Inside the Tenderloinby Erick Lyle
Ed.’s note: The following is an excerpt from Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull, May 2008).
In an old hotel, downtown. Off a small alley. It was a neighborhood where, if the cops came, no one ever saw anything. There were surveillance cameras everywhere. Some days, men on every corner would be talking to themselves, as if they were a radio station that only they got. Rainy mornings, lost under umbrellas, collecting cans. I walked in crowds between tall buildings. Everyday streets, walked deeper and deeper into a maze. There were dead ends. Secret places. Hotel hallways and darkened bars. From my window I could see a dumpster where a different man shot up every morning.
I did street outreach, passing out flyers about our services, to men in doorways. There were black guys with trash bags on their feet, men selling trash they’d found. Often, I’d see our clients in line at a corner store, or waiting to be buzzed in at a hotel, and I’d avoid eye contact, if they were with a non-client. I knew their biggest secret.
Secrets. Past lives. Hiding places. When we had sex, I’d remember the hum of old elevators coming to life. All I remembered was the murmur of pigeons in the airshaft between buildings, where the sun would never shine.
A man with a white mask over his mouth would empty trash into the dumpster across the alley every morning. Cops walked the streets with white, latex gloves on. I passed out condoms and lube to HIV positive men, only.
On the fifth floor of the new Main Library, I found a book that said my hotel was 62 years old. There were crowded days and old newspapers. Steaming coffee, waiting. She would stand in the alley and yell my name. Like a neon sign in a bar.
When I moved out, I still had her umbrella. Stuff was sad, the things you had owned. It lasted too long. Joseph Loya, apparently, died on Jones Street, but his stuff made it two blocks further up Turk. All of the letters were addressed to him. He hadn’t been to the Russian Orthodox church in the Avenues since 1981. Someone named Buddy had sent him a postcard of the St. Louis arch in 1980 to his room at the YMCA in Houston. Someone was trying to sell it, but I just took it home and put it on my wall.
That night, I laid in bed, listening to the sounds in the alley. 62 years. I would catch myself, sometimes, falling asleep, and sit bolt upright in bed.
There was a mysterious smoke stack that I could see from my window, maybe two blocks from my place, and sometimes it gave off a steamy emission. I had always felt oddly drawn to it, and one day, I set out to find once and for all its exact location. When I found it, in the center of a block, the fence in front of it was lined with men, smoking crack.
In my room, there was an ornamental strip of wood that ran around the perimeter of the room, about a foot and a half from the ceiling. After I’d lived there for about six months, I noticed a small orange dot out of the corner of my eye, just at the edge of this wood. I climbed up on a chair to see what it was. It was a clean, unused syringe with an orange safety tip. The last occupant, or the occupant before, had hidden it up there. Holding it, I felt time seemed to blur. This could be any of the hotel’s 62 years. Dead ends and hiding places. Secrets and passed lives. I put it back up there for the next guy to find when I moved out.
Our office was a converted storefront. The place was old, from before the world had ever heard of AIDS, or even the CIA. We had everyone’s name on a list. I knew most of our clients by sight, but if I didn’t know them, I’d have to look them up on the list. Everyone on the list had an incurable disease. But, day in and day out, they were surprisingly upbeat people. They only got upset if I had to get out the list. The very sight of it would enrage them. A 6-foot tall guy with a red wig on and a very ill-fitting skirt would come in who I had never seen before, and I’d say, “Name please.” She’d say “Ginger.” “I come here every day!” they’d yell. But, finally, if they wanted their food bag, they would settle down and whisper, “Michael Ellis.” The disease didn’t seem to bother them, in a way, as much as their real names…
It seems we never get to control our real names in the library. We never get to see the list. The secret history might be in the old library, across the street from the new one, which spent much of the last few years surrounded by huge weeds and unmowed grass. I imagined the old history in places where time stood still.
Sometimes, blackout drunk, she and I would have sex and she would try to put it in without a condom. I’d think of elevator shafts and alleys and hidden needles, and feel myself falling. And not wanting to catch myself.
In our office in the old storefront, a tranny sighed, “I wonder what this place used to BE….”
January turned into February. It was still raining. A girl at work told me about people who lived in tunnels under the Tenderloin and downtown. She said she’d found tunnels in the basement of her old squat, and that her and her friends had gone in them and explored a little, but, basically, it was just too damn scary.
I became sort-of obsessed with finding the tunnels. I started by looking for entrances in the crater lots where buildings had been knocked down, downtown. There was one behind my hotel, full of weeds and broken TV’s. With most of them, from the sidewalk, you just saw a fence, but if you snuck in, there’d be a huge field, walls covered with graffiti, and, sometimes, whole communities of people living just under the sidewalk. But there were no tunnels.
An old-timer in Chinatown told me, “Of course I know about the tunnels. People go in ’em down on Commerce Street, around the corner.” Commerce turned out to be a one-block dead end on the other side of North Beach. Did he maybe mean “Commercial,” which WAS right around the corner?
I checked every manhole cover on Commercial, but there was nothing. Kind of old tunnel map in the new library. But, the new library with its huge unassailable-looking walls, looked like it was built just to keep the information from the streets out of it. I couldn’t find anything. It seemed like they only had computers now, and no books.
Later, I read an article about the library that said they HAD thrown out tons of books. They had put them in storage….in a tunnel under Civic Center.
Lately, I’ve had my own secret. I’ve been hiding stuff in the library. I started by putting stuff in the clipping files. I’d write stuff and just put it in. I put all my magazines in them, in the corresponding files. Then, I started making my own files. I took pictures of old bar signs in the Tenderloin and made a “Signs” file of my own and put it in. I started working on a punk flyer file. I go back and check and it is all still there.
I’ve also made name tags for shelves so I could put my magazines up in the periodical section and make it look like the library ordered it. I mean, sure, they’re already in the Special Collections, but whoever can find out when that room is even open? Now, I prefer just to get it right up on the shelf. Maybe I still feel bad about stealing a couple books from the library when I was 15…But, piece by piece, I’m building a secret history collection.
Lyle will be reading Fri., 6/13 at Bluestockings Books (www.bluestockings.com) and on Sun., 6/15 at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick (www.myspace.com/goodbyebluemondayinc).
Erick Lyle is the editor of SCAM magazine and his work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and on NPR's This American Life. He lives in San Francisco.