An Excerpt – Suicide Rooms – a book about San Francisco

four.

            There’s a garden on the bay side of Telegraph Hill called the Filbert Steps, and it runs down from the heights of Coit Tower to Levi Plaza right across the Esplanade from San Francisco Bay. They used to make Levis in San Francisco. They used to make a lot of things here. They used to plan for large, public gardens like the Steps, a once beautiful scene of paved paths and concrete stairs running steep declines through flowers of all colors and trees that spring up tall and bountiful, covering the paths with cool shadows. On quiet and clear nights, you can watch ships drifting the bay, lit by stars, the moon, and always one is greeted by the calls of the wild parrots that reside there. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like you’re in the city anymore despite being within one of its more raucous neighborhoods, North Beach, with all of its Italian restaurants, colorful bars and strip clubs and history and the never-ending traffic. I used to spend a lot of time on those garden benches, just reading and enjoying the breeze. It was a safe space, a clean place to rest and collect my thoughts, make plans or just relax. On either side of the Steps are large, stately homes with magnificent views. Much of the flowerbeds are actually their private yards. Sitting on the benches I once wondered at the people who live there, at how wealthy one had to be to reside in such a place. I considered the homes one more spot in this city well beyond my reach. Call it a division, between the lifestyles of heights and splendor and the rest of us who reside closer to sea level, not that it mattered that much. Used to be plenty of places to live in this town. Used to be. I don’t go to the gardens much anymore, and the increasingly insane rents across the city have now divided the vast majority of San Francisco’s long time population away from not just a neighborhood like the Filbert Steps, but from nearly every neighborhood, driving them out, some of them away from the only home they’ve ever known and like so many others, I live my life only one rent controlled eviction away from having to abandon San Francisco for good. As a result those gardens and all they once represented have lost their serenity, instead becoming this symbolically tortured hill filled with fenced off, alienated plant life serving stone mansions filled with people who by their very greed have helped destroy everything that was once so beautiful here, like those gardens were beautiful, in this city; it’s the kind of place where one might consider, if one were so inclined, how all it would take is one match to set this place free, set the whole city free to begin again, start over, and this is San Francisco now, this is…

                                                                                                                                    …pulse…

A scream.

I drop my jeans to the floor, listening.

Nothing.

…pulse…

Now shouting.

I can’t make out the words.

Then another shriek, high pitched, a woman.

I race back to the glass. Another cry bounces off the buildings and I search down to see the mayor stretched out on the sidewalk. Writhing. Someone sobs loudly, loud enough to hear this high up and a quick glance left, I see the pigeons are gone. On the corner the crowd looks suspended, frozen. I can’t tell if he’s…. he’s shot. I see blood, splattered below his twisting body. His sports coat slips left and I see his white shirt seeping red at the midsection. A police officer yells, sprinting through the intersection and it’s like a command to the crowd as they all jump back into time, they scatter, they press themselves against the outside of buildings and the cops rush in, huddle around the mayor. Some look up, necks craning and I watch, waiting, anticipating, for any to charge off in any direction, identify the shooter’s location, but they don’t. They don’t run anywhere, just to the mayor. My stomach goes jittery. I drop my arms to my sides. Everyone is standing, kneeling, crouching rigid in some approximation of cover, some lie prone on the sidewalk, their arms around their heads. I shoot looks across the blocks, up and down Leavenworth, up and down Turk, trying to see someone running away, a man, a woman, a group, something to identify someone, somewhere…but it’s nowhere. The only person who appears shot is the mayor.

…pulse…

And on the other side of town, parrots light from their trees above the Filbert Steps to cross the Bay as someone lights a match, cupped in their hands against the wind…

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