I could see the chairs through the windows that ran the full length of the Church Street side of the laundromat . The chairs were hard, molded plastic of assorted bright colors, and they stood on shiny legs of aluminum tubing. The obvious function achieved by their design was to lend a splash of color to the otherwise drab laundromat while also creating, for anyone who might sit in them, sufficient discomfort to prevent lingering.
The same ethos was evident outside, where the concrete planter boxes, which also ran the length of the laundromat, had iron grille work arching over them so that no one could make the mistake of getting comfortable while perched on the edge of the box.. (People sitting there would look so unattractive to passers by, don‘t you think?) It is perhaps the most dominate fact about the design of virtually all public spaces in the United States: any provision of seating must be awkward to use -- either too low or too high, or lacking any back support at all -- and must be made of hard, uncomfortable materials.
I certainly knew enough not to try to rest outside. I knew that inside would be better. I could see that he chairs inside at least had backs and could hold a seated body upright, allowing the legs to bend and the feet to rest flat directly below the knees. So I entered the laundromat and sat in one of the chairs. In the moment that I sat down I realized that I could not have continued walking, could not even have stood still, without soon collapsing in a heap on the unforgiving concrete
Our bodies will do most all that we demand of them up until the moment that we relax a bit. Then the full weight of the burden with which we have laden them seems to settle like a leaden blanket all at once, forcing us to fall inward and sometimes outward as well. I could not understand why I was so tired. I had walked only half the length of Dolores Park along the Church street side (from approximately Nineteenth Street to the corner of Church and Eighteenth Streets) and all downhill. I had waited for the traffic light and had then walked only one more block along Church Street, only slightly uphill, to the laundromat at the corner of Seventeenth Street. Yet that small effort had overwhelmed me.
The night before I had not been lucky enough to find a place to be inside. So I had passed the night walking through the city. Block after block, street after street, crossing dozens of unmarked borders as I moved from neighborhood to neighborhood: Castro to Lower Haight, Lower Haight to Hayes Valley, Hayes Valley to Civic Center to SOMA and down to the Embarcadero, then circling back up through SOMA, passing the Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Center, looking in the windows of the Four Seasons and the W, then walking on out through the Mission and eventually, as morning broke, returning to the Castro.
I stopped at Dolores Park, where the Mission and the Castro meet. I had walked for seven or eight hours, both to keep warm and to avoid becoming a target for mean or desperate people -- or rats. Then, as the sun rose, I put down my backpack and my messenger’s bag, stretched out on the grass using them as pillows, spread my coat over me like a blanket, and at last fell asleep in the warmth of the new day.
When I awoke, I was surrounded by hundreds of people. They were enjoying the midday sun in the park, talking about work and boyfriends and girlfriends and all the rest of their busy, young, bourgeois lives. I remember becoming conscious of their voices long before I opened my eyes. I lay for a long time in a dreamy and luxurious kind of lassitude, the calm brought on by complete physical exhaustion.
Lying there, I listened. The group nearest me had at some point all been at school together and had afterward scattered around the country, most along the eastern seaboard and the Pacific coast. Some combination of business and pleasure travel, perhaps focused on some occasion marked by their Alma Mater, had now gathered them together. They talked about their travels and their work, and the women gossiped about relationships or the personalities of friends evidently not present at the moment.
I remember being mildly bemused at the energy and seriousness with which they discussed the ephemera of their and their friends’ lives. I rolled my eyes inwardly at the extended analysis they made of the choices they were facing -- whether to change jobs, whether to go on vacation now or in three weeks, how and where to travel when they did -- all embellished with detail meant to manifest their own importance.
It was when I eventually roused myself from that dreamy darkness and opened my eyes that I saw the throng of twenty and thirty year olds who had the leisure to enjoy a few hours in the sun on a weekday afternoon. I had lain unnoticed, apparently, among them, some guy who had fallen asleep in the sun. Did they see me as homeless? Or did my general cleanliness and neat luggage, which looked for all the world like a gym bag and a kind of briefcase, allow them to take me as one of their kind, albeit a bit older? Eventually I stretched and stood up, shouldered my luggage, and began that short walk to Church Street and the laundromat.
Sitting at last on one of the hard plastic chairs, I knew that I would not be able to rise without help, no matter how uncomfortable I might become. I pulled my phone from my pocket and for the first time in my life dialed 9-1-1. My memory of the wait for help is cloudy, but I know that immediately after the call ended, I felt embarrassed, thinking that I hadn’t really needed to call, that I was being weak and self-indulgent, and that the emergency resources were doubtless needed by people who at that moment were far worse off than I. I felt as though I had called in sick to work when I was really feeling pretty good but just didn’t want to go to work that day. I know that my stomach and bowels were also increasing distressed. I felt nauseated and had painful cramps.
The kindest man I met in Bruno was Chinese, with a taut, muscular body and many tattoos. He had been born in Shanghai and had moved to the United States as a child. He had, he told me at one point, made some bad moves in his youth, had become active in a gang as a teenager, and as a result had spent thirteen years in prison before being released a few years before our meeting. He had turned his life around in prison and had lived within the law after his release. He had completed his parole and was free.
But now he had been arrested for shoplifting, and seeing the long list of crimes on his RAP sheet (Record of Arrest and Prosecution), the cops and the judge were coming down on him hard. He told me that he had been cheated of a good part of his earnings at work and in a pique of anger, he had made his way through Nordstrom picking up lots of luxury goods and heading out of the store without paying for them. He was very clear about his mistake and the emotional turmoil that had motivated him to make it. He was calm and at peace with himself, though he betrayed a sorry regret at having lost his self-control.
He was a strong, self-contained, and thoughtful man, keeping to himself for the most part. He was the only one of us who did not have to share his cell. I would watch him doing his exercise routine in his cell while the rest of us were in the central yard, talking, watching TV, playing cards or reading. His workouts combined elements of western calisthenics and eastern martial arts, balancing strength and poise in disciplined physical actions.
I attribute much of his kindness toward me to two things: respect, both for my age and for my education, and sympathy for a bewildered neophyte, someone who had no experience with the regime or the society behind bars. When he saw that I was not getting sufficient food (indeed, I was so hungry that I could not sleep at night), he shared his food with me. He even offered to let me stay in a spare room in his house in the Sunset District if I had nowhere to go after being released.
I remember that he displayed an attitude almost of astonishment when he learned that I was close to sixty years old and had never been in jail before. I suppose he wondered how someone who had managed to avoid a life outside the law for so long could end up at this late date in the custody of the sheriff. I think he had a sense of the Order of Things that served as foundation for building his life. I think he found my fate to be a sign of a fundamental disturbance in the Order of Things. And when he learned that I had a Ph.D., he became almost agitated and began to pour energy into finding me the best deal he could from a bail bondsman and telling me repeatedly with great conviction that I would be out within twenty-four hours. (He was right.)
I will never forget what he said about this country: “When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”
I should have remembered his wisdom when the cops questioned me in the laundromat. How did I feel? Sick. Did I need to go to the hospital? I didn’t know: (I thought they should be telling me what the best course of action would be.) Had I been using drugs? Well, two or three nights before I had smoked meth (one of those occasions when getting high and performing sexually with great energy were the price of shelter for the night). But it wasn’t much and enough time had passed for it to be clear of my system.
I should have lied. In the moment that the words left my mouth, the cops lost all concern for me. No longer a senior citizen who was suffering from the sudden onset of illness, I was now a drug user, most likely and out-and-out addict, and therefore deserved neither sympathy nor respect. In fact I didn’t even deserve this emergency medical response (the ambulance just then pulling up) and was nothing more than a burden on society and the refuse of the streets.
I got the same cold shoulder in the Emergency Room at San Francisco General Hospital. I was allowed to lie on a bed in a room full of beds and patients. One patient was apparently a heroin addict well known to the staff who did their best to calm her while deflecting her rants. After about an hour of neglect, I was told that since they could not identify anything wrong with me, I had to leave.
I shuffled slowly out into the pre-dawn light, bent forward with the cramps in my belly, hungry and aching and most of all tired, too tired to think. I saw a bus at the curb and boarded it, falling asleep within a few blocks. I was awakened by the driver telling me that we were at the end of the line and I had to get off. I lifted my eyes and saw the empty interior of the bus and outside the morning light breaking soft and gray. We were at Ocean Beach, and the cold damp morning breeze off the Pacific woke me as I wandered slowly toward the dunes.
There I found a sheltered concavity atop the dunes, the sloping walls topped with long, swaying grasses, that was deep enough to block the wind and open enough to let the sunlight, when it finally broke through the fog, warm me and comfort me. I don’t know how long I slept. It was not minutes but hours. And I slept soundly.
I woke up awash in sunlight and quiet happiness. The sound of the sea and the wet salt in my nose made me smile. (I have always thought of the ocean as Mother. I was born under the sign of Pisces, after all, but I also note that the Latin word for the sea, and thus the words of all the Romance Languages, are forms of “Mare,” e.g. mer, mar. Or should we say these words are all forms of “Mary”, as in the Mother of God?)
I allowed myself to rest in the warmth of the sun for a time, and only when I felt a positive desire to get on with my day did I rise. I gathered my heavy clothes, which I had taken off and then piled back on top of me as bedding, and shouldered my backpack and my messenger’s bag. I began to walk down off the dunes, planning to stroll along the beach for a while before deciding which streetcar or bus to take back downtown. I had not gone far at all when my bowels let go and my pants filled with shit. The heat and the stench made me feel helpless and deeply, deeply ashamed.
I tried to find a spot in the dunes where I would be completely hidden but could not. I eventually found a place where I would be only partially exposed and took off my shoes, socks, pants, and underwear. The socks were least soiled so I wiped myself as best I could with them. By now the filth was drying and the stench lessened a bit. Then I had to put my pants on again (underwear and socks had to be trashed), knock as much sand as I could off my feet, and put on my shoes. I still stank so badly that I felt light-headed and queasy just breathing.
I called my friend A.B., who has been a true angel throughout these dark times, and he came to pick me up. Even having opened all three windows of his pick-up truck (two side windows and the window at the back of the cab that gives onto the bed) the air inside was horrendous. I did my best to sit on things that would protect the seat beneath me. A.B. took me to a friend’s apartment and I showered there.
Throughout this ordeal, I could not stop mentally lecturing both the cops and the staff at the E.R. angrily. I longed to be standing right in front of them, close enough to violate their personal space, my right index finger stabbing the air with emphasis at every word while the stench of my diseased shit rapidly filled the entire workplace, bringing them all close to retching.
“You see?” I imagined myself saying. “I really was sick. You should have let me stay in the E.R. so that I could run to a toilet when I had to. Just because I was honest about having been high a few days before, you all judged me, found me wanting, and neglected my very real medical needs.”
Of course I would never have a chance to make my speech. And even if I did, I doubt that a single instance of speaking truth to power would actually change any of their bourgeois prejudices. Speaking truth does not always result in anyone hearing the truth. More often than not, no one is really listening. Instead of hearing the argument or exposition of facts that a speaker carefully develops, most people hear only the few words that carry the greatest emotional or moral charge at the moment. So it was that my interlocutors heard bogey-man words (“crystal meth”) and jumped to their conclusions. I would have been more politely helped by the police and would have received better medical care if I had not been completely honest.
“When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”
These days calls from collection agencies mostly make me laugh. Mostly -- but not always. After all, I do feel bad about being unable to pay my bills. Even though in years past I did not always pay my bills on time, I always paid them eventually. But when I found myself actually going broke and getting evicted three years ago, I sometimes lashed out at the caller who was trying to bully me into sending money that I did not have.
I did not want to duck the calls. I thought that I should answer them because I believed that my creditors had a right to know what the facts of my financial situation were. I thought that I should explain my situation so that the lender and I could work together on a course of action for the future. I expected the caller to make notes on my account in order to make sure that when I was able to make payments again, everything would go smoothly. Some institutions did work in this fashion, but others did not.
I remember one phone call vividly. A woman employed by Discover Card, in Reno or Las Vegas no doubt, demanded that I send money that I did not have and then began to berate me. “Did you think you could just buy things even though you didn’t have the money to afford them? That’s like going into a restaurant and ordering dinner when you don’t have the money to pay for it.”
Already living in a state of panic that did not let up at any time day or night, I lit into her good. I began, I seem to remember, with a few choice four-letter words casting aspersions on her humanity. Then I told her that when I had made the purchases on my card, I had every reason to believe that I would be able to make the payments. I explained that circumstances had changed and that now I was not able to make the payments which I had fully intended to make. (No kidding circumstances had changed: this was in late 2008 or early 2009.)
“But some of these charges date back only a month or less. How could you think you had the right to do that? Did you think you could get away with that kind of fraud?”
“I guess you have never been hungry,” I replied sarcastically. When I continued, I lowered my voice and spoke at a measured pace while also forcing each word out through clenched jaw so that the effect might be something like hearing a furnace or boiler slowly building up greater and greater heat, greater and greater pressure, thus igniting the listener’s anxiety as to what magnitude of explosion might be about to erupt.
“When you are running out of money,” I said, “you still pay your bills and rent and things until the very last. And you do what you must, using every tool you can, to keep eating and to stay in your house.” I knew that the words were reasonable, but I hoped that what she really heard would be the barely contained fury seething beneath them. I think I ended by expressing my fondest hope that she would become homeless and find herself starving some day soon so that she might understand what life is really like.
Then I hung up on her.
Well, low and behold, what should I get one day last week but a call from the San Francisco City Government, Bureau of Delinquent Revenue, demanding that I pay over $1200 for an ambulance ride a year ago. At first I thought it might be the ride I had when my detached retina needed emergency surgery, but the wheedling bully on the other end of the call soon supplied enough detail to remind me that the cops at the laundromat had called an ambulance to take me to General.
I was casually letting her know that she could demand anything she wanted but that she could not, as they say, squeeze blood out of a stone. Then I heard her say something that flipped my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder switch from “Bumbling Along in Everyday Mode” to “You Dare to Attack and Belittle Me Like This and I Will Rip Your Tongue Out and Jam It Down Your Throat to Shut You Up Mode.”
She said, “That’s like going into a restaurant and ordering dinner when you don’t have the money to pay for it.”
My wrath erupted in a lahore of molten rock and boiling mud, carrying within it the remains of half a dozen villages that had previously graced the slopes of the volcano but which now slammed into her mangled body. But the witch would not give up. In fact she again disrespected me with a taunt: “Who pays for the phone you are using right now?”
This time I maintained control of myself and the situation with a split-second decision to tell her that I got my phone through the California State “Access” service, which provides poor people with voice and text services, subject to reasonable limits, for $5.00 a month because my only income is General Assistance..
The entire conversation changed abruptly. She informed me that if I brought a certain document from the County showing the amount of my monthly income, she would see what she could do to eliminate the bill.
The truth is that I have a simple no frills “Dumb Phone” from ATT. (i.e., it has no internet capability and so is not a “Smart Phone”) which costs me $65 a month. I know about the state program but have not taken advantage of it.
“When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”
One evening last week I watched “Check Please, Bay Area,” a show produced by the local public television station in which three “ordinary San Franciscans” (i.e., well-heeled bourgeois) each recommend a favorite restaurant, and the other two go check it out. The three sit at a round table and discuss their dining experiences with a perky blonde hostess. All four drink wine throughout the show. The hostess flaunts her expertise as a connoisseur of wines.
[I have to say that in my ‘hood, the TL, the blonde would be just another drunk and would be treated off-handedly at best. She would probably be required to attend harm-reduction or abstinence meetings three or four times a week as a condition of having housing.]
I cannot watch the show without fantasizing about the episode on which I would appear, the one that reviews St. Anthony’s Dining Room, the meals served at Glide Memorial Methodist Church, and the frozen meals distributed by Project Open Hand.
On the episode that aired the other night, one of the guests, a black woman who works in an office near Civic Center, recommended the Turk and Larkin Deli. She must be a conscientious and reliable worker, for she has eaten lunch at the Turk and Larkin Deli for thirty years and must therefore have managed to keep her job in the Civic Center area for that length of time. She was one of the few guests I have seen on the show who was clearly no higher than solidly middle-class and was also refreshingly down to earth. She emphasized both the quality of the food and the economical prices.
Both of the other guests loved the food and the atmosphere in the restaurant itself. One of them, however, doubted that he would return because the neighborhood was dangerous. I kept thinking that he should be embarrassed to say what he said. This guest, an accountant (Strike One) for a pharmaceutical company (Strike Two -- and in this case “You’re out!”), got me riled up. It was only natural that my hackles should rise as I heard him disrespect my ‘hood. But my reaction went beyond that.
First, I felt that he was making a fool of himself. This fellow was a tall, sturdy young man without a hint of weakness or even effeminacy in his bearing. Nothing about him would mark him as a target. Keep in mind also that he was going to the Deli to eat lunch, which means that he was walking in broad daylight, and that the Deli is but two short blocks from the huge Civic Center, which includes the Asian Art Museum, the Main Library, City hall, and State and Federal office buildings, all of which are heavily guarded.
My second reaction was bafflement as to why he would have thought or, more accurately, have felt himself to be a target for any kind of malfeasance. (By the way, the other guests and the hostess clucked and “Awwww”ed sympathetically as he spoke. I was pissed that nobody argued against him.)
I reminded myself that he was an accountant and therefore probably wildly overcautious about most everything in his life, but his annoying disparagement of my home would not let me end there.. I wanted to tell him to get in touch with reality. I have said countless times to friends and acquaintances who ask me about the safety of the Tenderloin that unless you have recently burned somebody in a bad drug deal, or are so intoxicated that you start picking fights with the other drunks and the crack-heads you encounter, you really aren’t important enough to notice. Folks around here wouldn’t have given Mr. Fraidy-cat Big-pharma Numbers-cruncher a second glance, let alone a second thought. He -- and you -- just aren’t worth bothering about.
I was then led to the obvious question: what makes these honkeys think they’re important enough for a stranger to go to the trouble of doing whatever it is they are so afraid of? My neighbors know that throwing a punch is as likely as not going to land them in jail, especially if you do it at noon just two or three blocks from City Hall, and they just don’t do it. The bourgeoisie must think that they appear to us po’ fo’ as magically powerful presences whose manna we would want to get from them by violence. The egos! The delusions of grandeur!
Or could it be, I then found myself wondering, that they project hostility on us because they feel guilty? Perhaps they feel fearful because their unconscious minds, their moral consciences, tell them that their privileged and luxurious way of life comes at the cost of the suffering of the poor. Perhaps hidden somewhere deep in their shallow souls they hear the knocking and banging of wood on iron as the wheels of the tumbrels bounce and lurch along the street, laden with them and their kind, standing awkwardly with their hands tied behind their backs, approaching the huge open square in front of City Hall, where the already wet blade of the guillotine is being hoist once again and the latest severed head, having been shown to the crowd, is being tossed into the dumpster behind the platform.
Later that evening the same station broadcast a show about statistics. A Norwegian professor enthused about the ways that statistics can be used to improve your lives. He named San Francisco as a place where high-tech innovations are making statistical information available to the general public in easy to use “apps.” He cited with get excitement the availability from the City of maps showing the locations of all reported crimes.
He showed us video of someone driving down Jones Street, a block from where I sit writing this essay, from Nob Hill to “the flats,” i.e., the Tenderloin, with his GPS device showing the surrounding blocks peppered with tags at various addresses naming the kinds of crime reported at each. I watched closely wondering whether I would recognize any of the pedestrians they were driving past -- or even catch a glimpse of myself! But I was disappointed. The professor bubbled over with a naïve glee at what he took as a matter of citizens being able to live better by avoiding dangerous areas. He thought that such information would stir people to become active citizens and to press their government to improve the life of the polis. I just saw another way for people to avoid encountering those of their fellow human beings who might need their help. It struck me as inhumane.
The ride down Jones Street was followed by a glimpse of a professor at Stanford University who believes that he has found a way to measure human happiness using the internet. He is studying human happiness by mining data from blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, etc., and quantifying how many times people call themselves, “happy’ or “better” or “good,” on the one hand, and how many times they refer to being “down” or “not feeling well” or “sad,” on the other. Leaving aside the obvious problem that the messages he counts are consciously crafted to present a desirable image of the writer to her family, her friends, and the world at large, the idea that the narcissistic self-disclosures coming from the richest segment of our society are good evidence of the society‘s well-being is not only absurd but completely lacking in any moral sense.
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
~ Mahatma Ghandi
~ Mahatma Ghandi
I have said since I was in high school that we live in a Dark Age. The 20th (and now the 21st) century, at least in this country, has nothing in common with the Athens of Pericles, the England of Elizabeth I, or the Italy of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo. Our times have seen the mechanization of human life, a wholesale rejection of nuance, the deification of the individual ego, and inconceivably brutal violence on a planetary scale. Our physics has become as convoluted and counter-intuitive as any 13th-century theologians catalogue of the hierarchies of Seraphim, Cherubim, et al.
I would guess that little or nothing we have done will stir the imaginations of future generations. Our devotion to scientific explanation and technological salvation will be rightly described with the attitude we ourselves use when we speak of the medieval debate as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I can hear T.S. Eliot’s voice lamenting our “the information Age”:
The wisdom lost in knowledge
The knowledge lost in information