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Slice Of The City

It’s early on Sunday morning at the Brushless Car Wash and I’m surprised at how many people are already here sitting in those horrible plastic chairs all facing the same way (backs to the sun). I’m next in line in the three lanes and tell the guy I want the carpets washed. For once I don’t have a book to read or paper to scribble on and that’s OK; I planned it that way. 

I face west looking across South Van Ness – there is The Mission Hotel, another fleabag place and I shudder thinking about who lives there. I am moved by how much courage and patience medics, EMTs, and doctors have to help people like The Mission Hotel inhabitants. That place is only one of the many SRO hotels in the city, a circle of hell Dante never wrote about. 

No book or paper for me. I just want to let the ol’ mind wander and listen to what it says. It’s sunny, but the cold wind off the ocean hasn’t lessened. I turn my chair for a while, opposite from everyone else, and face the rising sun.

This is a scientific inquiry. I’ve lived away from the city long enough to find all of my surroundings here fascinating, looking at what I’m familiar with from another stance. Observing the workers at this place – they’re like a swarm of busy bees, hovering, moving, back and forth. They’re all Latino and all non-smiling, except one woman who not only smiles, but sings as she polishes. The workers all looked pissed. I wonder what they’re thinking. Are they all thinking I’m too good for this job? I’m glad I’ve got this job even though it’s not much. Are they thinking of going to their next job? – (a lot of these people routinely work two jobs).

I note the people sitting around me and try to match them with the cars that are brought around to claim. A few times I call it right, the Benz or the Beamer – I match those to their owners. Mostly I’m wrong and I’m glad. It just goes to show ya. A lot of weird-looking people are out early this Sunday and I guess maybe I’m one of them. There’s a young couple with a new baby girl; the mom and dad look hardly out of their teens. They are immaculately dressed, freshly showered, and I guess their car is getting a bath too. I think maybe they’re going to Mass or to some party.

I listen to someone sitting behind me, a 20-something woman with the requisite maroon swathe in her cute brunette bob. I listen as she calls a friend – their entire conversation is mundane. Yeah, so ya know, so yesterday I like really like had to deal with the laundry, ya know. I just got this thing, ya know, to, you know, deal with it, finally. And I mean, like, I really did it, the laundry. Like I musta washed seven loads and now like I gotta fold it.  Did I do that? Did I talk to my friends like that when I was her age? I examine my past and judge accordingly. No, I never called my friends and discussed my laundry. This lengthy conversation (the subject of laundry may have depths to which we are not attuned after all) nearly rendered me comatose, but it was so fascinatingly boring I made every effort to stay conscious hoping for some lightening strike of insight. I deduced the tentative laundress worked for some property management company. I imagined she lives in a semi-bohemian flat on Valencia, drinks martinis (mojitos are so not happening) and effects this urban hippie stance.

Things liven up across the street at The Mission Hotel. When I first arrived there was a clot of people standing around the entrance smoking in front of the big no smoking inside the building sign. And quite a group they are: there’s a tall guy who looks and behaves like Tiny Tim of TV tiptoe-through-the-tulips fame; he’s the cheeriest of the lot. They all talk, smoke, and sip coffee from paper cups. Each seems a stereotype: beefy black guy with beefy prison-made biceps, sickly looking skinny guy (just out of rehab?) old hooker-looking lady trying to be one of the boys.

Back to matching cars with people and trying not to erupt at the cell phone miscreants surrounding me. Yelling comes from across the street – another show begins. A tall black guy a few buildings away is shouting and two black women in front of the hotel are shouting back. The more vocal of the two is really berating this guy, he’s yelling and I can’t make out what they’re saying, but they’re all really hot. It’s somewhat operatic – the big guy backs off down the street, pushed off stage by the chorus of the two women, the short one is the most vocal, and her sidekick chimes in echoing the litany. The short one moves forward (evidently this guy isn’t retreating fast enough) and launches toward him as he retreats walking backwards. She amps up and I can hear her: “I’m gonna whup yo’ ass!” she screams over and over; I finally stop counting. Sidekick backs her up and the two of them succeed in thinning out the smokers and those remaining are now quiet as an audience should be. After the guy clears off, the two women argue with each other. I’d love to know what that was all about – drug deal? Some kind of con? Some scheme gone wrong?

Show over, the smokers go back inside. The near-combatants move off. It’s calm for a moment. Then emerges a young, clean-cut hippie-looking guy, maybe he works at the nearby Whole Foods. He’s pushing his good-looking bike carefully, mounts it and moves off. He’s got knapsacks and backpacks all over himself and the bike – probably all his worldly goods, everything too precious to leave behind in his room. He’s somewhat startling because he appears to live at the hotel and he looks, well, how shall I say it, somewhat normal, although what passes for normal around here is open to conjecture. 

The streets here are filthy, filthy and dangerous. Ubiquitous pigeons circle, honing in on food scraps. The Mission is one of the roughest parts of the city. The cops say that (one block away) 16th and Mission has the highest rate of drug dealing in the city. Given the character of the Tenderloin (night of the living dead people) and Hunters Point, I doubt that. I guess this statement is based on the number of arrests made in the area. That could not truly accurately account for drug dealing activity, as more arrests made might mean a higher concentration of cops with more info. I think drug dealing is higher in HP but not thwarted because cops don’t venture there much, it’s a war zone.

My attention is back at the car wash. I see that not only the workers are sullen; most of the customers are too. I see a lot of them have dogs with them, those squish-em dogs, furry rats, purse dogs – they have many names. Even the dogs look sad. I search the faces of the customers. No one looks remotely happy. Is it the city that makes them this way? I wonder what they are thinking about.

A woman on nearby chair excitedly leans towards another woman who’s reading from a Kindle. She starts a conversation inquiring about her Kindle version, the pros and cons, etc. and I unabashedly eavesdrop. I’m enjoying their exchange and how this shoots my position on strangers who don’t talk.

Another prejudice is shot down when a woman approaches a woman sitting on a double bench and asks if she can have a seat. A young Chinese guy comes up and politely asks me if he can use the empty chair near me. He moved it a bit away so as to make a cell phone call. I wanted to stand up and cheer. A couple of other people did that too, but mostly I’m sitting in a sea of maniacs, the lunatic asylum where everyone mutters to himself and no one listens. 

New activity at the hotel. An older man drives up in some big American car, a Buick maybe. He’s nicely dressed in slacks, sport coat, tie. A new cast of characters rush over to the trunk that he has popped open, the inmates of the hotel quickly descend upon the trunk. He greets them all heartily – good morning – and they respond. He must be a do-gooder from some church group. The trunk is emptied and everyone disappears inside with what look like boxes of food and bakery goods.

A lull in the traffic, after all it is early Sunday. Families walk by, all dressed up. One little girl about six is having a tough time walking in high heels. Why, oh why do these people dress their daughters like midget women? It’s so awful, I think, it’s some cultural hang-up; the girls are like dolls, miniature prom queens. Why hurry life? It goes by fast enough.

At last my car is ready and it’s so clean I almost can’t find it in the holding area. It seems the people with the most expensive cars give the least tips or none at all. (I’ve been watching that too). I give the guy a dollar and realize later other guys worked on it as well, but all the tips go into a pot and are equally divided. They’re probably making minimum wage.

I drive home to where it is clean, to where most of us are not maimed or blind and those of us who are are making progress dealing with it. No visible scars, no open sores, no inane babbling, our minds are in easy reach and frequently make sense and we don’t call anyone to say we folded laundry.

In another year I might go back to the carwash and see what’s playing. I’ll remember to bring my baseball hat – too many pigeons around here.


  1. Lou March 21, 2023

    O how low we have sunk since Herb Caen! Great column, quality writing, but the SF view and content reminds me why I never go to the City any more.

    • izzy March 22, 2023

      “Baghdad by the bay”, post-Bush iteration.

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