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Of course I love the Tenderloin, let me tell you why…

Cheap beer and fun people...

Because I don’t fit into a box…

Because like everyone else, I’m complex and also, conflicted and contradictory…and I never saw all of these elements so put on display as the five years I lived in a building at the corner of Turk and Leavenworth. That conflict is why I moved away, but the affection is why, in nine months…I’m moving back…

And among my favorite attractions is the seediness, is the open air everything, is the possibility of the unknown. So many suburbs, or the homogenized cities and neighborhoods of our country, when one walks out the door, one knows what one will get: a Burger King, a McDonalds, a convenience store, several rounds of shiny people stomping past you on the street, some hello’s maybe…and all of it mundane, but not in the TL. In the Tenderloin, anything can happen, both good and bad and if you stay on the streets long enough, all of it typically will. Very few semi-lawless places still exist in this country, and take it or leave it, the Tenderloin is one of those last remaining, crumbling demonstrations of the best and worst of American culture.

Street art and public drunkenness…loud games of Mahjong played behind steel security doors and that guy, sleeping below a blanket strung between two shopping carts…Vietnamese sandwich shops and human shit between parked cars…great music, drag shows and classic architecture…neon signs, strip clubs and dive bars, and not the trendy kind of dive bars either…small neighborhood parks where kids play, people walking by you chanting “klonopins,” or “OC’s” or “solids,” a fist fight on the corner, watched from a window eating cheap, but great tacqueria food…hypodermic needles in the gutter and a man hitting a crack pipe beneath his t-shirt, stretched over his head, but he’s not wearing pants. Siren after siren after siren as the keystones jump off the fire engine, race inside the SRO only to…wait for it, wait for it…stiffly walk back out, grumbling as they get behind the wheel and drive back to the station.

It’s the Tenderloin, and it is an amazing place to be.

Oh, and did I mention I’m a social worker?

Sure am…I’ve been in the field for twenty years, everything from an adult crisis worker to a mental health worker in shelters and support service hotels, doing the job by day while at night, I took in my surroundings on late night strolls through the TL, emerging from my apartment on Pill Corner, roundabout midnight and walking until three am…walking and watching and watching some more…

And I was never terrorized, robbed, beaten up… None of it.

In all those years of wandering, nothing ever happened, not while talking to the dealers I came to know a bit outside of my building, or the many midnight street corner conversations with prostitutes, maybe handing out a cigarette, not even the addicts I came to know through my work by day or streets at night.

Yeah, I spotted the beginnings of a robbery attempt a couple of times: the baseball bat inside the trenchcoat on Turk near Jones, or the guy coming up behind me on Larkin, between O’Farrell and Geary while the guy in front tried stopping me for a light at four am. Once I called 911 after the stranger I was talking to got jumped at Ellis and Hyde, waited around to make sure the ambulance came and hell, I even called in a body I stumbled across underneath the Moser Apartment overhang on Turk Street, right by the grocery store, the one owned by that cool asian couple who let me borrow their hand truck when I moved…and that’s what I’m talking about…for all the BS this neighborhood takes on, the good stuff I saw creates an equal balance. From the toothless woman who begged change outside the Walgreens on Van Ness and Eddy, introducing me to her boyfriend and proudly telling me they were now engaged, to the guy I often spoke to out front of the corner store at Eddy and Leavenworth, with him telling me through his crusty beard about his successful heart surgery…and I won’t soon forget the client I worked with at the shelter for just two weeks before he disappeared, only to have him break down and cry when I ran into him on the streets a year later outside Ken’s chinese resteraunt at Polk and Eddy, emotional just because I remembered his name, and addressed him by it.

People.

They’re all people, as much as the other people in the city want to forget that basic fact.

The main newspaper in town, they love to celebrate the occasional entrepeneur who raises himself up, out of the ashes of these streets, makes a success and though these people should be celebrated, they shouldn’t be held up as a beacon to judge those not yet in the light. What about the guy who cries as you walk him into his first hotel room, the first place he’s been able to call his own in ten years. I’ve seen it, a number of times…let’s celebrate that guy too and let’s celebrate the people who made it through their haze, the needle or the pipe to get to another day, and another opportunity to do better, to be better. Yeah, celebrate them and don’t use the guy who made it shining shoes as an excuse to condemn those who pissed on yours. Rags to riches make nice narratives, but they are the rare reality and surely not the benchmark with which to judge the rest of the neighborhood.

Wanna know when you give up on an individual, for every poor choice he makes?

You don’t.

Shit, you want to really fix the Tenderloin? Create jobs, lower rents, drug treatment, treatment, treatment… You want to get rid of panhandlers? You gotta do more than give people a fucking room and call it a day…

That’s the reality.

The rest is just bitching from behind closed doors.

And contrary to popular belief it seems, surprisingly enough, social workers in the neighborhood, with rare exception, do want these problems fixed. Me too, just depends on what you mean by fixed.

If you mean fixed, by driving out the service providers and cutting back support systems, some 90′s vain attempt to tough love an entire community into the grave, or to Oakland..then no, I disagree.

If you mean more support and less giving up, if you mean more proven programs and less cutbacks, if you mean not using the SFPD as your gateway to the social service system…then yeah, we got something to work from, we got the beginnings of a truer narrative we can use to tell the whole story, because saying something isn’t working due to simple statistics is the same as saying Newsom made great strides with the homeless problem because the annual counts decreased.

That doesn’t tell the whole story…not even half of it.

The Tenderloin is one big contradiction, it’s why I feel so at home there. Imagine, a social worker who spends his days trying to help solve problems, while at night feeling creatively stimulated by the atmospheric effects of same, said problems.

I agree, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I can’t deny it’s how I feel most days, and it may be a difficult place, personally, to speak from, but I’m going to try nonetheless. I like to write, and I find ugliness inspiring, especially when a sliver of beauty becomes visible inside of it…that’s the best, like witnessing two homeless addicts protecting each other from a predator on Jones Street.

Sometimes all we got is each other, and I find that inspiring.

Now, before CW Nevius gets his knickers in a bunch and uses anything I might say here as proof of how the social service system is illegitimate, maybe begins a new push to turn sit/lie, into stand/breathe…let me say, I actually agree with a couple of things he has to say…one or two of the few dozen he continually recycles…let me also say I’ve actually met the man. He may not remember, but back when he began his crusade against social service networks and homeless people alike, I had the misfortune of giving him a tour of one of our city’s shelters, and I found him to be personally disagreeable inasmuch as he seemed far too pleased with himself…but bottom line…you can fix the Tenderloin by helping out those in need, even more so than is presently done, or you can drive the people in need, out. I won’t claim to know CW’s position, but I will say mine trends strongly towards more services…much more…more help, and giving up?

You simply don’t.

So yeah, that’s it for now…but more to come in the near future…and until then, the next time you find yourself having a beer at the Brown Jug or the 21 Club…take a look around, I just might be there…

You know, watching.

Have a nice day…

-Drake

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