For many of us—the weird ones, the dissatisfied ones, the ones who get bored easily—young adulthood is less sketched out in events than in geographies. A memorably crazy fuck-buddy situation is inextricably tied to a shitty Pittsburgh apartment; a succession of humiliating jobs is lightened with the sun and sounds of San Diego. A new city can be a canvas on which the young and the angry get to experiment with themselves, to sketch out the boundaries of their personalities.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's whip-raw memoir The End of San Francisco (City Lights, $15.95) is all about that experience, the need to discover who you are by defining yourself in a place. She avoids the clichés of other angry young memoirs by sharing her protagonist role with San Francisco. It's the story of how Sycamore transformed from a drug-addicted, angry gay man named Matthew into an influential queer activist. She partly makes that transformation thanks to San Francisco's culture of tolerance, but it also happens partly out of spite in the face of San Francisco's gentrification and self-satisfaction.
Much of the comfort of moving to a city is finding other people who are just like you:
We were vicious and vibrant, we judged with a purity that can only be imagined when you're really imagining. We held elaborate conversations, debates really, about when and where it was appropriate to shoplift. Some of us thought anywhere was okay, because the actual crime was the selling and marketing.
And some of the pleasure comes from identifying the people who are not like you:
Hipsters were the enemy—we all agreed about that. They were vapid culture vultures who didn't have any politics. They looked kind of like us, so we had to constantly draw the boundaries. We were always talking about how hipsters were taking over, soon there wouldn't be anyone but hipsters in the Mission.
But when you love a city as much as Bernstein Sycamore did, you can't ever really rest. You worry about it dying—cities always die when you're not paying attention—and so you drink and you do drugs and you want to stay awake and watch the city forever through your bleary eyes, to make sure it never changes. You want to see the city remain a temple to your youth and your anger and your hope. And then everything changes, and you have to change, too. And when you leave a city like that, it hurts like hell, but it feels like emerging from a chrysalis, too, because what you're really leaving behind is you.