Tag Archives: people

A Most Uncommon Man

My dear friend Serge Echeverria, who is now in his eighties, was injured recently in a serious fall. Since then, I have been unable to reach him, although I have learned that family members have come from Chile to San Francisco to be with him. Serge is often in my thoughts, now more than ever, simply because he is one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known. I first met him around the time I began photographing the central city and ever since then he has been a friend and source of inspiration. In fact, Up From The Deep is dedicated to him. If you are interested in San Francisco history, you should know about Serge, thus I am republishing my tribute to him in slightly edited form, hoping that you will find him as inspiring as I do.

Temple of the Heart’s Imagination

My first photo of Serge - Feb 2003

My First Photograph of Serge (13 February 2003)

On the last Wednesday of August 2010, I met with my friend Serge at the same little coffee house on Geary Street where we have often met in the past. It had been far too long since our last visit, so there was much catching up to do. Our conversation went on for nearly three hours, though it hardly felt like it. I took many photographs while we talked, attempting to capture the range and flow of his expression, but my favorites are the ones that show his hands.

Serge and I like to give each other little gifts of pictures and writing. On this particular visit, I gave Serge a print titled “Empty Buildings” and he gave me a stanza from Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stages” and a copy of “Nothing Is Invisible” by Aaron Nudelman. The lines from Hesse follow the next photo.


“Serge” (2010)

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making.


“Serge” (2010)

Serge’s journey through life has taken him to every corner of the world. His wealth of knowledge and experience far surpasses that of most mortals; yet he loves nothing more than sharing this wealth with others, embracing anyone who crosses his path as a fellow traveler. Here, briefly, is Serge’s story:

There is a tide in the affairs of man, that taken in the flood leads to fortune… I feel the urge to emigrate… Deposit my mother’s inheritance in a Swiss bank? I drop out of law school (with only one year left) but… yielding to domestic pressure, I content myself with traveling in my native land from the northern desert to the Antarctic peninsula and beyond it to Easter Island; and circumnavigating my native continent (by land through Patagonia) to “settle” as the traditional land owner, but after my first “agricultural” year I feel the urge to go in search of “psychology”. So I fly to New York where I find a mentor. I feel that I have been born in Manhattan, 1948.


“Serge” (2010)

From New York, Serge traveled in search of his ancestry and the ancient roots of civilization; to Rome, Greece, Egypt, the South Sea Islands, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Western Europe, and eventually back to his native Chile where the farm had been leased, to build a new house for the family and dwellings for the tenants, which he then left to his father and a farmer-administrator. Feeling the urge to express himself on the stage, he embarked to Hollywood, leaving behind a girl with whom he had contemplated marriage.

Possessed of the sacred fire, my debut on the Hollywood stage is a great success (without any previous experience), but I decline even a Studio Agent proposition; I just feel that I have become an actor in the spectacle of the world! In ’48 with my psychological achievement I feel that “I have it.” In 1957, enhanced by my stage manifestation, I realize that “I can do it.” Ready, willing and able to participate.


“Serge” (2010)

From Hollywood Serge continued to globe hop, producing and participating in various theater and cinematic projects in Europe and South America (Serge is fluent in all the Romance languages) and working as an activist in humanitarian causes from Cuba to China. Finally, in 1964, “San Francisco (became) my present!” Since then, he has taught at the Free University of Berkeley and New College of California, and worked with the San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the theater department at San Francisco State University. Until the end of 1999, he worked as a certified court interpreter, and until more recently, as a bilingual proficiency test technician for the City and County of San Francisco.

Serge’s energy and dedication are boundless. He is an agent, a catalyst, an activist for the arts and philosopy; facilitating, encouraging, supporting and inspiring all who cross his path, helping them to realize their dreams according to the present and in terms of the future, revealing “the thinker and the poet in my fellow workers.”


“Serge” (2010)

I first met Serge in the Tenderloin at a campaign kickoff party for our district supervisor in 2002. Refreshments at the party included several enormous chocolate flat cakes, of which I took two large slices. Upon helping himself to some cake, a slender, well-disposed gentleman, perhaps in his seventies, with aristocratic features and bright, deep-set eyes, sat down next to me. I made some comment about my love of chocolate, to which he replied that the Toltec concept of friendship included sharing a hot cacao beverage while seated under a cacao tree. I remembered reading something about the Toltec (or was it the Olmec?) in one of my boyhood books, Indians of the Americas, but whatever I learned had been lost in time. Serge shared his extensive knowledge with me, revealing that he had even translated some Toltec poetry. The party receded into background noise as we conversed and thus our friendship was begun.

Conversation With Serge

“Conversation With Serge” (2003)

One chill and foggy day in 2003, while waiting for Serge outside the little coffee house on Geary Street, enrapt with the unending pageant of motley souls on the sidewalks before me, my ruminations ineluctably centered on the transient nature of life, inspiring me to take the following photograph, titled “Just Passing Through.” The verse is from a small collection of Toltec poems translated through the Spanish by Serge, which a few days after our first meeting over chocolate cake, I had discovered in my mailbox, enclosed with a letter Serge had written to celebrate our new found friendship.

Just Passing Througn

We have come to dream.
Suddenly we come out of the dream. . . .
And we have only come to dream.
It is not true; it is not true that we have come
to live upon this earth.
Our lives are as the grass in spring.
Our hearts give birth to flowers from our flesh
and make them germinate.
Some open their corollas, others fade.
You have lived your songs, opened your flowers,
lived your lives!


Filed under Local Characters, Tenderloin

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 essay—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 down inner city streets 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, but beyond Howard Street 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 called, “Hello? Hello?”

Daybreak- Hugo-Hotel

The man sounded genuinely distressed, 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?”

I was ill-prepared for what came next. As he spoke, I frantically tried to commit Bill’s words to memory.

“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.”

Someone had told Bill a shelter was nearby and he had become lost trying to find it. I said I would show him the way, offering to carry his bag while we walked. Bill had been drinking and was unsteady on his feet, obliging us to stop several times as I helped him regain his balance. I put his arm through mine when we crossed the street, for traffic was heavy and I was afraid he would stumble into the path of a speeding car. When Bill expressed gratitude, it went straight to my heart, experience having taught me that when you are homeless, penniless, lost and alone, most people ignore you.

The municipal shelter was in an old industrial building at Fifth and Bryant. As we drew near the entrance at the back of the building, 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. Such an intrusion would normally inspire remorse or resentment, but strangely, I felt not the slightest twinge of either. Simply to behold this woman was to like her. In her eyes shined the light of kindness. 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 and suggested that I could also photograph her. Much to my delight, she went straight to Bill’s side and gently put her arm around his shoulders, but Bill was now like a wooden mannequin, his 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.


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. If such things as angels exist, she was surely one of them.


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


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.


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