Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

“Hey, get out of there.”
“Get the fuck out of that car.”
“Yeah you come back here.”
“Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Just plain

Living in China he became inured to the pleas of the homeless, crippled, and burned. Embarrassed by his riches, even in the earliest days of part-time jobs teaching his native tongue to children for the barest of stipends, he gave coins as they came to him. A few in the morning, to the boy with but one arm in the Hengshan Lu subway station. They were the same age, he and the boy, or close.  One of them was surviving in a foreign land on the gifts of his birthplace, the other in a city far from his home on the gifts of those who pitied his loss of limb and with it the ability to work the land he had come from. A five on occasion to the old man who tottered in front of the Lawson convenience store on Gao An Lu, a bamboo stick for his cane, Mao-era blues padded underneath with layers and layers of clothing to blunt the wind. Most of the time this old man waited with his eyes closed, though he was not blind, arising with his cup only when alerted by the sensor at the Lawson’s door of a customer’s exit. The creative use of this annoying ding dong amused the boy from America and he did what he could.

But in time the numbers overwhelmed his ability to care, and aside from those he already recognized he gave sparingly. Cripples on carts dragging themselves down Shanxi Nan Lu elicited no sympathy. Neither did women holding hungry children they may or may not have borne. The enterprise that it had become, that it perhaps had always been, was too obvious, and the women who banged at his arms as he exited the subway were too brusque. Only music still made him search out spare change, flute players and trumpeters, the old man with an erhu and others with instruments whose names he did not know. This, he reckoned, was not charity at all, but payment for joy, for the echoes in the subway and the kind welcome home after a long day’s journey.

With this mentality he moved back to the country of his native tongue. The number of potentially self-maimed youths lying on the sidewalk was comfortingly less, and yet the total numbers didn’t seem to change.

In San Francisco though they are not burn victims or legless farmers, they are not his age, and their injuries are invisible. Some, when approached inadvertently, scream, or curse his presence. There are those who simply ask for money, and those with clever signs that read “It’s morning I need coffee,” and on the reverse “No lie I want to buy wine.” The startling part, to this boy grown accustomed to China’s injured masses, is not the wit but the vehemence, the random verbal assaults. One day as he exits the bus he comes face to face with the neighborhood woman. He has no other term for her, but she can always be found somewhere on the two blocks to either side of his apartment. Often she hides behind the tree next to the gas station. He flinches at her presence, drawing back because of their most recent encounter, him biking home one evening and her standing in the middle of an intersection cursing at him as he passed. He braces for the yelling, for the strangely strung together assault, and when she speaks calmly, a quiet “could I have two dollars” he is uncertain. The other passengers push at his back, and he slinks away, sad and confused.

And still he gives money to those who make music.