Tue 6 Oct 2009
It was one of those times I felt like the Country Mouse.
I’d been reading San Francisco Chronicle about the city police department’s wanting to clean up the Tenderloin. And I’ve been reading Chronicle columnist CW Nevius’ fulminations against drug use and sexual activity in the district.
By the way, while most of us know where the Tenderloin is in San Francisco (see Google map at right), many people don’t know the origin of the name.
Other cities have also had “tenderloins” although New York supposedly had the first. The district had widespread graft and vice, so any corrupt cops who policed it could afford to eat well. At least that’s the etymology given by The American Heritage Dictionary.
Several major streets cross San Francisco’s Tenderloin, so I periodically drive through it. Saturday night, however, was the first time in years I’d traversed it on foot. Oddly enough, I was on my way to the Hilton Hotel which, as can be seen in the map above, sits squarely in the Tenderloin.
I was about to pick up a friend and drive him to Point Reyes Station for a visit. The friend, new-media consultant Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles, had spent the previous three days conducting training sessions at an Online News Association convention in the hotel.
After parking my car on O’Farrell Street near Market, I’d begun walking back up O’Farrell when the odd mix of characters on the street started catching my eye. A large, somewhat-intimidating man called me over, but I kept walking and quickly crossed the street.
Up ahead of me I saw a small crowd milling around Johnny Foley’s Irish House, a fashionable bar. They’d apparently gone outside to smoke. As I got closer, I noticed another group sitting on the sidewalk next to them. These folks weren’t dressed like the more-stylish bar patrons, but they too were mostly smoking, and some were jovially drinking from bottles.
Just beyond these convivial groups, however, three cleancut men dressed all in black were wrestling on the sidewalk, with two of them trying to hold down the third. Having also been reading about bystanders getting caught in gang violence, I didn’t stop to watch.
By the time I’d reached the corner, however, the man who’d been on the ground caught up, brushing himself off. Almost immediately, the other two men rushed up, and the first ran out into traffic but was caught and dragged back to the sidewalk. At this point I heard someone say, “He stole a purse.”
“No I didn’t,” the man insisted.
A block and a half further and I was at the Hilton. A policeman was standing out front, so I told him what I’d witnessed. “I guess we’d better go down there,” he said, and I went inside the hotel.
The lobby was crowded with cheery people in their late teens and early 20s. It turned out they were USC football fans staying en masse at the Hilton, and they were celebrating because USC had beaten Cal 30-3 that afternoon.
Security guards were stationed here and there, but everyone in the lobby was behaving peaceably. The only thing out of the ordinary was the apparel of a few female fans. See-through and super-short skirts revealed that thong underwear is in vogue these days at USC.
When Dave and I met up, we laughed at the fashions of “kids today” and started walking back to the car.
Half a block from the scene of the scuffle, we passed the alleged thief sitting on the ground (left) in handcuffs. Half a dozen cops surrounded him while more stood around nearby. Dave shot this photo with his mobile phone, and we continued on.
Several well-dressed celebrants we passed on the sidewalk were noticeably hollow eyed, prompting Dave to mention that when he’d gone into a hotel restroom, he’d come upon a young man who appeared to be snorting a line of cocaine off a sink.
We eventually reached my car, which in my Point Reyes Station fashion I hadn’t bothered to lock. Notwithstanding several scary-looking folks wandering the street no one had touched it.
The Chronicle has written quite a bit about drug dealing sullying the streets of the Tenderloin. Its columnist Nevius has railed against a Tenderloin liquor store’s supposedly being a magnet for street crime and against a sex club’s moving into the district. San Francisco’s tonier neighborhoods certainly wouldn’t put up with a sex club, Nevius wrote on Sept 12.
But would they put up with a Hilton? From all appearances, there was a fair amount of sex and drugs at the hotel last weekend, along with street crime near a fashionable bar less than two blocks away.
Am I criticizing the Hilton? No, it seems to be a well-run hotel that gets a variety of guests. Rather I’m saying that it’s easy to wax indignant about low-rent sexual activity in the Tenderloin and about the drugs of its hard-luck street people, but there’ll never be an editorial campaign against USC fans exposing their G-strings in the lobby of a Hilton Hotel or snorting cocaine in a Hilton restroom.
Feeling discombobulated by urban perversity, this country mouse skedaddled back to familiar old Point Reyes Station.