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Streets of San Francisco

July 22, 2007|Nina Revoyr

My Dreams Out in the Street

A Novel

Kim Addonizio

Simon & Schuster: 258 pp., $23

NO city was altered by the dot-com boom of the late 1990s more than San Francisco. The shift was marked not only by changes in the visual landscape -- huge new building projects; oversized SUVs huff- ing up the unforgiving streets; scrubbed-clean Internet millionaires of 25 or 30 -- but by a change in the very flavor of the city. The longtime denizens who gave San Francisco its reputation as the capital of bohemia (the artists, gays and hippies; the organic farmers and crystal wearers and sexual outlaws) were pushed out unceremoniously by computer-whiz magnates who could afford the suddenly outrageous cost of housing.

This economic and cultural battle had its amusing moments; in 1999, in the Castro, I heard a group of young women in a gay pride parade chanting, "Yuppie, yuppie took my pad / Yuppie, yuppie, bad bad bad!" But the underlying conflict was serious. Instead of a city where people went in order to become their wildest selves, San Francisco turned into a place to make your fortune.

And yet, while the middle and working classes were being priced out, the "underclass" -- the homeless, and those who traded in drugs and sex -- remained a steady fixture, even growing in number. It is this underclass that Kim Addonizio portrays in her gritty, affecting second novel, "My Dreams Out in the Street." The story here revolves around three such characters in late-1990s San Francisco. They all stumble repeatedly in their attempts to straighten out their lives, but we can't help but root for them in the end.

Rita Jackson is a young homeless woman grappling with the legacy of a violent childhood: At age 13, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who then killed her mother in front of her. Rita craves the escape of heroin and trades sex to get it, while trying to sustain herself on the hope that her estranged husband, Jimmy, will find his way back to her after disappearing more than a year before.

Jimmy, meanwhile, is working in the city as a waiter in a trendy restaurant after a yearlong stint in jail. He too nurtures hopes of reconciliation, but even as he tries to patch his life back together, his impulsive nature makes any real progress nearly impossible.

Addonizio does a brilliant job of allowing us to see the world through Rita's eyes. Rita carries her money in zip-lock bags tucked in her underwear, and sneaks into a bagel shop bathroom to take a standing bath. We feel her coldness as she seeks shelter from torrential rain, and her impatience with the blissfully ignorant people who don't think twice about being safe and dry. We sense her lack of self-worth, which she sees reflected in the eyes of men who treat her as someone they "could handle like a bar of soap, leaving themselves clean and satisfied and her disappearing down to nothing."

Rita wanders from a homeless shelter to the streets to a seedy hotel, where she witnesses two men disposing of a murdered woman's body. This brings her into contact with Gary Shepherd, a criminal investigator whose main occupation quickly becomes Rita. Shepherd is so in love with the dark side that he's a half-step away from becoming one of the people he investigates. Much to the dismay of his wife, Annie, he passes up a lucrative "cubicle job" for work that puts him in the heart of the city's underbelly. Shepherd cannot adhere to his wife's view of the world, represented by her stale photography. "It's not that they were bad photographs. It was just her idea of beauty; it contained no difficulty, no darkness. He couldn't explain to her the kind of beauty he saw in people who were being pushed down, not allowed to bloom. Just that they survived was astonishing to him."

The relationship that develops between Rita and Shepherd is the novel's most complex bond. Shepherd wants to protect Rita from the men involved in the murder -- and from the dangers of her own harsh existence. But his efforts are not totally selfless. He talks of helping her move beyond life on the streets, yet her knack for survival is exactly what draws him to her. He wants to take her away from the brutal economy of sex work while playing out some of his own darker sexual impulses. Rita resists Shepherd's romanticization even as she accepts his protection, and in their ever-shifting dynamic, Addonizio skillfully blurs the line between rescuer and rescued, showing us that so much about our desire to save other people is really a circuitous attempt to save ourselves.

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