July 25, 2011
The City is what it does to you
There is this. This.
Sometime on Sunday Jennifer leaves and the light just pulls away from me. I crawl into bed about noon and start to hibernate. Around 10:00 at night, I try to print my boarding pass and I can't and I'm thoroughly pissed at this point cuz this is the third week in a row I can't print my stupid boarding pass and I call up SouthWest and I'm ready to let her have it this time. Only she's explaining that I've missed my flight already. Ha. I was supposed to fly out on Sunday, apparently. Who knew?
So I reschedule for the early morning flight and at some point, even Timmy leaves me and in the small hours of the morning, the alarm goes off and I spring out of bed. I can't wait to get back into the city and start shooting again.
Every Friday, when I pick up Jennifer, my stories go like this..."I saw a guy smoking crack in the street...a guy stole a Picasso off the wall of an art gallery...six people were swept to their deaths in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir...the cops killed a guy in Bayview..." etc. Just one breathless story after another. And then I turn to her and say "how'd your week go" and she says "I got some new shirts." So this is where we are. We live very different lives, she and I. We spend our weekends together in Colorado, but during the week, we're worlds apart.
At the airport, my flight is delayed again. Very common to have the flight delayed due to early morning fog. So I'm sitting tight at the airport in Denver, waiting for the air traffic controllers in SFO to give us the "Go Ahead" to take off from DEN.
I lost my second set of Bose Accoustic Noise Canceling Headphones recently, so I'm traveling without them which is maddening. There's a gate change, but I sit tight. A baby starts crying, and I stand up, cursing the gods, and stomp away towards my new gate.
On the way, I see a familiar face...I'm staring at her thinking..."Michelle?"
She turns to me, and Jennifer appears and I think..."Ha...how about that?" Of all the people to run into in one of the world's largest airports, who would have thought I'd run into my own daughter?
So I go with her to her gate. She's flying to New Mexico, of course. Just it wasn't on my radar screen because I was supposed to be in San Francisco already and it was just a fluke that I was delayed and she happened to be in the same terminal at nearly the same gate and, by chance, I lost my headphones and that squabbling baby sent me fleeing just at the time they were passing by. Very peculiar how everything lined up like that. And I have to admit that I wondered if maybe it wasn't an accident.
While waiting for her flight to take off, I picked up another ticket for her to go to Florida for a week in August because, let's be honest. She's underprivileged. That much is clear.
She flies away and I crawl into a different airplane. I'm in seat 2A as always and the only disadvantage to this seat is that the malicious bastards in the bulkhead will always try to sneak something under their seats and I'm like..."Uh, no. You're going to have to put that in the overhead bin"
The flight is full so I grab a little oriental girl and tell her to sit in the middle seat and she does and promptly falls asleep on my shoulder, which I don't mind and we take off.
I recline her seat for her and then, as always, I look out the window as we fly, tracking our progress west above I-70. It's neat to see your house from above. The world scrolling by. Georgetown. Lake Dillon. Copper. Vail. Beaver Creek. Glenwood Springs. Grand Junction.
It's all nice and green until we get to the western slopes, and then the high desert. Utah is covered with salt lakes, not just the Great Salt Lake, but countless little ones scattered across the desert. Always, somewhere over Utah or Nevada my Diet Coke runs dry and I have to castigate the delusional flight attendants into doing my bidding.
It's a miracle that anyone lives down there at all. Utah and Nevada are as dry as dust. Straight roads. A few sporadically placed irrigated circular crops. Just death. Death. Death. And then finally, at the California Nevada Border, the Sierra Nevada mountains and some life again. Bushes and scrubby trees materialize and then, the Yosemite valley, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, and the grand Central Valley. Always, we fly over Freemont or Modesto and then, the Sierra Madres and down down down into the southern end of San Francisco, over those insane Cargill salt flats and down into SFO.
At the airport, they repainted the blue and white curb which just irks me to no end. So, I go stand at the new blue-and-white curb and there's the FastTrack shuttle bus and every week I do the same thing. I go to the shuttle bus driver and ask him if he's sure that they're out of business and if they've changed their mind somehow, and if they won't take me back. But every time he shakes his head no. They're out of business. I have to park somewhere else now.
Now, I park at Park SFO, but only do so under protest and every week I leave without paying because I'm not happy about the arrangement. Namely, that there isn't any arrangement. I don't know them and they don't know me and I don't want to be parking there. Why can't FastTrack just let me park there again? So what if they lost their lease on the parking lot? How is that my fault?
I climb onto the motorcycle and leave the parking lot without paying and head north on the US 101. I just tack that thing up to about 80 mph because I don't want to get run over from behind, right? So I'm flying north on the US 101 and I just lay down on the seat until my helmet is touching the handlebars because this bike is light and the winds rip across the peninsula between Candlestick Park and Brisbane in a way that you can't know.
So I'm sailing north on the US 101 and I get into the city and now I'm going to snap a few murals before I go in. I find the mural Jack sent me right away. Drove straight to it and I hadn't seen it in 6 years. But I found it and shot it shortly before the sun got high enough in the sky to ruin the mural.
After work, I decided to really hit the Mission hard, looking for more murals. Now, I believe that "The more you look, the more you see." As Robert M. Pirsig observed in his glorious tome, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is my new theory. The old theory was, "I've seen it all." The new theory is, "The more you look, the more you see."
So I'm out grid searching the mission and I roll through Clarion Alley, but I know today I've got to dig deeper. I've got to get down into the heart and soul of the most dangerous part of the mission.
I end up down around 26th and something...cruising these alleys I've never seen before and you just can't know. I can now state, unequivocally, that the Mission has the most graffiti of any district in San Francisco. It is the sin-qua-non of San Franciscan murals.
There are more alleys full of murals in the mission, than the other districts have murals. I'm wandering up and down these alleys I've never seen before. Never heard of before.
The first new alley I find has homeless people living in it.
The city is what it does to you. It brings into a very sharp focus the people you might normally not interact with. The lost and downtrodden. The homeless, despondent masses. And I don't know how they got here. Maybe they're drug addicts. Maybe they have mental problems. I don't know that it matters, necessarily. Only it's a given that they're here, and they're not going away, and I have to deal with them. I see them every day. Even if all you do is observe them, you can't help but be affected by them.
Last week, I watched a female homeless drug addict walk into a restaurant where I was eating lunch with the new consultant. She came in off the street, wolfed down the leftovers from a stranger in the Mexican restaurant, then went outside and finished it over a trashcan. No different than the coon on the game cam stealing my cat's food.
They are here, and you can't solve the problem, only you can observe it. But you're affected by the observation. Last week, I observed a different homeless female drug addict sprawled on the sidewalk in Caledonia Alley. When I came through, shooting photos, she tried to pull it together. To try to gather herself together, as it were. She tried to sit up, but was unsuccessful. So I just walked by her, as she sort of rolled around on the dirty sidewalk.
So now, I find this new graffiti drenched alley in the mission, but it's not without it's own homeless population, of course. Every rose has it's thorns.
I feel safe wearing the helmet. I don't take it off when I'm shooting. I never do. So, I'm shooting this new alley I've discovered in the Mission. Shooting like mad, and I get down to where the homeless are sleeping on the sidewalk, and I try not to disturb them. I really do. I don't want to interfere with them. I don't know what sort of deal they have going on, but I do know that they're frequently victims of violence, so I'm trying not to threaten them in any way.
One of the homeless guys is lying on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag. The other homeless guy comes stumbling out of the alley and he calls after him, "Check on me in a little bit...ok?"
"I will," the other homeless guy replies. "I'll watch out for you."
I'm shooting, and sort of trying to ignore them, but this is sort of touching. I mean, here you've got two humans who have fallen so low, that they're sleeping on the sidewalk in a dead-end alley. But somehow, they're watching out for each other.
"You watch out for him," I ask as he approaches.
"Yeah. You have to around here."
"Why is that?" I clarify. "Who bothers y'all? Kids?" I ask.
"Actually, it's really normal people. Someone throws a bottle and says, 'get a job', and the next thing you know they're beating the hell out of ya'," he replied.
"Jesus Christ." I replied.
"Yall watch out for each other, though?" I clarified.
"Yeah, well, we try to sleep during the day, and watch each other's backs. Then, at night, you have to be awake then. It's more dangerous then, of course."
"Doesn't the city pay you though?" I asked.
"Why? No. The city doesn't pay us anything. I get food stamps. But you don't get a check from the city. You have to have an address to get a check. Obviously, if you're homeless, you don't have an address, so no...we don't get any money from the city,"
"Who does these sidewalk stencils?" I ask, changing the subject.
"Oh, I know who does them. He lives around here. But I ain't tell'n." he replies.
"Well, they're very cool, " I reply. He's certainly talented.
And the homeless guy stumbled on down the alley, leaving his friend behind, asleep on the sidewalk. It's hard to imagine attacking the homeless. Difficult to fathom.
All I want to do is take photos, of course, and I'm shooting like mad. But I'm very far from home. So far out of my element. It's hard to remember where you are.
I wake up in mountains of Colorado, where I sleep with a .45 under my pillow and mounted a game cam inside my house to track the incursions of the wildlife. But then, a few hours later, I'm in an alley in a major metropolitan city and I sort of forget myself.
I'm shooting in this alley, and there's three street thugs with dogs that aren't on leashes and they tell me it's a one way road and I start getting smart with them. It goes like this:
"Just so you know, this is a one way road," the one big fat guy challenges.
"Yeah, well I don't really care about the law," I quip. With the same sarcasm that's got me so far in this world.
"Well, I'm just saying, if a car comes around the curve and hits you..."
"What curve? What traffic?" I challenge. It's absurd, but I've forgotten myself. I'm not in Colorado. I'm in the Mission. Talking tough to three strangers. With dogs. That aren't on leashes.
"Why don't you get the fuck out of our neighborhood," they offer.
It occurs to me that I've made a mistake. I shut my mouth. And continue shooting and moving slowly down the alley. The dogs don't kill me, and the brutes don't assault me, but I realize that I've made a serious miscalculation. I'm in an alley where a guy was beat to death earlier this year, smarting off to strangers. Not a good move.
So, I keep moving down the alley, shooting, driving a few feet, shooting some more. Slowly working my way through the Mission, albeit, in the wrong direction most of the time, but I'm not hurting anyone.
I'm finding alley after alley full of graffiti that I've never seen before and I'm getting further and further from the known parts of the city and falling deeper and deeper into the parts of the Mission where white people just don't go.
These murals are all of the Precita Eyes murals, which tend to portray people as victims. It's a common theme. Basically, the Indians and the Mexicans are prisoners in their own land, victims of the evil white man's aggression. This is a common, recurring theme in the Precita Eyes murals and it's why I tend not to shoot them because, if you teach someone from cradle to grave that they're a victim, then they're certainly victims.
Man's Inhumanity to Man
But this is where I find myself, and then I see a Jet Martinez mural and I'm really excited to find this gem and I get in position to shoot it, but as I do, a car pulls up in front of me, and about three to five Mexicans jump out of the little car and start assaulting some people on the sidewalk.
So, while I'm watching, this beating starts taking place and of course, I fire up my bike and get the fuck out of there. Because, I have no idea what's going on. Suddenly, it dawns on me that I'm very far out of my element. I get a safe distance from the fight, and then sort of return to the scene.
The Mexican thugs in the car have disappeared, but I spot the two that were assaulted standing on the street corner.
I pull up and talk to them..."Dude..WTF? What was that about? I saw those guys jump you. There were 4 or 5 of them. What was that about?"
"You don't know them?"
He had a massive shiner on his left eye already. Tears were streaming out of his left eye. He wasn't crying. That isn't my point. He'd just been cold-cocked in his left eye. I was surprised he was still walking.
"Why did they do that? They were estranyos? I clarified.
Like..wow...wtf? I mean, I know we're all built of the crooked timber of humanity, but Lord God. Seriously, people. Suddenly, shooting in the Mission seemed a lot less romantic and a lot more dangerous, and I left the mission.
I stopped at my buddy that runs the Mexican stand on Mission and South Van Ness and I try to tell him what I saw. He says that the mission is more dangerous. Probably it was due to colors. Or due to territory. This one group can't cross 19th street, for some reason, apparently. Who knew?
So I climb back on my bike and head to the Marina, where the pretty white girls walk down the sidewalk.
But now, every time I see another guy on the sidewalk, I puff up like a pigeon in a snowstorm as the fight or flight adrenaline courses through me.
I go to a bar to have a beer and write for a bit. To try to put things into focus, but this only made it worse. The worse thing about the homeless is that there's only one solution, and after spending any time around them, you realize that the only solution isn't really one you could live with. So there is no solution.
I check my email and the pretty white girl I was supposed to go out with tomorrow night said we'd have to postpone.
I go home to my flat on Russian Hill and I think I've got to get it together, but I don't know how. I tell my room mate what I saw happened. She says she stopped a guy from getting beat to death when they were jumping on his head.
"I didn't help him," I offered.
"What did you do?" she asks helpfully.
"I got on my motorcycle and took off," I replied. It was nothing to be proud of. But it was so foreign to me. I had no idea what was going on. One second, I was taking photos of a mural, and the next second, people were jumping out of cars and fists were flying. I had no idea what was happening. It was very scary. Like a bad dream.
The problem with living in the city is that it's too intense. All of these people are living far too close together. It's like when they shove the uranium rods into the reactor and the chain reaction takes off. You cram a few million people into a 7 mile by 7 mile peninsula, and these no telling what will happen.
I wandered down to the local Escape From New York Pizza, not because I was hungry, but because I had to. I had to talk to someone about what I'd seen.
I feel like I'm surrounded by people, but I'm all alone.
Hey, guy. What can I get you?
"Tony. I saw a guy get jumped today in the Mission," I offered.
"We've got one slice of Hawaiian left," he replies.
"OK. I'll have that."
"What did you do?" he asks.
"Nothing. I turned and ran. I didn't help him." I admitted.
"Well, you've got to pick your battles."
That's the problem with the city, is that you see people who are failing. People are always dying and starving and fighting. And, in the suburbs, you don't see that. Where I live, I wake up and there are birds and deer and raccoons. Not people jumping out of cars and pummeling strangers in the streets. Not people starving and staggering and begging. Not that. Not like that.
I'm walking back from the pizza place, full of fear. Drowning in adrenaline and fear and raw emotions. I see a family walking across the street and I want to yell at them, "Get out! This city's not safe!" But obviously the city's not safe. People die here every day. Death is a part of life. It's just that you're so far removed from it in the suburbs. And here, you see people teetering on the brink of death on a daily basis.
I see a black man walking through the crosswalk the same time as me. He's wearing a SF Giants cap. Slowly, it dawns on me that he's homeless. On the other side of the street, I see him scanning the sidewalk. I see what he's looking for before he does. A half a cigarette is lying on the sidewalk. I spy it. Then he spies it, and starts contorting his body until he's low enough to pick it up.
How sad is that. How said is it that I knew what he was looking for and even saw it before he did.
Back at the flat, my motorcycle looks vulnerable and out of place on the sidewalk. This can't last. It will be stolen or vandalized. It's only a matter of time.
When I got inside the flat, I lock all of the locks. I always used to only lock one of the deadbolts. My roomie always locks them all, which I always thought was overkill. But not any more. I've learned to fear that which carves the city's streets at night. I lock all of the locks and retreat to the relative safety of my bedroom on Russian Hill.
I've got to get out, before it's too late. This city is killing me.
Posted by Rob Kiser on July 25, 2011 at 10:09 PM
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