If you want to film a zombie movie on the cheap, San Francisco offers a ready-made location overflowing with extras.
The mentally ill, addicted, and homeless find a home in the City by the Bay as they do nowhere else in North America. In this walkable Western metropolis, one walks a gauntlet of down-and-outers betraying that unmistakable drug gait and displaying lights out upstairs through their windows’ 100-watt stares. Instead of groaning for “more brains,” San Francisco’s zombies mumble “spare change.”
In a Market Street smoke shop, a short man convinced of the justice of his proposed barter announces his strong desire to visit violent injustices upon the clerk who peacefully rejects his alternative method of payment. A San Francisco sort of street preacher—eyes of John Brown, voice of Billy Graham—bellows “There is no God!” Silent hectoring by invisible antagonists elicits spirited rebuttals from the freelance clergyman. In the streets below the streets, Morlocks frighten Eloi abandoning the bicycle lanes and electric cars above for swifter rail travel.
Emerging from the Powell Street BART stop into the area near Union Square, I glimpse intergender combat that wins a shrugged-shoulders response from the security guard I track down after a lost search for cops. What’s shocking to naïve newcomers doesn’t concern numbed natives.
In front of a men’s-room mirror at the San Francisco Public Library, a young man with a splotchy haircut that haphazardly intersperses shaved with grown locks obsesses over his look—perhaps to compensate for past negligence on this count—by adjusting his purple suspenders, tucking in his shirt, adjusting his purple suspenders, tucking in his shirt. His wardrobe tweaks never quite win his satisfaction. When I return seven hours later, the young man with the splotchy haircut remains in the mirror adjusting his purple suspenders, tucking in his shirt, adjusting his purple suspenders, tucking in his shirt.
The library, which boasts a social worker, acts, as it does in any major city, as the homeless shelter when the homeless shelter turns out its residents for the day. A contagious strain of Tourette’s syndrome overtakes patrons. In one archive, where researchers must turn over bags to enter, a disheveled man gives up an oversized white bucket, a half-gallon water bottle, a sea-bag-sized knapsack, and a cartoonishly large hammer—this last item indicating he knows the company he keeps (or perhaps practices carpentry). The man doesn’t disturb, and given my unshaven, unkempt appearance and stuffed, smelly backpack, perhaps the librarians see me as I him.
As I write these words sitting on a stone block wall on the streetlight-illuminated corner of Larkin and Grove, a red-eyed urchin discretely inquires: “Do you have a pipe?” Minutes later an older mute gentleman offers me his coat. Minutes after that an older woman offers me her body.
The city is not without its charms. Cheap diners, ’50s-era flophouses untouched by urban renewal, theaters outnumbering other towns’ theater-goers, and earthquake-proof architecture all snarl, “We’re not like everywhere else.” Some neighborhoods still retain identities, ethnic and otherwise. Chains appear vastly outnumbered by owner-operated businesses. But the heartbreaking scenes in the streets overwhelm the delights.
In 2004, San Francisco offered with much fanfare a ten-year plan to end homelessness. Anecdotal evidence suggests it didn’t succeed.
Rather than omnipresent reminders of the folly of city policy, the indigent instead embolden the planners to plan. How does one resist the impulse to order the lives of strangers when the faces of strangers project such disorder?
Encountering fellow human beings living less than human existences can provoke empathy. It can just as easily provoke feelings of superiority. Some people need help. Others need to help so bad it hurts.
Did the Gavin Newsoms and Willie Browns create the homeless or did the homeless create them?
San Francisco city hall fittingly overlooks the worst of the mess it has created. Rather than solve a problem, government has created one. Mistaking a spiritual, and in some cases medical, crisis for a material one, a Department of Public Health report prefacing the ten-year plan offered this simplistic solution to the city’s homelessness troubles: “Expand housing options.” Translation? Increase our budget.
A decade later, some variation on this theme—give us money to give them money—echoes in the competing new plans to end homelessness. Learning from the panhandlers they rely upon to justify their incomes, city employees unleash the guilt trip before obtaining the give.
The supplicants may adopt contrasting tastes in fashion. They speak the same language.
Outside of the public library shortly before the gate opens for the waiting throngs, two graying paupers, displaying signs of intelligence but neither illness nor addiction, contradict the cliché “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” in a wide-ranging discussion on Medicaid, their ailments, and the various venues offering gratis edibles. “You ain’t going to go hungry in this city,” a sixtysomething gentleman explains. “Right now,” his conversation mate responds, “I’m stuffed.”
They came here 165 years ago to get rich quick. They still come to San Francisco for easy money. Today’s seekers of the easy life, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, live a hard existence.
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