Where the Sidewalk Ends
Today I’m going to try something new. For a different perspective on the Sit/Lie ordinance, I’m going to sit on Haight Street. No matter the gum stains and urine odor, imagined or actual, I will pop a squat for no less than half an hour on three of Upper Haight’s most venerable corners.
The goal here is to see the world from that vantage point and enjoy the sidewalks that the organizations competing for my Prop L vote claim are either for “people” (No on Sit/Lie) or for “everyone” (Civil Sidewalks). If anyone else is at one of my corners when I arrive, I’ll ask if I can join them. If not, I’m just going to sit. No tweeting, no playing Words for Friends, just sitting.
At the northeast corner of Masonic and Haight sits Dave, an older homeless man in a wheelchair with two women on the ground next to him. Dave looks to be in his 40s and speaks like his tongue is mixing slow-drying concrete in his mouth. His nearest companion is Ray-Bo. I sit down on Dave’s other side. The second woman gives me a stony stare. I introduce myself, explain that I’m writing a story about Sit/Lie, and ask if I can stop and chat with them.
The unnamed companion stands, gathers her things and excuses herself, annoyed. She thinks it’s stupid. “There’s much more to be addressed,” she says, shaking her head with disapproval. I think she means both in local politics and on her to-do list for the afternoon.
That leaves just me, Dave, Ray-Bo, and a tiny Doberman-daschund mix named Clarence who takes an immediate liking to me. He curls against my leg on the concrete, oblivious to the clamor of Haight and Masonic.
It’s a good corner. We’re pleasantly warm in the shade and the afternoon light is long and golden. “We’re people watchers,” I hear Ray-Bo say quietly from the other side of Dave’s wheelchair. “Watching people walk by.”
It’s not long after I sit down that Dave admits, unprompted, “I’m so drunk today.” He laughs. “What are you drinking today?” I ask. “Beer!” he says, though I hear Ray-Bo mutter, “None of your damned business!”
Dave tells me he’s been in the city since ’72. He used to stay around the corner for $25 a month. Now it’s too expensive to live around here, 2,000 bucks at least. He corrects himself. “1,880. 1,880 is the cheapest place around here.” It’s a hell of an awareness of local real estate for someone who says he gets $120 a month from the city.
Dave sleeps on the street, he tells me. “The city wants you to sleep in shelters.” He gestures to Clarence, asleep against my pant leg. “Can’t take my dog in.”
Before us, a crowd is collecting for the 43 Masonic bus. It’s an eclectic mix of college students, adolescents, and elderly ladies with shopping bags. The one thing they all have in common is how studiously they ignore us, sitting just two concrete feet away.
Dave is under the impression that because of his wheelchair, Sit/Lie wouldn’t apply to him. He understands the motivation for the law, though. “I can see if people are being disrespectful, hurting people, get rid of ’em. Lots of aggressive fuckers out here, but it’s always just a few.”
Clarence wakes up at the yip of another dog and they exchange barks. Dave starts yelling at Clarence to shut up. It’s loud, but still no one turns. At this moment Ray-Bo, who has been sitting silently on the other side of Dave, hurls her tall boy toward the street where it lands clattering with a spray of beer and backwash.
My half hour is up. I stand and thank them both for the chat. “Can you buy us beer?” Dave asks, squinting up at me. I leave him with two dollars.
I’m alone on the ground at the historic corner of Ashbury and Haight. There is no one else out so I pick a shady spot across the street from the RVCA window display.
Shoppers, a few street kids with bedrolls, couples worn out by the sun and disagreeing about what to do with their afternoons pass by. I have no contact with anyone save a woman who asks where Ashbury is and a kid in a stroller with whom I exchange glances because he’s at my eye level.
Admittedly, I’m a little bored. Ten minutes in, I’m fighting with the urge to play with email on my phone.
While sitting, I start to realize that when you talk about the effect street kids have on businesses in the Haight, you’re really talking about two totally different experiences. Tourists come to see the cliché of Haight and these free-spirited, edgy but lovable vagabonds are a part of that scene. Locals live and shop here and these unkempt and drunken vagrants are just an annoyance.
There are 10 minutes left until I can move again. I give up and send a few emails.
There’s only one person sitting on any of the four corners of Clayton and Haight in the mid-afternoon. He’s a young guy with shoulder-length curly dark hair that’s beginning to mat into dreads. I ask him if I can join him and he says, “Yeah, well, I guess I don’t see any reason why not.” I don’t think he’s all that happy to have me.
His name is Animal. He’s 22 and considers himself a professional musician. Next to him lies a guitar with a sticker that says “Animal Lives!” He’s a little unkempt, has an unruly beard, but he doesn’t seem like he’s been on the street long. He holds a cardboard sign that reads “Traveling, Broke & Sexy.” Animal says he’s not playing music today because he’s not feeling great.
Animal’s from the LA area and he’s been in San Francisco “this time” for about a month. “I live a bohemian lifestyle, you know? A lot of street performers get pigeonholed in with crazy vagabonds and hobos and shit.” Gesturing at a group of three street kids walking a pit bull on the far corner he says, “I don’t really talk to too many people. There’s too many nutty people.”
Right now it’s just Animal and me, but earlier in the day I saw a group of at least eight people and two dogs.
We mostly sit there in a silence broken only by the steady rhythm of his favorite line, “Can you help out with a small donation? I can dance.” Over the course of my half hour no one asks to see him dance. Our bodies are angled in the same direction, toward Hobson's Choice, but his head is turned far toward the tourist shop across the street. I’m getting the sense he doesn’t want me here, but I am resolute to finish my half hour.
Animal’s tongue loosens after he scores a cigarette. I ask him if he ever gets harassed by people in the neighborhood and he tells me about the one time his friends were playing music: “This douchebag who lives above Roberts Hardware” came down and told them to stop. “‘I’m from San Francisco,’ he said. ‘You’re not from here.’ ‘Are you serious?’ we said. And he said, ‘Get a job.’”
Just as he’s telling me this story someone walks up and stands above us. Animal mutters, “You’re about to see what it’s like.”
I look up and see a tall, frowning Englishman with his hands on his hips. Oh, actually, this is a friend of mine from my previous job. “Heard you’d left your job, didn’t realize things had gotten this bad!” he exclaims. I stand up and explain I’m working on a story. We have a good laugh, I meet his parents, the tourists, and they go on their way. “Well, that was awkward,” Animal says, still on the ground.
It’s odd to find myself suddenly on my feet, but the need to stand for my conversation was a compulsion. Despite what Animal says, it was actually more awkward from the ground. You feel small by comparison, powerless on the sidewalk. You’re aware of the person above you quite literally looking down on you.
“My butt is going numb,” Animal says behind a yawn as he shifts his weight. “If there’s one thing you put in your story, you should write that sitting on concrete for a long time doesn’t feel too great.”
Animal’s not having great luck out here today. We’re mostly ignored; I count only one “Sorry, dude.”
I ask him specifically about the Sit/Lie law. “It’s just going to cause more problems I think.” Will street performers like him travel here less? “People are going to come here regardless.”
I stand, my butt aching, and ask him if he’s got anything left to say to the people of San Francisco. “This isn’t a real problem. It’s all about business, not crime.” He talks about dividing communities, “1984, proletariats and all that.” In closing he says, “Different classes don’t talk to each other.”
You know what? That’s pretty true. Especially out here on Haight Street where the class divide is about what level your eyes are at.
Trying to figure out where you stand on Sit/Lie? There are two ways you can go: No on Sit/Lie (see Sidewalks are for People http://sidewalksareforpeople.org/) or Yes on Sit/Lie (see Civil Sidewalks http://civilsidewalks.com/). The election is November 2nd - don't forget to vote!
Also, check out my story tomorrow about merchants' perspectives on the Sit/Lie issue.