Disenfranchised Citizen

New Orleans, Denver, San Francisco n' coffee, the gentrified n' gentrification, inequality n' politics.

So, this is the Tenderloin…San Francisco…

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Always liked the rain...

The Tenderloin: the TL, Little Saigon, the Loin, Tenderloin Heights…

Fifty square blocks or so wedged between San Francisco’s downtown Civic Center - City Hall, the courthouses and Federal buildings – and the main Shopping/Financial Districts with your Niketown’s, Apple Stores, Macy’s and rapists like Bechtel, the banks and their assorted bullshit…fifty square blocks crammed into the center of San Francisco that too many people of this city either try to ignore or take great pains to avoid.

Fifty square blocks that in my opinion, form one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the country…

Why?

Because, as a person, I don’t fit into a box…like so many I can be complex, conflicted and contradictory…and I never saw all these elements so put together and on display as the five years I lived in an apartment building at the corner of Turk and Leavenworth, and the affection I have for the place is one of many reasons why, one month from today, I’m moving back…

Oh…but it’s so rundown, so crime-ridden, drug infested and it smells like hella piss, don’t ya know…

Yeah, I know…

But I find it so much more vivid than so many of our American suburbs, or Home Depot homogenized cities, these monotonous places on a fast track to mass consumer conformity, so ugly that when one walks out the door, one knows precisely what headache one will get: a Burger King, a McDonalds, a strip mall Barnes, Bath and Beyond Noble Starbucks, and maybe a convenience store or two, a newly insatiable Wal-Mart and a few miserable, but shiny people walking quickly past you on the street, some hello’s maybe, so mundane, definitely… Things ain’t like that in the TL. In the Tenderloin, anything can happen, both good and bad and if you stay on the streets long enough, you’ll see all of that anything. Very few semi-lawless places still exist in this country, and take it or leave it, the Tenderloin is one of those last remaining, crumbling demonstrations of the best and worst of American culture and its consequences.

We got colorful street art covering whole buildings and public drunkenness stretched out for blocks…loud games of Mahjong played behind steel security doors and that guy, sleeping below an afternoon blanket strung between two stolen shopping carts…We got Vietnamese sandwich shops and human shit between parked cars. We celebrate great music at punk rock bars, drag shows at Aunt Charlie’s and classic bay window, SRO architecture. We vibrate with the neon signs, the gyrating strip clubs and the dimmest of dive bars, and not the trendy kind of dive bars either…but real honest to goodness dark and damp closets without windows or fresh air, stale and in need of repair and when the outside doors are propped open to the streets, we have a beer while watching some of the most interesting public observation the city has to provide. The TL’s got small neighborhood parks where kids play, and our people walk by chanting “klonopins,” or “OC’s” or “solids,” maybe we’ll see a fist fight on the corner, watched from a window eating cheap, but great tacqueria food. Maybe we’ll step past discarded hypodermic needles in the gutter or another lost soul hitting another crack pipe beneath his t-shirt, stretched over his head, too high to realize he’s not wearing pants while we listen to shrieking siren after siren after siren as the police race the one-way streets or the fireman jumps off the fire engine, races inside the SRO only to walk stiffly back out, grumbling as he gets behind the wheel and drives back to the station from this, another false alarm.

The Mitchell Brothers, O’ Farrell Street Theater and Behind the Green Door?

The Tenderloin.

The Compton Riot in 1966 that predates New York’s Stonewall?

The Tenderloin.

Tessie Wall, Sam Spade, William Vollman, the Nighthawk jazz club and Fantasy Records?

The Tenderloin…this place where there’s always something to see, hear or avoid twenty four hours a day…and though it is sometimes dangerous, it’s never boring and it’s an amazing place to be.

Oh, and I suppose it helps that I’m a social worker…

I’ve been in the field for twenty years, been everything from an adult crisis counselor to a mental health worker in shelters and support service hotels, doing the job by day while at night, I take in my surroundings on midnight strolls, emerging from my old apartment on Pill Corner and walking until three am…walking and watching and watching some more…and despite the neighborhood’s reputation, believe it or not, I was never terrorized, robbed, beaten up…

None of it.

In all those years of wandering, nothing ever happened to me, not while talking to the dealers I came to know while sitting and smoking cigarettes on the front steps of my building, or the odd corner conversation with those who live on the streets, maybe handing out a cigarette or joking around…I never even got hassled by the addicts I came to know through my work by day or the streets at night.

Sure, I spotted the precursors to a couple of robbery attempts: the baseball bat inside the trenchcoat on Turk near Jones, or the guy coming up behind me on Larkin, between O’Farrell and Geary while the guy in front tried stopping me for a light. Once I called 911 after the stranger I was talking to got jumped at Ellis and Hyde, and I waited around to make sure the ambulance came and hell, I even called in a body I stumbled across underneath the Moser Apartment overhang on Turk Street, right by the grocery store, the one owned by that cool Asian couple who let me borrow their hand truck when I moved…and that’s what I’m talking about…for all the bullshit reputations this neighborhood is forced to take on, the good stuff I’ve seen creates a more than equal balance. From the happiness of the toothless woman who begged change outside the Walgreens on Van Ness and Eddy, introducing me to her boyfriend, proudly telling me they were now engaged, to the guy I often spoke to out front of the corner store at Eddy and Leavenworth, telling me about his successful heart surgery…and I won’t soon forget the client I worked with at the shelter for just two weeks before he disappeared, only to have him break down and cry when I ran into him on the streets a year later outside Ken’s Kitchen at Polk and Eddy, emotional just because I remembered his name, and addressed him by it.

People.

They’re all people.

I don’t care how hard so many San Franciscans try to forget that basic fact, they’re still people.

The main newspaper in town, it loves to celebrate the occasional entrepreneur who raises himself up, out of the ashes of these streets, makes a success of himself and though these people should be celebrated, they shouldn’t be held up as a beacon to judge those not yet in the light. What about the guy who cries as you walk him into his first hotel room, the first place he’s been able to call his own in ten years. I’ve seen it…let’s celebrate that guy’s success too and let’s celebrate the people who made it through their haze, the needle or the pipe to get to another day, and another opportunity to do better, to be better. Yeah, celebrate them and don’t use the guy who made it shining shoes as an excuse to condemn those who pissed on yours. Rags to riches make a nice narrative, but they are the rare reality and surely not the benchmark with which to judge the rest of the Tenderloin, the rest of this amazing, colorful neighborhood.

Wanna know when you give up on an individual, for every poor choice he makes?

You don’t.

And wanna know when you give up on the Tenderloin?

Never.

Shit, you really want to fix these fifty blocks? Create jobs, lower rents, provide drug treatment, treatment, treatment… You want to get rid of panhandlers? You gotta do more than give people a room and call it a day…

That’s the reality.

The rest is just bitching from behind your closed, locked doors.

How can you give up on a place that is home to so many, and so unique, block after block of SRO’s and cheaper apartments, so many of which were built soon after the earthquake in 1906, and one of the few neighborhoods where low income individuals, families and for that matter, a social worker like me can afford to live…

And enjoy, and wander through and help to build…

It was my home a few years ago, and in a month it will be home again…and I couldn’t be happier about it…poetry readings at Edinburgh’s Castle, punk shows at the Hemlock and art shows at the Shooting Gallery…yeah, so the next time you find yourself in the TL, maybe having a beer at the Brown Jug, the 21 Club or taking in a Sharks game at the Outsider…

Take a look around, I just might be there…watching. Next to New Orleans, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be…

Have a nice day.

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6 Responses

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  1. Enjoy away dude.

    sean

    March 12, 2012 at 10:53 PM

  2. I stayed right across the street from that convenience store when I visited San Francisco this summer. I really enjoyed reading this, I’m glad I came across your blog. Thanks!

    marina

    January 17, 2013 at 2:59 PM

  3. the tl is unsafe babylonian ghettofabulous entrenced systemic inglorious inhumane places on planet earth.

    Don Maharry

    June 20, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    • You write in word/tones reminiscent of skinny jeans, beards and/or handlebar mustaches, beanies and oh so ironic t-shirts while hoisting an ice cold can of PBR. If this would be the case, please leave the TL never to return. Your trying too hard and fucking up the neighborhood. If not the case, please leave the TL never to return simply for using the word “ghettofabulous.”

      Drake Toulouse

      June 20, 2013 at 6:34 PM

  4. Drake you are so clueless and a vacuous empty headed bigot.You are powerless in your misappropriate description of me. My comments are research based. What about yours?

    Don Maharry

    July 5, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    • Clueless? Yeah, pretty much. Vacuous and empty-headed? On my best days, also yes. Bigot? Interesting, never been accused of that before. What part of your comments were research based? The ghettofabulous part? Or maybe it was the long stream of words indicative of someone who, as I wrote before, is trying way too hard. Relax…life has a way of working itself out…

      Drake Toulouse

      July 5, 2013 at 2:12 PM


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