From the ten-dollar-a-month tent by the tracks to the residence
hotels of the Tenderloin, life at the bottom is new for some people,
more of a permanent condition for others. And it's not all bad. A
word to the wise: no pictures.
By Colby Buzzel
June 16, 2009
On the edge of downtown Fresno, California, seven in the evening. The
guy tells me that he is the spokesperson for this tent city, as well
as a Pisces. He's sticking his chest out and says, "I kind of run
shit here." And he tells me I don't have permission to be here. Never
mind that he doesn't have permission to be here, either. Or that his
whole Pisces rap is just confusing. I decide to ask permission.
"Can I have your permission?"
"No sir, you can't."
The self-declared mayor of this miserable cluster of tents hard by an
overpass in Fresno is a proud man, and he'll run his camp the way he
sees fit. Better than totally giving up and giving in to these hard
times, I guess. Just makes it hard to find a place to sleep is all.
Earlier in the day, I had come upon a string of dingy old hotels on
the edge of town. They were old-school and looked like they were all
built in the fifties, and they had these cool retro neon signs, and
as I made my way to see if there was a vacancy, I stopped to snap a
picture of one of the signs. It was then that I came across a man out
walking his dog, not on a leash, but with the dog seated in a
wheelchair, being pushed along. The dog looked happy, as did the man,
and I said hello to him. He and his wife were staying at the hotel,
he said, $300 for two weeks, and he was excited because next week
they were going to move to a swankier place. This place was getting crowded.
I then walked into the hotel lobby and asked the lady, who looked
like she'd been chain-smoking for quite a while, if they had any
vacancies. She looked at me like I was crazy and told me that they
did have a room available. "Was that you taking a picture?" she asked
me. I told her that it was, that I liked how the sign looked, and
just then a guy with knotty prison muscles strutted into the lobby
wearing a wifebeater. He had his back turned to me as he was talking
to the lady in a low voice, and I noticed that he had WHITE tattooed
in Old English font down the back of one arm and POWER tattooed down
the back of the other. He then turned to me and asked me if I was the
guy taking pictures. This was a situation. I said, "Yeah, I'm the
guy." And he sized me up and down in a way that I can tell that he's
figuring out where he's going to stab me with the prison shank he's
got stashed in his back pocket, and he took a step toward me, and I
was getting ready, and then he stopped and in a soft voice said, "No pictures."
So I got out of there. And now, after being evicted from one tent
city, I come upon another, a few dozen tents, and I see a guy who's
about my age, in his early thirties, sitting Indian-style in front of
his tent with nothing to shade him from the harsh sun, but he seems
happy, and he greets me with a friendly smile and asks if I want to
trade some of his food he has several shopping bags of food that he
got off some Christians for a grill or a cooking pot. When I tell
him that I don't have a cooking pot, he asks me if I want to trade a
couple smokes for some food. This I can do, so I hand him a couple
smokes, and then he offers to rent out his spare living space, a
one-person tent located right next to his.
"I could give it to you for ten dollars a month," he says. He senses
me debating his proposal with myself and quickly adds, "And I'll
throw in a weapon!"
"What kind of weapon?"
"Hammer. Free of charge."
Deal. But I don't have ten dollars on me, so I tell him I'll be back
later on that night with the rent money. He tells me that's no
problem at all, and he calls me neighbor as we shake hands on it.
Cool. I got a place to live. Maybe Fresno really is "The Best Little
City in the U. S. A.," as is advertised on the Welcome to Fresno
Archway as you roll into town.
But later on that night, when I go to move into my tent, there's
somebody already inside it. What the fuck? I wake up the guy who
rented me the tent, who is in his tent sleeping. He apologizes, says
that the guy was gone for a couple days and he didn't think he was
going to come back. I'm guessing that the tent was never his to rent,
and while I'm wondering what the hell I am going to do now, he tells
me not to worry. He crawls into his tent and drags out a couple of
old military blankets and hands them to me.
"For the night, free of charge," he says. And what's this? Oh, the
So I lay out a spot next to his tent and go to sleep. Or try to. The
railroad tracks are so close, and every fifteen minutes a train
thrashes by, the thundering locomotive barely perceptible in the
pitch black. And every fifteen minutes when the train rolls, the
whole encampment stirs, farts, turns over, and tries to fall back asleep.
Not to be rude, but these are collapsed lives. Some have lived this
way for a long time, and some told me they are stunned to find
themselves here by present circumstance, that when the economy
collapsed, their lives went with it. And I lay there in the dark
wondering how close I am to living like this. And then I think: I can
answer that question. I live in the Tenderloin.
The Tenderloin is the pot of shit at the end of the rainbow, and most
of the people who live here have pretty much lived their entire lives
in a recession. If you want to know where the TL is, go to the
California sex-offender Web site, pull up San Francisco, and it's
that area of the city where there's a huge concentration of those
blue squares all stacked right on top of one another, that's where I
live. It's the part of town that most tourist guides tell you not to go to.
Not long ago, on her deathbed, my mother told my sister that when she
died she wanted her to look out for my father make sure he's okay,
hang out with him, go on walks with him, eat dinner with him, etc.
I'm assuming my mom didn't ask me to do this because she knew that I
could barely look out for myself, let alone someone else. So when she
passed away, without even hesitating for a split second, my sister
dropped everything quit her job, broke up with her boyfriend,
packed her bags, and left Orange County to move back to the Bay Area
to be near our father.
She needed work, and as she was looking around San Francisco, I asked
if there were jobs out there, and she thought about that for a
second, and then she told me that there were some, not a lot, and
that offices were taking three jobs, rolling them into one, and
reducing the salary. "They're all paying a ridiculously low amount of
money," she said. "Like, ten or fifteen dollars an hour for
I asked her if that was enough to live on, and felt stupid when she
laughed out loud. She's in property management for rentals, and she
says the company is doing well because "people are losing their homes
and they have to rent a house everyone needs somewhere to live."
Which reminded me, I was planning on being out of town for a while in
the near future, and during this time my apartment would be vacant.
So I offered her the keys to my place, told her she could easily walk
to work, no prob, and because she's family: rent free.
"You live in the fucking ghetto."
I respectfully disagree.
I wake up late one morning to my friend Cesar calling me, telling me
that he is outside my apartment, and for me to come out so we can go
Cesar used to work at a popular bar here called Whiskey Thieves, an
establishment I used to go to nightly partly because the bar allowed
smoking. When I bitched to my father, a nonsmoker, how the city no
longer allowed smoking in my favorite bar, he muttered, "San
Anyway, Cesar was just as popular as Whiskey Thieves. It's impossible
to walk around with him here in the TL without somebody giving him a
hug, honking their car horn and waving at him as they drive by, or
shaking his hand on the street. It's like walking around with a
celebrity everybody here seems to know him, which is
understandable, since he's a very likable guy and being a hustling
bartender, he always says hello back, asks what they're up to, and
invites them to his new bar. "Yo, I'm working tonight, you should
stop by." A good bartender works even when he's not working.
But being a career bartender isn't really what Cesar wants to do. His
dream is to one day open up a business here in the TL, be his own
boss, and the vision that he has right now is of an old-school
barbershop, with the red-and-white pole spinning outside the door,
where men show up to talk about the weather and just hang out reading
the newspaper or shooting the shit with the barber, who's wearing a
white apron and sweeping the floor with a wooden broom. Sometimes
when he's walking around the neighborhood, between greeting people
he'll keep his eyes open for locations. But first he has to get
through barber school, which doesn't cost a little money, and then
save up on the side for the shop.
On our way over to a nearby diner for some cheap breakfast, I ask him
how business is. "Not good," he says. "I think people are drinking at
home nowadays instead of dumping a bunch of cash at the bar."
And he's noticed that when people order drinks now, they order them
all at once and tip a dollar a round. "So typically when they buy a
beer, they tip you a dollar or two. Now they're going to buy three
beers at once and give you one dollar, you know? I'm still getting
tipped, but I'm not getting tipped accordingly." We slip into a booth
and order coffees. I look at Cesar, and he looks beat, maybe even
depressed. I'm not used to seeing him this way. He studies the menu,
folds it, puts it on the table.
"I'm lucky if I make a hundred a shift now," he says. "And that
sucks, because for the first time ever I'm delinquent on my bills,
I'm constantly getting overdraft fees, and I'm just playing catch-up
now because people aren't drinking as much. Everybody's scared now.
I'm able to make rent, but I'm always stressing: Am I going to make
rent? And this is the first time in my life when I haven't paid my
bills on time."
Cesar's looking more defeated by the minute. "I'm at the point where
I don't care. I don't care if I'm late anymore. You'll get your money
when you get it you know? I'll go three months without paying the
electricity until I get that final notice."
After breakfast we decide to grab some midafternoon drinks, and so we
walk over to the Geary Club, a total dive where the front door has
four nonsmoking stickers on it, each in a different language
English, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Once seated, I ask for an
ashtray, which is made out of tinfoil, and light up a smoke. We start
off by ordering two Coronas and two shots of Maker's. "You know when
I knew things had changed?" Cesar asks me. "A couple months ago, for
the first time in my life I saw a black guy and a white guy standing
with a bunch of Mexicans looking for work! And that's when I knew
that shit had changed."
Just then Adam shows up. Adam's an artist who moved here from
southern California. While attending the Academy of Art, he also
works at a local gallery and tends bar where Cesar works to help make
Andy Warhol once said that an artist is someone who produces things
that people don't need. And even when the economy is good, it's hard
for an artist, but right now, Adam says, "people just aren't buying
art. It's a luxury, something to decorate your house with."
He works at a gallery in kind of a shitty part of the TL, where they
show lowbrow outsider-art kind of stuff, which attracts a lot of
Juxtapoz subscribers and hipsters who like to rebel by drinking Pabst
in an alley. The joint is across the street from a seedy strip club
that advertises $500 amateur nights every Sunday. Liquor stores and
massage parlors fill out the neighborhood, and the whole thing just
screams edgy and cool to those kinds of people.
Adam graduates from the Academy of Art in a couple weeks, and his
student loans for that are six digits, and when I ask him if he's
worried about that, he says, "I don't have a check coming in every
week, so I just tell them, I don't have the money, I'm broke, I'm
getting a bachelor's in fine arts I can't pay you right now, you know?"
We're joined by another friend. This guy lives in one of the many
residential hotels, and his room is small. After a night at the bar,
we drop by his place. He locks the door, and as we take a seat at the
folding table in the middle of the room, he pulls out a glass pipe
that's wrapped in toilet paper. "What the hell are you doing?" I ask.
"If you're going to write about the Tenderloin, you're going to have
to smoke some crack," he says.
"No way," I say I see what that drug does to the people here in the
TL on a daily basis. I've seen people here crawling on all fours on
the concrete sidewalk looking for a microscopic speck of rock that
somebody may have accidentally dropped. I've seen people completely
lose their mind on that drug. And then again he says, "How are you
going to truly write about the TL if you don't smoke crack?"
No. That's retarded. That's like saying... shit. I had several shots
of whiskey at the bar, and I think it's the whiskey that allows me to
do absolutely nothing as I watch him put a couple of rocks into the
pipe, and absolutely nothing as he hands it to me and says, "You
truly enjoy smoking crack the most when you're going through pain." I
think of my beloved mother, who recently passed away, and then how
she would roar back from the dead and violently kick my ass if she
knew what I was about to do. He holds the lighter as he tells me to
hold the pipe at a 45 degree angle, bring it down slowly, hold it in
for three seconds, and slowly exhale.
What the fuck am I doing? Have I gone completely mad?
"What do you think?" he asks.
I exhale. "Not bad," I say.
I feel numb, mellow, and no pain whatsoever, and I can see why people
are hooked on this shit, because after the high, which doesn't last
long, you go from feeling good directly to Give me more. I'm writing
down the way crack feels and my new insight into why half the TL is
addicted to it when he tells me to put my pen down, which I do, and
he grabs it and my journal and writes, "To feel like they are loved."
I thank him for the crack and leave.
On my way home, a police car pulls up alongside of me as I am
walking. I look over and nod, as if to say, "Evening, gentlemen..."
They are stone-faced, and of course my dumb ass is not only high on
crack but I'm drinking a beer. I quickly set the open container on
the ground as they continue to drive and stare, long and hard. I
quickly tell them that I live right around the corner and had a
really rough night and I am just going to go home and sleep it off.
They stare at me for a couple more seconds, not saying a word, and
then they slowly pull away. At that, I go home, turn the computer on,
take an online "Which Sex and the City Character Are You?" quiz, find
out that I am Miranda, which is kind of a shock, and go to sleep.
I was surprised that I could sleep so easily on crack. I thought for
sure I'd be up all night cleaning the apartment, but instead I
drifted away immediately, sleeping the sleep of the stupid.
The next morning I wake up with the taste of crack in my mouth. I
have to get rid of that. I decide to walk over to a nearby Vietnamese
restaurant down on Larkin and order a bowl of pho. As I dump a bunch
of that spicy red stuff into the soup to make sure the crack will not
linger, I notice that the joint has increased the price on every menu
item by a full dollar. The bánh mí sandwich shop down the street I
notice has also jacked up their prices a bit as well. After that I
decide to walk around and check out some of the businesses in the
On my way back to the apartment, after passing a tranny who looked
just like Troy Polamalu of the Steelers, I step into Mirex to pick up
a pack of smokes. I used to live across the street from this place
back when it was all boarded up and vacant and it was nothing but a
gathering place for crackheads. I immediately notice that Miro, the
owner, doesn't have one of those WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE
SERVICE TO ANYONE signs that are ubiquitous in the TL posted anywhere
in or around his store. And that's because he caters to the
down-and-out, gladly and without prejudice. And what a store he gives
them. Groceries, produce, lottery tickets, phone cards, cigarettes,
an assortment of canned foods, junk food, cleaning supplies every
inch of his tiny business has something to purchase, and it's all
neatly laid out, well lit, without a speck of dust or filth anywhere.
Miro, who is tall and skinny and from Yugoslavia, is seated in a
chair eating while his wife works the register. They've been married
twenty-three years and have a son, who's twenty-two. During the war
in Yugoslavia, they escaped to Germany, where Miro stayed for five
years before coming to America. In San Francisco he first worked hard
cleaning rooms at all the upscale hotels. With great pride he tells
me that he was really good at that job, cleaned all his rooms
perfectly because he had an eye for detail. He worked in hotels for
about eight years, and then he decided to open up this shop, and
every single day I see him working there bright and early in the
morning until way late at night, eighteen hours or so a day.
Up on the wall is a certificate that shows that Mirex received a
perfect 100 score on a recent health inspection, which I've never
seen achieved before, and when I ask Miro how's business been lately,
he tells me, "Business is good. Most of these people are not working
and they have plenty of time," which you would instantly think would
be the worst possible place for you to open up a business, but he
goes on to tell me, "But they have plenty of time to spend their
money. You see, a businessperson, they're busy working, so they don't
have time to spend their money. These people are not working, they
have plenty of time to come here, shopping, shopping, every single day."
His wife is ringing up a customer purchasing a bag of Doritos and a
ninety-nine-cent Arizona tea. She tells me that a lot of them get
money from the government.
"The economy really doesn't affect me much, because any person can
always find five or ten dollars to shop for their food, because you
have to buy your food. Clothes, furniture, you can go a while without
purchasing those items, but you can't say, Tomorrow I buy nothing to eat."
I look around his shop; the walls are filled from floor to ceiling
with inventory. "This is a small space, only five hundred square
feet. If I'm just selling soup and bread, a customer who needs
something else has to go to another store. That's why I need to
provide so many things, so that if you stop here, you completely fill
up your bag and go back home. I don't want my customers thinking, Oh,
I cannot find these things, I have to go next door.
"It doesn't matter who it is, if it's homeless buying from me, and if
they buy only ten cents, I say, 'Thank you, may I see you again.' "
Miro's not worried. "If something happens, I can survive. Nothing can
be worse than war. Nothing."
There's a Vietnamese guy named Hoi in the neighborhood who works for
food. I see him all the time hanging out with his bucket of cleaning
supplies soap, towel, squirt bottle, squeegee and he goes around
to all the businesses and asks to wash their windows, expecting only
food in return. Every time I see him, he's eating takeout and seems happy.
On O'Farrell Street, I run into a guy wearing an SF ball hat, Giants
T-shirt, and jeans, has some scruff on his face, like he hasn't
shaved in a couple days, and I notice that a great portion of his
skin is decorated in prison-style tattoos. He lives in one of the
residential hotels with no bathroom. He does the same thing as Hoi.
Earlier I saw him helping out at a corner store, and when I ask him
about that he tells me that he doesn't get paid for what he does, and
he doesn't seem to mind at all. He tells me that San Francisco's
minimum wage is $9.79, and a lot of the small businesses can't afford
that, so he works for them in exchange for food.
"It helps him and it helps me," he tells me. "I keep the store clean,
I stock the shelves, help price stuff, and fill my stomach."
Between that and the money he gets from the government every month
which he says was recently lowered he gets by. "I'm in a hotel with
no bathroom for $550 a month. Most of these hotels are more expensive."
When my mother passed away, I actually moved into one of the
residential hotels for a week, just so I could drink by myself for a
bit, and the going rate I saw was about $200 to $250 a week.
He has lived in the TL for thirty years, and when I ask him how he
ended up here, he simply says to me, "I got in trouble." Which
happens to the best of us. And he tells me, "It's getting worse," the
changes he's seen over the years. "Once crack showed up here, it
really went to hell. Used to be, when people would steal something,
they'd sell it for one-third what it was worth, right? Now a
crackhead will steal something that's worth $1,000 and sell it for
ten or fifteen dollars. But crack's cheap. You can get rocks for five
or ten bucks. You'd be surprised who does it."
"Yeah, no shit. It is pretty amazing who smokes that stuff."
Before parting ways I ask him if he ever sees himself leaving the
Loin. He smiles ear to ear in a way that tells me no, and he says, "I'm stuck."
In the street I run into Armand, a friend of mine whom I know from
the bars. He's standing outside Whiskey Thieves, and I ask him what
he's up to tonight, and he says the electricity went out at his
apartment thanks to his roommate who hasn't paid the bill in months,
so instead of hanging out in his dark apartment, he decided to go
out. But first he had to run over to a friend's house to put some
chicken that he just bought in the fridge so it wouldn't rot.
Armand's broke and has taken to eating just one meal a day, mostly
rice, and chicken maybe twice a week.
Across the street from where we're talking is a Goodwill, which is
always busy, and just then two members of the "Creatures of the Loin"
moped "gang" thunder past at thirty miles an hour on their tiny
mopeds. The "Creatures of the Loin" is like the TL's version of the
Hells Angels, if the Hells Angels were all five-five, a hundred
pounds, and armed with, like, art-school degrees.
I wish Armand well and come across a sign for a play, Night at the
Black Hawk, which is being put on by something called the San
Francisco Recovery Theatre. The poster features a photograph of the
front sign of the Black Hawk, which was a famous jazz club here in
the Tenderloin that I've heard many stories about, and when I look to
see when the play is showing, I see that they're having a performance
tonight. As I'm standing there, an old weathered black guy who walks
with a limp comes over to see what I'm looking at, and I hear him
say, "Wow, I remember that place."
His name, he tells me, is Black, he came out here in 1957, and he's
been here off and on ever since. "Have you ever been to the Black
Hawk?" I ask, indicating the old picture.
"Have I?" he says, and he goes on and on, listing off to me the many
jazz greats he's seen there, and when he mentions Miles, I ask what
it was like to see him live. "Miles Davis, he was the guy who had to
have total silence, otherwise he wouldn't play. He was bad, that
muthafucker, he was superbad, yeah."
We get to talking, and he tells me that he ended up here in the TL
after "doing a little prison gig," he says with a laugh.
"The Loin's always had a lot of prostitution going on here, because
San Francisco is a port town, so a lot of seamen and sailors used to
come to patronize the whores," Black says. "But all around here at
one point there used to be clubs, too, and people would get all
dressed up and come down here. That's all changed, and now it's a
disaster. Because at one time this place was so gorgeous."
And he tells me that a lot of these ratty residential hotels are
infested with all kinds of bugs, and a lot of bugs they don't even
know what the hell they are, and in his opinion it's better to just
sleep on the streets, because at least on the streets you know what
you're dealing with.
When I ask him how he gets by out here, he tells me that he just
does, and "You know, one man's junk is another man's riches."
I walk over to the corner of Turk and Hyde, where the old Black Hawk
jazz club used to be, which is now a parking lot with a metal fence
all around it, and during the day this street corner looks like the
place to go after your luggage goes missing at SFO. For some reason,
every day when I walk past this corner, there's always a couple guys
there with what looks to be somebody's airport luggage, and they're
selling the contents for next to nothing, as well as other random
stuff they've found in the garbage.
I pause and stare at the parking lot as an elderly Chinese lady
crushes a beer can on the ground with her foot while holding two
plastic bags full of crushed cans, and a couple looking to score some
crack walks by me asking people if they have any. You carrying?
Sad that the Black Hawk is no longer there, I decide to walk over to
the corner store to pick up a bottle of wine merlot, $2.99 a bottle
and a day-old loaf of bread, $.75, and I bring that back to my
apartment, crack open the bottle of wine, and turn on the record
player. I pull out the copy of Saturday Night Miles Davis in Person
at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, the twelve-inch vinyl record that I
bought years ago at a flea market in Hollywood for a couple bucks,
and I listen to that as I drink wine and smoke a cigarette in the
comfort of my own apartment, while outside I can hear somebody
yelling, calling somebody else a motherfucker.
This is about as close as I think anybody is going to get to reliving
the experience of seeing Miles at the Black Hawk, which is two blocks
from where I live now. While listening to the record, I take a look
at the record jacket, which has a cool photo of Miles lighting up a
smoke on the front, and on the back a long write-up about the club.
"I've worked and slaved for years to keep this place a sewer," the
original owner is quoted as saying. "Despite admission price, a
standard $1, no musician was ever turned away, and the customers, no
matter how eccentric they may be, are uniformly treated with kindness
I step outside the front door to my building and see that the police
have the street corner all taped off, and I ask one of the police
officers what happened, and he tells me, "Stabbing."
"Is he dead?"
"No. He's living."
"Well, that's good."
There's a coffee shop right outside the door to the building where I
live, and if I wake up before 2:00 P.M., which is the time they close
up shop, I'll walk over and purchase a cup of coffee. I have a
Cuisinart coffeemaker, which I could use to make a fresh pot myself,
but half the time I'm too tired (hungover) and lazy to do so, so I
just step next door, pick up a cup, and take it out with me to the
wooden bench they have set up outside. There's a tree on the sidewalk
in front of the shop that of course has a huge pile of dog shit
surrounding it at all times, since there's assholes out there who
don't police their pets after they take a dump, and while I'm
drinking my coffee, people on their way to work walk past, as well as
people who have the crack hunger, in search of.
I'm sitting there thinking about how Frank, the owner of the 21 Club,
which is one of the great bars, says that the bad times will actually
revitalize the TL, maybe give it sort of a "soul district" feel. As
evidence, he points to the theaters and galleries and music venues
that are opening up. For its part, the 21 Club is starting up a
poetry night soon. I'm thinking about all this as I watch a couple
electricians standing around outside the coffee shop drinking coffee
and smoking cigarettes. One of them asks the other if there's any
more jobs for them to do that day. "A couple," his partner answers. I
notice that the box of lightbulbs they have with them are the
energy-efficient kind, and their job is to go into buildings and
replace all the non-energy-efficient bulbs with those. So even the
Tenderloin is going green, and to celebrate this fact the hookers are
out and about looking for work. There's always some cause for
celebration, and the street in front of my building is a popular spot
for them; always they're there, walking back and forth, all day and all night.
She's heavily made up, wears a black miniskirt with high heels, and a
guy in an old Cadillac spots her and pulls up and she walks over,
opens the door, and steps in, and the two of them drive off as I sit
there on the bench with my sunglasses on, drinking my coffee, and
then I hear a guy commenting to his girl as they're walking by just
how nice a day out it is today, which it is, the sun is out and it's
perfect T-shirt-and-shorts weather, and with a sweet smile she says
back to him, "They say it'll get better tomorrow."