The Streets of San Francisco, part 2: Tenderloin

11 Jul

1.

We take the BART in from Oakland mid-afternoon. Simone sits in my lap. Beth falls asleep. An old veteran sits across from us, sipping a Mountain Dew. He looks at Simone, starts talking. Yesterday, he tells me, he married his daughter to an underemployed dude with children; he doesn’t like her husband, doesn’t trust him, can’t do anything about it. The wedding cost him $6,000, his life savings. He has a job at the VA. He stares hard, red eyes at me, soft red eyes at Simone. His skin is rubbery, touched with too much sun, decades of addiction, and a life of unrealized ambitions. He smiles, waves at Simone and moves along.

The train is stifling. The air is still, hot and heavy. It’s the Sunday afternoon before the fourth of July.

It’s too hot to stay on the train until our intended destination, so we exit at Powell Street and walk south on Market.

We enter a wretched parallel world.

First impression: San Francisco is one seedy motherfucking town.

2.

We walk through a mile of miserable real estate. The harbingers of a dying age wander about in the undiluted afternoon sun: dope fiends, hopheads, junkies—whatever drug addicts call themselves these days. It’s a depressing tableau of drunks and derelicts. An androgynous outcast sleeps on a filthy cardboard box. A teenager drags bat along the sidewalk. She laughs, gives it a twirl, mentions beating the shit out of somebody. Her friend nods, listening to headphones.

A tall kid in a bright red shirt approaches them. “Treats,” he says in a low whisper. “You guys want some treats?” He rubs his fingers together. They ignore him. I avoid his eyes as he backtracks past us.

It’s a dizzying freak show. Mouths of broken teeth, stretch marks and raggedy clothing. A mish mash of rednecks, skinheads, corner boys, busted out grifters and too many homeless. One of the oldest men I’ve ever seen sits in a wheelchair and nods, holding an empty cup in his hand but asking for nothing. We pass a pile of moldy clothes strewn about four sidewalk squares. I almost step on a single rotten espadrille shoe.

Listen up, Frisco; you better watch these hands.

3.

The squalor infects. We’re tense, begin to argue. About the map, directions, educational policy in Chicago, whatever. Our fun outing in a unique American city has fallen into the sewer. Beth grinds her teeth. I squint my eyes. Talking is pointless so we stop.

We pass a smorgasbord of shirtless, defeated men. These aren’t hippies, backpackers or musicians. It isn’t a scene. It’s a run-down strip of a great American city.

“Now you have a new seedy place to set a crime novel,” Beth says.

She’s read my mind.

4.

The neighborhood is called Tenderloin. “Like Times Square, thirty years ago,” Beth says. We aren’t happy, but we trudge on.

A group of derelicts congregate by a large fountain. They sit and stand with their bedrolls and backpacks. Everyone knows each other. We see backslaps and handshakes and head nods, coded exchanges in an enormous network of the forgotten. Two of them have a conversation. I listen in.

“You remember Yalee?”

“Yeah?”

“He just got life.”

“No!”

“Yeah. Life in Prison.”

“Shit, man! I saw him on the front of the paper just the other day. He’s in for life?”

We move on. There are no police. We see no children. The streets are curvy and hilly and mostly empty. Everything is covered in graffiti: the sidewalks, newspaper vendors, storefronts, even the emergency fire hose attachments. The pierced, tattooed rejects of another era, shiftless and inebriated, wander these garish hilly streets without purpose, malice, or even dread. They walk in a contented daze.

We end up on a quasi-deserted street, bickering about over directions. I’m jumpy. I keep looking around. I’m convinced someone is following us, looking for the perfect place to rob two suckers blind. I keep my fears to myself. We pass under an overpass, on a street with empty lots and a handful of parked cars. We’re not lost, we just don’t know where we are.

“God, what a shithole,” I say.

And where the hell was I?

5.

We make it to the Mission neighborhood where art galleries mingle with designer clothing shops and vegetarian restaurants. We stop at Four Barrel for coffee. They have sacks of new beans and industrial sized roasters in the back. Fortified, we re-emerge into the late afternoon.

The day is getting better.

On 16th and Valencia, I check out the front display of a bookstore. Twenty feet away down an alley, two shirtless, tattooed skinheads zero in on a street dealer.

“Motherfucker, we’ve been looking for you.”

The dealer raises a money clip to his head—casually—as one of the skinheads throws a haymaker at his face. The punch grazes his ear. He flees in a half-jog while the other two follow.

“Some dude just punched a guy in the face,” I say.

“What?” Beth asks.

“Some dude just—” but then I stop talking and we hustle Simone to the corner and across the street.

6.

I keep thinking of Chicago: wilder, uglier, more dangerous, more corrupt, but also more spread out. The violent areas are segregated. The criminal areas are contained. (I’m not arguing that this is a good thing.) Crime in the windy city feels more serious; the underworld on display here seems indolent, shiftless, almost quaint.

I don’t feel threatened, or in danger, but carrying Simone through the busted out dregs of a major city feels wrong. She doesn’t notice, kicking her legs and pointing and humming along. But I feel self-conscious, uncertain of whether I’m looking at some aberrant conglomeration of human frailty; or a snapshot of the fissures that pull people down in the present; or worst of all, a chilling vision of the immediate future.

7.

A hairless scarecrow with a shaved head and gold teeth dances trance moves to silent music. He grins his two gold-coated front teeth and cocks his head. He jabs the air with skeletal fists. He flashes his demonic smile and rubs his bony head and then slumps onto a stoop and glares at the cracks in the sidewalk. Simone doesn’t see him.

We walk up 22nd. The incline is steep. Simone teeters. It makes me nervous. The rabble are gone, replaced by silent sidewalks flanked by towering Victorian mansions perched high above the streets.

Simone is tired. We descend the hill and eat dosas filled with spring vegetables and paneer cheese. The food is delicious. Simone bathes her tongue in water after eating something spicy. We leave. A muscled forty-something wearing a sheer tanktop and jean shorts walks by us; he is crying.

We stop for frozen yogurt on a street filled with smoking hipsters, musicians. Our legs are sore and we have been touched with too much sun.

Simone laughs as yogurt dribbles down her chin.

Life is good.

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One Response to “The Streets of San Francisco, part 2: Tenderloin”

  1. Mike July 11, 2011 at 4:50 am #

    That is a harrowing tale, my man. Glad everyone is safe and that you hustled Simone out of there. San Fran may not be as crime-segregated as Chicago… but I’ve been there a few times and never run into scenes such as you described. It certainly was ‘gritty’ but nothing scary. I guess I inadvertently stayed in the tourist zones.

    I’m ready to read your crime novel!

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