Homeless in San Francisco: Day Twenty-One

21 Sep

I must have pissed my neighbor off.  On Sunday morning I awoke to my alarm clock.  It was 7:00 AM.  Outside of occasional verbal noise from the street, everything was quiet.  I went down the hallway to shit and shower.  On my return, he had turned on the radio to a Gospel Hour program, loud enough that it could be heard down the hall.  The incident triggered an association from long ago when I lived in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan.  The block was made up of one- and two-story buildings, a patchwork of family dwellings and apartment buildings and striptease beer halls.  Eventually I wrote a poem about my time there, focusing in particular on a neighbor.  One excerpt reads:

“Her whines rode his growls in volleys / As their words evaporated through pink petalled drywall / Enriching the central hallway’s cool insulation / With unintelligible meaning / New voices since old had passed / When this building once housed the aged / When its green tar and shingled sides looked like home / Each morning they honed the anger of their dialogue / To a pitch and intensity that would break and subside / As she announced largely the bus she’d have to catch”

I am reading Carey McWilliams’s Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (1942).  During the late 1930s, McWilliams, for his expose Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, and John Steinbeck for the novel The Grapes of Wrath, were notorious for revealing the conditions of labor in California agricultural fields.  Both writers were vilified by a corporate-funded national press, accused of being “Reds” (Ill Fares the Land, 43), followed by vituperation from members of Congress who described The Grapes of Wrath, in particular, as “dirty, lying, filthy” (Ill Fares the Land, 47).  I purchased McWilliams’s book from my favorite New York bookstore, The Strand, where I found many useful and interesting volumes on American society from the 1940s.  My plan was to introduce a text on an aspect of the Mexican American experience to the students attending my course Minorities and the Critical Decade: World War II and After.  But, there were many different racial and ethnic groups involved in migratory labor at that time.

Steinbeck focused on White Americans from states such as Oklahoma relocating to California.  McWilliams, though, in his second book, looks at a wide variety of groups nationwide.  Ill Fares the Land takes into account the forces creating the need for migratory labor.  Of course there was the Dust Bowl effect over several decades where soil had been exhausted through monocultural practice, with single crops like cotton, and the subsequent erosion of the land through flood and wind.  McWilliams outlines the rise of a corporate or industrial agriculture.  In this setting, large farms and conglomerates push small farmers out of existence and crop mechanization makes human labor obsolete.  Sharecropping, a holdover system from slavery that granted individual farmers time on land as tenants, was replaced by transient, seasonal labor.  One feature of the new industrial agriculture was the harnessing of a large labor pool in the regions where crops were to be harvested.  In fact, costs could be lowered by suppressing the wages of these workers.  The key to accomplishing that was by recruiting into the area a larger pool of workers than actually needed.  For corporate conglomerates and absentee owners, the contracting agent exploited the situation by recruiting labor from thousands of miles away, including Mexico.

Individuals and families were often stranded after the harvest was over, having been so exploited by fees against wages for transportation to the region and credit systems for food, housing, and, in some cases, equipment and tool use.  In order to safeguard the health and safety of these workers,
it was then up to government entities to intervene, usually at county and Federal levels, because the corporate businesses refused to provide workers with adequate wages and amenities for safe living.  Even then, the measures taken were never enough to service all in need.  Various diseases were rampant with these populations during the work season.  Hunger was common.  Nutrition was dismal.  And housing was anything approximating what we think of today as housing.  Imagine living in converted chicken coops, barns, wagons for the convenience of moving the housing unit, sheds, open land without the protection of a strutured dwelling or trees (Mexican families in agricultural areas of Texas) or situated over or near swamp land (onion cultivation).

Human warehousing continues to this day.  I volunteered as a tutor at a welfare hotel in New York situated in what was the Martinique Hotel.  The community organization Hudson Guild provided the tutors in a room adjoining the hotel’s former ballroom.  Our Homework Help program took place on Monday afternoons.  The children were welcome on their own volition.  One young girl, about the age of nine, would join me.  She resisted any attempt to help her with learning, but she insisted on being at my side.  I finally realized she was an angry individual and that the only service I could provide was being present in a nonjudgmental way.  A younger, male child spent his time in the ballroom picking up wooden chairs and smashing them against the floor.  He never joined us.  His destruction was systematic.  He would work on a chair until it was in as many pieces as he could effect.

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend of a friend from the Midwest.  My friend Donald was eager that I meet this person.  We had coffee together at a cafe.  The Midwesterner was extremely tight lipped.  Drawing conversation from him was difficult.  I introduced the topic of an effort underway in Brooklyn, New York, whereby citizens without the aid of government are taking inventory of abandoned and empty housing units in their neighborhoods.  I spoke about the great number of empty buildings I remembered from my time in New York.  I even suggested that perhaps government intervention could possibly make available temporary housing in unoccupied buildings.  This remark really set off our guest.  Of course, I could understand.  He inherited many acres of farm land from his family, which he did not farm, instead letting the land to Amish farmers who apparently were not paying their rent.  He had not worked for the land he inherited, but he believed anyone who owned property had a right to use it as they saw fit, intervention be damned.  He ended the conversation by looking Donald squarely in the eye and saying, I’m ready to go.

My landlady in Union City was a likable character, whom I refer to as Toby in the poem.  She lived on the first floor behind my unit and the across-the-hall neighbor’s.  My departure from the building is described as follows:

“Oddly, the landlady’s sometime supervision of my affairs / Laced the hollowness of my days with a spirited warmth / Though her accounts of televised baseball / And Friday night bowling meets / Dissolved with my decision to leave at year’s end / As I mechanically repacked possessions / And daily bid goodbye to littered streets and windy fields / Toby ordered an eviction across the hall / For which I discovered taped to a glass pane of the front door / The words scrawled on a disemboweled envelope, / “Tony – Sorry we couldn’t make it, Sharon.”

East River, Kraft paper, paper bags, wall plaster, house paint on plywood, circa 1983-84.

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