Urban Gems

By Lana Alattera

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From my memories of San Francisco’s ‘weird’, I can recall some locals who have been around so long, they may even qualify as historical landmarks. And sadly as of the last year or two, all have passed away.

I saw myself in these outcasts. I identified with their strangeness and genuine qualities of expression. I admired their freedoms and inadvertent rebellion from the norms of society. To me these people were gems, jewels to be discovered, treasured and studied in every tarnished facet, each side exposing a glaring wound that told endless tales of a misplaced happiness and heartache. In any other city in this country they would go unnoticed, unappreciated and meld into the cityscape like litter or graffiti as an eyesore. They were worthy of the most detailed observations.

I can recall a few from my mid teens when I had been working in a cafe in the downtown area. I was out of place there in this business world of insurance brokers and lawyers of the Embarcadero Center with my tattered vintage clothes (generally black), bleached white hair (and at times gray, impersonating, not mocking the elderly) and frightening make-up. While at work, I was lovingly (and I’m being sarcastic here) referred to by the 'suits' or regular customers, as a female Billy Idol. Now remember this was the 80s, so they just didn’t know what I was or what to label me. All the other girls I worked with there could also be described as punk, almost humiliated in our complacent, mediocre pink surroundings and aprons at the café. The customers found distraction with us. While they were watching us, I was watching the homeless factor across the street. I needed an escape while trapped there behind the counter and found myself longingly and dreamily staring out the windows waiting for something to happen, anything. And sure enough... weeks later, I got what I wished for.

We had known of the collection of homeless who resided under the freeway since the first day of my employment there, suffering in a hell of mental illness, living in a sort of exposed, vulnerable collective supporting each others needs. Among them was the professional masochist who would punch himself out daily upon reaching the corner we were located on, while wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. If I hadn't seen him previous to this event, I would have thought him a performance artist in some mocking gesture. But this was real. He hit himself so hard he'd be out cold. How horrid I thought, if this was real, to be your worst enemy. But what was worse, the verbal abuse the schizophrenics get from their voices (and why are these voices always angry and cruel? I mean, I've never heard of a complimentary, reassuring voice) or to endure physical violence brought on involuntarily by yourself? But most interesting to me, as our knockout artist was always brief (he'd become conscious again and vanish in a mere hour), was the Pole Toucher, another from this squadron.

The Pole Toucher's obsession revolved around a lamp post/pole located across the street where we worked. Throughout the day, this man would come out of nowhere, and just touch the pole. Over and over, in the same spot. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. We could tell it was on days he was relapsing hard that he had to touch it the most to bring comfort and security back to himself. You could actually see the expression on his face change from intense distress and anxiety to satisfaction and contentment, his tense posture relaxing and his movements becoming more modest and reserved. We wondered what had happened to drive him back. All day long he'd come out of hiding to caress the pole, to adoringly fondle it, to become reacquainted with it. Was it another person to him? A breathless being that offered unconditional love? Was the pole someone he was taking care of in his mind? If that were the case, he loved it intensely, as much as it seemed to love him.

Sometimes it looked like he didn't want to touch it though. Like he knew he should not, or it told him not to. He'd circle it, as if trying to resist his great desire to touch it. There went my unconditional love theory. My friend decided one day he would go touch the pole, to see if it held any magical powers or any special sensation. He knew exactly where to touch it because the Pole Toucher had made actual grooves in it, permanent marks from touching it so much. I told my friend no, that it would be mean, that it was the Pole Toucher's pole. My friend did it anyway. The Pole Toucher saw, it was too late. He came out of nowhere again, saw my friend touch it and became almost hysterical. He was physically, visibly agitated to the point of excruciating anguish. You could see it in his face and body. The way he paced and circled while my friend panicked as to what he might to do him. He made a quick exit and left the Pole Toucher there in crisis. I watched and almost felt his pain along with him. I felt so bad for him. He hastily paced and seemed confused to the point of forgetting the trigger of his distress. Then he glanced up at the pole, the pole. He seemed as if his world had been turned upside down, shattered, lost and violated. Was the pole an extension of himself? Like all those euphemisms about phallic objects? My friend made it safely back to the other side, the other side was quite literally across the street and a good figurative term if analytical. He was safe on the other side. We watched for what seemed like hours in between the constant distraction of customers as the Pole Toucher just kept circling around and around it. He didn't come back to touch it for days after that. I think he was waiting for my friend's touch or essence to dissipate or 'blow away' from the pole… his Pole. For it to become cleansed again by natural means and ready for the Pole Toucher to return, embrace it with his hand once more, personalize it, stake claim on it. Find solace in it, make it his again.

I know now the Pole Toucher probably suffered from a type of obsessive/compulsive disorder and it had the strongest grip on him I’ve ever seen. This is probably what had made him homeless. This is what fated him to become momentarily like one of over-crowded fish in a filthy tank, to become the observed. He had it bad, bad enough for his life to revolve around this pole. But was it as simple as that? You hear about so many places in this city that are haunted and possessed by spirits, be it houses or inanimate objects. So was there more than diagnosis, cold hard facts and codes to be assessed here? Sometimes, I used to wish that the city would finally remove his pole and set him and whatever inhabited the pole free, through construction work that was endlessly going on across the street. But they never did. He remained linked to that pole in a grimy sea of city waste. Forgotten and ignored. But not by me.

Another one of these special eccentrics was the White Lady. I don't ever remember not seeing her. She's been a huge part of the city like those really annoying San Francisco twins. I had always wished she were coherent enough to converse with but in my attempts it wasn't going to happen. She cowered away from anyone and everything. She moved quickly and was very determined to get from one location to another. What point A and point B was, I'll never know. I used to get up very early in the morning and scout the empty downtown streets looking for her, as I knew she'd be out walking the sidewalk, a frequently witnessed specter at dawn and sunset. I finally got a photo of her, from the front and back. I followed her for hours sometimes, trying to figure out what she did, who she was. She fascinated me to no end, dressed head to toe in layers upon layers of thrift store white. All textures and styles, but always white. White accessories, white purse, gloves, hat and shoes. She wore theatrical make-up, so thick and pancake it was clownish, so heavy in application I don't think she ever washed it off, like Queen Elizabeth who only ever reapplied her makeup daily to the point whereupon her death they found maggots living under the thick mask (over an inch thick I had read) on her skin while she was alive, slowly eating away at her flesh. And that was all the White Lady wore on her face, this white foundation. Nothing defining the features of her face. I wondered, was the White Lady some kind of reincarnation of the Queen? Was she hoping to appear as a ghost? Or was this her way of not being noticed? A form of self- purification, to wear all white relentlessly? The eternal virgin of silence, always drifting through the city streets. Endlessly bobbing her head to one side, in a questioning manner. I still dream about her sometimes. About a month ago, in a dream, she finally spoke to me and what she said, I was told I cannot reveal. It was something apocalyptic, something doomsday and yet hopeful. Yes, hopeful. Later came the Red Man. And I wondered how it would be if I were to get the White Lady and Red Man together, the pure and holy of holies with the one and only man in San Francisco who claimed to be the Devil himself. Would she have become his grand Satanic queen of polyester and mischief? The Red Man was around for as equally long as her. He didn't begin to get notoriety until he had started to frequent a local bar in the Mission. The bar had art shows for him where he displayed his work consisting of 8 –1/2” by 11” white paper with what appeared to be random letters and numbers thickly brushed on each in bright red paint. Before his celebrity status as the Biblical anti-hero/artist, he was just a wanderer like the White Lady. Except his travel was by night. He dressed in all red, usually polyester suits with vest and tie, matching red shoes and red fedora and let's not forget that on a good night he wore the pink carnation in his coat pocket. He painted his skin, like the White Lady, but red, any exposed skin, red. I think he honestly thought he was the devil. He 'specialized' in 'charm' as is to be expected of any devilish rogue. It seemed the only conversation you could get out of him was a sexual proposition. He never learned how to sweet-talk a lady… it always came off as offensive banter. There were times he'd make you laugh with a few dirty jokes now and then designed to make you blush. I don't know what happened to him, I heard he died from the toxins in the paint he covered himself in, ironically enough. One day he just disappeared, much like the White Lady. Once again, leaving nothing but a photographic imprint.

We also shouldn't forget the Shaman of South Van Ness. He was a very large, rotund black man who was covered in literally hundreds of ribbons, mainly tied to his hair and clothes, complete with walking staff and robe. He would sit on the street at night and mumble his antidotes and prescribed treatments for the evils and ills the tortured souls he saw passing him without concern, should heed to for their salvation. I listened, but could never understand what he was saying. If only he had spoken louder, who knows what answers he had for us. He may have rendered AA, NA, various non-denominational churches and self help groups obsolete. Think of the time and money we all could have saved. And I wonder whatever happened to the prophetic zealot who stood on Powell Street, who paced with giant billboards strapped to his body reading; Fallen, fallen is the great whore of Babylon, repent your ways and save yourself (apparently San Francisco is teeming with more sin than any other city in the country). I remember seeing him for at least two decades, a very dedicated man out everyday. Once I even witnessed the Passion of Powell Street, where he actually donned a huge cross for his own martyrdom that never came. My heart did ache for them but as equally, I found great fascination and delight by them. We had our hidden savants, like the many found in North Beach -- the poet barfly who could recite an entire work of Shakespeare from beginning to end or the street musician of Washington Square; medium and communicator for the dead.

I’ll never know the validity of their words, the significance of their existence, or the method to their madness or even if it was madness. Was this neurosis? Were they ill or channeling something more profound that the common city dweller tuned out? Maybe they were causalities of heavy drug use or had a psychotic break never to leave the place of their departure. These are only a few of whom I remember; I remain in complete wonderment of them to this day. They seemed safe and secure in their ways. In a city of chaos and uncertainty, I almost envied them. Who knows, if I continue living here, I may become one of them.###

All contents © 2006 by Gene Mahoney