Hunters Point, home to the last peninsula based losers in the lottery of class warfare, is a world away from the rolling hills and rampant overconsumption of Napa and its environs. The folks who call this area home would never dream of spending upwards of $40 a bottle for wine, an amount that could go a long way to supporting their families. Might even have some left over for a cheap bottle of whiskey, or something to numb the pain of their existence. Their lives are a seemingly endless struggle to not fly farther behind, not to not fall through the cracks. The lucky ones retain meaningless jobs paying meaningless wages. The not so lucky are consumed by drug addiction, their days filled with the hell of chasing the next hit. Maybe not though. Maybe they have love, faith and family to elevate their spirit while enjoying their version of the American dream. I never asked.
If you drive down Evans Avenue a mile or so before the old Naval Base the road widens out and takes a long lazy left turn. On the right is a Baptist Church, on the left is a liquor store. It kind of looks as if it was carved out of a derelict garage. Seated in front of this ghetto version of a tasting room is a very large man, black as night, a thick gold chain around his massive neck, gold amulets dangling from each link. On his head is a black, straight-brimmed hat, pulled down low, hiding his eyes. Every day, all day, he presides over a perpetual dice game, players and onlookers jostling to get in closer. A hundred feet in either direction are shirtless men leaning up against rusted out vehicles drinking liquor from bottles in brown paper bags.
Further down Evans is the old Albion Brewery, a castle-like structure built in the late 1800s. On the hill above the Brewery are the old Navy barracks, converted into low income housing. Modest even by Soviet standards, they are in bad repair. Paint and concrete peeling off the wall, windows replaced with plywood, garbage sliding down the hill, toppling the overgrown weeds in its advanced towards the street.
Across the street from the barracks there is a row of three-story commercial buildings planted right on the edge of the Bay. Nondescript brick facades, large garage doors at street level. In the middle of the row was a building with a thick black wrought iron barred door. Behind it was a red door. This is where I worked.
As always I parked across the street below the barracks. Also as usual I texted Greg to let him know I had arrived. After waiting a few minutes I got out of the car, walked across the street and timed my arrival at the door to the sound of the locks being released inside. The door cracked open. I ducked in and my day began.
"How's it going, bro?" says Greg.
"Everything is Good, what needs to be done today?"
"Shit man, everything is blowing up, I told Shep I was the master at this shit. I'm telling you no one is better than me at growing weed. So you need to water the whole building today man," said Greg.
Greg was a 30-ish guy who looked like a pretty blonde version of Brad Pitt. In spite of his looks he was a complete bleeping asshole, one of those narcissistic, egomaniac control freaks who dominate the cannabis business. Always boasting, never working, and more than likely planning his exit with the crop, his eyes on the horizon for the next guy to scam.
Watering the whole building meant watering both levels, roughly four hours worth of work. Upstairs were a thousand plants in the flowering stage, downstairs were a thousand plants in the vegetative stage. The idea being rotating the veg upstairs to replace the harvested flower thereby having a continuous operation.
"No problem Greg. I got it handled," I said.
Finished with my work, I climbed the stairs to the apartment on the third floor. Greg was watching old Soul Train videos, dancing around slapping his air bass. "Man, these guys are good but none of them can play the bass like I can."
"Greg, so when am I going to get paid?" I said.
"Fuck man, people pay me to work for me dude. In Colorado we had them lined up with cash just to get in. You are in man, and after this we have the ranch up in Mendo where the big money is. So cut this bullshit about getting paid," Greg said.
"Right on man, that's all good and everything, but you told me I was getting paid," I said.
"Don't worry man, it's all good," he said.
Greg let me out through the front door, the sound of the multiple locks and alarms audible in the thick moist air of the evening. It was raining and the wind made it hard to light my cigarette. In the distance the sound of the approaching bus tires on the wet pavement sounded like cicadas singing in the trees up near my one-time temporary home of Yorkville. The bus was lit up bright, illuminating the people inside, looking lonely in spite of, or because of, their forced closeness. Otis Redding suddenly in my head, "This loneliness just won't leave me alone."
The reflection of the Navy barracks danced in the wet pavement like an angry scar sticking out from old tired flesh. The air brakes hissed and the bus pulled up to the stop, opening its doors to the last riders of the night. Rain streaked down the windows, distorting the downturned faces of those inside as if they were in anguish, their silent screams echoing into the storm drain alongside the detritus of another day in the ghetto. I put my cigarette out on my shoe, threw it into the flower pot doing double duty as a trashcan, walked across the street, and headed somewhere to sleep for the night.
The fire happened early the next morning. I drove down Evans, past the Baptist church, past the dice game, at the Albion Brewery, past the Navy barracks and parked across from the black wrought iron gate with the red door inside it. Greg was outside gesticulating madly while yelling into his cellphone. Smoke was wafting out of the red door behind the black wrought-iron gate. A casual observer would deduce that perhaps a hundred thousand watts of power exceeded the recommended capacity of the power grid at the old grow operation, and as a result things got hot and, well, basically blew up. "Fuck PG&E, those bastards, I told them to get out last week and fix this. Fucking idiots. All the lights are off man, this is not good," said Greg.
I looked at him, looked at the puddles of water and foam from the extinguisher and said, "So Greg, am I going to get paid or not?"
And there it is. I turned on my heel, walked across the street, got in my van, and headed for the 101 North. Leaving it all in the rearview mirror, Greg on the phone, the dice game, the shirtless men with liquor in brown paper bags — all of it appearing larger than real life in my rearview mirror. But behind me nonetheless. Off I went, trying to get above from the Down Below.