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Winter 2014

The Visible and the Invisible

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Howard Tharsing

One afternoon last August, I sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of Maxwell’s House of Caffeine on Dolores Street at 17th. I had spent my last two dollars on a cup of coffee and sat with my two bags, one of which holds three days’ worth of clean clothes while the other holds my papers, the book(s) I am reading, stationery, stamps, notebooks, tools (tiny LED flashlight, screwdriver, etc.), and toiletries.

I had spent my last two dollars on coffee for a couple of reasons. For one, I was tired and yet not ready to rest (that is, I had no place to rest, no place to go except the street). For another, I wanted to stay within a few blocks of where I was while waiting for a return call from a friend who lives around the corner. The cup of coffee was a way to rent a table at which to sit while I waited. And beyond these reasons, coffee assumes a special importance when you are as poor as I.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an African-American man pulling himself along the sidewalk sideways. He approached me deferentially.

“’Scuse me, sir,” he said. “I’m not tryin’ to rob you or nothin’.”

“Oh,” I said, “I know that.”

“Do you have a dollar or a quarter you can spare?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” I said.

He had not paused for my reply but continued his probably oft-repeated appeal.

“’Cause I just got released—”

I cut off his pitch.

“Yeah, I got released two days ago,” I said.

His tone of voice changed completely, no longer pleading but simply direct and familiar. “From where?” he asked.

“Bruno,” I said, dropping the “San” from the name of San Francisco County Jail 5, which is in the city of San Bruno, and thereby establishing my bona fides as a former inmate.

“And now I’m homeless,” I went on, “and this cup of coffee is my dinner.”

He looked at me kindly as he slid past me, continuing to sidle down the sidewalk on his way. As he passed me he leaned in close, tapped me gently on the shoulder with a closed fist, and spoke softly, close to my ear.

“Take it easy,” he said.

“You too, brother,” I heard myself reply as he walked away.

It was the first time in my life that I had ever called a black man “brother,” and I had done so instinctively, without thinking.

As much as I might have wanted to use that term in the past, I had always felt self-conscious and afraid of giving offense. The shame of privilege had restrained me. That shame had kept me from expressing a common humanity into which my incarceration had now set me free.

I was at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center some days later and found our names on a wall honoring Patrons of the Center: “W.S. and C.T., Patrons” read the plaque. As I left the Center and began to walk up Market Street a few minutes later, I started to cry. I grieved for the death of someone I used to be, a life that once was mine, a much better life than that which I am living now.

I was in the Community Center because I had become overwhelmed with fatigue as I walked up Market Street toward the Castro branch library. I had slept well the night before, but that was the first in many nights that I had had a chance to do so. For a considerable stretch of nights prior to that I had been up much if not all of the night getting high and having sex.

Luckily the guy I had been with two nights before had taken pity on me in the morning after our all-night binge.

He asked about my experience of homelessness. I told him that I have to begin each day asking myself where I am going to spend the night. As the day rolls on, I find myself anxiously hoping that I can answer the question before it is so late and so cold that I have to seek out the places where I can go inside for a few minutes at a time to get warm: a hotel lobby, a donut shop, an adult bookstore/video arcade.

The best alternative is obviously to be invited to spend the night in somebody’s house or apartment. The downside to those invitations is that they pretty much always involve sex and drugs. So while I get to stay warm and comfortable, I rarely get to enjoy a full night’s sleep.

When I told this truth to the guy I had spent the night with, he invited me to stay the next night “with no expectations.” I was touched by his generosity, his true hospitality. I accepted and slept soundly for many hours. I awoke feeling rested, and he started fondling me. I did my best to perform well. I was grateful for the sleep.

I long for a place where I can lie down alone. I am more grateful than I can say to the friends and acquaintances who have let me pass a night or two—or more—with them during these last months. Yet as kind as they have been, I have not been “at home” in their homes.

Let me tell you a thing or two about jail.

From the very moment in which the words “under arrest” are uttered, everyone you encounter contributes to rendering you powerless.

When I was preparing to begin student-teaching, I talked to a number of experienced teachers who advised me to remember that the most negative response you can give a student (or anyone else for that matter) is to ignore him or her. Not to rebuke, nor to deny, but to ignore. If you have a student who speaks up too frequently and too often without a point, and who is generally disruptive, the best response is to say nothing at all. Let their talk be answered with empty silence. Render them invisible—non-existent—by treating them as such.

The police who arrest you, and then the sheriff’s deputies who are your jailers, similarly negate everything that constitutes your sense of self: your will, your intellect, your emotions. They do so by ignoring you completely. No answers to your questions, whether about the charges, about the process you are going through, about your ability to communicate with anyone outside—about anything. You are something that they process, the ultimate objectification.

Everything is uncomfortable and debilitating. The handcuffs hurt, and having your arms behind your back makes it hard to get into the back seat of the squad car without falling into it. The back seat itself is hard molded plastic, without upholstery of any kind. You can’t sit with your back supported by the seat-back because your manacled arms are in the way. You slide across the hard plastic with every turn, every acceleration or deceleration the driver makes.

At the precinct station house, they hold you first in a tiled room with hard wooden benches bolted to the shiny concrete floor, in the midst of which, as in every room you will now occupy, you see a drain toward which the floor slopes from all sides. Through a small window with wire mesh suspended within it, you can see someone going through papers in the adjoining room. She occasionally looks up at you, and occasionally others appear in the room with her. Eventually a couple of cops, their equipment swinging and rattling heavily from their belts, enter the room you are in and, still refusing to answer any questions, take you back out to the car, load you in, and drive you to the county jail.

There it is the sheriff’s department which ignores your humanity. Although you listened to the driver radio ahead to them before you were out of the precinct station parking lot, you must wait in the car, cuffed and folded on the hard back seat, while the two officers who brought you there talk to their counterparts at the door and chat to other waiting officers about the times they worked together or did this or that or knew so-and-so. When you are at last admitted to the building, you begin waiting at the first of a series of desks, counters, or office cubicles that comprise the stations of your entry into the system. Your privacy is stripped away, and whatever interior selfhood you have is violated during the photographing, the fingerprinting, and the questioning about your birth, about your residence, about your workplace, about your medical history, about your current medical care. Then the stripping and the violation culminates in the taking away of your clothes and the ensuing inspection of your naked body, including any possible hiding places on or in it.

The cops have added a further refinement to the dehumanizing strategy, one that would never have occurred to me. During the hours and hours that this process takes, they talk and tease one another, and, worse, they laugh loudly. They guffaw.

Once you have been entered like data into the system, the castration of your will grinds on through the mindless routine of day after day. You cannot do any of the things you need to get done to keep your life together, the life to which you hope, perhaps quixotically, to return. I had no idea whether any of my friends or family knew what had happened to me. Had they noticed my absence yet? Because I was homeless, no one was waiting to hear me come through a door somewhere.

Having had to surrender my mobile when arrested, I didn’t have anyone’s phone numbers. Even if I had, I soon discovered, you are allowed access only to very expensive pay phones for which you need to buy payment cards from the commissary, something you can do only once a week. You can make very expensive collect calls, but since most cellular service plans block collect calls, you need to know landline numbers. Once upon a time I knew dozens of phone numbers, but nowadays we call people by touching their names on our phone’s display screen, not by entering their numbers. After a couple of days passed, I was finally able to remember the number for the landline at my sister M’s house, and after a couple of tries I was able to speak to her.

One of these days I’ll tell you how that went.

I mentioned mindless routine.

You are awakened at 4:30 a.m., ordered to dress and make your bed in the exact manner of this particular institution, made to wait standing for the carts to arrive, and then called one by one to get a tray of food from the guys who came with the cart from the kitchen.

As for the food, I must tell you about the peanut butter. You get a wad of it, wrapped in wax paper, about the size of a lemon or an egg, with some soft, easily torn white bread and no utensil to help spread the wad, which is itself only semi-soft. In every holding cell in the system, you see wads of peanut butter stuck to the ceiling overhead. The ceilings are always fifteen or more feet high. It takes a powerful arm to launch a stiff, hard wad of peanut butter at that ceiling hard enough to get it to stick. Once it is there, however, it seems to stay for perpetuity. I never saw, nor did I ever hear tell of, one of these peanut-butter hardballs coming down.

At about 5:15 a.m. you are ordered back to your cell and locked down for a few more hours of sleep.

The rest of the day consists of a rotation of time spent locked down in your cell and time spent in the common area, where you can find conversations, card games, books, magazines, and loud televisions tuned either to movies (action pictures, crime, jails, violence—lots and lots of violence) or to sports.

This common area is semi-circular and two stories high, the cells ranging along the rim of the circle, their interior walls all glass. A steel staircase and catwalk provide access to the upper story of cells. Everyone is visible at all times. The only nod to privacy is the pony-wall, about two feet high, in front of the toilet in your cell. It assures that when you sit on the toilet you are visible only from the waist up.

The guard’s desk, a miniature command center, stands at the hub of this semi-circle. She or he is watching you all the time.

I spent the lion’s share of my time reading. I read a P. D. James mystery called The Lighthouse, a book by Robert Reich called The Work of Nations, and a sci-fi adventure by Michael Crichton called Timeline. They were long enough, engaging enough, varied enough, and well-written enough to occupy my mind through the ten days I spent at Bruno.

I also played a kind of solitaire that my cellie, EE, taught me. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge because he left some food and clothing for his infant son on the doorstep of the house where his son and his baby-mama still live while no one was home. The restraining order issued by the court, however, forbade him from coming within a hundred yards of the house. And since he was in the country illegally to begin with, he was put on an ICE hold immediately upon his arrest. I am sure that within no more than a week after I got out on bail, he was being put on a plane back to Honduras. He said that he would have to wait a year and a half, maybe two, before he returned. It would cost $5000. It will be his third or fourth border crossing.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I attended a fundraiser for Robert Reich’s campaign to be Governor of Massachusetts. He was running against Mitt Romney. I contributed $250. I remembered how delightful our conversation had been, as only a conversation with someone who has great intelligence, a kind heart, and deep knowledge of the world can be.

Being poor, I miss a lot as I walk the streets. Instead of observing the people around me, or the surrounding buildings, or the traffic, I find my eyes scouring the sidewalk, the gutter, and the street—at least the first foot or so of pavement in front of me.

I am looking for coins or cash or anything else of easily realizable value. I have found quite a lot of money on the sidewalks and in the streets, including a hundred-dollar bill on the street where I used to live. And in the past twenty-four hours I have found forty-four cents on the ground: nine pennies, one dime, and one quarter. I also found an ATM card, which I will return to the next Bank of America branch that I pass.

When I was a little boy, I would, once in a great while, find a penny lying on the sidewalk. I would grab it quickly, with great excitement, and my mother would proclaim, “That’s good luck! Hold onto that!” When we got home, I would place it carefully in a special box or drawer, and I would treasure it for the luck it was sure to bring me in the coming days.

My maternal grandmother told the story (though I believe I only heard it secondhand from my mother) of her Uncle Lou’s disgust when the one-cent coin was introduced in 1909. Whenever he received them in change from a merchant, he would toss them with contempt into the gutter and say, “Worthless coppers!”

Inflation and deflation have cycled around more than a couple of times in the years separating Uncle Lou’s worthless coppers and the penny of my boyhood from what I find today. But I have been struck by the apparent evidence in the street that we are once again in Uncle Lou’s world, at least economically. For most people, it seems, a penny is once again not worth the effort of bending over to pick up, or at least not worth carefully holding onto.

I have considered whether the penny’s worth depends on the class of the holder, but the fact is that I have found them on the streets of every kind of neighborhood. It seems that today all classes share Uncle Lou’s low opinion of the coins. (I must here note that the exception is the wealthiest neighborhoods, where their absence is probably due to the fact that no one walks along those streets anyway, and if they do, they are not fishing through their pockets or purses for coins to feed a parking meter or to pay bus fare.)

I have, however, also discovered a couple of differences between the classes in the course of my search for money on the street:

In poor neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin, you will find no money on the street late in the month. In the days immediately following the first and the fifteenth of the month, though, at the time when General Assistance, Social Security, Disability, and other state income programs send out checks, a veritable thunderstorm of coppers seems to have descended overnight.

In middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods one finds not pennies but currency, even large denominations, suggesting a carelessness about money that could obtain only among those for whom money is so abundant as to be almost unnoticeable.

When I say “unnoticeable,” I am thinking of Heidegger’s (or is it Husserl’s?) observation that we only notice things that have broken. His example is his pencil. As long as the pencil is working, he writes page after page unaware that it is in his hand. He doesn’t notice the pencil until the moment it breaks, when it suddenly leaps into his awareness. His attention is no longer on his ideas and the words that communicate them but on the piece of wood and graphite squeezed between his fingers and thumb.

Money must be like this for the privileged classes: invisible, because for them it works so effortlessly. But wait until you’ve made that one mistake, trusting in someone too easily perhaps. Only then will you begin to learn what money is.

I see a certain man from time to time, usually just around the corner from my hotel and halfway up the block. It is always night, and he terrifies me.

I do not know whether he knows that I am there when I see him. I have never seen more than a quarter of his face, by which I can tell little more than that he is of Asian descent, but beyond that I couldn’t identify him. He is always looking down at the pavement and is always very close to it. He squats on his heels, balanced on his toes, and his hands are busy with a miniature broom and dustpan.

He is sweeping the cracks in the sidewalk and examining the dirt closely. On two occasions I have seen him pick something up with his fingertips. My guess is that he is looking for crack cocaine or crystal meth.

The block on which he prospects is crowded most times I walk up it. Since my favorite neighborhood market, Amigo’s, is at the end of the block, at Ellis Street, I walk that way every night or two.

The crowd is almost exclusively African-American, ninety percent male, and arranged in clusters that force the pedestrian to swerve and say “excuse me” four or five times in the block. One sees something being handed off, and hands disappearing quickly into clothing, as one makes one’s way through the gauntlet. Occasionally hands are cupped around a flame which is also quickly withdrawn, and whatever it was lighting or heating disappears just as quickly.

So I assume that the crouching prospector is seeking bits of what is passed between hands or heated or lit in the hopes that they might have fallen to the ground. In some ways he is heir to those who first created the city in the 1850s. And I would wager that he, like most of them, will find little more than fool’s gold.

Last Friday, the third of May, was the hundredth anniversary of my mother’s birth. She died in 2002, but she has been with me a lot since then. T. S. Eliot says that “As we grow older /the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living.”

Also last Friday, the PBS Newshour aired two stories of particular interest to me. The first concerned a report from the CDC concerning a jump in suicide rates. For the year 2010, the number of Americans choosing not to live increased by twenty-eight percent. Among white Americans, the increase was forty percent. And among men in their fifties (my age) the jump was forty-eight percent.

This story was followed by one on the difficulty that unemployed older Americans, especially those who lost their jobs in the recession following the 2008 global financial collapse, are having trouble finding employment. This report included clips from a discussion which the reporter, Paul Solomon, held with a group of unemployed older Americans. One of them was a man who said that he had run through his entire savings, including his 401K, and had only $2000 to his name. He was to be getting his last unemployment check this week. He was already getting help in the form of financial hardship pricing on electricity and gas and in the form of food stamps, but he was behind on his mortgage. He did not know what he was going to do.

At the end of the segment, the man who runs the counseling agency to which all these people had turned, Joe Carbone, said this: “I love this country so much, but I can’t imagine that we would ever leave any of our citizens, any of our brothers and sisters, to be part of a process that’s declaring them hopeless. And that’s what’s going on.”

The link between the two stories was noted, though not discussed at length. I was struck by the fact that the report on suicide identified sub-segments of our society by race and by age, but not by class. (I must note that I do not know whether the research paper published by the CDC included economic as well as other analyses, but the news report for the general public did not.) The director of the CDC did talk about the impact of drugs and alcohol on an individual’s risk for suicide. He said that it was important that health care providers be aware of their patients’ substance abuse, etc. He did not say that a more equitable economic system might have huge and even life-saving medical benefits.

Nobody on television that night said that poor folk have little reason to go on living in twenty-first-century America. The notion that “they” can work their way out of poverty and upward into prosperity is a vicious (I mean that word quite literally) lie. And the society as a whole, the “nation” (if indeed one can talk about this country as a unified community at all), does not want to help support those who can find no way to support themselves adequately. The myth of the Rugged Individualist (Rand, Reagan, et al.) has conveniently given the housed and fed an excuse to wash their hands of any responsibility for the rest of us.

When I got out of County Jail following my second arrest, one of the friends I wanted to get in touch with right away was HG. When I texted him the news that I was walking out of the jail at 850 Bryant Street, breathing freely for the first time in ten days, he said the strangest thing in reply: “I don’t know what I should say to you,” he said.

I have been often struck by the fact that HG constantly describes himself as driven first and foremost by Jewish guilt. He complains all the time about his mother and her oppressive concern with propriety. (Indeed, as someone whose mother is no longer living, I have found his denigration of her and the bitter feelings he expresses about her make me uncomfortable.)

So at first I took his remark to mean that he felt he needed some formal or conventional words to use on the occasion, that he was searching his mind for something his mother would say to a friend just released from jail. But his mother, no doubt, would not have a friend who had been released from jail because she would not have a friend who was in jail in the first place.

I have to emphasize here how generous, caring, and helpful a friend HG has been all this year, ever since we first met shortly after I was “kicked to the curb.” While I was looking for a place to live on my own, he often let me stay at his house, sometimes for two or three nights in a row. His hospitality was especially helpful because he lives only a short walk from the gift shop where I worked. And he not only housed me but also fed me on those occasions, too. He even let me do my laundry at his house, which saved me a meaningful amount of money over the months. I have to say—and have said to him—that HG is a mensch, and his kindness to me was a true mitzvah.

But I notice that since my second stint as a guest of the county sheriff, in the three or four conversations we have had—via text, as always with HG —he has not extended an invitation to come to his house again. Nor has he responded to my suggestions that we meet for breakfast or lunch.

I am left wondering what it was—and is—that he didn’t know how to say. And so another companion on this journey falls to the side, veering off on a different path which may or may not ever cross mine again.

I seem to be traveling lighter all the time.

For the last three or four days, I have had to struggle with myself to get out of bed. I have felt physically exhausted in part because of the heat we have had. I have also been exhausted because I have not had enough to eat for the last four or five days. And a long-time companion of mine, depression, has kept me down, too.

I do not understand the prejudice against depression, which I have always thought of as my melancholy humor. A sanguine humor, that is to say endless optimism and cheerfulness, is actually extolled as virtuous but is no more realistic—and no healthier—than melancholy. Even the choleric soul, if she or he be a politician, a top executive, or a member of the armed forces, is praised and finds success in part because of his inappropriate response to reality.

Depression, however, seems to threaten people. Americans habitually ask, “How are you?” when greeting one another. Of course, they do not really want to know. Katharine Hepburn used to respond to the question by saying, “Fine—if you don’t want the details.” I am one of those quirky eccentrics who always answer truthfully, albeit as briefly as possible. In the months after my mother died, I would answer by saying that I was depressed and sometimes found it hard to get out of bed.

I was surprised by the frequency with which people responded to my answer by asking whether I had seen my doctor about it. “They can prescribe something to help you with that,” they said. Offended by the disrespect (for my mother and for me) implied by the suggestion, I would say, “My mother died. There would be something wrong if it didn’t get me down. I’d be worried if I weren’t depressed.”

What is the point of avoiding sadness, anger, or frustration? Is one fully alive if one avoids the pain of living and admits only the kind of giddy euphoria called “happiness”?

It is coming down out there. I don’t mean that it is raining. I am talking about the cold.

When you live in San Francisco, you are reminded every day that the North Pacific is a very big—and very cold— neighbor. Even on the sunniest days, when you might actually find yourself sweating as you hurry along Market Street, about to be late for some appointment, or as you break into a trot to make the bus that is just then reaching the intersection, hoping you catch it so you won’t be late for work, even then, when you are sweating, if you step into the smallest bit of shade you feel the deep chill.

The second you are out of the direct blast of solar radiation, under a tattered awning, perhaps, or just in the meager shade of a barren winter tree, the air grabs you and reminds you that a vast, close-to-freezing body of water begins maybe a mile or two from where you stand and from there extends for five thousand unbroken miles beyond, a power immense, indifferent, and inescapable.

Tonight, after a number of unseasonably—even scarily—warm days and balmy nights, Winter has risen up again and stands towering above us, a sentry at the dark gates of the Pacific night. The wind swirling around you bites. Your ears and your hands hurt after just a few short blocks.

I walked no more than five blocks tonight, but on every block those who sleep on the sidewalk were already hunkered down. Blankets, quilts, sleeping bags, cardboard or paper, any covering at hand, shrouded not only their bodies but their heads as well. It was early, before nine o’clock, but every one of them was already wrapped up tight, breathing and re-breathing the stale air caught within their thick cocoons.

Let not one of us who are housed tonight think that we are not also out there, feeling our own weight press our bones against the hard concrete and feeling the freezing night itself pressing down on us from above.

We are all out in the cold.

We are all far from home.

Howard Tharsing, who holds a PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University, spent the majority of his professional life in financial services in New York and the Bay Area; he currently lives in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. This is his first published work.

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