The Bohemians, Chapter 1

LADY PHOTOGRAPHER AND ORIENTAL GIRL CAPTURE SAN FRANCISCO’S HEART.

There’s a picture of us that ran in the paper in 1918. In it we’re standing side by side, me with my Graflex around my neck and Caroline with a smile that dares you to look elsewhere. She’s wearing a tunic with long, bell-shaped sleeves and a thick satin strap cinched at her waist. It’s a kind of costume, and so is my outfit: flowy crushed-velvet dress, stacks of silver bangles, a long paisley scarf. We both have bobbed hair, except that mine’s a mass of dark-blond curls and hers is black and sleek. There’s a glint in Caroline’s kohl-rimmed eyes, but it’s a black-and-white picture, so you can’t see their color, which was the color of cut glass.

Whenever I saw this picture in the years that followed, I was immediately transported back to our studio at 540 Sutter Street in San Francisco—or 540, as we’d called it. As if it was still just the two of us, Caroline and me, so lit up with hope and so at home. We’d both gone so long thinking we had no place in the world that we couldn’t imagine belonging to anything but each other. By the time that picture was taken, the studio had become our home, the home we built through grit and sheer will. We worked eighteen-hour days, Monday to Saturday. Exhausted as we always were, we loved it, every minute of it, but if there was a time we loved more than any other, it was those nights when our friends streamed down from Monkey Block. Everybody brought everybody, and 540 filled with music and dancing and brilliant talk.

Within two years all that ended and I was on my own again.

After the scandal broke and Caroline disappeared, I’d see the whole story come into focus in a single frame. What happened. What I could never undo. I’d see Caroline sitting on the floor, knees pulled up to her chin, head bowed. I’d see her lifting her eyes and fixing me with a distant, unblinking gaze. I’d see the shadow on her cheek that would deepen to purple by morning.

If only I could have picked up my Graflex, flipped open the lens, and taken a picture, there would have been some kind of proof. But I couldn’t do it. I loved her so much, and in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to capture her pain. Still, the story was in every picture I took afterward, in the ones people talked about and remembered, but also in the ones that were hidden, destroyed, or forgotten. Especially those. It’s the image that never varies or fades, even though I’m the only one who knows it’s there.

To take a truly good picture you have to learn to see, not just look. I once said a camera can teach you that, but the truth is that sometimes it only gets in the way. The realization was born that night. This many years later, it takes me back to San Francisco, to a portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street, to a ravaged darkroom where one story ended and another one began.

The first and most important thing that happened to me when I got to San Francisco was that I learned what it felt like to be alone and penniless, to have no tie to the world but fear, hunger, and need. That’s where it all started for me.

I set out in the spring of 1918. I was nearly twenty-three, eager and restless, with just-bobbed hair. I had all sorts of ideas of who and how and where I wanted to be. I’d scrimped for two years to save the hundred and forty-two dollars folded inside my wallet. Two years of hand-sewn dresses, borrowed books, lunch pails of leftover mackerel or canned beans on stale black bread, but I’d done it. I’d seen my last East Coast winter. Nothing could hold me there any longer. 

I sailed from New Jersey in a steamer, traveled five days down to New Orleans in a third-class berth, then another twelve days across the country by train. I’d been saving up to go to Paris, but with the war on there was no chance of that. My plan now was to spend a few weeks in San Francisco, then head south to Mexico. The details fell off from there, but I figured I’d just keep going until my money ran out, and when there was no farther I could go, I’d work out what came next.

I carried my camera in a case that hung to my hips. There’d been little else to keep and even less I cared to hold on to. On my lap sat a battered leather valise I’d picked up in a thrift shop before leaving home. It held a half dozen rolls of fresh film, a pencil and sketchbook, a few days’ change of clothes, a toiletry kit, and a secondhand copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence.

I’d been saving up to go to Paris, but with the war on there was no chance of that. Click To Tweet

The train was crowded and noisy; the food was terrible and cost too much. For days I was tired and hungry, my body was stiff from trying to sleep upright in my seat, and my bad leg had cramped up, but the moment the conductor lurched through the car calling, “Oakland Station! Next stop Oakland Station!” I sprang to my feet, belted my coat, and gathered my valise.

Someone propped open a window, and a breeze rushed through the cabin. There was a great deal of shuffling and maneuvering around me; people were crowding on one side of the train, craning their necks to catch sight of something outside.

At first I couldn’t make out a thing, but then I edged my way closer to the window and stepped up onto my toes. The bay emerged, splendid and sparkling, the low angle of the sun catching it and setting it aglow. When I squinted hard, I could make out steamer tugs and fishing boats and beyond that a city skyline, clinging to the edge of the earth and struck gold by the afternoon sun.

San Francisco. The Jewel City. Paris of the West. A place where everything—absolutely anything—could happen, and probably was happening at this very moment. A place you could disappear into if you dared.

Here it was. Here I was.

I’d grown up close to the water, not far from the Hoboken shipyards, but nothing prepared me for that first glimpse of San Francisco in May 1918. Until that moment I didn’t know everything around a city—sky, land, sea—could make it look so small. But even if San Francisco seemed smaller than I’d pictured, it was still a thing of beauty and wonder, what with the bay and deep-green hills encircling it. Also, it wasn’t just beautiful; it was foreign to me in a way Manhattan had once been and wasn’t anymore. No one here knew me, which meant I could be whoever I wanted to be.

When the view disappeared behind factories and rows of clapboard houses, I cracked open my camera case and admired my Graflex, its sleek metal shine, its perfect polished lens. Arnold Genthe had given it to me a few months after I’d started working for him. It was my first camera and by far the best gift anyone had ever given me. “You have an eye, Dorothea,” he’d told me. It always made me smile, remembering that day. Genthe’s eyes dancing as he held the camera out to me. The moment when I took it in my hands, felt its exquisite weight, and understood it was mine.

The train jerked and tilted and stopped. I made my way down the aisle and out onto the platform, half-carried by the crowd. I hurried along as fast as I could, as fast as my limp let me. Soon I was in the streets, heading toward the docks with my bag thumping against my thigh and my heart slamming against my chest. I had on a split skirt that ended at my ankles, a tan mackintosh cinched tightly at my waist, and high-buttoned brown boots. The boots could’ve used a shine, but I was bent on  catching the very next ferry out to San Francisco, so that would have to wait for now.

***

The whole business was over so fast. One minute the ferry was rocking softly, easing into the terminal, and the next minute it bumped hard against the piles, jostling the passengers and knocking us into one another. I stumbled and nearly fell, but then a hand grabbed my waist, its hold warm and firm.

“Careful there, miss,” came a voice from behind me.

I twisted around. The man standing there was handsome and beautifully dressed, with a three-piece suit and a checkered bow tie, blue eyes, and blond hair slick with brilliantine. I felt myself staring. It was rare to see young men nowadays, particularly young men out of uniform. Somehow the war hadn’t claimed him—or hadn’t claimed him yet.

It took me a minute, but I came back to myself, straightening up and lifting my chin. When I thanked him, the man winked and gave me the richest smile in the world.

Well, hello, California, I thought, and felt my cheeks go warm.

Once we disembarked, there was no sign of that young man, but it hardly mattered, not with all the plans ticking through my head. Then, a few steps from the ferry building, I happened on a bakery. Through the window I saw a stack of doughnuts under a glass dome. My stomach gave a twist. The last real meal I’d eaten had been somewhere in Texas. It was only some minutes later, when I’d ordered two doughnuts and a cup of coffee, that I reached into my pocket and discovered that my wallet had disappeared. I reached inside the other pocket, the one where I always kept my watch, but it, too, was empty.

For one wild, dumbstruck moment I stood completely still, heart kicking against my chest, and then it came to me in a slow seep of understanding: That handsome and beautifully dressed man on the ferry was a thief. In what I’d always count as one of the genuine miracles of my life, I still had my camera, but as for my money, it was all—every dollar of it—gone.

***

Don’t go. It isn’t safe. Think of your crippled foot. Back in New Jersey I hadn’t listened to the words—heard them, yes, but I refused to let them stop me—but now, standing in a bakery without so much as a quarter to pay for my food and the earth still trembling and swaying under me after so many days in motion, I heard nothing else.

I stood for a moment. Felt myself slump against the counter.I couldn’t seem to breathe. I felt faint. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the image of the man from the ferry. His rich smile and slicked-back hair.

Well, hello, California, I thought, and felt my cheeks go warm. Click To Tweet

“Miss, are you feeling all right?”

The girl behind the counter was looking at me quizzically. She repeated her question.

“Someone’s stolen my money,” I managed to say. “It’s all I have. All I had. My whole savings . . .”

There was an awful quiet, and then the woman in the line behind me, a matronly lady all wrapped in furs, snapped open her purse and paid for my food.

By then a small knot of women had gathered around me.

“She’ll need to find a job,” one of them said.

“And a place to sleep.”

This evaluation was made as if I was absent, which I suppose in those minutes I was.

“They’re always looking for girls at the canneries in Sausalito,” the girl behind the counter offered. “Doesn’t pay much, but it’s steady work.”

A bag had been placed in my hands. Two doughnuts. In the other hand was a cup of coffee. I’d been staring into the cup, but at this mention of canneries I raised my eyes. I’d worked plenty of jobs but never in a factory.

“There’s a boardinghouse for girls on Bush Street,” one of the women was saying now. “The Elizabeth Inn. Can’t cost but a dollar a week for a room.”

A dollar a week was a dollar I didn’t have.

All at once I felt the velvety softness of a fine leather glove brush against my hand. I turned to find that the lady in the fur cloak had opened her purse again and was pressing something into my empty hand. A one-dollar bill.

“The ferry to Sausalito runs on the hour,” she said, peering at me kindly through round-rimmed spectacles. “If you hurry, you’ll catch the next one.”

My face burned with shame, but this wasn’t the time for pride. I took the money, dredged up some semblance of a smile, and said a quick thank-you.

Outside in the street I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a plate-glass window. It was a sorry sight: a thin girl with mussed-up hair, battered bag, and creased mackintosh drooping over her shoulders and dragging nearly to her ankles.

My coffee had gone cold. The doughnuts were a long way from what they’d seemed in the bakery window. I stuffed them into my pocket anyway. For the next few minutes all I could think was it was no wonder I’d been offered a handout. I was pitiable. Pathetic. Newly arrived less than an hour ago and already a charity case.

***

It was already late in the day when I made my way back to the ferry building. I lingered outside for some time, gazing up at the clock tower; it read a quarter past four. The street ahead was wide and teeming with people coming and going and streetcars and horse-drawn carriages trundling by. Gulls and seabirds screeched and careened overhead. The cold air smelled of brackish water, fish, and tar. I’d expected California to be a paradise of sun and warmth, but it was colder here by far than it had been back in New York. The wind kept snatching at my hat and I had to use my free hand to hold it in place, all the while clutching my bag in the other. From a café came the sound of a lilting love song I’d heard played everywhere all spring. It filled me with a miserable sort of rage.

Think, Dorrie, I told myself, you have to keep your head.

I’d tucked the dollar into my stocking for safekeeping, sliding it all the way down to my ankle. It might get me a room in a boardinghouse, but how would I pay for supper? Or breakfast? In the morning I’d go looking for a proper job. Until then I needed money—and quick—but instead of looking for the ferry to Sausalito, I headed down Market Street.

“Seventy-five cents to wash the dishes and clean up for the day,” said the man in the first place I went looking for work, a hash house on the corner of Market and Spear. There’d been no one behind the cash register when I walked in, but then, peering toward the back, I saw the outline of a man in the dark corridor that led to the kitchen. Tall and wiry, he wore a collarless shirt and a pair of pants lacquered with grime. He was balding on top, and his sideburns had gone long and ragged.

“All that work for seventy-five cents?”

He coughed and spat into the blackened rag he was holding, then fixed me with a hard glare. My need must have been obvious, because all he said was, “You’d have to scrub and sweep the floors, too.”

The man’s face was grim as a boot, but I held his eyes— I wouldn’t be intimidated. It would take hours to clean up that kitchen and we both knew it.

I cleared my throat, squared my shoulders, and told him I’d do it for a dollar, nothing less.
He didn’t bother answering, only shrugged as if to say, Take it or leave it.

I left it. Back on the street, my mind flashed to the bakery near the ferry building, to the girl behind the counter calling out something about canneries in some place across the bay. It seemed worth a try. At the next street corner, I asked a policeman where I could catch a ferry to Sausalito, only to find out they’d stopped going in that direction for the day.

I tried my luck in a dress shop, but I didn’t get work, not there or in the next place or the one after that.

“Fine, I’ll do it for seventy-five cents,” I said, trudging back into the hash house. It was now past six. I was thirsty. Not just thirsty—parched.

“Fifty cents,” the man countered.

I swallowed hard, my face flaming. “But you said—”

“That was two hours ago. Day’s almost over now.” He palmed a hand over his bald head. “Fifty cents,” he repeated. His voice was calm, dry, bored. “Times are tough, missy, as you must surely know.”

It was filthy work. The water that ran from the spigot was brownish, and there wasn’t a clean cloth in sight. The kitchen smelled of burnt toast, milk long ago gone rancid, and other ancient odors I couldn’t and didn’t want to place. I held my breath against the stink and did the best I could with the dishes heaped in the sink, scraping off the crusty plates with a knife and polishing the greasy cups with the edge of an apron I’d found bunched up in the back of a cupboard.

When I finished with that, I started in on the floor. Another hour, I told myself, and I’d be done. I’d take my measly fifty cents and tomorrow I’d find something else. I got onto my knees and began working a rag over the floor. After a while I threw a glance over my shoulder, and I saw the man—he hadn’t told me his name or bothered to ask mine—watching me from a few feet away, his eyes glued to my backside. I glared at him, my blood rising, but he didn’t budge or look away. Only leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and gave me a leer.

I kept an eye on the clock, though the whole time I felt the weight of his eyes. Felt them as surely as if he were touching me. Every so often he’d shuffle off—in addition to cook and cashier, he served as the waiter of that dreary establishment. In those few moments, I managed to pry open a milk bottle and take a few swigs, but by this time in the day the customers had trickled away, and so he was free to linger in the kitchen and watch me work.

My fury took itself out on the dirt and disorder that sur- rounded me. Sweat beaded my forehead, pooled at my armpits, trickled down my back. He was still staring, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of looking his way.

He paid me with two grimy, nearly black quarters, making a show of placing them very slowly and one by one in my palm. They clung there as if they’d been seared onto my skin. I thrust them into my pocket and turned away without so much as a nod.

In a blink, he’d shoved up against me.

 “Well, now,” he said, and gripped my forearm to turn me toward him. His hand on my bare skin was meaty and damp.

“Are you too good for it?” he said with a new kind of roughness that made me afraid.

I wrenched myself out of his grip. I had to get out of there— and fast.

Tears pricked at my eyes as I tore out of that place into the streets. It was night now, the moon a bright, sharp sliver. Gaslights glowed here and there, and people were out in droves. A horse-drawn cart clattered past, sending up arcs of dirty water and splashing my skirt. I wove between the pedestrians, shouldering my way through the crowd and once nearly bumping into a woman with a buggy. “Watch where you’re going!” someone growled, but I didn’t stop. I hurried along as quickly as I could, clutching my valise and camera to my chest with one hand and my sodden hem with the other, and I would have kept going, except that all at once pain thundered down my leg and bent me double.

I staggered toward the side of a building and leaned heavily against the wall. I knew I shouldn’t have run like that. It made my leg hurt horribly. My limp was my one constant companion, as familiar to me as breath, but it’d been a long time since my foot had gone so heavy and numb.

I was sure people were staring, but when I at last caught my breath and lifted my eyes, I saw that they were streaming past me as if I were invisible. Not a head turned. No one stopped.

After some time, a streetcar came clanking from the right. I watched it approach. The travel, the hunger, the jolt to my nerves—I was spent. I needed to sit down. If I could just rest a bit, I’d feel better, I knew I would. Maybe I could even think up some kind of plan.

I crossed the street, dug a coin from my pocket, and stepped aboard.

***

Climbing the streets of San Francisco, with the tang of the bay and the wind against my damp skin and the hard wooden seat rattling under me, I was suddenly back in my grandmother’s house in Hoboken, back in its ugliness and its darkness and its despair. The weight of it fell on me, crushing me against the seat. This was it, then. My dream of a fresh start—that was over now, gone, done, past. I’d made it clear across the country, three thousand miles from New Jersey to California, and now I couldn’t even go back home if I wanted to.

Passengers climbed on and off; the streetcar strained up the hills and tore down them again and again; each turn and stop jostled me against a neighbor. I came close to breaking down, and I would have but there was no privacy at all, not with the passengers crowded so close, hemming me in on every side. My leg ached. My mouth was dry as paper. But still I didn’t move. I didn’t even raise my head to look out at the streets.

Then, just when it seemed we were going to go on forever, the streetcar came to a stop. “Lands End!” the conductor called out. I looked up, only to discover that San Francisco was gone. It was as if a switch had been thrown over the city. The sky that seemed so blue over the ferry building had disappeared, and the workaday world had also vanished. In its place stood windswept sand dunes and a fog so thick you could almost grab hold of it with your hands.

As I stepped from the streetcar and into the street, a gust of wind blew my skirt up and my gaze fell to my stunted right leg and my twisted foot. Walk as straight as you can, said a voice in my head. People will look at you. You’ll make them look at you if you limp. It was my mother’s voice, same as ever. I quickly smoothed my skirt, tugged it back over my knees, and pinched the collar of my coat closed. I’d spent more than half my life coaching away my limp, but all these years later, the fear and shame of it blazed through me. You’re over that, I told myself, you’re long past it, but the dark, slick, fogged-in streets brought it back—all of it.

***

It started as nothing—a sore throat, a light fever—and then one morning my legs disappeared.

It was the summer of 1902. I’d just turned seven. On the Fourth of July, my fever dipped slightly, and Mama let me sit outside to watch the parade while she straightened and scrubbed inside. I loved to sit on the front stoop of our house in Weehawken, elbows to knees, and watch people walk by, the ladies with their umbrellas and bustles, the men with their trilbies and walking sticks. There’d never been a time when I didn’t long for the world beyond our house. I’d have given anything to join the stream of people in the street, but my world was bounded by the grocer to the east, the park to the west, and if I did go out it was only in the neighborhood and with my mother’s hand clasped over mine. Always the same faces in the streets, and everywhere the sounds of German.

It started as nothing—a sore throat, a light fever—and then one morning my legs disappeared. Click To Tweet

All at once I felt my thighs twitch, first the left one and then both of them. I pressed my hands against them to make it stop, but my legs kept jerking under my fingers. There was a great tingling all over my body, a burning that started at my chest and ran down to my toes. I called for my mother, but the noise from the street swallowed my cry. I stood up to go inside, but my head went hazy and my legs folded under me, and then there was a long, deafening silence, and after that everything went black.

When I came to, my legs were gone. Well, not exactly gone.They were still attached to my body, but there wasn’t a trace of feeling in them, none.

Nothing my mother did or said could stop my screaming, but by the time a doctor came to the house I’d exhausted myself. My body had gone slack, and a haziness clung to my brain. Mama propped me up with my feet dangling over the side of the bed. The doctor tapped a small rubber mallet against my left knee. It didn’t move. He tapped my other leg. Nothing.

“You need to take her to the hospital,” I heard him say afterward. My mother had pulled the door closed, but it didn’t latch, so I could see them in the hall, the doctor with his black bag and his round steel-rim spectacles and her with her arms folded over her chest, shoulders heaving with her sobs.

I woke the next morning in a room with pea-green walls and the biting stink of bleach. From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a woman in a mask and rubber gloves. As she came close, I saw she was holding a very long and very thick needle. When I screamed, she cupped a hand over my mouth. A second pair of hands flipped me on my side and held me down. In another few hours I’d be paralyzed, but when that needle plunged into my back, and then kept plunging, I bit my tongue bloody from the pain.

Polio. The spinal tap confirmed it. I’d never heard the word, and I didn’t understand what it meant. The coming year would teach me that word, along with another one: “cripple.”

But first this: My fever climbed to one hundred and four, lingered there for three days, then suddenly broke, and there was my mother’s hovering, anguished face. My hair was pasted to
my forehead, my lips were cracked and dry. I could talk, I could open my eyes, I could turn my head from side to side, but that was it. I was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

It took a year for me to get better, but for a long time no one thought I’d ever come out of it. I couldn’t go into the street to play or even sit on the front stoop. I didn’t want to anyway. For one thing, I had no hair—it’d all been shaved off in the hospital. It grew out slowly and in uneven clumps, and no matter how many times my mother rinsed it in vinegar to bring the brightness back, it stayed a dull, dark shade of blond. The rest of me was just as bad. My face had a hollow look and my ribs poked out from my chest; the doctor put me on a diet of fried liver and full-fatted milk, which I hated but was made to eat anyway.

Nothing was as awful as the brace I had to wear. The feeling in my legs had only just come back when a steel shank was strapped to my right leg and buckled to my pelvis, knee, and ankle. That brace weighed fifteen pounds and cut deep grooves into my flesh, slicing the skin. The pain of wearing it was relentless. Ferocious.

September came, but I didn’t go back to school. Month after month I lay on a cot in the small parlor of our house, the room closest to the kitchen, staring up at the window, at a small square of sky. No one visited me at home, the whole year I was there. No friends from school, no relatives, no neighbors. They were all too scared I’d make them sick.

Unseen and unknown, I became flesh and sensation. I became a listener, a witness. I heard dogs barking in the neighborhood, bursts of birdsong, horses whinnying in the street, doors opening and closing, the kettle coming to a boil, the clock in the hall ticking and ticking and ticking.

My crippled foot was the place I lived, the way other people live in a house or a country—there was no world beyond it. My foot formed and deformed me, hid and humiliated me, guided and unmoored me. All those things, all at once. I had to wear diapers, and the few times I left the house—nearly always for doctors’ visits—Mama pushed me in a special carriage that drew people’s eyes and made them quicken their steps or cross the street. One day I watched from the window as she built a fire in the alley behind our house and fed my clothes and dolls and books to it one by one. For fear of contamination, everything I’d ever touched had to be thrown away or torched.

Turns out, it wasn’t my body that’d disappeared. It was me.

***

I spent my first night in San Francisco on the streets.

I was the only passenger left. A last clatter of the streetcar and with no warning I was suddenly alone. Until I climbed out of the streetcar and into the fog, I’d felt rattled and miserable. Now I felt real fear. LANDS END DEPOT, read the sign above the station. The small clapboard building was shuttered and dark. I looked to the left and then to the right, but there was nothing to see. There were no shops or restaurants in this part of the city— was this even the city?—just a few scattered buildings, but after a while I could make out a light in the distance, and I set off in that direction.

It was a little, run-down place, as seedy as the roughest saloons on the backstreets of the Bowery. The windows were hazy with grime and salt spray, but after peering inside for a while I could see it was dim and empty except for a few men slumped over the bar.

I was standing by the door, considering whether to go in, when a man was dragged by the collar of his coat and hauled outside.

No, I couldn’t go in there. Not at this hour, not as a woman alone. I ducked into the doorway, shivering as I watched the man, a sad bundle of bones, stagger into the dark and then disappear. I clung to my bag and surveyed my options. There were none. I was lost. There was no cover, no place to sit. I didn’t know the names of the streets; with the fog so thick, I couldn’t see street signs or even the streets themselves.

Just this afternoon I’d arrived on the train, looking out at a beautiful, unfamiliar city with all the hope in the world. The spell was broken now. I cursed myself for riding out all this way, for not paying attention, for letting myself get lost.

At the next corner the sharp stench of rotting flesh hit me— the remains of an animal. A large rat, or was it a dead cat? Or maybe it was my imagination, maybe I was seeing things, what with my nerves at a pitch and the silence so vast, so different from New York or even Hoboken, where even deep into the night there was always the creak and clatter of streetcars, the beat of hooves against the cobblestones, the sound of people’s voices.

I spun away and made off in the opposite direction. Eventually my feet led me toward the beach. The fog had enveloped the moon, and the sea was as dark as the sky, but the waves were beating hard against the shore, and I made my way forward by their sound. Sand leaked through my boots; clumps of sea grass scratched my legs. A gull winged past, keening wildly. I climbed through the head-high dunes until my legs went liquid and I fell.

Strange how the body remembers what we most wish to forget. The cold, wet sand sent me back to the night when three men in suits and bowler hats came to the door of our old house in Weehawken. I was twelve. My father had deserted us; after that night we’d move in with my grandmother in Hoboken and I’d never see him again. The three men marched my mother,my little brother, and me onto the sidewalk and then bolted the  door with a heavy lock. In the street, Mama’s eyes were wild with panic. I stood dressed in my nightgown and bare feet, my shoulders hunched against the cold, my steel brace digging into my thigh. We’d been evicted, and it all happened so fast that none of us had the chance to put on a coat.

I know this place, I thought then. I’ve been here before.

The long, low moan of the foghorns eventually gave way to the quieter sounds of the night. Here, at the lip of the ocean, there was nothing to hurry for anymore, no other place to get to. Riffling through my bag, I dug out a sweater and pair of pants and wrestled them on. After that I tucked my bag under my head, tightened my camera strap, and drew my coat about myself. And then, because I was too exhausted and too beaten down to do anything else, I closed my eyes and slept.


 

Author / Ilustrator

  • Jasmin Darznik is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bohemians (April 2021), a novel that imagines the friendship between photographer Dorothea Lange and her Chinese American assistant in 1920s San Francisco. Her debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird, was a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice” book and a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Darznik is also the author of The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her books have been published in seventeen countries and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, among others. Darznik was born in Iran and came to America when she was five years old. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, a J.D. from the University of California, and a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University. Now a professor of English and creative writing at California College of the Arts, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

  • The first nuclear blast broadcast live on television took place March 17, 1953, in northwestern Nevada. Operation Doorstep was meant to determine the effect of a 16-kiloton nuclear explosion on fifty automobiles, two wood-frame houses, eight backyard bomb shelters, and a goodly number of mannequins. The houses were built specially for the test, and the other objects were carefully arranged, as though for a dollhouse. The ostensible purpose of all this was “to show the people of America what might be expected if an atomic burst took place over the doorsteps of our major cities.” https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/operation-doorstep-1953