Jones, O’Farrell, Geary, Larkin, Hyde, Leavenworth. The street names of the Tenderloin and the faces I saw there are still with me, even though I escaped over ten years ago. As you enter, the City should have put up a street sign warning all: The Tenderloin: Violence Is Spoken Here. The Tenderloin is located in downtown San Francisco, adjacent to fancy Union Square, but really, it’s a world away. It is the archetype of the one city—two worlds model. It’s like skid row, but not quite actually because of all the children and recent immigrants that actually live side by side with the homeless, prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies and crazies of the Tenderloin.
Despite Her many warts and open sores, She will always have a special place in my heart. Two of my best friends and I lived in the Tenderloin for a year. We are now Tenderloin Vets. Because we lived, drank and smelled Her essence every day, we lovingly referred to Her as “El Cagadero del Mundo”. She is evil and nasty. She is an industrial-strength meat grinder. Anyone who walked Her streets is susceptible, especially at night. No one escapes the Tenderloin unscathed, including us.
Compounding Her problems was the District Attorney’s policy that prostitution and marijuana possession were victimless crimes, which the DA would not waste time prosecuting. As a result, the police never arrested anyone for these victimless crimes so long as they occurred on the Tenderloin streets. God forbid the Tenderloin hookers, junkies and homeless venture into Union Square where all the fancy hotels and tourists were located because then the police would immediately crack down. Hookers, drugs, violence, shootings are OK in the Tenderloin, but not anywhere else was the message.
Certain memories will never be forgotten, even if you try. I can still see her face in my mind as if it happened yesterday. It was around 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning when our paths crossed. I was walking home from Pablo’s apartment after a long night of drinking and socializing. We had an unwritten rule that if it got too late, we would crash at each other’s place because it was too dangerous to walk the Tenderloin streets alone late at night. Pablo lived on one side of the Tenderloin, right across from the Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theatre, and I lived on the other. At 2:00 a.m., odds were that that walk across the Tenderloin would probably end in an ambulance or a pine box.
That Sunday morning I left Pablo’s apartment really early to walk home. At sunrise, the evil danger crawls back into hiding just like the tide recedes back into the ocean. I was walking down Hyde when I saw her walking in my direction. She wore clothes that identified her as a hooker, the street walker kind. She was wearing a tiny, faded black miniskirt so small that it barely covered her private parts. A tight red sweater clung to her torso. She walked slowly and steadily but you could tell that something was not right. Maybe it was just the way her disheveled hair hung down around her face, slumped shoulders, gaze fixed on the ground that gave it away. She was barefoot, her black high heels hung in her right hand, one hanging from her index finger and the other one her middle finger.
As she came near, I saw her face: missing a front tooth, lower lip slightly bleeding, and a massive dark purple and black circle around her right eye. Her face looked disfigured, worse than what you see in any horror movie. Even worse, I could see in her face that her broken spirit had lost all hope and that she was just waiting for her body to die or be killed. She was badly beaten, physically and emotionally. Life had beaten her down, and the Tenderloin was going to finish her off.
I wish I would have helped her that morning. Instead, I walked right by her and pretended like I didn’t see her. I offered no help. I learned early on that no good deed goes unpunished in the Tenderloin. On more than one occasion I had seen kind people reach into their pockets for spare change or a dollar in order to help someone out, only to be punched out and left on the floor by a crazed out junkie. Tenderloin Survival Rule No. 1: Mind our own business and you will stay alive. I also remembered the old adage about not touching an injured dog because it will bite you. It was doubly true in the Tenderloin.
My punishment for walking right by her is that I still think of her every so often, and I can still see her face. What was her name? Where did she grow up? Is she still alive? How did she end up in the Tenderloin? Who was her mother? Did she have a family? To this day, I wish I would have helped her. It’s too late now. As I said, no one escapes the Tenderloin unscathed.
The Tenderloin is one of the most destitute areas of San Francisco. It has severe problems with crime, drug use, prostitution and homelessness. 70% of the residents live in low-income homes.
“The drunks on the corner; the old man in a wheelchair selling drugs; the undocumented immigrants who work themselves into a hidden economy and new life; the students who live here because they can’t afford to live anywhere else; and the old people who have stayed because it is their home: the streets are theirs.”