The alleys that run to the north and south of the shelter are full of homeless people and their tents. People live and die out there. When they die a team comes, sweeps up their belongings, their water bottles, their bodies, and their tents into various trash carriers: hazmat sacks, coroner’s trucks, sharps buckets loading up the detritus of a death to be disposed of in a more sanitary, civilized and humane way than they were ever treated in life. Respect is given, faces are maneuvered into the grim solemn countenance of someone trying not to convey disgust, and society brushes under the carpets the sins and various cruelties it heaps upon those who fall foul of the various rules of society, both imagined and forced.
I walked past the police tape in the morning, the blood splatters seeping out from the yellow marked boundaries of the crime, it was still there the next morning, it was not until the following afternoon that the hazmat-suited team set to work brushing blood off the sidewalk. Peeking down alleyways, these little cross streets that connect the larger throughways that are the arteries of the city, watching industrious solemn teams of workers gather up the filth of a throwaway life and throw it onto the trash heap is quite the bad trip. No bueno. Painful to see how easily the problems are disposed of once they fall to the streets, the violence, the lack of active problem-solving compassion, and the mindless toleration which kills.
They kill horses don’t they? Animals are given more consideration than the homeless on the streets of San Francisco, by the vast majority. There are always the kind souls, from the mission and the churches, the homeless action groups, trying to stretch out meager resources, whilst not having the option to send people for psych help: the city has only twelve psych beds. Twelve psychiatric inpatient beds for the entire city. The need for compassionate mental health treatment is far greater than the provision. It would be cheaper in terms of crime, human suffering, and the various costs of the strain of homelessness on the city to provide help, rather than the current climate of mostly malignant toleration.
The streets kill their inhabitants, turning blue in the little shacks built for outdoor dining but which also made fabulous shelters for homeless people at night time. The city can build shelter for outdoor diners in five minutes, quick, cheap, on the sidewalks, no city interference in the pursuit of the Almighty twin Gods of the Dollar and insatiable Appetite, yet for the humans who need a place to sleep with some semblance of walls and a roof? That is an altogether less galvanizing issue. Provisions, especially for those without children in tow, have to pass through endless red tape, intractable NIMBYism, barriers and end up so tied up in unliveable rules, that a tent or a doorway looks like a better option than being in a jail-like shelter setting where a millitaristic regime is enforced, demanding that adult human beings abide by rules that the rest of society doesn’t have to.
Standing in Walgreens talking to the worker while two cops stand there looking toothless and weak, making noises about the robbery that had just gone down, while the sweet worker was talking to me about the mundane day to day robberies that plague that location. Not so much drug store cowboy as toilet paper and facial tissue thieves. The shelves had been cleared down the paper aisle. Barely a package of cottonelle left to purchase, and only in the smaller four roll sizes. As she gave me a discount despite my not having a card of my own, and started to talk about being used to the day to day violence, weapon bearing, attacks, robberies and trudge of day to day danger, I stood there wilting under the gaze of a particularly large SF PD cop. Hand on his nightstick, head on a swivel, guarding the door as his buddy was dealing with the robbery. She had called them at 9am, and they didn’t even get to her call until midday. She was accepting. If they don’t have a weapon, and its under $950 or so, no one is interested. I found myself telling her to take care, as she told me about her fears for Asian elders in Chinatown, and how traumatic she found watching the news, but my words felt empty. Who am I to wish her safety? I can’t do anything to make her world safer while she works an honest job to earn a crust. These are not homeless and desperate people stealing a sandwich, for the most part, more appearing in the guise of organized shelf clearing gangs, presumably run by some Dickensian cult figure who makes bank on selling ripped off bathroom tissue. Not exactly stylish, but hey…beggars can’t be choosy about their marks I suppose.
Heading down the street in the San Franciscan cold and fog, the wind biting through my jacket, I remembered the new pin I had stuck on my lapel, some x files tin deal reading “Trust No One” in a blood red slash. I do not know what divine wind tapped me on the shoulder to remind me, but as I moved towards the crossing, waiting for the walking green, noticed a woman in late middle age, at first glance looking reasonably neat, just poor. Thick short curly hair colored an attractive red, defiant lipstick, a little heavy on the eyes. Perhaps an aging prostitute I thought, nevertheless, not a threat, I decided. I gave her a smile through my mask. As she leaned in towards me I noticed her eyes were bloodshot and her pupils blown-up to factory issued proportions, if the Factory was at 231 East 47th, and Brigid Polk had been stalking with her vitamin shots and spike. She was chewing her tongue, a little red spittle peppering her chin. “Im gonna go get my C4 and blow the motherfucking building up” she announced to me. “Cheats! They are Cheats!” I stood there not responding, noting a cop staring towards my red haired warrior. “He took my ID, and he changed it!” She was wailing now. “Blow it up! Blow it up!” The boy moved behind me as she wandered into the traffic. I noticed a pair of child-sized rubber galoshes in her large shopping bag, the tell tale signs spilling out of the bags that she was sleeping outside. The building she was gesturing towards, which she had apparently been sleeping in the doorway of, was a Church. A Church. Red had been thrown out of a Church doorway. “Fakes! Im gonna blow it all up! They changed my…they…Im getting a signal…Im…” the wheels had come off her ride. She was too irate, too disturbed, too desperate, too high to deal with being roisted by the Cops, ousted from her position in a position of relative safety and light, and aggressively moved on. There was no choice but to ignore her, and not antagonize nor encourage. The lights changed, and she yelled after me, “They are cheats!” Yes, sister, they are, I wanted to yell back to her, but the stolid Cop, hand on baton was standing there staring, as I moved out of her orbit and down the road. In another life Red would be teaching piano at some community center and baking baklava for her grandkids, in another life where things had not gone so hard for her, in another life where the psychic traveling was left to the shamans and not pushed into the hands of the desperate and fragile. She had not done the meth: the meth had done for her. I thought of her body being loaded onto the dump truck that cleans up civic center of corpses and their living litter, and her driven off to a cold room, yet a room still the same. I thought of the person cleaning up the remains, throwing the small galoshes with the strawberries on them, that were kept for little feet she never got to pat or watch jumping in puddles into the trash. The quiet meaningless leavings of a life that was moved out of the doorway of a Church, and I became furious. She had been cheated.
We had barely got further down the street, walking past the apartment building that regularly has police tape outside of it, and sometimes explodes in sirens and barely noted disaster, when a thin young white woman with bleach blonde hair stumbled down the steps, and lurched disorganized onto the street, heading our way. She was cursing loudly “Fuck! Leave me alone! Get away from me! FUCK! Leave me alone, dammit!” whilst waving expansively around her head as if she was swatting away flying creatures that only she could truly see. Brushing desperately at her eyes, pulling the brim of her baseball hat down further, raising her collar against the vicious onslaught, face bright red with panic, feet not working with her torso, carrying her ahead far faster than the rest of her was able to catch up with, she looked up at me. “FUCK!” I thought I saw the shadow of a bat mass flurry around her head, chasing her, nibbling at her face, stinging her with scorpion tails that retracted from their fuzzy fat blood-filled bellies. This was clearly a bad trip on the level of ‘will be talked about in years to come” rather than filed under mildly interesting. The veins were bulging out of her fine white neck. Perhaps she had a wealthy father who sent her a stipend that she spent mostly on rent and drugs, but no matter what kind of parasite state she happens to exist within, she didn’t deserve the biting frenzy of hallucino-bats that she had been subjected to. I passed her quietly, the boy behind me nervously giving her space. I grabbed his arm. These women didn’t scare me, they saddened me. Human beings with possibilities and lives, loves and futures, discarded like so much confetti, ripped apart, destroyed almost wholly. One shot away from the trash heap of America. My stomach turned thinking about Red and Blondie walking the streets in that state, and the things that could happen to them today. “It’s ok, Kiddo. There is just something in the water today, obviously. Let’s just get back.”
It all became clear as mariachi music rose up against the background of horns, engines and the yelps of the afflicted and desperate: a young man on an electric scooter with it’s own sound system and a large silver insulated container stuck to the footboard, just in front of his feet, huge industrial smile on his face, swept across the traffic and in front of us. The Mariarchi rose joyously, as he turned down Geary in an extravagant strong arc, heading down an alley without a care in the world. The lion is not afraid in the jungle. Is the hawk scared of the crow? The young man on the scooter was not scared of the alley dwellers, any more than any other agent of the apex predator system is scared of the little birds that peck on the crumbs and berries. Don’t shoot the messenger, don’t blame the delivery boy, he is just trying to live just like the rest of us on the dirty streets of downtown. He waved his arm expansively, king of all he surveyed, on top of the world, and if he failed to preserve his luck…dead by next week.
Seller of burritos. Purveyor of fuel. Deliverer of relief and souls to the hereafter. Crack open another barrel boys, there is plenty more where he came from. Some poor mother’s son. Irreplaceable.
The dump truck wound its way up the road, its rear end open, scattering filthy blessings upon those still living from those who are bound to fail. Hazmat suits over our conscience. Nitrile gloves between us and the reality of the flesh of suffering. Loaded on the vital separation between US and THEM, the local anesthetic of privilege, booties over our clean soled shoes. If the world around won’t tear down the barriers between us so we see people are the same as us, hurt the same, bleed the same, suffer the same, deserve the same, then what use are the artists and the poets, the musicians and the shamans? Pull down the walls, we are dying out here in increments of isolation, milligrams of poison, steps of disinterest and neglect. You see, I have more in common with Red than I ever will with those suited and booted arms length away tutting while they step over the barely cold bodies of those of us who didn’t get the memo or the breaks or the enveloping arms of the safety that being within the herd provides.
Watch out for those bats! Blondie will tell ya, they are there, even if you can’t quite see ’em. Sucking the blood out of the world and turning it all into shit.