Thursday, December 25, 2008

Nothing Seems Too Tender in San Francisco's Underworld

Disclaimer: Some readers may find this post offensive.

I don't go out much anymore. I used to love to hit a bar on a Friday night to open the weekend, maybe even catch some live music, or better yet, get some dancing in. When I moved to Alaska, where people actually smoked in bars, any inkling towards nightlife came to a screeching halt.

Nowadays, I tend to find most bars deeply depressing. Particularly under the judgement of daylight, these smoky-sweet dungeons are akin to wandering the Vegas black-jack tables long after those who still have money in their pockets have gone home, when the joyful shrieks of a winner's bride have twisted into a quiet, but sharp, "Honey, no!" as he pulls a still-sparkling diamond from her finger. Each town has it's hole. When I was in college in San Luis Obispo, it was McCarthy's, famous for it's regulars who settled into their assigned chairs while students rushed past it's smoked-glass window to chemistry and calculus classes. Here in Homer, we have a few such watering holes, places where sitting in the wrong seat up at the bar might make folks a bit uncomfortable.

For whatever reason, all I wanted when I arrived at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco was a drink. Just a beer, and not in my room. I'd arrived on a red-eye from Anchorage and was leaving early in the morning to attend a Permaculture class a couple of hours north of the city. Old college friends had long since left the crushing expense of San Francisco, and I hadn't yet used the couch-surfing network, so I used some travel points to book a "low-budget, upper end" room in the heart of the city. It was a Holiday Inn, yet it had no bar. Not yet dissuaded, I searched the web for a spot I could pop out to for a drink.

It had been nearly two decades since I'd spent any time in San Fran, and even back then, I knew a few districts quite well, and others, not at all. The Holiday Inn was in the Financial District (BART station proximity was a must), but typical for city business districts, it was absolutely dead at night, even on a Friday. My search results turned up the typical meat market, grind fests popular with the 20-somethings, but one odd entry caught my eye: The 21 Club.

I have a confession. If you hadn't guessed, I am a voyeur. I am and always have been fascinated by society's fringes. Not just watching from the edges, but interacting with those at its heart. I've chatted up more than my share of prostitutes, pan-handlers, and street people who overnight in the forested parks of the city. And in Vegas? I really did watch a man pull his wife's ring from her finger as she tried to muffle her enraged protests. Once, an old boyfriend and I spent the night tucked into a window box in the heart of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, because we couldn't pay for a hostel. I can't imagine doing this alone, but within the safety of our twosome, we were both fascinated by the seething life in the restless night.

That's why this review of the 21 Club drew me in:
When I contemplate suicide, I go drinking here. The bar tender is a jolly ol' guy who pours a mean stiff drink. The patrons are surly, belligerent, full-time alcoholics. When you sit there and you're drinking a greyhound that taste like it could pull the the paint off a muni, watching young girls hawk rocks to toothless men, wearing hospital bands, while a woman squats between a Buick Skylark and Caprice Classic to either pee, or base some caine, or both, all with the sound track off some angry vet arguing with some professional drunk about which Cat Stevens song to play on the #%^@ jukebox, you know you're alive, and it feels great.

The 21 Club was on Turk Street, about 8 city blocks from the hotel. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. I was alone. One reviewer noted that it was a really, really good idea to take a cab there, and tip heavily to have it come back for you.

In the end, I didn't go. The shrieks from the angel on my shoulder pierced a little too loudly for me to ignore.

But I did head that way the next morning. I had a few hours before Jodi, the gal who'd offered me a ride to the class, would pick me up. At about 9 in the morning, I ambled toward Turk Street.

I love the rapid shift in microcosm that defines deep urban living. It's as if someone forgot to install the sliding glass doors that separate the city's extremes. From the Financial District, I roamed through Little Saigon before I landed in the Tenderloin. There was no transition: straight from the warm scent of Pho to the rancid odor of day-after alcohol, the Tenderloin offers no welcome and asks no forgiveness. I'd never heard of this district, but it was evident that it was home to the city's rejected, dejected, disposable, and disposed.

Liquor stores sported bold-print signs in 72-point font that made the message clear: NO ALCOHOL SALES BEFORE 8 AM! NO EXCEPTIONS! A man wrestled a woman's purse from her shoulder. At first she resisted, then she cuddled close to him, surrendering, nuzzling into his neck while he took what he wanted from her bag. People were everywhere, scattered and battered along the sidewalks. Clusters of men passed brown paper bags, or cigarettes, or a sandwich wrapped in white deli paper, back and forth. A woman touched up her make-up in a side-view mirror. A couple, arm in arm, pleaded with each other, "No you do it, baby" and "But I did last time, baby." The pulse of people pushed me through the crowded sidewalks.

I spied a woman in a bus shelter across the street. She was frighteningly skinny, a mere x-ray of the human form, shoulders, hips, and knees. Her pants, probably a Size 2, looked way too big. She looked like she was screaming. I crossed the street to go over to her, but as I got closer, I heard nothing. Her mouth was fully open, her lips stretched tight above the tops of her teeth, gums exposed, a silent shriek, nearly splitting her bruised face. She had an outer layer on, jeans, but they were down around her ankles.

"Are you OK?" I asked. She merely swayed back and forth, sitting on the bench, the jeans binding her feet. "Are you OK?" I repeated. She looked at me, but made no indication there was anything she wanted, or at least not that I could give her. This close, I could see her split lips, small spots of crusted blood at the edges, and her thickly-coated tongue. Her eyes looked wild, but it was probably because she couldn't close her mouth. God, it must hurt. "Well," I said, "I hope you're OK."

I walked on, feeling completely useless. Why hadn't I at least offered to help her pull her pants up? She probably couldn't look down with her mouth stuck open that way. Was it lock-jaw? And why were her pants down? What on earth had happened to her? I couldn't stop thinking about her, but I continued on.

I found the 21 Club, right on the corner, it's large glass windows just as one reviewer had described them, eyes into the city. It was open, but I no longer wanted to go in. It would have been enough reality in the wee hours, watching the darkness draw people in, but I wasn't up for it in the daylight. Next door, a liquor store was doing a booming business by 9:30 AM, and in the two or three minutes that I stood near the store front, I overheard a heated exchange between a customer and a man I presumed to be the owner, something to do with credit. Tough place to do business....

A few doors down from the liquor store, I passed a clear-glass fronted shop. Its window was packed - packed - with piles of books and magazines, stacked to the ceiling. The front door was open, so I went in. There was barely room to walk through the maze of piles. Towers of books teetered on the dusty floor, and several stacks of magazines had spilled across it. It looked like they had been there a very long time.

"Well, dear, this place isn't on your Greyhound Tour of the city. Aren't you a few blocks out of your way?" The shop owner - an oddity in this neighborhood in plaid pants, button-down sweater, and thick, black-rimmed glasses - eyed me across a stack on what I supposed was the check-out counter, long ago, before it, too, had become home to yet more scattered books and magazines. "What are you looking for?"

"If I told you, could you find it in here?" I was tempted to toss out a title.

"It doesn't matter. I'd find something you want." Dismissing me, he went back to arranging something amidst the stacks. Someone wandered in, clearly a "regular" in the neighborhood. "Get outta here!" the shop-owner yelled, pushing the man right back out. "Geez, these poeple wander in here like it's a public latrine or something."

"Maybe you should close the door," I offered.

"I wanted the door shut, it'd be shut!" Ok.

I actually found a couple of titles that struck my interest, Aldous Huxley's The Genius and the Goddess and Sam Brumbaugh's Goodbye, Goodness, a title that seemed particularly poignant at the moment. I paid for my books and went back out into the noise and stench of Friday night's morning after.

Definitions for tenderloin include the tenderest cut of the loin, composed of the Psoas major muscle along the central spine, and a city district known for vice and graft. Interestingly, the psoas is a critical factor in our ability to walk upright.

It's so easy to forget that people who barely survive exist, when I live in the quiet, snow-blanketed peace of my neighborhood, but I know these elements are around me. More subtly perhaps, but they're there. Anchorage has Fourth Avenue, and walking through the city's parks - or even outside a friend's back yard - I find people tucked into cardboard, rolled into wool blankets, and shivering through the night, who somehow manage to wake in the morning. Homer's discarded are tucked somewhere I've yet to tread, but they, too, are here, perhaps even camped within the woods and hills that I snowshoe.

Economists tell us that the world cannot take care of everyone, that someone must always fall through the cracks so that the rest of us can live in relative ease. That has always sounded like a cop-out to me, the voice of comfort refusing to venture outside it's own personal beam of sunlight. Walking through the Tenderloin was disturbing to me, but it was also a community, filled with people who are connected by the tentacles of the city. Though the image of the silently shrieking woman is with me still, I was looking forward to Permaculture class, where we'd explore solutions to need on many different levels.

I filled my cup with coffee from the liquor store, took one swallow, and tossed it in the curb, my gut still curdling. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in my hair as I threaded my way back through dim-sum parlors and barber shops to catch my ride on Market Street.

I'm afraid I took no photos of the Tenderloin during my visit, but I hope you'll get a feeling for the place from this guy's slide show I found online. The site owner says the photo collage was inspired by Rick Smolan, but I can't find out the name of the person who actually put this together.

In a similar vein, this excellent piece by my friend Adam Burke, an independent radio producer, wanders a level deeper into terrain like the Tenderloin, but that exists out of sight of the city, in the subterranean homeless community of Las Vegas's storm drains.

And on a more positive note, the permaculture principle that states "the problem is the solution" is exemplified here in this man's invention, the EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Roof)

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