Lost city

Pub date October 12, 2010
WriterErick Lyle


WRITERS ISSUE With its vast divide between the rich and poor, its lusty appetite for sex, and its backroom real estate deals, it would seem that even the boutique and completely gentrified San Francisco of today offers to writers of crime fiction a rich vein of noir opportunity. Yet the lone novelist today determinedly probing the dark side of San Francisco’s endless battle to clean up the streets is Peter Plate. His latest novel, Elegy Written on a Crowded Street (Seven Stories Press, 176 pages, $13.95), is Plate’s ninth in a hardboiled writing career that spans the era of out of control gentrification in San Francisco. With little fanfare or support, against the real life backdrop of police sweeps of the homeless and the start of the dot com boom, Plate has produced a shelf of books that represent a lonely, yet noble and deeply radical literary effort to write noir crime fiction in which not the cops but the criminals are the protagonists.

Plate’s novels are full of delicious hooks. They reliably begin with some of the best premises in noir fiction today. Fogtown (Seven Stories Press, 2004) opens as a crowd of Market Street homeless and down and outers witness the crash of an armored Brinks truck at dawn that temporarily fills the desolate street with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. In Police and Thieves (Seven Stories Press, 1999), Doojie, a small-time Capp Street weed dealer, accidently witnesses the murder of a homeless man by a police officer and spends the rest of the book on the run from the murderous cop who seeks to silence him.

Like Doojie, Plate’s characters are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling spectators as the city changes around them. The free money in Fogtown offers the Market Street dwellers a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of new carefree life being lived all around them by the rich who have newly arrived to the city. Yet, like the upscale new eateries and clubs popping up everywhere, the money is off limits to them, and those who take the money instantly become, like Doojie, hunted by police. Plate’s strength is in conveying the hopelessness and despair of lone characters pitted in Doestoyevskian battle with societal forces far greater than they are. As they are slowly ground down by this struggle, we feel their terror, incomprehension and paranoia. As the drug dealer and SRO hotel manager, Jeeter, says in Fogtown, “Rights? You don’t have any rights. You have choices. That’s all you have. And you made the wrong one.”

In this context, noir fiction for Plate is protest fiction. A longtime street activist, Plate writes with the gut instincts of a protester, taking his novels right to the barricades where different visions of San Francisco violently clash. One Foot Off The Gutter (Incommunicado, 1995), is a mordant postcard from a Mission District just about to enter its gentrification era in which a homeless cop, a Latino gang member, and a yuppie doctor all covet the same Victorian houses at 21st Street and Folsom. Soon The Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories, 2006) is set in the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street at the height of housing activists’ struggle to save the low income housing from demolition. Plate has so reliably found the pulse of change in the city that at times his work has blurred tragically with reality. Police and Thieves ends with a fire at the Crown Hotel on Valencia Street. Just months after the book’s publication, the real life Crown Hotel burned to the ground.

Since Plate finished his Mission Quartet at the close of the dot-com era, he has turned his attention to San Francisco’s Main Street, Market Street. Recently, in its inaugural issue, the incipient local newspaper San Francisco Public Press reported that one lone real estate speculator owns 62% of the vacant real estate between 5th and 6th on Market Street and that he is willfully leaving those properties vacant until he can make the money he thinks he deserves off of the property. Those uselessly abandoned and boarded up buildings at the very heart of the city are the recurring backdrop for much of Elegy Written On a Crowded Street, perhaps Plate’s darkest and most emotional work to date.

Elegy is not so much a traditional crime fiction thriller, but a lyrical roman noir in which police and thieves battle not each other but the stifling conditions of the city. Plate’s latest evokes Don Carpenter’s 1966 classic Hard Rain Falling (reissued this year by New York Review of Books), an unrelenting work that also took place largely on Market Street. Carpenter’s novel brings to life the old dive 24-hour pool halls and dirty hotel rooms of a 1950s San Francisco where the promise of the Gold Rush American West has faded. The novels’ restless young pool hustlers and small time thieves can only shuttle aimlessly back and forth in the new remote control city, like the 8 Ball, waiting to fall. Elegy’s characters are their descendents, still on Market Street and still waiting.

Down this mean street walks May Jones a tough, hard-drinking bail bondswoman, who is nearing forty with no prospects. Like everyone around her, Jones dreams of escape from the city. Even Jones’ clients are leaving for Portland. “It’s got trees. Good people. Cheap housing,” an erstwhile, young crusty-punk bank robber earnestly tells Jones as she prepares to skip bail. But Jones is condemned to remain, while all around her are the undead ghosts of those already disappeared and the soon to be departed. The cleaned up San Francisco is haunted. The living are exhausted. Jones says to herself, “I have pipelines to the lands of the dead.’

Jones echoes the food stamp caseworker, Charlene Hassler from Plate’s welfare reform novel, Snitch Factory (Incommunicado, 1996). Like Hassler, Jones is being worn down between the insatiable needs of her clients and the treacherous intrigues that surround her job. Jones’ client is Mary Anderson, a pregnant twenty-year-old African-American who has killed her boyfriend, the SFPD’s star snitch on Fillmore Street. By keeping her client out of jail, Jones finds herself on the cops’ shitlist and in fear for her life. As in other Plate novels, a police hunt for Jones ensues. As in other recent Plate novels, after the initial hook, the plot soon becomes murky and this hunt becomes elliptical and hard to follow, perhaps even a bit ridiculous. A plot sideline in which Jones has a brief fling with a dyke she meets at the End Up goes nowhere. The ghosts of Lenin and punk rock legend, Will Shatter make surprise cameos that stretch the reader’s credulity. Yet, Plate’s spot on descriptions of Market Street today and the universe of dread his characters inhabit there remains compelling throughout and one never doubts that the unraveling narrative is what life feels like for his characters. Plate writes with a tightly wound urgency throughout and Elegy makes a persuasive case that what is happening at 5th and Market today is happening to the city as a whole.

Fantastical plot aside, it is the weight of the dead that is the true subject of Elegy. The book opens with a dreamy scene, shrouded in fog, in which Jones watches the dead body of one of her former clients as it bobs up and down in the surf, unable to either reach the shore or go under for good. Some policemen have waded into the water to grapple with the dead man and bring him in, but the body proves too difficult to apprehend and the cops are pulled down with the it into the crashing waves. Throughout Elegy, Plate’s characters similarly bob along, paralyzed and unable to take decisive action, only pulling each other down, and as the novel ends, May Jones is more or less back where she started. Sadly, like many of Plate’s recent books, the novel fails to fully satisfy because there is no resolution to the plot. Plate’s characters do not seem changed by their ordeal; they only become more numb. Yet perhaps that is the point. Plate seems to be saying that as long as the city fails to grapple with its own dead, nothing can change, and the city is condemned to go around and around in a sort-of netherworld, reliving its past traumas in new conflicts. “It’s a moment in hell that should be taking place beneath the ground,” Plate writes of a brutal police assault on a drunken derelict in Elegy, and it sums up the whole book. The dead won’t stay buried.

While an elegy is a funeral song, a lamentation for the dead, it also suggests a last word. With Elegy has Plate said all he has to say about San Francisco? One hopes not. Perhaps no writer working today has left such a record of what it feels like to live in the American city in the era of gentrification. Yet, in life as in Plate’s fiction, knowing the truth can take its toll, as Doojie finds out when he is hunted by the police for the truth he alone knows. By the end of Elegy, May Jones has spent so much time wallowing in the murky depths where her clients dwell, that her identification with them is complete and her fate has become inseparable from theirs.

The exhausted tone of Elegy suggests that like Jones, Plate, the lifelong activist and engaged writer, has perhaps stared into the abyss too long. Nonetheless, his nine novels are a significant achievement, the life’s work of a doggedly engaged writer. In each book, I have found scenes that remain unforgettable in my own mind and that have permanently altered my own perceptions of San Francisco and its streets. While Plate’s novels are each flawed in their own way, I love them with the Algren-like compassion he clearly has for his memorable characters, like the homeless cop who lives in his squad car in Gutter, and the ex-con who robs a pot club while dressed like Santa Claus in Soon the Rest Will Fall. Taken as a whole, Plate’s novels offer a compelling and defiant portrait of the psychic toll the disappearance of loved people, places, and opportunity from the city has taken on those left behind.