This is San Francisco

By Sarah Ladipo Manyika

It was Monday morning, at the library on Page Street, and I was in search of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. As I looked for it on the shelves, my eye kept being drawn from the books to the men sharing the library with me. Worn out, weighted down by layers of clothing and heavy duffel bags, most of them looked like they were barely stumbling through life. One disheveled young man was engrossed in a book that he held only millimeters from his nose. Another was busy knitting, filthy-looking bags all around him. A third sat at a worktable with his head slumped into a plumage of frayed cloth.

As I surveyed the scene, I thought of how the day had begun with more disturbing news from overseas. Stark media images of the Syrian refugee crisis continued to capture and disrupt imaginations around the world. In my home country of Nigeria, thousands were also fleeing religious persecution, but since few, if any, photojournalists ventured into the Sambisa forest of northern Nigeria, there was little chance of international help. So much depends upon the eye — the eye of the beholder, the eye of the camera. How many times had I walked by homeless men congregating on the library steps, wrinkling my nose but, otherwise, paying them no mind? I’d been thinking of returning to Nigeria to volunteer or possibly visiting a refugee center in Europe — such were my daydreams and yet, right here in San Francisco, the wealthiest city in the world’s wealthiest country, just footsteps away from my fancy coffee shop and expensive supermarket, there was a different kind of refugee problem.

In my twenty years of living in San Francisco, I’ve seen the city become largely unaffordable to those with average incomes. The technology boom brought an influx of technology workers whose presence was resented, grumbled over, and blamed for exorbitant real-estate prices. The libraries are among the few remaining public spaces that are not economically and socially segregated. I believe in the importance of such places, yet I spend almost no time in them. I come to the library to pick up books but never stay; I breeze in and out, preferring to work surrounded by the sanitized and sweet smells of my own home. The presence of homeless men and women in the library never really mattered to me; I have other places to go. But I am a writer and a writer that claims to notice those that others might not. Therefore, driven by a personal sense of shame as well as a writer’s curiosity, I started returning to the library.

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Back at the library on Tuesday at the Page Street entrance, I pulled out my phone to take a picture. I often take pictures as a way of recording what I might write about later. I wanted to get a shot of the trashcan, which seemed to have more litter around it than in it. As I clicked away, a young couple came trudging into view, laden with belongings. The woman carried a tie-dye fabric bag as well as a large backpack, and the man held two heavy laundry bags and a blue duffle that loomed high above his head. They stopped for a moment before the man asked, “Why you taking pictures of that?” I felt guilty for having included them in the frame. I mumbled an excuse — something about wanting to document the pavements. “Okay,” said the man, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. He and his partner proceeded up the library steps and I followed, recalling, with some embarrassment, Joseph Conrad, who saw only savages jumping up and down on the shoreline as Marlow’s boat steamed up the Congo. I was conscious of viewing the couple as stereotypes of the city’s homeless “problem.” I was also conscious of viewing them in the way that a tourist might, and in particular those tourists that I disapproved of — the sort that go to Africa or Asia with a negative mono-story in mind.

Upstairs, in the library’s main space, where the couple and I had just arrived, more homeless-looking persons sat at the tables and computer stations. They were charging their phones, surrounded by a motley collection of possessions. A short, stout man wearing glasses was reading a book entitled Lives of Black Panthers. Another sat hunched over a library laptop with great concentration, still wearing his mint-green backpack. The backpack was small, whereas he was tall, made even taller by the dreadlocks piled high on his head. I decided to call him Kipling, after the brand of his backpack. As I sat behind him, craning my neck to get a better view of his screen, several younger men arrived with even more belongings. It took me a while to understand why so many kept coming close to where I sat and then leaving — the “out of order” sign taped to the door was my clue. There was a bathroom on this level. “Fuck’s sake,” muttered one.

A few minutes later, the man with the oversized blue duffel bag walked by, reminding me, with a warm smile, that we were already acquainted. I felt less distance between us now that I wasn’t taking pictures. I also knew that being black and wearing a nondescript T-shirt and leggings made me look less like the affluent person that I am — less like a person who might disapprove of people bringing all their belongings into a library. The front of Blue Duffel’s full-length jacket was covered with pockets, each adorned with a cluster of buttons or patches; one said ZEN, another was a skull and crossbones. He wore a buzz-cut, army-style, and was fresh-faced and handsome. I wondered where he came from and why he was living rough. Was he drawn to San Francisco by the promise of adventure, or were his home circumstances such that he had no other option but to take his chances on the streets? I used to think that many of San Francisco’s homeless were homeless by choice, but I’ve lived here long enough to know that this isn’t the case, and that, as the already exorbitant rents keep rising, so do the numbers of homeless.

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On Wednesday I shared a table with two young men who sat charging their phones. One was tall, wide, and bearded; the knuckles of his right hand were tattooed with the letters B, E, E, N. The other was short and slim. Both looked to be in their early twenties. An unopened Classic Games Set box lay between them. The smaller of the two — Slim — was reading the weather forecast out loud in a slow, slurred voice. “Next week looks like it’s gonna be pretty bad storms.”

“That can change,” replied BEEN.

“Yeah,” said Slim. He opened the box, revealing backgammon, checkers, and chess.

Chess it was. They started setting up, concentrating like pros. Their hands were grubby; dirt clung to the furrows of their knuckles and around their cuticles. Slim had a dog at his feet half buried among the bags. The dog smelled, the way dogs do, and it was damp — not shampooed damp, but damp from rain and puddles. I felt tempted to move to another table, but the urge to eavesdrop was greater.

“I plan on freeing up your king, dude,” said Slim.

“I’m glad that’s how you feel, ‘cuz that’s not the case,” replied BEEN.

And so it went, baiting back and forth, “dude this” and “dude that,” with BEEN occasionally interrupting to bring up the matter of food. “Don’t you got no food stamps? Piece of pizza?” I thought of all the provisions I had at home. I could offer them money, but then what if they spent it on booze, or drugs? How easy it was for me to stand in judgment.

“Check!” said Slim.

“Premature calm!” exclaimed BEEN. “Fucking checkmate. I’m about to whup your ass.”

“Dude, we’re in a fucking library,” Slim admonished, whispering in deference.

And yet the library on Page Street was rarely quiet. In fact, quiet isn’t included in the list of rules posted up front. The first time I read the rules, I smiled. There are rules for everything — rules against sleeping in the library, rules against selling merchandise, and even one (Rule 3) prohibiting “sexual intercourse.” I shared these rules with a lawyer friend who joked that perhaps the cardinal rule of keeping quiet only applies to having sexual intercourse in the library. We laughed, but we both knew there was something painful about the list. If you are homeless, where are you supposed to store your belongings? To shampoo? To have sex?

A young woman, unsteady on high heels, entered the library and approached us. Dressed in a riot of clashing colors, with glasses made for a carnival, she greeted the chess players in a giggly falsetto voice. The guys began muttering softly to each other: “Like aliens trying to abduct her mind.” “She pissed me off and I left her, dude.” As soon as Giggles tottered off, she was forgotten: Slim had just remembered that cigarettes were selling for $3.50 in Chinatown. I began to think about the kind of relationships that were possible in the shifting world of homelessness. Was the woman a former girlfriend? A one-night stand?

BEEN had won the game. He stood up to go to the bathroom, and as he left I saw that he, too, had a dog hidden among his bags. It was a tiny thing, sporting a knitted sweater with a heart shape on its back. I wanted to take a picture of the dog and the unlabeled can of “chunky chicken” that Slim had suddenly fished out of his bag, but I hesitated, wary of my motives. But then Slim dropped his head to the table and let out such a loud, protracted, and smelly fart that I found myself thinking, “Fuck that, dude!”

A few minutes later, a cop walked in and rapped on the side of the table. My heart began to race, fearing a physical altercation.

“You okay?” the cop asked Slim. “You alright?”

The policeman looked as bedraggled as Slim. Everything about him sagged — hair, trousers, posture — but as he wore a badge and gun, he was the one in charge here, and clearly no amateur. Getting only a blank stare from Slim, the cop walked away to talk to the librarians. Slim lay his head back down on the table and I tried returning to my sketch, but a few minutes later the cop was back, and this time he banged the table harder, making both of us jump.

“Time for you to go!” barked the cop.

“I’m not leaving!” Slim shouted.

“Take all your stuff,” the cop repeated.

“I’m not taking his stuff!” Slim’s voice flared in anger. “That’s not my stuff!”

My heart started up again, fearing that the cop might forcibly remove him. Instead, the cop said nothing for a few moments before he asked, “Whose is it?” I wondered how this exchange would have gone had Slim been black rather than white. American law enforcement has a shameful history of brutality against black people, and recent events in San Francisco proved that cops here are no better than anywhere else. I thought of my friend Wayne, who, days earlier in the same neighborhood, was drawn into a brawl with a white homeless man who repeatedly called him a “nigger” and then drew a knife on him. The police were called and, without asking questions, moved to arrest Wayne first.

“What’s his name?” the cop asked. His tone had softened.

“Don’t know his real name. Just his street name — Quinn.”

“Okay, so he’s downstairs, in the bathroom?” the cop asked again.

As the policeman went off in search of BEEN, I no longer felt like an observer. I felt anxious for both of them. What was BEEN doing down there? Rule 7 prohibits “Unreasonable use of restrooms,” while Rule 26 specifies that the facilities should not be used for “loitering, bathing (except washing hands), shampooing, shaving, personal grooming, changing clothes, washing clothes or utensils.” I waited as long as I could before leaving. As I walked away, I wondered what Slim and BEEN would be doing tonight. Where would they sleep and how would they stay warm? Would they be safe?

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On Thursday morning I arrived at the library just before opening and found a long queue of nannies and strollers waiting outside. Hearing that they were there for the “Toddler Tales” program, I joined them.

Once inside, I counted forty adults, all of them women. Only one woman was black, and she drew my attention because of the duku she was wearing. Her immaculate fingernails were long and polished alternately in gray and burgundy. Two young white boys clung to her happily, lovingly. I wondered where she came from — she could be African American but she might also be an African immigrant.

Many of the grown-ups were using their phones to record the children singing and acting out nursery songs. Watching them made me consider the videos we are all caught in, videos that are texted, emailed, tweeted, instagrammed around the world. Each of us so busy documenting our lives with our digital devices that there’s little time left to enjoy the moment itself. So it was that I didn’t at first hear the woman sitting next to me. “I’ve only been looking after her for two weeks,” she repeated, pointing to the smiling toddler dressed in a bumblebee outfit, “isn’t she adorable?” I agreed, feeling guilty for not having one of my own to point to. And then I wondered if, because I was black, she’d assumed that I was somebody’s nanny. Mine is sixteen, I wanted to tell her. And a foot taller than me, I might have said. Almost a man.

Toddler Tales ended with a puppet show and then the song, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” The song took me back to my childhood in Nigeria, and to the tight-knit Sunday school community of St. Piran’s church in Jos where I’d first learned the words. In Sunday school I was taught to love my neighbor as myself; this was my favorite commandment, but how could I do this if I didn’t know my neighbors, each and every one?

When I returned to the library later that afternoon, some of the same faces were there. They were sitting in their usual spots, going about their usual business. Kipling was searching the Internet; Black Panther was reading a biography of McKagan, the bassist from Guns N’ Roses, still holding the book right up to his nose. I looked for Slim and BEEN but couldn’t find them. I wondered where I should sit. I thought of the cheerfulness of Toddler Tales and ventured into the kids’ area. There was a sign at the front that read, “This area is reserved for children and the adults accompanying them.” But I was feeling emboldened and, besides, there were two unaccompanied black boys working on the computers together — maybe I could get away with appearing to be in some way related to them. I found a seat at a table nearby. Soon, several children came running in to join the two boys.

I sketched and mused, smiling at the children’s banter, at the ease of it, at the way the color of their skin didn’t appear to register any more than the color of their shoes. Watching them made me think of the library’s role in fostering camaraderie. I thought of the nannies I’d seen that morning exchanging stories in Spanish. I thought of the kids sharing computer games, of the homeless sharing computer searches, and of the signs in the library announcing the beginning of after-school tutoring. The term “the sharing economy” originated in this part of the world, and yet the notion of an economy based on efficient matching of supply to demand seems to have little to do with the sharing I had seen here in the library.

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It was Friday afternoon when I found a woman standing on top of the trash bin in front of the library. She was stuffing things into it with her foot and screaming, “Fuck you, garbage!” Knowing that there are few places in the city for the mentally disturbed to find refuge, and that many of the city’s homeless suffer from mental illness, I felt concerned. I was frightened for her safety and for mine. Seeing me watching, she added, “Yeah, shouting at inanimate objects usually helps!”

What looked like the woman’s bedroom was spread out at the bottom of the library steps: a pink blanket where a dog sat curled up, a small mirror, and various bits of clothing. As I continued on, another passerby asked her if she needed help. “Cigarette would be nice,” the woman chirped. I didn’t hear the response, but when I looked back I saw the woman, still standing on top of the garbage, bowing reverently in the stranger’s direction.

I sat at one of the tables facing the entrance. Before long, a young couple I’d not seen before came in, smelling strongly of cannabis. Each carried a massive backpack, and on top of each sat a cat. Rule 32 prohibited “animals, other than disability service animals” in the library. How would a homeless person go about registering a “disability service animal”? Down came the backpacks, off jumped the cats. The woman cuddled her cat with one hand and combed her hair with the fingers of the other. Her companion watched her lovingly.

An elderly couple stepped out of the elevator, both unsteady on their feet as they shuffled toward the information desk. The woman touched the man’s elbow — a tender gesture for him to slow down — and whispered something in his ear. Did they whisper because they were in a library and paid attention to that once cardinal rule: a pair of old pros? Later, the man placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and stood up. Time to go.

More people arrived: a man with a guitar, a man wearing a purple party hat, and Black Panther, followed this time by Blue Duffel. Noticing the sprig of bougainvillea I’d brought for sketching, he came and stood near me for a minute, watching me draw. “That’s a beautiful flower,” he said. Beautiful smile, I thought, smiling back while worrying: Where would he eat tonight? Where would he sleep?

Black Panther appeared to have a cold. Gingerly, he dabbed the end of his nose and slipped the palm of his hand beneath the neck of his sweatshirt to warm his heart. “Here stands a man,” Toni Morrison wrote of her protagonist in her novel, Home. Here sits a man, I thought, a man with his books. And like Morrison’s character, this man might once have been a soldier — too young for Korea but not for the Gulf War. Here sits a man who doesn’t fidget or itch, whose eyes do not dart around. Here sits a man engrossed in his book.

When a phone rang we both looked up, surprised to hear the old-fashioned monophonic Nokia ring. The older woman sitting behind me reading yesterday’s food section of the New York Times answered. She explained to the caller that she was in the library and so couldn’t talk, all the while speaking loud enough for everyone to hear.

A man arrived with the oddest assortment of things I’d ever seen — a sawed-off tabletop balancing on top of a suitcase on wheels, and an oversized bag that said SFMOMA on the go. Just as he’d settled himself, came the announcement that the library would soon be closing — the computers would be turned off and bathrooms shut. The man hurried to get up. Looking old and fragile, he wearily contemplated his belongings, took the tabletop, and limped toward the door. When he returned, he surveyed what remained before he started hopping about on his good foot, looking for someone to take care of his stuff while he was gone. A librarian came along and gently pushed the suitcase to one side so that it wouldn’t obstruct the aisles. In this way there was compliance with rules 16 and 19, although the bit about “large objects such as carts, bicycles, and luggage” had already been broken. It was not the first time that I admired the librarians for their patience and quiet wisdom.

 

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When I left for the day, the woman who’d been jumping on the trash was still out front, in her imagined dressing room, sitting in lotus position and doing her eye makeup. Careful not to step on her pink carpet, I walked around it and headed up Page Street, turning right on Ashbury toward home.

When I reached the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, I saw three cops across the street, one of whom I recognized from Wednesday’s encounter with Slim. The cops stood by a man who was slumped against a wall. I wondered if he was loitering and had been told to move. It struck me that the library was possibly the one place where the homeless are not perceived as loitering.

Between the library and home is the shiny Whole Foods that caters to those of us who can afford its expensive, organic products. A new billboard out front features a pretty young woman in lotus pose, not so different from the woman on the pink blanket sitting at the base of the library steps. But the woman in the poster is perfectly coiffed, surrounded by unblemished nature; “Feed Your Strength,” reads the caption. Across from Whole Foods is a McDonald’s and, in between, a trash bin where, as I passed, a man stood fishing through its contents. Nearing home, I recognized someone walking in front of me. It was Kipling. As I drew close, he turned and said “hello,” followed by a word I didn’t hear, and then “lady.” What was that word I’d missed? Hello library lady — is that what he’d said? Whatever it was, he knew me in a way, and, in a way, I knew him too.

 

Photographs by James Manyika

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