I'm eating in a McDonald's for the first time in years. I'm here looking for drugs.
To enter the Haight Ashbury's most dangerous business, I must run a gauntlet at the door. A quick sidestep is needed to avoid bumping into three unattended young children bounding out into the Saturday evening sunlight, presumably in the throes of a salt-and-fat rush.
Inside, the L-shaped dining room is half-empty. A few people stand by the bathrooms; older solitary men nurse cups of coffee and shuffle through newspapers at tables near the service counter. Scanning the menu, I try to remember what Michael Pollan — or was it Eric Schlosser? — said is acceptable to eat here. I opt for small fries, and $1.95 later I'm seated on a plastic stool at a plastic table, ready to observe a hotbed for drug sales and violence in action.
This McDonald's, at the corner of Haight and Stanyan streets near the far eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, is “a safe haven for drug dealers and users,” according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Police have been called here 641 times since January 2014, more calls for law enforcement than any other business in the neighborhood. And the Illinois-based McDonald's Corp. is “legally on the hook” for it, Herrera informed the company last week. Unless something is done, Herrera has vowed to sue McDonald's and the owners of this franchise, who could be fined $25,000 a day and have their restaurant shut down for a year. Similar tactics have been employed against Tenderloin bodegas that served as fronts for drug-dealing.
None of this conflict is apparent at first glance. Like everywhere else in the neighborhood, there are lots of “street kids” — easy shorthand for the Haight's brand of transient. They skew younger and whiter, they sell drugs to the tourists and high school kids who come here to buy them, and they are usually on their way somewhere else. During their stint in town, drawn here by the weather, free bluegrass, and decades of tradition, these transients might crash in Buena Vista Park or near Alvord Lake across the street from the McDonald's.
When nobody offers to sell me weed on my way into the restaurant, as almost always happens when I head into Amoeba Records or the Goodwill up the street, I'm struck: I must look like a cop today.
“Something” does happen less than 10 minutes after I sit down, and I'm impressed with how smoothly it goes. A “street kid” with hollow eyes hangs out too long by the counter. A manager, identifiable by his blue shirt and air of tired authority, shouts at the kid to get out, while simultaneously scooping fries for a paying customer. “Sorry about that,” the manager says. The kid, meanwhile, has exited without a word.
Aside from the City Attorney's promised suit, none of this is new. Rumblings about the “problem” at McDonald's surface every couple of years, but nothing seems to change. In 2012, police Chief Greg Suhr promised that cops would fix the issue “by the end of the week,” according to The New York Times. The restaurant has tried: After security guards proved too expensive, the old franchise owners eliminated the dollar menu and removed picnic tables from the outdoor patio to discourage lingering riffraff. The new owners, who bought the location in 2013, inherited an old problem.
It's not clear why the time to end this persistent situation is now. The restaurant apparently was inviting enough in the fall for a visit from the president of the Philippines, who popped in for a meal during a trip to the city. And the 11 drug busts here since September don't exactly shock and awe: an acid dealer on 4/20 weekend, a guy with a couple ounces of psilocybin mushrooms, another with about 2 pounds of weed, all carrying small quantities of cash. No guns, no serious violence, no organized crime.
Not that the people who live here are content with the status quo. When I mention the threat of a lawsuit to my partner, who used to come here as a child for a rare treat of Chicken McNuggets after horseback riding lessons in Golden Gate Park, her reaction is swift. “Good,” she told me. “They should have shut that place down years ago.”
Still, the lawsuit threat feels like a kneejerk response. City officials talk about a neighborhood plagued by “drug dealers” and “addicts” in need of “help.” It's not clear if it's the cannabis or the LSD that has the kids addicted, but some of the “help” that was here got evicted. In December 2013, one of the two nonprofits serving youth in the area, the Homeless Youth Alliance, lost its lease on a space on Cole Street, two blocks from the restaurant. The recent spike in crime — those 641 calls — began the next month.
I head outside, where the manager is taking a cigarette break. He's not talkative, and doesn't cop to knowing anything about the lawsuit, but I do find out he's worked here 17 years. I'm trying to digest that fact when a commotion breaks out from the direction of Alvord Lake.
Dogs growl and bark, followed by a shout. Someone starts running across the street. “Oh!” the manager exclaims. He turns to a tough-looking younger woman standing near us on the patio, finishing off an ice cream. “That's your husband,” he tells her. She curses and heads towards the action.
“You know her? You know her husband?” I ask, incredulous.
“Of course,” he says. “They're my customers.”
The Haight Ashbury has been a magnet for transient youth for almost 50 years. “All along Haight Street, from Buena Vista Park to the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, there are nearly as many street kids as tourists on the sidewalks.” That sentence was published in this newspaper nearly a decade ago. Like every McDonald's in the world, the one in Haight Ashbury is a reflection of the community it serves. It will take much more than a lawsuit to change that.