Life on Lower Turk: Come to Where I’m From

by Jonathan Nathan on July 5, 2011

First week of June, 2011: Three dull pops. I heard them and didn’t immediately consider their meaning. Where I’m from, in rural Kansas, hunting is so prevalent that expressing concern at the sound of guns is a bit of a faux pas. But deep in the Tenderloin, not reacting to a gun’s sharp report is quite possibly a sign of imminent mortality. It took me a few seconds to remember that; I was in the Tenderloin. Those gunshots weren’t from overgrown farmboys, garbed paradoxically in camouflaged coveralls and bright orange vests required by the government to keep them from accidentally shooting each other. This was a different place.

The existence of a farmer/hunter in rural Kansas is a controlled, static thing. He will live by the prices of tools and seeds and products that give life to others, and he will die from eating too much rich food, surrounded by a loving family and, if not looking back on a life of accomplishments, at least feeling proud of having made it to the finish line.

But here at the bottom of Turk Street in the Tenderloin, bullets hit human beings, not deer and pheasant and quail. Down here, you live by the prices of things that kill, and you die from not being quick enough, not playing your cards right, giving into the crack rock or heroin, or from just plain being poor and getting nickel-and-dimed to death by the system.

That’s a system that has built a revolving restaurant at the top of a breathtaking hotel just a mile or so away on the Embarcadero. It’s a system that seems to cut a little more from state and federal welfare monies every year.

I was jolted out of my detachment by the sight of a kid half-running, half-limping up the sidewalk, and I mean he was a kid, maybe twelve years old. Baggy jeans, a white A-shirt, a New Era 59Fifty baseball cap tilted up and to the side. He was there and then he was gone, but microscopic pieces of him stayed behind, all the way up and down the sidewalk. He was bleeding hard from his leg.

The first block of Turk branches directly off of bustling Market Street, the main artery of the city’s economy, culture, and politics. Market Street touches everything from the Financial District to the Castro to the Tenderloin. It might be unsurprising, then, that Market Street is so close to one of the most crime-ridden blocks in San Francisco.

The north side houses all of the block’s businesses, single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs), and nonprofit agency sites. It’s also where the bulk of the block’s drug trade is set up. While most SRO residents are law-abiding low-income San Franciscans, quite a few struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism.

Many more users flock to the area from nearby blocks to buy alcohol from the liquor store, which sells super-cheap liquor, fortified wine, and beer, and is therefore a smart destination for the thrifty, impoverished drinker. The drug economy sets up outside the liquor store as soon as the dealers and muscle get off the morning BART train from Oakland; few, if any, Tenderloin dealers are from the City, and virtually none are from the neighborhood.

The gender breakdown of dealing on the block was unexpected. Boys are lookouts and runners. Men are bodyguards and general muscle. They don’t carry guns; they hide them in tree-planters, trashcans, mailboxes, rain gutters, and the wheel wells of cars. Women and girls are usually the dealers, but they dress, talk, and act just as hard. They hide the product in their pants, where male cops can’t go. Users teeter up to the dealers with the cracked but cocksure confidence of rural high school students bellying up to the bar with a fake ID. It’s an interesting thing to witness a woman pull little baggies of crack rocks from the front of her pants for some quivering customer.

All around this thriving enterprise swirls a maelstrom of ghetto life. The forgotten homeless stumble up and down the sidewalk. Groups of young men and women lounge against the sides of buildings and cars, shooting the breeze while the dirty business gets done right next to them. Elderly residents shuffle through what must seem like an ocean of things their generation never would have allowed. When the nuns’ food kitchen opens, a semblance of a line stretches up much of the block.

When the weather is right, it seems like half the neighborhood is hanging out, bumping to old-school soul music on the boombox, puffing on cheap cigars, swigging on 99-cent 16-ounce cans of soda. A police officer arriving on the block in response to a report of a person dealing drugs in front of the liquor store would be hard-pressed to immediately identify his target, and by the time he even had an inkling, all evidence would be hidden.

Along the south side of the block, there is nothing. But unlike the endless fields of my home, this is an angry, aggressive nothing. A single vacant building occupies most of the south side. Rumor has it that a few squatters live on the second floor, but no one has ever seen them. The lower part of the wall is covered by graffiti both psychedelic and psychotic, visually arresting but entirely uninteresting. Mismatched colors mottle together, lacerated by wild, too-excited lines and angles. The westernmost third of the south side is a parking lot.

This side of the block is where users go after “getting well,” a street term for getting high derived from the unforgiving symptoms of withdrawal. When you come down, you get sick. When you get high, you get well. People loll against the side of the building, lie face down on the pavement, vomit on their shoes.

The only time I’ve seen the dealers on that side of the block has been on the rare hot days. Those are the days when the Tenderloin, sheltered from the winds by big hills to the West and tall buildings to the East, is easily as hot and bothersome as an early July day back home. When it’s too much, the block migrates to the south side, where there’s better shade.

It was on the south side of the block where I met the man who explained all of this to me. I was posted up against the graffiti-blanketed wall on the south side of the street, scanning the block, trying to find a way to organize everything I was seeing in my mind. He must have thought I was there to score drugs, or maybe even to sell them. I looked too out of place to be there for any other reason.

But Cliff didn’t offer to help me cop, or ask if I was selling. He just said hello. I said hello back. I gave him my real name; he gave his name as Cliff, and said he was from Jamaica by way of Florida. His manner indicated that his drug of choice is heroin. He talked about himself, and I listened. I asked him to help me understand the drug trade on the block. I think he thought I was trying to find out who to buy from, because he offered several times to help me score whatever I needed, but he also explained the workings of the block. And then I asked him why he came to the City.

“I came here because I heard it was a place I could be. My brother lives up here, and he told me to come up here, so I came here for him. He told me about the neighborhood. And he was right. This block here? This is a place for us. This is a place we can be.”

When the kid who got shot bumped his way through the crowd outside the liquor store, some helpful observer shouted, “Yo, brotha, you got shot!” The kid collapsed farther up the street. A motorcycle cop commandeered someone’s car and got him to the hospital. He survived. When I left, crime scene investigators had taped off the entire block. Somehow, even with cops swarming the block and crime scene tape broadcasting a continued police presence, someone still decided to get arrested for assault and battery on the corner of Turk and Taylor a few hours later.

We only heard a few scattered details about why the shooting happened. The kid was chased out of the nearby Powell Street BART station for several hundred feet along Market until he ducked onto Turk. I don’t know why, but I can speculate. He was probably involved in the drug trade. Maybe he was a lookout, maybe a street soldier, but regardless, this block is almost certainly not his home. Trying to come up with a reason for a boy fleeing bigger and scarier gangsters than himself, to run into an unfamiliar block populated by unfamiliar people, I couldn’t shake Cliff’s words.

“This is a place for us. This is a place we can be.”

Note: This is the first of a series.

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