BY KATHRYN BROWN
I only cried once when I worked as a police sergeant in the Tenderloin…and I waited until I got home.
The Tenderloin is the city’s drain. A twenty-block area in the center of San Francisco, it catches a flow of humanity that has lost itself and is about to slip quietly through the grates, into total darkness. It is a place of amazing despair. Turn down any alley or turn into any parking lot and have a wall of stench slam your senses. Urine and feces everywhere and huddled within the unseen mist of tuberculosis, small groups of hypes busy with needles in arms, legs, necks, feet. Street corners are crowded with young drug dealers who get caught by the cops, swallow their trade and die before they get to the booking counter. Newly released parolees who hold chits for rat-infested hotel rooms arrive daily from San Quentin Prison. Muscled, tattooed, angry and dangerous, they’re dropped into the center of the city’s drug market. The mentally ill are everywhere because no one cares where they go, and in the Tenderloin no one cares what they do. They are the dull, gray bundles huddled in corners, shouting at their ghosts.
A paper-thin layer of extra gravity lies across the Tenderloin. A soft, unwanted weight resting across shoulders, causing them to curl imperceptibly like proud branches caught by a sudden rush of sorrow. It settles into the faces of those who live under its pressure, leaking weariness into the cracks and lines around mouths, smothering the slightest hint of hope.
Sliding my key into the lock on the station’s large iron gate, I shifted around inside the heaviness of my wool uniform and bulletproof vest. The earlier warmth of the day made the t-shirt buried underneath all of my layers stick to my skin and I was anxious to be free from the claustrophobia of wool and Kevlar. Maggie, a tough, no-nonsense cop, snuck past the gate just before it clanged shut. She was flushed and out of breath from running to catch up with me.
“Fuck, I just had to jump a wire fence to stop a guy from sawing his fingers off with a steak knife.”
Feeling a little raw from an earlier suicide, I was glad to have missed that one.
“Just sitting at this little table in the middle of that empty lot over on Taylor Street. He was screamin’ and sawing, screamin’ and sawing…got his index finger off and put it in a pretty little white box next to his hand.”
I shrugged. “Maybe it was a gift. It’s the thought that counts ya know. Hey guess what? Joe Garrity gave Mickey Rooney a ride to the Golden Gate Theatre today.”
Maggie stared at me waiting for the punch line.
“I’m serious. Mickey was walking down Mason on his way to see The Lion King. Joe saw him trying to avoid the drooling, human catastrophes blocking his way and yells out the window of his radio car, ‘Mr. Rooney? It’s an honor to meet you, sir. Can I offer you a ride?’ and off they go, Joe talking the poor guy’s ear off about how the Golden Gate Theatre is in the worst part of town. Apparently, he’s a very nice guy, Mr. Mickey Rooney.”
Maggie smiled. “You gotta love this place.”
“Wouldn’t work anywhere else.”
Transferred into the Tenderloin five years earlier, I was struck by the sheer volume of calls that came in everyday: violent assaults, abandoned children, suicides, homicides, overdoses, prostitution, drug dealing. It didn’t take long for me to be hooked by the excitement of such gritty and dangerous police work and I knew I would die of boredom working anywhere else. Exposed to so much horror, I quickly developed clever mental defenses that allowed all of these experiences to slide in and out of my conscious mind like flashes of photographs that leave a slight impression.
But I was getting tired. Tired of the misery, the unspeakable violence, the anguish in the eyes of those who ended up victimized by the consequences of their own actions.
“Mags, you want to go for a beer after work?” As women cops working in the Tenderloin, Maggie and I had developed a deep and fierce bond.
“Have I ever said no?”
In the beginning, I would go running in Golden Gate Park after my shift. Under the protection of the huge trees in the park, the Tenderloin faded into a strange and miserable place that had nothing to do with me.
Now I was more comfortable sitting in a dark and smoky bar, surrounded by the bravado of women cops who worked in busy districts like I did. Senses dulled by a few cocktails, my perspective of the real world gradually dissolved, replaced by a pool of dark, muddled images.
“Stop right there, officer!”
I turned around to see the wide eyes and red face of a small, middle-aged woman peering at me through the metal bars of the gate. Her arms overflowed with a briefcase, a laptop computer and a small cooler, most likely a businesswoman passing through the Tenderloin on her way home to one of the quiet, suburb-like neighborhoods out by the ocean.
“Get out here and help us.”
Her orders rendered, she turned abruptly, her stylish pantsuit and jogging shoes racing towards a group of people standing at the bus stop in front of the station.
“Come with me, Maggie.”
“Where? I didn’t hear anything.”
“Yeah right,” I laughed.
“Okay, okay, where’d Heidi Hitler go?”
We ran side by side to the bus stop where we found “Heidi,” her hands on her hips as if wondering what took us so long.
“You need to get rid of that damn homeless tramp who keeps asking that poor man for a cigarette lighter.”
Eyes wide with anger and indignation, she pointed to the center of a group of people who quickly stepped aside when they saw us approach. Walking through pinched, stern faces of fear and resentment, I knew that they just wanted to get home. They wanted to be able to stand at a bus stop without having to deal with beggars and other city-born demons and I didn’t blame them. It wasn’t difficult to locate the source of their annoyance.
An emaciated, filthy, wild man stood in the center of the crowd, screaming non-stop, spittle-strewn gibberish at anyone who looked his way. His long stringy hair flew into his eyes as he lunged at the person who refused him the lighter. His smell was powerful, sour and familiar.
Trying to get his attention, I shouted, “Hey, hey back off, leave him alone!” My words bounced off of his insanity and the presence of our uniforms had no effect on calming him down. Maggie and I began to restrain him, fearing that he might attack one of the frightened spectators and he fought us with every ounce of strength his small, frail body had left in it. It was a pitiful struggle. He frantically flailed his arms and legs and there was no way to restrain him without pulling him to the ground. Reaching my hand out to grab hold of whatever part of him I could catch, my fingers wrapped around his arm and I could feel his bones. I was surprised by how loose his skin seemed to be.
His blue denim shirt and pants had turned gray from constant wear and as I grabbed his sleeve, my hand felt the oily residue of human secretions that turn clothes into a second skin. Wrestling on the ground to control his angry, kicking legs, the smell of his body rose up and buried itself in some deep corner of my senses where, I would discover, it would stay for a very long time. I realized why the smell was so familiar. He had the rancid smell of a week-old corpse and I was shocked when I realized that underneath those filthy clothes his body was slowly rotting. His hands were covered with scabs and the skin was thin and easily broken. In some earlier phase of his madness he had wrapped rubber bands tightly around the base of several of his fingers making them thick, swollen sausages. They were greenish-black where the gangrene had settled in. His words continued to fly at us in an incomprehensible tangle of rage as he stubbornly refused to give up his struggle. The “death smell” of mildew and sour milk danced around his body and seemed to seep into every fiber of my uniform.
In an instant, I knew that I could no longer touch this man. Scrambling until I found my footing, I stood up and left Maggie alone to hold him down until the paramedics arrived. I didn’t walk away; I just stood there, my heart pounding in my ears. I couldn’t move. I stared at the struggling man and felt my body surrender to a deep, unsettling grief. I thought I was tough. I thought I could handle just about anything that was thrown at me. But I was not prepared for the touch and the smell of a man whose body was alive but in an advanced stage of decay. A sense of shame spread through me and made me look away.
This man had been around for a while because it takes time for your body to rot when the blood is still flowing. How many people walked past this man and were annoyed by his stench and madness? How many cops had driven past him, so saturated with the number of homeless and mentally ill that they didn’t notice him? How many people saw him and didn’t even offer him a prayer?
Maggie helped to get him on a stretcher as the paramedics placed soft restraints on his arms and legs. Finally his taut, wiry muscles softened as exhaustion forced him to relax. He continued to toss his head from side to side, looking around frantically as if later he would want to identify his betrayers. His dark eyes suddenly found me and locked onto my face. I hurriedly looked away knowing that my eyes would reveal my anguish but not before I saw a slight smile flit across his ravaged face. Real or imagined, I heard him whisper, “Gotcha!”
Steam rose up from the basin in the station’s bathroom, sending the sharp smell of antiseptic soap up into my head and momentarily erasing him. My raw, red hands and arms couldn’t take any more punishment and I turned off the water. No amount of scrubbing was going to remove the smell of his dying body.
Glancing up at the mirror, I barely recognized the pale face and red-rimmed eyes that looked back at me.
I felt Maggie’s hand on my shoulder. We had worked together for too many years for her not to see that I was shaken. It’s a touchy situation to try to comfort a fellow cop and still afford them their dignity.
Maggie said softly, “I’ll take a rain check on the beer if that’s okay with you. That guy gave me the creeps and I want to get home before Heidi reappears with fresh orders.”
“Okay Mags. Sorry about leaving you alone with that guy,” I squeaked out in a scratchy voice.
“Hey, it happens. The guy reeked. Not to worry, I had it all under control.” Maggie walked out of the bathroom and then stuck her head back in.
“If you want to talk tonight call me, or I’ll kick your ass.”
With a wink and a concerned smile she was gone.
For many months after that day, the smell of his body hid in my mind and cruelly surfaced when I thought I had forgotten it. When I would try to force him out of my thoughts I would see his wild, cloudy eyes and I would see my own soul reflected in the chaos of his mind. I had always been resourceful in finding ways to combat the horrors that were put in my path at work, but I could find no way to filter this experience. The rotting man doesn’t care. It’s unlikely that he remembers me or even that day, if he is still alive. But for me, he has never and will never leave me. He brought me to a place of raw emotion and left me with a sadness that is deep and permanent. He has become part of my thoughts, my conscience and so, part of me.
He is a symbol of a society that doesn’t just ignore human suffering but does not see human suffering . . . a sad reminder that we have become a society capable of heartbreaking indifference.