San Francisco—May 5, 2007
A week ago I passed it by and did not think to shoot a photo. It was a little wilted now but I shot anyway. "It" was a shrine for "Skateboard," the black guy without legs who got hit by a mail truck down in the Tenderloin. I didn't know him but I used to see him occasionally. Now that he was dead, the full story came out. He lost his legs at age 6 in an accident in Oakland. He adapted to a life without legs via the skateboard. He was 48 years old. He was drunk most of the time but never a problem, said the owner of the liquor store on the corner where he often used to hang out and where there is now a small shrine for him. He was also a dare-devil on a skateboard, cutting recklessly in and out of traffic. Some were surprised it hadn't happened sooner. He wasn't very tall on a board. The driver of the mail truck says he didn't see him. Quite possible. Now there is a shrine on Taylor, just up from Club 21 on Turk. Aside from flowers, it includes some of Skateboard's favorite things, like a bottle of Hennessy.
One of the reasons I may have missed the photo opportunity the week before was that I was taking off for LA, something that is more of a chore than a pleasure for me. I have relatives down there and I occasionally need to visit. But this time it was half-way interesting, due to eating at a new restaurant called China Bistro. My brother and sister-in-law suggested it, I was a little skeptical of this implied fusion thing—Chinese food is good enough by itself that you don't really have to mess with it to make it taste better—but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. We ordered two appetizers—lettuce cups and potstickers—and three main dishes: Grilled Shrimp in Coconut Yellow Chili Sauce, Seabass in Spicy Asian Red Bell Pepper Sauce, and Stir-Fry Vegetable Melange. All were quite good. What impressed me about the first two main dishes was the nice servings of bistro-style vegetables in the center of the plate. You got carrots, fingerling potatoes, and a green vegetable just like you would with French bistro food. But the flavors were still Asian. The place is owned by three Chinese brothers who were born in Cuba and grew up in Peru. Fernando, Roberto, and Marcelino Chong have Chinese roots, which is clearly evident in the menu, but do a nice job of integrating that with other styles. Perhaps, considering their upbringing, they have a right to push the "fusion" button.
After shooting the photo of Skateboard's shine, I went into Club 21, which is located on the corner in the Tenderloin where almost anything and everything can happen, usually not good. There is a sign up on the corner that says a surveillance camera is being installed—maybe it has been already—but I don't see any effect. What's that going to do, anyway? Just force folks to some other corner where there is no camera. Without the camera on Turk & Taylor, at least you know where it is happening. But Frank, the owner of Club 21, runs a straight place. Or at least as straight as it can possibly be given the location. Sure, he's probably got some dealers inside, or some folks who are in charge of the dealers, but there are rules at Frank's place and they are rarely broken. When they are, it is often the customers that set the matter straight. But tonight there is no trouble, it is earlier than I usually drop by, and I notice a more upbeat feeling to Club 21 at this hour, about 10 PM, than I sense at 12 AM or 1. I guess folks are just getting into it and feeling good. Even the tunes from the juke box sound more positive. I watch the corner outside through the big windows, talk about the French presidential election with Frank for a moment (yep, the "brut", Sarkozy won), then head over to Cafe Claude to catch the music for a moment—it's Jerry Oakley's trio—then walk up Bush to Le Central. At this hour Le Central is winding down. It has an older crowd that eats earlier and drinks less after dinner than the folks at other places in the area. I like the quiet and stop by to talk with Dave, the bartender, as he is cleaning up. He's already cleared the register.
"Cash"? he asks.
"Cash," I say.
He pours me a shot of Bourbon and goes back to slamming the dice on the counter with the boss and the last customer when a young Mexican guy staggers in. You don't usually see people staggering drunk in this part of town. Even back in the Tenderloin they are kind of discreet about it. He makes it to the bar but all eyes are on him. Dave comes over and says he is sorry but can't serve him. "You've had enough. I don't want you to get into an accident." He suggests that the Irish Pub down the way in the alley might serve him. I have my doubts that even the Pub will serve him. Best to go home, sleep it off, but I don't say so.
I don't want to hang things up, so I pay for my drink and I head up Kearny to Sacramento and wait for the number 1 bus that runs up the hill. At this hour there can be a wait. I'm looking across the street when I see a figure staggering on the sidewalk on the other side of the Kearny. I can't see very well but it looks like a young Chinese woman. She has a pack on her back like a student. And she is really staggering. A couple of times she looses control, does a complete circle and ends up walking in the opposite direction. Then she does little circles on the sidewalk and looks like she is going to fall on the side of the building or collapse head first on the sidewalk. I see plenty of this kind of thing in San Francisco—we're not that far from North Beach—but not usually this extreme. And a young Chinese woman does not fit the role. I make a 911 call. I think somebody better check her out before she gets hurt. I don't want her to end up like Skateboard. The bus comes and I get on. It now dawns on me it is Cinco de Mayo. Do the Chinese now celebrate that too? They have a lot of holidays but I don't think this one.
Back on the hill, I pour myself a glass of wine and relax. About a half hour later the phone rings. Surprise! It's the police. They are now on the scene. I say it was a half hour ago. They say it has been a busy evening. I guess so. An hour or so ago I was headed up Taylor to Union Square when a motorcycle cop stopped traffic in the intersection to let about 10 other motorcycles and several escorted cars go whizzing through. It looked like Willie Brown days had returned. And such fanfare. Down the street at the next intersection the same thing, as if nothing could stop his or her holiness, or whoever it was, for one moment. Then us dull pedestrians were back to waiting for the signal to change.
It is sad to be a nobody in this city. I warm some dim sum in the microwave to make myself feel like a person again. With a little more wine I do.