Life on Octavia Boulevard
It is the spring semester of 2010 at SF State. As the clock ticks ten minutes past 2 p.m. all the journalism students that are on time grab a seat in the computer lab room on the third floor of the Humanities building, waiting for Professor Yvonne Daley to come in and start the reporting class. At the far end of the classroom, some students are busy on the computers, typing last minute edits on their articles, others wait patiently, ready for the professor. Daley always enters with a stack of papers and a smile. Her colorful ensembles give a hint of her waggish personality and amusing way of telling stories. She never forgets to advise her class, week after week, that to report is to carefully observe everything that is going on in the neighborhood. Talking to the homeless man that walks down the street every day is just as informative as interviewing a city supervisor. She often uses the book she is working on as an example of how reaching out to her surroundings has sparked stories and conversations with characters she has come to know. She is calling her book Octavia Boulevard, after the street of the same name in San Francisco.
A year later, Octavia Boulevard sits on the shelves at Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street. The memoir is a composition of characters living in and around her home on the boulevard. As she tells their stories, she scratches the surface on some of San Francisco’s largest issues, such as homelessness. Daley explores how a city so vibrant can hold a dark side as well. As a professor, she has mentored many aspiring journalists with her witty remarks and influential personality. As a writer, it is compelling what about Octavia Boulevard influenced Daley to write a book.
I enter her office located on the third floor of the Humanities building. This time not as a student checking my progress or a grade, but as a journalist writing a brief on her new book. She welcomes me with a smile, as always, and recommends to place a pillow before I sink into her colorful couch. I take my recorder out, along with my notebook and pen, making sure to remember all the advice she gave me when I would sit in front of her reporting class. “My forehead is burnt,” Daley mentions and smiles, as she pats it down with the palm of her hand. The weather had been sunny for those couple of days and Daley made sure to enjoy every bit of it in the city.
“When I first started writing Octavia Boulevard, it was in two different kinds of writing. One was emails back home to my husband, who lives in Vermont,” Daley pauses. “And the other one was more journalistic or narrative about the neighborhood and the various things I was observing.” After sharing some of the material she was writing to the women in her writing group, they convinced her to become part of the story, mixing her observations with the journalistic aspect of what she had written. For journalists, the first rule is to be objective (whatever that is) and to not include personal responses. But in this case, Daley realized a need to include her thoughts on persons shooting up outside her building and the disparity between so much money in a city where the very wealthy live among the very poor, and the middle class seems to be disappearing. “Once I started doing that, I could really see that that was the way to tell this story,” says Daley.
“You know, as a journalist, you have this much room, to tell this story, for this format, and there is all this stuff that you can’t tell, along with your own response to the story.””
Becoming the narrator also served as a way to address other issues Daley felt important, such as the successes and failures of the counterculture; her generation. “I feel that we blew up,” she slightly giggles. “…our parents notions of propriety and asked for a lot of freedoms and got them, but two things happened. One is that a lot of people gave up the battle and the second is this thing called unintended consequences,” she slightly giggles again. “Such as when you close down institutions with four people with mental illness or drug addiction and you do not create some system to take the place of that institution, you end up with people on the streets who can’t take care of themselves.”
Octavia Boulevard does not only serve as the setting of the book. Daley believes this boulevard is also a nest for both the prominences and failures of San Francisco. It houses the social issues of poverty, social economic status, class and privilege and sets them on the streets for everyone to see, while only a few observe the harsh living consequences. “The boulevard itself came to me to be a symbol of how creative San Francisco is [and] how progressive it is that it did not rebuild an ugly freeway through the city, that it tried to create something beautiful, but that didn’t solve its problems,” she says. As she moves her white straight hair aside, she lists the current issues heavily seen on the boulevard. “The freeway isn’t functional for cars, there’s still homeless sleeping on the corner, and a lot of people lost their housing because it became more expensive to live there once it was fixed up. You know, so what’ve you solved?”
From Vermont and living in San Francisco for a number of years, Daley finds herself in love with the city, but at the same time, is repelled by it. “I adore Vermont and I adore San Francisco, but neither one is ideal for me.” While the lifestyle in Vermont can be rather boring compared to all the side-splitting of San Francisco, Daley stands very critical when it comes to observing the people, such as families, artists, musicians and students, who have been forced to move out of the city, due to gentrification or the high priced living. “Year after year I see people graduate, and they love the city, but they can’t get a job,and they leave. You’re only going to live two to three people in a room for so long,” she says, giving me a gleaming stare, then laughs. “On the other hand, I go to the opera, I go to the ballet,” she says as her eyes widen. “How many cities the size of San Francisco still support other museums in the city? I don’t have that opportunity in Vermont, that’s for sure.”
In class, I remember Daley talking about how journalism was pretty much invented for her. Her natural instinct of being nosy, observing and remembering every detail of a place, then descriptively writing everything she saw has made her work an example of what journalism can be when it is less bombarded with information and facts, and more about painting a scene. Writing a story where the reader can visualize the place, smell the surroundings, feel what the character is feeling, can serve as a descriptive bridge to the larger issue being reported. For Octavia Boulevard, Daley structured the reporting and research as a support for the narrative story of the characters, each picked for a specific reason. “You know, as a journalist, you have this much room, to tell this story, for this format,” she explains. “And there is all this stuff that you can’t tell, along with your own response to the story. Well, these were people who I fell in love with and I worried about when I was in Vermont.” Daley admits writing the book the way she did met her frustration she has always felt as a journalist, by stepping away from framing the story and actually telling a story of people who represent a larger group of San Francisco residents. “Mae West is a vestige of the past San Francisco,” says Daley. “She [with the African American Hebrew Cultural Center] are those blacks that had a strong identity here and have very little of it left.” Daley also uses her landlord as a representation of the many other landlords who hold the lives of many people and take it rather lightly.
It’s a Wednesday evening as I make my way into the Poetry Center where Daley will host her book signing at SF State. In a casual pace, students, friends, older friends and colleagues find a chair and wait for the writer. She enters with the one and only, Daniel Daley, her adorable white dog, making her way to the long table in the front of the room. As she welcomes everyone and talks a little about her book, Daley picks up her copy of Octavia Boulevard and recites a chapter, reading out loud the stories of the people of San Francisco.