The Surface Area of SF
It’s Tuesday morning and I am weaving my way through Emeryville on my way The Mission District. I bike pass Best Buy after Target after Starbucks after Old Navy and I think of Orange County. I ride on a street named Shellmounds built on burial grounds of Ohlone tribes who ceremonially consecrated the death of ancestors by burying them in shells. European settlers genocide executed most Ohlone people, California state government paid $2 per indigenous ear and $5 per indigenous scalp, and constructed corporate shopping malls on their graveyards. Don’t worry though Bay Area Liberals, EVille named a street after the first people’s sacred shellmounds, so go buy a headdress and a pack of American Spirits to shamelessly fuel the next phase of colonization: cultural genocide.
The urban space of the Bay fascinates and horrifies me. Dense concentrations of people and interwoven webs of history from A-Z. It’s everything from punk squats to meditation centers to skyscrapers full of banksters to hungry people who live on the streets. Business suits step over sleeping bags on their way to 6-figure salaries ignoring the truth of this country. America hates truth, naturally. This country was built on the lies of liberty and equal rights as “Founding Fathers” raped enslaved Africans and fathered more people to chain-shackle for labor. United Colonial States with a mythology of democracy and meritocracy…boot strap rugged individualism innovative spirit of entrepreneurship. I pass IKEA and can’t help but think about Tyler Durden and cheap commodities and what genocidal colonizers built with all the bloodshed.
I pass through the turnstile of the BART station. It’s not as hard as you might think to not pay, and some stations are easier than others. You can figure it out. I refuse to give BART money after I watched Officer Mehserle shoot Oscar Grant in cold blood, since I saw BART police gun down Charles Hill with 7 bullets for a $3 fare, because BART shut down cellphone towers to stop protests as Americans screamed in outrage at dictators for cutting off Facebook during Arab uprisings. Two faced smiles of 2012: a commemorative street for victims of mass executions like Nazi Germany with streets called Jew Avenue. America hates truth, naturally. I move through the gates undetected: part stealth and part white privilege. The BART cop doesn’t see me, doesn’t even look at me.
The San Francisco Airport Train pulls up and I step on with my bike. I stand against the wall by the door observing. Public transit has always fascinated me. Western ideologies enforce a heavy-handed logic of individualism, but public transportation requires us to occupy space together. No traveling encased in a private plastic box. A mass motion through the same machinery, a unity of sorts, yet a palpable distance: fear of The Other getting too close, fear of getting too close to The Other. Navigating through news stories of beheadings on Greyhound buses and mid-day stabbings as we co-habit these industrial arteries of human movement.
I love to look around as I ride, to see the people inside, what they look like and how they sit and what they do with a moment of spare time. Pot belly white man in a business suit reading a Kindle standing up trying not to fall at the stop and go; elderly Chinese lady in a muted red coat reading a book in symbols that look like Mandarine; all the people falling asleep in the morning, we could all use some more rest these days; all the headphone speakers emitting vibrations directly into ear canals to drown out the roar of modern mechanistic annoyances.
When someone notices me observing them, they usually dart away their eyes. Treating my gaze as though I am a bull’s eye targeting them with horns ready to impale. This tangible terror in the air as we ride the BART together. Not a feeling of how we cook each other’s food, clean each other’s apartments, answer each other’s calls at the hospital, teach each other’s kids, empty each other’s trash cans–cash can take the love out of relationships so easily.
An older white man steps onto the train and stands next to me. He has a jacket of tweed and carries tools I don’t recognize. I ask him, “What are those?” He seems slightly concerned by my inquiry and responds curtly, “They are for stone carving.” I ask him more questions about the art of sculpting stone. He realizes I am not here to behead him and seems relieved to drop his guard. He loves to carve marble and he teaches his craft in Oakland. He tells me, “I used to be part of an emergency response team.”
“We would go into post-war zones like Beirut or Baghdad to repair damaged marble. Human societies often use stone to build their monuments and statues. Bombs tend to destroy these dedications, so our team would come in to re-build.”
He tells me more of his travels as I ask him more questions. I can’t help but feel fascination as he shares snippets of his life story. Never would I guess that a stone carver would be part of a post-war emergency response team in Beirut. We talk briefly about how America is a young country with a utilitarian perspective that loves to cover things in concrete because its cost-effective. Yet concrete is so cold and grey and hard…welcome to America. He gets off at the Montgomery stop after we say quick good-byes.
I revel in the density of people in this city. You can find anyone doing anything. So many histories and stories and lives being lived. You never know who is riding the BART with you.
The BART stops at 16th and Mission and I exit. Pass through the turnstiles to find a man playing violin for donations. An artist supporting himself through his musical offerings. I emerge into the filth and madness and glory of the 16th and Mission (16M) plaza. I love to spend time here, to observe and interact, to perform poems and listen to music, to notice the ongoing gentrification of the Mission, how more and more cops keep showing up, how more and more of the Valencia-metro-scene keeps spilling in, how this city loves people with money and hates people without it.
Grey dread boom box man sits in his usual spot on the stairs playing funk radio that people dance to sometimes, shopping carts and sleeping people line the wall against the Wells Fargo, a brief rest next to the bank… Professional managerial class walk through 16M plaza with a scurry to their step that says: “I need to get out of here. These people are monsters.”
An artist lays out psychedelic paintings done on the back of found cardboard to sell for a little money to buy some food or whatever else he subsists on. He keeps yelling at this woman in dirty pajamas for touching his paintings, he finally screams “LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!” It seems like they know each other, maybe had a loving relationship at one point, but now she annoys him and he yells at her…sounds like a story of marriage in America. She walks back to her shopping cart to watch him from a distance.
Another woman lays passed out on backpack, probably had her stuff stolen one too many times living on the streets, so hard to fall asleep when so many people have nothing. Scary being female without safe retreat never knowing which man will treat you like piece of meat for fucking at his will, against her will, sleep in the daylight in a public place. She’s virtually face-down on the concrete: its a hard world.
I notice a dwarf walking around 16M, scoping things out. I have never seen her here. Based on her mannerisms and skin, twitchy glances and wrinkled in an aged-too-fast-type-way, I guess she uses some type of hard drug. I wonder what she is seeking, she is definitely searching, where is she going with her sights set, what did she find? After zig-zag, she beelines across the plaza to the sleeping woman. Looks left and right and starts to dig through the side-pockets of the backpack on which she is sleeping.
Sleeping does not rise and thief keeps thieving, rummaging through the few possessions present: pulls out sandals, shorts, and finally, cigarettes. She grabs the pack and walks back from where she came, yells: “Daddy! I got something for you!” The dwarf awkwardly throws the pack and it half-slips out her grip and flies in my direction. I watch in a mixed state of disbelief and confusion. She picks the pack of smokes back up and walks back to grey dreads who takes out a smoke and inhales deeply as sleeping half-awakes to frustratedly put her things back in her pack.
Minor street moments in the city. Cars and buses flow past, BART roars below, cops pass by to glare-stare at those who live on concrete. I am not sure if this is out-of-control against the plans of the establishment or perfectly-in-place sedating the potentially seditious oppressed classes. Regardless, it feels like madness: just as insane as the bank next door foreclosure kicking families out of homes, just as crazy as the white cop gunning down the unarmed black man, just as demented as No Sit No Lie.
I reflect and then read a monologue about a husband killing his child. Derangement abundant and halfway through the piece I hear arguing. Two guys face-to-face about to go toe-to-toe: “Fuck you! Get out my face! You mother fucker!” Back and forth, louder and louder. Eyes and necks and heads turn to stare at the boiling. BAM! First fist thrown and its off. Exchanging blows against each others heads, he pushes him against a tree near the sidewalk of 16th, gets him in a headlock and hammers furiously against his skull. People try to break it up but they are big and determined to hurt each other. A few people shout, “Let ’em fight! Let ’em fight!” They keep fighting and I wonder where it will go: KO or knife or gun or cuffs. One clearly winning, the other doesn’t want to stop, they step away from each other and the soon-to-be looser comes back for more, gets some more, and backs off. Torn shirts, bloody nose, bloody skull, the victor walks down 16th and beaten sits on the bench to deal with his bleeding head. He mutter talks shit into his shirt collar.
I wonder if this is what all the people on the BART seem so afraid of, the men fighting at 16M, the dwarf stealing cigarettes, signs of truth in this city. I wonder if they are afraid of the corporate take-over in EVille, the parking lots on top of burial grounds, the streets called Shellmounds, signs of truth in America. Blood is being spilt, blood has been spilt, but in this world, whose pain matters? Not all murders are treated equal, history is a weapon, and the fighting continues. We battle each others stares in the BART, but if you put down your shield and talk to someone you will be surprised by the stories they have to tell. Our fear is a snowball and the avalanche will kill us all. We have to save each other because no calvary is coming for us.