25th of July, 2001
Just arrived in San Francisco for the NASNA (North American Street Newspaper Association) convention. We’re all staying at the YMCA in the Tenderloin District. Of all places. The last time I was here I was ripping and running, strung out on heroin, shooting up with this crazy junket in a burnt out room with a Black musician who was about 60 something. He had so much trouble getting a hit that one of us would have to bang the spike into his neck for a main vein. Whew The streets are meaner and leaner than they ever were. Folks sleeping on the sidewalk, the lost, the lonely, men and women pushing dope and shopping carts down the urine-soaked boulevard. We’re a throwaway nation. We toss the best and brightest into the heap. Everybody is so fucking crazy and if you don’t fit into the accepted insanity, you get beaten, belittled, berated, discarded, disregarded, and finally dismissed. Maybe you get locked up.
Maybe you pick up a substance to ease the pain so you can function in the village of pillage. It’s not about anything spiritual nowadays. It goes like, “I’ve upped my income so—UP YOURS!”
I’m just going nuts here. I can look out the window and see people doing things in the street. In the first hour I saw the undercover cops shaking down one guy and a dope deal happening right in front of me. Then this little Black guy wearing a blanket tried to hit on me. I can feel the energy coming in through the window in my room. It’s calling me into the wilds. It says, “C’mon baby, I got what you want.” One bad decision. That’s all it takes. I can have everything they have. I can be homeless again. I can be strung out on heroin again. I can get shook down by the undercover cops. Dirty clothes. No place to go. No one to turn to. The daily death of the soul. Yeah, I can have it all if I want it. The convention begins at 4pm tomorrow. It is sponsored this year by Street Sheet, the homeless paper of San Francisco. I’m glad to be here, deep in the Tenderloin. It’s early, just half past nine. The streets are just warming up. If you can burn in hell, you can certainly burn in the Tenderloin. Hell is where you find it.
26th of July, 2001
The music of Velvet Underground with Nico’s voice haunting me. I just came back from an early morning walk around the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. It’s hard to comprehend how there can be those with so little in a town with so much. I walk past a giant bank with iron gates in front of it. It is haunted, empty. Pigeon shit covers the iron, the walk, the impressive entrance. It is abandoned, the financiers fleeing to a more lucrative territory. The morning streets smell of urine. Bodies litter the sidewalk. There is a woman, younger than me, maybe about 30, deep in a junk nod wrapped in blankets on the sidewalk. A man, much older than her, wrapped in blankets like her, is trying to kiss her. She pulls away a little, yet there is a resignation in her movements which says, “I have nothing but today’s high; I am nothing, there is no escape from anything.” I am astounded at the number of people on the streets. They live here, on the filthy sidewalks. The streets look as if no one cleans them, no one cares. In front of the YMCA on Golden Gate Boulevard, the place where I stay for the
conference, two Black men, one is called Louis, weave in a horrid body movement; it is as if they hear a tune no one else can hear. They are going through someone’s wallet, peering about with feral eyes as they do it. They make no effort to hide it from me. Louis bends slightly forward, then to the side, he weaves like a cobra as he goes through the wallet. The other man stands behind a metal newspaper box, I notice he has another wallet. I wonder who the victim was. Was he some junkie in recovery like myself who decided to relapse and chose the wrong night, the wrong face on the street to approach, the wrong moment when no one was around to watch his back, the wrong alley to walk into with the person who had no intention of giving anything back? Louis looks at me as he goes through the man’s wallet. He makes no attempt to hide what he is doing. Both of them dance to their inner hellish rhythm and they have synchronicity. Louis, the cobra, looks at me. Our eyes lock for a moment. It is a snake’s look, he wants me to come to him, “I can get it for you,” and he knows what I am too. One bad decision away from the filthy sidewalk. I can have everything they have and less.
Only five minutes away by foot is the United Nations Plaza of San Francisco. They set up little tents as I walk towards a coffee shop. I ask a man what is going to happen here. He says, “Every Thursday they have a swap meet or a flea market here with collectibles and antiques for sale.”
Workers spray down the sidewalk and a giant fountain casts geysers of white water into the air, the water rolls down the intricate cement structure. The United Nations Plaza is right next to hell. I can’t imagine what they can do overseas, in other countries, when their backyard is littered with street ghosts. On the outskirts of the plaza a man pushes a shopping cart filled with his life’s collectibles. Every now and then he stops and gestures crazily, waving his hands about and speaking to invisible entities. He rubs one hand wildly through his hair and then begins to push his carriage across a street. He looks both ways, traffic is coming yet he crosses anyway. Is he daring the cars to run him down, I wonder? Or has he already been run down, crushed and entangled buy the nightmare world we all take for granted?
My thoughts drift back to the woman nodding on the sidewalk. She had reddish hair. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s hopes, someone’s dreams. She has become a street ghost, a shadow entity beckoning to the dark world, she has crossed the river Styx and is already in the land of the dead. Reporting to you direct from the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, hell’s stronghold existing right next to the United Nations Plaza, early in the morning while I listen to The Black Angel’s Death Song by the Velvet Underground. The streets are calling me. They know me better than I know myself.
Still July 26th— much later.
San Francisco – was it ever the City of Light? At the bus stops they have put in tiny benches that flip up so it is impossible to rest on them. At night, when everything shuts down, no homeless person can sleep undercover on those bench mutations. Rents skyrocket just like in the Boston area. More and more people face eviction. Street ghosts. So many of them. I am ashamed to be a part of a civilization that thinks it can throw everything away. When it breaks, throw it out. When it breaks, throw it out. I reach into my chest, break my ribs out of the way, place my callous claw on the sump pump in my chest beating like it might be a heart and cast it out. Watch me now. I won’t fall. Now I’m just like you.
July 27th, 2001
Even the pigeons are tattered here. I was up early, out taking pictures. I’m still blown away by the tragedy I witness here on the streets. A woman in her sixties in torn clothing leaning against a wall begging for spare change for coffee. I give her a dollar. She looks directly into my eyes and thanks me. What kind of people have we become that we can let this happen? We degrade and destroy the world around us. Is our ‘civilization’ falling into an abyss from which we will never rise again? Humanity mocks balance. The horror of it all is we still may be able to turn it around yet those who govern (rule) us fail to speak to our hearts. Did you know that the mailing preceding the W. Bush tax cuts just to let all good Americans know how much they (only those who make more than $25,000) will get, cost the government (that’s u.s.) over 33 million dollars? Maybe that should have gone into housing. Most people who are eligible for the tax rebates will only get from $300 to $600. I didn’t realize we could sell the soul of a nation so cheaply but there you are. A few nice nights out to eat, maybe a weekend in the mountains or a monthly payment on an SUV and the nation’s homeless can rot in hell. Everyday. One day at a time!
July 28th, 2001
On the street this morning. Stopped and took some pictures of people literally camping on the street with tents and all. We chat for a while. My friend Josie from the paper “Loaves and Fishes,” which originates in Maryland, goes for coffee with Jerome while I chat with Myron. While I stand there two other fellows, both starkly skinny, come up to a tent and ask if “the turkey is available.” Myron calls into the tent and says, “Hey baby, grease the turkey” and a female voice calls out, “Send ‘em in,” and the two guys disappear into the tent. I don’t know what went on in the tent but, when the guys came out, neither of them could keep the lids off their eyes. If it was sex it was really good sex and if it was dope, it was killer.
Still July 28 but almost midnite now.
The streets are full of the homeless. In Japan, that’s how they say it. The Homeless. We’ve earned the right to be a noun. We all just came back from a demonstration against the “San Francisco Chronicle.” They have become an organ of the establishment and are guilty of homeless bashing. We demonstrated in front of their building for about two hours after a short march from the intersection of Powell and Market street. Finally the Editor made an appointment to interview three homeless activists on Monday. No other media seemed interested in the protest. According to corporate media, it was a non-event. It’s dark out now and people are kicking back on the sidewalks. Some of them urinate and shoot drugs right out in the open. I’ve never seen anything like this in Boston. Yet. It’s almost midnight and I feel like going out to see what’s happening. The urge is like a tractor beam pulling me, tugging me back into a world once very familiar to me. In 1983 I was here, shooting heroin and living on these mad streets. It’s much crazier now. I recall the guy sitting on the sidewalk earlier today with his pet rooster. I’m sitting at the computer now shaking my head in wonder. Out of my room, to the elevator, seven floors down and out the main door into the streets. They’re shooting dope openly on the Golden Gate Boulevard. I could join them, just like that. Maybe I could pry the elevator door open on the seventh floor while the elevator is on the first floor, leap into the shaft and scream all the way down. Maybe I’ll just shut down the computer and go to sleep instead. I’m totally exhausted. I’m in a room all by myself listening to the Velvet Underground. The music will put me to sleep. I won’t be able to hear the cries of the homeless just outside my window. Street ghosts. People walk by them just like they aren’t there.
July 29th, 2001.
It’s Sunday morning. I look outside my window. The tents are set up on the sidewalk. Did you know that many people become homeless for lack of a high enough pay scale or mental illness and then are exposed to drug use on the streets? When everything is falling apart in one’s life, it is easy to pick up a substance to ease the intense emotional and psychic pain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which cam first, the addiction or the tragedy of having no place safe to live? And how do we begin to solve the immense problem of homelessness? Obviously there is no one solution. Building more affordable housing, street papers, drug treatment, guided living centers for mentally ill, halfway houses that treat people with dignity and, last but not least, reaching out and becoming a friend to our neighbors on the street and helping them find what they need to become housed in a safe environment are just a few of the required actions on our parts. Should we choose not to take these actions and more on behalf of the unhoused, then we must re-examine our worth as a spiritual civilization. The homeless are the chosen ones. The way we treat them today is the way we are treating God today. We need to look into our hearts and lift them up. For us, for all of us, time is getting short.