Overhead, candy floss and sherbet hues remind us of all things good in our hearts. And the sun, she glows warm in the distance, all the while the heartbeat of the city, it’s people, find their way back and together again in the Living Room of the city streets. This is downtown San Francisco, early March. The collective energetic spring has sprung.
The feeling on the street is not too far a departure from that of summer, people are languid, but playful. Tender, seductive. Even the wind has an air of flirtation, except only coattails and hemlines, locks of hair, and the pinking of cheeks the object of affection this time. While the hum of traffic demands an hastening, the city’s people are busy un-tethering, a gentle folding into an amorous twilight.
As I walk the mile length between a cafe on the corner of Sutter and Jones, and a shop I frequent on Market, I witness people being people, neighbors being neighbors, and I too feel intoxicated by the reminder of sunlight. The participatory effect is far from anything too exceptional, a man lighting someone’s cigarette, an aged couple helping each other cross the street, two young people locked in a full, wet kiss.
There is a clear division between the Tenderloin and other areas of San Francisco. Sometimes the distance can be measured by the length of a city block, or a bus stop, and at times too even a heartbeat. As I stroll through the Tenderloin, I am exposed to the unique alchemy of street life, a perfume rich with desperation, hunger, violence, and sex; with its undertones of camaraderie, and survival, packaged and delivered with earthy notes of garbage, cannabis, urine and sweat.
I suppose each city has it’s underbelly, although the Tenderloin isn’t it. Rather, it is the structural and societal forces that keep the Tenderloin in tact — an architectural other-ing of circumstance, a feared outcome, a you-but-not-me. What is named poverty and what is named wealth thrives because of it’s interconnectivity, it’s deliberate stratification yielding an endless co-dependency. Both business suits and drug use distinct iterations of similar yearnings. Oftentimes what is vulnerable in most remains hidden in an exquisitely curated life: a cavorting of past-time pleasures over leisurely meals, drinks, people’s bodies too, often more vagrant than intimate, not a pulse removed from the lives our of our fellow brothers and sisters in Living Room. However, I would say that they could teach us all a thing or two.
There is a special kind of melancholy associated with want, it is only that privilege is more aesthetically pleasing to the untrained eye. Nevertheless, the success of a society cannot be separated from the types of lives that all people are able to lead, that all people are capable of leading, an inherent drive toward mastery, autonomy, toward belonging to a someone or something. I can’t help but wonder, what of ourselves do we see in the eyes of the people living on the streets? I can’t help but ask: could that be me?
When I first arrived in San Francisco, I recall people telling me to stay clear of the Tenderloin, the poverty-stricken but slowly-gentrifying flat-lands spilling south out of the haughty wealth of Nob Hill. I was told there were drugs there, homeless people, crime, that it was no place for a girl like me. As it were, I was homeless, my value base impoverished, birthed out of comfort into the arms of what I feared most. After nearly six years of living overseas, I moved back to the U.S with no surviving parents, no job and no sense of home, and with a mind about to unravel, I was unprepared for any future before me. As far as visual stimuli go, at the time the Tenderloin was the only place in San Francisco that made sense to me, where my insides matched my outsides, and a pain I could not name was finally expressed in tangible, misshapen form.
While I was out for a walk one afternoon, I came across a group of people with a large puff of smoke hovering over them, muting out their dreams I suppose. Even I recognize that want. My eyes met with the eyes of a woman wearing a colorful jacket circa an earlier time, or perhaps earlier version of herself. Smiling a toothy smile she said “You don’t need to be afraid of these motherfuckers”, as she waved her hand in the air. I told her I wasn’t afraid, and she said: “That’s good, because a lot of people are. You’re alright with me.”
Walking onward, I crush needles underfoot, making eye contact with another group of men and women as I do. I smile and shimmy my shoulders to the music they are playing, and their joy becomes my joy. Reaching Market Street, there is a man with signs attached to his shoes reading: “Anything helps, even a smile.” I consider how apt this is, as I follow the eyes of other pedestrians to the ground as they pass him by.
While there is always more to the story outside of the frame, the lone observer, a single moment, or perspective in time, a cross section of its entirety offers a devastating portrait of the poignant, yet urgency of human life:
• While walking down Leavenworth, I saw a man Leavenworth suddenly stop so he would relieve himself in the middle of the street. I had never seen such a sight. I then noticed a cop car drive by, and with one small honk of the horn, the two men simply waved and smiled.
• Continuing onward past the city hall, I noticed a man on the ground, motionless, and out of the corner of my eye, a blur of paramedic blue swiftly crossing the street. There was s single woman there, holding the hand of her friend as she cried.
• When I made it to the shop on Market, I walked inside and toward the cold-case for a drink. I had a little extra cash that day, and wanted to have a nice green drink. There I found a woman, no older than myself, with oceans for eyes holding some ancestral version of my late grandmothers pup. I smiled at her, but she didn’t offer a reply. Later on I overhead a police officer say to her, Ma’am, you’re human. I’m human too, as he handed her a sandwich and she cried.
The city’s lungs released a gentle air tonight. Though too, maybe there was a new found gentleness in my own beating heart. Thump.