I haven’t dared look out of my window for a while. I am cautious about that which I do not wish to witness. There is a certain responsibility in watching. The act of looking enters the observer into a contract of seeing and being seen.
I have a copy of Dharma Bums. It is a neat little thing, which I have never read before. Reading as a reader, and reading as a writer are two different things. I look at Kerouac’s structure and pace, and take note. Some of it works, some of it not quite yet. Some of it needs pruning, but it is good strong stuff. Sitting here reading as the sun streams in through the window, being exhorted to hydrate by the television men on the weather channel and musing on the ugliness of the Diamondback unis, Jack’s jazz words flowing like wine, for a second the door slamming, fighting, ugliness and threats melted away into a quiet background buzz. The door deadlocked, the curtains half shut, the window open, up on the __ floor, above the city, it has the illusion of safety, at least until the next scream.
Things are not great here at the shelter. Families who are vulnerable mixed with people who could be a danger to them, and who are not subject to the same rules which keep people in here safe. As a result there is uproar and noise, and it is tense and on edge. The family program staff are stepping up security. I count these staff as my friends. I care about them, and I think they care about me and the Boy. No one feels very comfortable with the current state of affairs. To be frank, I believe it to be dangerous. Smoke comes through the vents, the noise is unrelenting at night, people are lurching high and drunk in the corridors fighting and staring at walls, and after the bad juju of the incident outside the window, I am existing in a state of constant watchfulness.
Today I wandered up the road to ‘Joes. I love Trader Joes, cheap mostly healthy food, and a nice clean store. It is strange to be greeted as regulars, faces, people who belong. I almost could feel as if the city doesn’t want to spit us out. We got up there with only minor concerns, a little shouting, a small amount of drug offering. It raises the heart rate, sure, but there have been worse trucking out of the ‘Loin days. Wandering around the store picking up soy milk and illicit vegetables for my banned rice cooker, the sun streaming in, Californian through the windows, it has a certain relaxing charm. A momentary zen balance. But what goes up must go down, and back to the Tenderloin we must go.
We get to the cross street just before the shelter, and stop at the crossing, our way blocked by a silver grey car. Not an ideal state of affairs in this part of town, down here you want to keep moving. I would rather weave through traffic than be a sitting target. A carrot tries to escape from my canvas tote bag, and as I push it back down I notice that a man is using a grinder to saw off a piece of metal railing outside the shelter parking lot.
His skin is wet and his eyes are dry, the nasal drip drip drip of the coke has him hacking goobers onto the hood of the bashed up chevy sitting three foot under him in the lot. Sparks are flying hot and bright. He got this machine working from the street where he is homeless, which shows at least a genius level of intelligence. That metal might be scrapped for something towards a bag or a rock. He isn’t getting anywhere fast, but it’s the effort that counts.
Visors and glasses are for pussies. All this dude has to protect him is the unholy trinity of mental illness, hard drugs and three dollar white port. Actually the white port might cost more by now, it’s been a while since I bought cheap booze to get shmooshed or to fend off the DT’s. He crosses himself, and lets rip with another round of grinder against metal.
The problem with all this is that I am stuck directly opposite him, with a car coming up the alley and a frozen scared woman behind the wheel trying not to take out tents and cut into the ____ street traffic. She can’t make it. To her left is a man who has hacked into a parking meter to power a stolen grinder, and is laughing as the sparks brand him with thick welts, and to her right is an angry woman with a tall young man next to her, waving her arm telling her to go go go fucking go you fucking idiot! The man has a grinder, please can you grow a set of ovaries and push into the traffic? Who the fuck lives in this city and doesn’t know not to even try to drive these alleys! What the hell is she thinking.
The angry woman can’t go left – that takes her into a tent. Right takes her into the traffic. To back off up the road always is taken as a challenge, a weakness and greeted with extreme prejudice. The smart grey car, a far better option for stealing, is sitting there a pretty bauble for the carjacking, Just as the Grinder spits on a burn and turns his head, realizing what I have known for the last 30 seconds, and makes towards her, she bursts into life, pushing into the flow of traffic. Atta girl! I see she can move when it’s her car and her life in danger. I clap her sarcastically, as the Grinder looks at me. For a second his eyes meet mine, and I see soul. I see human flickering beneath the drugs and the dirt and the fearfulness of not having secured the next damn bag. He sees an angry lady who is not angry at him, just scared. The fact that he is the catalyst for the anger and fear doesn’t matter, to him or me, at least not now: we have a common enemy, the nice car and the dumbass driver. He doesn’t want to hurt me. He is hurting. He doesn’t want to kill me with a grinder, he is already dead, and he knows it. He gives me a lopsided smile, and I touch my right fist to my chest, and try to tell him with my eyes that he might be brought back to life yet. He laughs and goes back to the burning.
I stroll into the lobby, where my two friends, a man mountain of a security guard, and the sweetest soul you can imagine, and a tall muscley young man with a smile that could melt icebergs it is so warm, whilst being so cool a dude that it makes me want to hug him like the middle aged aunt that I am. They are laughing along with me. “He’s having fun out there, is the man trying to electrocute himself!” exclaims Man Mountain, Iceberg is doubled over with tears in his eyes. “You gonna go out there, and stop him?” I ask as the laugher catches me hard. “Nah….” Man Mountain is emitting a deep and meaningful chuckle. “Yeah, he is sure feeling fine,” I reply, wiggling my eyebrows in amusement. The dark skinned man with the grinder and the smile that I understand is going to get a break today: no one wants to do anything that might go bad. “He’s alright”, the three of us agree. Boy stands there shaking his head. Grown ups. What can you do with ’em. Not much, except hope they don’t want to take to you or your mother with a grinder.
This community is not mine, but it is beautiful. Resilience. Compassion, and not a small amount of toughness. That is not to say there are not people shoved out within it who cannot function, and so hurt others. A 94 year old Asian woman was stabbed multiple times just a day or so ago. The Man is wondering whether or not to charge the perp with hate crime as well as attempted murder. It isn’t rocket science, is it, really. But still we carry on, trying to love where we can, survive where we have to, and if all else fails, mace the motherfuckers. It’s just another diamond dog day in the ‘Loin. The only diamonds out here are in the grinder blades being used to rob railings for scrap, and Man Mountains and human Icebergs who never fail to wish me a good morning and a safe day.