I wrote this piece in November of 2004. Just short of 3 years clean off drugs. I lived in San Francisco and worked in a rehab. I was afraid to re-enter life. I’d been getting high for so long I didn’t know how to live without drugs. The world around me was new and scary. I wanted to be a writer. I had dreams of writing a book and one day getting published. I had absolutely no idea what any of that entailed. Two years later I enrolled in grad school. Two more and I moved to L.A. My first book was published in 2013.
San Francisco just isn’t the same.
Neither am I.
This carnival of bad experiences just keeps setting up and playing in my hometown. I’ve paid my admission and bought the tickets, hell, I’ve bought the whole roll and these hellacious rides will not stop. But some how, the view from up here, up side down and all, is preferable than the one on the ground looking up.
Three guttersnipes on bikes are congregating down below outside my window, they’ve been out there for the last hour, sitting in the sun, drinking beer and tinkering with their bikes. It’s not like I’m stuck on staring at them, but as I look out the window and across the parking lot they’re in my view and I can’t help but see them. They see me too, and look up wearily as if to check me out for some reason, like they presume I am checking them out, checking to see what it is they’re up to, just what crime it is they are going to commit, who’s bike they’re going to steal next, which one of them will be ducking into the doorway to shoot up and how soon they’ll run out of beer and have to stumble the few steps down the hill to the liquor store to buy another one. I sort of meet eyes with the tallest one, the one with the unruly red hair and we exchange acknowledgements, like yeah, I know you, we’re both here – here in this part of the city, only I’m inside, I’ve come up a little from him. But nonetheless, we both live here, in this neighborhood, under the freeway.
It’s not the worst and it’s not the best part of the city, it’s one of the ugliest, that’s for sure. Right outside my window runs the elevated on and off ramps to the Bay Bridge; four lanes of traffic on each and never a moment goes by that there isn’t a million cars, trucks and buses driving hard on their way to some where fast. The concrete and steel on-ramp is directly across from my window, I could almost reach out and touch it except that I’m four stories up and the off ramp is a couple of more stories above me. But I look right at the cars driving onto the bridge, right into their windshields, seeing the details of the drivers and if they turn their heads as they are driving and look out to their left they can see me as I watch at them. From my view here at this window it looks as if all of humanity is on the go, going somewhere, driving somewhere, all except me and the people that live on my street.
The rain has stopped and it’s sunny, I’ve got the window open and all I can hear is the noise of the traffic, either on the bridge or down on the streets below. When I first came to see this room, this room where I live, the women who was showing it to me said that after awhile the noise starts to sound like the waves at the ocean. Yeah, waves honking horns maybe.
High above the freeway there is a helicopter hovering, the whump of its roto-blades adding to the noise level as it drops down almost on top of my building. Then there’s a lot more noise, the noise of people bumping into walls as they’re running down the stairs and in the hallways and I can hear all the windows closing and the toilets flushing as the crackheads in the building in one collective spaz of paranoia are flushing their last rock, tossing that glass pipe, thinking that the cops are on the way. Oh yeah; like as if today would be anything special, anything out of the ordinary, were the cops would actually come down here, under the freeway to look for crackheads.
The women directly below me, well, it’s the afternoon and she’s cooking dinner, no helicopter or the fear of the man shaking down our building is gonna affect her. It’s getting late and its time to cook dinner, just like she does every night and her window is always open and tonight she is cooking fish. The odor is filling my apartment, this one room if you want to call it that, an apartment. The clouds are trying to hide the sun and it smells like heavy oil, and spicy fried fish.
The shadows are growing and the guttersnipes have faded away and in their place are the three dudes who live in the alley across from me, still under the freeway, only on the other side of the parking lot. They’re down there all the time, day or night, they never stray too far. The little dog that one of them owns is begging for whatever it is that one of them is eating. I don’t know them too well, as we never talk and the only time I really run into them is when I have to park my car in their alley on the nights that the city supposedly sweeps the street out in front of my building, and then they are usually drunk and screaming and not really approachable, or that is at least so in my opinion. We have not really communicated, other than acknowledging each other as inhabitants of this place, co-conspirators in existing.
Cyndi’s coming home, she waves up at me from down in the parking lot, the wind blows moving the dirt and trash and her black hair across her face, but she looks up at me and she’s happy. Cyndi was a hooker until she found god: that was after years of shooting dope, after waking up in the hospital from her hundredth OD, after she contracted flesh eating botulism, after the doctors cut away parts of her body and afterwards it looked like parts of her were scooped out with ice cream scoopers, just whole parts of her arms and hips, but she’s happy now that she’s found god. Where he was she won’t say, but she found him somewhere, like at an AA meeting or something. Cyndi always has a smile for me and I wave back.
Yesterday, I think it was yesterday, in the afternoon, as I was coming out of my building I looked up and walking towards me through the hole in the cyclone fence was my old cellmate, or “cellie” as we all called each other in the joint, well anyway, it was my old cellie Jessi walking towards me. It had been years since I had last seen him, about 4 or 5 I think. He looked the same, but I guess I looked different because when I stopped and gestured to him he just sort of tried to keep on going past me until he recognized something in me, maybe something of the old me, of when we were locked up together, I mean we did spend a year and a half sharing a 5 by 8 foot cell, him on the top bunk and me on the bottom. Jessi was in for murder, but I think that all they could pin him with was involuntary, so, of course he did more time than me, but I never did really ever expect to see him again and sure as hell didn’t think that we were going to wind up neighbors. It’s kind of typical of where I live and just who lives in this neighborhood of mine. Forgotten souls, derelicts, parolees and the poor are all that you will find here on Third Street under the freeway.
It’s getting cold now, the sun is almost all the way down and my neighborhood is starting to wake up. The brothers are congregating in front of the liquor store, everybody’s yelling greetings and stomping their feet against the on coming chill of night. I’ve got to close the window as the wind is picking up; even closed you can still hear the traffic, still hear the screams from the street, still hear the ambulance sirens as it races down Third Street invading my window with the flashes of color from its lights. Always in a hurry to take somebody out of here, to save them and then bring them back like a cruel joke being played on us all. Another OD, another casualty, or maybe this time someone that just isn’t going to get up off the concrete once the sun rises.
Came home a few nights ago and there was an ambulance parked all sideways at my building’s front door, no flashing lights, no sirens. Paramedics were here with the coroner, body bags and the poh-lees with their flashlights. Knocking down room 425’s door because some punk rock Asian girl with bright dyed red hair had OD’ed on black tar heroin, maybe like a couple weeks before and no one knew, until the smell. The building’s manager put a few fans in the hallway and kept the front door open all night and no one said anything, not a word. It was like we all knew and after all what was the point. A few weeks later some workmen came around and tore the carpet out and cleaned up the room while their radio blasted heavy metal dirges. At lunch time they were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers out front on the sidewalk, so I walked down the hall and took a quick look inside but it all looked normal, almost the same as my place only in reverse, and the cars kept right on going outside what used to be her window, going onto the bridge on their way to somewhere, somewhere fast.
Occasionally though, the sights around here border on the hilarious and I have to laugh out loud at what I see going on, like Ted-E-Boy pulling up in a shiny black BMW, flashing of all things the peace sign and grinning with a full set of new teeth. I mean Ted’s a toothless pool hustler from way back and to see him smile with a full set a bright white choppers, well, I was taken back a little, like witnessing some spell of black magic or more than likely a little bit of that old Voodoo. I don’t think Ted-E-Boy ever had a real job before, hell, he never even had a real social security card or at least one with his own number. In fact he was a non-person as far as the government was concerned, and now here he is tooling around town in a BMW, with new teeth and from what I hear he’s gainfully employed and obviously with a dental plan. Works over at the Salvation Army, which is probably where he got the BMW, donated by some rich folk and somehow scammed into Ted-E-Boy’s hands. Seeing that is kinda cool though, at least somebody is doing good and it might as well be Ted-E-Boy. He’s been through it, back and forth like we all have and it’s obviously his turn to be all right. Though how he affords to keep his ride in that private parking lot is another story, probably another scam, another hustle.
It’s getting darker as it gets a little closer to twilight and at night all the clubs open up down here in the old warehouses, dance clubs for the kids from the East Bay, all of them coming over to the city for a night of fun and the parking lots under the freeway fill up. Sexy looking young girls walk huddled in groups, half naked and dressed for the dance floor as they hurry to get into the club and out of the cold. Gangs of young dudes decked out in baggy clothes stand out in front of the liquor store and for the time being replace the locals as they drink out of paper bags and smoke, yelling at the passing girls and acting all dangerous like, though in the shadows watching are the brothers who live in this neighborhood, watching, always watching and waiting. Waiting for some fool to leave all his CD’s and shit in his car, waiting for that guy who got lucky to leave his car parked overnight and then it’s their time.
Hell, that’s why I don’t leave a goddamn thing in my car. It wouldn’t take a second thought for one of the brothers to bust my window for that cigarette lighter lying on my dash if theirs ran out of flame, though why they would waste the time of breaking and entering when they’ve jimmied the doors so many times that I’m sure that they can do it in they’re sleep, I don’t know. But the thoughts of what their actions would cost me just don’t come up into the equation, and they know me, well, at least my car on a stormy night they know. Some mornings I come out and the sidewalk is littered with tiny chunks of safety glass and I know that a lot of people’s cars were broken into last night, and as I walk toward my car I’m mumbling a quasi chant – almost prayer like, that all the windows are intact, the battery is under the hood, the wheels are still on the axel and that there isn’t someone fast asleep, all curled up and snug, that I have to awake.
Now if you were to know this neighborhood of which I live in and am telling you about and your thinking, well, it just ain’t that bad, I don’t know what it is in hell that he is going on about. Well, just maybe you are right, it’s not like it’s the worst hell hole known to mankind, it’s not like it’s so hard core as to be un-livable and just maybe I am describing only the non-positive side of it all. But what it is, is another of America’s forgotten neighborhoods, almost next door to nice, yet you don’t expect anyone with cash to live under a freeway, under the bridge, like without a view. Two blocks in either direction are better neighborhoods, neighborhoods with corrugated metal wrapped lofts sparkling with 20 foot tall windows. Artist’s live/work spaces next door to trendy condos with balconies overlooking the city’s skyline, health clubs and Thai restaurants on the ground floors mixed with parking garages and liquor stores.
Outside my front door you have the choice of strolls, one direction is a Ball Park and the bay, the other a Modern Art Museum and all of downtown. But right here, well, there is nothing, nothing but littered covered, pot holed filled parking lots surrounded with masses of bent cyclone fences half battered into the ground. The occasional hardy weed, dirty dark green and sprouting out of the concrete and like another roof above us is the freeway raining fine black soot everywhere. If I don’t move my car for any length of time it gets so covered in this dark dirt that I literally have to scrap off of the windows to see out well enough to drive. This is not a neighborhood of affluence, of money or prestige. It is another of the city’s desolate and depressed neighborhoods where somebody has to live and until all the wealth squeezes it into oblivion it will remain, with all its inhabitants, the homeless, the street dwellers and people like me, one step up in a room with a view of it all.
This evenings’ haze is wearing off, tonight’s clouds are parting and the full moon’s illumination spreads over the ground, like reverse ghost shadows casting an eerie pale and it almost, almost, turns these few derelict blocks into something that just might be mistaken as beautiful. A million shards of broken glass glisten like gems on the ground bordering dark recesses hidden in shadow that usually broadcast a sense of foreboding as a place to fear but now look softer, almost comfortable, under the pilings and columns holding up the freeway which in this light could pass as gothic architecture, tower like structures in the waning ethereal light and still the vehicles roar by at sonic speeds high above my head like some unseen missile on it’s way to hitting a predisposed target. Their sound reverberates against all the steel and concrete, echoing off in all directions, phantom trajectories leaving me here to witness the noise, which from down here below is the only evidence that they exist.
Way up the hill where the ground approaches the freeway and the dirty asphalt almost meets the gray concrete there are a few anti-crime arch lights shining down, put in by the parking lot’s owners no doubt in an attempt to take the fear out of parking so deep in the bowels of the bridge’s under belly. On nights like this you can see the bed rolls laid out up under these lights like sets on a stage for some urban play as people make their camps and prepare for sleep. Up out of the way and off the streets, too far up to be bothered by the cops and too far in to be bothered by anyone who isn’t going to be there for any reason other than staying the night. I can only guess that being under the light adds a measure of safety, adds something to make them feel that this is their home. I don’t know if it’s the same people up there every night or different folks, but for some reason I think it is and I take some comfort in seeing them there every night, like they’re somebody that I can count on. It’s good to know that those people are at least safe and dry when it rains, like neighbors who come home every night and seeing them gives you that feeling that you and they are part of a community. Some night on my travels as I wander around in the dark checking out every part of this neighborhood, I may have to walk up there and see, see if they’re like me, see if they are locals.
Someone is setting off bottle rockets, I can see them flare up and arch over the freeway and I think it’s the natty haired tattooed rockers in the apartments above the liquor store. I wonder just how well this goes over with the rest of the neighborhood. At least it isn’t as nerve jerking as when someone is letting lose with a nine millimeter on one of those off nights when the club kids get a little too out of control trying to emulate their idols, or worse when it’s 4 am and someone is really out for blood. When its late the sound reverberates, becoming the dominate noise as the ricochets go careening off the freeway overhead and echo out to oblivion as some unknown lives are threatened. But all in all it is just another part of the symphony of sound that plays continually through out the day and night. I wouldn’t know what to do if all of a sudden it was quiet, if the traffic stopped dead, if the sirens refused to wail, if it was just truly quiet even for a minute. In that respect I have gotten used to it, though it hasn’t turned into crashing waves at the beach, it is still what I have come to expect from my home.