Carnaval was this weekend. I have been in a very bad mood for most of the month; expect the worst seems to be the theme of the month of May in the year 2015: disaster has been breaking out everywhere*. Cancer made a sudden and potentially lethal appearance in the brain-stem of my cousin; my mentally ill brother decided to send his siblings semi-hallucinatory, eyeball-searing Facebook messages of hysterical denunciation IN ALL CAPS ( in case we weren’t paying attention? I guess.) My aunt broke her hip and my husband got laid off. Also, I’m sleep deprived because of the many hormonal fluctuations in my body. Am rapidly reaching the conclusion that I cannot drink any coffee or any alcohol at all, anymore, no if’s and’s or but’s, if I want my sleep back and my hot flashes to chill out, I wrote on Facebook. And yeah, I’m sharing my female trouble. Deal with it. Brave words, Boopsie, but to no avail. They are with me yet, these problems. Hot flashes, moodiness and the most terrible, most awful of all possible problems: sleep interruption. I haven’t had an un-interrupted REM cycle since March. “How do women survive?” I asked someone wonderingly. They promptly told me that women used to die a lot earlier. (My Great-great Grandmother Margaret McCarty Creely died at the age of 50, which is the age I’ll be in less than three months.)”That’s how they dealt with it?” I said. “They died?” Good to know.
Sleep, always so precious, always so needed, is also always threatened here in my apartment on the Crossroads. Like the blessed water of California which brings life to whatever it touches, sleep brings succor to my exhausted and over-stimulated brain. Total immersion in the white canvass of my subconscious is what I need. Everybody needs sleep, but I really, really do. The Creely brain is a fragile thing. I think our amygdalas, and frontal lobe are troubled. Impulse control and mood stabilization need attention every night from Morpheus and the nightly cycles of REM only he can provide. Take that away from me and I became a mad dog. And a paranoid one, too. I suffered from insomnia as a young adult; this was because I smoked pot, didn’t exercise and refused to take the advice of my friends to calm down and relax. I am relaxed, I often snapped at them. (Silly me: I was confusing relaxation with disassociation. They’re very different things.)
ANNNyway. Carnaval is the two-day South American/Afro-Caribbean celebration of culture which takes place in the Mission District on Memorial Day weekend. It’s awesome and terrible at the same time. Mostly it’s just incredibly loud and the sort of event that sends introverts like me running for cover. Last Saturday, I glanced at Mission Local and saw the horrifying news: “SF’s Carnival Kicks Off.” “CARNIVAL IS THIS WEEKEND,” I told my husband in a voice (rendered here in all caps, to capture its histrionic quality). “WHY ARE WE HERE?” This was a dumb question: we have no money. There was no leaving. The only way out is through, I thought to myself. I braced myself. There were two parts to Carnaval: the first part started that day, ended at 6 (theoretically) and picked up again bright and early at 8 a.m. the next morning, just one block away from my front door, on Sunday.
I’d planned on going on a hike with a friend. They got sick and had to cancel and I was left to my own devices. The Irish had just legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote. (61.1%, if memory serves. Erinn Go Bragh!) This victory perked me up and I decided to get my ten thousand steps in by walking to the Castro and taking pictures of the tri-color in various historic spaces around Castro and 18th. I did this: I walked out into the murk of the unwarrantably grey May day, walked to Cliff’s Hardware and bought a small Irish flag. At Cliff’s Hardware, the clerk who sold me my petite tricolor said “Are you buying that to celebrate?” I told him I was. He said “I’m so surprised! Ireland? Who a thunk it? But I’m so happy!”
A fella at the corner of 18th and Castro saw what I was carrying and immediately said, “I changed my FB profile to a picture of the celebration in Dublin.” He was very happy and spoke of the rainbow that appeared over Dublin. “It was divinely ordained!” he said. Everyone who noticed my flag, expressed happiness that the Irish had returned to their freewheeling, pre-Christian, same-sex-loving Celtic ways, showing their true colors: not just green and orange, but blue, violet, fuchsia and red, too. It was a good day after all. I’d actually gotten more sleep the night before, breaking the cycle of torture my hormone-starved brain was subjecting me to, and felt certain that I’d sleep well later that night.
I returned home. It was peaceful in the house; my husband was hunched over his computer and my mother-in-law was watching television in our guestroom. I decided to continue binge watching 30 Rock on Netflix and did so for about an hour before I heard the unmistakable sound of a car stereo, straining at the limits of its capacity to deliver sound. The thudding bass notes, bouncing off my windows, brought me bolt upright. It was 10 p.m.
I looked outside. Two men, one car, a lot of beer and one car stereo: this could be my unlucky night. They were parked in the crosswalk in front of 992 Florida Street. One was a stocky man wearing red sweat pants. The other was a younger guy with a bald head. Beer bottles lay at their feet. I’m going to die, I thought. The reverb from the cranked-up bass made its way out of the throbbing speaker into my body. My window was vibrating ever so softly, as was my body: it felt as if an animal had lodged itself inside my chest and was trying to punch its way out. There would be no sleep that night if these guys stayed put.
I did what I always do. I waited to see if they’d move along, and then, when they didn’t, I went outside and asked them to turn it down. The younger one did so, grudgingly, but cranked it up again minutes later (did he think I’d changed my mind?) Then I called non-emergency dispatch, and asked them to send a patrol car. “There’s been a shooting,” the dispatcher advised me. “It may be a while.” I sat on my sofa listening to the rap music with its inventory of dicks, niggas, bitches and hos, and waited.
Another guy, a teenager, unlatched the iron gate and walked out of the apartment building carrying his bike. He hailed the man in the red pants, who reached inside the car and turned the music down slightly. They conferred briefly. I couldn’t hear anything (the music was still blanketing the aural atmosphere with a song that mostly used the word “suck” to get its point across.) But then the Man in the Red Pants began to testify, loudly, with force and vigor. “Nigga,” he bellowed, “Let me tell you something; I used to LIVE here. I lived here, my nigga! I had all my homies, all up and down this street, nigga!” He had a tale to tell, and great, strong, bull-like chest and wild Hemingway-esque manner to him and he told his story in the manner of the returned hero: names, dates, all events, great and small. He recounted all of these as he unspooled The Histories of Florida Street.
The guy with the bike gestured to the 992 Florida Street, which is a multi-unit apartment building, and said something I couldn’t hear. (It was sold last July and is now advertising an two-bedroom apartment for the 3,495.00.) “Fuck that shit,” roared the man enthusiastically. “Man, these niggas don’t know nothin’ about this place! You see that fucking place? That was Jefferson Market, homs!” He gestured across the street to Local Cellar, now a high-end “bottle shop” and the former location of Jefferson Market, a place mostly known for its inexpensive alcohol and drug dealing. A commenter on the Mission Local website described Jefferson Market’s baleful environment thusly: “Jefferson Market – the liquor store for bad people–has actually been a longtime magnet for truly bad people. Drugs and intimidation have been the name of the game there for several years….I cannot wait to have something in that space with owners who won’t stand for the illegal activities that have long marked that corner.”
The commenter got their wish. The owner of Jefferson Market received too many warnings from the ABC for running a disorderly house and so sold his liquor license to Yarom Milgrom, who opened Local Cellar (a store which goes too far in the other direction, if you ask me. It sells 38.00 gin.) Back when it was Jefferson Market, a man I knew only as “Isa” ran the store, if ‘running the store’ means berating passersby, cat-calling women, and screaming “bitch” into my window after I’d pissed him off by calling the cops to break up the daily 40 oz. malt liquor party. A mellow day at Jefferson Market meant that Isa contented himself with subjecting the neighborhood to long bellicose rants about the state of the nation. Standing behind the cash register and the bullet-proof plastic shield that ran the length of the counter, Isa would rant and yell at his customers, the television, anyone, really, as one man after another walked into the store and into a small back room.
That Jefferson Market was a hub for drug dealing was no secret: Officer Keith of the Mission Police Station told me that the SF District Attorney had enough evidence to bring charges against the owners, but had to drop that plan when a “rogue technician” named Debbi Madden tainted police evidence by sampling seized cocaine stored at San Francisco Police Department’s crime labs. Like Al Capone, Jefferson Market, the “liquor store for bad people” never got busted for its worst offenses. Instead Isa’s father, a genuinely sweet man, took his cue from the ABC’s admonitory notices, sold his license and closed up shop.
But back to the Man in the Red Pants. He was just getting warmed up. “Homs,” he declaimed. “Man, I used ta live in fuckin’ Jefferson Market, homs! Man, I was tight with Isa. And now that place, that place is for all them white niggas!” He pointed to my apartment building. Excuse me, I thought indignantly. I can’t afford their gin. But I was riveted. I love a good heroic tale (also the plasticity of the term “nigga” was fascinating me). But it was what he said next that really riveted me. “Man, I used to do DRUGS with Isa! In the store!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. He did a little dance. “Man, I DID DRUGS WITH HIM! INSIDE THE STORE!” He pantomimed chopping a line of coke and repeated himself: “I DID DRUGS WITH ISA! INSIDE THE STORE!” There was no one around to hear this. And it had long ceased to matter. Still I thought: I knew it. The teenager laughed and said something admiringly, and then glanced sharply to his left. “Speak of the Devil,” he said. The patrol car rolled up, blue and red lights shining. The Man in the Red Pants stopped talking, reached inside his car and turned the music off. The party was over.
And then it began again, the very next day. I slept raggedly that night and woke up at 8 am to parade music three times as loud as the car stereo. “Carnaval,” I wrote on my Facebook page. “Bright and early.” A few hours later, still sleepy and stupefied, I let my husband take me by the hand and onto the street. Almost immediately, I saw a vision in blue: Yemaya herself, tall, stately and so beautiful. (Water was the theme of Carnaval this year.) My heart softened just a bit. All around us the crowd moved and swayed and people danced. The block was packed tight. There’s no way out but through. Another Yemaya walked past me and then another. There were bodies everywhere I looked, but small passages too.
“If we keep walking, we can get through this,” said Jay. “And then we can dance.”
*The one exception to this month of disaster is the bravery and love that the people of Ireland have shown to each other and to the world. No matter what the Vatican says, the popular vote to establish legal same sex mariage cannot be categorized as a disaster.
“The people in this small island off the western coast of Europe have said to the rest of the world: This is what it is to be decent, to be civilized, and to be tolerant! And let the rest of the world catch up!”
Seanadóir (Senator) David Norris, May 22, 2015