Money Can't Buy It: How the City of Free Expression Became a City of Righteous Consumers


It’s the classic San Francisco story. In your early 20s, you leave home—some flyover state you’d just as soon forget—and move west, without a plan, which is the point. You stop where Interstate 80 stops, right on the edge of the continent, and unpack the U-Haul into a cramped room in a draughty flat in the Mission or the Lower Haight or the Outer Sunset. You share the space with roommates you’ve never met, work some meaningless job to pay the rent, and use the remaining hours to make art, or fantasize about making art, or just roam around the city, marveling at its fairy-tale beauty and strangeness—and at the fact that you get to call it home.

We can thank Armistead Maupin for the original tale. Back in 1976, Maupin began chronicling the adventures of Midwestern newcomer Mary Ann Singleton in the San Francisco Chronicle. In Tales of the City, Mary Ann was seduced by the dollhouse Victorians pressed shoulder-to-shoulder atop vertiginous hills, the city lights twinkling through the fog, but mostly by the characters, including a transsexual boardinghouse owner and the gay man who became her best friend, with whom her path suddenly crossed. This might be standard fare today, but it was radical at the time. And this was a city of radicals, a place where the rules and restrictions binding the rest of the nation didn’t apply.

Like so many of the young people who flock here, Mary Ann eventually left, moving to New York, where things didn’t quite pan out. Now, in Mary Ann in Autumn, the eighth book in the Tales series released this past winter, she’s back after a 20-year absence.

But it’s not quite the same city she left behind, is it? Love isn’t the only thing that’s not free anymore. In 1976, Mary Ann wanted an apartment with “a view, a deck, and a fireplace, for under $175.” These days, it’s hard to find a studio with exactly none of those amenities for less than $1,400. Forget buying an apartment, unless maybe you work for Google or Yahoo or another mega-corporation with a goofy name that sidled into town in the ’90s and brought a workforce able to pay for jacked-up real estate.

Then again, those ’70s bohemians didn’t lust after real estate so nakedly. They lusted after each other. Now, it’s like we’ve come out of the closet about a different desire: to enjoy the finer things in life, guilt-free. We pamper ourselves with spa pedicures and bacon-encrusted doughnuts, patting ourselves on the back for buying local, buying green. “MacBlueBottle” is what my husband calls the ever-growing chain of micro-roasters. It’s good coffee, if a bit lukewarm, but the half hour spent in line could go to better use—not that you’re allowed to grumble upon reaching the counter. Slow food is a movement, after all.

Some things about San Francisco in 2011 might look deceptively familiar to Mary Ann. Today’s fashion is more than an homage to the ’80s. In the Mission, where I live, the yuppie compulsion to consume and the hipster drive to be cool have merged into a single claustrophobic identity: the yipster. All these girls want to look like Patti Smith, circa Just Kids. But Patti wasn’t spending $300 on skinny jeans.

These days, visitors to San Francisco might be excused for thinking that the search for the authentic self has been replaced by the search for the authentic vintage cocktail. We are in danger of mistaking righteous consumerism for radicalism. Shopping is not a creative act. The freedom to purchase things—even local, artisanal things—is not the same as freedom of expression. Likewise, we’ve started to confuse the adult freedom of making unconventional choices with the more childish freedom to be self-indulgent and silly. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have fun. I’m as guilty as anyone else. I recently took my toddler to San Francisco’s new trampoline park, House of Air, where we watched a group of 30-something yipsters play dodgeball on wall-to-wall trampolines, bangs flopping in their eyes. I couldn’t help but imagine that the scene would have appalled those free spirits of the ’70s who came to San Francisco for the right to be able to express their sexuality, not bounce.

Then again, it’s no wonder people need to jump around like hyperactive children since the dream of constant connectivity means a constant pressure to be working all the time. We treat those proliferating third-wave coffee shops as offices, all of us wired and alone, one laptop per table. Eyes glued to the screen, we’re barely able to appreciate the artistry of the leaf design swirled onto our $4 lattes, let alone take in San Francisco just outside the window.

The city is not the same, and we’re not the same either, my fellow San Franciscans. That got your attention, I hope, if only because we never actually refer to ourselves as San Franciscan. It’s awkward, and yet we don’t have a better term for who we are, nothing that slips off the tongue like New Yorker does. Maybe it’s because we’re a bunch of wanderers who left behind our roots but never quite managed to put down new ones here. We treat this place like a play set, costumed up, and putting on a good show until closing night, when it’s time to strike the whole thing and move on.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Mary Ann came back for a reason. She was homesick, and who can blame her?

Now, as then, San Francisco is a dazzling city. It remains a haven for progressives, a place where two men or two women can make out on any street corner with relatively little risk and where kids from towns where that isn’t true can run away to, hoping to find freedom. It’s a bubble, sure, but it always was. As for the posers, this is California: A little fakery is part of the fun. And while our eyes may buzz from too much screen time, the Internet does bring strangers together in a tangled web of possibilities and intersecting plotlines, all of us searching for rooms, jobs, furniture, and love—trying our best to stake a claim on this sandy, shaky ground.


SF native and Stanford writing instructor Malena Watrous is the author of last year’s If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial). She is currently at work on a second novel.

*Published in the April 2011 issue of 7x7  magazine. 

Related Articles
Most Popular
From Our Partners