In the Alley

It is all in the details, I tell myself as I transition between the societal eco-zones radiating from San Francisco’s BART station at Mission and Sixteenth Streets. I was just arriving at 9:30 AM for my first retired-guy appointment of the day, rolling out of the elevator, public transit behind me, a one-hour massage ahead. A man in a wheelchair is rifling through a rubbish bin. He is not much good at rifling. In fact, a colleague assists him in sorting through the refuse. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants. Puzzled, he backs away from the bin which now tilts to its side.

I don’t pay much time or attention. For my weekly hands-on body treatment awaits. Tony has been working me over for years. It’s a good thing, rolfing. He does it well, and I always leave feeling physically unburdened. Whatever was tense and knotted before is a bit less so.

What hasn’t changed an hour later is the bin. It still lies toppled on its side. This is no small detail but a very telling observation. This is one of San Francisco’s busiest streets, myriad people coming and going and, it must be noted, many people not going anywhere. This is a hangout for the poor, the area around the station. It is also the proposed site of a luxury tower, 20 stories – or was it 30? – of apartments looming over this remnant of a barrio. It is hard to imagine sociologically. Hard to imagine, yet hard to avoid, the way things are going in this town.

For the time being, this is a poor neighborhood, and that is why I am here. St. John’s Church just up 15th St., in fact, the daytime shelter for the homeless where I ‘volunteer’. I do consider it something of a joke, my meager efforts at distributing socks, toothpaste and razors to those in need. The entrance of the church involves navigating a narrow alley, one I would normally avoid. But my definition of ‘normal’ has already shifted. For the denizens of this alley are the very people who hang out in the church. Which, to set the scene, really is a church. The pews have been rolled to one side, and stacks of sleeping mats have appeared near the entrance.

The people sleeping are of every race and description. They range in demeanor from disoriented and paranoid to perfectly ‘normal’. Some people have clearly been on the streets and on the run for a long time. For others, Hispanic day laborers, I would call them, this is simply a place to get some rest. There is work in San Francisco, plenty of it and well-paid. Just not paid well enough to necessarily have a roof over your head. Online ads in this town include sofa space for $100 a night.

Turning down the alley, I brace myself for the usual horrors, some Canto or other of Dante’s Inferno. On this particular occasion, rain has many people indoors. The alley is usually populated with poor people hanging out, enjoying conversation and drugs and alcohol. But not today. Most people are elsewhere, their possessions wrapped in plastic and stacked along the alley’s edge. There is one person, however, on this cool December day lying on his back in the rain. Should I do something? The question stays with me all the way to the church, and then drifts out of my mind. I do remember the man 15 minutes later, having gotten warm and dry inside. The church is fairly packed on this rainy day. I mention the man to the harried shelter director. Check on your way out, he advises, and if he appears to not be moving, give a call.

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