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Compared to the danger of that gunfight, trying crack for the first time didn't seem like a big deal.
Ten years went by before Silas tried it again. And again. And again. "I saw myself going downhill, and I couldn't believe it," he says. "Along with that, I was drinking hard alcohol. Whiskey. Vodka. Anything. I'd cuss anybody out. That's the Indian in me." (Silas claims his mother is Cherokee; he says he means no offense to Native Americans.) During that time, three women accused him of domestic violence.
Silas has two criminal cases on record with the San Francisco Superior Court. One is a 1998 charge on possession of illegal substances, of which he was acquitted. The other, from 2001, could not be viewed before press time. Four years ago, Silas says he weaned himself off crack when a woman bet him $100 that he couldn't stop for 30 days. He won, which solidified his position on addiction that "it's in the mind."
Around the same time, his father was dying of prostate cancer, which Silas took hard. He began visiting his mother every weekend and decided to clean himself up.
Silas credits a homeless man who calls himself Don King with teaching him the art of woo-woo, but he stumbled into his steady Townsend gig all by himself and by accident.
Around 7:30 one morning three years ago, Silas rounded the corner of Fifth and Townsend and saw two cars competing for the same spot. He pointed out another free spot down the street, and the drivers seemed grateful. "Well, I'll waste my days down here," he thought. "It'll keep me out of trouble."
It's practically a rule that every woo-wooer eventually has trouble with the cops. Silas' most recent run-in happened last month when he was ushering drivers into spots and a cop car rolled around the corner.
"They said I'm directing traffic," Silas says, holding up a citation that requires him to appear in court. "To me, they're harassing."
When Silas asked how much he owed (there's no amount on the ticket), the cop apparently didn't know. "He said it's the first one he gave," Silas says.
The cops aren't Silas' only problem. Somebody has been breaking into the buildings where some of his customers work, and stealing laptops, wallets, coats, and cell phones. Nobody knows who's doing it, but some — including the building management — say the homeless people in the street look pretty suspicious.
Especially Silas' girl.
About a year ago, between the echoing blue, orange, and green walls of the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter on Fifth Street, Silas first encountered Ann O'Gara. She was a bright, funny woman who boasted a master's degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz. She was also addicted to crack, "with no kinda priorities," Silas says.
O'Gara, a bony fortysomething, sports a distinguished, pert ponytail and a few sparse chin hairs. She also has a teardrop tattoo just below her left eye. Because of her drug problem, she has been homeless for eight years. She often sleeps on cardboard in a nook at the base of the San Francisco Tennis Club on Fifth Street, right near the fire station on Bluxome. The firefighters there, some of whom attended Catholic school with O'Gara's brother, affectionately nicknamed her "Ms. Bluxome." She liked it, and it stuck.
Some days are better than others for Ms. Bluxome, who remains modest about her role on Townsend. "I'm not a professional like he is," she says, smiling at Silas. "I was doing some things that were not feeling good inside — some things that would not increase someone's self-esteem. This became an alternative."
For unclear reasons, several weeks ago Silas and Ms. Bluxome were "86ed" — as one caseworker put it — from the shelter for 90 days. Program director Lessy Benedith did not return phone calls, but Silas says shelter staff claimed he had been harassing someone. It's untrue, he says, and he has no idea why he was really forced out. He plans to reenter that shelter on April 12, but for now he has a bed — if he wants it — at the Episcopal Sanctuary at Eighth and Howard. Instead, he usually sleeps outside at the tennis club with Ms. Bluxome.
Some of Silas' customers say he'd be better off in the shelter. They also wonder if Ms. Bluxome and her habit are responsible for the recent rash of burglaries. Although O'Gara does have a history of theft, "around me, she's not stealing from nobody," Silas says.
After months of inaction, the property managers decided a memo was in order. "It has come to my attention that a few select tenants in the building are paying homeless people around the area money," wrote Trisha Andreini, the services administrator for CB Richard Ellis real estate services, which manages several buildings along Townsend. "This is absolutely unacceptable, especially with the recent thefts that have occurred within this area and our building."
In her office in 330 Townsend one afternoon, Andreini said she was only trying to appease tenants. "There are a lot of people who aren't paying this guy, but are concerned that he's coming into the building," she said. "They don't know the history of him. I don't really know anything about him."