by Ryder W. Miller
It is hard to know where to begin this personal tale, this literary tour about my perceived identity and the city of San Francisco. Was it the Loma Prieta earthquake just after I moved to San Francisco, or was it my time earlier on the Rock with the National Park Service? I have been left to wonder how this city welcomed me to become a member of the American literati. It is hard to understand if I have been given gifts or if I have been excluded and punished. I call myself American, because I was not born here, and yet I no longer really belong to NYC, where I was born, either. I have become a new person in the city.
It is hard for the alienated not to feel a bit ungrateful. Writers, they say, are not supposed to have friends, but I don’t know who came up with that one. Having no friends could give one a lot of free time. I guess I should be grateful, but I am no longer in contact with those people to thank them.
I did not have to make the decision about whether or not I would be considered literary; it was in my first name. ‘Ryder’ sounds a lot like ‘writer.’ It was what was given to me by artistic parents. It was how I said hello, until I started going instead as ‘Ryan’ with strangers. I learned eventually that I should hide my name; more on that later. By going as ‘Ryan,’ I would not need to spell out my first name to everybody I met. The name ‘Ryder’ does not always register with virgin ears. People have heard the name ‘Ryan’ before.
I found the need to say “Oh yeah, like the trucks,” or as in the famous actress Winona Ryder. When I got into writing art and having fun on the art scene, I started by trying to remind people that there once was a Gilded Age painter named Albert Pinkham Ryder. There was also a book by Djuna Barnes about the painter called Ryder. He loved to spend time by the sea at night. His ocean paintings were mythic. I found paintings of his at the DeYoung, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in Washington, D.C..
There is also a hip hop musician with the same name as I, but I have a W. as a middle initial.
But I did not know to use a fictitious first name from the get-go.
My relatives tended to show things, or to communicate through others rather than explain. It was a learned literary goal which made writing come to life: Show, don’t tell. I got some advice from others, but I learned a lot from the movies. Movies could send you a message if someone prepared you to look for it. I found that I had enough time to keep up with modern stories by watching the movies, rather than by reading contemporary fiction. Sadly, modern movies have more action than literary content these days. San Francisco, however, was a great movie town with all sorts of film festivals.
Most people, it seemed, were not raised on the magic of movies and books. They could be fairy tales, because the plots were more interesting if they were about rulers, heroes, and successes, rather than about the down-trodden. Books about the everyman could have huge symbolic and mythical meanings, but sometimes it is a pleasure to escape into a fairy tale world and be among the monarchy. Anna, for example, could socialize with the King.
San Francisco seemed like a good destination to find liberals and peace activists, but I, in my early twenties, was in for a surprise. I had taken a vow of non-violence, but there was still some Brooklyn in me. Young adulthood can be dangerous, even in San Francisco. Many find themselves in the military, or making the adjustments necessary to keep out of jail. There is also all sorts of concerted pressure from people who are smaller, weaker, or frailer than you. One can graduate out of that time, sooner rather than later if they are lucky.
San Francisco beckoned when I was offered a position by the GGNRA on Alcatraz. I was kind of too young to be doing what I was doing, especially without family around. Maybe they were trying to chase me away? Maybe they were giving me a story? I had to learn a hard lesson on the Rock, and I had to start over again. I made sense for the NPS because someday I could tell stories, but I was more of a journalist and an activist than a government tour guide. If I wanted to spend time in the outdoors, I would have to do so on my days off. There are plenty of storytellers for the National Park Service, including the late Edward Abbey, who really had to rough it but became famous writing about the outdoors.
Before that strange movie commercial where the extraterrestrials attack a park, I thought about setting a sci-fi movie in a remote national park with the park staff deciding what to do about it. But I probably would no longer find it funny.
It turned out that a lot of people seemed to have story ideas for me, and I guess a writer is an interesting choice for an example, e.g., “they could write about it.” Maybe I could someday tell their story, or maybe I was being warned not to. Maybe I had to wait? Or maybe I had to forgive and forget?
Life can be confusing and worrisome for the storyteller, especially in a city where there is conflict.
People did not always like what everybody said about each other in this sometimes cold town, and I guess the pressure would go up if someone could write the insults down. And though this was, supposed to be one of the friendliest cities in the country I could not help wondering if things could really be that much worse elsewhere. There may be less friendliness in the city by the estuary, but at least things there usually did not turn violent. There are still a lot of people setting their own boundaries and a lot of spitting on the ground.
Predating also could be unnerving. I wrote a poem about it:
This is who I am,
This is what I will do.
Harsh sometimes, but better to be prepared.
Not too surprising for a town where someone was doing you a favor by saying “See you soon.”
Part of the reason for this was that people said some nasty things about each other, especially to protect the children, but this was probably going around all over the country. We all were responsible. These were the kinds of things you would not want others to hear. In some parts of town it was dangerous, and there was definitely some posturing on the buses sometimes. As a writer, I could write about it and take it in the meantime.
One also needed to be worried about being caught “reading,” especially works by certain authors, in the city.
Here I was also to chronicle the tale some may have thought about, but people did not expect me to want to listen to all that had transpired. I had a smile because I had heard it all already and was happy to be socializing with people, but how would they know that? The threats came in. It was part of being young, different, from elsewhere, and bigger. It could make one crazy in the city.
I had wanted to write science fiction, and later realistic stories, but now I was a somewhat funny dark humor writer and epic fantasy writer. If my memory was better, I would consider writing a funny memoir about my life called The Threats. Actually probably not; just joking. It was “gris for the mill” for me.
One needs to either make it or grow older for things to change, but I am sure there are plenty of frustrations to go around among the successful also.
San Francisco, though, is great in terms of statues, street names, and plaques about its famous historical writers. Why, there are even some poems on the sidewalks.
Some of the names that jump out at you are folks like Jack London, Frank Norris, Jack Kerouac, Alice B. Toklas, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Micheline, and others. There are tributes and plaques for William Saroyan, Dashiell Hammet, Robert Lee Frost, Randolph Hearst, and others. We haven’t even made it into Golden Gate Park yet. Our main library is incredible, and there is an interesting talk about California’s literary and historical successes almost every month.
The city celebrates its famous regional voices, but it is not clear if they were always welcome. That comes with the territory. Many a writer finds themselves alone, and maybe a social tourist who never really belonged or was welcome.
The city does have its enclaves for those who seek like kinds, but it also has its rivalries and grudges. One may need to find their own way, and it is hard still to be original.
Patience and growth is helpful. One needs determination to succeed. In the city, one need find their way.
If successful, one could blather about it for strangers, rather than friends.
There is a lot of freedom in the city.
From the San Francisco Bay Area, one could expect almost anything.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.