Category Archives: Local Characters

This is San Francisco, Too

The people of Sixth Street have been in the forefront of my thoughts lately, so I’ve decided to republish my story — one of my favorites — about two remarkable people I encountered on the street in 2007.

Still Bill

The sun had disappeared behind a shroud of fog that scudded by in great swirling drifts, like the sails of a phantom armada. What had been a warm day was quickly becoming cold. Sixth Street between Market and Howard was all noise and hubbub. The roar of sirens and rush-hour traffic assaulted my ears. Not to be outdone, the Hydra’s voice of inner-city street life roared even louder. Shouts, cries and raucous laughter punctuated a thousand simultaneous conversations. I was glad to finally reach Howard Street, for there the chaos subsided and the sidewalks were empty. As I walked past the rotting hulk of the Hugo Hotel, I overtook a lone pedestrian, a man with a cane, burdened by a backpack and a duffel bag. Moments later, from behind me he cried out, “Hello? Hello?”

Daybreak- Hugo-Hotel

The man sounded desperate, so I retraced my steps to see if I could help. Even from a distance I could see he was troubled. I saw it in the lines of his dark-brown face and in his eyes, but when I stood before him, he seemed hesitant. He tested the water by asking me how I was feeling. Then, encouraged by my friendly response, he said, “I’m still Bill.”

Whether that meant his name was Still Bill or that he remained Bill, I couldn’t tell, so I just asked, “Still Bill?”

Bill’s response left me speechless. As he spoke, I memorized his words. (Bill pronounced “Lucille” and “Mobile” with the same soft “i” as “Bill.”)

“I’m still Bill, always was, always will.
“Had a wife named Lucille,
“Had a home down in Mobile.
“Come the war in Vietnam,
“They sent me off and made me kill.
“Come back a broke-up man,
“Weren’t no more home, no more Lucille.
“She’d gone and left me, but I’m still Bill.”

What could I say to that? I told Bill his poetry, though sad, was beautiful, much like the Blues. Also, standing there in shirtsleeves in the damp wind was giving me a chill. How could I help him? It turned out Bill had become lost trying to find a nearby shelter someone had told him about. I said I would show him the way, offering to carry his bag as we walked.

Once in motion, Bill lurched and wobbled, forcing us to stop several times as I helped him regain his balance. The poisonous fumes of cheap, fortified wine hung in the air around him. Fearing he would stumble into the path of a speeding car, I put his arm through mine when we crossed the street. I had to fight back tears when Bill expressed gratitude, he deserved so much more than I could give him. As we drew near the entrance at the back of the municipal shelter, an old industrial building at Fifth and Bryant, I asked Bill if I could photograph him. The only other person in sight was a Native American woman walking toward us along Fifth Street. Though a stranger to both Bill and me, she soon blithely joined us.

A private moment was instantly broken, but strangely I felt no remorse or resentment. Just to behold this woman was to like her. The light of kindness shined in her eyes. Her smiling countenance was open and serene. She was thickset and earthy, yet her hands were slender and sensitive and she moved with the suppleness and grace of a dancer. Seeing that she was curious, I explained I was photographing Bill to commemorate our encounter. When I suggested that I could also photograph her, she went straight to Bill’s side and gently put her arm around his shoulders.

Tbis was too much for Bill, who was suddenly nervous and fidgety, his shy smile replaced by a self-conscious grimace. I had to distract him, so I played the fool while I shot numerous frames to capture him in an unguarded moment. Manifest in every photograph I took are the woman’s radiance and warmth and her compassion for Bill. Before I departed, she told me she would look after Bill inside the shelter. Knowing what I do of shelters and the way they are operated, her words in retrospect seem naively optimistic, but when she spoke, I believed her with all my heart.

Bill-&-the-Angel

I don’t know her name. For all I know she doesn’t have one. I never thought to ask and probably would have forgotten it anyway, because most names in and of themselves are largely meaningless. We remember people by their actions. I will always remember her for the light and love she shared with Bill and me that cold and foggy afternoon, on a lonely, windblown sidewalk south of Market.

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Filed under Local Characters, Sixth Street

San Francisco’s Hidden Shame

This is a story about Jim Ayers, a friend of mine who for over two decades lived and worked on Sixth Street and devoted himself to improving his community. To give you an idea of what he’s like and what he’s done, here is a piece I wrote about Jim several years ago.

In Praise of a Hero

Jim

I could talk for a long time about Jim Ayers. His life story is not just remarkable, it is truly inspiring, like a tale written by John Steinbeck or Mark Twain. HL Mencken would have loved him. As I have only two minutes to speak, I’ll give you instead the simple, unadorned reasons that Jim is so highly deserving of this award, which I am enormously pleased to be presenting to him.*

Integrity: Jim is the living, breathing definition. He is, without question, the most trusted person in his community. Jim may be a man of few words, but you can be certain that what he says will always be the truth. Blunt, gruff and unpolished, Jim is also one of the most lovable persons I have ever known, and he has a heart to match. A more compassionate man you will not find. Best of all, Jim shares these virtues with his community.

During the eleven years that he worked there, Jim made Grady’s a comfortable and safe haven for the many seniors who live on Sixth Street. It was, in fact, the only place in the neighborhood where they could escape from their lonely, cramped hotel rooms to socialize, have their morning coffee and read the paper. For Jim, tending bar was entirely secondary to providing for the social needs of Sixth Street’s seniors.

Jim has fought tirelessly and single-handedly for the rights and welfare of the tenants of the Lawrence Hotel, where he has lived for the past fourteen years. After years of thankless, solitary struggle at City Hall and in court, and in the face of intimidation, property damage and physical threats, Jim is winning the battle to force Club Six, the bane of Sixth Street residents since it opened, to comply with noise and public nuisance laws. No one has done more for his community than Jim Ayers, a man I am proud to call my friend.

*The text is a speech I gave when presenting Jim with a Community Leadership Award in May 2007. Regarding the photograph, Jim hates having his picture taken, so he’ll make faces or look away if he’s aware of the camera. In order to catch Jim off-guard, I photographed him through a crowd of people from across the Board of Supervisors chambers at City Hall, hence the grainy and tightly cropped image.

Jim was one of the founding members of the Central City SRO Collaborative back in 2001, an organization that was originally intended to improve the quality of life for those who live in residential hotels, and he has steadfastly remained true to that mission ever since, though the organization was long ago subverted by the personal and political agendas of its de facto administrator Randy Shaw.

Several weeks ago, Jim—who is sixty-five years old and subsists on a meager income from Social Security—was evicted by the landlord of the Lawrence Hotel for purely political reasons, and he has been living on the streets in his pickup truck ever since. Jim is a very proud man and refuses to use my shower or just come to my place to get some rest. People and organizations that should be tripping over each other to offer him housing have been consistent in their inability or outright refusal to help in any way.

If this story makes you uncomfortable, tough shit. I want it to. This is what life is like when you’re poor, even if you have a public presence and have devoted years of your life to improving your community. Fact is, poor people don’t count, and San Francisco, for all it’s self-serving “progressives” and self-congratulatory back patting, simply doesn’t give a fuck.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re sitting in your comfortable home, reading this on your expensive iPad, thinking, “Gee, how awful. Thank God, that can never happen to me,” think again. Years ago, I lost everything and endured nearly six years of homelessness here in San Francisco,* and I can tell you from first-hand experience that life can be a selfish and unpredictable bitch. The real question is, are you going to watch from the sidelines or get involved? Whether you like it or not, this is about all of us.

*If you want the details, read my Personal History.

UPDATE, 02 Nov 12, 4:30pm: Good news! Jim has been offered temporary housing and Don Falk, the director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, has been working with me to help get Jim a permanent place in one of their buildings as soon as possible. Thanks to all who have responded from the bottom of my heart. If you’d like to donate to TNDC for stepping forward to help, here is where to do it.

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Filed under Local Characters, Messages, Mid-Market, Sixth Street, Tenderloin

“Cutting Ball Theater brings ‘Tenderloin’ to Stage”

Read-through - David

“Read-through – David” (2012)

From a feature article by Chad Jones in the weekend “Arts and Entertainment” section of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Cutting Ball Theater, in the heart of the Tenderloin, is turning its neighborhood into a work of theatrical art.

Read more here.

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Filed under Events, Local Characters, Tenderloin

“Tenderloin”

"Tenderloin" Read-Through_01

“David Sinaiko as Mark”

Last night I sat in on a read-through of Cutting Ball Theater‘s new play “Tenderloin” by Annie Elias. I have to admit it’s not just uncanny, it’s also somewhat discomfiting listening to a seasoned actor play the part of yourself. That said, it was amazing to see and hear so many people I know come to life in the faces and voices of the “Tenderloin” cast. The play’s gala opening night is scheduled for 04 May 2012 at the Exit Theater on Taylor Street and it promises to be a doozy.

"Tenderloin" Cast

“‘Tenderloin’ Cast” David Sinaiko, Leigh Shaw, David Westley Skillman, Rebecca Frank, Siobhan Marie Doherty (not pictured) Tristan Cunningham, Michael Kelly

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