By Susan E. Schmeer
The Tenderloin is as gritty as gritty gets. After three days, the tourists, bored with Union Square, Chinatown, and cable cars, sought the alternative tour—the down and dirty. In San Francisco that led to one place and one place only: the Tenderloin. They ventured into the District, carrying dog-eared copies of The Maltese Falcon in their fanny packs, looking for a Sam Spade avatar in every fleabag hotel and on every barstool. They didn’t linger long.
By three o’clock, the sun, making its daily drop into the Pacific, cast early shadows eastward, darkening alleys and making illegible the faded painted signs—Rooms For Rent $30 a Week—on buildings from the thirties that had defied the tremors that unmoored newer ones uptown. The Tenderloin was never going to go down easy. By four o’clock, the fog, which settles here first in the City by the Bay, sent the braver of the khaki-ed crowd scurrying back to their hotels up on Powell St., clutching their cameras and kids tighter, where, over five o’clock cocktails, they regaled their friends on how cutely authentic the neighborhood is. By five o’clock in the Tenderloin, the drunks and whores were just waking up, along with the cockroaches—both the six- and two-legged species.
Jonesy sat on the sidewalk with his back up against the Paridiso, drinking no-name alcohol made of some unnamed grain out of a bottle from a paper bag. The paper bag was superfluous, like a prop, as the cops didn’t give a rat’s ass about nothin’ and nobody down here. Jonesy’s job was to keep a look out for the Chinaman. Mel threw him a few bucks or a bottle or two of near empties at closing and left him alone to spend his time under the awning out of the rain or next to the sewer vent in the winter, reciting Shakespeare’s lesser-known soliloquies. Like me, Jonesy had once been someone, but I didn’t ask. You never asked. He always greeted me with the “Alas, poor Yorick” line. Every play needs a wise fool, and the Tenderloin is nothing if not a play, a tragedy with a capital “T.”
I got superstitious about Jonesy and went out of my way to go down by Geary St. every day and tap his head three times, waiting for the “Alas” speech. I don’t know why. Maybe I just needed to be reminded of what a fuck-up I was, and Jonesy was my touchstone. But I knew. I knew I was Yorick, a freakish, half-dead, skull of a man still above ground that, by all rights, should have been buried in that graveyard long ago. I had fallen on hard times and fallen into some even harder shit. The Chinaman had his claws into me, and I loved and hated the blood those talons drew. From my bedsit, if I got up on the one chair I owned and torqued my head as far left as it would go, I could see the top of Nob Hill from my window, where I used to live when I used to be alive. I didn’t do that often. Lately, I spent my days counting steps. I started in the Tenderloin, walking its thirty-square-block perimeter, counting each footfall, all 13,120 of them, then Telegraph Hill, the Presidio, the Embarcadero, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mid-span on the bridge, I looked down at the water and then west out to sea, my back to the Tenderloin and to the city of cut-out hearts left behind.
To Be or Not to Be.