Welcome to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Stay close.
If you ended up here instead of passing through, you’d find it’s not the urine-soaked sidewalks that get you down. Not the hoarding nickels nor the shitty food. It’s the invisibility that burrows under your skin — the constant affirmation that you aren’t a person, not quite. Pedestrians see you, but they look away. To society you’re detritus, leftover human, extra meat. Useless and unwanted. People slide their eyes right over you, like you’re greased with shit. Embarrassed even to see you.
People walking to work. Hey, have a great day! See them scurry? Clutching their bags and purses closer to their bodies, averting their gaze. Ducking their heads so they don’t have to acknowledge us. Upper lips drawing up in disgust at our stench. I guess they can smell us with their eyes, too, because those looks cross their faces even when they’re far away. Sometimes I make it a game — how many girls with headphones can I fuck with today? Will they pretend not to see me? Smile tightly? Give me a withering look of disdain?
You lose time here. Without clocks or seasons, “now” becomes a bubble. You need to find somewhere to sleep, to rest your head and your limited possessions until you stumble, unsteady out to face the world again. Never in a space you can call your own. All we have that’s truly ours are our thoughts.
Since the gates to respectability are barred to us, we go through other motions, find other things to spin our wheels and occupy our minds and bodies. Don’t get me wrong — most of us don’t give two shits about respectability. But it fucks with your head, being denied access to a fundamental element of civilization.
It’s like those fucking volunteers at the food bank. I hate how the middle-class white people call it a “soup kitchen.” You don’t need to be white to be white, neither, don’t mistake. White people come in all colors. The volunteers, though, they’re terrified of us. They watch our every move like we’re about to snap any minute, like we’re slavering rabid animals infested with diseases and our life’s mission is to give them AIDS. They still call HIV “AIDS”, too, still don’t know the difference, even though they donate money to community needle exchanges and pray for the poor and unsheltered before climbing into their warm, soft bed.
I know they pray for us because they tell us so, patting your back or arm as they gently move you forward in line, remind you to shuffle your feet just a bit, please, thank you, God bless I’m praying for you. You can’t shout back into their face, Keep your goddamned hypocritical bullshit prayers to yourself! They pull you out of line and won’t let you back until the next day.
See how the kings of the world, up in their bitty apartment-boxes, throw away their barely-nibbled sandwiches, their old granola bars, the half-full bottles of merlot. Taste how sweet vinegared wine can be when you haven’t eaten. Feel how quickly it goes to your head and wakes up your growling desire for stale burger remnants, gummy with dried ketchup. Watch the ground rise up to meet you as you miscalculate the steps.
Drunk enough to forget what you do in exchange for that hot meal.
Your ideas of right-and-wrong waver and break. What does being a thief mean when money is a fleeting illusion? What does law mean when you’re not part of society? We live outside of it all and so our decisions take on a new moral weight. Will we hurt today? Will we be hurt? Is this a battle or a stand-off or a bluff? Like a stray dog, you learn to read people. Once you lose your shame, looking into people’s eyes is easy and eyes tell you much more than words will.
Sometimes I feel old and tall like a tree growing in the Tenderloin, watching the world move by. Fruit flies buzz around me, tiny chirping squirrels and doves materialize into men in sweaters marching past.
In the Tenderloin, indignity by indignity, you relearn how to live. Your deep muscles harden into armor. You sleep rigid, sweating-cold, on the edges of monuments and park benches and doorways. You find peace in different drugs down here — shit that takes you up jagged and drops you down hard. At least you sleep.
You find money panhandling or begging or those tiny jobs you can find through the agencies sometimes or dumb luck. Find food, find booze. If you pick up every penny you see for a week, you’ll probably have enough for a decent cup of coffee, or two cups of the crappy stuff.
See those two men, there? One is on the phone and the other is on drugs and they don’t exist in each other’s realities. These streets are a zoo.
It’s just you and me and everyone else under these city stars, son. Drink your coffee, it’s getting cold.