Late 1960s, The Tenderloin (San Francisco)
HH was a refuge for outcasts of any kind, sex, age. Doctor B was a priest on call, a gentle man who wore big glasses with dark frames who spoke with a quiet voice. SK was an ex-motorcycle gang member who stood in the door at the meeting, glaring at life, watching everyone behind dark glasses, his mouth a bruise. He was the watchman who lived in a room downstairs
HH- where the outcasts, the displaced, uprooted and lost converged in a soup of lust, hope and heartbreak. During the day when the world went about its business we’d gather inside and sit in the shadows to talk or listen to “The White Rabbit” by The Jefferson Airplane. In those days I wore high heels. I had two mini-skirts and a suitcase full of poetry. I’d come from The Tenderloin, a neighborhood of dread and darkness, where glass and blood glittered on the street, where the rooms of hotels had broken locks and rage was so thick you could reach out and touch it.
In the mornings a coffee shop on the edge of the Tenderloin became a place for cheap, plentiful breakfasts. It was where I watched a pimp that looked like a movie star buy breakfast for his whores. They liked him. They teased him, flirted with him, he laughed with them, they bantered gently. I was afraid he would look at me or catch my eye. I knew that if he ever caught my eye I would be his, I’d sit at that table and joke with the whores, waiting for him to praise or cajole, I imagined his wallet, fat with wadded up bills.
I was with SK then in a terrible hotel, the name, like SK almost forgotten. Walking down the hall you could see that most doors, many without numbers, had been broken or kicked in, repaired again, broken again in an endless cycle of impotent rage. The hallways were dark and smelled of failure. SK initially my savior became my destroyer. When I arrived shaken and penniless at HH, a gathering place for the homeless, addicted or poor SK was a member of the staff and lived on the premises in a cavernous room without windows; the walls were painted black and glowed with Day Glo paint - lime green, pink, orange. The room was like being inside the skull of a lunatic yet there was peace in that room the first time SK held me and said he’d protect me.
During the day we’d all arrange ourselves around the walls of the recreational area where group therapy meetings were held. There was a smaller room where those who didn’t want to mingle could sit, talk or weep like the barefoot girl that looked like Mia Farrow who wore white dresses and wept every day. She’d look up from time to time with red eyes brimming with tears, a silent boyfriend at her side. I never knew why she was crying.
I had long legs, high heels, two dresses and a suitcase full of my poetry to my name. The third dress, the red dress was thrown away; I’d worn it the day I was raped and locked in a room waiting to die. A pink clock radio on the window sill played songs from the late 60s; I knew I would never hear those songs again. He put clean sheets on the bed, pulled a nylon stocking over his face but before he touched me I entered a strange state, almost as if I were outside my body. Afterwards we talked; we lie together smoking, talking. A limbic wisdom took hold of my tongue as I told him I was glad he had forced me to “make love” because it had felt good. Almost shy he said, maybe we could do it again, sometime. Would you go out with me sometime? he asked, still smoking. Yes, I said carefully, as I casually and slowly got dressed again, loathing to wear the red satin dress that made me his target in the first place. “I really need to get going”, I said casually, “see you later”. “OK” he said, still smoking, lying on the bed. Downstairs was a restaurant; I called the police, my knees shaking. By the time they came he was gone; the cops were kind.
At the hospital they said they couldn’t do anything for me. My knees were shaking, I said I was going crazy, that I had no place to go, no money, no insurance. Again they said they couldn’t do anything for me. I sat in the lobby in my red dress, still clutching my poetry. Exhausted I crawled into a broom closet to sleep; it was in the middle of the night, there were few people about. Just as I was drifting off the door opened, the light poured in like acid and a man said, “Lady, you can’t sleep here, this isn’t a charity ward.”
I sat in a hard green plastic chair in the falsely cheerful lobby. Two black men came in; one of them had been hurt; a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. We talked, I told them what happened to me, that I didn’t know anyone in the city, they said I could stay with them and they wouldn’t hurt me. I said “OK”. As we left the hospital I noticed broken glass all over the sidewalk, glittering like colored sugar. A wraith-like fog, cold and sour as spite drifted through the streets and around the fog-shrouded buildings as we drove, seemingly for hours to a decaying Victorian mansion. We walked up the creaking steps and into a sullen kitchen where other men were gathered around a rickety table playing cards. They pointed to another room and said, “You can sleep in there, we won’t bother you.” I went into the bedroom in my red dress and fell asleep without taking off my shoes.
When I woke in the morning the men were gone. I walked down the stairs and out onto the sagging porch, staring down into the molten gold of San Francisco city early in the morning. I didn’t know where I was going so I headed for the light.