San Francisco and the Storm of Progress

by Katharine Blake McFarland


Early one Saturday morning I found my landlady standing in front of our building, staring at the wall, with a bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. “What are you working on?” I asked, with a forced cheeriness that comes from being a little afraid of her. “I'm bleaching the piss off the front of the building,” she said.

It's true that San Francisco often smells like pee. Since I moved here six months ago, I've seen more people urinating on the sidewalk than in the previous 28 years of my life combined (years spent living in Boston and D.C., among other places). Homelessness is rampant here, but more than that, visible. Walk down any street in my neighborhood—Market Street, Castro Street, 18th Street down to Dolores Park—and you will be forced to reckon with more than the smell of urine: you will see evidence of ravaged humanity. Nests of sleeping bags and trash bags tucked into doorways. Guardians of trashcans, babbling and searching for cigarette butts, clothes stained red and brown like maps. Young runaways and addicts, their escapes gone wrong, cross-legged on the sidewalk, their skinny dogs on leashes.

I recall Joan Didion's haunting refrain in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “children are missing.” All of these children in my neighborhood are missing from some place else, some location of origin, but maybe not each one is missed, and maybe that's part of the problem. Just yesterday I passed a boy sleeping against the wall of my building who looked so much like my 24-year-old brother I had to restrain myself from stooping down next to him, wiping the dirt off his face, and taking him upstairs for a shower and chocolate milk.

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