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Tenderloin : n.1. The most tender part of a loin of beef, pork, or similar cut of meat. 2. A city district notorious for vice and graft. There is nothing tender about the Tenderloin of San Francisco; the name is deceptive for people who are not thoroughly familiar with San Francisco and its neighborhoods. The district is triangular in shape, bordered on the southeast by Market Street, on the west by Van Ness Avenue, and on the north by Geary Street. Within that triangle, what some police officers less than affectionately refer to as the “Bermuda Triangle,” live the scum of the city: petty thieves, burglars, thugs, robbers, pimps,
prostitutes, pickpockets, drug addicts, and just plain drunks; as well as every kind of perverted freak, crackpot, eccentric, and nutcase one could possibly imagine, and probably some that no one thus far knows about. The streets are dirty, the buildings old and foul, garbage lines the gutters and alleys, and everything smells of stale beer, vomit, urine, and feces. It is a holiday playground for rats and the other vermin of the city. It is also home to those without a home, the last refuge for those who have no refuge. If (and when) a person has some money, they can stay in some fleabag SRO (single room occupancy) hotel; a residential hotel where people may rent (but not so cheaply) a room typically ridden with fleas, bed bugs, mice, rats and cockroaches, for a week or a month. The restroom and bathroom are typically located down the hall, shared by everyone on that floor. The inside of a room often smells old, damp, and moldy. If there is an elevator to the upper floors, it usually doesn’t work, and one is forced then to use the stairs, perhaps covered in worn out carpeting of an uncertain color and pattern. People come and go at all times of day or night, often not quietly. The walls are typically paper-thin and a resident can easily overhear the words of an argument, drug deal, or bad dream. Senior officer John Kelly and rookie officer Brian O’Neil of the San Francisco Police Department knew every SRO hotel in the district; not just by name but also by layout; and visits to the SROs were a daily occurrence. They were not social calls, but calls for service: predators of one sort or another preying on their weaker neighbors. Kelly and O’Neil knew the predators, the troublemakers, the thugs and bullies, and their victims by name as well. It was a small neighborhood, a village within a city. The two men also knew many of the men and women who could not enjoy the “luxuries” offered by an SRO: the men and women who slept in the parks, in the alleyways, and populated empty doorways at night. They were people unwanted, uncared for, and unknown except to the cops who walked the beat. “What’s with people John?” asked O’Neil, who rarely took things at face value and always wanted to look beneath the surface of things: to understand why people and circumstances were the way they were. “The city is a big place, it’s a big state. Why do so many of these people drift down here? There’s nothing for them.” “Well, for one thing, it’s a good place to get lost in…they think,” replied “Big John” Kelly, a veteran of over 20 years with the department, many of them spent on the streets of the Tenderloin. “What do you mean?”
“A person can disappear here…almost. It’s pretty easy to become nearly invisible when you’re one out of 750,000 people, or so the thinking goes. And, to a point, that’s true. However, when you put yourself into a community, a neighborhood that is only what 20,000, 30,000, you become a lot more visible than you think you are. And when you become a street person, well, that makes you even more visible.” “Yeah, I get you. A small fish in a very large pond, suddenly becomes a small fish in a much smaller pond.” “Right. And if you act up, if you do something to stand out more, then you become a bigger fish in that smaller pond. Some of these people are criminals that don’t want to be found. They don’t want an address, they don’t want a bank account, or bills that might lead people like you and me to find them. Some are unregistered sex offenders, rapists, muggers, pedophiles, that don’t want to be found. The law says they must register within 72 hours of arriving in a town or city, but they don’t. They just try to disappear, go undetected, so either they don’t have to comply with the law, or more often than not, they can go right on doing what they’ve been doing.” “Yeah,” said O’Neil, shaking his head. “But,” continued Kelly, “they don’t disappear. Nine times out of ten, they can’t maintain that anonymity. They screw up somehow, someway, and you and I find them. Maybe they swipe a bottle of cheap booze from the shelf of some liquor store, maybe they get caught buying some drugs, maybe we find ‘em passed out in some doorway or alley from the booze they stole, or near death from bad dugs…and there’s a lot of that around here. Maybe they’re just acting strangely: different enough to attract our attention. That’s why we stop and talk to them, find out their names, run them for wants and warrants, or make out an FI (field interrogation) Card. Like I said, one way or the other, they screw up, even just a little bit, and boom! They’re not invisible anymore and we bag ‘em. “That’s one of the reasons I want you to learn these people’s names. It’s easier for me, I’ve been here for a whole bunch of years, so each week, I just add a few names to my list.” Kelly let out a soft chuckle. “I guess I cross a few names off my list each week too. Whatever. But you’ve got to learn the whole crew, the whole pond of fish.” “What about the nut cases? The psychotics, the schizophrenics, and the ones that no one can even diagnose?”
“Well, buddy-boy, they don’t make it in the smaller towns and cities, like San Rafael, or Napa, or even Sacramento; although there’s a lot of ‘em in Berkeley…they blend right in there. But in the small towns and cities, they’re getting picked up every few days, put in the “psycho ward” for seventy-two hours, and then are released in a few days with a pocket full of meds. When the meds are gone, they’re picked up again, and the cycle repeats. A cop friend of mine, who works in Marin County, told me about one guy, psychotic or manic-depressive, I don’t remember; but, he got arrested one day in San Anselmo, two days later he was arrested again for being a “nutcase” in San Rafael, and two days after that, for the same thing in Novato.” O’Neil laughed. “Now the point is, that these “whack-jobs” get hassled in small towns and cities. A lot of them like their little dream worlds. A lot of them want a little peace and quiet, a little freedom to enjoy their fantasy worlds or their own private little hells. Which leads us back to the ‘little fish in the big pond theory.’ They’re less likely to get hassled, less often, here. And some of them are smart enough to know that they can make a little money on the side, selling the meds the city gives them when they do get picked up and are put in some kind of treatment program.” The two officers stepped into a run-down corner market to see who was loitering inside, perhaps trying to shoplift a can a beer or maybe some food, and then chatted with the owner for a few minutes. When they had stepped back out into the daylight and continued on their way, O’Neil asked, “What about the people that just don’t have anything? Why do they come here, there’s nothing for them?” “But there is stuff here for them. There are cheap second-hand stores where they can buy clothes if they have a few bucks; the city will provide for their medical care, put them on welfare and give them a stipend; and when the money is gone, or they just don’t have any, they’re at Saint Anthony’s Dining Room and Glide Memorial Church, where they can get a free hot meal, maybe some clothing, toothpaste, toothbrush…that kind of thing.” O’Neil looked up. They were at the corner of Taylor and Ellis Streets, coincidentally at the front door of Glide Memorial. Run by a charismatic man, a black man, the Reverend Cecil Williams. Glide’s self-stated mission was a simple one: to create an all-inclusive, just and loving community intent on alleviating suffering and breaking the cycles of poverty and a minimal existence.
The two officers walked around the corner onto Ellis Street and began patrolling the long line of derelicts waiting, in some semblance of order, for admission into the dining hall where a hot, nutritious dinner awaited them. They walked up and down the long line, which extended almost to the corner of Jones Street; and as they walked they looked at the faces, old and young, black and white, Hispanic and Asian; some healthy, some sickly, some happy, some looking back at the cops with unhidden hatred in their eyes. The first things on the cops’ minds, as they regarded the faces they passed, were who was potential trouble; then, who had warrants for their arrest and who was wanted for investigation of recent felonies or misdemeanors committed in the community against their neighbors? That was part of their job: take the bad guys off the street for as long as possible so that the weak or the defenseless could enjoy a little peace – for a little while.
There was still another reason that they walked back and forth along the line, from the front door of Glide to the corner of Jones. There existed, on that block between the Young-Ellis Food Center (where you could buy a cheap six-pack of malt liquor or beer), and Glide Memorial (where you
could get a hot meal, maybe some clean clothes, and maybe someone to help you get a place to stay), a certain conflict. The discord was a simple one between the requirements for good manners (as good as could be expected in the Tenderloin under the circumstances) made by the good folks at Glide, and the “hierarchy” of the predators of the street who had a general disregard for anything resembling acceptable social conduct. As far as the police and Glide were concerned, there was to be no yelling, cursing, shoving; nor was there to be any stealing, fighting, or cutting into line ahead of someone who had already established their spot and was patiently waiting for some food. It hadn’t been but a few short weeks since Kelly and O’Neil, along with Inspector Keith Gallagher and Inspector Greg Gonzales, had worked together to investigate a homicide right there on the street in front of the BlueWater Wash Laundromat, at 372 Ellis.
There hadn’t been much to the crime really. It was getting on toward dinner time and the long line of San Francisco’s most poor had gathered along the street, right up to the corner of Jones. A middle-aged man, Bill Saunders, as Kelly put it, “Professional Alcoholic,” was standing in line, in front of the Laundromat, when a surly black fellow, in jeans, a prison-style jeans jacket, and black stocking cap, simply cut into the line so that he could talk to a friend just in front of Bill. Now, that’s bad manners in any society,
whether it’s waiting in line for the opera or for “grub” at Glide; and certainly it’s against the foundation’s unwritten laws of conduct. Bill took acceptation to being cut in front of, and being (for the present) sober and suffering from a grand hangover headache, he said something. Words, most of them rude, were exchanged and then the man who had cut in front of Bill, simply drew a cheap revolver out of his coat pocket and shot him in the face. Saunders never got that meal, he was dead before he hit the pavement. Kelly and O’Neil were, as was often the case, first on the scene. Of course, the suspect in the homicide had run off, but surprisingly there were some good eyewitnesses, ready and willing to step forward; after all, it could have just as easily have been one of them. While Gonzales and Gallagher checked the crime scene, the two street cops, armed with a good description and a strong idea of who the “perp” (perpetrator) was, headed down Jones Street for three and a half blocks to the front of Saint Anthony’s Dining Room. Sure enough, the man they were looking for was standing in line, nonchalantly waiting for dinner. The suspect didn’t go willingly, he fought “Big Kelly” and O’Neil with everything he had, short of pulling his gun again to shoot the two cops; but nonetheless, he went. On this particular day, there was no violence, no disorder, only some loud chatter, and some good-natured horsing around. Kelly and O’Neil continued to walk up and down the line, even as it started to move forward once the front doors to the dining room had opened, chatting with people they knew as they went. As he was chatting with one older, black woman, Kelly heard a loud, deep, moist, racking cough from farther back in the line. The two officers walked in the direction of the hacking, up to one of the newer faces in the line, a man in his mid-thirties with glasses, wearing a pair of blue jeans, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a heavy blue parka. The man coughed again, almost rocking off his feet and then panting at its conclusion. “You’re Eric aren’t you?” asked Kelly. The man nodded, still unable to quite catch his breath. The two officers remembered Eric because he kept his clothes clean, his hair trimmed, and his face shaved. “That sounds really bad. Are you going to be ok?” “Just a cold,” rasped Eric. “It’ll be fine in a couple of days.” “Well, you ought to get that checked out, even if it is a cold,” said Kelly. “Out here, small things, things that are not so good, tend to get a lot worse real fast.” He dug into one of his jacket pockets and took out a card for one of the city’s local free clinics, over on Grove and Polk Streets, and
handed the card to the man. “Trust me. I’ve been working here a long time and I know what I’m talking about. Go see these folks and get that taken care of, ok?” Erick stifled another cough, accepted the card, and nodded.” “Ok.” continued Kelly, “And take your time eating your dinner. Stay in there as long as you can and get warm. We’ll see you later.” And with that, the two cops walked back down to Glide Memorial and into the dining room, edging their way through the crowd at the door. Kelly looked around for a minute and then found who he was looking for: Reverend Williams. While O’Neil walked from table to table chatting with familiar people from the streets, Kelly walked over to the head of Glide Memorial and talked to the gentle man quietly, giving the Reverend a complete description of Eric, including the bad cold the man had, and asking that, if possible, could they please give Eric an extra helping of whatever they could and let him stay inside as long as possible. Williams nodded his head and said he’d do exactly that, and that he’d also see if he couldn’t find him some medicine to help. Kelly expressed his appreciation and then pulled a five-dollar bill out his pocket. “Here, take this Reverend. It’s all I brought with me today, but I hope it will help.” “Every little bit does just that Mr. Kelly. Every little bit,” said Reverend Williams. Although feeling miserable, Eric was both surprised and a little elated when later, as he finished his last bit of coffee and was about to get up from the table to leave, Reverend Williams came over to him and handed him another dinner tray and another cup of coffee. “You’ve got a couple of guardian angels looking out for you,” said the man in a soft voice with a broad smile on his face. “Oh? Who’s that Reverend?” “Those two cops that were in here a little while ago: Kelly and O’Neil. Their kind of worried about you.” Eric just nodded and said, “Thanks.” “They also told me you’ve got a pretty bad cold going on.” Eric stifled a cough. “Yeah, but it should be better soon. The big officer gave me the address of a clinic. A free clinic.” “Well, the clinic’s closed for the evening. And I’m sure it will get better, but stay in here for a while out of the cold, while I look around for something that might help that a bit.”
Five minutes later, the Reverend Williams was in a nearby drug store, buying a bottle of strong cold medicine with the money Kelly had given him. “It may not cure that cold, but it definitely will help.” Later that evening, Eric set up the small, dome-like pop-up tent he carried on top of his backpack, the one that contained everything he owned in the world, in a narrow vacant dirt lot, overgrown with weeds, between two buildings. He took a sip of the medicine he had been given, and then, still wearing his parka, made specifically for cold weather, lay down in a semi-circle, his two worn wool blankets tucked around him and his pack, and drifted off to sleep. Eric Johansen: thirty-five years old, formerly from San Jose, California; before that, he had been Eric Johansen, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, computer engineer. Twelve years earlier, he had taken a job with a computer software company in “Silicon Valley,” San Jose, at first engineering complex computer software and then also writing, the technical manuals that went with them. They weren’t the kind of manuals that the general public would use, no WonderWord for Dummies. No, these were incredibly detailed and complex, meant for the highest levels of computer “geeks” and “nerds” playing with the latest generations of almost super computers. His job had been great and he had made a good salary. He married a beautiful California girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and big breasts; and together they had two children and a nice suburban home in the hills of Mountain View. Everything had been going extremely well, he thought, until two years ago when his company, which had suffered from a combination of bad management and greedy executives, was forced into bankruptcy. First, he lost his job, and then he couldn’t find another; what’s more, in a short while he had lost his wife: a simple case of “no money, no honey.” She filed for divorce, took the two kids, and left him with a mortgage he couldn’t pay and more alimony and child support payments than he could ever have imagined possible. When his unemployment insurance ran out, he felt like he had been kicked in the gut; and when he couldn’t find another job, he decided to try any kind of employment he could find: anything that would give him some money. But in the meanwhile, things had become bad all over. The national economy was bad. Officially, they called it a “recession” but to Eric Johansen and a lot of other people it was a depression; and just as in the depression of the 1930s, like so many people, he found himself without a house, home, family, or friends. He even asked his parents, back in Minnesota, good “born-again” evangelical Christians, for help: but in vain. It was obvious to them, they said, that he had turned his back on Jesus,
forsaken the lord, when he moved to California and married outside of the church. His suffering was God’s way of bringing him back to Jesus. They wouldn’t interfere. “Jesus has nothing to do with this,” he told them, just before he slammed down the phone. He never spoke with them again. Eventually he drifted north, up the San Francisco Peninsula, to the city and the only place that seemed likely to even remotely tolerate the homeless: the Tenderloin.
He was neither the strongest of men nor the weakest of men. He despaired; yet, he did not give up. It took all the courage he could muster, from deep within himself, to make a small sign from a piece of scrap cardboard and to sit with it on Fulton Street between Hyde and Larkin. “Will work for food,” it read: honest and straightforward. On the first day he begged for four hours, seated with his sign on the curb next to the magnificent Pioneer Monument, which was dedicated to all the great men who had a hand in founding the Golden State and San Francisco, and with the great stone buildings of city government and culture surrounding him, the Asian Art Museum, the main Public Library, the courthouses, and City Hall; however, there was no job for him, no food, nor a single new penny. As the sun began to set and he walked away, headed towards Glide
Memorial, he was almost in tears at the thought of what his life had become. But the next day he was back. Perhaps, he thought, the second try would be easier, and conceivably it was, for he stayed the entire day. There was still no job, but he did manage to gather a few dollars. The next day he was back again; and so it went, day after day, and hour after hour. He was able to buy a little food, soap, and a cheap razor. Daily he would find some public restroom and wash his face and hands, shave, and comb his hair. Twice a week, at night, he would hike to Golden Gate Park, several miles to the west, there to bathe in the icy waters of Stow Lake or some other pond. He hated that. The hikes from the Tenderloin out to the park and back were long and the chilly waters made his bones ache; yet, he knew that his hygiene was important. To remain as clean as he could meant he had a better chance of remaining healthy; and by maintaining some semblance of good grooming, he just might be able to convince someone that he was worthy of a chance at a job. He refused to fall into the trap that so many of those unfortunates around him fell into: letting their appearance and their cleanliness decline, falling into disease – a deadly downward spiral.
With the little money he was able to get, he sometimes bought food, fresh vegetables and fruit, in the weekly “farmer’s market” that was held on the next block across Hyde Street. But he did not squander what he had. Some of it he set aside and eventually he was able to purchase a small transistor radio and batteries. Then he was able to listen to the news each day, to listen to conversations on “talk radio,” and to the classical music and jazz he had always loved. These were Eric’s luxuries. The first time he used his radio and found the local classical music radio station on the small dial, they were playing Mozart’s 25th Symphony: one of his favorites. That day the music, the sound of that symphony, warmed his heart; and at the same time, it seemed to speak to him of the gravity of his situation. Tears welled up in his eyes. Even though he now had bits of extra food, and could spend his days with Brubeck and Bartok, Mingus and Mozart by way of his small radio, he was still hungry and the days remained long, tedious, and relatively empty. There was no stimulation except for that provided by the fear of the predators in the Tenderloin who would not hesitate to rob or kill the weaker, less aggressive residents for whatever it was they decided, at that moment, they wanted and the other person had. Eric did his utmost to remain out of their sight and thus out of mind; avoiding them and their hangouts as though they had the black plague. He wanted to keep what little he had and to live: he had not altogether given up hope. Sometimes fate and circumstance are so set against someone that not even the smallest break comes their way; but Eric perhaps still had a guardian angel watching him and looking over his shoulder. It was in early summer when two things occurred to alter his life in small, but still significant ways. The first occurred on a warm afternoon as he sat by the Pioneer Monument with his small sign made of cardboard. Several coins and a few dollar bills sat in the bottom of an empty coffee can he had placed in front of the sign; however, nothing else noteworthy had happened. He began to doze in the warm afternoon sun and his mind drifted back to when he had been, what seemed now, so infinitely younger and naïve. He recalled something that one of his college professors had told him: that without stimulation, without challenges, without care, the human mind could atrophy, become ill, wither and die, just as the body would. At that recollection, he opened his eyes with the kernel of an idea developing in his thoughts. There were, for now, no jobs for him, no work, and no challenge except for staying alive; yet, there was something he could do. He had learned to write in college, to use words to express his thoughts. He had done it a hundred times in creating the technical
computer manuals at his work in San Jose. Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor was playing on his radio. It was tragic music, heartrending and yet soaring, playing there for him as he sat on the edge of the most pitiful and heartrending part of San Francisco, where people barely existed and eventually spiraled downward into death’s waiting arms. He could write about that. The calamity of the Tenderloin was all around him; indeed, he was now a part of it. If written well, he decided, if written properly, just perhaps people would read about it: even pay to read about it. Sudden Eric was excited. He had a purpose, a mission, and a chance at the single handhold he had sought to pull himself out of depths that threatened to envelope him. He put the money from his coffee can into his pocket; put his sign and the can into his backpack, and walked quickly, with a new determination, up Hyde Street and then down Eddy Street to a small used book store; one that seemed as dilapidated as every other place in the district and as derelict as he had felt up until a few moments earlier. He quickly searched the shelves, almost as a man possessed, until he found what he wanted: a worn copy of Webster’s Colligate Dictionary. With almost all the money he had collected that day, he purchased the book, and then dashed over to Walgreen’s Drugs on Market Street at Third, where he took the remainder and bought some pencils, a sharpener, and a spiral notebook of yellow lined paper. That evening, as he sat in St. Anthony’s Dining Room, eating a warm meal, he began to write: Castaway: A Modern Robinson Crusoe. The second thing to happen to Eric occurred that very evening as he sat eating and writing. One of the Franciscan priests from St. Anthony’s, coincidentally and perhaps fortuitously named Father Anthony, noticed the man, clean shaven and looking not nearly as scruffy as most of their visitors, writing as he ate. The priest sat down next to Eric and began a conversation that went on for over an hour. At its conclusion, Father Anthony invited the man to come and see him in the church office the next day. He would help him to get enrolled in the city’s “GA” or General Assistance Program (a kind of welfare program) which would provide him with a stipend that would help with food and lodging, as well as government Food Stamps, another program which enabled the needy to obtain basic, healthy foods, in exchange for a type of script they would provide him; in essence, for free. Within a few weeks, Eric had enough money each month to afford newer, cleaner clothes, fresh underwear, and more importantly, he had food. But Eric was no fool; unlike so many who would spend the GA money as soon as it was received. He was frugal and budgeted what little there was. There weren’t sufficient funds to cover every expense, at least
not completely. He had to decide how best to spend the money, to put it to the best use and to make it last for a month: no easy task in a city noted for its high prices. Even a studio apartment cost over $1,000 dollars a month and thus, was out of the question. But he did have enough, with care, to afford a room in an SRO hotel, a week at a time, for two weeks each month. There he would have a bed, shower and toilet facilities, and warmth. Should he stay in such a place for two weeks in a row or spread it out, alternate one week in and one week on the street? He opted for alternating weeks. And so it went for the rest of the summer, into autumn and then winter. The first week of each month, he would take a room and enjoy the luxury of hot showers and a bed; all the while working on Castaway. The second week, he would camp out, living in his small, round popup tent and out of his backpack; eating breakfast and dinner on alternating days at St. Anthony’s and Glide. Then on the third week, he would be back in a hotel, perhaps preparing his own food on a small electric hotplate; then on the fourth week, back onto the streets. But almost always, the GA money ran out before the end of the month, and Eric would be forced to bring out his small cardboard sign once again, along with his coffee can, and seek alms. Often, at those times, he could not afford paper and was forced to write on whatever scraps of paper he could find, often in the trash bins behind nearby office buildings. Pink paper, white paper, yellow paper, it didn’t matter as long as there was blank space to write on. Later, when he was back in an SRO, he would transcribe his writings to his notebooks. On days when it was too cold to be out, or raining, he would pitch his tent in a small vacant lot on Eddy Street; a narrow space where a building had been torn down but no replacement constructed, overgrown with wild grasses and strewn with litter, to listen to the radio and write until his paper ran out; venturing out only for food and more paper. He wrote every day, and when a chapter was completed, he edited and re-edited it. Despite the cold and the damp, Eric had a purpose. It was on one of those days, those miserable, meager days, at the end of the month, in late winter, when Eric again met Officer Kelly and his partner Officer O’Neil. He sat in his usual spot, by the Pioneer Monument, with his sign and his coffee can, his radio playing, and his pencil busy on pieces of pink paper he had found in a dumpster. The two cops stayed for quite a while, chatted, and seemed genuinely interested in what he had been doing since their last encounter: particularly in what he was writing. He proudly showed them what he had written, the parts on clean lined paper that he had transcribed, and they listened intently as he described the few remaining chapters he wanted to write, and the intentions he had for
himself if only the story could be published as a book. What he didn’t mention was that winter had been hard: unusually cold and wet, that he was ill, and was becoming more so. He couldn’t, as hard as he tried, completely conceal the deep cough that had persisted since their last meeting; but he explained that he was going to the city’s free clinic and taking medicine for it. “Just one of those things that wants to hang on until the absolute end,” he told Kelly with a faint smile. But what he didn’t tell the tall Irish cop was what the “absolute end” actually meant. He hadn’t lied exactly, he was going to the clinic, and he was being treated; but it wasn’t for a cold or even pneumonia, it was the “black plague” of the Tenderloin – tuberculosis.
Was Eric doomed? He thought not. The people at the free clinic, the doctors, had told him that it was a very resilient form of the disease, a tough fighter, but one that could be controlled. How he had come by it there was no saying for certain. Perhaps someone with the same disease had coughed on him in line at one of the soup kitchens, or on his food as he ate; or perhaps he had come in contact with the disease in one of the SROs he stayed at: not an uncommon thing. The disease was not epidemic, but it was prevalent in the poor districts of many cities, they had told him, and that there was a waiting list to get into any of the state hospitals that treated the disease. But they assured him that they could alleviate his symptoms for the present, and in ninety days or less, it would be his turn – guaranteed.
When he first received the news, he again felt devastated, just as shattered as when he lost his job, his family, his home, and found himself in the Tenderloin. Nevertheless, even under this new burden, he refused to yield. He made plans. Between now and then, he would finish Castaway, and while in the hospital, edit and re-edit it over and over again until it was something he could present with pride to a publishing house. He was almost certain that someone would publish it; and with that, he would at last have the opportunity he so desperately wanted: to start his life over again. The next day, he had a surprise visit from Kelly and O’Neil. As the two officers started their foot patrol that afternoon, they specifically sought him out, and they had brought gifts. O’Neil carried a ream of clean white paper he had bought along the way at a stationery store, and Kelly presented him with a package of five spiral notebooks and a box of pencils. Eric thanked the two cops profusely and wanted to do something in return for them but they would have none of it. “Just hurry up and finish it so we can read it,” said Kelly with a grin. “We want to be the first.” The next few weeks went by quickly and Eric wrote like a man possessed. When he was living in a hotel, he more often than not stayed inside and wrote. When he was living out of doors, he wrote during the daytime in the park across Polk Street from City Hall or while he was “on station” with his little sign and tin can, at the Pioneer Monument. Something inside told him to hurry and finish his book: that it was important. And Eric told himself that he wanted to have everything transposed onto clean paper before he went to the hospital. He was a man with a mission. Five days before he was scheduled to leave San Francisco, in order to begin treatment for his tuberculosis at Sonoma State Hospital, in the wine country near Napa, he was at the end of his money and back on the street, camping at night in his little vacant lot on Eddy Street. Somehow he didn’t mind nearly so much this time, because it was for only a few days, and then he’d be safe in the hospital where he would edit Castaway into a presentable manuscript, and then perhaps find a publisher. Things were definitely looking up and he found himself, more than ever, enthused about the future. It was a Monday and he would be leaving on Friday. That afternoon, he finished the last paragraph on a scrap of yellow paper, a half page, and then he carefully, lovingly, bound everything together with several rubber bands and placed it in his backpack. That evening he had dinner at Glide Memorial and then retired to his little round tent in the vacant lot and went to sleep.
Tuesday afternoon, at 3 p.m., John Kelly and Brian O’Neil came out of the locker room at Tenderloin Station and were headed to the briefing room when they were stopped by the shift supervisor, Sergeant Pete Flanagan, a stocky, powerfully built veteran of almost thirty years on the street, with clear blue eyes and a steel gray mustache trimmed and waxed meticulously in RAF style. “Forget about briefing guys. I need you to head up the street to that vacant lot between Leavenworth and Hyde. We’ve got a report of a DB (a dead body) there. “We’re on it,” said O’Neil with a nod as he and his partner picked up fresh portable radios and then headed out the door. Halfway down the block, he said to Kelly, “I’ve got a bad feeling in my gut about this, John.”
It took all of three minutes to walk to the scene were several people had gathered around the opening to the small vacant lot that Eric used to
camp in during “outside” weeks. No one in the group wanted to admit being the one to find the body, which was just visible at the far back end of the lot, partially hidden in the weeds. Kelly held the crowd back while O’Neil walked through the lot and approached the body. Even from behind, the dead man was recognizable to him. The young officer bent over the prostrate figure, lying on its stomach, with something clutched close to its chest. O’Neil bent down even lower and looked into the face. It was just as he had feared. The face, looking to the side with vacant eyes belonged to Eric; and there was a small bullet hole in the back of his head. But where was his backpack? Where was his tent? Gone! It didn’t take much for the young officer to figure out what had happened. Somebody had wanted the tent or the backpack, or both, and anything else that Eric had of value. They probably rousted him out of his tent, took what they wanted and then executed him. Slowly, O’Neil walked back to the street and told his partner. “It’s Eric, shot in the head. All his stuff is gone.” “Ok, you’d better call Gallagher in, his on-call today.” Five minutes later Inspector Gallagher pulled up to the curb in his black, unmarked sedan and Brian walked over to talk to the detective. He briefly explained how he and his partner happened to know the victim, a little of his history, and how the young officer had found him. Gallagher retrieved a small camera and some evidence envelopes from the trunk of his car and then followed O’Neil to the back of the lot, checking the ground as he went for anything that even remotely resembled a clue. Gallagher hated homicides; not because of the work they entailed but because of the cruelty and the callousness they revealed. Gallagher, better than most people, knew just how cruel and murderous people could be. On one rare occasion, after drinking a few bottles of Guinness stout and shot glasses of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, he had even admitted to both Kelly and O’Neil that he really didn’t like people very much. Gallagher inspected the bullet wound, there was entry but no exit of the bullet, and then began to take photographs while O’Neil looked around the vicinity, eventually locating a single brass .22 caliber shell casing about ten feet from the body. He marked the place and then went back to the detective and reported it. Together, they slowly rolled Eric’s body over onto its back. Clutched in his arms, was his manuscript, bound together with at least a dozen rubber bands. Brian explained to Gallagher, “He was writing a book. A book about the Tenderloin, and being homeless, and about everything that happened to
him; everything he saw and heard. He hoped that maybe he could do some good with it, and that maybe it would help him to start over, someplace else.” Then the young cop gently tried to slide the stack of papers out from the dead man’s arms. To this day, O’Neil cannot say with one hundred percent certainty why, but he could not get the manuscript away from Eric’s grasp. Whether it was because of rigor mortis or because of the man’s determination not to give up what was most precious to him, he can’t say. It took Gallagher’s assistance, pulling upward on both the victim’s arms, before Brian could slide the papers free. O’Neil held the book in both hands, looked at the title again, and just shook his head. Thirty minutes later a van from the Medical Examiner’s Office had come and removed the body. As Gallagher was finishing his notes on the case, Brian walked over to him. “Boss, if it’s ok with you, I’m going to hold on to this,” he said, holding up the manuscript. “Why’s that? I know you’ve got a good reason. So tell me.” “This guy, Eric, put a lot of time, a lot of work into this. He had something to say. It can either wind up in the property room over at the ME’s office, or in the evidence locker, and it’s really not evidence; or else, I can do something with it. I know what Eric intended for it. If it’s ok, with you, I’d like to keep it and maybe finish what he started.” Gallagher thought for a few minutes and then looked at the young cop, who he regarded as one of his few close friends. “Ok, you want it that badly, you’ve got it. But let’s just keep it between us and the fence post. Ok?” “Got it,” answered O’Neil. “Thanks a lot.” Three months later, with some diligent work by Brian O’Neil, John Kelly, Keith Gallagher, and the Medical Examiner, Dr. Marian Fong, the parents of Eric Johansen were located. At first they were reluctant to accept Eric’s ashes, but after O’Neil explained to them on the telephone that his life had changed significantly and that he attended Sunday services every weekend, alternating between St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and Glide Memorial Church, and that he had been involved in helping the downtrodden of the Tenderloin, they were more willing. And so the City of San Francisco sent the last remains of Eric Johansen back to his childhood home of Minneapolis, Minnesota: everything except Castaway: A Modern Robinson Crusoe. Over the next few months, O’Neil, in his spare time, retyped the book, editing and re-editing it as he went, until it was in the proper form for
submission to a publisher. He made several copies and then passed one on to John Kelly, who read most of it and then decided that the book needed to be seen by someone in the writing business. He took a copy and gave it to a popular columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, someone he knew from the Washington Street Bar and Grill. In the meanwhile, Brian had registered the manuscript with the U.S. Copyright Office: Castaway: A Modern Robinson Crusoe, by Eric Johansen, Copyright by John J. Kelly and Brian S. A. O’Neil. Brian had decided that the book was worth saving and protecting, and he had plans for it if someone would publish it. And that’s exactly what happened. Six months later, a publishing house that had been contacted by Kelly’s friend the columnist, bought the publishing rights, and within weeks, hardbound copies of the book were on the shelf of every major bookstore in the region. Book reviewers wrote their praises in magazines and newspapers and talked about it on the radio. Sociologists loved it and the book became the topic of discussion in college circles, and the focus of change for the Tenderloin in the meeting rooms of City Hall. At the direction of Kelly and O’Neil, the proceeds from the book were distributed where they might do the most good, and in a fashion that might have pleased Eric: half went to Glide Memorial and the other half to St. Anthony’s. One afternoon, just before Christmas that year, as Kelly and O’Neil walked their foot beat and passed the narrow, vacant lot on Eddy Street, O’Neil said to his partner, “You know John, I still feel badly about what happened to Eric Johansen. It was a pretty crappy deal.” “Oh, don’t feel so bad Brian.” “Why do you say that? He got murdered didn’t he? Stripped of everything he owned in the world and shot in the head.” “Yeah, that part is crummy. But on the other hand, it was his “golden ticket” out of here. He was very sick: a lot sicker than we ever knew. He suffered a lot but never let on about it. And now he’s at peace, in a place where no one can ever hurt him again, and there’s no more pain. I really believe that.” “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” said the younger of the two, a sullen expression still on his face. “Of course I am. He’s safe now, he’s out of here, and he left one heck of a legacy…his book. That’s a hell of a lot more than a lot of people will be able to say…that they left any kind of a legacy behind them, other than bills. Trust me on this.”
“You know, you’re getting to be pretty wise for an old guy,” said O’Neil with a wink at his partner. “Well, maybe that’s about the only good thing that comes with getting old. Now, let’s hike over to Glide and see who’s lined up for dinner this evening.” And the two officers walked down the block into the growing dusk.
A TENDERLOIN TALE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON EDDY STREET. Copyright © 2011 by Aoi Tokugawa. Japanese Version Copyright © 2011 by Aoi Tokugawa. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States and Japan by Shisei-Dō Publications. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without prior written permission of the author or publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. English translation by Tokugawa H. Illustrations by Tokugawa H.