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 Jack Rikess, a former stand-up comedian, takes the edge off of the world and explains all those unexplained things in a way that will make you either laugh or cry.

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Aug312010

Paul, my neighbor who lives at the end of my block

 

 

For me, it is quite convenient to have Paul as a neighbor. Paul lives at the end of my block to the west, at Stanyan Street. The Seventy-year old lady above me in my building collects pianos and refinishes them. Lucky for her and me, Paul’s been there for us when I needed an extra pair of hands to help navigate two flights of stairs getting the Steinways or Masons up the towering staircase. She slides Paul some money for the work.  

It’s has been helpful to tell our guests at night when leaving, that if you experience any trouble, our friend Paul is at the corner if you need help. Just tell him you’re a friend of mine.

That’s the way it’s been for the past couple of years.

Because I’ve brought Paul blankets, empty plastic bags, food that I didn’t feel like eating or would go bad if I didn’t, shirts and pants that I’ve grown out of or will never wear, water, more food, and because I would actually sit down and talk with Paul, I thought I had the right to make light of his situation. I felt that because I was close to him and spoke to him respectfully, that I thought it was fair game to refer to Paul, “as my friend who lives at the end of my block and when I say at the end of my block, I MEAN the END of MY BLOCK.”

Now, I am not sure what I can do for my friend because I’ve joined the ranks of those I hate, The Silent.

Before I go off on my rant, I believe silence has been the catalyst for most things evil and unfathomable. It was due to the silence of others that all bad events have been allowed to happen.

I’m simplifying, but not by much.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There is so much to say about what went wrong with what happen in New Orleans but for me, beyond the horrific tragedies most of us could only witness on TV, the image I am most stuck with is? When groups of Americans were turned around when trying to cross bridges to higher ground and were told, “You’re not welcome here.”

I couldn’t imagine Americans doing that to each other. But now I can. I am going to do that myself.

 

 

I live in the Haight/Ashbury district of San Francisco. During the month of August when Europe takes a holiday, my little burg is overrun by Lederhosen-wearing tourists trying to find the Sixties. The Sixties left the Haight in ’67, when the Diggers gave ‘The Summer of Love’ a funeral. But it doesn’t matter; we are a tourist destination because of our fabled hippie history.

We are also a destination for all those broken toys, runaways, throwaways and the odd fellows that roam among us. The Haight has always been a depository for all that were confused and unsure. The West is the end for many, and San Francisco is their Dead End. And because the Haight/Ashbury borders Golden Gate Park where an estimated 5,000 illegal campers pitch their blankets a night, I live in Homeless-central, not counting the rest of the town.

I live on your average Rand-McNally city street. I live on a block and there are the other three streets that square off, creating your major city square block. So imagine a big city square block. My street must be about eight hundred yards long, with the two perpendicular streets three-quarters that length.

There’s this couple in my building that are in their early thirties. He works late, coming home around Midnight. She walks their dogs at Ten PM every night. She can’t walk her two little guys without a bunch of smelly strangers talking to her.

On my street, on my street alone, there are usually seven to fifteen people sleeping in the various doorways and entryways to the buildings and apartments on the street. But around the corner where there is a business that is vacant at night, not a residential apartment or flat, where people look down at you, there are sometimes five to fifteen people sleeping in that little space at night. The other streets of my city block are occupied at any given time with another ten to twenty people per city block a night trying to find a place to crash that is relatively safe.

It’s weird to leave your place and have some thirty sets of eyes knowing your movements.

Many homeless fear sleeping in the park because of violence. There have been two homicides in the past two weeks in the Park to validate that opinion. But I don’t care.

   I care more about the woman in my building that can’t walk her dogs at night without someone saying something to her. I care more about my Girlfriend and our Daughter. The Girlfriend comes home after dark and the grown-up twenty-two Daughter leaves our place often after dark during the week, refusing my help to walk her to her bus.

When it gets down to it, these are the people I really care about.

I think.

Last Wednesday night, a woman was attacked around the corner when I was coming home from a meeting about what to do about the Homeless. It would have been ironic if it had not been real.

We’re all trying to be compassionate like the good Liberals we are. At the meeting, a representative from the Homeless right’s group, Coalition for the Homeless, ripped off the facts of what we are facing in California in the Summer of ‘10.

San Francisco sets aside about 100 million dollars for the Homeless.

About 19 million of that really hits the streets for the real programs that kind of work.

In terms of social services that are provided for the Homeless, there are 50% more adults asking for help. But what is staggering is, an upshot of more than 200% in kids seeking some form of help in San Francisco these days. And that’s what we’re seeing in the Haight.

So I come upon a cat-fight between two women. Katharine has just been punched in the mouth for being too loud. The Avenging Angel in a hoody who that just dispatched the street justice was telling Katharine to shut up or else the cops would come.  Katharine at the point when I approached the scene was wildly throwing other people’s stuff like sleeping bags and their belongings into the middle of the street, like she had snapped.

The hooded Angel warned Katharine right in front of me that if she doesn’t shut up, “I’ll slit your throat in the Park.”

In a moment I can’t forget, when I step in between the two of them, Katharine grab a bunch of my jacket and spun herself around me, putting me between the Hooded Avenger and her, pleading with me to save her. She said that there were going to kill her.

Katharine is in her late twenties and alone.

Two police cars soon arrived and Katharine fled. The Hooded Avenger became tranquil and clearly manipulative. In the calmest voice possible, the Hooded Liar blamed the incident on Katharine, and for anyone who was watching it did looked like she was at fault. The police who have better things to do listened but because of their beat, The Haight, dealing with the Homeless is an ongoing battle. They eventually drove off after things had settled.

That is the last I’ve seen of Katharine.

There are guys I see all the time in the neighborhood who I talk to. I don’t ask where they sleep and they don’t ask me for money or anything else. Many of the Homeless sweep our streets and clean them, I guess in a subtle form of payback. It is an uneasy alliance.

Every morning between 3:30 and 4AM, the police roust the Homeless from the Park, and now from our streets. For the past twenty years, except for a few occasions, the police have let the Homeless be.

But it is all changing. Tent cities are going up. Cities that have never had a Homeless problem are now being faced with humans walking their streets. The paper today says it’s going to be another ten years until the economy really bounces back like we knew it.

 I know that a lot of what is happening on my streets is because of the economy. I don’t think I care anymore. The Girlfriend and I have had to make financial changes. We don’t have the money we had five years ago.

And sadly that is my whole point. It really gets down to the individual. I was livid when I saw the video of Black Americans being turned away at gunpoint from crossing bridges to get to another parish for safety.

Now the cops are rounding up the Homeless like never before. I tried talking to a couple of the Alpha-males of the group reminding them to be…cool, or else my neighbors are going to make you move. Too late, it’s already happening.

 

I’ve talked to my friend, Paul, who lives on the corner of my block about what does he want from Life? He’s in his mid-thirties. He says he has a bad back, but he sits in a broken-down festival lawn chair on the corner all day until beddy-by time when he pulls out his cardboard and sleeping bag.

I’ve asked him if I could find him work, would he take it. Paul replies that he’s not ready for full time work.

I don’t pretend to know any answers or what is right for someone else. I feel like I was the last hold-out on my block for sympathy for the Homeless. That once I don’t care, they’re gone.

For me, it used to be convenient to have Paul around when I needed him to help me move pianos. But now that there are so many ‘Pauls’ living on my block, I need to turn away. I’m not sure how much compassion is left in the tank.

But it is about me, I know that.

It was once about not being able to walk by and NOT do something for others that have found themselves in bad predicaments. I felt compelled by the smaller, more manageable numbers that used to be on my street, to do something.

I used to joke, “How can there be a Homeless problem, when you know their names?”

Now, it is becoming overwhelming to just not my neighbors who have to walk over bodies to leave their homes, but to me. I’m afraid of looking. I no longer want to know the people who live on my street. I’m talking about the PEOPLE WHO LIVE ON THE STREET. The people on the outside, not the inside people who I don’t know but yet care more about anonymously.

I can’t look into any more strange faces and care.

Because it is about me and my fears is the reason I can’t look.

 I’m afraid that when the time comes, when the cops load up the truck with the undesirables. I’m afraid I might see an old friend with hurting eyes staring back at me and I won’t care.

 



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