Rachel Kushner: “The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020”

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Author, Rachel Kushner. Photo by Gabby Laurent.

An illegal motorcycle race, a Palestinian refugee camp, the prison abolition movement, the writer Clarice Lispector, a notable Italian movie, a young life in the music scene of San Francisco, and more: Rachel Kushner speaks about creating a through line for a career-spanning collection of nineteen essays in “The Hard Crowd.” These essays plunge into worlds pulsing with life beyond the writer; and she says the essays speak to each other. There is tonal fluidity between literary journalism, memoir, cultural and social criticism, with each essay passing the torch from one to another. It’s not about reflection it’s about reporting on action.

Excerpt from “The Hard Crowd” by Rachel Kushner

The Hard Crowd

I’ve been replaying film footage I found on YouTube that was shot in 1966 from a car slowly moving along Market Street, at night, in downtown San Francisco, the city where I grew up. The film begins at Ninth and Market and moves east through Civic Center, past multiple bright signs and theater marquees against the night sky, their neon, in pink, red, and warm white, bleeding into the fog. This 1966 view of Market is before my time and not quite the street I recall. It’s fancier, with all this electric glitz. Neon is a “noble” gas. Whatever else that means it fits this eerie film.

Civic Center was where we kids went looking for trouble. In the daytime, cutting school to flip through racks of poster displays in head shops, and at night, going to the Strand, a theater where grown-ups would share their Ripple wine and their joints. This section of Market is on the southern edge of the Tenderloin, where the first among my friends, older than the rest of us, got a job, at age fifteen, working at KFC on Eddy Street. Her employment there seemed impossibly mature and with-it, even if Eddy Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin, scared me. She had money and the independence it buys. As soon as I turned fifteen, I copied her and got hired at Baskin-Robbins on Geary. Spent my after-school days huffing nitrous for kicks while earning $1.85 an hour.

At sixteen, I graduated to retail sales at American Rag, a large vintage clothing store on Bush Street that later, suspiciously, burned down. Business was slow. I straightened racks of dead men’s gabardine, slacks and jackets that were shiny with wear, and joked around with my coworker Alvin Gibbs, a bass player from a semi-famous punk band, the UK Subs. On my shift break, I wandered Polk Street, past the rent boys who came and went from the infamous Leland Hotel. It, too, later burned.

The Tenderloin KFC is still there. It gets withering Yelp reviews, but what do people expect. The Baskin-Robbins where I worked is gone. You might think personal memories can’t be stored in the generic features of a global franchise, and so what does it matter. I also figured as much, until my mother talked me into having breakfast at an IHOP where I’d been a waitress, for the purpose of a trip down memory lane. “Why bother,” I’d said to her. “Every IHOP is identical.” I was certain nothing of me could linger in a place of corporate sameness, but she insisted. We sat down in a booth for two, and I was plunged into sense memory. The syrup caddies on each table, which I’d had to refill and clean after each shift, the large iced tea canisters, sweet and unsweetened, the blue vinyl of the banquettes, the clatter from the kitchen with its rhythmic metal-on-metal scraping of grease from the fry surface, the murmur of the TV from the break room where girls watched their soaps. A residue was on everything, specific and personal. My mother sat across from me, watching me re-encounter myself.

This YouTube footage of Market Street in 1966 is professional-grade cinematography, perhaps shot for insert in a dramatic feature. I want to imagine it was an outtake from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt but I have no evidence except it’s around the right time. The camera, like the car we can presume it rides in, pauses at an intersection just beyond a glowing pink arrow pointing south. Above this bright arrow is “Greyhound” in the same bubblegum neon, and “BUS” in luminous white. This is how I know we are at the intersection of Seventh and Market.

The Greyhound station was still on Seventh, just south of Market, when I moved to San Francisco in 1979, at age ten. There were men sleeping on the sidewalk outside the station in the middle of the day. This is normal now, but in 1979, it was not. I don’t remember this pink neon sign for Greyhound, but the station, now gone, remains vivid. It had an edge to it that was starkly different from the drab, sterile, and foggy Sunset District, where we lived. I remember a large poster just inside the station entrance that featured an illustration of a young person in bell-bottoms and a phone number: “Runaways, call for help.” And I can still summon the rangy feel of the place, of people moving around who were not arriving or departing but lurking, native inhabitants of an underground world that flourished inside the bus station.

Next to Greyhound, up a steep stairwell, was Lyle Tuttle’s tattoo parlor. Janis Joplin and the Allman Brothers had gotten tattoos there, likely while playing gigs around the corner at the Warfield, where I later tended bar. My oldest friend from San Francisco, Emily, a fellow Sunset girl, got her first tattoo at Lyle Tuttle’s when we were sixteen. This was the 1980s and tattoos were not conventional and ubiquitous like now. There were people in the Sunset who had them, but outlaw people. Like the girl in a house on Noriega where we hung out when I was twelve or thirteen, whose tattoo, on the inside of her thigh, was a cherry on a stem and in script the words “Not no more.” I remember walking up the steep steps to Lyle Tuttle’s with Emily, entering a cramped room where a shirtless man was leaning on a counter as Lyle Tuttle worked on his back. “You guys are drunk,” Tuttle said. “Come back in two hours.” If anyone cared that my friend Emily was under eighteen, I have no memory of it and neither does she.

Later, I briefly shared a flat on Oak Street with a tattoo artist named Freddy Corbin, who was becoming a local celebrity. Freddy was charming and charismatic with glowing blue eyes. He and his tattoo-world friends lived like rock stars. They were paid in cash. I’d never seen money like that, casual piles of hundred-dollar bills lying around. Freddy drove a black ’66 Malibu with a custom plate. He had diamonds in his teeth. Women fawned over him. Our shared answering machine was full of messages from girls hoping Freddy would return their calls, but he became mostly dedicated to heroin, as did his younger brother, Larry, and Larry’s girlfriend Noodles. Larry and Noodles lived upstairs and came down only once every few days, to answer the door, receive drugs, go back upstairs. Later I heard they both died. Freddy lived, got clean, is still famous.

The shadow over that house is only one part of why I never wanted a tattoo. I find extreme steps toward permanence frightening. I prefer memories that stay fragile, vulnerable to erasure, like the soft feel of the velvet couches in Freddy’s living room facing Oak Street, where we all hung out. Plush, elegant furniture bought by someone living a perilous high life.

Excerpted from The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 by Rachel Kushner. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Kushner. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved.