Marcus Wright spent a year living on the streets at 17th and Capp. And we do mean on the street: “I don’t like tents,” the lithe 50-year-old told me today over a full plate of food while a cable-car operator and his blues band played in the background. “I don’t like to be enclosed.” He also doesn’t like a mess and, during his time on the Mission’s streets, he made a point of sweeping up his stretch of Capp.
Two months ago, he decided that the allure of living and sleeping on the pavement had vanished; you can only sweep up the place so many times. He’s been staying at Mother Brown’s in Bayview. He’s off drugs. He’s back in contact with his six daughters and 13 granddaughters (no boys! How’d that happen? “I don’t know!” admits Wright). He’s back in church. He desires for no material thing. Except, maybe, a radio. A radio would be nice.
Well, perhaps the raffle would take care of that. Wright was one of 150 attendees at today’s 36th almost-annual Senior Holiday Luncheon, put on by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s cable-car division (there was no event last year; “things got started late,” was the explanation we received). The raffle kicked off with bottles of wine, then bath and beauty products, and, finally, culminated with a trio of flatscreen TVs.
There would be no radio. Alas. But Wright wasn’t picky. Two months ago, he was sleeping on the sidewalk. For the seven years prior, he’d been homeless and in and out of jail. Life was good. And yet, as the raffle number was read out, he leaned forward. And waited.
The bus was late. Like, really late. For the Senior Holiday Luncheon, the SFMTA loaned the Transit Workers’ Union three buses and three drivers to ferry seniors from various facilities to the party in the Fillmore. The bus was supposed to roll by the Mission Dolores senior center on 15th between Dolores and Guerrero at 10, maybe 10:15. It was 11 now. And it was chilly.
“Patience,” said Richard Fong, clapping his gloved hands together. “Patience.” Fong, who would only admit to us he was somewhere in his 70s, had knocked on doors and wheedled his neighbors to leave the premises, get a free lunch, and maybe come home with something more. “Party! Food! Everything!” he told a white-haired man lugging two grocery bags. Fong’s pal gave him a noncommittal grunt and wandered inside, out of the cold. He stayed there.
Fong’s entreaty to another neighbor spurred a lengthy soliloquy on her failing health. “I got severe osteoporosis,” she began. This really was just the beginning. “My bones are turning to powder. I got two broken hips and a broken tailbone.” Fong nodded, politely. The conversation continued. And worsened. “And I died right there in the ambulance,” she continued. “The paramedics done told me I was dead not two hours before they brought me back. And they broke my ribs doing the compressions.”
She was not in the mood for Party! Food! Everything!
At last, the borrowed Muni bus rolled up and perhaps a dozen seniors ambled on, joining residents of the George W. Davis senior center in Bayview for the quick trip from the Mission into the Fillmore. The predominantly African American crew of seniors living in the city’s southeast pointed to all the places they used to stay in the Haight and Fillmore and all the places their parents, their aunties, their cousins used to stay.
“All of the folks Jim Jones got out of the Fillmore, they were my relatives,” a middle-aged man told an older woman.
“I was tempted to go to Jim Jones,” she replied. “But every time I wanted to go to one of his services, something came up. I have no doubt that, had I went, I would not be here.”
“That was God,” he said.
“That was God,” she replied, nodding.
When the bus arrived at the West Bay Conference Center, a semi-chaotic scene ensued. The seniors waded through sack after sack of food — kale, potatoes, whole turkeys — being loaded into police vehicles by cops in uniform. The site was, in fact, triple-booked; not only were the cops giving away food and the cable car operators hosting a luncheon for indigent seniors but a third, private event was tucked away in here somewhere.
And, to boot, the elevator broke.
Roger Marenco, the youthful boss of the Transport Workers Union, was engaged in a somewhat animated discussion with a few other men while the seniors filed by. Evidently everything worked out, because the event went off without cops and turkeys and kale underfoot.
As such, this was a welcome change of pace for Kenneth Nash. He’s lived eight years in Mission Dolores housing now. He was a sales clerk, a van driver, a cleaner at General Hospital and a mentor at the Boys & Girls Club. But now he’s retired. A typical day is a walk to Dolores Park, a walk to downtown, a walk to the Embarcadero, or, if he’s got some money in his pocket, a walk to Fisherman’s Wharf for the clam chowder. And, if he’s flush, a crab. Twice a year he’ll go to the Academy of Sciences on the days when folks living in the 94103 zip code can get in for free.
Like Fong and Wright, he wouldn’t mind winning that TV. But it’d take a lot less to make him happy. “I’d love to have some movie tickets,” he said. “Or just some cash.”
The first of the three flat-screen TVs, raffled off in order of their size, went to Lorraine Grant, who shouted, smiled, and told us not to put her name on Facebook lest people start dropping by uninvited to watch ballgames. The second TV went to Xochitl Gonzalez, a rather young representative from the Mission for All group pushing the 1979 Mission Street development on behalf of Maximus Real Estate Partners. And the third and biggest television was bagged by You Guang-Yung, who could barely hoist it back to his table.
Fong groaned. He would not be lugging a TV back to the Mission this year. “The early birds don’t get the worm,” he said to no one in particular.
Wright, Fong, Nash and the rest of the elderly diners filed out of the ballroom, while the cable car drivers and SFMTA employees who’d worked as servers tucked into meals of their own. The aging men and women huddled outside the building, waiting for the Muni bus to take them back to their homes and regular lives.
It was late.