Since the day we met Jonathan Hirsch he’s been telling us that he’d love to share some of his writings on the neighborhood with readers of The Tender. Finally, last weekend he wrote to us saying that lately he’s been spending a lot of time just watching the traffic move up and down Leavenworth street where he lives, and that “much has been learned from this simple observation”. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did and that you’ll join us in attending his 2nd anniversary Tenderloin Reading Series event coming up on March 19th.
Out of the Frying Pan, & Onto the Fire Escape
by Jonathan Hirsch
I recently moved deeper into the Tenderloin. Most nights I stare out the window and watch the bizarre circus side-show Highway 61 that is Leavenworth Street after dark. I’ve been trying to make sense of this neighborhood for years and still feel as though I’m only scratching the surface; this lingering awareness of my own sense of remove from the harsh realities of the TL streets is probably in no small part due to the fact that trying to understand a place like the TL is a contrivance in itself.
The other night I woke up at about three in the morning and a woman was screaming outside my window. “Make it stop” she said, “Just make it all stop”. I watched her from across the street, curled underneath a tree, screaming into the dirt. I felt false there, on the third floor. I was staring out onto a boulevard of suffering from the heated bleacher seats of my bolt-locked apartment. Still every night I am drawn to witness this or some other shit show.
I’ve observed that the desperation of some of the TL’s most downtrodden residents can take on a kind of philosophical fervor that my friends with day jobs, DJ nights, and parents who answer the phone when they call don’t always possess. I may be reading too much into this, but I’ve thought this on so many occasions that I’m beginning to believe it.
I used to live off of Shannon Alley on Geary Street. My girlfriend and I would lean out the window to smoke cigarettes and watch the adjacent parking lot fill with a rotating cast of junkies and other urchins of the street. My apartment was on the third floor at the back of the building. That parking lot was in many ways a continuous keg party, or at least it felt that way every hour or so when a patrol car would roll slowly down the alley and shine a light into the corners of the lot. We’d hear the deflated voices of the squatters float in through my window like an odorous wind saying things like, “Ah, c’mon man!” or “I wasn’t peeing!” or “I was just feeding this cat over here”. There, as now, I felt myself an uninvited voyeur to this particular urban circus.
Five days before last Christmas, the rain was so cold it turned to hard pellets of hail. We sat with our glasses and smokes and watched the beads of hard rain cling to the window like pieces of a broken glass necklace– something you might pick up for fifty cents at the Love Project Curio Shop down the street. Then an ungodly emanation from the street: there came bustling through the open window an ungodly noise that drowned out all the other sound. Cautious we peeked our heads over the ledge and saw her: naked, screaming, and soaking wet. Except for a Santa hat. She disappeared up Geary Street, and I could hear what I only imagine to be mortified tourists shrieking in displeasure at the unfortunate sight of this high-out-of-her-mind resident. They’ll go home and carve our neighborhood out of the travel guides, which is perfectly fine if you ask me. To this end, we can think of her as Santa’s little helper.
Whenever I think this way, about how maligned the TL is, how macabre and unacceptable it is to so many, strangely it brings into question for me the legitimacy of my own existence here. What right do I have to make commentary on the suffering of others? Who am I to make these observations? But that’s precisely it. Here I am in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and I feel at peace in the place that’s all but devoid of the class and grandeur of “San Francisco”. It was something about the genuine, raw utterance of despair from the woman in the Santa hat. Or the woman shouting “make it all stop” the other night. What did she mean by “all”? These are questions I think we’d do well to ask ourselves; questions people in the throes of despair seem to point towards with often-times remarkable clarity.
It is thoughts such as these that dispel my reservations and remind me that we are all just a decision or two away, off the street a couple of steps and up the fire escape from everyone else.