“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Inappropriate Behavior, Part One

I am finally becoming a mean old man.

Day before yesterday, I was walking along the north side of Ellis, near the corner of Hyde, and heading west.  I saw a woman lowering herself into the passenger seat of a car parked at the curb, and as she did, she dropped an empty plastic water bottle -- Crystal Geyser, I think -- in the gutter.  I had just passed her by a step or two and turned, pointed at her and then at the bottle, and said firmly, "Pick it up."  Her face went blank as she stared back at me.  I said, "Don't drop it in the street.  Pick it up."  She reopened the car door, leaned down, and picked up the empty bottle.  She closed the door, and it left with her in the car.

I smiled.  I have always been a coward.  I have only rarely confronted anyone in that way.  I habitually stay silent and burn with resentment and anger afterward.  So I felt proud both of my action and of the personal growth it demonstrated.

I have said it over and over again throughout the last decade or more:  shame is the glue of society.

When I was a kid, if I had pocketed some candy at Sam's Market, any adult who had seen me would have called me out, would have led me by the hand, shoulder, or scruff of the neck, to Sam himself, and he would have called my parents.  I would be in real trouble.  Standards of behavior depend on a community of individuals each of whom is willing to enforce those standards -- and on nobody trying to shelter their litle precious one from the consequences of the precious one's misbehavior.

Shame is good:  it is the assertion of our better selves, the proof of our essential identity as members of a greater whole, a family, a tribe, a community.  Without it we are vicious beasts.


If you have been sleeping in the cab of your friend’s pick-up truck, you will find it a challenge to be clean and look well-groomed by the time you have to go to work. Public showers are available at various centers around town, but they may lie in the opposite direction from that which you have to travel, and the uncertainties of traffic and transit connections increase exponentially with every transfer you have to make.

In these circumstances, you will have to make the best of what my father used to call “a sponge bath”. You can make do with any fairly capacious and private restroom (by private I mean that the door locks on the whole room, not just on a stall). The worst that will happen is that a line might form outside. Someone might go so far as to complain through the door. But since the room’s purpose is to provide privacy for acts that no one really wants to see, you are not going to get in trouble.

You can take off all your clothes, fold together a half-dozen paper towels as a washcloth, wet it with nice, hot water, and wipe off the previous day’s patina. I use soap sparingly and only where absolutely necessary (my armpits and feet) because it is difficult to rinse with the aforementioned paper towels, and my skin itches like crazy if I leave a film of soap anywhere on my body. I keep a change of socks, etc., in my bag so that I can put fresh clothes on my clean body. And yesterday’s undershirts (and some other garments) make perfectly good towels to dry with so you don’t end up with little torn bits and wadded balls of paper towel clinging to you.

I am always on the lookout for private restrooms, especially ones not far from -- or on the way to -- my workplace. The Mission branch of the Public Library, for example; Rainbow Grocery; most Starbuck’s, and Trader Joe‘s. (You are obviously in the right place anywhere you have to ask for a key to use the bathroom.).

At times, however, you will need to do without privacy. Minimizing your exposure and accepting your feelings of embarrassment are difficult and mostly painful. There have been mornings when I had to open the pick-up door (I sleep in the passenger seat which is always on the curb side), stick out my naked feet, and pour cold bottled water over them. Sitting in the truck shirtless, door still open, I use the same bottle of water to soak either a small rag or garment, or the corner of a larger towel, and rub furiously at my armpits. Then I dry myself, put on clean socks and undershirt, and finish dressing. I watch for a time when no pedestrians are coming and hurry through these ablutions, but frequently I am surprised by someone coming around a corner or out of a house nearby.

The shame is two-fold (at least). I am embarrassed to be seen even half naked by strangers who are fully clothed and going about their daily lives in a civilized, public space and in conformance with communal standards of appropriate dress. I am also ashamed because my homelessness itself is exposed to them along with my body. This is the shame that makes me want to start casual conversations with passersby so that I can drop excuses that would explain away the three large bags I am carrying. I don’t want to be seen to be homeless, even though I honestly am homeless. I know that poverty is not a moral failing; and yet I feel shame.

This is the kind of thing The Psychopath, a.k.a. MRM, uses to harass me. “Aren’t you ashamed to be carrying all those bags around. Everyone can tell you’re homeless. And your poverty is a moral failing,” he once said in a text message. I was enraged but couldn’t reply, since I obey the mutual restraining order we have against one another even when he does not. I wanted to tell him that I feel no shame because it is his fault, not mine, that I am out on the street. In fact I am much happier homeless than I was being housed with him, enduring his abuse. But later, when I am thinking not of him but of the others who see me, I have to admit what I call my “embarrassment”, but what is, in fact, shame..

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Almighty Dollar

Yesterday afternoon I walked a block or so to the Dollars and Cents store on Eddy Street between Leavenworth and Jones. I had passed it many times, but it had always looked small and dark inside, and the merchandise looked as if it had been jammed onto the shelves, some of it apparently long ago, long enough to have acquired a patina of settled dust over the sun-faded inks of the packaging. This time, however, it looked bright and open, the new wire shelving finished with shining chrome. The floor was bare concrete but looked well scrubbed, perhaps even polished and buffed, like the floors of some fashionable high-end shops I knew in SoHo during the 1980s. The big front windows were clean and uncluttered by signs or advertisements.

As I wandered through the aisles looking for toothpaste, I found one or two other things that I had been needing (e.g., scouring powder, petroleum jelly) but had not felt that I could afford. But here, for a mere dollar each, I could easily buy them without breaking my budget. I even found paper plates, for example, which I had passed up at Safeway many, many times because I could not justify spending something like $5.00 on them. They are tremendously useful not only for serving a meal but also for cooking in the microwave, the only appliance allowed in my hotel room. I had been making-do with other things for over six months but now picked up a package of 10.

The clean, well-lighted space, with the merchandise arranged neatly, allows the shopper to see what is available easily -- and to see that it is clean and new. And the soft-spoken, helpful Latino at the register, neatly dressed all in black, his hair perfectly combed, his skin shining with good health, made me feel completely at home. Something seated deeply within me relaxed in a way that I had not relaxed in over a year. I felt that I was seen to be sane, responsible, and connected to the world around me. I felt respected, and I moved more easily, with the solidity of our natural dignity.

All this for $6.40.

In the course of my year on the streets, I have found something similar at MacDonald’s. I imagine that most folks don’t take notice, really, of the Dollar Menu offered in every MacDonald’s restaurant in this country. Those of us trying to find ways to keep body and soul together on next to nothing -- some as little as $10 a day for everything -- understand the importance of this special group of items.

Everything on the Dollar Menu is priced at just $1. Among them are a MacDouble hamburger (with cheese), a chicken sandwich, and a truly delicious side salad. This salad consists of spring greens, cherry tomatoes, and a few other treats and comes with a choice of dressings, including my favorite, Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. You can also get a large glass of sweet iced tea or a Parfait for dessert. All for $1 each.

I have a big appetite and usually order two MacDoubles and the side salad. Sometimes when I am heading home to a prepared dinner from Project Open Hand, I stop at MacDonald’s just to buy a side salad to have with my frozen dinner. Believe me, it is nigh on to impossible to get fresh vegetables in your diet when you are poor. A supermarket salad bar, at $3 or $4 per pound, cannot even be contemplated in the abstract. One comes to know that such things are not meant for folks like oneself.

But MacDonald’s is there by our side, providing fresh bread, red and white meat, healthy beverages, fresh vegetables, and even a sweet little treat to end the meal with a smile, with a complete meal costing less than $5. There have been evenings -- I think of last winter and spring -- when I sat in MacDonald’s, eating my dinner, feeling my hunger satisfied and knowing that my body was getting a wide range of nutrients that were necessary to my health, and was moved to tears. This company so often derided as an example of bland, homogenous American corporate culture displacing small, individualized, local establishments and local traditions, had also found in its heart, moving through the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the company world-wide, a true understanding of the needs of poor folk and had responded by providing healthy life-sustaining food at a price we can afford.

And that fact brings me to my last point. These establishments, the Dollar Stores and MacDonald’s and others like them, provide one more necessity of life, one of the most fundamental and profound, and one that cannot be provided by any social, charitable, or government entity or even by caring and selfless individuals.

Everyone needs to feel responsible, to know that she or he is capable of taking care of himself or herself. Otherwise we come to feel less than complete, as if we were something other than fully formed, dignified, adult human beings. Only we ourselves, as individuals, can provide this latter necessity by shopping and paying for the food, clothing, and other things we all need to show up for life day to day. For us poor folk, it is at the Dollar Stores and the MacDonald’s of the world that we find the opportunity to do so and thereby to enjoy the deep pleasure of selecting and paying for a few simple things that will help us maintain a respectable appearance, good health, and a sense of contentment with our life.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“Mid-Market” Musings

One week ago, I began my Tuesday with the decision to quit the job I had held for six months and trust that as I stepped off the cliff into the air, all would be well. Almost immediately thereafter, I received an email from KW, a long-time friend with whom I had only recently reconnected. The email contained a link to another blog being written in this neighborhood, “Lodging in Public”, the author of which, Martha Bridegam, had written a particularly expressive, informative, and righteous response to a new corporate plan to “make a contribution” to our neighborhood.

At about the same time, I received an email from Mark Ellinger, whose “Up From the Deep” blog is an indispensable resource for the history of San Francisco, weaving together both personal and public history. Mark was replying to the email I sent him last night saying that I expected that I would be quitting today and that I would therefore be free to meet with him anytime. He suggested noon today, and so it was that I met Mark today for the first time.

We had lunch at Taqueria Can-Cun on Market at Seventh Street, the first of what I am sure will be a long list of neighborhood venues I will learn about from Mark. He also introduced me to two more blogs from the TL: “The Tenderloin Geographic Society” and “Bluoz”. I am excited to have met someone who can teach me volumes about my neighborhood -- and about the life of our times.

Something else about Mark excited me, too: the voice of prophecy. He has the soul of Jeremiah and the requisite courage to speak truth to power. What is more, he knows, and the whole of his work reflects this knowledge, that we are nothing in ourselves. It is only in relation to others that our lives have any meaning. He spoke movingly of his losses, saying that his life up to 2001 is simply and entirely gone, but he also affirmed his commitment to the community in which he lives. And that commitment includes standing up to the corporate culture that has our country in thrall.

Mark laments the disappearance of the San Francisco we both once knew and loved and the emergence of the current “bland, soulless, corporate” enclave that the city has become. I told him that I think of San Francisco as a “gated community”, though in its case it is a “bridged and tunneled” community You have to pay a toll (or the price of a ticket for BART or a ferry) to enter within the City Limits.

We hear politicians and pundits discuss the “disappearance of the middle class” as a phenomenon of changing statistics: where once the percentage of the population identified as “Middle Class” was “X“, that percentage is now “X minus Y”. They speak and therefore think as if a number, a ratio, had changed, and the difference between what was and what is consists in the disappearance of a category, possibly through the death or the going away of certain people.

But hear me now: they are wrong. It is not that people have disappeared, died, or gone away. In the revolution of our society’s structure that began with Ronald Reagan and has continued under every individual and power to take office since, nothing has disappeared, no one has been lost.

I am still here, and I am the erstwhile “middle class”. I have not disappeared: I have moved. I have lived, at various times, in Walnut Creek, in Berkeley, in Baltimore, in Wellesley, in Schenectady, in Manhattan, on Long Island, on Fire Island, in Oakland, in Alamo Square, in Noe Valley, and even the Mission (recently named by the New York Times as the hippest neighborhood in the country):

I now live in an SRO on a dirty corner in The Tenderloin, surrounded by the dispossessed.

I am here to bear witness to the failure of “progress”, the failure of “markets”, the lies of “individualism”, “self-reliance”, and “democratic capitalism”.

And I am here to say, with Leonard Cohen, that “There’s a mighty judgment coming . . .”


                                                                  " . . . but I may be wrong."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Democratic Capitalism

Democratic Capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Democracy wants us all to have equal power. Capitalism wants to concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands. For the capitalist, success goes to the individual who can best exploit resources. For the democrat, success is a community that unites a diverse group of people who respect and value one another.

Democracy struggles against oppression: the good it pursues is freedom, the greatest personal freedom for each individual. Capitalism, on the other hand, is interested in only one freedom: free trade.

American ideology at the turn of the millennium bears an internal contradiction that runs so deep that our political and personal discourses cannot begin to portray accurately the most basic truths of our lives. The talking heads babble on about the wisdom of markets and the sanctity of the individual. They speak in reverent tones about the importance of freedom, but “freedom” is an empty concept, a meaningless, absurd, unintelligible idea. “Freedom” is not a thing in and of itself. It is not even an abstract intellectual thing.

It is, in fact, a kind of double negative, a form of emptiness: freedom is the absence of restraint.

We cannot, as a people, do anything about the slow collapse of our financial, political, and personal ways of life because we do not understand the nature of our institutions or of our values well enough to manage them competently.

We live by our myths: The Rugged Individualist is heir to The Pioneer Spirit. He is self-reliant. He eschews both government and charity, striking out to find his place in life, to stake his claim to a role in a society that he has invented. Everyone conveniently avoids mention that his ability to survive in this way rests on his taking, by violence, the natural resources (Land, Water, Air) from the Peoples previously living here. Our national hero is a conman and a cheat, a thief and a murderer.

Meanwhile the conventional wisdom holds that those who lack the vision, the stamina, or the will-power to chart such a course for themselves, (i.e., the poor, the uneducated, the most recent immigrants) are either lazy or morally decadent. Their poverty is proof of their moral failure.*

By “Individualism” I do not mean Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman only: I mean Wayne Dwyer, Oprah Winfrey, and Pastor Rick Warren as well. The “Left” is as much in thrall to the myth of fingerprints as is the “Right”.

As Gore Vidal once said, “We don't have political parties: we have one political party with two right wings called the Democratic and the Republican.”


This hour-long lesson on the nature of our banking system looks and sounds like the kind of educational films I saw in grade school. (Remember “Our Mr. Sun?) Pay particular attention to the quotations that appear onscreen in print and to the names of the people being quoted.

If you learn this lesson thoroughly, you will understand Obama’s greatest failure. In the opening days of his first term, he clearly proved himself to be no different than John McCain or any other politician holding office today. I had expected nothing from a man who hails from the University of Chicago, but I was still sad to see the moment that might have revived the Republic pass. Never again will a President have the chance to nationalize the banks and allow the people to regain some control over their destiny.

Vale, Caesar!

*MRM, my ex and nemesis, once told me that my poverty was proof of my moral failing. He also taunted me when I first applied for General Assistance, saying “Push out your lips. Push out your lips. Push out your lips. You’ve gotta practice so you can look like all the other niggers getting their welfare checks.”


Monday, April 8, 2013

Pennies from Heaven

Being poor, I miss a lot as I walk the streets.  Instead of observing the people around me, or the surrounding buildings, or the traffic, I find my eyes scouring the sidewalk, the gutter, and the street -- at least the first foot or so of pavement in front of me.

I am looking for coins or cash or anything else of easily realizable value.  I have found quite a lot of money on the sidewalks and in the streets, including a one-hundred dollar bill on the street where I used to live.  And in the past twenty-four hours I have found forty-four cents on the ground: nine pennies, one dime, and one quarter.  I also found an ATM card, which I will return to the next Bank of America branch that I pass. [OK -- so I held onto it long enough to use it to buy one bus ticket, which cost 75 cents, from a vending machine.]

When I was a little boy, I would, once in a great while, find a penny lying on the sidewalk.  I would grab it quickly, with great excitement, and my mother would proclaim, “That's good luck!  Hold on to that!”  When we got home, I would place it carefully in a special box or drawer, and I would treasure it for the luck it was sure to bring me in the coming days.

My maternal grandmother told the story (though I believe I only heard it second-hand from my mother) of her Uncle Lou's disgust when the one cent coin was introduced in 1909.  Whenever he received them in change from a merchant, he would toss them with contempt into the gutter and say, “Worthless coppers!”

Inflation and deflation have cycled 'round more than a couple of times in the years separating Uncle Lou's worthless coppers and the penny of my boyhood from what I find today.  But I have been struck by the apparent evidence in the street that we are once again in Uncle Lou's world, at least economically.  For most people, it seems, a penny is once again not worth the effort of bending over to pick up, or at least not worth carefully holding on to.

I have considered whether the penny's worth depends on the class of the holder, but the fact is that I have found them on the streets of every kind of neighborhood.  It seems that today all classes share Uncle Lou's low opinion of the coins.  (I must here note that the exception is the wealthiest neighborhoods, where their absense is probably due to the fact that no one walks along those streets anyway, and if they do, they are not fishing through their pockets or purses for coins to feed a parking meter or to pay bus fare.)

I have however also discovered a couple of differences between the classes in the course of my search for money on the street:

In poor neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin, you will find no money on the street late in the month.  In the days immediately following the first and the fifteenth of the month, however, at the time when General Assistance, Social Security, Disability, and other state income programs send out checks, a veritable thunderstorm of coppers seems to have descended overnight.

In middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods one finds not pennies but currency, even large denominations, suggesting of a carelessness about money that could obtain only among those for whom money is so abundant as to be almost unnoticeable.

When I say "unnoticeable", I am thinking of Heidegger's (or is it Husserl's?) observation that we only notice things that have broken.  His example is his pencil.  As long as the pencil is working, he writes page after page unaware that it is in his hand.  He doesn't notice the pencil until the moment it breaks, when it suddenly leaps into his awareness.  His attention is no longer on his ideas and the words that communicate them but on the piece of wood and graphite squeezed between his fingers and thumb.

Money must be like this for the privileged classes: invisible, because for them it works so effortlessly.  But wait until you've made that one mistake, trusting in someone too easily perhaps.  Only then will you begin to learn what money is.

I see a certain man from time to time, usually just around the corner from my hotel and half-way up the block. It is always night, and he terrifies me.

I do not know whether he knows that I am there when I see him. I have never seen more than a quarter of his face, by which I can tell little more than that he is of Asian descent, but beyond that I couldn't identify him. He is always looking down at the pavement and is always very close to it. He squats on his heels, balanced on his toes, and his hands are busy with a miniature broom and dustpan.

He is sweeping the cracks in the sidewalk and examining the dirt closely. On two occasions I have seen him pick something up with his fingertips. My guess is that he is looking for crack cocaine or crystal meth.

The block on which he prospects is crowded most times I walk up it. Since my favorite neighborhood market, "Amigo's", is at the end of the block, at Ellis Street, I walk that way most every night or two.

The crowd is almost exclusively African-American, 90% male, and arranged in clusters that force the pedestrian to swerve and say "excuse me" four or five times in the block. One sees something being handed off, and hands disappearing quickly into clothing, as one makes one's way through the gauntlet. Occasionally hands are cupped around a flame which is also quickly withdrawn and whatever it was lighting or heating disappears just as quickly.

So I assume that the crouching prospector is seeking bits of what is passed between hands or heated or lit in the hopes that they might have fallen to the ground. In some ways he is heir to those who first created the city in the 1850s. And I would wager that he, like most of them, will find little more than fool's gold.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Lesson from the Past Year

I know now why guys who have returned from battle go into malls with guns and begin shooting people.

When I am on the subway platform, I search for his face through the windows of each train as it enters the station, desperately trying to see them all before it comes to a stop. As I walk anywhere in the city, I am searching the oncoming figures to see whether he is approaching me. Every slightly over-weight, middle-aged Latino is him from the distance of a half block -- and there are a lot of slightly over-weight, middle aged Latinos in this town!

I don’t know why I search for him. Do I want to see him? Or do I want to make sure that I can avoid him before he gets too close?

I have a few hundred things that I would like to say to him: some defending myself against his slander and accusations; some reminding him of his many, many betrayals; some describing my disgust at him; some declaring that I did all I could to show how much I cared for him once-upon-a-time.

The fact that I feel bound to abide by the mutual stay-away order has left me vulnerable to his harassment by text and email. I cannot reply to defend myself or to accuse him without risking the loss of my own credibility in court, and yet he suffers no consequences for his abrogation of the order. He gets away with it all. He can even frame his lies in the right way to have me arrested when I have done nothing.

He has attacked me in ways that I would never have thought possible, ways that I never could have imagined. I live in a continual state of anxiety, bracing myself for something completely unknown and unpredictable.

So I get it. That kind-looking woman approaching to receive her ration of fresh water or food turns out to be a walking bomb that blows your closest friends to pieces right next to you. A year later, back home, you see kind-looking women approach and every nerve in your body braces for the explosion.

You can live with that kind of stress only so long.

Today I got an email telling me the gate code to get access to my storage space, which he broke into just about a year ago, smashing some things he knew to be of particular sentimental value to me and stealing a computer.

I had not requested the gate code.

He has hijacked my email accounts before. He may have found out about this blog and be angry about it. I have to work long days tomorrow and the next day and have no way of checking on my storage space.

I will not sleep easily tonight.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Some (More) Context

This afternoon I walked the four blocks out Eddy to Van Ness.  In my real life, when I had a car, I avoided Van Ness because they do not time the traffic lights, and the traffic itself is heavy.  But Van Ness is now part of my neighborhood, and every time I reach its sidewalks, I remember my grandmother.  I remember her talking about her youth in San Francisco and, in particular, talking about the two kinds of places where she had lived while growing up.

Born in 1892 to a mother from Illinois (herself born in 1875) and a father, Johann Van Drost, from Germany, this grandmother, whom I called “Nana”, spent her early childhood on Van Ness.  He father was a successful druggist, and their house was both large and grand.  Though her parents had met and married in San Francisco, my grandmother had been born in Aspen, Colorado, to which her mother traveled frequently to visit relatives.  Nana's mother, whom we called Uma, was not concerned about traveling such a distance (by ferry, then by train, and finally by stagecoach) despite her pregnancy because the baby was not due for another two months.  Nana, was, however, born prematurely. She told me how her uncle in Aspen, also a druggist, lined a cigar box with blankets, placed my infant grandmother in it, and kept her in the oven as a kind of make-shift incubator.

Nana and her mother, Uma, returned to Colorado to visit those same relatives when she was eight years old.  It was spring time, and the thawing Rockies were magnificent.  It was also 1906, and on April 6th, they got the news that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake and that the hundreds of fires, which began in collapsed buildings that had kerosene lamps and gaslights, had rapidly become a holocaust consuming the few structures that had survived the quake as well as those that lay in ruins.

The telegraph operator in Aspen posted a map of San Francisco in the Telegraph Office window, and four times a day, when the latest reports on the progress of the fires came in, he would take the map down and blacken those areas that had burned.  Nana and Uma watched with increasing anxiety as the black stain spread toward Van Ness.  It was at that wide boulevard that the Army and the Fire Department were finally able to stop the monstrous flames.  They stopped them by dynamiting every structure on both sides of Van Ness, thereby creating an empty space wide enough to form a viable fire-break.  My Nana’s house, and everything in it, including her prize possessions, a collection of Dresden China dolls, was gone.

I wish I could find out what the address of the Van Drost family residence was, but all city records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire. The closest I have come is an insurance map from 1905 that shows the location and type of every structure in the city approximately six months before the disaster.  If Nana's decription was accurate in saying that nothing stood behind her house but sand dunes to the ocean, they lived somewhere out by Lombard. 

[The importance of history and of its Muse, Memory, cannot be overtsated.  I have recently learned about Up from the Deep, a blog that has built and is building a monument of history and of personal memory about the Tenderloin.  I am fascinated by the wealth of facts about San Francisco to be found there.  Check it out!]

Johann himself had died in '04, and when everything was lost in '06, Uma relied on the advice of a friend who told her not to take the settlement of 10 cents on the dollar which was offered by the insurance company. Instead she held out for more and ended up with nothing. Making her living as a milliner, which did not pay much, Uma and Nana had to live in hotels

When Nana spoke of the other home of her childhood, she did so with a mixture of distaste and regret.  “After Father died and we lost the house in the earthquake and fire,” she would say, “we lived in hotels.”  I could think of nothing more adventurous, more luxurious, or more wonderful than growing up in a hotel.  But Nana was not talking about the Fairmont, the Huntington, or the St. Francis.  She was talking about buildings exactly like, and possibly including, the one in which I am living now.

San Francisco has been from its earliest days a city of single men.  They required no kitchens or parlors, not even private baths, in their lodgings.  They needed a place to sleep.

They ate in restaurants.  They entertained themselves on the Barbary Coast or, for those more refined, at the Opera Houses, at Woodward's Gardens, or at the dozens of theaters that crowded the town.  I can imagine how a child in such quarters, an only child without playmates, would be bored and lonely most of the time.  But I can also imagine that for Uma, an attractive young widow, free of any need for chaperones or the other restrictions pressed on an unmarried girl, might have had a marvelous time.

I never knew Uma, who died when I was only two, but I remember being told that she had been a happy and fun-loving woman, who would “stay up until 4 in the morning playing cards” whenever she had the chance.  Now I realize that playing cards for her was not like my mother’s bridge club.  I see Uma shuffling the deck, joking and flirting, in the company of single men, her neighbors and having, I am sure, fun.

If only I could spend one night playing cards with her until four in the morning.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Day Off

For more than a year I have said that all I really wanted was a room of my own, a place in which to write. Today I awoke at noon, ashamed that I had slept through half the day. I reminded myself that I had not missed any appointments or failed to keep any commitments. I also felt badly that I had only a few dollars left, and I don’t get my paycheck until Friday.  I know where I can get food today and tomorrow. But on Wednesday and Thursday I will have to pay bus fare to work and back, and I will be in Sausalito without access to the food resources that I have here in San Francisco.

Let the Right decry “San Francisco Liberals” and the Left regret the gentrification and (St. Herb’s word) “Manhattanization” of our fair city, I am here to tell you that no one need go hungry in San Francisco.

How many cities are there who citizens can boast that hunger has been eradicated in their territory? I know only that being a San Franciscan means living among people who believe in the dignity of all persons and in the inherent right of all to the basic necessities of life. I am here to bear witness to the fact that even an old fool (and probably a scoundrel) like myself is cared for by the City of San Francisco (whose patron Saint himself threw off the expensive clothing his father had supplied for him and walked out naked into the world.)

San Franciscans give more than lip-service to these words from the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, less than two years after  that agency of peace and brotherhood among nations was born here in San Francisco: 
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care . . . .”

Nowhere on earth could there be a better city.


Back to that moment of waking (pace, Marcel): I am here.

I get seven frozen meals each week from Project Open Hand.  I heat them in my microwave and have at least one well-balanced, nutricious meal a day.
Yesterday I had Easter dinner at St. Anthony's Diningroom, which serves hot lunches every day.  They also have a technology Center at which I am able to go online daily.
And Glide Memorial serves breakfast daily.
Please support their efforts.