Student Connections

Doing Time in San Francisco

By Nancy Muldoon, student, Northeast Center – Saratoga Unit

May 26, 2011

In the fall of 1993, I moved from upstate New York to San Francisco. I left home with $100 dollars and a two-year-old. I had no idea that the next eight years would be the most difficult of my entire life or that it would take me another 10 years to recover and process all that I had endured during my time there.

Growing up in a small town, I had always heard that the Bay Area was a liberal, welcoming place that valued and celebrated diversity and alternative lifestyles. I thought that perhaps a poor, single mother like me would have an easier time living in such a place. I had no way of knowing how wrong I was.

In my eight years of living in San Francisco, I never once felt welcome. Perhaps it was a utopia in the ‘60s, but anything can seem that way if you’re tripping on acid. I arrived in San Francisco as a young, hopeful – although pitifully naïve – Democrat; I left as a somewhat emotionally battered and bitter Conservative.

I lived in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s worst neighborhoods, which rivaled the Bay View Hunter’s Point neighborhood dubbed “the kill zone” for its extraordinarily high murder rate. The Tenderloin is located in downtown San Francisco and is within walking distance of the financial district, City Hall and other city landmarks. The Tenderloin is also known to those who live there as the “TL.” It is unbelievably filthy; it has to be seen to be believed. The smell of urine, crap and death is the permanent aroma of the Tenderloin.

It was not unusual for people to leap from various buildings in the Tenderloin or for drug dealers to hurl people from buildings. I was almost hit with a suitcase full of clothes that had been thrown from a third-story window once. It missed me only by inches. The mêlée that followed seconds later arose from a Latina woman chasing an African-American male down the street as she beat him again and again over the head with a broom while screaming, “You’re calling me a b----?! No, you are my b---- mother f-----!”

The Tenderloin is a soul stealer; your senses are assaulted until they are eventually dulled by witnessing crimes against god, nature and humanity on a daily basis. The Tenderloin neighborhood has the distinction of having a large concentration of felons and convicted sex offenders. It also has one of the highest populations of children in San Francisco. I’m not sure how city officials manage to get away with allowing such a thing to happen, but I’m sure they don’t lose any sleep over it.

As I made my way down the street one morning to grab a few things at the store, I encountered a growing crowd just in front of the UC Hastings Law School on McAllister Street. Two women, one white, one black, had just gotten into a very violent, physical confrontation that had left the white woman covered in blood from head to toe. They were both homeless street people and were perhaps fighting over drugs, money or both. Someone in the crowd stepped toward the white woman, perhaps to give her something to wipe the blood off of her face or to provide some sort of comfort. All I remember is that the white woman hissed, “I have AIDS, don’t touch me!”

Another time, I recall walking home from one of the many temp jobs I had in the financial district. I was stunned by how absolutely clean the streets suddenly were. What’s more is that the hordes of homeless people that usually occupied the sidewalks of the TL had inexplicably disappeared. I overheard someone say that Oprah was about to arrive at the nearby Glide Memorial Church to pay Reverend Cecil Williams a visit. Later, as soon as her limousine pulled away from the curb, the litter, the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks and the smell of urine, crap and death returned as if they had never left at all.

As I sat waiting for my name to be called at Social Services one time, I witnessed two armed guards unmercifully mock a woman who sat nearby, breastfeeding her baby. They spoke loudly enough so the woman couldn’t help but hear them as they made lewd comments about her body and critiqued her breasts. It was sickening. The guards at Social Services had a reputation for abusive behavior and they amused themselves by throwing people out who dared to challenge them. Most people weren’t foolish enough to argue with them – you weren’t going to win and if you had the misfortune of being thrown out you would have the added burden of being sanctioned by your caseworker for “not showing up for your appointment.” I made it a point to stand or sit as far away from them whenever I was required to make an appearance there.

Another time at the same office, I witnessed a case worker berate and humiliate a woman who had clearly just had the crap beaten out of her, complete with a fat lip and missing teeth. This poor woman had apparently missed her appointment the day before. The woman tried to explain why she had been unable to make her appointment, and the case worker wasn’t having any of it. The case worker actually had the audacity to tell the woman that she couldn’t “show up whenever she felt like it.” I remember feeling physically ill and disturbed by the whole scene long after I had finally left the building.

My time in San Francisco was not without its moments of kindness, however. One time, my door bell rang but when I opened the door, no one was there. But there was an envelope partly shoved under the door with $100 cash in it. Another time in a different apartment building, the manager of the building approached me while I was in the laundry room and thrust something in my hand while insisting, “Now, don’t say ‘no’ Nancy, just take it. I want you to have it.” It was only when he left the room and I opened my hand to see $100. I half expected to be hit up at a later time for some unpleasant act, but his intentions were actually pure and I will always be grateful for his generosity and decency.

I sought solitude and relief at nearby St. Boniface Church, a beautiful Gothic-Romanesque, cream-colored Catholic church with pink-tiled towers. It was truly an oasis in the middle of hell. I would sometimes light a candle and pray to our Lady of Guadalupe. St. Boniface attracted many lost souls and I could no longer deny that I was one of them. I prayed for my life to get better. Like any decent Catholic I also prayed for the less fortunate to get well or to at least find their way. But mostly I prayed for me and my kid. I just wanted to walk down any street in the city and not be asked for anything, a cigarette, change, a light. I longed for the day when I no longer felt that I was “doing time” in San Francisco.

Nancy Muldoon

Nancy Muldoon