Tenderloin resident Douglas knows trouble first-hand
THREE VISIONS OF TROUBLE
|By Louis Martin
|1. In the Soup Line
|A few blocks from the tourist line for the cable cars at Powell and Market, there is another line. At the cable car line, clothes are clean and people talk and there is energy. In the other line, the line to the soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church, clothes are dirty, as are faces and hair and hands; there is little conversation; and there seems just barely enough energy to stand in line in the hot sun.
|Glide serves three meals a day to its Tenderloin customers. A rumor that Glide is running out of food, started by a panhandler asking for money for food but probably for something else, proves false:
|At first "DJ", a thirtyish black man in the line who is cleaner than the rest, does not care to respond to the question. He looks a little hung-over, a little strung-out. "Yeah, this is the line," he says as though speaking were a great effort at this time of day. Ten dollars, however, seems to loosen up his tongue. He smiles faintly and says there is no shortage of food.
|Then a guy in back of DJ suddenly gets up the energy to talk and says that you can go to Saint Anthony's too. If you do that, he says, you can get four meals a day. "Yesterday they had chicken," he says, as though pleasantly recollecting the thought. He is "white" but has that crusted dirt-and-oil look from being on the street. He has a kind of hurt-kid look about him too - as though as a kid he were slapped hard and the look never left his face. DJ, by contrast, looks like he has access to a shower and pulls his own emotional punches.
|DJ begins to lighten up, looking more like he probably does at night. Asked if Glide serves wine with meals, he cracks a weak smile. "No", he sighs wistfully.
|Across from Glide is Boeddeker Park. It is a place of congregation for Glide's customers, both before and after meals. Most are black. There is a lot of heavy jive going on. And other things. There are two areas of Boeddeker Park - a common one, and one reserved for kids. In the kids' area, any adult must be accompanied by a kid. The kids' area is clean and almost deserted; the other part is not as dirty and dangerous as it looks, perhaps, but does not make one want to linger. Nevertheless, you will see an occasional stubborn merchant taking a break there and reading the paper.
|Georgia Bearprints is looking at a sculpture in the middle of the park near the fence. It is massive sculpture on a square pedestal depicting African animals - an elephant, a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus .... The animals are partly contained within the mass of the sculpture that depicts building materials as well - piles of bricks and boards. Some of the animals appear to be getting crushed. Georgia says they are endangered animals. That is what she says the sculpture is all about. And she sees not only animals but people as being endangered.
|"The endangered people," says Douglas, "are black men." Douglas is a fifty-year old black man with the voice of an orator. He says too many black men are in prison, and too many others spend their lives on drugs. In the park, smoking crack cocaine is a way of life.
|"The police know this is going on," he says. But they do little to stop it. "They come through here every now and then, but they want this to happen. As long as black people keep smoking, they are only going to get worse," he says.
|Douglas has been in prison four times. He is an orator with a record, one who understands his subject matter. He has "wised up" but it has cost him much of his life to do so. He says of black prisoners: "A lot of them are doing life for selling drugs - selling drugs because they don't get no education, they haven't been to school, and there's nothing else to do."
|He says it is the same thing at the park: The people have nothing else to do and employers "want a high school diploma to dig a ditch." He says few of the blacks in the park have a diploma.
|Another problem is having a criminal record. He says he paid $398 to go to the American Bartending School but can't get a job as a bartender because of his record. Once, he says, he lied to get a job but was fired two weeks later when they ran a check. He is caught in a bind: If he tells the truth, he can't get a job; if he lies, he gets fired.
|He says many people are critical of down-and-out blacks because they don't understand the problems of blacks, which he says stem from a lack of "roots" in this country.
|"I want you to just look behind me, see them people smoking dope, them people selling dope. People sell dope to earn money." And they smoke it, he says, "because they are depressed, because they got nothin' better to do."
|He is concerned that young black males don't go to school and have pushers for role models.
|Hope keeps many people going - sometimes only the thinnest shred of it - but Douglas says there isn't any hope here, that these people have given up. He himself sounds like he has all but given up.
|There is now rhythmic African music coming from a portable radio - a "ghetto blaster" over near the benches where crack is sold - and a seductive party atmosphere begins to envelop this part of the park. Delusion seems to be routing out depression. Douglas's wife returns with a half pint in a brown paper bag.
|He says the scene is the same one here every day - but now with 12- and 13-year-olds selling drugs.
|He sees only one way things might change: "The only way you're going to get them off of it is somebody comes down and says, 'Anybody want a job? We're going to give you a job. You may not read, you may not write... but we are going to teach you and show you, and we'll put you to work right now.'"
|Georgia is a Hupa Indian and former Oakland school teacher. She is heavy-set and walks with a cane. Sometimes she stops by to try to help people. She says she looks for "one in a thousand in a crowd." When people are really sick and tired, she says, then they are ready for a transformation. Drugs and alcohol make them "crazy," she says; then they are not ready.
|Most, it appears, are not ready. But there is a strange phenomenon of the Tenderloin, and of being poor or down-and-out: It is the awareness of a higher power that comes to aid and sustains a person when nothing else does. Nowhere else in the city will you hear the word "God" used so often, so unequivocally, or so positively.
|Georgia says the problems of the world result from greed, and she says things are going to get worse before they get better. She talks about the destruction of the environment and, her eyes tearing up, the destruction of the native people of California. She has a nightmare vision in which she sees the land covered by the ocean and inhabited by monsters. She herself prays to become small so she can travel around.
|The streets of the
Tenderloin are grimy, almost black. They smell of urine. During the day when the sun is
hot, young people move like old people - slowly and with great effort - and old people
stay indoors where it is safer. It is as if the younger people carry some heavy, invisible
burden. At night, however, it is another story.
Neon night on Larkin
|2. Night in the Tenderloin
|She is standing on the corner of Jones and Golden Gate by a theatre. To strike up a conversation I ask about the show.
|"It's okay," she says, "if you are into men." I look up. The sign says "Adult Theatre." She may be confusing it with the Campus All Male Theatre just down the street.
|She is small like a child, thin, black. Her name is Renee.
|Though I think I know, I ask her what she's up to.
|"Oh, you know, just trying to get some money," she says.
|I offer her ten dollars to show me around the "hood."
|"Sure" she says with a smile, and we head north on Jones.
|At first I think she is a prostitute, then I'm not sure. She is not "dressed up" for a sale. She is wearing a heavy green jacket thick as a sleeping bag. Maybe she is selling drugs. Or maybe she is just standing there.
|On second thought, since she is "trying to get some money," she is probably not just standing there.
|She is clean and has a nice face. She seems happy just to be walking around.
|"I don't see why some people don't accept help," she says as we cross Eddy, heading towards Ellis. We have been talking about all the places a person can go for help in the Tenderloin. There are the big places like Grace Cathedral and St. Anthony's; then there are all the little places offering assistance like the Tenderloin Self-Help Center, the Salvation Army ....
|Her eyes shine when she talks about St. Anthony's - almost like the eyes of the guy in the soup line at Glide when he mentioned chicken. St. Anthony's seems offer complete acceptance of the customer "as is." Hard to beat a deal like that if you are the product of abuse or rejection.
|Grace Memorial is love, but it is tougher love. "Cecil will help you if you help yourself," says Renee. But if you don't do your part, he's not going to waste his time.
|At the corner of Jones and Ellis are two bars. They are the two "good" bars of the Tenderloin. The others Renee cautions against because of frequent violence. And, she says, "they'll rob you."
|We go into Jonell's, one of the good bars. It is a square-shaped room with the bar in the middle. For a Friday, it is remarkably quiet.
|Renee is thirty-two-years old, she says. She has six kids, and they all live in a single hotel room. She has lived in the Tenderloin all her life. With her drink she is beginning to become a little flirtatious.
|"Do you smoke?" she asks. "No," I say and give her money for cigarettes.
|When she comes back she slips out of her sleeping-bag coat, leans an arm on my shoulder and begins to treat me more like a customer or a date than someone she is showing around town.
|Music comes from a juke box in the corner, and she raises her arms like she is dancing, cocks her head a little to one side feeling the rhythm.
|There are two cocktail waitresses - one Asianand pretty, the other Hispanic and heavy-set. The Asianone asks Renee her age. Renee says she is 32 but the waitress does not look completely satisfied.
|"You look 19," she says but leaves it at that and walks off to wait on another customer.
|"I don't lie," Renee says to me. "If I tell you ..." I don't question her.
|But since we are on the subject of age, I ask her what have been the best years of her life so far. She turns pleasantly thoughtful, then says 17, 19 and her birthday last year. For her birthday, she says, she met a guy and they partied at one of the big hotels and he gave her $150 afterwards. She sounds like she is still in heaven when she talks about that.
|Now she is reading a Chinese astrological chart on the wall and asking me my date of birth. It is a long and complicated chart, and she reads with difficulty.
|She has an uncanny ability to accept things at face value and to slip from one topic to another as though the first topic has no connection to the second. And she talks about everything positive as though it were a blessing. She says that meeting me was a blessing. In a world in which so much is calculated, she is a bit refreshing; but it is also the way a child, innocent of consequences, thinks. It is easy to imagine how she might have a large family at a young age.
|She asks me if I want to dance. I tell her no. She tries to get another guy to dance. He is busy staring into his beer and only looks up and smiles at her. She dances a little by herself, then sits back down.
|Outside of the bar we head west on Ellis. The energy level on the street seems to be picking up now; it is as if some invisible hand is stirring up a brew called "The Night"; there is almost an atmosphere of excitement on the street now. Just a few paces up Ellis from Jonell's a guy and his "lady" go flying by us in the opposite direction, as though impelled by some great purpose, then they stop. Both are black. The guy, who has only one eye, wears a dapper felt hat. Given two good eyes, he'd make the grade to be called a "dude." He shouts something at Renee, grabs her, then lets her go. She doesn't want to talk about whatever it is that is bothering him. "Later, later," she shouts at him. His lady stands by expressionless during this little altercation in which tempers flare then fizzle. Flaring tempers, little outbursts, mostly leading to nothing - these seem to be part of the Tenderloin night.
|Further up Ellis we come across Jose, a large black man with a cane who is leaning against a car and smoking. He looks like he's in another world.
|Renee introduces me to Jose. He is soft-spoken and has sensitive eyes. He looks like he is an artist or story-teller in that other world. But he does not look functional in this one.
|We continue on up the street as though we, too, are stirred by that hand and fueled by some mysterious energy of the night.
|"I'm introducing you to these guys," says Renee, "because if you come here again they'll watch out for you." Somehow I doubt this but it sounds good anyway.
|Now we come to the corner of a street that she warns me not to go down. There are two people sitting on the sidewalk, leaning up against a building. They are bundled in blankets as though they are planning to sit there all night. They are white, American-looking, and in their twenties - but seem like refugees from the moon. One stares at us blankly - or as though, perhaps, we are luminous objects that have just registered in his visual field. While he is contemplating us, two tall, gaunt-looking creatures dressed in women's period clothes of the 1920s come strolling up the street towards us. They have blond hair and strong features. As they pass by, Renee says they are not women. She does not seem to approve of guys dressed up in women's' clothes.
|We walk on up to Larkin and head north. On Larkin, the establishments become more upscale - if pink and red and flashing lights and neon signs is on a higher level than dirt and grime. We are on an avenue that is part of a hub of seedy nighttime Tenderloin entertainment. We go into a "sports" bar for a moment - sort of an anomaly here, as there is no featured sex act - but the music is almost deafening, so we leave. Further up the street, across from Susan's message parlor - red-curtained windows, neons aglow, and door protected by a white iron accordion lattice gate that presumably lets customers in but keeps police out - two young Asian men are standing outside a restaurant. One of them insults Renee and she shoves him. He smiles but does not look happy. Renee grabs my hand and we move on, away from the unhappy smile.
|Now we cross O'Farrell Street and head up towards Geary. Renee is getting out of her element; looking less comfortable now, she admits she doesn't know the area anymore. Between neighborhoods, we are at the outer limits of her world of knowledge. She continues holding my hand, as though we are on a date.
|We head down Geary and at the corner of Hyde our "date" ends. I tell Renee I have to go. She gives me a hug and asks for my phone number. "I don't think that would be smart," I say. But I tell her I'll dance with her next time. "Gotta shake those buns your momma gave you," she says. She turns down Hyde Street and is gone. The night dims.
Charlene Tschirhart (middle) with two St. Anthony diners
|3. Franciscan Perspective
|"People ask, 'why are there so many people on the street?'" says Charlene Tschirhart, Director of Justice Education & Donor Services of the St. Anthony Foundation. But what they should really ask, she says, is why there are so few.
|She sits in her office at the rear of the building on Golden Gate. It is peaceful. The people who work in the second-floor offices administer the foundation's program, and the offices look much like other business offices around the city. From the kitchen or the clinic below, one would not picture the quiet, organized atmosphere above.
|One of the things anyone notices about the Tenderloin is the number of hanger-outters all time of the day or night.
|Some are, of course, selling one thing or another. But many are out because "in" is not that pleasant. There are some 26,000 who live in the Tenderloin - an area defined roughly as Post Street on the North, Powell Street on the East, Market Street on the South, and Van Ness on the West - and most of the housing is single rooms in hotels. Says Tschirhart, who is loosening up after answering the standard questions about St. Anthony's operation, "Wouldn't you get tired of seeing the bugs crawl across the ceiling?"
|Drugs and prostitution are the two obvious "sins" of the Tenderloin. They are its easy "sales."
|Tschirhart calls prostitution "very seductive." "It's like gambling. How else can you make $50 per hour?" She says that many would change if offered another job.
|St. Anthony's has a drug program on a farm in Petaluma. Those in the program spend six months on the farm developing a new lifestyle, according to Tschirhart. For many people, she says, "their life has been very spacey. They haven't had structure, they haven't had good food."
|She says that addiction often robs people of knowing themselves, but on the farm the soul has a chance to return.
|She admits that the city itself is a kind of poison. "Imagine yourself living ... in the Tenderloin, and you're in a room littler than this, and your front yard is a street where the Turk Street bus comes ...." She contrasts this to walking among trees and flowers. "You get disconnected from nature, which is so healing."
|While drugs and prostitution represent a certain level of sin, Tschirhart sees them as part of a larger sin - "the sin of injustice in our society. You got 26,000 people right outside that door and most of them are victims."
|The answers to the Tenderloin's problems are both "simple and complicated," she says. What is needed is affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, and healthcare. But what she sees happening is tax breaks for the rich or well-off, spiraling executive salaries, and the poor being given a bad rap via welfare reform.
|Recent welfare reforms appeared to characterize the poor as lazy, but with 40 to 60 million poor people in the U.S., Tschirhart asks, "Are they all lazy? Is that the issue here?" She says the real issue is the lack of jobs, housing, and healthcare.
|That is where such organizations as St. Anthony's come in. Saint Anthony's is a non-profit foundation that serves 2,000 meals a day every day of the year. It was founded by the Franciscan, Fr. Alfred Boeddeker back in 1950 when he started handing out sandwiches to the poor at St. Boniface Catholic Church. One day he realized that more was needed, so he secured the building at the end of the block, which was an old autobody shop.
|Since then services have expanded to include the drug program, a free medical clinic (the oldest in San Francisco), a women's shelter, and employment services. Typical of San Francisco, St. Anthony's has an "attitude," but in this case a nice one. It insists on calling its soup kitchen a "dining hall" and its women's shelter a "home." Treating the poor with dignity and respect is the underlying theme at St. Anthony's.
|Despite the value of these programs, however, Tschirhart calls them a "band-aid." "The real cure will be justice," she says.
|Until that time, however, such organizations as St. Anthony's and Glide Memorial hold the community together.