Cesspool City

When I was little kid in the 1940s, in the early morning on New Year’s Day, my father would drive the empty streets to North Beach to pick up certain pastries for New Year’s Day dinner as requested by my Italian grandmother. We drove through what was then called the skid row of San Francisco, the Third and Howard Streets area. A few bums could be seen here and there and, at that time, police ran a paddy wagon taking drunks off the street for a sobering-up session in jail overnight. 

Once, on one of these drives, my mother let out a yell in shock – “A woman! It’s a woman!” She couldn’t believe there would be, among those men, a woman alcoholic. Of the men she would murmur, “Just think, at one time they were somebody’s little boy.” I, in the back seat, kneeling to look out the window, holding my new Christmas doll, was entranced with the scene — nothing like it anywhere else in the City. This was a small area for people on their last legs, the dregs, the hopeless, the unmourned.

My children are fourth generation San Franciscans. We always felt – I was born here and I’ll die here. But as everyone now knows, everything changes. And our beloved San Francisco changed so drastically that if my parents could come back to life to see it, they’d drop dead again in sorrow and disbelief. I won’t belabor what most of us know – the huge problem of many urban cities, rapid (often thoughtless) expansion, homelessness, rampant petty crime, the obvious class rift between poor and rich, the decline if not death of consideration for others, and the rise of a proprietary self-aggrandizing attitude.

I remember growing up in times when the City had truant officers whose job it was to collect kids walking the streets when they should have been in school. I remember moving to Noe Valley from the Mission 50 years ago when the last of my three sons was born. NV then was a working-class neighborhood – you could walk down 24th Street and have a conversation with a friend who was on the other side of the street, so sparse was traffic. In summer my kids played outside all day, building forts in empty lots, riding bikes, playing ball – our front door wasn’t locked. Even now my sons say they grew up in the last best time in San Francisco and I think it’s true.

If I continue in this vein I’ll be weeping and you, dear reader, will be bored of my supposed sentimentality and reminiscence. 

And today? Today San Francisco is a stinking (literally) disgusting, vile, filthy pustule, a canker, an open oozing running sore. To say the homeless are mainly downtown is not completely accurate – they are everywhere – believe me I know. Because I still have friends and family there, I am a frequent visitor. I also have close friends who are cops so I glean their inside perspective on law enforcement (or not) in SF. 

My son who is a paramedic with over 18 years in the streets is writing a book about the scandalous condition of emergency medical services in San Francisco. Who do you think pays for the ambulance when he takes his fourth or fifth drug-overdosed street person of the day to the ER. Well, you do, SF taxpayer.

I can’t adequately address here the complex conditions that make my city what it is today; I have plenty to say, but even if I had all the solutions, how could they be implemented in the political, morally bereft, money-and-greed-only-matters climate in which we live? 

When I drive through the tunnel going south into SF, the Golden Gate Bridge is framed like a photo or painting as I drive onto it — that evocative icon, known around the world. But that sight stings my gut, it’s like visiting someone you love who’s dying of cancer – you want to see them one last time and not go back. But I keep going back. I left my heart there.

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