The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no.
Right at the start of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” mania, one of my UCSC professors went to a Dave Eggers reading, raised her hand, and invited him to our class. He thought about it for a minute, and then he said yes. He’d just moved to San Francisco, and he took the Greyhound to Santa Cruz (a three hour trip) and talked to us. Then he came to a pizza party we threw for him before he headed back to the City.
He had just started 826 Valencia, the literacy center in San Francisco’s Mission district that was the first in a string of such centers around the country. Frankly, I was distrustful of him, and of 826. I was distrustful because his literacy center was just a couple blocks from where I grew up, and I saw it as part of a yuppie invasion of my home.
I was 20, and I already knew that because of the forces of gentrification, I wouldn’t be able to afford to move back to the neighborhood I loved after college. My dad had already been forced to leave, and my mom was holding on to a rent-controlled apartment that she could lose to eviction at any time, as had happened to us once already when I was 11. Every time I went home, something I loved was gone and something for rich people had replaced it.
I felt like Eggers’ didn’t really get it. He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. This was an issue so emotionally important to me at the time. Losing your home, both literally and semi-metaphorically, is hard. I felt like a twenty-year-old version of those old Jewish guys who are always talking about playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn and meeting Jackie Robinson. I had emailed 826 and suggested they talk with a tutoring center a few blocks away at which I’d volunteered, and they were dismissive. I held that against Eggers for a long time.
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I was right that my home was changing, going away. I was right to be pissed about it, too. It still hurts, frankly. My mom was never evicted – and now that she’s a senior citizen, it’s very tough to give her the boot – but everything in the neighborhood is different. It’s a new place, and a lot of people suffered. That, though, wasn’t the fault of a literacy center.
I was wrong to think of Eggers as a usurper. Now that I’m a bit more of a grownup, I see what was really going on: Eggers was working really hard to make things better for other people. He wanted to have the life he wanted, in a neighborhood with other successful creative people, and he wanted to help people as best as he could. I was focused on saying “no,” to these changes that were happening in my world, when I should have been focused on “yes” to doing something good.
Stuff you do won’t always work, and it isn’t always going to be perfect, but that’s no reason not to do it. Sometimes the world sucks and the best you can do falls short, but that’s no reason not to do anything. In fact, it’s ample reason to do everything you can.
In the years since that pizza party conversation with Dave, I’ve often thought about that interaction I had with him. His brilliant wife Vendela Vida was a guest on my radio show, and I’ve run into him in a few different contexts since. The three-hour bus ride he took to address a group of college students who weren’t paying him wasn’t a fluke: he’s a decent guy.
I’m sure he doesn’t remember that conversation ten years ago. Still, I always feel a twinge of regret about it. I mean shit… the guy was opening a literacy center. What the fuck have I ever done?