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

Hannah McCarty Welsh is my 3rd-great grandaunt, and sister to Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, who was a source of dismay to his 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 on the morning of June 16, 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 the 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.

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’s busy day as captured by the SF Examiner

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 had.

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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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?

 

photo-luis-sapo

 

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.

 

Talk of the Mission Town: Dolores Park’s rehab.

Tuesday, April 28th was hot and clear in San Francisco. Day trippers and sunbathers lolled on the sunny slopes and battered grass of Dolores Park while, a block away, people streamed through the doors of 18 Reasons to talk about the park’s party problem. San Francisco Recreation and Parks was hosting a Dolores Park Action Plan and the room was filling quickly. “Should we utilize another bench?” asked a woman nervously, while the meeting participants signed in and eyed the food: salami, prosciutto, toasted bread, grilled chicken, and a salad of what looked like poached eggs bedded on arugula, all provided by Delfina and Bi-Rite and arranged on a narrow bar inside. “Don’t be shy. Eat the food!” said Shakirah Simley, Community Programs Manager with Bi-Rite. There wasn’t much shyness among the roughly 35 attendees, but there was an air of seriousness, which suited the matter under discussion. The park is nearing the end of a three-year, 20-million dollar upgrade. But the park’s stint in rehab hasn’t stopped the non-stop party: there was an unplanned upgrade in park attendance, too. At least ten thousand people visit the park every weekend, weather permitting. With the amped-up ebullience has come more of everything else, too, including trash which, according to city estimates, costs San Francisco taxpayers 750,000 to clean up.

A now near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash
A near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash

A PowerPoint presentation played in a loop on a screen in the front of the room. Images of the trashed park alternated with examples of heedless park visitors: there was a shot of someone’s Instagram showing a drained coconut shell lying on the battered green grass of the park. “Rum coconut and mimosas in Dolores Park! We love this place!” read the caption. Another Facebook picture showed four friends, smiling in the sunshine. “We are avid trash collectors. We don’t want the man up our bum,” it said. The “man”- presumably SF Recreation and Parks staff, was being represented that day by a woman, Sarah Ballard, Director of Policy and Public Affairs. “We let you all down,” she said earnestly thus clarifying the heart of the matter. “We got caught flat-footed. We were really confounded by the park’s popularity.” She was, of course, talking about litter.

Dolores Park midday. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park
Dolores Park midday. Photo taken by Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park.

These days, the park’s popularity is measured by the huge amount of trash left behind by its visitors: 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of trash is scattered among the 14-acre park every weekend by park visitors each weekend day. By comparison, Alamo Square, a city park of similar size, is encumbered with only 2% of the trash that accumulates in Dolores Park. “We feel like this closure has created some opportunities to shift the culture of what’s appropriate at the park,” Ballard said intently. “Our challenge is to keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff.” The problem goes beyond trash cans she said. “More and more and more trash cans can’t solve this.” The SFRP assessed the nature of the trash dumped each weekend and discovered that 65% of the litter could be diverted to landfill. “Right now, that’s not happening,” she said. “But we know that finger-pointing”– she wagged her finger demonstratively at the room- “doesn’t change anything. We need for this to be an organic process. The question is: how do we change the culture of usage at the park?” People nodded their heads vigorously, chewed their bruschetta and took notes.

Two weeks ago, SFRP and Recology launched an “Eco pop up” station, two large recycling and composting dumpsters to Dolores Park to solve the easiest problem first: where to put the coconut shells, beer bottles, plastic cups and other detritus. This is all intended as a prelude to the gradual re-opening of Dolores Park, slated to start sometime in June in two steps. The north side of the park will open in min-June with an ADA-compliant entryway, new lawns, paths and lighting, newly revamped tennis and basketball courts, and new park furniture: benches, picnic tables and bathrooms. “And in case you haven’t heard, Dolores Park will have the first open-air pissoir in San Francisco,” said Ballard. A woman raised her hand with an air of urgency.
“Will there be new bathrooms for woman?” she asked. (The answer was yes).
“And maybe some attendants,” called out a SF Parks and Rec staffer from the back of the room.
“With perfume and stuff?” Patti Lord, a resident, asked skeptically. (The question was left unanswered.) The south side of the park will then close. “But the playground will remain open the entire time,” said Ballard emphatically.

 

Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up
Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up.

Velina Brown of the San Francisco Mime Troop put her hand up. “I’m here to find out if the Mime Troop will be able to open on July 4th, as we have done for many years,” she said.

“Let’s talk offline after the meeting,” proposed Ballard. She then introduced Ben Lawhon, Education Director from the Colorado-based organization Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics, which has contracted with San Francisco Parks and Rec as a consulting organization. “It’s great to see so many of you,” he said. Lawhon, a square-jawed man, wearing an orange corduroy shirt, added: “Clearly this is a park people love.” His slide show also included pictures of Dolores Park’s thick layer of people and litter. “I think you probably recognize these pictures,” he said jokingly. He cleared his throat. Eighty-five percent of the “litter issues” is about behavior, Lawhon said. Peer-to-peer outreach and self-policing by other park visitors is critical to making change happen. “Changing culture is about helping people understand, that, hey. It’s not cool to trash the park,” Lawhon concluded.

“Has this worked in other places?” inquired someone skeptically.

“Yes. But it’s about changing culture,” Lawhon replied. “We gotta take the long view.” Rob Lord raised his hand. “We’ve been hearing about strategies,” he said. “But not about tactics. I want to hear the five things that are gonna be accomplished by the time the park opens. Can we hear some specifics, please?”

SAM_4578
The long view: Use the Can campaign flyer

Flyers were quickly handed out detailing the specifics; a campaign launching in May called “Use the Can”, which combines public outreach, added service and rules enforcement to “keep Dolores clean and beautiful.” There are three participation levels the community can choose: Park Visitor, Friend or Champion, each with it own level of participation. Visitors can use social media—”our goal is to create content you can share,” said Ballard— and campaign posters to boost the campaign’s visibility. Friends can add the step of using stickers to place on merchandise that are being brought to the park, and Champions can choose to take the bold step of volunteering in the park on the weekend to “actively meet with, inform and urge park goers” to use the added trash receptacles and abide by the principles outlined by Leave No Trace which are, according to their website “To protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly while enjoying the park.”

“We are asking organizations and groups to pick Saturday or Sunday to go into the park and urge people to use the can,” said Ballard. The meeting broke up after viewing a CAN-paign public service announcement, featuring the Knights of Revery.

Afterward, the Lords seemed doubtful. “I’ll do it,” said Rob, speaking about the campaign. “But I didn’t hear about a service commitment that’s going to be commensurate with increased usage. We’re sixty days from the launch of a major renovation. Park maintenance could have increased before the renovations started.” His wife agreed. “I see a lot more people with tour books. I think it’s a by-product of tourism. More people. And we’re Leave No Trace’s first city partner! I think they’re cutting their teeth on us. Why hasn’t the city spoken with someone from a city where they’ve already dealt with density?” Rob shook his head. “I think we’re in for a bumpy ride,” he said.

Inside, Velina Brown was waiting for her offline conversation with Ballard. “I still don’t know if we’re going to be opening on July 4th,” she said. “Our audience is a usually about 3,000 people. They’re completely dwarfed by the other people who are usually drunk and belligerent. And they’re not paying attention because they have their own sound system without permits! As a permitted event, we get there at 8 am in the morning to set up, to take care of that space. So how does being a permitted event benefit us?”

 

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/
Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.

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.

moon

 

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.

moon

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.

moon

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.

moon

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

 

moon

 

A panegyric to the San Francisco Bay and what it feels like to swim in it.

My first time swimming in the San Francisco bay was like this: I showed up to the South End Club (the Dolphin Club was closed) and peered inside. Out of nowhere, a man walked up. “Come in,” he said gruffly and opened the door. I followed him into a long room filled with old boats. No one stopped me and asked what I was doing there, no one demanded that I pay anything to walk through that room. I walked on through and came out onto a small seating area and then a boardwalk and then a tiny cove. In front of me was the bay.

Joan Brown "The Crawl"

I tried to jump in once, twice, three times. It was solidly cold, maybe 58 degrees. My body didn’t shriek in protest, but it did  yell in surprise. I was on the verge of contenting myself with simply wetting my feet. But then a woman with a red bathing cap dove in and swam rapidly for the open water. I’ll have what she’s having, I thought. I dove in.

I surfaced, shaking the hair out of my eyes. You know what to do, I muttered to myself. Get Moving. I swam out to the open water. The cold turned to burning warm. The yells of surprise from my body faded. I thought of Joan Brown, the San Francisco figurative painter who died tragically when a temple in India fell on her, crushing her and her assistant. She painted pictures of women swimming in the San Francisco Bay, their bathing caps visible above the choppy waves. I swam steadily until the Maritime Museum came into view, on my left. I looked at it and thought of the public money that was spent constructing and beautifying it, and the amphitheater where, it was thought, people could sit after taking a refreshing dip in the swimming area which was created by a breakwater that curves protectively around the cove.

058-1973-swimmers-2-crawl2-slide

Public money brought me here, I thought hazily. Someone wanted me here. Someone thought I might like it. I flipped and swam this way and that and the scenery kept changing: the museum gave way to Fort Mason and then the Bridge. And then Sausalito. And then Mount Tam rearing up, and then all the blue grey islands of the bay. It was a perfect picture, bordered by the greeny-yellow water trembling below my eyes, a perspective which is formed by the act of immersion. I shape-changed the moment I dove in. I was now a sea creature coming up from below briefly to survey the sky and the surrounding earth before submerging myself again in all that wonderful brine.

I thought of my friend Grant, who has the joyous spirit of a dolphin. “Please float on your back and look at the Golden Gate bridge for me,” he’d asked me earlier when I said I was going to go swimming. Reader, I did that: I thought of Grant and his joyous swimming inside the cove, slicing his way across the open water. I dove down again and popped up. I loved everyone I laid eyes on.

A man swimming by looked at me. “I thought you were a mermaid,” he said. I laughed and told him I felt like one.

All around me bathing caps bobbed in the choppy wake as people toiled their way across the bay. I floated on my back and wondered how it was I’d come to this moment: how during the last few hours of reading and fretting and chewing over various insults and injuries and miscalculations, the sure and insistent instinct I’ve possessed since I was a child led me straight to the water, the embracing water. I have good ideas, I thought, the right values. I bobbed and laughed and looked at the purple-headed ducks and then when the current pushed me just so, my tired muscles murmured I’ve had enough now, thank you.

I made my way back in.

Elizabeth in the water
Elizabeth in the water

May 15th, the day of the Full Flower Moon, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a video of Joan Brown discussing the pictures she painted of swimmers in the bay.