Where a man can not be free

Music – Unknown – Running Down A Dream (cover)

I watch for crackheads wearing my shoes.  It’s hard to tell most of the time; their pants (when they wear pants) hang low and drag on the pavement, obscuring their footwear.  I don’t see my shoes.  I’m not sure I would recognize them if I did.  A crackhead’s stumbling, zombie-like shuffle is probably harder on footwear than a normal stride, and my shoes were already pretty raggedy when I left them in a bag on the street.  It’s possible their new owner has already worn through them.

Still, I make a habit to check.

——

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?f=/c/a/2009/06/06/BAG8181NH5.DTL&o=1

The sewers beneath the Tenderloin caught fire last week.  Crazy plumes of acrid black smoke coming out of every storm drain…  Geysers of flame shooting out of the manholes, fifteen, twenty feet up into the air…  They said it was an electrical thing but who the fuck really knows.  Could have been anything from a meteor strike to spontaneous combustion in a place like that.  The streets and alleys of the TL are brutal and disgusting, and I can only imagine what kind of radioactive filth the rain washes down into that hellish sub-street ecosystem.  Any kind of freaky shit could have crawled out of that horrible subterranean labyrinth to escape the flames and I would not have been surprised in the least.  Eighty-foot albino reptiles, spear-toting human/rat hybrids, an army of Bette Midler clones speaking Aramaic and wearing matching throwback Padres uniforms, any kind of shit.  The mayor had riot police down there to protect the firefighters while they tried to put the thing out, which took the better part of 12 hours.  Newsom knows better than to take chances with whatever evil things come slithering up out of those tubes; he had cops down there with everything from shields to low-yield grenade launchers.  The last thing you want hanging over your head during your gubernatorial campaign is the death of fifty firefighters at the hands of some lost tribe of half-rat sewer troglodytes.

I watched the smoke and the helicopters for an hour or so before I decided to go down for a better look.  They had about ten blocks roped off so I couldn’t get too close.  Which was probably for the best.

Still, seeing all of the drunks, schizophrenics, and assorted street people be herded out of the TL like refugees was a sight to behold.  They seemed strangely put-off, belligerent.  Inconvenienced is the word.  I saw one woman cursing and spitting at the cops as though they’d deliberately started the blaze just to have an excuse to kill her buzz and chase her off her corner.

The displaced formed a sort of evacuee halo around the roped-off area of the city, a moat of junkies and psychopaths that the normal pedestrian traffic was forced to fight through.  There were a lot of pissed off Civic Center employees that day, I can tell you.  There’s nothing like running a six-block detour through a gammut of angry vagrants and hookers to make your commute unpleasant.

I waited around for a bit hoping to see some mutant snakes or some shit rise up out of the gutters but was disappointed.  On my way home I did see a guy walk into a laundromat and puke into a dryer, though.

So I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

——–

I have a very love/hate relationship with this fucking cesspool of a city.  A lot of the things I hate about it, the freaks and the noise and the chaos, appeal to me in a  way.  Walking the streets you can feel a sort of ever-present malevolence, a dangerous unpredictability.  It’s a taint you smell on the wind, a slight bitterness in the water.  It’s a subtle thing, ugly, dissonant, but fascinating.  You have to be prepared for any kind of absurdity and craziness when you live here.  A thousand hairy gay men dancing around in oversized wedding gowns?  Been there.  A bunch of people riding around on dirtbikes wearing kilts, kicking down mailboxes?  Seen it.  Murder? Robbery? Check.  Woman giving birth in an elevator? Spontaneous party in the streets?  Twenty-thousand person pillow fight?  Yep.

I have a theory.  A city of a certain size, of a certain economic and social deportment, achieves a sort of critical mass.  The wave peaks, as it were.  The safety, the normalcy, the infrastructure offered by a large populous is suddenly outstripped by all the waste, the psychosis, and the frustration such a place generates.  The scales tip and suddenly your idyllic, efficient town becomes a haven for whackos and mayhem.  It gets too big to manage.  It starts to rot and decay from the inside out.

Like SF.

But that’s part of the appeal, you know.  What began as lawless and savage frontier grows into a village, a city, a metropolis, and suddenly it’s a frontier again.  Its streets are too numerous to patrol, its alleys too dark and twisting to map, or even comprehend.  It becomes a system large and complex enough to accomodate all kinds of misfits and radicals, to be home to thousands of super-villains and saints and everything in between.

The city, grown too large and unwieldy to be truly governed, gets by on equal parts inertia and ingenuity.  It’s become its own organism, a wild beast that cannot be tamed, only coaxed or threatened at one’s own peril.

Older, bigger cities in the world are the same way.  Pools of humanity where, if you swim deep enough, you can no longer see the surface.  Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Singapore… strange things happen, unnoticed, in their poorly lit corridors, beneath bridges and behind unmarked doors.

All the madness that throughout history was reserved for the frontier gets diverted into cities like this.  There’s no edge of the map for the weird or adventurous to walk off of anymore, so they end up in the black underbellies of major cities.  Where distance once sheltered them from society, they now armor themselves with anonymity, facelessness.  Just another unremarkable person in the endless crowd.

That’s why I put up with all the vileness of this fucking town, I think.  Why I overlook all the disease and dreariness of it.  Because in-so-far as the modern world has a frontier, this is it.  The concrete wildnerness.

-T.

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One Response to “Where a man can not be free”

  1. One of your best yet!

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