John Ratliff reaches into the pocket of his jacket and says, “This is my latest project,” and he pulls out a young pigeon.
It rests on his hand momentarily and extends its tattered wings outward. The skin is exposed, raw, and it begins to flap its mangled wings, but it’s no use.
“It can’t fly,” says Ratliff. “It’s a baby, musta’ fell off a tree.” He covers the pigeon’s head with the palm of his other hand and gently places it back into the pocket of his jacket.
“This is its home now,” he says as he stares off toward the BART Station in front of him on 16th and Mission streets. Dozens of other pigeons surround him, pecking rice off the cement.
People stop and stare at Ratliff. Take a photo. Leave. Point. Laugh. Go on with their days. They see a homeless man sitting on a bench feeding birds.
But that homeless man is an award-winning journalist from Springfield, Illinois, whose mind fell ill to schizophrenia, whose family left him when he could no longer control his behavior, whose few possessions include a typewriter and the bags of rice he carries with him.
“We called him Swan,” said Andrew McKinley, surrounded by walls of novels, just past the poetry section of Adobe Books, the store he founded more than 25 years ago that is now a cooperative, relocated to 3130 24th St.
“He’s been around this neighborhood for as long as I’ve been around this neighborhood,” he said, reclining back on the couch as he began to recall how he met Ratliff who is known as the Lone Star Swan, an alias he gave himself.
In 1988, McKinley said, a Volkswagen bus appeared near 16th and Valencia streets. This was John Ratliff’s home. He’d park on either side of the road, but soon, Ratliff’s only place of refuge was towed away by the city, and he became a street person, sleeping on doorways along 16th Street.
Despite it all, in the mornings, when he wasn’t hanging out at Pícaro café, Ratliff walked into Adobe Books, then on 16th Street. Even then, Ratliff wore his black bandanna across his long wiry hair. He helped himself to a seat and began to compose on a typewriter he brought with him.
It was there that he wrote the words of the daily Rag – a personal newsletter to the community about the words circulating in his head.
His epistles discussed current events, politicians and landlords. Sometimes he announced his candidacy for president or mayor and described being chased by “agents,” who wanted to read his mind using mind rays.
Once the newsletters were written, he copied them and handed them out to people he saw in the bookstore or in the nearby cafés of 16th Street.
McKinley doesn’t know how Ratliff started using the store as his abode, but he nevertheless was welcomed.
“We allowed him to sleep in our store and rest,” McKinley said, even letting Ratliff keep copies of the Rag in the basement along with bags of rice. “He had this love of news; he had a love for animals and insects. But I guess he slowly devolved into a bird feeder.”
Ratliff took on a new epithet, the Birdman, the man who fed the pigeons of 16th and Valencia streets.
Continuing to write his daily articles, Ratliff was still the Swan, bringing his brand of culture to the neighborhood and enjoying the ambiance of Adobe Books, which became a hangout for musicians and artists.
In the mid-2000s, the history behind Swan emerged.
“At some point he came out here and lost connection. His colleagues at the news station were concerned. They were worried about him,” McKinley said.
Roger Wolfe, Ratliff’s best friend and news colleague at WICS, Channel 20, NBC in Springfield, Illinois, came to San Francisco to film a portrait on Ratliff, titled “Schizophrenia.”
In Wolfe’s documentary, we discover that Ratliff was a multifaceted news reporter in the early 1970s.
“Ratliff joined WICS in October, 1969, as a news and documentary writer, reporter and commentator. He has produced two documentaries for the station, ‘Drugs and the Young,’ and ‘Old Age in Springfield.’ Previously, Ratliff had worked for KELO-TV, the Associated Press and United Press International in Sioux Falls, S.D., and for United Press in Minneapolis,” wrote the Decatur Daily Review, an Illinois newspaper, on Nov. 20, 1970.
Back then, he was also a family man, a father of four. But Ratliff’s schizophrenia began to manifest, and in 1974, the uncontrollable psychotic episodes took over his mind, and he threatened his family, according to the documentary. Mary Ratliff, his wife at the time, had no choice but to leave with the children.
Between 1974 and 1988, there is a time gap. How Ratliff came to San Francisco is uncertain, but McKinley says he has heard that in the earlier days, Ratliff could be found in North Beach.
In the early 2000s, Ratliff’s distinctive presence caught the eyes of local artist Daniel Doherty.
The Storyteller: Saint Francis
During a rare sunspotted evening in December of last year, Doherty stood on his toes in the middle of Clarion Alley – a cultural, political, and historical artery of murals – trying to pull a piece of duct tape off the mural he painted of Ratliff in 2015.
“Damn it,” Doherty said. The tape peeled the paint off the wall. “Well,” he frowned, “I guess now it’s rustic.”
The mural showed Lone Star Swan reading his newsletters on the porch of Adobe Books, just like he did nearly two decades ago.
Doherty first saw Ratliff in the early 2000s while he worked at Café La Onda. The Lone Star Swan would come in nearly every day and order his coffee, maybe say a few words, and pass out the Rag, which Doherty said became a cult phenomenon.
“Every place has a history and a story,” said Doherty who considers the piece part of the narrative of San Francisco, a history that stretches back to the Ohlone Indians, to the Gilded Age and the Labor Wars, and Vietnam in the ’60s.
“This has been a place of social upheaval and conflict between the powerful and the weak,” he said. “That’s what’s happening now and what’s always happened and will continue to happen.”
In this narrative, Doherty said, Swan is a storyteller. “I titled the mural ‘Saint Francis: Past, Present, and Future,’ because I am casting him in the role of Saint Francis. He’s the storyteller to share this narrative of struggle with whoever chooses to live here.”
The Fainting Legacy
During his time at Café La Onda, Doherty amassed quite the collection of Ratliff’s work.
“I want to make a compilation, punk-rock zine style,” he said opening a bag, revealing a heap of Ratliff’s work and papers he transcribed himself.
“Once I had it as a physical object, I could pass it along onto someone who knows the nuts and bolts of how to get funding and marketing or whatever. I don’t know anything about it.”
Back at Adobe Books, McKinley agreed. “God, someone should fund collecting Swan’s writing into an archive or into a book,” he said.
“Maybe someone will reprint or collate what he’s written. But it’s also very fragile. His legacy can disappear just like that,” McKinley said, snapping his fingers.
“Everybody wants to know where I came from, who I am, why I write, why I feed the birds,” Ratliff said, furrowing his eyebrows.
“But those, those are stupid questions.”
Ratliff leaned back on the bench and took out a cluster of folded papers.
“This,” he pointed at the papers, “this is all anyone needs to know.”
The papers were the Rag.
Reading the papers, Ratliff’s poetic voice reflects the way he speaks, disarranged but somehow steady, erratic and yet comprehensible.
“Drafted by Destiny!” shows Ratliff as totally cognizant of his past and the current election:
“76 now, kryptonited & shakey-handed, the former prize-winning wire service & CBS/NBC affiliate two-fisted reporter & News Director arose out of the mothballs today to save us from the living bowel-movement of the election,” he wrote on Oct. 28, 2016.
Walking away from the bench, Ratliff says, “I gotta go.”
He walks through dozens of birds that have gathered near him.