Dispatches from the 22nd Street Crossroads: Doing drugs with Isa.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
I have been in a very bad mood for most of the month; expect the worst seems to be the theme of May, 2015. Disaster has been breaking out everywhere*. Cancer made a sudden, 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.) My aunt broke her hip and my husband got laid off. I’m sleep deprived because of the hormonal fluctuations in my menopausal 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. I haven’t had an un-interrupted REM cycle since March. “How do women survive?” I asked my mother wonderingly. She promptly told me that women used to die a lot earlier. “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 22nd Street Crossroads. Like the blessed water of California which brings life to whatever it touches, sleep brings succor to my oft-exhausted, over-stimulated brain. I know everybody needs sleep, but I really do. The Creely brain is a fragile thing. Take sleep 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 was this weekend. Carnaval is a two-day South American/Afro-Caribbean celebration of culture which takes place in the Mission District. 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. I was reminded of it by Mission Local’s headline: “SF’s Carnival Kicks Off.”
“CARNIVAL IS THIS WEEKEND,” I told my husband in a voice. “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.
There were two parts to Carnaval: the first part which started that day, and ended (theoretically) at 6, and the second installment which starts up Sunday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m., just one block away from my front door.
I was going to go hiking with a friend that Saturday, but they got sick and had to cancel. 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. I decided to take the the tri-color out for a victory lap around Castro and 18th. So I did: I walked to Cliff’s Hardware and bought a small Irish flag. 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 said confidingly, “I changed my FB profile to a picture of the celebration in Dublin.” He 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. I felt certain that I’d sleep well later that night.
I walked 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 the large multi-unit apartment building at 992 Florida Street. A stocky man wearing red sweat pants and a younger guy with a bald head were play-fighting outside the car. Beer bottles lay at their feet. The reverb from the cranked-up bass was bouncing off my bedroom window which was vibrating ever so softly in response, 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’m going to die, I thought.
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. 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 all-star cast of dicks, niggas, bitches and hos, and waited.
A teenager walked out of the apartment building, carrying a bike. He hailed the man in the red pants, who reached inside the car and turned the music down slightly. They conferred briefly. The music was still blanketing the aural atmosphere with a song that mostly used the word “suck” to get its point across. I couldn’t hear anything until 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 had all my homies, all up and down this street, nigga!” He had a tale to tell, a great, strong, bull-like chest and a 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 told the listener The Histories of Florida Street.
The guy with the bike gestured to the 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.
Let me take a moment to describe the History of Jefferson Market using this comment on Mission Local’s website: “Jefferson Market – the liquor store for bad people–has 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.”
Jefferson Market was managed by a man I knew as Isa, if by “managed” one means berating passers-by, 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 subjected the neighborhood to bellicose and intricate rants about the state of the nation as he stood behind the bullet-proof plastic shield that ran the length of the counter.
Throughout the day, a steady trickle of men walked into the store and vanished into a small back room, emerging hours later, blinking at the light of the day, and as high as a kite. That Jefferson Market was a hub for drug dealing was no secret: the SF District Attorney had enough evidence to bring charges against the owners for drug dealing, 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. Isa’s father, the owner of Jefferson Market, received too many admonitory notices 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.)
But back to the Man in the Red Pants. He was just getting warmed up. “Man,” 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. “I DID DRUGS, HOMS! INSIDE THE STORE!” He pantomimed chopping a line of coke and shouted his confession-boast one more time: “I DID DRUGS WITH ISA! INSIDE THE STORE!”
He was the Angel of History, with the winds of the future lofting his wings, blowing him away from the past with his mouth wide open and his testimony bellowing out from him for anyone listening to hear. The remnants of his neighborhood, all those homies, those dilapidated apartment buildings: these were now piled up in the rubble of his memory.
The teenager laughed, 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 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.”
This blog entry is dedicated to my handsome, loving cousin Rick Williams who left this earth on Wednesday June 17th, 2015, which is far too soon. His family loves him.
*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