Homeless in San Francisco: Day Twenty-Eight

28 Sep

15-year-old Frank Kavanagh has twenty-five cents in his pocket and his surplus clothing tied in a handkerchief.  He landed in New York from Hartford, his parents, once tired of supporting him, sending him away.  His first lesson in the big city is that people take in your assets and station quickly.  As my Vietnamese-American friend Jesse, who runs a fantastic sandwich shop on Steuart Street and travels to Hong Kong and Vietnam each year, tells me, in Vietnam people can smell the money on you.  Counting his coins, Frank is questioned by one adult “Montague Percy” about his circumstances as they sit beside each other in City Hall Park.  Percy deftly leads the boy to a saloon where the promise of free food acts as the carrot-on-the-stick.  Percy tells the boy to eat while he liberally orders as many drinks as he calculates Frank’s coins will procure him.  As with all of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s boy heroes, Providence comes in the form of another individual’s intervention to offset the negative weight of life’s scales of justice.  It is only moments after Frank has been fleeced that the street “arab” Dick Rafferty, a tad younger than Frank, takes in the “country” (boy) by explaining the street environs of the city and leading Frank to his first job as an escort to a blind beggar.  Needless to say, in this dime novel Telegraph Boy, or, Making His Way in New York, the beggar is a fraud and Frank moves on penniless to find another avenue for work in the city.

Poor Alger escaped New England by the dead of night following accusations he had engaged in unnatural acts with two boys under his Unitarian tutelage.  He arrived in New York in 1866.  He became one of the most published authors of the nineteenth century.  (An excellent source for biographical information on the author is found in Edwin P. Hoyt’s Horatio’s Boys: The Life and Work of Horatio Alger, Jr.)  For boy readers like Frank, who had slept in beds every night before his unfortunate fall from family grace, the teeming city of New York and its lower and upper class environs must have provided exotic adventure, just as the West in Alger’s later novels must have served.  When I was a young adult, the city as a site for excursion was fascinating.  I have lived in three large metropolitan areas since leaving a small town in what we referred to as the “sticks”: Los Angeles, New York, and, now, San Francisco.  I have also visited many other large cities.  What I have discovered is that provincialism exists wherever you go; this state of mind has nothing to do with the size of the town or city of one’s residence.  I was amused the day the waitress serving me at a restaurant near the pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, offered me, with wide-eyed sincerity, advice about traveling by bus to Tampa, across the bay: “Oh, I wouldn’t travel there.  You never know what’s going to happen.”  Downtown Tampa turned out to be the sleepiest location I have ever seen.  Perhaps, as a European American woman, her fear was based on the presence of seemingly  idle African American men in this area.  St. Petersburg, by the way, hosts a municipal museum at the pier.  The feel of the museum’s interior is more like Ripley’s Believe It or Not; baseball cards exhibited under glass were situated across from an Egyptian mummy case propped against a wall.

One thing I learned from my mother and stepfather was to open my arms to anyone, no matter their circumstances.  Thanksgiving Day was a celebration that could include the oddest assortment of people.  The large city is a place of open arms, unlike say, an Arlington, Virginia, where people passing by jogging will greet you with a compulsory Good Morning, but gossip about and judge you with distrust otherwise.  In Los Angeles, I lived above a man who must have been a Voudon priest for the sound of shrieking chickens and the sudden silence that followed their demise.  My neighbor Linda next door would often invite herself over, even once unexpectedly inviting herself and her husband to dine with my domestic partner Rod and I.  On Marble Hill in New York, my first neighborhood in that city, the stoop was meeting ground for neighbors.  There were Chrissie and Ellie, two cigarette-smoking 14-year-old going-on-adult women, who preferred my company, and my roommate Liz’s, to their own parents.  There was Peanut, who came to visit his brother Wolf, who was eventually convicted for the murder of a young Yale graduate (I harbored doubt about his guilt).  There was Henry, one of the most beautiful men I ever knew, in temperament and heart, gunned down the day he tried to prevent a robbery at the cleaner’s across the street.  There was Michael from Jamaica, who first found my disfavor after he beat his pregnant wife because of the news that the child was not his, and then later suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in his own apartment.  Joe, who had worked for a sculpture factory and created plastilene figures of young girls clad only in T-shirts and socks (probably of his daughter whom he no longer lived with), disappeared after pulling the trigger of the gun.  Michael assured me that Joe was only examining the gun when it went off accidently.  My suspicion, though, was that it had something to do with the business they were engaged in selling cocaine.  And there was a younger Michael, a native of New York, who eventually relocated to the South Bronx to live with the “mother of [his] child” (I never did learn her name).  He only had to warn me once not to visit him where he lived, as I would learn the inhospitality of the neighborhood in ways I would not want to see.  Our relationship was particularly close as he seemed to like the company of older gay men.  Mark and Denise and Michael and Phyllis were perhaps our closest friends in the complex.  Mark was a fantastic story teller.  I never challenged his stories because I could never hear enough from him.  Only Mark could tell you that on a cold winter night during a drug experience he descended to the bottom of the Spuyten Duyvil, the connecting waterway between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, a treacherous stretch for its swift currents, in his underwear and resurfaced with ice cycles in his hair (and live to tell it!).

Any community is open to a myriad number of sins.  I look with disbelief at a banner in my Tenderloin neighborhood affixed to a lamppost: “409 Historic Buildings / Downtown Tenderloin Historic District / Yeah, We Are Proud.”  With all the number of years of lived experience behind me, I know that the sins of the street are too numerous in my neighborhood.  The streets here are a living organism of incredible vibrancy and decay.  People mill about at street corners always looking both ways.  They speak to each other with broken glances in the direction of their conversation.  People dive through trash cans, sell and buy drugs, look each other up and down and say hello to the  unwary stranger, scream and fight each other, challenge automobile traffic, sell their meagre possessions on the sidewalk, ask for handouts and move constantly as if movement itself will effect some chance of better luck.  But this is not new.  Nineteenth century America is rife with literary and artistic anecdotes about fraud, malice, murder, and mayhem.  Contrary to Donna Dolore’s assertion following BDSM shoots, “I would leave a shoot feeling really invigorated, a stronger person.  It made me see what my body was capable of.” (Caitlin Donohue, “Because the Princess Says So,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, September 21-27, 2011, page 24), I seek fortification away from where I live.  (Note: in deference to SM, I have an incredibly gifted friend in New York named Barbara Nitke who has been shooting photographs of the SM scene for over ten years.  I have learned through her work alone that SM offers pleasure, immersion, and transcendence.)  But I cannot seek the immersive here in the hood, while physical escape is the only transcendence I hope to find.  I no longer embrace humanity the way I once did, be it because of age or fear or lack of confidence in humanity.  I do not engage the Tenderloin at all.

Of the few foreign cities I visited, Amsterdam and Paris were both hospitable in ways I could not expect.  While in Amsterdam in 1998 for Gay Games, the owner of a gallery invited me to join him for tea.  While in Paris, my host Philippe ensured I had adequate company while he took his family on vacation: a brother and his partner and numerous friends kept me entertained.  Upon Philippe’s return we engaged in the fun of an impromptu performance; working with his daughter Alice, we created a suit and hat from cut paper with crayons for detailing what I would wear to the polling precincts on Election Day.  “Des 4×4 pour tous” (SUV’s For All) was the motto drawn on the stovepipe hat, a statement to counter the anti-environmental politics of one of the leading parties participating in the election.  Surprisingly, an SUV owner took the statement to heart, believing we were advocating a SUV for every citizen of the city.  Now, wouldn’t that be a community without sin.

Philippe Barnoud, untitled photograph from performance “Des 4×4  pour tous,” 2008.

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