Tales of the shitty

Pub date May 27, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW San Francisco is larger than the stories written about it. This is out of necessity: if we all tried to write down everything that happened here, our arms would get tired. And while the city itself is physically and culturally in thrall to many disparate groups, its history is surprisingly open, belonging most often to those who have nothing more than the inclination to take out a pen and start writing.

Exhibit A: Erick Lyle, a punk kid from Florida who makes zines about pulling off petty scams at chain stores. Mix Lyle and San Francisco and something interesting happens — he becomes a bard of the Tenderloin, distributing his missives (written under the name "Turd Caen") out of a stolen newspaper box. He quietly stocks the shelves of the San Francisco Public Library main branch with his work, leaving clippings and photographs in the library’s archives and inserting his zines in the periodicals section.

Lyle’s new book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull Press, 272 pages, $14.95), is more likely to end up in the general collection of the library through official channels. After all, it’s reasonably book-size and reasonably book-shaped. It has an official-sounding title — and one that, charmingly, betrays a Tales of the City-like solipsism.

On the Lower Frequencies reminds me of Armistead Maupin’s early work in other ways too. Both are emblematic of the times in which they were written. Maupin’s characters fret about sex and identity (mostly sex) while squeezing melons at the Marina Safeway, while Lyle and his friends steal from Safeway and worry where to live next. The threat of eviction hovers over Lyle and his friends like an anvil, and they cope with a campy lightheartedness that is almost Judy Garland-esque. All they really want to do is throw parades, play music, paint murals, drink cheap beer, interview the mayor, and look for ancient steam vents. To achieve those ends, they live on the cheap and squat in building after building, often in the half-second before its conversion into condos (in one case, a wrecking ball almost takes out a few of them.)

None of these are uncommon tropes in punk writing, except for the "interview the mayor" part. The stories around that encounter — and the other interactions that the group has with city government — made me realize how insular and formulaic much zine content can be: interviews with bands x and y, a few squatting and train-hopping stories, and maybe one about hooking up with a girl who has a pet rat. Lyle’s writing is unusual in its intense curiosity about various subcultures and its sheer enthusiasm for discovering how the city does (and doesn’t) work.

Long-time fans of Lyle’s writing should note that virtually everything here has already been self-published, and that more than a little is lost in the transition to placid, even typography. It’s too bad On the Lower Frequencies didn’t get the warts-and-all reprint treatment that Last Gasp gave its Cometbus anthology. This book is for lending. Your earlier copies of Scam, if you have them, are for hoarding. The original format just feels, in some indefinable way, more secret. It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say that it’s the difference between exploring a building you’ve always been interested in under legitimate circumstances, and walking by that same building one night and finding the door unlocked. And that there’s a party going on inside. *

Pixel Vision: an interview with Erick Lyle