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As the Bus Turns, Part 5
I don’t know. I am not sure. I was in the midst of battling through a hangover the size of Arkansas, the grenadiers in my skull taking full advantage of the opportunity to pester me like an infiltration of mosquitoes, and the last place in the world I wanted to be was on the 27-Bryant headed south. But, as is often the case, one is never quite where one wishes one were most. A real cement mixer of a morning, to say the least. The beef-broth sky was just a grubby scramble diced with mushes of unrefined deliverance — my head was in about the same condition. I kept all things nonessential out of the picture, doing a lot of sidewalk gazing as I hobbled toward the bus stop at Hyde and Clay. There’s only so much one can take at a time like this.
That heaving mastication of garbage trucks had woken me well before my friable brain was ready to embark on the natural or unnatural order of things. But there was enough whiskey left in the previous night’s bottle to make my coffee worthwhile, and so all was not quite as terrible as it could have been. Still, I was not below bemoaning my current station.
Ever the more, I soft-boiled it over Clay Street hill’s acme, momentarily halting my gait to admire the view in all four directions, and then it was onward and downward to meet what destiny awaited the haggard and puling dedication of your ever-tippling correspondent.
My eyes ran the gamut, from the curb to the fire hydrant to the dew-slathered hedge to the sidewalk lined with cigarette butts and squashed-and-dragged-along dog droppings to the row of bored pigeons alit on a power line. A frigid draft punched at me while I stood and shivered and attempted to contemplate the complicated world of rotifers, but instead I just sighed, “Morning, dipshits,” and counted the bricks in a menacingly overwrought housing structure that reminded me of that other coast of this grand old land, that seaboard so far away to the east, where the mammoth breadth and scope of this substantial abode would not be out of place. I faked a few coughs into a fist and waited for hide or hair of a bus.
“Robert Louis Stevenson…”
This came at me like a furious jelly sandwich. It turned out to be a fidgety woman who looked about the way I felt, carved from lesser stuff than marble, of course. Fighting the urge to not respond, I goofed up and gave her a blurt for her trouble: “What was that?”
“Mr. Hyde. He was a real good one, huh? Wasn’t he?”
“Oh. You mean like the street name. I get it. Yeah. He was alright, I guess.”
She shriveled into a dried prune’s acceptance of all things gone to hell. I told her, “You can go to Heaven now, my dear.” She accepted my rejoinder with a suspicious and batty grin, and then vanished into the grips of some low-lying fog. Just another specter mouthing off in the befuddling nature of common sense and discourteous dispositions.
The 27-Bryant, one of the few north–south lines around these parts (if one does not count the cable cars…and one never should), from Russian Hill all the way through the mad hassle of midtown and past freeway-off-ramp jams and along Bryant up into the cozier clumps of the Mission. It can be a stressful and slow-going affair, an endless barrage of stops that seem to come at every possible place anyone could ever think to slap some red paint on a curb. I was in no mood to deal with any of these eventualities, but there were affairs that needed attending to, and there was only one sad sack who’d agreed to their attending: yours ever-so truly. I cursed my god-awful luck as the bus ravaged its way toward me.
The gurgle of my stomach’s churning was enough to wake a small family of rats, and I slouched in my seat to rest my muddled head against an arm that I’d propped on the window ledge. Somewhere, there was a piano sonata playing for someone, but not here, nor for me. I wanted a cigarette in a small café with a cup of bourbon to keep me company. There was nothing left to do but suck it up and wait out the bus’s course along Mr. Stevenson’s Hyde.
A rollicking burst snapped me out of my hideous torment, and I woke to the oleander rights of nobody else’s way, so to say. Trader Joe’s flashed by as I recalculated my prepositional state, listing forward a tad to compensate for this sudden spate of conscious wherewithal. A few escaped inmates of a make-believe mental institution were frolicking across Pine, where the signal was not in their favor. Luckily, our steel-nerved bus driver made sure to avoid a collision with these two Crossers Against The Light, and we rolled through the intersection without incident.
Apprehensively, I engaged a top-hatted mattress salesman who was lingering on a facing seat behind me, his face much closer to my proximity than I was comfortable with, as the bus hiccupped from stop to stop through the tender portions of Nob Hill’s southern slope.
“Well, if it isn’t the man of yesterday’s hour.”
“We’re at it again.”
“Sure. But these hot-plate homes are off the market now, and there’s vodka instead of steaks in the freezer.”
“The SRO life, I guess. Market rate? Nothing’s ever close enough to wing it, but we still do. And the buses all run on time here, huh?”
I’m not sure who was doing most of this jawing, but I was getting nostalgic for other afternoons as some hooligan scaled the St. Francis Hospital’s scaffolding on Bush, and the bus hung a left, and soon I spotted the closed-down pizza place I used to frequent, as well as the former Blockbuster Video store that had been repurposed into a gym, and we scuffled and tipped a right turn onto Jones, and all was downhill from there. I dreamed through the laminated glass windows to a corner store, finding myself pining for the day I could walk in there and put a bottle on the counter and say something to the clerk like, “Just this guy for me.” But, alas, I was consigned to be a passenger on this bus, smooching its puttering way from one stop to the next.
I held my head and tried to focus on objects. Voices hushed and carried all around me as more riders decided to join us on our little trip through the Tenderloin.
“Roland bounced. He needed to buy cigarettes and put some cash on his Clipper card, and so went into Walgreens. Missed the bus, the dope.”
“You? You’ve just got to realize the indispensable nature of your worthlessness…and tell all the barmen to keep ’em coming, too.”
“You get woken up by that ass munch yodeling this morning?”
“Ah. The Clay Street Screamer. He’s back? Good for him. I missed his operatic siren calls.”
We hurtled down Jones and were really picking up steam when a discourteous rattle bombarded my senses. We’d taken on a group of sightseers—cameras and fanny packs and visors and Alcatraz T-shirts, the whole bit. They were a rambunctious bunch, tethered to a vacation high, blabbering and holding souvenir-style maps, trying to figure out just where they were and where they were off to next. High-end hotels and SRO hovels abounded, jammed up right next to each other, the lines between rich and poor distinct yet razor-thin between.
And so it has primarily always gone in the Tenderloin, so named for the high quantity and quality of bribes cops were offered there, in accordance with the old notion that “where the money flows, there also vice goes.” And so, as one esteemed officer allegedly was fond of saying when he pulled shifts in the area, “I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.”
Most of the buildings still around this area arose between 1906 and the Great Depression and were made of solid fire-resistant stuff like brick and reinforced concrete walls. No wood was allowed, as folks were still traumatized by the loss of the 1906 post-earthquake fire. At the time of all this rebuilding and construction, it was easy to market multi-unit residences between three and seven stories. Most were apartment/hotels that sold quick and aged terribly, yet many still stand, their deep-set windows and weathered bricks coated with generations of soot and grime. These crumbling monuments, now mostly turned into single-room occupancies (SROs), make up most of the Tenderloin scenery, except for those that were razed to make way for parking lots or Hiltons.
The area is still on the seedier side and of late has been the site of many below-market-rate housing projects, even as the fancy folks try to crowd out the denizens with their cocktail parlors and high-end dining joints and Ellis Act condos. The controlling nonprofits still hold strong to the multitude of SROs that were formerly regal hotels of the post-earthquake construction boom, welcoming the indigent and unfortunate with their glazed-brick facades, molded and multicolored brick tiers of windows of two-part vertical composition; rusticated piers and galvanized iron cornices; chipped and peeling Renaissance-Baroque ornamentation; grand vestibules with grander arched entryways; marble walls; coffered ceilings; and flashy neon blade signs. As to how long the abatement of yuppie encroachment can be fended off is anyone’s guess, but I venture that the Tenderloin will continue to survive as it always has: with the grace, grit, and steadfast determination of the working poor.
Something was curdling in my intestines, and I became quite acutely aware of an impending need to evacuate. Around the bend on Eddy, where the famous Bristol Hotel used to be, and up toward the unabashed crush of humanity at Market’s aorta, I held tight and contemplated my next move.
There wasn’t an easy out in this town bereft of public restrooms, and I was able to quash my queasiness with some solid and calm thoughts.
The wheels slid up against the curb, and there was much mashing and rumbling as the doors opened to unload and reload the bus’s nearing-max-capacity passengers. Then, out of some insufferable nowhere, came the inimitable sound of the bus ramp being lowered. A man in a motorized wheelchair awaited its flat scooping platform.
Some chatty fellow in a green-and-gold Oakland A’s T-shirt was screaming through the bus’s high back window at a mischievous character in a shabby white suit on the street. People amassed around the cable car turnaround and fled up and down the escalators and stairs to the BART station, flooding that drab Brutalist pigeon coop and busker haven of Hallidie Plaza. The bus-stop shelter was crammed with sitters who weren’t necessarily waiting for a ride, but just passing the time with a nice place to sit and see and be seen, some with brown lunch bags concealing what I could only imagine were adult beverages.
The bus tipped and tottered as the wheelchair was lifted, and soon the driver cleared an area for it, pushing seats up and locking them into place. Passengers previously sitting there were now grabbing handrails and standing somewhere else. The guy in the wheelchair whizzed into place and locked his wheels and gave the driver a thumbs-up.
A dog got on the bus through the back door, and then its owner followed. The tawdry mutt decided my lap would be a great place to rest its head, and soon a pool of drool had gathered on my pant leg. The owner apologized as I brushed the beast off, but the damage had been done. I was now the owner of a large Idaho-shaped stain upon my inner thigh. MUNI allows service animals to ride the buses unmuzzled, but what constitutes a “service” animal is of anybody’s determination. I once had a going-nowhere conversation with a young eye-patch-wearing chap over what he deemed his “emotional support parrot,” which had just deposited a decent amount of excrement onto my shoe.
We loafed and idled at 5th and Market for what was probably long enough to fix a decent lunch, and I settled in and resigned myself to some pedestrian watching. Walk signs flashed green, and walkers bombarded the pavement between the imaginary safety of crosswalks’ white lines. Trolleys croaked along through it all—those shiny, refurbished PCC cars obtained by MUNI from transportation systems all over the world, relics of a long-gone past dropped into the modern melee of traffic’s harsh, booming crush. The Westfield Centre inhaled shoppers and vomited them back out through ever-revolving doors, as its newer companion, Nordstrom Rack, did much the same across 5th. It was all hot air to me, as my innards mulched and my head did much the same. A strong drink would’ve been my dearest agent of assuage, but, alas, I was checked by the constraints of a commitment to be at a certain place at a certain time, and by MUNI’s strict no-beverage policy. And so it goes as it mostly always does, hic manebimus optime, for your inconsequential correspondent.
After only a few eons had gone by, the doors slapped shut, and we were cantering off over Market and on through the light.
The Old Mint, in all of its decaying glory, stood still-regal, though more than a few blemishes from pristine, behind its fire-scarred gates. Mold gathered in its fountains on the patchy grass as pigeons slept perched in alcoves and on the eaves. We hitched up to the sidewalk by its southernmost quarters, where not one, but two women with strollers hollered at the driver to put the ramp down for them. He fruitlessly argued against their entrance onto the bus’s already crowded and wheelchair-taken-up space, but they were adamant in their vociferous concerns over having to wait another half-hour for another bus. And so, the ramp was lowered, to the audible dissatisfaction of the already cramped riders.
I tried to be a good sport about the whole affair, shifting and clawing my way to the back of the bus and standing in a slender space between the facing seats and the back row of rear forward-facers. Loads of others soon fled back there, and we had quite a time of it, grumbling and making aggrieved expressions as the ramp lifted one stroller, and then the next. Room was made available to them, as much as was possible, and they soon were hitched up, half blocking the aisle. Astride a few facing seats, the little ones in their swaddling bands were obliviously asleep to the whole affair.
The Gothic-Revival Chronicle Building (once scholastic and romantic to signify the business of selling news, now stucco-clad) across the way on Mission will most likely be one of the few old-timers in this area a decade from now. For better or worse, the “5M” project will have transformed this South-of-the-Slot area into a four-acre “arts- and community-oriented district,” with two high-rise residential buildings and one for offices and more than an acre of new public open space. The project will supposedly renovate three historic buildings as well: the Chronicle Building, the Dempster Brothers Printing Building on Minna, and the two-story Camelline Building. There will be all sorts of sidewalk widenings, and improvements are promised to Mint Plaza and an open public space called Mary Court. A benefit of all this refurbishing and skyscrapering will be more than 200 units of below-market-rate housing, including a good portion for seniors, and even some transitional housing for those who are between permanent residences. Built in 1907, the 12,000 square-foot, fire-ravaged Dempster Building on Minna has been slated to reopen as an office space for the arts, giving some affordable roominess to what are deemed “cultural nonprofits.” And, to top it all off, they’ll be donating a cool million smackers for technical studies and capital improvements to the time-weary Old Mint. It’s a far cry from this whole area’s former Skid Row past, where weekly rate transient hotels once lined the blocks. That was long before Moscone Center came to dominate the landscape, displacing all the elderly and low-income residents who’d previously resided there. Today, this South of Market Area (SOMA) is a hotbed of molecular gastronomy restaurants and mixology bars, a world of towering condos for millionaires who use its streets as a playground for their soft-bellied carousing. But cantankerous, sappy fellows like myself have been grousing about changing demographics and harkening back to better times since well before telephone numbers had letters in them. And so it goes. All is change. We must adapt and move on.
My katzenjammer spell was narrowing in, squeezing its pincers on my temples, and I held on with a wobble and a grimace as the well-beyond-maximum-capacity bus finally kerplunked across Mission.
A frazzled and quite delirious man was attempting to converse with a young woman in a chemise blouse among my fellow tightly packed standees. His blundering advances were hard to ignore, as she had neither the space nor the strength to shoo him off elsewhere. I could sense her distress and at once came to the realization that somebody would have to fend off this pest for her, and that somebody was going to be your crapulous narrator in residence. I was in no mettle-testing mood, but perforce, I retrieved a small notebook from my coat pocket and proceeded to gently swat at him a few times, telling him something to the tune of, “Just let her be, buddy. Leave her alone, okay?” Incredibly, it worked, and he sauntered off, bumping through to the midsection of the bus. As cute as bubblegum, she thanked me for my efforts. I doffed an imaginary cap to her. The bus slammed on the brakes at Harrison, and we all swayed and held tight against the welling surge.
“You know where to get off for the courthouse?”
This was a sunburnt chap in khakis and a white T-shirt whose face resembled a clenched fist. He was enveloping much of my personal space, and I had no reasonable choice but to respond.
“It’s on Bryant. You can get off at 6th and walk under the freeway, south. You’ll be there in a jiffy.”
After some explanatory investigations into what the current definition of “south” was, he was able to comprehend my directions and exited at 6th Street. I watched sadly as he walked north down 6th. The poor sap, existing as he was in this faulty man-made world, so disconnected from his natural history, unable to find his way even in this city built with the express purpose of making life easier to negotiate. I wished him the best of times as the bus followed the freeway east along Harrison.
We hurtled by the End Up and the Stud, two late-night haunts that have stood time’s test and are still standing, and soon we were side-by-side with Costco’s gray-brick fortress wall. We hitched a sharp left onto 11th, where they’d recently installed a wide green bike lane behind the bus stop. The loud, doorbell-like chime of the wheelchair stop request ding-donged, and space was made for the motorized wheelchair to make its exit. The two strollers put a hitch in the giddyup, but after a few back-and-forths and re-anglings and lifting of feet, arrangements were made and the lift was lowering the wheelchair and its occupant to the sidewalk. Many people squeezed by and tussled through the rear doors, this stop being a connector for the 9-San Bruno, 12-Folsom, and 47-Van Ness lines. The opened-up space was refreshing, and I delighted in this small newfound freedom of movement. Soon we were off to what I believe to be the longest light in San Francisco: the five-way intersection at Division beneath the freeway overpass.
Of course, we missed the light.
A tent encampment of those with no homes to go home to was spread out along the wide sidewalk under the overpass. I gazed at the strung-together lives of these plucky souls, sleeping on the hard concrete, easy prey for night’s ne’er-do-wells even under the flimsy cover of their tents. I wished them all safe nights and brighter futures, perhaps in a place where all of us citizens gave something back to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Onward the bus pounded along, stopping briefly at Bryant’s awkward edge as it nosed southward into the Mission. My head throbbed and my pulse raced as my need increased for some liquid absolution from my previous night’s missteps, preferably in the form of gin washed with a touch of tonic.
Seals Stadium used to dominate this block of 16th, where a giant shopping center parking lot now sits. The stadium was built during the Great Depression and opened in 1931. It was home to two minor league teams: the San Francisco Seals and the Mission Reds. The latter moved south to Los Angeles in 1938 and became the Hollywood Stars. The Giants played their first two seasons there while Candlestick Park was being constructed. (The park was finally demolished in 1959.) I have been known to wander into that parking lot late at night, behooved by a few martinis or seven, and play a make-believe game of baseball by myself, pretending to be in that old Queen of Concrete all those years ago, playing with Joltin’ Joe and his brothers while Lefty O’Doul looked on.
Just north of the shopping center there still stands a 43,000-square-foot building, erected in 1893, where MUNI’s Overhead Lines Maintenance operations have been housed since 1947. It’s a great faded-brick beauty squatting there among forgotten things, and on the back, beneath a gothic window, is a sign that reads “Municipal Railway Overhead Lines.” Regrettably, the building is not in compliance with San Francisco’s Unreinforced Masonry Building Code, and the cost to seismically upgrade this facility is estimated at more than $21 million. Thus, MUNI has been forced to relocate its equipment and workers to a younger Burke Avenue facility. The city’s Real Estate Division will soon be appraising and selling this crumbling landmark to the highest bidder, most likely leading to its ultimate destruction and/or downfall.
My own personal destruction and/or downfall had come to a rousing crescendo in my skull just as a loud thwacking thump snapped the whole bus forward. It seemed some absentminded truck driver had rear-ended our dear 27-Bryant. Always one to err on the side of caution, our reliable driver expertly pulled to the curb close to 16th and picked up the black rotary-style handset phone to the right of his seat. As he told us he was “going to have to call it in,” every last passenger on the bus either sighed or groaned or made the requisite facial expression to signal dismay and aggravation.
Soon we were all making our way off the bus, as it seemed this whole ordeal would last longer than it would take any of us to either wait for another bus or walk to our current destination. The two strollers had to be folded up for a disembarkment without the ramp, as the driver would not perform any relevant functions until his supervisors arrived on the scene. The cries of the wakened tots rung my already ringing ears something awful.
I tried to regain my composure and bearings by the roadside as the truck driver sat in sad penitence, parked behind us. One of the greatest signs in San Francisco history used to reside above all of this, atop what was once the 13-story Hamm’s brewery on Bryant. It was the most sterling of beacons in the skyline: an 18-foot-diameter golden glass of 5,000-lightbulb “beer” that filled with white neon foam. A steam machine blew smoke from its top. This neon chalice, once the largest electric sign west of Chicago, is long gone, as is the brewery and its mammoth vats (once used as free practice spaces in the late 1970s by fledgling punk-rock bands who dubbed themselves “Vat Rats”). The brewery closed down for good in 1975, and all that’s left is a multiuse building at 1550 Bryant with a few pictures of the famous beer-glass sign in the lobby.
As for your capsized correspondent, I decided that a drink or a few more at the Double Play Bar across 16th would subdue the demons lurking in the folds of my aching head until matters no longer pressed close enough for them to matter. I gathered myself fittingly, straightening my tie and adjusting my collar and cuffs, and strode just a mite below gallantly to the south, in hopes of reconciling the current plight and disordered scuffle I plaintively refer to as my life, perhaps toasting all the somehow fortuitous (or so I hoped, at least) circumstances that had amenably brought me to this agreeable point in the scheme of all my ordeals, with one foot on the rail and my head safely tucked away in the suds of the glorious past.