When it rains in the Tenderloin, it’s easy to lose your footing.
Not only is the rain itself slick in this oft-forgotten neighborhood of San Francisco, but the sidewalks are so often coated with various debris that it mingles with the rainwater to create conditions reminiscent of a Slip-n-Slide. But there are few fun and games when it rains here, only the usual mass of poor, tired, and huddled, alongside the pimps and the dealers.
Everyone, even the pimps and the dealers, look a little more miserable in the rain. When your life is out-of-doors, especially overnight, there’s no such thing as appreciating a rainy day. As Richard Adams notes in Watership Down (my favorite book of all time), “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, and for poor men, winter is another matter. Rabbits, like most wild animals, suffer hardship.”
And since there is no snow in San Francisco, the biting wind-blown rain is our winter.
I’ve been reading Shantaram lately, highly acclaimed by many of my friends. Much of the book is centered in the slums of Bombay. The descriptions and insights remind me much of the Tenderloin, though obviously on a much vaster scale. Which makes me wonder, sometimes, why I’m not in the slums of Bombay, or Baghdad, or the camps of Darfur. Surely there is a deeper need there. The rain falls harder in the land of monsoons. Or perhaps doesn’t fall at all.
I know all my arguments for positioning myself here. The United States remains the epicenter of world influence and thus, obviously, the best place to write, to speak, to be read and heard. One can change the minds of the poor and forgotten, but they have already been disregarded. One can change the minds of the rich and remembered, and watch the ripples fall out from there. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t choose for it to be this way, but I can’t deny practicality out of hand. Besides, it makes a certain amount of sense. The people of the Tenderloin are living much like rabbits, or any other being on the constant brink of survival. Survival does not afford one the luxury to consider larger aims of philosophy or politics. Survival clouds out all other issues and concerns, dominating the landscape with decisions of fight or flight. Part of our mission at Glide is to get people above the survival level, so they can again consider the larger questions. But the landscape of those larger questions will always be dominated by those who have the most time and energy to consider them. And thus, I remain here. Or at least I justify remaining here. Every day, it’s one or the other.
(This post, by the way, has earned the categorization “Read it and Weep” by virtue of discussing books and reading, not by necessarily being sad. The titling of my books/reading category being “Read it and Weep” is my own joke at myself for liking sad books. But this is not meant to imply that you should weep at this post in general. What you choose to be sad about is your own prerogative.)
I lack a window in my crowded narrow office, insulating me from momentary reminders of the rain or the rabbit-people of the Tenderloin. I have a warren. They do not.