They Want Our Bones

This is a guest post from my friend Fernando Marti. He sent this to me a few weeks ago, and I shared it with a few friends. We all loved it, so I thought it should have a wider audience and a more accessible home than just a file being passed around. Enjoy!

“They want our bones, y’know,” she said, motioning with her head down the row of tables at the café. There was a single person sitting alone at each of the tables along the wall, each young pale face lit blue by the glowing screens in front of them, the little logos on the laptop covers pulsing with their own life. I looked over to the woman sitting at the table next to me, a little slouched over her coffee, to make sure it was me she was talking to. She was a short thin lady, gray hair tied back in a tight ponytail, black dress made of heavy cloth, looking a bit like an aging Mexican goth rocker. I think maybe I had seen her before at this café, selling handmade sage bundles, but we had never talked before. Now she leaned over towards me, as though she was confiding a secret.

Y qué?” she said, some kind of question about I don’t know what. “It’s not their jobs we want,” and she motioned with her head again. “Or that they avoid our city buses and get on their own private tinted-window double-deckers like they’re on their way to the airport or something. And it’s not their pink-moustached cars with their drivers’ heads down on their text pads cutting off the old ladies like they’re johns looking for a hookup. Or that they crowd our sidewalks silently scrolling their fancy phones waiting for hand-dripped coffees that take twenty minutes to make, what’s that?” She almost seemed to laugh, looking down at her coffee, but it wasn’t really a laugh. She talked in a run-on, like she had a lot to say and too little time to say it, sometimes low as a whisper, then rising to where I think the other customers were starting to look at us. “It’s not what’s different about them, y’know? That’s not why we hate them, although maybe that would be a good reason. You know what it is? It’s that they want to be like us.” She let it sit there, and I nodded to her, “M-hmmm,” went back to my work.

Poster from Mutiny Radio event on Saturday March 1 at 21st and Florida in San Francisco's Mission District.... thanks to Art Hazelwood and the other artists!

Poster from Mutiny Radio event on Saturday March 1 at 21st and Florida in San Francisco’s Mission District…. thanks to Art Hazelwood and the other artists!

      I’d been meeting a new client at this café. We had talked through the issues with the little in-law addition she wanted to make to her house, some of the structural problems we’d have to deal with, and how to present it to the Building Department so they wouldn’t raise too many questions. Designing in-laws was my stock-in-trade these days. Sometimes a client wanted a ceramics studio, or a private theater, or a kids’ play room, but mostly, they wanted a place to rent out, and with the way rents were sky-high right now, they could recoup their loan in five years, and then it was all gravy. I worked out of my house, and I liked to meet clients at this café. It had good character, with mismatched tables and yellowing old posters of Che Guevara and that Marcos guy with the ski mask, and a cast of old guys playing chess in one corner. I think it must have been around for a long time, certainly before I moved here, one of the holdouts from when this was still a low-rent area, and though the coffee wasn’t the fanciest, the place was usually not too loud. Now the client had left, and I was trying to type up my notes on my own laptop, with my neighbor at the next table interrupting me after short pauses.

“When the banks redlined us and the landlords fled to the suburbs and the builders sank their money into cow fields with names like Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, we stayed on, y’know, slogging through radioactive naval stations and shuttered canneries and closed down bulkheads slipping into the Bay. We stayed on through the urban renewal bulldozers and the sinking of the subway tracks through our streets, and we lived through the vacant theaters and the guns and the crack and the meth and the heroin, and we made music and filled the dance halls every Friday and painted the streets and drove our carruchos real low, through all that, y’know?” She looked out the big storefront window, where a police car drove by, and the pigeons gathering crumbs on the sidewalk suddenly shot into the air. “When we fled from the fields and all that unchristian town bigotry, this city welcomed us, and when we came seeking refuge from the death squads and the NAFTA dust bowls this city gave us sanctuary. I love this city, soy libre en la ciudad…” She cupped her two hands around her coffee cup, staring at the dark liquid for a long time before taking her next sip. “When we crowded three families to a drafty old Victorian, or six day workers forced to share a bed in shifts in a dingy SRO room, where were they? When the tranny bars rioted and the cop emptied his gun in the Mayor’s head and our parks turned into tent cities, where were they? When we shut down the city, again and again, against wars and for the workers and for the immigrants, where were they?” Her voice quivered, getting louder, and I couldn’t ignore her anymore. I was suddenly very conscious that I looked just like those other people sitting with their laptops, except I didn’t look as white or just out of college, and maybe that’s why she decided she could confide in me.

“And now what is it they want? It’s not those shiny new towers and antiseptic chain store neighborhoods they’re building downtown. Have you been down there? It’s like they’re trying to remake our city like LA or Miami, it’s the only way they seem to know how to build now, big shiny boxes with no character that could be dropped down anywhere, and I don’t think any of those people live down there for more than three years, they’re either short-term boomtown workers stuck in some 150 square foot “micro-unit” or whatever they call those new holding cells, or they get pregnant and they’re back to their ‘burbs, y’know? Or they know that area’s all built on mud-fill and it’s going to be underwater in fifty years anyway…” She looked back at the people on their laptops. “I don’t think even they can afford those homes, and even if they could, like that Zuckerberg guy, it’s not those shiny towers that they really want. They want what we have. They want our bones…”

The café was in the old Latino neighborhood in the city, with murals along the back alley walls and ice cream vendors on the street and things like that, though it’s changing a lot, of course, like every neighborhood in the city, except for the fog belts to the south. They do this crazy Day of the Dead thing around Halloween, where they dress up like dancing skeletons and build altars on the stoops of the old houses, with candles and photos of people who’ve died that year. So her comment about bones didn’t seem too surprising to me somehow.

“You know how they built this city?” she asked, and I shook my head, not sure what kind of answer she was looking for. “A bunch of little speculators, not so different from them, I guess, East Coast gringos and fresh-off-the-boat Irish, cutting up land they stole from the Mexicans, who stole it from the Catholic Missionaries, who stole it from the Indians, using cookie cutter plans they got through mail-order catalogs, hacking down redwoods up and down the coast that had been there since Jesus Christ, building themselves a little shop with an apartment up top, or a little shack in the back of a vacant lot to live in while they built their three-story flats out front. Y’know how the people from the suburbs are always confused about which room is supposed to be the living room or the dining room or the bedroom? They just called them “parlors,” there was room for everyone in those old Victorians, the bachelor and the big family and the single mom, and then they rented them out to the next set of bohemians or immigrants coming to work in the waterfront or the canneries or the coffee mills and chocolate factories or whatever, from Japan or Louisiana or El Salvador, just regular people, y’know, working people. That’s how they built this city. That’s the bones…”

“The bones,” I liked that, I was going to have to use that phrase with my clients. She was right about how great those Victorians were, if sometimes a little unwieldy for modern living, no garages or insulation and drafty wooden windows and all that. She could have stopped right there, and we could have had a good conversation about architecture, but after a short pause, she went on:

“It’s not their money we hate, but that they hate us.” She looked back at the row of tables with the hipsters heads down in their laptops, lowered her voice and went on. “They don’t think that they hate us, that’s the sad part of it, it’s like soldiers sent off to fight in some faraway country that they don’t understand, they even start to think they might like us, or might want to be like us. They think they like our culture, or our murals or our music, or the funkiness of an old shopping street with signs in Spanish and Chinese and Vietnamese and weird smells they never had back where they came from…”

“But they don’t. They have declared war. Because they want what we have, they want our homes and our little storefronts and our streets, and they have the means to take them. They have weapons with their own secret codenames, like “Ellis” and “O.M.I.” and “T.I.C.” And then they remake the spaces they took away from us, add a floor or make it look like something out of an architecture magazine, or clear out a whole street of its lavanderías and hardware stores and taquerías or soul food or pho shops, all at once, and start selling ten dollar coffees and boutique underwear and local organic raw vegan shit or whatever else they’re into this particular year.”

She stared out the window for a long time before going on. “They hate us, and we hate them.” Her voice had gotten firm and serious, but not necessarily hateful, more angry and annoyed, the way one sounds when talking about hating the ants that have invaded your kitchen. “We hate them even though we know they’re only the foot soldiers, working long hours like us and drinking whiskey to get through it, even if they have million dollar IPOs dangling in front of them and we only have a Lotto scratcher at the corner bodega. We hate them even when we know their cocaine ain’t gonna last them past the next bust when the capitalists move on to sink their stolen loot elsewhere, and they pack all their broken coded dreams and Twitter accounts into a U-haul back to their parents’ suburbs, with their bright memories of their brief exciting life in the big city, and the real estate agents and speculators and developers laugh all the way to the bank.” I could imagine her now squashing ants on her kitchen counter, one by one under her fingers.

“We hate them because it’s war we’re living through, and we can’t afford to feel sorry for their sorry asses, it’s an asymmetric war, like they used to say about the wars back South, and we have to hate them to survive. It’s easy to hate the soldiers, though, the occupiers, even as the generals move their chess pieces and the President’s men fatten their accounts. We have to get organized, we have to strike back. ” She shook her head, looking at me for a long time while her voice trailed off: “And when we do, I hope we choose our targets carefully…”

~ fm, San Francisco, November 2013

2 comments to They Want Our Bones

  • Tuggle

    This was a thoughtful piece, I’m pleased I tracked it down and I’ll certainly be back to see what other readers have to say regards the issue. Again, thank you, appreciated it.

  • Francesca Rosa

    Excellent piece. Thanks for this. They do, indeed, want our bones.

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