique.

As I stepped over a fresh pile of dog shit, I thought: Screw this place. And everyone in it. Maybe it’s time to leave, find someplace new. Just then a band burst out of a storefront. A bearded white guy pumped an accordion while a lanky black man blew a saxophone. A young Latina jammed on an acoustic guitar and began to sing. Her voice poured over me like warm bathwater and suddenly the world was right again. I slid in with the crowd and began to lose myself in the music until a donation hat was shoved into my chest and a mouth with a face wrapped around it barked, “If you’re not for us you’re against us!” and I fell backwards into the street where a bicyclist flew by and screamed that I was endangering his life. Stumbling, I ran to the other side of the intersection and joined a group of people standing still, staring at their phones, even though the light was green.

That totally happens to each of us like, every weekend, right?

What this book did for me was illustrate the whirlwind of emotion kicked up by the frenzy over apartments in San Francisco. Our local development commentators would do well to read this book, because it’s an easy way to slip out of analysis and into empathy. It makes you feel the injustice of eviction without necessarily pointing a finger at anyone, but doesn’t shield any ridiculous behaviors either. And the satire is just delicious.

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