The bellower (the bellows?) responded in a much subdued rumble, his words still indistinguishable.
“Just stop smoking crack and get a job!” the woman commanded at the top of her voice.
Mine was not the only laughter that bounced around the air well onto which my window opens.
And tonight, shortly after I got home, an hour or so ago, she repeated her advice: “Just shut the fuck up! Stop smoking crack, and get a job!”
This time she was addressing herself to another woman, one who had been braying with a kind of shouted whine, complaining to (and no doubt about) a man.
I could not make out the whiner’s answer, but the woman answered her with real anger this time: “Then tonight I’m gonna have to come after you myself, and I will mess up your face.”
My friend MP, whose poetry I have mentioned before, sent me an email the other day in which he quoted John Panzer, who serves on Berkeley's Homeless Commission, as a formerly homeless recovering addict, living with HIV, and who remarked that “Homelessness is brutal on woman, it makes homelessness for men, look like a life of Donald Trump.”
I have been struck repeatedly during my sojourn here in the TL by the characters of the women I see (and hear) on the street. Admittedly my contact with them has consisted of no more than listening attentively and looking closely and purposefully at them in quick glances, so as not to look so long that an opening for conversation is realized. I notice too how the other men look at them, and especially how they look after them, turning around so as to be able to watch the fluid motion of their bodies moving on down the block. The power of women is rarely displayed so clearly as it is on these streets, and I’d wager that the degree of power some these women command is itself rare in most of the rest of our world.
Early one afternoon, shortly after I first arrived in the TL, I was walking up Leavenworth toward my hotel. Two young black women were approaching me. I could not make out what they were saying, but they were saying it with an exaggerated haughtiness, pretending to speak only to each other but doing so loudly so that the people they were passing could hear them. Behind them, a big, powerful looking black man hurried. As he caught up to them, I heard him say, “Don’t you ever disrespect her that way.” The young women were stopped dead in their tracks by the strength and authority of his voice.
“She’s Tata Nay-Nay, and she’s been out here longer than anybody. She’s been here seventeen years.”
Chastened, the young women continued on quickly and quietly, turning the corner onto Turk and disappearing swiftly.
As I passed the man, he was walking slowly at the side of a diminutive woman, speaking to her softly and solicitously.
I wanted to know who she was, what place she had in the society of these streets, and what she did to earn and keep that place.
Weeks later, I was walking in the other direction, down Leavenworth, on my way to the MUNI station.
The block between Turk and Golden Gate is often clotted with people milling around outside the corner store that sells crack pipes. You have to weave your way through them slowly. There are always two or three who, with backs to you, step across your path, apparently looking for or calling to someone on the other side of the street half a block away. I say “apparently” because I have always sensed that their purpose is to keep me from moving quickly toward whoever is ahead of me, giving those people time to complete or to cut short whatever deal they are doing, or at least time to check me out. The fact that this cutting-off of my progress happens less frequently now that I am a familiar face on these streets is evidence, I believe, that I am right about what they are doing.
On that day, I saw a black woman, probably in her late thirties, who was surrounded by a half-dozen black men. I heard her giving instructions to one of them to go to a certain place and to say such and such to a certain person. Another scurried beside her and offered in a pleading tone to do something for her, but him she reprimanded. I stopped for the traffic light at the corner, and she walked up to me, asking my name. I told her, and she began telling me that I looked good and asking vague questions. Her manner and her comments were flirtatious. I knew that she was simply checking me out, ascertaining whether I was undercover, perhaps. Yet despite knowing what she was really up to, I felt the power of her flirtation and found myself briefly fantasizing about having sex with her. Immediately I also felt the presence of those half-dozen men, who were now circling both her and me. I sensed that they were watching to see that I did not respond to her temptations and at the same time admiring the way in which she was working me for the information she wanted.
And then there was the day I stepped out of the front gate of my hotel and overheard one big black woman saying to another, “All my husband ever want to do is stick that big black dick of his in my tight little asshole.”
It was very clear that she was having none of it, and that he had no say in the matter.
These are some of the types of powerful women I have seen, but there is another type I see just as frequently, if not more so. These I think of as the lost girls.
It is hard to determine their age, for I suspect that their weathered skin, bad teeth, unkempt hair, and emaciated figures make them seem years older than they probably are. They are most often dressed in clothes that are girlish, small, and in disarray. They are often walking hurriedly alongside a man, seemingly struggling to keep up, and talking rapidly. Sometimes the man is silent, as if their chatter meant no more to him than the chirping of birds in the trees along the way. Sometimes the man will explode, yelling at the woman as she scurries along behind him apologizing and trying to explain herself.
When they are alone, they more often stumble and sway down the sidewalk, talking aimlessly to the air, or to whatever dreams or demons surround them. There is always something childlike in their manner, helplessness being their survival strategy. They want to make a man feel that he is much stronger than they and that they need his support and protection. It is clear that any man who takes them under his wing will get whatever he might want from them.
When I lived in one of the rooms at the front of the hotel for a couple of months last winter, I would hear voices from the street below all through the night. I was seldom able to see the speakers or to make out their words, but I heard their tone. I heard whores calling out to passersby or, later, telling their pimps what they had done and how much they got. In the small hours of the morning they might ask him to let them rest or even call it a night.
I remember in particular that a couple nights a week would see a very large black man standing in the shadow of a doorway all night. His van was parked close to where he stood, and I was eventually able to piece together the fact that he drove in from Antioch with a couple of women in his van and stood there while they worked the street. I wondered whether they did their tricks in the van or whether it was reserved as a place for them to rest and clean up between tricks. Sometimes I would hear the unmistakable noises of people having sex, which must have come from parking lots or alleys nearby. And from time to time I would hear a woman screaming or crying or yelling for someone, and I wondered what kinds of violence were taking place in the blocks around me, under cover of darkness, uninterrupted.