From the mixed up files of the Creely-McCarty family: why Hannah got her gun.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh, as she appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner in June, 1910.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh is my 3rd-great grandaunt, and sister to Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, a source of dismay to his extended family. Hannah might have been as well, but by the time she shot the Sheriff’s deputy—not the Sheriff—at her home at 120 Ripley street, the Creely-McCarty family was preoccupied by other family scandals and may not have taken any notice.

The house on north side of Bernal Hill is still standing, trim and well-maintained, and gives no hint to the turmoil that peaked in June of 1910. I wonder if there are any bullet holes in the house, particularly near the side door. It received the worst treatment during the shoot out; that, and Sheriff’s deputy John A. Barr’s left and right cheeks.

Hannah’s crime happened during a trigger happy era in San Francisco. The graft trial of Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitt, and the 1907 Carmen’s strike both included shooting. Hardware stores like J.H. Kruse’s at 3145 23rd street, which is where Hannah got her gun, must done a brisk trade in the sale of small handguns during those years.

An armed woman facing down a posse of policeman might not have made the papers before 1910. But she chose her historic moment well. San Franciscan’s were tired of reading about the graft trial, and Hannah, as one newspaper account reported, was “known” around town, because she was Whitehat’s sister, and also because she talked a lot.

Hannah didn’t dislike media attention. There’s a picture of her, four months before the shooting, smiling for the camera and holding the corner of her collar in an unmistakably cocky and self-confident manner. She was in court that day contesting the claims of one E.W. Lick, money lender, to the rightful possession of the title on her house. Lick was trying to evict Hannah and her aged husband, John.

Eviction, along with rotten potatoes, would have been very triggering for Hannah. Although Hannah was born in Boston in 1859, her parents, my great-great-great grandparents Timothy and Mary McCarty, were not. They were born in Cork, Ireland in the early eighteen-hundreds, and had the awesome luck of surviving Trevelyan’s economic schemes for Ireland, which included exporting food out of the Ireland as the potato crop failed.

This isn’t the kind of luck I’d wish on anyone. I have no story about their life in Cork prior to immigration, but statistically the odds were not in their favor. Abusive and absentee landlords, terrible workhouses, like the one in Skibbereen, failed crops: the entire panoply of famine, death, displacement and British bureaucratic derangement formed the backdrop to their departure and arrival in America, and probably the rest of their lives in sunny California. Their only luck was their ability to get the hell out.

I don’t know what their immigration year was (looking for a McCarty in a census record from the mid-eighteen hundreds is a thankless task) but anyone who fled a famine no matter where it happened—Ireland, India, North Korea—knows this: the feeling that people are trying to get rid of you is not paranoic fantasy. They are.

In 1910, E.W. Lick was trying to get rid of Hannah and John. They purchased the property from the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society seven years earlier for $250. Adjusted for inflation (it comes out to $6921.73) that’s still a good deal. It’s a roomy lot: 5,625 square feet and 75 feet deep, and it backs up to a hillside. The house has neatly symmetrical second-story fenestration overlooking the street that made a perfect shooting gallery for Hannah.

A page from the 1907 San Francisco Block Book ,showing the lots owned by Hannah and her husband John. After Hannah accused Samuel Boyd of encroaching on her property, she and her husband sold a part of their original lot to Mr. Dettling.

The trouble began in 1905. That year, Hannah complained to the Department of Public Works that their surveyor improperly measured the lot next to hers, an error encouraged by a bribe offered to the surveyor from her neighbor at 130 Ripley, Mr. Samuel Boyd. This, she said, resulted in four and a quarter feet being deducted from her property. Her complaint was ignored. She was determined to be heard and to obtain justice, but sadly this ancestral vigilance, formed in the crucible of the famine in Cork, was her doom. Prior to the earthquake and fire of 1906, she borrowed $500 from the money lender Lick in order to bring suit against Boyd.

Today, a house stands between 120 and 130 Ripley, but in 1910, there was only an empty field and enough neighborly antipathy billowing across that empty space to make today’s Nextdoor.com dramas pale in comparison. Dumping mattresses is one thing: taking four feet and quarter inches is a trespass not to be born.

Neither Hannah, who was a tailoress, or her husband were working, which is perhaps why the Hibernia Bank foreclosed their $600 mortgage sometime in 1906 through their collection agency, Rauers Law and Collections Agency, which had the snappy motto “We Do Get The Money If The Debtor Has It!” The debtor didn’t have it, but Lick did, and so the die was cast and the drama began churning along.

Lick, whose name rhymes with dick (funny, that) secured a ruling that evicted the Welshes from their home sometime late in 1909, or early in 1910. Hannah refused to budge and ended up in court in February of 1910 for violating section 419 of the penal code, which forbids an evictee from returning to their former abode.

Hannah acted as her own lawyer: this was both affordable and in keeping with her forthright nature. She was helped by a mysterious young woman during the irregular proceedings that day, identified only as “Portia Gray”. Portia claimed she had been admitted to the bar “in another state”, but refused to say any more about it. She and Hannah carried on “whispered consultations” throughout the day, and got a continuance of the case.

Portia Gray never shows up in any other article, and no amount of googling has uncovered her identity. Was she a family member or friend, or maybe even a colleague sent by my great-grandfather James, an attorney, who was used to extricating his family from perilous legal situations? Who knows? Not me.

Things, meaning legal decisions, didn’t go Hannah’s way. Her husband was 74 years old, a veteran of the Civil War, and well within his dotage. This must have weighed on her. When she purchased the revolver from J.H. Kruse’s hardware store that June, one day after being served with a writ of eviction by Barr, the man she later shot, she did so believing that Lick’s men had no right to enter her home.

“I have been told by my attorney that they had no right to enter and that I could have a revolver there to protect my home,” she told a reporter as she sat in jail awaiting arraignment. No article specifies the type of revolver she purchased that day. It was the type you had to reload, which she did at least once during the shoot-out. Perhaps it was a Colt. That detail has been lost to history, but what happened a week later, has not.

It was 54 degrees and clear the morning of June 16, 1910 when Deputy Sheriff John A. Barr climbed the steps of 120 Ripley street, accompanied by Sheriff’s keeper James Logan, and two other policeman. They were there to remove Hannah and her husband from the house and place their belongings in the street. Her husband had gone to plead their case to the presiding judge, George H. Cabaniss, a superior court judge, and Hannah was alone, sick in bed, she said later, but ready to defend herself. When Barr arrived, he found the door barred against him.

Barr sent the other men around to a side door, and ordered Hannah to open up “in the name of the law”. That’s when she fired the first shot.

Hannah McCarty Welsh shooting at John A. Barr, as depicted by the San Francisco Call, June 17, 1910

The shot went wild, and ricocheted off the wall, near the two policemen crouched outside. Barr put his shoulder against the front door and forced it open. Looking up, he saw Hannah, half dressed, pointing her revolver directly at him. She pulled the trigger and shot him through his left cheek. The bullet passed through his open mouth, exiting above his right ear. He “staggered” out of the house and collapsed, not dead—he didn’t die—but perhaps wishing he was.

She fired her next shot at Policeman Logan, after he forced his way in through a side door. He promptly fled. Hannah opened her front door and stood on her porch, holding the smoking revolver. “I’ll shoot any man that tries to come in here,” she announced. And that’s exactly what she did for the next chaotic hour as policemen in squad cars answered the riot call and rattled up Ripley Street. A crowd of 200 people gathered outside the house, watching and waiting. A neighbor was sent inside to reason with her, but left empty-handed.

Finally, Detective Michael V. Burke from the Mission station forced his way through a back door—not before she shot at him three times—and subdued her. “Although the struggle was between a stalwart policeman and a frail little woman, she fought like a tigress,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle breathlessly the next day. Hannah was taken to the city prison where she was charged with assault to murder.

Hannah’s husband John arrived home and was advised that his wife was in prison. With the doors of his home closed against him, an eviction notice nailed to the front door, and his furniture and personal belongs scattered around him in the street, he spoke with the Chronicle reporter. “This is my property and no matter what my wife borrowed on it or what she was led into signing, it is still mine and they have no right to put me out,” he said. His eyes flashed. “Lick didn’t get it fairly. He has no right to my property.”

His neighbors—maybe the Mahoneys, who lived next door, or the Dettlings, or the maybe the McGarrigals or the Mulcahy’s, all of whom had witnessed the Welsh’s struggle to stay put—gathered around him, offering assistance. Someone gathered up his belongings, and someone else took him away, and gave him shelter that night.

Hannah was arraigned in Judge Deasy’s court on July 14th, and then declined to appear again, and vanished for a month. It was an open secret that she had returned to the scene of the crime and was occupying the house on Ripley Street. The long arm of the law caught up to her in September, and she appeared in Judge Dunne’s court after he threatened to jail her husband. The charges against her were read again, and bail set at $1,000 in cash.

She fired her attorney, Philip Boardman, and, insisting on representing herself, tried to convince the judge to throw out the case. “Shrieking woman breaks up court” was the headline that day: after failing to convince Judge Dunne of the merits of her argument, Hannah screamed so loudly that court proceedings in other rooms came to halt. She was removed from court and taken to a nearby paddy wagon, still screaming that she was being deprived of her rights.

Her persistence didn’t go unrewarded. In October, commissioners with San Francisco County Insanity Commission, announced that she was paranoic, and insane, due to her peculiar conviction that she was better able to represent herself and, moreover, that the courts and officers of justice were in a conspiracy and trying to cheat her.

The commissioners suggested that she be remanded to a private insane asylum. She was placed in the county jail while her friends (they are never named in any of the articles) were encouraged to find such a place. She was officially declared legally insane on November 10, 1910, by Dr. C.D. McGettigan, insanity commissioner, who said that she suffered from “litigious paranoia”. It’s not clear where she was held from November, 1910 to August 17, 1913: the Stockton State Asylum has no public record that shows her as an inmate. Perhaps she was at San Francisco General Hospital. Or perhaps the Creely/McCarty’s funded her stay at a private asylum.

Wherever she was, she proved to be a model inmate. Two years later, on August 17, 1913, Hannah was pronounced sane and released, three months after her husband John died at the age of 77.

Hannah bounced back. After her release, she lived on 24th street, near the intersection of Shotwell, a funny locale for a woman who hadn’t. She made her living as a vest-maker. By 1920, she was sixty-one years old, and working as a matron in the Orpheum theater and living in a rented room on Guerrero street. John’s pension as a veteran would have been available to Hannah; this, combined with her tailoring skills, may explain why, after so much strife, fraud and trickery, she was able to purchase a home at 1538 Church street in Noe Valley.

She passed out of this crazy world 35 years after her impassioned defense of her home, at the ripe old age of 85. She outlived her siblings, Margaret and Daniel, and possibly Catherine and John, too.

There’s no obituary for her, just a record from Carew and English, the funeral home that received her remains. The information in it came from her niece Anna Creely, and confirms the information we, who were born in the aftermath of our ancestor’s immigration, were told in sporadic moments of recollection: that her parents were Timothy and Mary (Rice) McCarty, that Hannah was born in Massachusetts, and that everything we never really knew, was true after all.

Less important, but most illuminating to me is this fact: Hannah was born under the astrological sign of Cancer the Crab, that clever, tenacious, legalistic, and resilient sign most associated with domesticity, and all matters pertaining to the thing we call home.

She and John are buried in the National Cemetery, in the Presidio, in grave 1015, on the west side, under a plain white headstone made by the Green Mountain Marble Co. in Vermont. Requiescat in pace.

120 Ripley Street as it appears today.

 

Written with love (and a very stiff neck) for Aunt Hannah and Uncle John.

“… the exiled Irish took with them the bitterest memories of the land system which drove them from Ireland… ” Mícheál Davitt, excerpted from the speech he delivered in defense of the Land League in 1890.

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Bring out your dead: Dia de los Muertos

November 2nd was a warm day. The sun blazed, the air was still, and in the Mission people walked in a leisurely fashion, the way they do when they aren’t hurrying out of the cold.

But an autumnal bluster lurked behind the placid blueness of the sky. At 2 pm, the light shifted slightly. Long black shadows stretched to the north, cross-hatching the sidewalk with their silhouettes. In front of the Mission Language & Vocational School on 19th Street, old sycamore trees shook in the breeze. The dry leaves rattled once, and fell to the ground. Later that night, thousands of people walked to the corner of 22nd and Bryant Street to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.

Dia de los Muertos, also known as All Souls day—or Féile na Marbh if you’re Irish— always falls on November 2, the month of the Holy Souls in the Catholic Liturgical calendar. San Francisco celebrations have a tough time defending themselves against spectacle seekers, and every year I wonder if it will be the year that some fool ruins the evening for the rest of us.

This is what happened to Halloween in the Castro. It started life as a neighborhood event in the forties, and morphed into a whole-hearted expression of gaiety, drag and revelry when the neighborhood changed hands. Everything stopped in 2006, after someone brought a gun to a fight. Long before that, though, public drunkenness and the narcissistic practice of documenting yourself in a cast of thousands overtook the event. At the end, there were just too many people there, rubbernecking at queer men in brilliant, often very topical drag (you could read the year’s events by looking at the costumes. There was no limit to the commentary: I seem to recall someone costumed as two ruined Twin Towers in 2001.)

I think Dia de los Muertos might be protected from this. Mass memorials aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, as a 2008 Yelp review of the event from a freaked-out attendee makes clear:  “I thought this would be a fun event to check out, but it was way more somber than I was led to believe,” he wrote disapprovingly. “Yes, people do get really creative with the designing and building of the alters honoring their departed loved ones but this whole thing is way more creepy and satanic than people seem willing to admit.”

A sign with the names of founders of the Black Panther Party hangs on a chain link fence in Garfield Park on Dia de los Muertos, November 2, 2018

Um, ok. I’m pretty sure that the Church of Satan has never helped organize Dia de los Muertos. The Mission District doesn’t need outside assistance planning big festivals and celebrations. A loose-knit coalition of neighborhood group kicked things off in the seventies, and it’s been going strong ever since. A non-profit called The Marigold Project has for the last decade or so undertaken the project of bringing the dead to life. They fundraise throughout the year to pay for street permits, trash cans, and supplies for the altars. A day or so before November 2, volunteers and Mission residents transform Garfield Park into a city of the dead.

By nightfall, the park glows with candlelight, often electric. Tiny lights flicker on the tops of altars. Millions of bright orange marigold petals are scattered on the ground. Small alters are set up on adjoining streets. It’s extremely chill. People are hanging out with their dead.

The first sign that the procession is starting is the booming sound of drums. People gather on the corner outside King’s Market on the corner of Bryant and 22nd Street. Some people stand on the perimeter and watch as others walk past them and into the crowd to be a part of the procession.

This year, I costumed myself as my great-great Grandfather James Creely’s fine white horse, which involved a paper mache mask, his bridle and lots of white hair gel. The bridle kept shifting, and I kept having to re-adjust it, but that’s part of the bargain when you walk. Costumes aren’t obedient familiars: your costume might change, and should challenge you.

There’s a fine line to be walked when you’re in costume. Processing in costume should take you there, ritually speaking.  But “there” is a different place for different people.

An altar in Garfield Park on Dia de los Muertos, November 2, 2018

It turns some people into poseurs, not processors. My friends and I walked past a couple who were dressed to the nines, looking like extras from “Coco”. They stood rigidly on the corner, not moving, as people swarmed around them with cell phones. My friend snorted in disgust. They’re just here to get their pictures taken, she said. They’re not walking. That’s appropriation. I agreed. They have no one in their hearts, I said.

This was judge-y of us, but probably true. They didn’t appear to be thinking of anyone but themselves. (And let’s be clear about one thing: there’s a lot of dead people who would LOVE to be thought of). Turning the night into an endless Instagram moment kind of kills the spirit. I’m guilty of allowing people to stop me so that they could take  my picture. But the picture taking stops the action, literally: cameras interrupt the soulful process. After all, I’m not walking alone.

Instagramming everything takes, but doesn’t give. Could the murals in Balmy and Clarion alley but speak, I’m sure they’d agree with me. It’s nothing new. Contemporary urban behavior isn’t much different now than it was in Georgian England. Just as Jane Austen’s characters shopped, ate and lollygagged their way around Bath, so it is in the Mission. Day-trippers arranging themselves in Clarion Alley in front of images of the dispossessed, the incarcerated, and the newly dead is commonplace. But if you wish to avoid cultural vacuity during Dia de los Muertos, take my advice: walk with your dead. Have someone in your heart.

And know your history. The most popular costume for women is “La Calavera Catrina” the iconic, skeletal figure created by printmaker and political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina’s roots are explicitly political and anti-authoritarian: they express Posada’s political dissatisfaction with the government of Porfirio Diaz, the authoritarian President of Mexico who ruled Mexico with an iron fist for thirty five years, and the caste system that flourished because of him.

The woman who stood on the corner waiting for her close-up probably had no idea that she was animating a sharp satire: the image of the bourgeoisie as the living dead. But it works out, in the end. It makes sense to see La Catrina in a neighborhood that has struggled to maintain cultural continuity, amid an unprecedented influx of wealth and economic division.

Division and loss—and the efforts to bridge them with memory— is the working of the procession, in the company of others: weeping people, laughing people, everyone. Mourners and celebrants mingle in the procession, colliding their sorrow with another’s hilarity. It’s a night when the neighborhood greets itself honestly, and acknowledges the turn of the season toward the dark part of the year. I thought about all of this as I clutched my bridle to my head. I walked in memory of my great-great grandfather James, but I wasn’t mourning him. He was 101 years dead and was well out of harm’s way. So many of us are not. I walked, apparently resplendent in my horse costume, feeling foolishly human, very small and easily fucked with. This was a year in which many illusions died (for those of us who were dumb enough to have any) along with our friends, lovers, leaders and teachers.

It’s been a dark year. There was more than mortal death we had to face. This was the year that children were kidnapped from their parents by Trumpists and caged. This was the year that there were 307 mass shootings in America. This was the year that journalists were alternately derided and threatened in the White House Press room by the administration’s Cromwellian press secretary, and tortured and killed by clients of American armaments dealers. (I walked with you in my heart, dear Mr. Kashoggi.)This was the year the Republican party ran roughshod over the needs of this nation for equity and justice, in their haste to install a political operative on a ever-more compliant Supreme Court. This was the year that entire devotional communities were murdered in their places of worship.ע״ה

There didn’t seem to be as many people walking this year. Permits to close the streets to cars weren’t obtained, and cars ran through the streets to the detriment of the easy ambling pace of the night. I saw the police everywhere. The altars in Garfield Park started to get dismantled at 10 p.m. sharp. Things felt different. Or maybe it was just me.

But some things remained the same. People moved slowly down the sidewalks, taking in the altars, illuminated by candlelight as they looked at the pictures of the neighborhood’s beloved dead. Their expressions set the tone for the gathering: their faces were enraptured and soft. People gathered together chatting and laughing. Time moved  slowly; no one was in a hurry.

Dia de los Muertos carries its own time stamp, one in which the past brings the busy neighborhood and the agonized world we live in to heel for a few hours, to slow down, to look, to reflect, and most importantly, to remember.

Elizabeth Creely dressed in honor of her great-great grandfather, James Creely, a horseshoer and blacksmith, whose last forge was on the corner of 21st and Folsom.
Written on November 14, 2018, during the waxing moon. I’m tired. It was a hectic and high-spirited High Season. May the blue wave continue to roll.

 

 

The Mission, marketed: the Glossier pop-up at Rhea’s Cafe.

The large pink wall on the side of Rhea’s Café can be seen from the intersection of Bryant and Mariposa. I’m near-sighted, so the fact that I can see a pink wall three city blocks away means something, mostly that the marketers at Glossier, which is staging a pop-up cosmetics store in Rhea’s Cafe until April 15th,  got what they wanted. Visibility. Some local outrage probably helped with that, too. A Missionite posted on Nextdoor that she wanted the sign “legally” removed. Half the posters on Nextdoor sympathized, half told her she was being ridiculous, some informed her that they’d be heading over to the pop-up. The argument moved from there to No Eviction Mission, a Facebook group, where it continued inconclusively.

As I walked down Bryant, the pink blob resolved into the image of a pink rose. At least fifty people were queued up along the wall. Well, that’s an invitation for a blogger if there ever was one, I thought. People who stand in lines are sitting ducks for writers. I moved in.

A  man with a funny look on his face—was it guilt? sheepishness?—loitered underneath the street sign. “What do you think of all this?” I asked him. He shrugged and smiled. “I’m waiting on my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s in line.” He told me they had driven from Sacramento for a day in San Francisco, which included a stop at the Glossier pop-up.

“She read about it,” he said. “Got really excited.”
“Don’t you want to go in? You drove all that way!” I said. He looked horrified.

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

Glossier, so you know, is a venture capital backed, online cosmetics company, valued at millions of dollars, which has been described as the “Estee Lauder for Millennials”. It makes low-coverage makeup for a wide range of different skin tones. In contrast to the vividly-hued makeup I spent many hours applying to my face in the eighties, the Glossier brand is diffident, almost introverted. The names are the tip-off: not eyeshadows, but “eye glows”. Not blush, but “seamless cheek colors” inspired “by gradient pink NYC sunsets”. And Boy Brow, which is kind of like mascara for your eyebrows, but less brash, almost undetectable.

What caught me off-guard, when news of the pop-up broke, was the weird combo of make-up and food. Rhea’s cafe is famous for their chicken sandwiches, but in my experience, chicken sandwiches and lipstick don’t go together.  My shock was complete when I saw the re-design: the interior looks like a big seashell, and a distinct scent of rose absolue wafts through the air, outside. How did you do it, Glossier? I didn’t see any diffusers , but I’m not the only one who’s noticed the scent. Jim on Nextdoor  did, too. He thought it was “nice.” And about those “gradient pink NYC sunsets”—what colors might Glossier be inspired to use as a result of its stint in the Mission? It’s really more about smell here: how about a new scent?  Any suggestions, readers? Take your bright ideas to the pop-up. You have five days to let them know.

The spectacle of the Glossier pop-up is the most attention this locale has had since July 1917, the year that the Wickersheimer Brothers saloon, which occupied the building 100 years ago, was targeted for robbery by the “White Mask” gang, a group of Irish-Americans who had been robbing saloons in the Mission District. William King and James Kennedy entered the Wickersheimer saloon, pulled out their guns and tried to get down to brass tacks. Joseph Kraus, the president of the Anchor Brewing company, who just happened to be in the bar, enjoying an after-work brewski, pulled out his gun and shot Kennedy. The robbers stumbled out of the saloon, King dumping Kennedy on the corner of 19th and Bryant, before running back to their flat. Kennedy was arrested and taken to General Hospital. Later, the police arrested King and their molls—Agnes Sullivan, Hazel Moran and Florence Cumming, plus another accomplice, a man named Henry Starkey.

Things have been quiet since then. A series of restaurants popped up in the building: the New Bryant Restaurant in the forties, the Home Plate restaurant in the sixties and Hazel and Jim’s restaurant, which lasted until at least 1980. And now it’s Rhea’s, run by James Choi, who opened it to great fanfare in 2013 and reportedly has had a struggle staying in business.

“James listed this space on Craigslist,” the Glossier “showroom editor” minding the line told me. She meant James Choi. (Glossier calls its salespeople “showroom editors”. Glossier really loves playing with language.) She was good-natured and answered all my questions.

“How much are they paying you?” I asked. “Minimum wage?”

“More,” she replied and then whispered conspiratorially: “sixteen”. They were paying her 16.00 an hour. She was wearing a pink coverall, like a repairman. This puzzled me. Did Glossier want people to think that she could spackle a wall if need be? Or that makeup equaled repair? And why pop-up at all?

“They don’t really have a store,” she said. “That’s not their thing. They open pop-ups from time to time. This is the longest one they’ve done,” she added.

“How many of these people are from this neighborhood?” I asked her. “Can you tell?”

“There’s definitely been neighbors who came and checked this out,” she said. “There’s a lot of locals, but also right now there’s a lot of people from Southern California. It’s spring break.” She turned around and smiled sweetly at the people queuing obediently along the pink wall. “You can go in now,” she told them. Turning back to me, she said “We’re trying not to get too crowded in there.”

“But food and make up? How does that work? What does one have to do with the other?”

She laughed. “Everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s worked out. You know, the owner said he was having trouble staying open…they had weird hours, like 11 to 3, I think? So he posted an ad on Craigslist looking for partners and Glossier was like, ok!”

“Are there always people in line?” I asked.

“Mostly. When we opened there was a huge line. Went down the entire block.”

“Have there been any …conflicts?”

“No,” she said. She knew what I meant. “It’s been quiet.” She liked working for Glossier. “We have a diverse staff, and people like that: they really notice it. Glossier has a range of products intended for all skin tones.” She repeated: I really like this company.

We chatted some more. She was a nice twenty-something, with clear skin and well-groomed eyebrows (Boy Brow!). She lived in the Mission District above a noisy restaurant and was having a hard time with the noise produced by the construction across the street from her apartment. The hard concrete walls effortlessly lobbed noise around her neighborhood. “Oh my god, it was earsplitting with the jack-hammering but now, after two years of construction, it’s gotten even louder.” The large underground garage made everything echo, she told me.

I got a quick psychic hit of her, sitting in her apartment, trying to contend with the unfamiliar sounds of a growing city; the hardness of the new Valencia Street, that has more concrete walls than before. There is a history of sound in all places, and that history has changed in the Mission. The acoustics I encountered at the age of twenty-five on Valencia Street in the nineties were softer. There was more weathered wood and fewer hard surfaces and more room, in general, for sound to travel and dissipate. The fog, which used to roll in regularly, muffled everything: car horns, people talking. The Mission could, at times, almost be inaudible.  It’s not like that anymore.

I thanked her and got on my way, walking past the line of Glossier fans who were busy taking selfies, and doing that thing they do when they crook their knee, sling their hip to the side, and smile guilelessly up into their phone. My upstairs neighbors Chava and Nick walked by and saw me taking pictures and tapping notes into my phone. Chava laughed. She knew what I was doing. “You don’t want to know, Elizabeth!” she said. “You don’t want to know.”

I kinda don’t. “Gentrification” has less to do with how things look, and more to do with what things—lip gloss, chicken sandwiches, dwellings and wages—cost. Neighborhood-serving businesses like laundromats, dry cleaners, repair stores, small restaurants like the Sunrise café on 24th street, constitute some sort of affordable consumer normalcy, a long tradition in the Peterite village of the Mission District. There’s something creepy in the way that pop-up’s like Glossier appear out of the blue –the pink?–luring people into its rose-scented store. They’ll vanish into the ether on April 16th,  taking their business with them. None of that money will circulate through the Mission.

Except for the wages that the showroom editor takes home. Boy Brow* is $16.00 for a little more than a tenth of an ounce. For $16.00 an hour, Glossier gets a human being to sell that item. For $16.00 an hour, our neighbor, the Glossier showroom editor, pays her rent, buys her food, and does all the things one does with wages. She probably doesn’t save much. But more importantly, she costs Glossier $16.00 an hour. I wonder if Glossier, which prefers the ephemeral to the enduring, will extend this preference to their employees. How close are we to robots who monitor lines, speak clearly and pleasantly and function without the requirements of health insurance, rent, food and the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency?

A 2013 paper by Oxford scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne entitled “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” wastes no time in informing the reader that fully 47% of “total US employment is at risk.” The low-wage and low-skill jobs that they say will vaporize under the impacts of computerization, and AI, too, undoubtedly, perfectly describe the job of the Glossier showroom editor. The next time Glossier, or any other structure-eschewing business decides to pop-up in San Francisco, their staff may be REALLY diverse.

It’s true that online undertakings which flirt with, monetize and cheapen the 200+ years of history and culture** in the Mission are obnoxious. But I’m anxious about the showroom editors of this world. Five years ago, it would have been hard for me to write that last paragraph: my fear of laboring robots would have seemed like credulous paranoia. Now it’s not only plausible—it’s in play. Why, then, must we be human? How can our simple hands keep pace with the arid efficiency so treasured by the designers of robotic labor?

I’m late to the game. But I had to think this issue through.  I was less upset by the silliness of the pop-up, and more pre-occupied by the showroom editor: her existence in this city, and the entirely human way she subsided into silence and leaned against the wall, after I stopped asking questions, looking weary as she waited for the end of her workday.

 

 

*(hint: you don’t have to spend 16 bucks to tame your brows. Combine a dab of Vaseline & your preferred mascara, or eyeshadow to hold your brows in place. Don’t use shades with a warm undertone- go for a cool taupe brown. Play with the exact amounts, and you’ll get more or less the same results. )

** I’m using the founding of the Mission. Which date am I supposed to use?  You can argue with me if you want. I had to start somewhere.

 

Finished on April 11 at 9:32. It’s never too late to read Rilke’s Duino Elegies, no matter how many Zen workshops & self-help sessions they’ve endured.  Here’s to Jupiter in Scorpio and the deep up-welling of secrets and treasures.

 

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Robot Wrangling in the Mission District

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I saw the robot before it saw me: it looked like a cross between a Travel Pro 3-Wheel(™) mobility scooter, the kind my elderly cousin uses, and a mini-fridge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a hastily assembled, somewhat jerry-rigged robot: not top shelf, really. More bargain-basement. A man was trotting along after it, in the way of a pet owner chasing his unleashed dog.

I biked up to the man. “Can I ask you what that is?” I asked, knowing which answer I’d get. This is the New Mission: no one talks about their business, particularly if it’s funded with venture capital. The man, who had long, slightly stringy brown hair and brown eyes smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Sorry.” I smiled back at him. I wasn’t surprised. The Mission District is in the grips of a massive Non-Disclosure Agreement these days: automated cars and robots are common sights on sidewalks and streets, and yet no one can or will tell you what they are or what they are meant to do.

“Can I follow along and ask you some questions?” I responded. The man winced. I was on my bike, so it was easy to shadow him and his pet-robot as they traveled down Alabama Street. The man, who also couldn’t tell me his name, said he was from New Jersey and that his company’s headquarters was in the Mission. “But I can’t tell you where. I’m not sure I could, anyway. I’m new here,” he said. “I don’t know San Francisco yet. We’re close to Potrero and some street named after a state.”

“York? Hampshire?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe one of those. But really: I can’t tell you,” he said.

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I’d been primed for this encounter by a Mission Local story written by journalist Laura Wenus about a “Carry” robot—a different one than the one I was looking at— that she encountered on Valencia Street. Tech companies are routinely using streets and now sidewalks to test and develop and profit from their technology, and yet none of them will disclose what they’re doing.

I flashed back to a New Yorker story about Jim Dyson, the millionaire design engineer who invented the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. “No humans, completely automated,” he said, about the making of the hair dryer. “Can’t have any humans.”
“This is meant to be a delivery system, right?” I said, adding “Bye-bye subsistence capitalism!”
He laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, right. This will definitely take someone’s job. Well…” he shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?

“How do you feel about tech firms using public space to develop their technology?” I asked.

“Well, we have to worry about competition,” he explained. “If we talk about what we’re doing—what this is”—he jerked his chin at the robot—“we run the risk of competitors stealing our ideas. I sympathize with people’s need to know, but I just can’t tell you anything. But I can say this is meant to help people, and that I would never work for a company to didn’t intend to help people. I wouldn’t be a part of that.”

We were having this discussion on Alabama street, which has the distinction of having some of the oldest houses in the Mission District. A PG&E serviceman was kneeling on the sidewalk in front of a cottage built in 1862, attending to some subterranean problem. The robot zoomed gaily ahead. “You gotta be careful,” said the man. I realized that he was talking to someone else.

“Are you controlling this thing?” I asked.
“No. Someone back at headquarters is,” he said.

The worker saw the wheelchair-mini-fridge contraption coming his way and sat back on his haunches. His eyes widened.”

Whoa!” he said. “Is that a robot?”

“Yes it is,” said the man, whom I had started to think of as the robot wrangler.
“Do you want to know what this is?” I asked the worker. “Ask him.”
“What is it?” asked the PG&E repairman.
“I can’t tell you,” said the wrangler, who looked a panicked. I could see him wondering about my persistence. When is she going to leave me alone?

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The robot moved confidently down 23rd, turned right on Harrison and made a beeline for the intersection of 22nd and Harrison. “That’s quite a curb,” the man muttered into his headset. The robot made its way into the crosswalk and, tottering a bit, managed to mount the curb cut. It veered around the woman who sits on the corner selling oranges. She eyed it with calm suspicion.  “Naranjas?” she asked to the robot wrangler as he herded it across the intersection.

“Do you think that companies that use public resources should pay for the privilege of using public sites to develop their technology?” I asked the wrangler.

“Well,” he said, “I think that fact that we’re providing some kind of benefit,” he said breathlessly (it was clear that he wasn’t used to all this running; he had the hunched posture and pallor of an tech engineer)—“to people …I can’t tell you what that is but I can say that this will provide some kind of benefit. So I dunno. If we had to pay a special tax we might want to go somewhere where we didn’t.”

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I wasn’t surprised by his answer: this is the era of the Libertarian New Deal which has evolved a formula exactly opposite to the three R’s: instead of Relief, Recovery, and Reform, it’s Deny, Deconstruct, and Dissemble. Small “l” Libertarianism, as I’ve seen it practiced by start-ups in the Mission District, is avoidant, anonymous and prefers to to create things—cars and miscellaneous gadgetry—that make more private space.

This is how I view “innovations” like automated vehicles; the self-driving cars Cruise Automation has spent the last two years test driving around the Mission (and I do mean around, and around, in dizzying regularity) function like private BART cars. Included in this avoidance of common space is a suspicion of public safeguards, permits, in other words.

Uber’s decision to place their driverless cars on San Francisco streets in defiance of California’s entirely reasonable vehicle permitting laws is a perfect example of the tantrumy we’ll-do-what-we-want-to-do-you’re-not-the-mother-of-me reaction to public safety laws.  I asked the robot wrangler if the anonymous tech company had checked in with the city or sought any sort of permitting. “No,” he answered.

I recounted this conversation a day later to Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF who said immediately: “They are not legal. They are not permitted to be on the sidewalk.” She’d read the February 21st Mission Local story about the “Carry” robot, and thought I had seen the same robot.

“This was a different robot,” I told her. “It looked like a mobility scooter.”

She sighed. “We’re concerned that this is the beginning of the era of Wall-E. More and more public space is being taken away. People that live in the city enjoy the fact that they can walk places, like the grocery, for instance. Maybe you bump into a friend on the way. Sidewalks form social spaces and are part of the fabric of urban culture. To stop that culture from unfolding is detrimental to urban life. And it has an impact on the elderly and disabled population.” I asked her if they had a plan to deal with scofflaw robots. “Yes,” she said. “We’re working on that.”

The robot and the wrangler crossed the street and entered the crosswalk. I decided it was time to stop talking and start documenting. I laid my bike down next to the woman selling oranges and grabbed my cell phone.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” said the wrangler.
“I can crop you out,” I said and then thought wait a minute. He’s walking around with this thing on a public sidewalk. Sorry, guy. The robot vroomed past me and churned down Harrison street. The conversation with the wrangler was over. He was nice, but I knew there was nothing for me to know; all I was required to do was watch the spectacle of a robot, zooming through my neighborhood.

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But I followed them, anyway. We came to the corner of 23rd and Harrison.  A nattily dressed man wearing a porkpie hat stood on the street corner. His eyes lit on the robot and his eyes widened.

“Woah! Is that a robot?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, answering for the wrangler, who was busy running after the robot.
He looked happy. “Is that like R2D2’s great-great-great-great Grandfather?” he asked gleefully. His name was Eric Peralta. “I’m a furniture designer and sci-fi geek,” he told me. He was enchanted by the robot.
“Do you want to know what that is?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah! Hey! What is that?” Eric called after the wrangler.

“I can’t tell you,” answered the wrangler. He and the robot zoomed off. Eric’s eyes were alight: the future was all around him in the Mission and it was awesome. Eric, a self-identified extreme-Left-Libertarian didn’t see a problem with the robot’s developers using the sidewalks and streets for product development or financial profit. “That’s what most companies do, right?” Neither did he mind the secrecy of tech culture. “When you’re working on sensitive technology, you need to be able to protect your design to keep your work from being stolen.” Who’d want to steal that thing? I wondered. What evil tech competitor would be interested? It looked so slapped together a Jawa might have second thoughts about scavenging it. In comparison, the “Carry” robot that Wenus encountered looked sleek, definitively high-tech and convincing in its role as the delivery person of tomorrow.

Eric looked thoughtful as he gazed at the rapidly vanishing robot. “It’s strange to be alive in this time. I can remember when computers were barely a thing…they fit in closets, not people’s hands. I grew up in the forest and love nature, love the environment. But the earth has become a human sphere. We are changing it.” He seemed to think that the future was upon us, in all its glory, unmovable, unchangeable and suddenly just present. I felt differently, of course: the future that tech companies seem to be building seems to be concerned with banishing the quotidian in favor of a future free of human activity and monopolizing my environment with a monoculture of non-disclosure and anonymity. Gee, no thanks. Like St. Joan of the Stockyards, I Want To Know.

What seems to be at-large in the streets of the Mission district (aside from unpermitted robots) is a culture that is at once voluble, and cagey: the public humble-brag and carefully scripted candor of the tech community when it speaks of the future at tech conferences vanishes when you encounter tech engineers roaming around the Mission District sitting inside self-driving cars or running after robots. They are legally and culturally tongue-tied. When asked what they’re doing, and what the things they’re developing will do, they can only say I can’t tell you. This is probably the truth. They probably don’t know.

Which is weird. An opaque, undisclosed future is at odds with the kind of Futurism I grew up with. It took delight in explaining everything: there will be ansibles, veldts, holo-decks. There will be genderless societies, black obelisks, undiscovered galaxies far, far away, monsters made from cadavers who need to be loved, tiny green people in elongated spaceships that either want peace or to destroy us. The authors and writers of the movies and the books I love (I’m a sci-fi geek, too) are in the business of description: new worlds, relationships, and environments. Some of the stories were cautionary. Some were frightening. But the makers of these scenarios wanted me to consider, to anticipate, to know.

The tech community of the Bay Area do not. They only ever show a bizarre mix of squeamishness and surprise—You’re only here to witness. We Can’t Tell You— as they develop an undisclosed future on the streets of my neighborhood.

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Written after a long time of not writing. The Moon is brand new and in Pisces. Venus is in the evening sky these days: go ahead and blow her a kiss.
Here’s to unsettled exoplanets!

Talk of the Mission Town: The Death of Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat

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The Laborers Local Union 261 on 18th Street was full of angry people on Wednesday, April 13, at high noon. Around the corner, on Shotwell Street, six days earlier on April 7, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a slightly built, 45-year-old Yucatec Mayan man, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers after staff with HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) had summoned them. HOT staff decided Gongora was acting erratically—they described him as swinging a knife and bouncing a ball with too much vigor off walls and cars. The police responded. Within 30 seconds he was dead. These are the facts.

The Mission District been the scene of some high profile police killings in the last year. Alejandro Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Mario Woods, all black or brown men, are also all dead. None of them were armed with a gun. These are also the facts.

The angry people had gathered because Police Chief Greg Suhr had convened a “town hall meeting”: a panel of police officers to discuss these facts and the state of the investigation with the community. Accordingly people crowded into the hall, which looks different from labor halls of yore. No more wood-paneled walls with men smoking, sipping coffee, and squinting at the jobs board. It’s a modern and airy space with open floor plan and lots of natural light. Large posters hung on the wall, showing the laboring men of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which describes itself as “The Most Progressive, Aggressive and Fastest-Growing Union of Construction Workers.” The men wore the uniform of the blue collar worker: hard hats, big boots, and work-shirts, looking hunky, healthy and cheerful, outtakes from a beefcake calendar, perhaps. The grins in the posters contrasted sharply with the grim faces of the people sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the wall, arms folded or thrust into the air holding signs. No one was smiling. Some participants were holding black and white Xeroxes of Luis Gongora’s only known photo. His face, unsmiling and spectral, hung in the air.

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Adriana Camarena was querying the police, politely, but pointedly. They know her; she knows them. She’s an attorney, author and human rights activist who became involved with police shootings after the death of Nieto on March 21, 2014, one day after the vernal equinox. Nieto was eating a burrito on Bernal Heights when a man walking his dog decided he was “behaving erratically” (Nieto had just encountered that scourge of San Francisco’s open spaces, an aggressive and unleashed dog and an indifferent owner) and called the police. They arrived and shot him 59 times. Camarena helped his parents to mount a civil suit, which they lost this year.

Almost a year later, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was shot four times in the back and in the back of the head by the police on Folsom Street, about four houses down from where Camarena lives.

Camarena visited the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street three days after the shooting, filming the police and a worker with the Department of Public Works as they dismantled the camp at night, smashing candles and ripping tents. As she filmed them doing this, a police officer shone his flashlight in her face and her camera until she moved. Later, she described her encounter with the SFPD. “When I questioned him, he said … he was concerned for his safety because I was pointing an object at him. In other words he used the SFPD General Order language that would justify him shooting me to death.”

At the meeting she was quiet, focused and imperturbable, impressive for someone who’d been threatened with summary execution four days earlier. She quizzed the police: What prompted officers to go to Shotwell Street? Did they describe the person as Latino and possibly a Spanish speaker? What is the crisis intervention protocol followed by the police station in confronting escalated individuals? Did the SF HOT Team refer to a person with a knife or a person brandishing a knife? And, importantly: What exactly did they say about the presumed weapon?

“Chief Suhr, one of your men threatened me last Saturday,” she said calmly. “Are you going to investigate this threat? I have the badge number.” Suhr said he would. Her allotted time was up, she sat down.

The small noises in the labor hall suddenly coalesced and became one noise, a roar of anger. “Fire Chief Suhr! Fire Chief Suhr!” People walked through the door and got into the line of speakers waiting to give testimony. A woman wearing a red baseball cap yelled, “You have blood on your hands!”

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A man in a green sweater turned to me. His eyes were bright. “I can’t believe so many people are here,” he said, almost conspiratorially. “What do you think they’re thinking?” He meant the police officers, who mostly looked impassive. Chief Suhr, who has the fierce and fixed gaze of a hawk, looked at the crowd and waited. The police rested their hands on their belts and rocked back on their heels, carefully looking at nothing, their faces impassive, their gazes directed skyward. The man in the green sweater said bitterly, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit. Nothing’s going to change.”

David Campos, San Francisco Supervisor for District Nine, which is where the killing took place, was the next speaker. Campos, a thoughtful, quiet man, was visibly annoyed. “Chief, I have to tell you: I’m very disappointed. If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed?” The crowd erupted. “I know if I wasn’t informed of it, then there are many members of this community who don’t even know that this meeting is happening.” More shouts of encouragement. “If the objective,” Campos went on, the sternness in his voice increasing, “is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon?”

“Supervisor Campos, when we have these town halls, they are in the area and at the time that’s closely proximate to the officer-involved shooting,” Suhr replied flatly.

“I’m sorry, chief, but if someone gets shot at two in the morning, I doubt you’re going to have a meeting at two in the morning,” Campos replied. Angry shouts of “liar” rang through the hall. He pressed on, in sentences that were increasingly staccato, and compact. “This is really important. This is really important. You have an ongoing investigation. Supposedly to find out what happened in this incident.” He paused, staring at Suhr. “And yet, you’ve had a number of press conferences where you are already prejudging what happened in this case.”

The audience started chanting. Suhr’s eyes widened, and for the first time, he unfolded his arms and put out his hand. “I’m not going to allow that,” he said sharply. Was he referring to the tumult in the audience, or the charge that his department was spreading misinformation? The audience yelled back in disbelief and defiance: You’re fired. Murderer. Liar.

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Campos spoke above the shouts. He pointed his finger at the chief. “I’m asking the SFPD: stop putting out facts until your own investigation is completed, because it is absolutely doing a disservice.” The clapping continued. Campos’s voice was momentarily drowned out by the waves of sound sweeping through the halls. The policeman sitting next to Suhr looked at the crowd, his eyes round and his face blank. Campos continued to press his point. “…You’re really saying, This is what we believe happened.”

Suhr interrupted Campos. “I didn’t say what I ‘believed’ happened. I’ve given the facts that came from interviews, simply.” He hit the word “simply” hard, as if to say: I’m trying to keep this simple.

“You are prejudging,” Campos responded. A man yelled something, the syllables of his words distorted by the acoustics of the spaciousness and hard concrete floor of the hall. Campos held up his hand. “I want to say this.” The restive crowd quietened. “I’m saying this as a former police commissioner, and I’ve said this to the president of the police commission. I think that we need to change this policy. Of actually having police come out and hold these press conferences. I don’t want you to prove anything. I am not jumping to conclusions about what happened. But I also think it’s irresponsible for SFPD to do that. So I ask you: PLEASE. Stop saying anything until your own investigation is complete.” Clapping, shouts. “And if you are not willing to do that, I ask the police commission and I ask the Mayor to, please, direct the police department to stop trying this case in the public.”

A cheer went up. A woman cried out in ringing tones: The police cannot police themselves!

“We need the Mayor to step up and show leadership on this point. Why isn’t the Mayor calling on the Federal government—not the cops!—but the civil rights division of the Justice Department to come in and actually do a legally binding investigation of this police department.” A policewoman next to him indicated that his time was up. He nodded. “I will end by saying this. Blaming the homeless for what happened, by cracking down on the homeless, is not a solution.” He stepped away from the microphone and walked to the back of the room.

More speakers stepped up to the microphone: Brother Damien Joseph, a Franciscan brother wearing his brown robe, works with the homeless in the Haight. “I need to know that your officers are going to act rationally, slowly and in a measured manner,” he told Suhr. “If they won’t, I would risk my safety rather than that of the person on the street.” Daryl Rodgers, a third-generation San Franciscan, and activist, asked what “excessive force” was. He didn’t get an answer. Another man described being harassed by the police as he ate a sandwich. “This harassment is nothing new! This has been happening for a long time,” he said, “but now we have video. We deserve to live,” he yelled. “Stop being so trigger happy! C’mon! What happened to batons?” An organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition fired Police Chief Suhr. The statements of fact came thick and fast from the speakers: You don’t care. You aren’t changing. You’re lying. You are attacking our bodies. We deserve to live.

The man in the green sweater, who had been standing next to me, appeared at the microphone. He started to speak, then stopped and tried again, though his throat was constricted with tears. He’d worked with Luis, he told the panel, in a diner. In a voice that wavered with grief, he described his friendship: “We worked together. I’d have him over to dinner. We were friends. He was docile. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. He would never hurt anybody. Luis was kind.”

The audience stilled for a moment, listening to the words that re-made the dead man: Gentle. Docile. Kind. He would never hurt anybody. The rage left the room as the man spoke and grief crept in. People wept.

In less than three years—25 months to be prissily exact, starting with Nieto’s death and pausing (only temporarily, one fears) with Gongora’s— six men have been shot and killed in what amount to public executions. All were witnessed by at least one member of the public. One death (Mario Woods) was documented, cinéma-vérité style, with a cell phone standing in for a hand-held camera, held by an eyewitness who swears and sobs as she is forced to witness the extra-judicial killing in broad daylight. Last Thursday, a woman named Ellen can be seen in the grainy video, scrambling to get out of the way as shots ring out which killed Gongora.

There are black-and-white posters of Nieto, Woods and Perez-Lopez hanging on the wall of the Red Poppy Art House on Folsom at 23rd. The posters were created by Justice For Our Lives, a collective that has immortalized the faces of 49 black and brown men and women killed by police violence nationwide.

Will Gongora be the fiftieth in the series? Probably. Will he be the last?

 

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From the Justice for Luis site: Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat was born in Teabo, Yucatan on 4/25/1970; he was nearly 46 years old at the time of his death.  A Yucatecan Mayan, he is survived by his spouse, three grown children and his elderly parents in Yucatan, Mexico. Luis is also survived by brothers and cousins in San Francisco. Family called him Luis or by his nickname Sapo.

Luis’s wake is scheduled for Saturday April 23. 5-9pm Duggan’s on 17th and Valencia in the Mission.

Yabilaaj yeteel jeetsambaal u tial Luis Góngora Pat.

 

The moon and I: dispatches from 22nd street

A dispatch from the 22nd street crossroads on the morning after the night of the full moon, October 8th, 2014

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. to hear sounds of distress coming from the sidewalk. At this point, I can tell you exactly where the drunk/hurt/incapacitated person is likely to be (under the stop sign or on my stoop or in the street or slouched against the corner of the building, back slumped, head low.) This time, the young woman, 20 or 23 or 25 years old, was stretched flat on her belly, lying across the sidewalk, her feet hanging over the curb, her toes in the gutter. The sounds she made were soft and frantic. The softness of the sound seemed to match the burnished glow of the moon: everything outside gleamed mildly, even her hair, which covered her face. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open.

I was irritated. I’m having trouble sleeping these days. Between menopause, the security lights on the marquee across the street (I think the owner believes it makes his “bottle-shop” look as though Edward Hopper painted it) and the blare of the neighbor’s late-night television, I had a hard time dropping into sleep. But I was asleep when the girl fell in a heap under the stop sign. And I woke up when she started talking to whatever it was that was telling her things. What things, I don’t know. Self-recrimination for drinking too much? A fight she’d had that night, a contest of wills, desire that wasn’t met by someone she was, even then, still pleading with to listen… listen…listen…. escuchame, she said. Escuchame.

Honey, I said, sweetie? (terms of endearment come easily to me when I’m dealing with someone unconscious.) Can you hear me? I smelled the sour smell of alcohol. Her cheeks were round and shiny. She’d been crying. Her legs kicked up and down, slow at first, and then faster, faster, the tips of her trainers drumming into the gutter, the head shaking, not no, I can’t hear you, but the body telling me I am abandoned.

Her eye opened and rolled up, unfocused. The white flashed at me, then elsewhere, roving, searching. You see her eyes are open? Aye, but their sense is shut. That sort of thing. Her physical agitation was proof that under some circumstances, motor function is pure pretense. ‘Seizing’ is what happens when we are hit too hard on the head, or when we drink too much or when we do too many drugs. Our bodies move uncontrollably. Her head shook and chattered slightly on the cement. I called 911.

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How old is she, asked the 911 operator. Is she breathing. And, Ma’am, the operator said, will you ask her if she’s pregnant?

Are you pregnant? I asked, and the girl’s toes drummed in the gutter smoothly without missing a beat.

Stay with her, advised the operator.

Should I touch her? Move her head? I asked.

Don’t touch her. Poor girl, said the operator, a woman with the soft drawl of the south in her voice.

She woke me up, I said. The Mission, I said, is not allowing me to sleep.

Honey, I know, replied the operator. The Mission! we exclaimed in unison.

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A taxi driving east on 22nd street saw our little tableau spot-lit by the street light and stopped. I’m on the phone with 911, I said, the ambulance is on the way. He nodded and flashed me a thumbs up. Jay came out, my lovely husband with the glowing silver hair. He is always so calm, so warm. He stood on the stoop, holding one of our bath towels.

Should we move her? Cover her?

The operator told me not to. But she isn’t banging her head, I told him. The girl sobbed and pleaded softly with herself.

I called the police, said the operator. Since you found her like that. I looked up the street and saw the police car coming nearer, with a spotlight sweeping the sidewalks. I got into the middle of 22nd street and danced around in my husband’s ratty green bathrobe, waving my arm. Thank you, they’re here, thank you thank you.

Oh, honey, thank you, she said.

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The police car drew to the side of the street in a flourish. Two young men, tall with militant buzz-cut hair, got out. They knelt. Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me? They called to her. They peered into her eyes. Their voices were down-pitched; gentle. One cop cradled her head; the other darted to the car and ran back with a blanket in his hands. Together, they folded it and made a cushion for her head.

I would have done that but the operator told me not to, I said, foolishly. Jay watched, saying nothing.

They knelt beside her in their blue uniforms and stiff belts, holding her head like it was a newborn baby, and muttering quickly into their radios. Did you find her like this, asked the cop and I said yes, I’d come outside and there she was. The ambulance came. Bro, said the paramedic to the cop. What’s up? More hasty consultations, a clipping of a device to her finger, a mask fitted over her face. She was shaking harder. They rolled her over. More muttering into radios, more quick technical talk amongst themselves. She’s seizing, said the paramedic briefly. I can’t get the…and the rest was lost when the girl cried out. The paramedic cut away her blouse; the globes of her breasts, beautiful in a violet demi-cup bra, shone out at once. He put his head down and listened. General, he said curtly, and got a gurney out. There were six of them, police and paramedic alike clustered around the girl, the yellow street light and the silver moon illuminating them all. The girl’s strong young belly rose and fell.

One of the cops fished around in her purse. Nicole, he said. Her name is Nicole.

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The paramedics loaded her onto the gurney- one, two, three!– and loaded it into the ambulance. It left the way it came, silently, no siren blaring. The police slowly picked up the scattered wrappings of the emergency medical equipment. They left. I went inside and crawled into bed, next to Jay. Elizabeth’s on the case, he said sleepily. Maybe it’s good you’re not sleeping well.

Earlier that evening, we’d argued about my irregular sleeping habits. You need to go to sleep at 11. You’re getting up too late, he’d said.

I can’t help it, I’d replied. Menopause causes insomnia. I’m trying, I said. I’m doing everything I can. You want me to use Ambien? ’Cause that’s what all my friends do. You get me sleepless or you get me medicated. That’s the deal.

He’d scoffed, hearing me say that. Now, mollified by sleep, he stroked my leg. Did you hear her, he asked. How did you know?

Yes. I heard her. I’d heard everything that night, the whoosh of the cars, the far-off shrieking laughter of late-night techies, and a faint whirr in the distance that was probably the hospital generators, but was maybe, possibly, the sound of the moon itself, the heavenly sphere, twisting and turning in the night.

 

Dedicated with love and affection to Ray Bradbury, the autumn writer; the lovely moon-man.

-San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2014

 

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