Saturday, September 26, 2009

Summer of Sam, Pt. 3: San Francisco

On his way to work Kevin dropped me off on Polk Street and said explore. I was to belong to my own curiosity for the next few hours until he got off. I poked around Polk, then wandered into Good Vibrations, past the display of antique vibrators the size of car engines, past the rainbow of dildos and tubes of lube and found myself in the back room where Kevin was to read poems the next evening--my task as his friend to introduce him.The space was simple, its walls white, cheap chairs set up. On the walls was an installation exhibit on the gentrification of Polk Street.

Ah, gentrification. A word on the tip of lips lately. Mounted on all four walls were photographs printed on canvas. They were photographs of people in the neighborhood, headphones hanging below—each headphone promising five minutes of this person’s story, take, or stake. Totally ignorant to the history of this area, from the stories I gathered that Polk Street back in the day was a seedy safe haven where homeless drug addicts, prostitutes and gay teens redefined home for themselves. Polk street: the seedy Castro, necessary and specific in its allure. Teens from as far as the Midwest, after being banished from home after coming out to their red state families, gravitated all the way to the legendary Polk Street.

Out of the 15 or so on the walls, the story that will remain with me is Donna’s. Her photo most striking. She stands with a searching stance in the middle of a desolate street at night, empty syringes blooming out of one hand, gripping plastic armbands with the other. She runs a one woman needle exchange for heroin addicted teens. Her thing is: look, they’re using. Might as well ensure clean needles to prevent infections. She didn’t elaborate, but her childhood was “not cool” and she and her brother started shooting up when she was 14 and he, 12. I assume she’s clean now and out of her own pocket buys clean syringes for teen users. This is Polk Street.

Boutique hotels are replacing the halfway houses that provided beds to homeless gay teens. The seeds that made the area seedy are being swept into the gutters of oblivion. Other denizens of Polk Street welcome the bulldozers of change, the improvements that are happening in the neighborhood.
I keep wondering. All these people that are getting pushed out. The vagabonds. The artists. The insane. Where do they go when they go bye bye?

After leaving Good Vibrations I walk down Polk and turn left on Ellis, toward the Union Square I find inferior to the Union Square of my beloved New York City. I only vaguely know I am walking into the Tenderloin district, through which Polk Street serves as a major artery. Kevin told me last night why they call it the Tenderloin: back in the day it was such a dangerous part of town, that the cops brave enough to cover the area got salary enough to be able to afford steak.

It’s broad daylight. I am walking down Ellis Street in an inspired state, thanks to Donna’s story. Little do I know I am about to get even more inspiration—more than I would know what to do with.
Damn these funkified Moleskines. These notebooks are so delightful to work in, they can get your ass killed or in some kind of trouble. Back in the black bullet days I used to whip it 70 mph on the highway between one gig and the next, thoughts avalanching. Now here I am, walking through the heart of the tenderloin district with red palm sized moleskine in hand, scribble scratching verses. My eyes are not seeing eyes.

A man appears beside me. If he’s not homeless he’s damn close. I do not feel threatened by his broken. He asks what I’m writing. I tell him a poem. He asks if I will write down his poem and then moves to recite his phone number. I stop him cold with warmth. He stops his step and allows me to walk off. He is defeated.

I put away the Moleskin and look around. I begin to really take in my surroundings. I am the only non addict on this street. Crack addicts, Meth heads, Dope fiends—you name it. Walking the streets like ghosts. I walk in front of a halfway house, a throng of folk lining up hoping to get a bed for the night. In my pencil skirt and goddess sandals, I walk past the throng, smiling at some, nodding at others.
When I tell folk this story they often ask me if I was frightened. The answer is no. More saddened than anything to be witness to this boulevard of broken souls.

I pass a dude posted on a fire hydrant with a stack of little manilla envelopes in his hand. The broken form a loose line,it echoes the line of us grand slam hopefuls at bar 13 just minutes before the slam list opens at 7. The addicts hobble up to their dealer. The transaction is as swift as it is blatant. It is daylight. At the end of that block, I pass the law. Blue uniform and badge, he is wathcing the entire scene with the eyes in the back of his head.

Two blocks later I find myself staring at the Banana Republic.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Summer of Sam, Pt. 2: Whidbey Island

After a rather public week in Seattle, the staff at Hedgebrook invited me to come stay the weekend before shooting off to my next destination: San Francisco. What a gift to be reimmersed in the energies of this magical place, even if for such a short while. I vowed to usurp the blessing by writing my most magnificent verses.
The moment I set foot on Hedgebrook's 48 acre property, the memories flooded back from my time there last August. The bench where I first saw Suheir, a book in her lap. Mary's cottage, right up the path from mine. The barn where we watched the presidential debate after being cut off from television for a month. The figs, sprouting from their branches like testicles. Golden raspberries. Cottages. Fresh milk. Baskets. Exquisite food, straight from earth. Baths. Woods. Walks. Nightly fires.

Again I found myself humble inside this caliber of women Hedgebrook has at its fingertips. Women from all parts of the world, tackling difficult issues with their pens while doing amazing things with their lives. This time around I found the degrees of separation to be much smaller. This time I met women who shared some of my closest friends and I could feel the circle ever widening. We are a network in ways we are often astonished to find.

There was a moment at dinner when we were discussing the politics of channelling, Gloria Steinem at the head of the table, as well as the head of this surreal conversation. Glorida is a soft spoken woman engaged with everything that is the world. She has come to call herself a feminist iconoclast and hope a holic. She says the feminist movement is any woman that is not living on her ass. The organizer that she is, she considers hope a form of planning and as a result says it with a curious gleam in her eye. She is one of the most optimistic people I have ever met and loves to tell a good story where laughing is usually involved. And as Gloria is telling some story, Holly Near, the fierce folk singer is to my right, laughing and sometimes heckling her old friend. And I thought to myself, wow. How blessed am I? Just days ago I was at this town hall in Seattle and at the sight of these two women 800 people rose to their feet and clapped long and hard. And here I am among them, breaking bread and discussing the intricacies of our lives.

One of my last nights there, the women decided to commune after dinner to share the writing we've been working on. At first I decided against reading from Seventeen Seasons due to my own insecurities about where I feel it is. I figured I would just share some poems. As the night went on I grew more and more inspired by how Gloria, Holly and the other women who opened up beautifully by sharing their work in such raw stages. So, I decided to read from my first current chapter of the novel, quaking beneath my skin.

After I finished reading, I took in the positive responses of the other women, who listened attentively. Gloria asked if the novel was for teens. I said yes. She smiled and said to me: Samantha, you are going to inspire a whole generation of poets.

It was about the most powerful thing someone has ever said to me. I knew I was ready for the world again. Two mornings later, Hedgebrook released me from its grace. And I found myself on a shuttle, a ferry, then on a plane to San Francisco.