How do you eat when the pandemic closed a lot of your favorite cheap eats? If you are on a fixed income and live in a single room occupancy hotel? If you are Christopher Coleman, you get creative with your mini fridge and microwave.
“The way you cook a juicy pork chop in a microwave, you get a salad size plastic bowl, you put the pork chop in the bowl with a little salt and pepper and water, and pork chops if they are raw (which they are when I get them at Foods Co), it takes about 10 to 12 minutes, see, and it cooks through at all angles, and it gets all the fat and grease out of it, it really does, and it’s juicy too, not dry! Then I season with lemon juice, French’s mustard.”
His native Bronx cadences pour out of Coleman’s speech, in rich and distinctly fat New York vowels, though he has lived in the Mission District for years and years.
He would not go back to New York for anything,
“In the Bronx, we lived on Leidig Avenue, near the Parkway, it was nice in the ’70s and early ’80s, but Ma didn’t want to be there anymore. She found it depressing. It got bad later on, and Ma,” (pronouncing it: maaawww), ”being a single mom and all, she brought me out to join my older brother here in San Francisco, that was New Year’s Eve, 1994, and I guess I talk” (tawwwkkkkk) , “like her cause we lived together a long time, you know, back in the day. She taught me how to make a lot of dishes: meatballs with ground chuck, eggs, cheese, parsley and olive oil. A little garlic, a little onion diced. You need a gas stove for those, though.”
He pauses, “she was not a happy woman, Ma, she passed away April 3, 2014, from emphysema, from smoking. But she could cook!”
Coleman, 56, lives at the Star Hotel (Mission and 18th streets), where he can’t exactly make meatballs. But he has mastered the art of microwave pasta and peas.
“Put the pasta (I like the shells) in a plastic Tupperware bowl, salad size, with water to cover, and cook it for 22 minutes, till al dente, yes, then put it in a strainer, over the sink, and then I put the Prego sauce on top, and put it back in the microwave for six or seven minutes and then I add grated cheese, a little salt, not too much, garlic and onion powder, a little Italian seasoning, its not too bad, really!”
He grins at the memory, and then cautions, “Now, with frozen peas, you only go three minutes, just a bit of water. If you go more than three, then the peas shrink, get wrinkly and dried out. But with a little butter and three minutes, you got some delicious peas.”
Coleman is grateful, cheerful, a contented man. In his nearly 30 years in San Francisco, he’s lived with his brother, with his mom, then at a Board and Care home in the Outer Mission, and now he is happily situated at the Star Hotel.
“I aim to stay at the Star forever; it’s a great place, even if I have to buy COMBAT for the, you know, the critters, those critters, those — you know. They do a room inspection once a month, and I always pass.”
The Star is a support service hotel run by DISH (Delivering Innovation In Supportive Housing) in partnership with the Dept. of Public Health. Its mission is to house formerly homeless people with complex mental health needs. It has 59 units on three floors.
Ask Coleman how he got to the Star and he recites the names of many of the social workers, case managers, doctors and nurses who have helped him along the way. “Marta, my case manager Marta Gilbert, got me into this hotel, and Doc Mommsen helped me with my meds, and the nurse, Bose, was always nice.”
Coleman has worked as a custodian, a street cleaner, and a groundskeeper in a fancy condo complex on Telegraph Hill.
“I had a lot of jobs in this town, but I need to be retired now. The fact is, I can’t give 100 percent effort like I used to, because I have less energy.”
Coleman may live at the Star, but most days you can find him with his buddies, James and Fernando, at the corner of 16th and Valencia streets, looking out for pedestrians.
“When Covid hit, I committed to coming out to the corner every day to help out, to not isolate, to keep community. James, it was his idea.”
“Pandemic Pedestrian Protection we call it. James got us these yellow vests, so we look more official. He and Fernando carry the walkie-talkies and even have bodycams. They are more the enforcers, like taking the license plates of red-light runners, but me, see, I jump in and help all the pedestrians, you know, OUT OF ALL THE UNITED STATES, I heard that THIS TOWN is the worst for pedestrians. I heard it on the news; San Francisco has lots of pedestrian deaths.
“SO what we do is, see, like, take Mary, Mary is very old, pretty old, I guess elderly you would call her, and she is very short, hard to see if you get me, so if I see her trying to get across the street with her walker, I jump in and help to make sure that no one hits her, I escort her, if you will call it, ’cause she is really slow and really tiny crossing the street. And Maria, with her beanie, she is slower than Mary, so I help her too. The cars around here, they can be very aggressive, let me tell you.
“So we have to see lookout, we mainly watch what’s going on, we pay attention. Sometimes dogs get loose from their owners, and we help grab them, stuff like that. Being useful, you know.”
Coleman also shops and does errands for his brother, Randy, 68, a retired waiter. Coleman worries about his brother, who is also an artist and has trouble getting around; he has bad knees. “It’s a very difficult life to be an artist, you know, I wish Randy would get a patron, someone to buy his collection.”
Ask Coleman what he missed most this year due to Covid-19, and he quickly says, “Once a year we used to have a tenants appreciation meeting, in the Tenderloin, they’d serve ribs and chicken and we would have a raffle, a celebration if you will, I really hope we can do that again.
“And most days I used to go to the Centro Latino over there on 15th Street; they make wonderful lunches for Latinos of a senior age, and you know,” he lowers his voice, ”I am not Latino but I am nearly a senior and I am a part of the community and they welcomed me there, and I miss that.”