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The Tenderloin is San Francisco's last frontier. Tourists are advised to steer clear of it, and locals mostly avert their eyes while their pulse quickens. The streets are dirty, the hotels decrepit, and the people look downright desperate. I have seen a man stick a needle into his arm in the middle of the sidewalk in broad daylight.
I have thought about this man a great deal since that day. In the moments and months that followed, I wondered about his childhood and his family, and of course, how he got there. Lately, I just wonder if he's alive.
The new book Death in the Tenderloin (Study Center Press) suggests he is not. The collection of obituaries culled from the pages of the Tenderloin's community newspaper, Central City Extra, features 99 stories of people who lived and died in the Tenderloin. These are people, not police reports and statistics. Central City Extra went where most of the media does not, past the overdoses and murders, and learned about the deceased. Without comment, here are excerpts from their stories.
"Mobley grew up in Miami, the youngest of four kids. He was a National Honor Society member, got honorably discharged from the Air Force, and received bachelor's and master's degrees from Sacramento State University. He was a state parole agent in San Francisco until he retires in 1983.
Jones said that last year Mobley was inducted into his Miami high school's Hall of Fame.
'He was a special person,' Jones said, 'the kind of friend who took me in for eight months after my wife and I separated. I think the system made him bitter, but that was later.'"
"No detail of Loretta Phillips' life came to light during the memorial conducted by Father Armando Lopez of St. Boniface Catholic Church. More than 60 attended. Songs were sung and prayers said, but mourners weren't offered the opportunity to speak of their affection for Phillips, who died at California Pacific Center after a long illness. She was 87.
Phillips had long been active in the North of Market Planning Coalition, the Alexander Tenants Association and she was a charter member of Central City Democrats and a founding member of the Alliance for a Better District 6. At meetings, she was a familiar sight at her activist husband's side. Once homeless, she was avidly interested in the Tenderloin Homeless Caucus.
Her father raped her when she was 13, and she had a child, Philips said. Then the father kicked her out when she was 18, and she was homeless in Chicago before they had adequate welfare. The authorities took her child away, and she never saw her child again."
James 'Pete' Lane:
"Lane, who moved into the Hamlin almost 20 years ago, was 56 when he died. He was born in Alabama and studied political science at Emory University in Atlanta. He planned to become a lawyer. Ultimately, however, he worked in menswear at San Francisco department stores, helping fit clothes.
'He loved that,' his friend, Richie Carlson, recalled. 'He always talked about that -- and history. He was a very smart man, liked to tell jokes. He had a lot of conditions that made it hard for him to do much, but he handled it with a lot of grace. Lane struggled with cancer that had reached his bones and was mostly bedridden in his final years. Pearl Durmas, who knew him for more than a decade in her work as a desk clerk and case manager at the Hamlin, said that Lane would get out into the neighborhood using his walker and wheelchair, taking cabs where he needed to get, spend time lounging in the hotel's community room, or receive guests and fellow hotel residents in his second-floor room after he broke his shoulder for a second time. He was hospitalized at California Pacific Medical Center and died there two days later.
Linda Ray Lee:
"It is unlikely that anyone at the memorial knew the life story of Linda Ray Lee, who died in the hospital of bone cancer at 62. Her next door neighbor said only that she had once befriended her during a power blackout. Lee was painfully bedridden then and sharing a two-room space on the 11th floor with her husband, George Ray Lee, 79, also bedridden.
George Ray said his quick-witted wife had had a career as stripper and fan dancer at Honey West. She had married into the Kansas City mob, he said, but her husband got rubbed out in a garage door explosion. Lee said she also went to City College and S.F. State and in her 50s nearly got her law degree from UC Hastings. They were married 25 years ago in San Quentin when he was in prison. Their relationship, Lee said, was platonic."
Michelle Van Rijn:
"A roomful of distraught mourners gathered to remember Michelle Van Rijn, who was 49 when she jumped to her death from a window in the five-story Coast Hotel, where she lived.
Neighbors described her as 'full of genuine soul and sunlight,' warm and caring toward everyone she met.'"
"Until his death two weeks before his 58th birthday, Clyde Wood felt he was haunted by bad luck and the worst of it was post-traumatic stress disorder that stemmed from his Vietnam War days under fire as a young marine.
He didn't talk much about those things, even to his caseworker. From the outset he appeared to be a crusty customer when he moved into his sixth-floor room at the Coast Hotel three years ago, finally no longer homeless.
Wood kept mostly to himself. But gradually, when he left his room using a walker, dozens of residents came in contact with him, and most reached out to him when his health began failing seven months ago. They found him to be a nice man with a penchant for giving small gifts and rewarding people for their kindness."