BY KATHARINE BLAKE MCFARLAND
Early one Saturday morning, I found my landlady standing in front of our building, staring at the wall, with a bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. “What are you working on?” I asked, with a forced cheeriness that comes from being a little afraid of her. “I’m bleaching the piss off the front of the building,” she said.
Many parts of San Francisco often smell like pee. Since I moved here six months ago, I’ve seen more people urinating on the sidewalk than in the previous 28 years of my life combined (years spent living in Boston and D.C., among other places). Homelessness is rampant here, but more than that, visible. Walk down any street in my neighborhood—Market Street, Castro Street, 18th Street down to Dolores Park—and you will be forced to reckon with more than the smell of urine: you will see evidence of ravaged humanity. Nests of sleeping bags and trash bags tucked into doorways. Guardians of trashcans, babbling and searching for cigarette butts, clothes stained red and brown like maps. Young runaways and addicts, their escapes gone wrong, cross-legged on the sidewalk, their skinny dogs on leashes.
I recall Joan Didion’s haunting refrain in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “children are missing.” All of these children in my neighborhood are missing from some place else, some location of origin, but maybe not each one is missed, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Just yesterday, I passed a boy sleeping against the wall of my building who looked so much like my 24-year-old brother I had to restrain myself from stooping down next to him, wiping the dirt off his face, and taking him upstairs for a shower and chocolate milk.
I am no stranger to the darker sides of life. I have my own story and my work has taken me into jails and institutions and into neighborhoods people said I shouldn’t be in. But still I am addled walking through San Francisco. One time I gave a tall, bearded man five dollars for a poem, though admittedly I didn’t know the poem would be an original creation, about music, and recited on the spot. Another day I bought a sandwich for a weathered man holding a sign that said “hungry homeless veteran,” but I didn’t know what kind he wanted so he came into the store with me and picked out his own (ham). Other days, when I am importantly rushing around, I might try not to see it so clearly, but then the old man on the corner wearing red sunglasses and stained sweatpants shouts in my face, “Aha!” and follows me down the block shaking his finger until I duck into the hardware store to hide among the hammers.
Meanwhile, private, unmarked buses sail through the city like great, white cruise ships, carrying freshly scrubbed Google employees southward to Silicon Valley behind tinted black windows. Soon, they really will be cruise ships.
Something is happening in San Francisco. It’s nothing new, exactly; the widening gap between rich and poor is a story unfolding across the nation and the world and San Franciscans are growing weary of the spotlight. But the story here is hard to keep quiet about because it’s unfolding dramatically, at an accelerated pace and on an exaggerated scale. The numbers speak for themselves: In the city of San Francisco, the median price for a two-bedroom apartment is now $3,875, the highest in the country, and eviction notices are up 40 percent since 2010. On the one hand, the city counted 6,436 homeless people, more than half of whom suffer from mental illness, earning San Francisco fourth place in the nation for its homeless population. On the other, if all Stanford-alumni-founded companies formed a nation, its economy would be the 10th largest in the world, creating 5.4 million jobs and generating an annual revenue of $2.7 trillion.
It’s more than statistical extremity that accounts for the drama: Characters here play their roles with pizzazz. In December, at one of the private bus protests, Union organizer Max Apler pretended to be a Google employee and his rant went viral: “This is a city for the right people who can afford it…Can’t afford it? You can leave.” Residents’ willingness to believe the gag points to the problem. Then realer villains took the stage. AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman posted a Facebook tirade about “the degenerates”—San Francisco’s “crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash … [who] gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy…” He wrote:
The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay…
You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn’t made anyone’s life better in a while.
Gopman apologized for his rant, as he should have, but the fight between his defenders and vitriolic critics—and the discourse around other instances of tech CEO idiocy—extends far beyond what he said. He emerged as a symbol. We search for someone to blame. His cruelty is breathtaking, but his visceral unease walking down Market Street isn’t incomprehensible.
In October, when my father’s book tour brought him to the West coast, my parents stopped in San Francisco for a visit. It was a return, of sorts: they lived here together for four years in the early eighties, in a two-bedroom apartment on Shrader Street in Cole Valley, where I was born. My father was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, working as a handyman and carpenter on the side, and my mother taught in the creative writing department at Stanford and took me with her to aerobics classes on Cole Street. Two young writers, ex-hippies, with a baby. They would never be able to afford it now.
This fall, they stayed at a hotel downtown and, on their first day in the city, decided to enjoy the sun-soaked October Saturday by walking up to meet me in the Castro, a route that took them straight up Market Street. About halfway up, they abandoned ship and hopped on the trolley. “Whoa,” my mother said as she climbed the stairs to my apartment. “That is a pretty bleak scene.” I got them lemonade and asked if it was worse than they remembered. “Oh yeah. Much, much worse,” said my mother. “I felt like I was in a dystopian movie,” added my father. “I looked down an alley and a man in a wheelchair was screaming at a woman pushing a shopping cart.”
My parents aren’t fogies or faint of heart. My dad lived in Hell’s Kitchen in his 20s—his favorite place he ever lived—and my mom has spent years working with at-risk youth in Boston. They’ve seen a lot, been through a lot, done their fair share of drugs, and they aren’t snobs (well, they are a little snobby about art and literature, but not about humanity). Still, Gopman’s admission that “there is nothing more grotesque than walking down market st [sic] in San Francisco,” indicates a deep disturbance not wholly dissimilar from my parents’ experience. Though for admittedly different reasons, what’s being expressed is a horror at the visibility of human suffering. “One block from our shiny hotel,” said my mother. “It feels so wrong.”
Since then, my mother has admitted to me that she also felt threatened. I can relate to this. We are both relatively small women and there have been times when I’ve felt wary walking alone. I’ve been grabbed before and I’ve seen people spat on and there is a kind of unpredictability in the Tenderloin, a kind of wild west vibe, that makes me wish I looked or felt a little tougher. I cannot help but read fear in Gopman’s words, too: “it’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us.” Maybe the threat is physical, maybe Gopman’s shins were kicked by “the crazy toothless lady;” maybe it is a deeper uneasiness, a moral discomfort coming out sideways—the way my brother used to get mad at movies that made him feel sad; or maybe it’s a fear of the classic dystopian outcome, a fear of being eaten by the mob.
What’s happening here in this city of my birth is the thorny, tormented mechanics of progress. Rebecca Solnit’s thoughtful comparison of the tech boom to the gold rush reminds us that progress is unwieldy, harmful. It is not a moral process, especially as it gathers speed. Progress leaves people behind and pushes them out. Morality is up to us. We are the ones who have to decide what is and isn’t worth it; we have to mitigate the damage wreaked by the tumbling, tearing storm of progress.
I am not so interested in the argument about the real value of tech startups versus their harm, and whether or not they’re “welcome” in the Bay (though I did think it was funny when Matt Yglesias suggested we move the whole operation to northern Ohio). The value of these companies announces itself amidst this very argument, as so much of the discourse is enabled by the tools and forums they’ve created. Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are undeniably visionaries and their kind of vision is undeniably valuable.
A subtler dynamic, though, bears mentioning: the underlying accusation of otherness levied by all sides, but especially by the haves towards the have-nots. It is a notion that shows up in our language. “The homeless,” “the mentally ill,” “the degenerates”—each category preceded by a definite article, “the,” a tiny word with great significance. These definite, enclosed categories of personhood communicate an illusion of separateness, and still more troubling, a suggestion of immutability. As if a person’s chief feature, fixed and unchanging, is her status or sickness. Gopman’s call for a more segregated city is premised on this illusion of otherness.
We are all, each one of us, eligible to experience loss, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. The odds that an American will experience homelessness in the course of a year are one in 194. One in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. And random factors make eligibility more or less of a statistical likelihood: race and national origin, the happenstance of being born into poverty, the windfall of attending pre-kindergarten. Accidents of birth. Maybe the more you have, the scarier eligibility becomes. (I am reminded of a study I read years ago that said people living in gated communities felt less safe than others and less safe than they used to feel.) Maybe this is why the notion of otherness, or ineligibility, is so often fortified by those with lots to lose.
I do not dismiss the value of hard work and good ideas or discredit the possibility of our favorite story, “rags-to-riches.” But I live in the building against whose walls a young boy sleeps, the walls that serve as a toilet for the man on the corner, and this is not a matter of merit. My soul is no more valuable, my body no more useful. In one sense, of course, the sleeping boy is not my brother but in another sense he is, or could be, and that’s the possibility that we, “the homed,” the billionaires and millionaires and builders of websites, might remember more often.
Katharine Blake McFarland is a writer living in San Francisco. She has a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. in English Literature from Smith College. Currently, she teaches writing at San Quentin Prison and is working on a collection of essays. This essay was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.