When I moved to San Francisco in 1997 the first place I lived was a seedy motel on the border of the Tenderloin and Union Square. The restroom was down a dark hallway that had peeling 1970’s wallpaper. The room smelled like the last person that had lived there and every sound that was spoken or grunted echoed around me. In 2002, to take advantage of cheap rent, my best friend moved into an apartment on the fringe of the Tenderloin. From the train station I had to walk eight blocks, through the heart the neighborhood, to get to his apartment. Mostly I remember the smells; pungent urine, sour beer and rancid food. Smells that stuck to my clothes and lingered in my nostrils, leaving me feeling like I needed a hot bath. In 2009 Shannon worked with writer Sean Owens and composer Don Seaver on a musical dedicated to the seedy history of the Tenderloin. As I sat in the audience and watched these twelve characters (ie: a crooked cop, a drug addict and the landlady at a resident hotel) come to life I felt like I understood the Tenderloin. That is until a few months ago. Suddenly my opinions, my aversions and my fears were challenged.
I spent many years clutching my purse and walking briskly through the Tenderloin. But on a rare, sunny San Francisco day in November, Shannon and I joined Andi Wong and the A Slice of Life Exhibit at the Tenderloin National Forest. There, in the middle of Ellis Street, armed with cameras and a simple backdrop, cards with kind words for strangers and a photo printer, we hoped that people would want to participate by having their picture taken. The denizens were curious. They happily walked up. They DID want their picture taken. And they also wanted to talk to strangers; us. They wanted to talk to us about life in the Tenderloin.
Here is a bit of what I discovered. Several were drunk and a few were “on” something but most were kind and gentle and sober. I took their picture. They took it as a chance to share part of their story. I found out that the living situations were so undesirable that the overwhelming preference was to be out in the streets. Unfortunately there is a conflict. The city of San Francisco wants to keep them hidden, off of the streets and out of sight. I found out that most try to stay away from each other because they don’t want any problems. I found out that for them, talking to a stranger was a treat and that they were weary of the depressing stories shared amongst themselves. I found out that even though many lived in the same building and had seen each other on the street for years, they didn’t know each others names. I saw them look at each other for the first time. I looked at them too. I stood still and listened and understood a lot for the first time.
Though I found myself uncomfortable most of the day, I was grateful for the fact that I couldn’t walk away. I know that the next time I walk through the Tenderloin I will reflect on that day and hopefully I will say hi to someone I know.