“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, September 3, 2013

Inappropriate Behavior, Part Two: Poor Devils

Ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?

I have not, though I admit to being more than a bit intrigued by the idea.  But I have seen many of my neighbors engaged in just such an exercise in full daylight, day after day after day.

If I could be the Tsar of the English Language, I would expand the definition of the word “spirits” in its reference to distilled alcohol or other volatile liquors.  I would have this definition include all manner of intoxicating substances: cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, anti-depressants, etc.  For just as I know by personal experience that there is a devil in rum, so I see on every block of the Tenderloin men and women locked in forms of physical struggle -- or perhaps in dances of one kind or another -- with creatures, whether partners or antagonists, that are invisible to me.

This morning I saw a man standing on the corner of Hyde and Eddy Streets, with his knees bent in a partial squat; with his torso thrown forward horizontally, so that if his legs had been straight he would have formed a perfect right angle; and with his arms bent and flung akimbo.  He was dressed in dull grays and blues, grime covering all of his clothes.  His dirty hair hung forward over his face.  I would have guessed him to be in this thirties, but it is folly to guess the age of those who are leading lives as hard as so many my neighbors' are.

His pose was so imbalanced and so precarious that it must have required tremendous effort and muscular strength to hold it without falling over.  What is more, he stood on the very edge of the sidewalk, at the corner, where had he stepped into the street, he would have been in the crosswalk, and had he fallen, his head would have been in the center of the curb lane.  But in all the time that he was in my field of vision, about five minutes, I did not see him move a muscle.  I imagined that his legs, back, and arms, must have been screaming in silent pain inside his mind, but he was outwardly as still and silent as stone.

As I passed him I heard a rough noise from the street and looked up Eddy toward Larkin to see a woman stumbling across the street in long, irregular, broken strides.  A plastic container of food had just hit the pavement in the middle of the street, evidently having slipped from her hands.  Her arms were flailing on either side of her in order to stabilize her body as each of her steps twisted her, first right and then left, at least as much as it propelled her forward.  She sounded disappointed, even hurt, and a little angry as she spoke loudly to someone or something near her.  But her interlocutor clearly belonged only to her ken and remained unseen by me.

How many dimensions or realities, how many parallel universes, exist alongside mine in the six-block square that is the “TL”?  I see only my reality, but I see my neighbors reacting to the presences in theirs.

This evening, I saw a man who had a large pile of things massed up against the Leavenworth side of the YMCA, mid-block between Golden Gate and Turk.  As I approached, he (oblivious to my presence, I am sure) scattered a dozen or so sheets of white paper along the street-side edge of the sidewalk.  He dropped them with a wild gesture and then went on waving his hands at them while mumbling what seemed to be instructions.  It looked as though he wanted them to stay where he had placed them.  Even now I half-wonder whether he held a magic wand as he worked at this chore.

The papers, like obedient pets, settled to the ground and did not stir.  The man then wheeled around and careened toward the rest of his possessions, drawing from them what appeared to be a rope with two balls attached, one at either end (a bolo, I believe).  Holding the balls in his left hand and folding the rope in half over his right wrist, he held the double line of rope taut and straight, and pushed against the air with it, in the direction of the papers, as he stepped first toward them and then back, shifting from side to side, performing what I took to be the erection of a barrier, a kind of spirit-fence, to keep the papers away from the rest of his worldly goods.  He seemed to have made a corral of sorts for the white sheets of loose paper, keeping them easily at hand should he need them, while simultaneously keeping them from causing any mischief among the rest of his subjects.

Having passed him, I did not look back to see what other enchanted chores he, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, performed.  Besides, I had dozens more folks to weave my way through while they darted or slid back and forth across my path as I walked home, all of them doing business or battle with vigorous intent.

Today, you see, was the first of the month


And a propos of the first, I found a shiny new quarter in the street as I walked to the library this afternoon.  (See "Pennies From Heaven" )  I am getting to know these streets well.


For those of you who wonder what is wrong with the streetizens whom I have described above, I can answer in a single word:  poverty.  While it is true that not all people who are afflicted with poverty turn to drugs for relief, it is also true that using drugs is an obviously effective response to the symptoms of poverty, especially within a dominate culture that turns to drugs for relief from every kind of stress or sorrow naturally encountered in the course of human endeavor.  (See "An Excess of Black Bile")  Their choice to use drugs is not very different from my choice to eat a diet high in fat and sugars.  (See "A Difficult Day or Two" )  I eat burgers and donuts because they are less expensive and more effective in relieving poverty’s symptoms (stomach cramps, sleeplessness) than a healthier diet would be.


Sullivan’s Travels, written and directed by Preston Sturgis, tells the story of a movie director who wants to make a film about poverty during the Great Depression.  To prepare for this task he decides to dress in dirty and worn-out clothes (supplied by the studio’s costume department) and, taking no money with him, to wander the country, traveling with hobos and living among the homeless.

Within the first few minutes of the film, Sullivan’s butler takes the servant’s greatest risk:  he reprimands his master.  His speech, delivered with sincerity and conviction in a close-up shot of the butler looking straight out of the screen at us, gives me chills -- to be honest, brings me to tears -- every time I watch it.

[Like Godfrey, the “Forgotten Man” in My Man Godfrey, this is a servant who has clearly had a first-class education, most probably a gentleman who has fallen on hard times:  notice how he uses the term “positive” in the philosophical sense of a thing that exists in and of itself (as opposed to a “negative” which is a thing not existing independently but only as the absence of another thing.)]

Sullivan has just explained his intention of making a film about poverty.

Butler: The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?

Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. I believe quite properly, sir.

Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once, who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves, as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.

You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.

Sullivan: Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.

Butler: Quite unwillingly, sir. Will that be all, sir?