Night and the City
You're wandering through the Paulist Center Bookstore in Chinatown, flipping through the works of Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa. You're here tonight to sneak into the monthly support group meeting for ex-Catholics and write a column that makes fun of them. They arrive and say hello to one another, setting up chairs. They're nice folks. They're not the enemy. So what if they're not in the church anymore? In many circles, that's considered a good thing.
You skulk out before the meeting begins. This was a bad idea. It's a Tuesday night, dry and chilly but not freezing, so you hike through the corridors of Chinatown, past the windows of creepy-looking dolls, serenaded by Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." You notice that although you are alone, there are others -- solitary figures, a conglomeration of disassociated humans, all wrapped in their own universes.
A restless waiter straightens the chairs in his empty restaurant. Near Jackson Square, a bum sleeps on a stoop, a pair of white shoes his pillow. A few blocks away, a guy talks on a phone, looking out a picture window, his office crowded with models of construction cranes and fire engines. Two themes recur: At least three panhandlers have signs that say "homeless with AIDS." And there is a preponderance of girls talking on pay phones.
You peer through the glass walls of the Boulevard restaurant at Mission and Embarcadero. Well-dressed white people return the gaze, eyeing you cautiously between bites of maple-cured pork loin (spit-roasted, stuffed with porcini mushrooms). Don't bother a dog at its bowl.
A small man in a Chevron cap hoses off the sidewalk of Rincon Center, checking you out for a millisecond. At the Spear Tower, a blazered guard sits in an ergonomic office chair in an empty, polished lobby. He looks at you and picks his ear. On Market Street, a man in a suit rests on a bench, smoking a cigarette as if it were filled with essential vitamins. A girl walks briskly past, carrying a canvas shoulder bag and an Evian bottle. Two cable cars sit idle on California Street, their operators reading quietly. Figures stagger out of the office towers in trench coats and carrying umbrellas, lugging big briefcases of paperwork back to their homes. Their gaunt faces and slumped posture suggest a thorough and recent horsewhipping, and it all starts up again tomorrow morning.
"Shit man, goin' mumble mumble, gotta help with a little change?" slurs a wild-eyed bum at Union Square, extending a beat-up cup. "Shit man, mumble slur mumble, fucking corporations."
Which corporations? you ask.
"All of 'em!" hollers the bum. "Now gimme some change!"
At the Pinecrest Diner on Geary, a few souls eat quietly at the counter, veering dangerously close to "Runyon-esque." If Damon Runyon had his own home page, you could probably download a picture of a fedora. Why not bail on this whole column thing? Get a job where you can stumble to the bus, bleary-eyed from another day of overtime sitting inside a cubicle decorated with photos of your pets. Stop kidding yourself, get a real income, move to the 'burbs, poop out a few pups, go fishing once a year, then technology will surpass your level of skill, you'll get fired and ditch the whole fam-damily in favor of a statewide killing spree in a stolen Camaro --
"Good evening, I'm an activist, a volunteer, we're raising funds for our shelters, for homeless families with children and many of whom are battered and/or abused, including fathers of domestic violence."
The voice behind you belongs to Shanee, an articulate 48-year-old woman in a smart-looking hat and yellow scarf, and toting a clipboard. She continues:
"We're publicly supported under the California Franchise Tax Section 23701D, which means no city, county, federal, or state funds. We're also federally exempted under the Internal Revenue Tax Code 501C3, which means that the exemptions are good anywhere in the United States. Will you contribute?"
You do, and a few minutes later you are both sitting on the steps of a swank hotel on Mason. Shanee has a headache tonight. She usually works early evening around Union Square, then moves to the nightclubs in SOMA. She was homeless for three years but now has an apartment on Eddy. She says she grew up in Berkeley and Los Angeles, and by the age of 35 was jetting around the globe for a consulting firm, learning six languages and collecting mink coats. She also once worked in advertising and casting talent, and painted in oils and acrylics. Shanee adds she even appeared in four movies -- as an extra.
"Chu Chu and the Philly Flash ... Goldie and the Boxer ... Inside Moves ... and I always forget the fourth movie. It's been a long time. I was supposed to be cast in the movie Superman III, with Richard Pryor, who burned hisself up."
She used to own six single-family houses in East Oakland, but the mortgages were foreclosed on by the bank, and she lost them all. Her husband panicked and found himself a "nine-to-five wife." After the divorce, her home was burglarized, then she was finally jumped by a group of kids: "They beat me up on my steps and stole my Cadillac. Not one neighbor tried to help."