De mil heroes la patria aqui fue

It is a sleepy day in the Mission District. A slight breeze whisps by, seeming to mimic the sound of the underground BART trains leaving the 16th Street station. Latinos in collared flannel shirts wipe their hands on dirty rags slipping from their back pockets in the repair shop halfway to The Panaderia—the bakery. Others shuffle by in typical Latino clothing—cowboy hats, Western-style ties around their necks, heavy belts—and keep their heads down aside from a brief nod and quick turn of the eyes as they quietly wish me a “Buenos dias.” Two women stand huddled together in front of a cookie-cutter ramshackle apartment that shares a wall with a Mexican market. The shorter, fatter woman turned her head upon eye-contact and puffed her cigarette facing the edifice. The sleek, younger woman kept her eye on her daughter—a small, tan girl with pigtails, sporting a pink shirt and worn purple windbreaker. A table sits on the very edge of the curb with hand-me-down Barbies, toy cars and little ornaments in the shapes of animals, with a low price scribbled on hardly-visible blue stickers stuck all over the treasure trove. A block down, after stumbling over haphazardly strewn bikes on the sidewalk outside of an obnoxious yellow coffee shop that charged $2 for a medium coffee while patrons sit cross-legged, obsessively heaving over iPhones, an elderly Latina sits behind a table of handmade necklaces of blue, red, green and yellow stones. Her head slumps as the wrinkles on her brow make her eyes appear half shut. Her wrinkled jaw line quivers. I turned my head as I crossed the street to get a better look. A van proclaiming the word of Jesus covered her entirely.

The bakery huts from the corner with its lackluster white façade. The Flower Vendor sits in his usual place on the two dirty steps leading up to a clear door with a barren frame that must be chained closed lest it remain jarred open like a tired mouth. There is a stain of dirt on the right side of the door, where the Flower Vendor sits, due to his frequent stops in front of the panaderia. The bell stuck between the door and the crack above jingles a sad tune. “Buenos dias,” says Maria, the woman behind the counter. She has a sweet smile on her face. She looks like Mama. Her lips are full, but dainty little roses painted a bright pink upon her tan face. Her hair flips out on the sides, with a slight blonde hue painted in to give her a glow. She was like an older version of Mama’s wedding photo.

“Is Jaime here?” I asked in Spanish. “I’m curious about the bakery.” She raised an eyebrow and looked around to humor me before frowning, obviously upset with the news she had to give me.

“Ay, señorita,” she sighed. “No esta. Nunca esta aqui los viernes.” (“Oh, little lady. He’s not here. He’s never here on Friday”)

I gathered myself for a minute. He forgot we were supposed to talk today.

“Puedes esperar si quieres. Hay pan si quieres comprar,” she said. (“You can wait if you want. There’s bread if you want to buy some.”)

I smiled and decided to wait for an hour while I peeked at the cabinets of sweets that were available. The colors and smells were all like Mexico. One clear case closest to the window glimmered with cupcakes drenched in vibrant sprinkles, all one color, never mixed. The names of each bread were scratched onto cards covered with flour in rustic yellow letters. They were all in Spanish. A few blondes wandered in and tried to make sense of the pricing, inquiring about each bread simply by pointing instead of trying to pronounce the name. Maria stood straight and patient at the counter the entire time until she is approached. After a few awkward moments of trying to start conversation between the sharp interruptions in English courtesy of the two blondes—one of which forgot to take her sunglasses off in an obviously dark room, only illuminated by drooping shells covering weak lightbulbs. It was quiet once they were gone.

“¿Porque quieres platicar con Jaime?” Maria asked.

“Estoy hacideno un articulo para me clase. Quiero platicar con el de la inmigracion,” I answered to her dismay. (“I’m doing an article for class. I want to talk to him about immigration.”)

    “Oh!” she chimed in with a laugh. A thundering slam echoed from the back room where the rest of the bread was being made. There were a few inaudible comments that echoed deeply throughout the back. One woman emerged in the doorway. She was short and chubbier, with a hat keeping her long hair back and out of the way of the bread. She had a defined face, round with sharper bone structure, except for her nose. Her nose was a little blub on her face, as her eyes curved into what looked like little tadpoles.

“¿Estas aqui para trabajar?” she asked, enthused. (“Are you here to work?”)

     I shook my head. “No señora.” She opened a cabinet closest to the window and set down a tray of bread cut into ovals, with a vibrant red filling in the center that looked just like an egg. Coconut flakes covered the edges. She sighed.

“Ooo,” she howled. “Yo pense que viniste para el trabajo. No tenemos suficiente empleados.” (“I thought you came for a job. We don’t have enough employees right now”)

     The silver tray slammed and made a piercing echo throughout the bakery. They called the place Victoria. Victory.

“Pues, Jaime no esta,” Maria said with another sigh. “Puedes esperar por un ratito si te dijo que iba a venir.” (“Well, Jaime isn’t here. You can wait for a little be if he told you he was coming.”)

I spent 10 minutes rummaging through day-old bread and staring contemplatively at sugar-glazed puffs of bread while my head told me Jaime was never going to show up. Maria eyed me as the Headmaster who asked me if I was there for a job paced back in forth in the baking room. Maria had a sympathy to her eyes, which I had come to associate with my mother. I swallowed impatiently, as I didn’t know what I could say that would make Jaime come or if she would know anything that could help me. I knew how much it annoyed me when strangers assumed my mother was the bank of information on all things Latino. Would it be rude to ask her where she was from and how she got here?

“¿De donde eres?” she asked. (“Where are you from?”)

     “Los Angeles,” I quip.

“¿Y tus papas?” (“And your parents?”)

     “Mi mama es de Morelos” (“My mother is from Morelos”)

     “¡Mexico!” she smiled.

I went on a tangent about my dad’s American-ness and the lack of Latino blood in him. I said some random drivel about having an accent when I spoke Spanish because I grew up speaking English more because of my dad, and made little references to my mom’s side-conversations when dad was within earshot, but not willing to contribute to what we had to say. She smiled the whole time. Maria fled Mexico around the same time my mom did in the early 80s. Mom didn’t flee. She came to learn English to earn her Master’s. But Maria fled in the hopes of a better life, like the old adages go. She hails from Jalisco, a state that wraps around my mother’s home. Jalisco is No. 3 on the list of Mexican states immigrants in the U.S. are from, behind Michoacan and Oaxaca. Her daughter was a different story.

“Mi hija va al UNAM,” she said. (“My daughter goes to UNAM.”)

     My mother always told me about UNAM. It is the most prestigious school any Mexican citizen could ever hope for. The admissions process is a systemic web of tests and applications, much like anything in Mexico—getting a passport, getting a visa—and to be on the other end of an acceptance letter was like being found in the desert after years and being told you would live like a king forever. If you didn’t blow it, that is. Then you’d be like my tia Geno, who my mother would snarl at on occasion with the memory of her screaming at my abuelito and abandoning UNAM for the sake of a man. UNAM was definitely a place you respected more than yourself.

Maria was something of a missing piece to life in San Francisco for me. She was here to stay, though the lament of leaving the grassy shade of Mexico, the glimmering of the moon in its late night hours and warm tropical storms was present in the flimsy way she threw about her words when she spoke of it. And her daughter dared to leave what some say is the comfort of American life—though Mexican children never believe it—to be there. I always told mom I was moving to Mexico after college.

Maria asked me about mom a lot, particularly if dad “fixed her.” It’s how she described becoming a citizen. Maria got “fixed” when her daughter was 10 through the “regular process.” She was never more specific than that.

“¿Y todavia tienes miedo? ¿O sientes mejor estar aqui siendo legal?” I asked. (“And are you still afraid? Or do you feel better knowing you’re legal?”)

     “No, ya no tengo razon para tener miedo. No, no, no. Estoy contenta por que no me pueden llevar,” she said, waving her hands as if to say it was sacrilige to think being legal would ever be anything short of glorious. (“No. I don’t have a reason to be afraid. No, no, no. I’m happy because they can’t take me away.”)

A stout old man shuffled in. The door pinched his short, ragged body. He turned around and made a hoarse scoffing sound deep in his throat as he shook his head. His wrinkled face rolled down to his neck and shook with his dissatisfaction. His red plaid shirttails stuck out awkwardly from his brown corduroy. He sniffled. Maria stared wide-eyed. His thinning white hair barely touched down on his head. His white skin seemed to be more noticeable against the bakery that was decorated brown to its very heart.

“Good morning,” he said gruffly while clearing his throat.

Maria wrung her hands. Her eyes were still as wide as they were the moment he walked in. She put a hand on the register, flipped around and looked at the coffee dispensers before fixing the stack of white squares on the counter.

“Uh…uh,” she stammered as she looked into my eyes. She let out a long breath. “Good morning.” Her accent barely allowed her to pronounce the d in “good.”

The man shuffled over to the counter, a wrinkle in his forehead. “Coffee,” he said.

Maria said nothing. She slowly began lifting a finger and accidentally pointed at the coffee making station with the cream and sugar, where customers could fix the traditional Mexican blend to whatever they fancied.

“Yes,” the old man barked. “Coffee.”

She began hastily pouring coffee. “Oh!” she gasped. “Um…American coffee, yes?” She put the cup down to keep it from shaking.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the old man said impatiently. She pushed the cup across the counter, mouth agape. “$1.75, señor…um…sir.” A crumpled dollar and six coins dropped down on the counter. She carefully scraped them up and counted in Spanish. “Vienticino, thrientiacinco…” She stopped and shook her head. “Twenty-five, thirty-five, fourty-five…” She dumped each coin one by one and crammed the dollar in, wrinkling it and getting it caught in the metal mousetraps of the register. “Thank you,” she said, not pronouncing the h. He said nothing. The bell rang as he trudged up 16th. Her face was flushed, yet she turned and gave me her motherly smile.

Mother, Do You Think They’ll Drop the Bomb?

My gasps between tears were long and heavy. My throat was feeling tighter with each breath. I could almost see my lungs being force to their capacity as I shook and wailed like an injured animal. The parking lot was deserted, but through my tears it appeared as though cars were speeding by in a flurry of smog and hearty engine noises. It was like crying on a freeway.

“Megan!” mom shouted. “Megan, shut up! Enough! Enough! Shut the fuck up, Megan. It’s over.”

I begged my mother to let me cry as I tried to carefully peel back my emotions like a delicate tangerine, without slipping more into hysterics. “No, mom. Why? It’s not fair, mom. I hate her. I hate her, she doesn’t even know you.”

The only thing that succeeded that miserable shouting was a nail in the crevice of my forearm on the underside of my elbow. It was like a magic cure. A painful, magic cure. My voice quivered, my tears were broken. I was not better. I was not done. Mom was.

Three years later, I told mom I wanted to report on Latino issues. “And do what? Be the same like everyone else? Feeling sorry for people who don’t need saving? Be careful how you report on your own people,” she said, her accent somehow helping her take command of the moment.

“Well, what should I report on, mom?” I asked.

“Report on how all of us would leave this country if we didn’t have husbands and children,” she scorned. When mom would get upset when I was younger, she would cry and go to the master bedroom claiming she was going to Mexico and leave us all alone.

“Report on how nothing we do matters. We are always Mexican.”

I sat quietly, rubbing my hand over my hot coffee mug. I was everything like my mother. She was doing the same thing, with that same right hand under her chin, looking down at her cup. The only difference was that I was born here.

“Mom, remember the time that woman in the parking lot told you to go back to Mexico?”

She reclined back, drew a breath and said: “Si. ¿Y que con eso? Pinche vieja no me conoce. Y tu de chillona. ¿Porque te preocupas tanto, mija?” (“Yes. And what of it? That fucking hag doesn’t know me. And you—being a crybaby. Why do you worry so much, honey?”)

     “Because mom…eres legal. ¿Como pueden decir esas cosas?” (“Because mom…you’re legal. How could anyone say those things?”)

     “Ay, Megan, callate ya. No pueden ver si eres legal, entonces ¿pa’ que chingados me importa?” (“Ay, Megan. Shut up now. Legality isn’t visible, so why the fuck does it matter?”) In English, mom was the business administration major—with a master’s—who knew her stuff when you asked her. She was a classy woman who knew how to get clothes, jewelry, handbags and make-up from Macy’s for less than half the price (sometimes free) with her black card she got from spending $1,000 or more annually and buying enough at retail price to start winning neatly enveloped cupons. She never swore, but sometimes she was partial to “shit,” if she really lost it. In Spanish, she was just the same, except for a voracious speaker with an affinity for cursing and hacking words to pieces when she was upset. She told strangers they were stupid more so than in English. She was everything short of a razor blade wrapped in an aggressive package, but no one in this country ever knew.

“America doesn’t know anything about us. They know as much about legals as they know about illegals, but they would be nothing, Megan. They would be nothing without us. We do everything to be like them and we’re never like them,” she said before taking a proud sip of coffee.

Al sonoro ruguir del cañon

Maria scribbled Jaime’s cell phone number on a faded yellow Post-It before I left the first time.

“Jaime es bien olvidon, pero nos cuide,” she said as she passed off the note and held my hand for a moment. (“Jaime is very forgetful, but he takes care of us.”)

The Flower Vendor was sitting at a table in the very center of the initial entryway of the bakery. He slouched back and his droopy eyes wandered back and forth. He looked as though he was washing away. He would smile at Maria sometimes and raise a shriveled hand, his fingers slightly curled as if to raise his hand to mark his turn to speak. He would make quick, cheery comments about how beautiful the place still was, what the weather was like and how he was happy it was Friday.

“Nadie habla directamente sobre inmigracion o si alguien es legal o no,” Maria said. (“Nobody speaks directly about immigration or if someone is legal or not.”) The Flower Vendor nodded, his head flopping so that the glimmer of his eye could barely be seen under his sombrero. He smiled and didn’t say anything. “Pero por lo menos cuando te arreglan, no tienes que tener miedo aunque te tienen miedo a ti.” (“But at least when they fix you, you don’t have to be afraid even if they’re afraid of you.) The whole time, The Headmaster and the rest of the bakers stuffed themselves in the doorway of the baking room. They were wind-up dolls, strolling back and forth with what seemed like the same metal trays before splitting off in an odd dance into the front of the bakery, where the pans slammed and the scent wafted even stronger into the nose.

Jaime never answered my calls for the weekend. Monday morning a tall, tan man in a purple scarf loosely spun around his neck stood over the cash register. “Buenos dias.”

“Jaime?” I asked. He placed his hand awkwardly on the counter, making it difficult not to stare at the yellow gauze sloppily wrapped around his hand. I reminded him about his missed interview.

“Oh. See, I’d love to talk to you, but I don’t look very presentable right now and I don’t think it would be appropriate.”

Jaime Maldonado is hailed as a savior of the Latino culture, with his bakery displaying Latino art, inviting the Latino community and staying true to its Mexican heritage when it comes to the bread he serves. He is the face of the Mission food scene, with videos posted on blogs surrounding all things San Francisco proudly brandished on his Web site. The Headmaster and the bakers peered through the doorway during our whole conversation. They never spoke up. They never came out. But we always made eye contact.

Maria bunched her lips to the right and frowned.

I was back on Friday. “¿Hay ilegales trabajando aqui?” I asked Maria. (“Are there any illegals working here?”)

     “Pues, todos empezamos asi. Algunos terminan asi. Nadamas seguimos trabajando,” she said. (“Well, we all start that way. Some end that way. We just keep on working.”)

Of course Mama’s gonna help build the wall

Mom got deported almost a week after her wedding. She and dad got married after six months of dating to keep her in the country after her visa expired. After a day of 1980s bliss with mom’s ball gown in front of a crowd of people whose language my dad did not understand, they were ready to go back to the States soon. “Fuimos una bola de mensos. Lo hizimos mal,” my mom said. (“We were a couple of idiots. We did it wrong.”) They married in Mexico first. Mom got taken to a facility where she remembers three separate groups of people sitting in each corner of what was like a grey pen. An elder Latino sat in arthritic pain, looking down and never speaking. On older Asian man did the same opposite him. Mom was opposite of two young Asian girls, sisters, skinny and frail and strewn on top of each other, sobbing hysterically. She remembers being driven in a cave and being pulled in every which direction along with the others to make sure something always blocked their view of the general area to keep them from deducing where they were. Dad spent hours yelling at the airport. Mom was long gone, flying solo on a plane back to Mexico City.

In the month she fought for her paperwork, mom lost 20 pounds. “I could not eat. I never ate. I think I went days without eating,” she said.

Four months later, my mom stared down the border, a dusty brown archway where dad’s old red Chevy hummed impatiently. She pulled out her passport for a clean-cut, blond American man who looked as though he’d been in the military. “Where are your bags?” he asked.

“I don’t have bags,” mom said. She gasped. He stared intently, her passport inches from sliding out of his hands and onto the ground.

“No bags?”

“I…I…no. No bags,” she said, wringing her hands. Silence.

“Go through,” he sighed.

Mom was illegal for another three months until she was able to take and pass her citizenship test. She’s never been above 110 pounds since her deportation.

“It was horrible. I was in pain every day,” she said. “No piece of paper could ever fix what I went through.”

Un laurel para ti de Victoria, un sepulcro para ellos de honor

The Flower Vendor slept in front of la Victoria bakery. A group of teens pushed past, some clad in neon and dangling black adornments of lace while shouting and pulling the backpacks of those riding bikes. He stirred and rolled over. He clasped onto his bucket to keep the “gueros” from tipping over his haul. Now he nods and his head wobbles under his sombrero. “Buenos dias.”

“Soy legal, pero soy Mexicana,” Maria said as she leaned toward me and handed me another cup of coffee. “Todos, ultimamente somos Mexicanos.” (“I’m legal, but I’m Mexican. We are all, ultimately, Mexican”)

The streets were dry every Friday, with the same picturesque moments of families speaking a muffled tongue. Their faces, their movements all seemed to run together.

“Vivmos sin cara, aunque damos todos a este pais,” mom said to me years before. (“We live without a face, even if we give everything to this country.”)

The Headmaster heckled me about a job again as she continued her robotic spin through the bakery with her fellow employees, who never greeted me. Jaime never returned when I dropped by. I never met the bakers save for a “Buenos dias.”

“Illegals work there,” some said. I couldn’t tell.

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Adriana Amer and two coworkers smile while working at the student call center at SFSU.

by Jana Howarth

Adriana Amer stands upon a patch of browning grass and gazes up at her childhood home for what may be the last time in a long while. The soft grey color blanketing the large three-story blends with the overcast skies above. A sign hanging over the open, wooden porch reads, “Furniture of Abou Ali Amer.” This is the name of her grandfather, who owns and operates a furniture store out of the first level of their house. Adriana walks through the store, bursting with handmade tables, chairs, and beds, starts up a flight of stairs against the back wall. She enters the living area, hearing the giggles and bickering of her three younger sisters. Footsteps can be heard like a stampede as they run around and around, fighting and playing. Adriana’s full lips turn upwards, and her rich brown eyes twinkle with affection. She walks through the living room, cozy with old family photos, following the smells of herbs and meat wafting from the kitchen. She finds her grandmother standing at the stove, and strokes her dark, curling hair that so much resembles her own. The tomatoes, corn, and cucumbers lying on the green countertops come fresh from their own garden, picked by Adriana and her sisters. Her grandmother’s wrinkly hand swats her own away as she attempts to steal a sample of fresh, homemade bread. Chuckling, her grandmother pulls Adriana’s small, round face down and kisses her light, olive-toned cheek. Leaving the kitchen, Adriana climbs a second, and then a third set of stairs, until she is standing on her roof, among a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers. She looks out over the land, the hills and fields of her birthplace: her Lebanon. Tomorrow, she will be 30,000 feet in the air, embarking on a new chapter in her 21-year-old life.

Adriana came to San Francisco in the Fall of 2007 looking to gain more opportunities and enrich her life with new experiences. Coming from small Lebanese village, she wanted to get out of a place where the most common and important job a woman could have was working in a bank. As her childhood friends began getting married and having babies at young ages, as was traditional in Lebanon, Adriana dreamt of learning and escaping. After convincing her grandparents, who had raised Adriana and her sisters since their parents divorced and abandoned their children more than a decade earlier, Adriana made plans to come to America, leaving her village for the first time in her life.

“I still remember when my grandfather let go of my hand, and said take care of yourself,” says Adriana. “It was weird, seeing tears in my grandparent’s eyes. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my family.” Adriana remembers the day she said goodbye to her home. Standing in Beirut International Airport, Adriana gathers her sisters close for a final embrace. Kissing each of their cheeks in turn, she then turns to face her grandparents. Choking back tears, she hugs the two people who have raised her, loved her, and have always been there for her throughout her life. Staring into the glassy green eyes of her grandfather, and teary brown ones of her grandma, Adriana feels her own face become damp. Holding her grandfather’s hand, she says her farewell words, and with the release of their hands, she feels the release of her childhood.

Since her time in the United States, Adriana has been hosted by two different families, who have helped her acclimate to this new culture, support her in her educational endeavors, and provide a financial safety net. Adriana couldn’t be more grateful to those she has met during her stay.

“I am so fortunate to have found a home away from home,” she says as she ties back her dark, spiraling hair into one long tail. “If not for my host families, I would feel so alone here.”

Adriana is now studying International Business at San Francisco State University.  Four nights a week you can find her sitting in the Administration building, calling and attempting to garner donations for the school. The shrill ringing of telephones bombard Adriana’s ears from every direction. The lifeless grey plastic chair on which she sits numbs her brain and stiffens her back. The same over-enthusiastic greeting can be heard exiting the mouths of each worker nearby, “Hello my name is so-and-so and I’m calling from San Francisco State University…” Adriana yawns hugely, twirling a dark curl around a finger glittering with purple nail polish. She checks her list of phone numbers, and resignedly punches in the next call.

Adriana has accepted work as a necessary evil. With living costs in America greater than those in her home country, and with tuition for international students steeper than that of locals, Adriana must work hard in order to financially support herself. “My family in Lebanon cannot support me here, and so I have no choice but to work,” she says. “Coming to the United States was a great opportunity for me, but one that did not come cheap.”

…………

Jamba Juice on Church and Market Streets in San Francisco is overflowing with bodies, the line from the two working cash registers winding like a snake out the single front door and onto the sidewalk outside. The “ping” sound that can be heard over the unintelligible chatter of customers signals the exchange of money, peacefully coexisting with the harsh buzzing of blenders. Guests sport satisfied smiles as they exit the store, sipping pink, yellow, and green liquids that go by such names as “Razzmatazz,” “Banana Berry,” and “Mango-a-go-go.”

Behind the scenes, wearing a forest-green apron and black hair net over her long, dirty blonde hair, Rachel Young scoops up strawberries in preparation for a smoothie, followed by bananas, then peaches. For four hours a day, up to five days a week, Rachel eats, drinks, and dreams of smoothies.

Like Adriana, Rachel, a junior at San Francisco State studying business, Rachel works hard to pay for school and daily needs. She’s spent each year of her college career acting as what she titles a “smoothie slave.” And like Adriana, she’s resigned to the fact that working is necessary, especially in recent times with the cost of education steadily increasing.

“School has become so expensive,” says Rachel, as the quad on the SFSU campus is reflected out of her neon green sunglasses. “It’s really terrible. And there would be no way for me to afford it plus living unless I work.”

With her cherub cheeks and summer blue eyes, Rachel resembles her mother as a young woman. She recalls a favorite childhood memory; playing at the park on sunny spring afternoons. Rachel is a bouncy five-year-old, her long pigtails soaring like kites as she flies back and forth on a swing. Her bubbly giggles seep into the smooth, crisp air, merging with the deep, silky laugh of her mother. Together, they swing and swing until the blazing yellow sun sets out to sleep.

Rachel and her mother had only each other while Rachel was growing up, with her mom working two, and sometimes three jobs in order to support her daughter. Rachel credits her mom with her own work ethic.

“My mom definitely taught me what it means to work hard and earn your own way,” says Rachel, pulling on navy blue cardigan over a gray, floral-printed tank. “My mom couldn’t afford to send me to school on her own, which is why I work so hard to be here. I want to make her proud.”

Rachel sits in a small, hospital white room in the Business building at SF State. Her head wobbles and rolls and the dull droning of her professor shoots waves of fatigue through her body. The tick-ticking of the uniform clock suddenly becomes meaningful as the hand lands at 3:25 p.m. Class is over. Rachel grabs her grape-colored backpack, and rushes out to catch the  bus. Work starts at 4:15 p.m. Sharp. Sitting on Muni, she pulls out her hairnet and apron, prepping for yet another day on the job.

Tomorrow, it’ll all start over.

…………..

Students like Adriana and Rachel work hard as they try to remain financially in stride with the ever increasing tuition of California higher education. November of 2009 saw a 32 percent undergraduate tuition hike for the state’s students, put into effect by the California Board of Regents. This past November, just one year after this staggering raise, the California State University Board of Trustees voted on an additional 10 percent rise in tuition for the 2011-2012 school year, while simultaneously instituting a 5 percent mid-year fee increase. These seemingly indefensible monetary swells have led to student protests up and down the state, on university campuses and at the state capital as well, as students attempt to fight for their education.

“I’ve participated in a couple of marches protesting costs,” says Rachel. “It’s unbelievable really, the continuous increases in tuition. And it’s sad that working students like me are forced to work that much harder to maintain our education.”

…………

The black flowers covering Bree Ryan’s twin-sized bed match the color of the sky peeking through her window. The soft silver light of the moon illuminates her sleeping face as the Office theme song chimes through the speaker of her iPhone. Bree throws one arm out towards her nightstand, desperate to shut off her alarm and pretend that it isn’t actually time to leave the warm comfort of her bed.

Reluctantly opening her olive-green eyes, she checks the time; 5:45 a.m. A tiny whimper escapes her small, light pink lips in protest of being up before the sun, as she heads into her paper white bathroom to brush her teeth, comb her dark brown hair with blonde highlights, and apply teal shadow to heavy lids of her eyes.

She has to be at work by 7 a.m., the same time she must be there four other days of the week. Muffins, coffee, and sandwich-making await her at the Station Café at the top of the SFSU campus, where she has been gainfully employed since her arrival at the university.

Bree Ryan with her mom and younger sister as they move Bree into her first San Francisco apartment.

Bree is a third-year transfer student studying political science at SFSU, hailing from Bakersfield; and Las Vegas, San Diego, Tucson. After the death of her father from cancer when she was just six-years-old, Bree‘s mother frequently moved her and younger sister to new cities, never being able to find a place that felt like home without the family’s center.

For Bree, this meant new school after new school after new school; and countless after-school jobs as soon as she reached the age of 15. Target, McDonald’s, and Starbucks have all employed Bree at one point or another, to name a few. Bree has spent much of her life working hard to help support her family after the loss of her father, as her mom struggled under the income of a single parent to take care of her two daughters.

“I’m no stranger to working, that’s for sure,” says Bree, her full cheeks glowing rosily from the brisk, cool breeze. “I’ve always supported myself, because as hard as my mom works, we’ve always struggled with money. Coming to college hasn’t changed this, and with school being so damn expensive, I’ve gotta work even more.”

The squeak of sneakers moving on the shining hard wood floor echo off the bleachers and surrounding white walls of the gym. The stench of sweat hangs in the warm, stuffy air as the slap of palm against ball can be heard amongst the chattering of voices and shrilling of whistles.

Bree stands on the sidelines in a grey-collared shirt and black yoga pants, calling out points and fouls as she watches the ongoing volleyball match. She can be found in this exact spot three nights a week, refereeing intramural volleyball for up to four hours. As she lifts her sparkling silver whistle up to her lips with her left hand, she simultaneously uses her right to wipe the gleaming perspiration off her forehead.

In order to keep up with the rising costs of education, and simply to afford going away to school, Bree has to hold down two jobs. With early mornings spent at the café, late nights at the gym, and those hours in between dedicated to classed and studying, Bree has become used to running on little to no sleep.

“It’s exhausting sometimes, I’m not going to lie,” she says, as she gingerly sips on a Diet Coke. “I’ve gotten used to it, though. I mean, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. And I know in the end it’ll be worth it.”

………….

Adriana, Rachel, and Bree are among a growing percentage of employed college students. According to a survey conducted in 2007 by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 45 percent of full-time undergraduates were working while enrolled. For those part-time students, this rate jumped to 80 percent. The number of hours students are working has increased over the past few years as well. Those working less than 20 hours per week has declined 15 percent, according to the same survey, while those working 20 hours or more has increased 21 percent. Today, one in ten employed full-time students is working 35 hours or more a week.

Research has revealed as well that the amount of hours students work affects both their academic and social experiences. According to an article published in May of 2005 by the Indiana Project on Academic Success, 50 percent of employed students are working enough hours to hinder their studies, including grade point average.

Enough hours seems to be 20 or more, according to studies, with these students having lower GPAs, and showing fewer interactions with faculty and lower quality peer relationships.

Students working less than 20 hours however, have been found to maintain higher GPAs than those working 20 hours or more, as well as than those completely non-working students.

Whatever statistics show, the fact remains that working and studying together takes its toll on students. “There are definitely sacrifices that have to be made,” says Rachel, the sun shining off her hot pink fingernails as she scratches her cheek, “I miss out on a lot activities, and sometimes don’t have as much study time as I’d like to. But working is necessary for me to even to be here so I’m okay with it.”

Bree agrees: “Working two jobs and going to classes is definitely tiring, and sometimes I might feel like I’m missing out on the full college experience because of it. But really, I’m just grateful to be here.”

The words “college,” “students,” and “poor” have become synonyms for one another is recent decades. This unfortunate truth can be related back to the rising costs of higher education; tution, books, housing, etc.

At SFSU, “poor college students” find themselves losing even more money due to living in one of the most famous -and expensive- cities in the world. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment per month in San Francisco is $1,300, a two-bedroom is $1,600, and a three-bedroom is $2,100.

Compared to the national medium, the cost of utilities in the city is 7 percent higher, transportation 11 percent, groceries 16 percent, and housing is 172 percent higher. By way of comparison, Phoenix’s cost of living is 39% below that of San Francisco, Miami’s is 34%, Anchorage 22%, Knoxville 45%, and Dallas is 43%.

Overall, the cost of living in San Francisco is 62 percent above the nation’s average; a not-so-optimistic statistic for those “poor college students” hoping to live and work in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.People and students especially who dream of attending college in one of the United State’s largest and most popular city must be financially prepared the city’s inflated cost of living and education; or prepare to work very hard.

……………

Monday. 12:50 p.m. Caitlin Martinez slowly, meticulously ties the faded white laces of her black Converse sneakers. Standing up, she stretches her arms towards the ceiling, where multicolored paper lanterns hang amusingly.
She gathers up every last piece of trash left over from the BLT she adoringly ate for lunch, checking, then double-checking the black coffee table for left-over crumbs.
It’s 12:52.
Grabbing her floral-printed purse, she looks inside at the contents; wallet, lip gloss, keys, hand sanitizer, cell phone. Wait. Is my wallet in there?
12:53. Yes.
Sighing, closing her golden-almost hazel-eyes she takes a deep breath as she steps down from her third-story apartment to make the short walk to her work, which she begins sharply at one.

Caitlin Martinez works as a student assistant in the Student Services building at SFSU.

A senior at SFSU, Caitlin works as a student assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs in the Student Services building on campus. Coming from a single income family, Caitlin’s mother and father have spent the past four years struggling to put both her and her older brother through college.

After her mother received a pink slip from the Stockton Unified School District in 2007, she has since become a devoted homemaker, though that loss of income has been greatly felt by the family’s finances.

Caitlin’s father, a worker for the Union Pacific Railroad, has been devotedly working overtime in recent months to make up the loss, but with two kids in college, it’s been difficult.

“My poor dad,” says Caitlin. “It breaks my heart how much he works but he does it for us. I’m so thankful for him, but I know I need to do my part, now more than ever.”

The beep of the elevator as it reaches each new floor causes Caitlin’s heart to accelerate in unwanted anticipation. Two… BEEP…Three. Tugging at her blue and purple plaid button up, tucking her wavy bark-colored hair, she steps gingerly out onto the fourth floor.

She is greeted with SFSU banners on the white wall directly in front of the elevator’s steel gray doors, arranged in various patterns meant to exude school pride to all who pass.

Passing two bold red lounge chairs and a more subdued navy couch, Caitlin sets her purse down under her neatly organized desk, and prepares to spend the next four behind it.

The phone rings and to Caitlin’s sensitive ears, the sound resembles sharp nails on a chalkboard. Vice President, Dean of Student’s office. This is Caitlin. How may I help you? Oh, you’re here for your appointment? The vice president will be right with you. Yes, of course I can take a message.

The beeping of the elevator right across the hall, the ringing of the phone, dial-tone of the fax machine, constant mumbling of voices…

These phrases and noises consume Caitlin’s life for 20 hours every week. Her job as a student assistant for the vice president of student affairs may not be particular enjoyable for her, but the check she receives on the 15th of every month keeps her motivated.

“Being a secretary isn’t my dream job or anything, so no, I don’t necessarily like it too much,” says Caitlin. “But any job is better than no job. And right now just having some sort of income to help pay for school is the most important thing.”

 Caitlin is looking forward to graduating at the end of May however, but now her biggest concern is paying back the $20,000 in student loans she was forced to borrowed.  And she’s not alone. Higher education has increased so dramatically in the past two decades that not only do students have to worry about working while studying in order to pay for their education but also paying back the debt they will inevitably find themselves buried in come graduation.

In the 2007-08 school year, two-thirds of students graduated from a four-year university carrying some amount of debt forward with them. The average student loan debt of this graduating class was $28,000. This figure had increased by 5.6 percent, or roughly $1,200 in just four years, since the 2003-04 school year. More than 50 percent of recent college graduates end their college education with some form of debt derived from student loans.

………………..

Jana Howarth lies on the dampened cement tinted silver in the moonlight. Scraping at the dirt on her face, running her fingers through her tangled, mud-colored hair she counts coins out of a plastic cup on the sidewalk. The streets are dead, everyone tucked cozily into their homes. Jana sits in within the flimsy confines of a cardboard box, a scarce barrier between her grimy skin and thin layers of ripped cotton.

A moth-eaten sleeping bag lies across the wet ground, providing little comfort from the brisk winter air.  A half-empty water bottle and carton of charitable left-overs sit sadly in a corner. Five years ago Jana was graduating from college, looking forward to a bright future. But the declining economy and less-than-stellar job market had different plans.

Well, that may not be real. But the fear of it, irrational as it may be, sure is. Yes, I am Jana. A soon-to-be college graduate who is preparing to battle today’s unstable job market. Like Caitlin, worrying about the repayment of my student loans is beginning to weigh heavily on my mind.

And like Adriana, Bree, and Rachel, I too have worked throughout the entirety of my college career to afford my higher education. Also coming from a one income family, my family has struggled for the past decade to make ends meet, with  my mother, our primary bread-winner, working full-time in retail to support our family. Hard work and student loans have allowed me to attend college, but in light of recent disappointing employment rates, an almost college graduate like myself can’t help but experience ridiculous nightmarish thoughts about ending up on the streets; broke, homeless, and alone.

Bright sunlight beams softly down onto the little girl’s oval face, the blunt layer of brown bangs dancing merrily across her forward the light spring breeze. Jana rushes out of the classroom in a stampede of students as the bells shrillsloudly through ears decorated happily with leaping blue dolphins.

She hops toward the street on glittering purple Jelly sandals. She spots the worn out, black Aerostar van and the woman with black hair as short as a boy’s leaning lightly against the hood. Her pace quickens and she is scooped up against plum shirt, giggles escaping as fingers dance along her ribs. She’s with mom now and all is right with the world.

My mother’s dedication to her family and awesome work ethic have inspired me throughout my life, and have kept me driven during my college career. My hero, my mother, has always financially helped me as much as she could, but it just isn’t enough.

“I wish I could help my daughter more, it breaks my heart,” Janice Howarth sighs as she plays with a gold stud in her right ear. “I wish our income was larger, but I’m so proud of how hard she’s worked and her college education.”

Working all four years as a teacher’s aide at a local Mission preschool called Buen Dia Family School, I’ve been challenged but the income pays for the education I was studying to receive and studying to receive the education I was working to pay for.

The lifetime experience received from both, however, will be an invaluable skill in the future, and will one day work to further my career.

Jana Howarth poses with a child at her work, Buen Dia Family School.

The late August sun warms Adriana’s face as she steps into the bustling SFSU quad. It is the first day of school, Adriana’s first day of college in America, and she is stepping onto campus as a student for the first time. She hikes her purple backpack with white polka dots higher onto her shoulder, and smiles as she looks around the busy campus with its lush green lawns and rushing, talking, and laughing students going about their days. She smiles and begins to walk towards the business building in her candy cane red flip flops and matching v-neck. She is thinking, Today is the first day of her brand new life.

By Jessica Heller

On Fillmore Street at the corner of Fell Street, a neat yellow brick building dominates most of the block. Four rounded columns frame three pink doors. Angry, red NO TRESSPASSING signs adorn each of the doors. The windows that aren’t obstructed by plywood are intricate stained glass. Pink, green, yellow, purple and blue glass are encrusted with dust. The lead in between has turned from a once bright black to a powdery silver. In some places the glass is broken or tiles are clearly missing.

The bricks and glass and plywood are a shell of what was once the heart of the surrounding community. Sacred Heart Parish sits on a hill overlooking the Fillmore District, Western Addition, Hayes Valley and Alamo Square, and was completed in 1898. The Italianate building, designed by once-famed architect Tomas John Welsh, was home to a large and thriving congregation for more than 100 years.

We enter through a padlocked garage door, and venture into a dark passageway. A rough hand belonging to Kevin Strain, a friend of the owner of the building, flips a breaker and the garage springs into light. A city-issued work permit lies on the dusty concrete floor. The same rough hand reaches up onto a makeshift metal shelf and hands me a hard hat. We are entering a building deemed too unsafe for public use.

We cross the threshold from the garage and enter a dark, wood paneled hallway. Bead board and crown moldings still cling to the dirty walls. As we walk, his dirty work boots beat the ground and echo.

In his own right, Strain is an experienced landlord, real estate entrepreneur, ranch hand and cowboy. The off-white 10-gallon hat that was on his head when we first shook hands outside is still pulled down low over his eyes. He never replaced it with the awkward, dusty hard hat he handed me. For him, it was an unnecessary precaution.

“I’ve been a landlord in this city for 25 years. This is nothing,” he says as I try to genially pick my way past deserted wood, pails and garbage. My grey Converse shoes aren’t as up to the task as his work boots. “I was in here before they started stripping it. Back when people still thought the city would intervene and deem this place to be a historic landmark. Now look at it. Rat droppings in a church. Watch your step.”

So that’s what the smell is. I had noticed it the moment I set foot inside, but hadn’t said anything. Strain explained that it was a combination of the droppings, the poison designed to kill the rats, and the accumulation of dust in the shuttered building. When I take the time to focus, among the dust and papers on the ground, are small pellets—and I’ve been stepping in them.

Red, blue and white electrical wires protrude violently from the walls where sconces and lamps once hung. Strain walks us through a plywood door at the end of the hall marked MAIN in messy, black spray paint. The original door, like the sconces, is missing.

We have reached what was once a grand worshiping space. The room is enormous. The ceiling is high, and is obscured by the lack of light and what appears to be a net hung around it. In good light it would be obvious that the high ceiling is covered in a chipping mural. The mural was painted in 1920s by the muralist Achille G. Disi. The mural was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prietta Earthquake, and had to be netted to help preserve it.

An organ, which is also missing from the room, once dominated the rear of the church. Before it was illegally removed, the organ had sat silent for nearly 20 years. Parishioners were concerned that playing the giant instrument would further damage the fragile ceiling.

The hardwood floors are mostly intact and the stained glass is still beautiful when it’s illuminated. Light trickles in from gaps in the plywood on the outside and through higher, unprotected windows. The raised altar at the opposite end of the room is bare except for dust and rat droppings.

“Hey!” Strain yells. He’s forgotten my name, and I realize I’ve begun to lag behind. “I told you to keep close. Now, take a look at the floor. It’s scarred, see?” He uses his boot to kick around some dust and random debris. He reveals a foot-long rectangular shaped opening in the wood floor. The boards surrounding it are marred with deep scratches. Some have been pulled up and broken in the process. Someone hacked up the floor here. Six feet away, another wound. They’re everywhere.

“They pulled the pews up for auction. Didn’t do it nicely either. Everything that could go did. Couple hundred pews I think. Same with the doors, altar, trim, everything. When this place gets knocked down, the bricks will get sold too.”

If he feels sad, he doesn’t show it. This is business. If the building should have been saved, it’s the city’s fault. Instead, the city rejected designating the church a historically significant site and demanded that it be brought up to modern building and safety standards.

On Dec. 27, 2004, the priests at Sacred Heart conducted their last mass. Although the congregation prayed for divine intervention to save their beloved church, no help came. The church was in need of major upgrades and earthquake retrofitting that would have cost the parish over $8 million. Instead spending the money to save one of two churches of its kind in California, the Catholic Archdiocese closed Sacred Heart and sold the building.

In July 2005, a San Francisco lawyer named Fred Furth bought the troubled building for $5 million. The goal was to have the church designated a historic landmark, which would lead to the allocation of funds for some of the improvements. The rest of the repairs would be paid for through donations. In the end, even Furth’s efforts proved futile, and the building has sat vacant ever since.

“This is really just a big, fat, unfortunate mess,” said Jeffery Heller, the chief financial officer and one of the founders of the architecture firm HellerManus. The firm has worked on many historical preservation projects in San Francisco, including the preservation or San Francisco’s City Hall and the Columbarium, which is a domed building in the Inner Richmond that serves as the final resting place for the ashes of some of the city’s most famous and well-to-do residents.

“What happened with the church is really difficult. No one counts on all these things going wrong, but with such an old building, and the city’s reputation for barring construction it happens. These things go wrong, but with such an old building it’s going to end up costing someone a lot.”

After the auction, Furth was contacted with the possibility that Sacred Heart could, in fact, be eligible for historical salvation. But, now the church would be missing many of the elements that make it historical and beautiful. Two rose windows were sold, along with at least one of the original intricate marble altars. The inside of the parish was literally stripped.

According to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, no permits were issued by the city for the removal of anything inside of the church. Instead, a Stop Work Order was posted by the San Francisco Department of Inspection. From the inside of Sacred Heart, it appears that if any such order was issued it was subsequently ignored.

Groups that had tried in vain to save the site were dumbstruck by the auction, especially the group Save Our Sacred Heart, which spearheaded the preservation of the site. The group includes lawyers, architects, preservationists, historical society members, parishioners and friends of the church.

The group’s website quotes the Department of Building Inspection’s Deputy Director Ed Sweeney as saying that workers disobeyed the Stop Work Order and went to work during the weekend, crated everything up and off-hauled it. They took the altar, statues, pews, the organ, two windows.” The group states that within the marble alter were certified saint bones.

In a move that stunned both sides, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to support the preservation of the church on November 16, 2010. Along with it, the board would investigate and direct the City Attorney’s Office to pursue appropriate enforcement measures against the owner for the unlawful sale of pieces of the church.

When the vote was taken no public comment was allowed, but Tara Sullivan from the city’s Planning Department spoke in favor or preserving the church’s historical significance. Because of the ongoing investigation, and the possibility that the city may eventually choose to file a criminal case against Furth, none of San Francisco’s supervisors would comment on the status of these various responses.

Michael Covarrubias, the chairman and chief executive at TMG Partners and also a member of the Land Use Committee in San Francisco, would only say that what happened at Sacred Hear is an example of the “unfortunate nature of red-tape.”

Today, Sacred Heart is still vacant, its future uncertain. Sure, the Board is going to look into it. Eventually. In the meantime, the parish church, like many other buildings in San Francisco, is stuck in limbo. It has experienced a fall from grace.

In the Beginning

They were swimming in the scent of roses when hatred bloomed.  The grandson led the way, trailed by family members with egg salad sandwiches and pasta salad that had been drenched in olive oil, leaving smears across the oversized bowls.  Hand-in-hand the grandfather took his growing grandson to the edge of the park flourishing in bursting red tulips and “All-American” rose gardens at Gage Park. The humid Topeka heat left the boy, Josh, with a the kind of fever only a five-year-old can have for the welcoming green of the soft cooling blades of grass.  He pressed his grandpa to move faster and faster, making his grandfather’s ten-gallon hat nearly topple from his head.  As the dry hot pavement of the sidewalk began to end, the meadow’s promising magic became more and more real. The grandfather, now becoming more conscious of his cultivating years, attempted to keep the pace but finally submitted to his tired bones.  The boy didn’t notice that he had left his grandfather behind as he took flight into the openness of the field.

The boy swept through the grass with a squeal.  His cousins and siblings raced toward with their bikes and kites as his mother, Shirley, attends to her other 10 children.  The massive lot swelled in the park as other families looked back for only a quick glance, for this was the family that everyone would talk about after church services and at the water cooler. If not for the colossal size of the bloodline, the family was always known for being the subject of controversy in Topeka.  Grandpa Fred, a preacher and civil rights lawyer, was praised for bringing down Jim Crow laws in the city but his fiery brimstone sermons had left many in the town fearful of his Calvinist comments of a sweltering torturous eternity, leaving the entirety of the family as social exclusions.

You wanna go to hell? -Fine.  I love it.  I love the thoughts of you going to hell. I’ll be playing close attention to you brother, sister, in hell.  As the eternal ages roll by I’ll be watching you suffer and all the nuances of your exquisite torment and pain and how you do.  Eternity you know, is a long time.  I’ll be watching you…I’ll be watching you.

But for today, the cerulean sky and fragrance of blossoms played as peacekeepers to any feuds or disagreements.

Josh, named after the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses, was unaware that he had wandered from the family.  Intoxicated by the warmth of the day, he meandered through the grass kicking up anthills and diving for grasshoppers.  His trance was halted though,when his small eyes caught the last moment of a shadow brushing across a tree.  He looked back for his grandfather.

Now realizing he was alone, he braced himself for the anger and consequence of his poor decision. But instead of being confronted by the scratchy low bellowing of his grandpa he was faced with another man, a stranger.  The man said nothing as he looked at the lone boy, but the scene shouted danger.

The grandfather, now hurriedly searching for his young grandson, caught sight of the boy and froze.  The boy, now inching closer and closer to the man in the shadowy trees and concealing bushes, made slow motions toward the uncertainty.  Hatred took over the man and that small boy and all those near them.

The ordinary person doesn’t know what the fags do and what their agenda is.

The ordinary person thinks that their just simple hearted, sincere, friendly people that are being mistreated and bashed and who need the protection of the law so therefore they won’t be bashed.

            After several claims of his young grandchildren being “accosted” by gay men in the shrubbery of Gage Park, including an accusation that young Timothy Phelps was literally chased by two men through the park, Fred Phelps took the issue to the local government.

Harry “Butch” Felker responded to Phelps and thanked him for his “colorful” letter describing the perversions that took place in the park, and said a program would be implemented to ensure that the impending danger the Phelps described would not continue to be a disturbance.

Because it is listed as a “cruisy” area in the Damron address book, a list of gay-friendly locations throughout the United States, Phelps criticized the park acting as a “safe house” to homosexual activity. After two years of waiting for action, stewing in hatred for the men who frequented the wooded area at the southwest corner of the park, Phelps disgusted silence became too much to stomach.

 

 

Watch your kids! Gays in the restrms

The posters littered the park.  In colorful large fonts they stung the consciences of those who passed, leaving them in either fear or outrage.   In an effort to wake up the local government to the promiscuity of Gage Park, in 1991 the Fred Phelps family, his 13 children, his grandchildren and great grandchildren took up arms to begin “The Great Gage Park Decency Drive” that cluttered every open space available at the public park.

The campaign aimed to clean out the “Sodomites rats nest” that infiltrated the family area.  But as the local churches and God’s law became more and more involved in discussion of the campaign, the family of the Westboro Baptist Church made a bold move in bold letters.

GOD

HATES

GAYS

“It’s catchy and it’s easy to put on a sign because all the words are small.” -Timothy Phelps

Brutality

It is unknown what the boy saw before he lost consciousnesses.  It could have been the glorious view of the starlit sky in the empty fields, the crisp chilled autumn air and the familiar musky smell of cattle.  His mother, Judy, and father, Dennis, and the community of Laramie, Wyoming would like to believe in the picturesque scene as the boy’s last.

But he suffered.  He likely endured freezing cold temperatures that pierced the open bleeding wounds of his crushed skull, made by the back of his attackers pistol, and waited in vain for his murderers to find mercy.

Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was robbed and viciously beaten in the silence of the dark Wyoming night October 7, 1998.  His defenseless limbs were found bound to a fence in the barren pasture making him appear as a bloody scarecrow to the cyclist who found him nearly 18 hours later.

Matthew’s small body drooped over the wood in an unnatural inhuman fashion.  When the ambulance reached his powerless frame, Shepard’s body was covered in semi-dried blood, all but his face, which was washed by salt tears.

He suffered fractures to the back of the skull and right ear, more than ten lacerations to the face, neck and head as well as severe brain-stem damage.  Shepard had been unreservedly abused and tortured by 21-year-olds Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson.

For Henderson and McKinney, the robbery was effortless.  They told their girlfriends that they planned to rob the young gay man after Shepard came on to them, to teach him a lesson. What kind of strength could a gay man, a sissy, a queer, a faggot have, they thought.

After allegedly “pretending to be gay,” the two offered Sheperd a ride home from the local Fireside bar.

Robert Debree: What did he look like?

Aaron McKinney: Mmm, like a queer.  Such a queer dude.

Robert Debree: He looks like a queer?

Aaron McKinney: Yeah, like a fag, you know?

McKinney and Henderson later claimed the “gay panic” argument, explaining that because they were so uncomfortable with the notion of a man being attracted to them that were launched into a hyper-masculine heterosexual rage that led them to barbaric actions.

Aaron McKinney: Blacked out. My fist. My pistol. The butt of the gun. Wondering what happened to me. I had a few beers and, I don’t know. It’s like I could see what was going on, but I don’t know, it was like somebody else was doing it.

McKinney and Henderson then took Shepard out into the prairie.  They dragged him through dust and screams to the fence where they tied him to the splintering wood.  Shepard coughed out debris as his dry voice filled with fear shouted in grief.  With each shuddering vibration from contact between closed fist and Shepards bones, they felt more of a man.

They began to laugh at Shepard’s defenselessness as his bright face and blonde hair became suffused with blood.  He would learn. Grazing cattle looked on, perhaps noting their fate would not include such brutality.

Then the laughter halted.  They had gone too far.  But they continued beating him until Shepard was no longer identifiable. Shepard’s shrieks of unbearable pain were unlike any sound his murderers had ever heard in their short lifetimes, and it invoked a human horror in the assaulters that provoked a swift exit.

They took Shepard’s shoes and left the robbery-assault with a grand total of $20. As they dashed to leave, Shepard pleaded for his ailing life. The horrendous helplessness of Shepard caused Henderson to take the last look back at something that was suddenly not a man at all, but a mash of bloodied flesh hanging from a ranch fence.

The headlights of McKinney’s pickup created a glisten of the crimson blood flowing from Shepard’s veins until he was left in the bellowing darkness.

Dr. Cantway: Ah, you expect it, you expect this kind of injuries to come from a car going down a hill at eighty miles an hour. You expect to see gross injuries from something like that – this horrendous, terrible thing. Ah, but you don’t expect to see that from someone doing this to another person.

He was rushed to the hospital but never regained consciousness. The damage to his brain stem was too severe to maintain life. Shepard kept his shallow breaths through life support until he was pronounced death five days later on Oct. 12, 1998.

 After Death

Matthew Shepard’s death commanded the attention of the nation.  Though in the past, the policy received little attention, it became widely known and widely opposed, that the United States government could not define Shepard’s murder as a hate crime.  Crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not grounds for prosecuting such a heinous action as one driven by homophobic hatred.

But bill after bill became a failure.  Wyoming House of Representatives and former president Bill Clinton attempted to expand the definition to gay men and lesbian women in 1999, but legislators could not see the reasoning.

Though hatred was not acknowledged in Congressional debates, pure hatred was unmistakably in attendance at Shepard’s funeral.

MATT

IN

HELL

The Westboro Baptist Church was ready and hating at the entrance to the young man’s memorial. And leading the brigade was father and grandfather Fred Phelps in a red, white and blue windbreaker topped with a ten-gallon hat.

No Special

Laws for

FAGS

With death brought the birth of public detestation. The picket of Matthew Shepard’s funeral by the church gained WBC international notoriety as a symbol of disdain and extremism. Their stinging pain singed the tempers of viewers, which was exactly what they had hoped for.

His parents, friends and family passed the neon signs in tears mourning for the love they had lost in Matthew.

“WBC picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, to inject a little truth and sanity into the irrational orgy of lies consuming this world. WBC does not support the murder of Matthew Shepard,” the WBC website said after the picket. “However, the truth about Matthew Shepard needs to be known. He lived a Satanic lifestyle. He got himself killed trolling for anonymous homosexual sex in a bar at midnight. Unless he repented in the final hours of his life, he is in hell.”

The church touts they have done more than 30,000 pickets in all 50 states. Despite uproar at the violation of the privacy of mourners, the pickets are protected by federal free speech laws.

The church, comprised mostly of members of the Phelps family, sent a wave through American society by providing a modern visual of the extremism that keeps civil rights at bay.

The Laramie Project first premiered at a Denver theatre in February of 2000, recounting hundreds of interviews to describe the torture and reaction to the animalistic nature of Matthew Shepard’s death.

Author Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project created the production that struck the spotlight on hate crime legislation in several states while spurring controversy about the 21-year-old’s open sexuality in an effort to heighten the discussion.

The true-life accounts of the witnesses of cruelty and violence in Laramie gained intricate details of the murder that the New York Times and Washington Post had neglected.

The play, however, was banned from performance in high schools throughout the nation.  Teachers lost their tenured positions after handing a copy to their students and drama teachers became inhibited from taking on the controversial topic.

ACT III of the play even gave attention to WBC and provided reactions from the community.

Despite the needed attention from the media, the battle to gain protection for LGBT victims continued to fall short.

During a congressional debate in 2009, Representative Virginia Foxx went so far as to define Shepard’s murder as a simple robbery gone wrong and the idea of his death being an actual hate crime was a “hoax.”

“I also would like to point out that there was a bill — the hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay,” Foxx said. “The bill was named for him, hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”

Judy Shepard was in attendance.

Finally, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act with Judy and Dennis Shepard as guests. More than 11 years had passed since Matthew’s death.

The Laramie Project

The cries of the suffering had deafened her in dreams. The boys, the young men too young to be simply men, who took their own lives to escape from the agony of the daily cruelty. Needless to say, she awoke with a mission.

The taunting of the tortured voices of—Tyler Clementi, 18, plunged into the Hudson River—Raymond Chase, 19, hung himself in the dorms—Asher Bron, 13, shot himself in the head—along with the innumerous lost voices impelled her actions to the stage.  Two years prior, the time was not right to produce The Laramie Project, but with the recent burgeon of LGBT youth suicides, she became unafraid of the spotlight. The teens, at the ages of her students, were bullied by peers to the point of mortification and therefore took their youthful lives.

Trish Buttrill, drama teacher at Gunderson High School, said in years past she didn’t have a group of students who could handle such material. But this particular company had a certain spark that could incite a conversation of hatred, humanity and tolerance.

Though the students were set for production of “Wylie and The Harry Man,” a David and Goliath folktale for children about a boy outwitting a swamp monster,  Buttrill decided inconvenient circumstances would not deter her dedication to end the silence in her community.

“I just woke up one morning and said this is our moment,” Buttrill said of her decision to produce the controversial play. “We dropped everything; I went and bought the script, made bunches of copies and we started the next day.”

Buttrill came to Gunderson after teaching at a magnet school for the arts.  Teens who were taught to demi-plié and ron de jambe in diapers and were austerely trained from the moment they stepped into a high school hallway.

The teens of Gunderson on the other hand were raw, their emotions untouched by formal instruction. Techniques and passions were untamed and their energy contained a magnetism that fades with the endless lessons endured for the love of stage mothers.

The students of Gunderson High School had been waiting for the opportunity, the challenge, to take on a more serious production, and when Buttrill presented the opportunity to address the recent mushrooming of LGBT suicides by producing the Laramie Project, they unreservedly accepted.

“We grow some great kids here,” Buttrill smiled alluding to the lines repeated in Act II. Buttrill said a community that promoted open dialogue and maturity primed these students.

The adoration Buttrill has for her student’s spills out of any conversation. With each individual pupil, she doesn’t see a slot on the attendance list but a unique mind, a curious soul and an affectionate heart.

There is brightness in Buttrill’s smile that brings warmth and comfort to the most inhibited.  She uses humor whenever possible to embrace happiness and to combat the most dreary of life’s moments. This reassurance was heavily utilized once the students received the lengthy three-act play. Each individual ensemble member would be cast in one to six characters.

“We thought no one would be interested, or it wasn’t the right time to do it,” said Dante Spears who was casted as Conrad Miller, Doc O’Conner and a juror determining the guilt of the two young men responsible for Matthew Shepard’s death.

The idea of producing the controversial play was nerve-wracking already, but the young players were faced with extensive monologues that left them concentrating on the memorization of words rather than the content.

“When they first started out they were wondering why they wanted to do this play,” Buttrill said. “I was discouraged many times, it took a long time for these kids to show that they could really feel it.”

Buttrill began to show videos of the living witnesses of the notorious hate crime, to express the reality of the hatred that possessed the night of October 7, 1998. Buttrill began to create a discussion of real hatred and real people.

Buttrill herself was raised with a generation of silence.  A native of San Diego, she concealed her sexual orientation in a town where women lived as “spinsters” together for years unwilling to reveal their true identities.

“Women I’ve been friends with for years still don’t live openly,” she said. “I’ve even tried to speak with them about it, you know, you can be yourselves with me.”

Women who lived in fear of gossip and controversy ignored her efforts.

Because her teen years lied in the socially progressive decade of the women’s liberation and Stonewall riots that marked a milestone in LGBT liberation, Buttrill believes she benefitted from witnessing movements on the cusp of real change.

Still, when asked what she would have gained if she had the opportunity to perform The Laramie Project in her teen years she remembers the ignominy of her adolescence. She takes a moment of reflection and begins to laugh through tears.

“Oh, I would have saved myself a lot of pain and agony and sadness and shame,” she said.

As the students began to internalize the depth of the hatred that murdered Matthew, the many lines became superfluous and rehearsals began to gain more meaning.  But it wasn’t until hatred scheduled a meeting with the students, did they realize they were part of a movement.

Welcome Hate

 They were coming.

“WBC will picket The Laramie Project, fag propaganda play at Gunderson High School in San Jose, CA to remind this nation that God Hates Fags,” the website stated.

The hateful group that filled the pages with disdain in ACT III became much more existent in the minds of the teens when Buttrill received the message in her inbox.

“When these children die young … their blood will be on your hands,” replied Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps. “When you awake in hell, they will greet you on the streets.”

Though the words of the Phelps family leaves most shocked. Buttrill naturally reacted with laughter.

“They just loved the letter they got back,” Buttrill said of her students. “Perhaps I should take them more seriously but I don’t take them seriously getting that note from her was hilarious to me.”

Buttrill admits that she never thought there would be an argument by producing The Laramie Project.

“I naively thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal because the content of The Laramie Project is so beautiful to me,” she said.

WBC recently issued a statement to all high school students of the United States in the name of God:

“The message is:  every adult in your life has lied to you from birth.  They have taught you that God is a liar and that His commandments are merely suggestions, if that. They told you two lies, to wit:  It is okay to be gay & God loves everyone; ergo, live like the devil himself and you will still go to heaven when you die.  They did that because they hate you.”

The community of Gunderson High School reacted in the same way as Buttrill: with laughter and music.

Law

It was decided there was to be no emotional bias with hate.

When the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court decided March 2 that the Westboro Church and their public actions were fully protected under the first amendment, many in the nation was outraged.

The rights set down by the nations forefathers, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, shielded the church in their protests of soldiers who protected a “fag nation” in a landslide 8-1 vote.

That ruling had come in a case in which WBC had repeatedly picketed veteran funerals to express to the world that the suffering of war was punishment for the United States accepting homosexuals.  In its ruling, the court also reversed a 2007 decision that stated the group had committed invasion of privacy by picketing the funeral of — Snyder.

……………

Numerous LGBT youth were taking their lives in the fall of 2010 due to bullying and family condemnation. Students who lived in fear left this world to escape. Pulling the trigger, jumping, hanging — anything to forget.

Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Program at San Francisco State University found that LGBT youth who are rejected by their parents are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. Young men and women who are rejected by family and peers are also much more likely to suffer from depression and drug abuse.

Studies promoted the establishment of Gay Straight Alliance clubs in order to create safe environments for students who became victimized by their peers.

The parents of Asher Brown, a 13-year-old boy who killed himself after enduring constant harassment from four boys at his middle school, had attempted to contact school administrators prior to his death, as did many parents and terrified young teens throughout the nation. The school did nothing, but after his death claimed they were unaware of Asher being the victim of bullying.

Several witnesses said Asher was harshly ridiculed for years to the point where no one could claim lack of knowledge.

“That’s absolutely inaccurate — it’s completely false,” Amy Truong, Asher’s mother, told reporters. “I did not hallucinate phone calls to counselors and assistant principals. We have no reason to make this up.”

Parents and LGBT activists soon recognized the escalating number of deaths deserved political action realizing that anti-bullying legislation was not extended to LGBT youth.  It took the blood of youth to realize the law was not on their side.

Protest

Music poured from the pavement of New World Drive that night. The small street that led to Gunderson High School was crammed with bodies of young and old, protesting the hatred of WBC. Playful refrains and catchy bridges were necessary to ease the tension of the looming confrontation. Local police were forced to block the small road as Lady Gaga’s hit Born This Way was played again and again; an anthem for the counter protest that brought more than 500.

In the religion of the insecure

I must be myself, respect my youth

A different lover is not a sin

Believe capital H-I-M

The crowd, comprised mostly of students, was doused in rainbows and hearts, teens were dressed in leopard snuggies and sparkled headbands, neon tights and converse that led them to dance and twirl through the asphalt. The officers eyes darted more and more anxiously whenever a wave of excitement ran over the energized crowd.


The local news station dashed past the crowd with camera in hand. With each passing student, a high pitched scream joined with the crowd. I looked around for a moment to see if there was an oversized mascot provoking students to do “the wave” like homecoming games. The light-hearted fun resembled more of a pep rally than a battle between conservative religious values and LGBT rights.

The group fought hatred with humor. Nearly every hand carried a sign deriding the ferociousness of the notorious neon placard signs. While some decided to take on messages of acceptance and ignorance others simply scoffed. Signs touting massages of: My dog hates fags-I pledge allegiance to the fag of the United States of America-San Jose rejects hatred-God loves us all equally.

Veterans, waving enormous American flags, marched down New World Drive and silenced the scene. As they united in protest at the main street of Chenowyth, the crowd applauded and cheered for the men and women.

Curtain call was announced for those who were quick enough to buy tickets to the sold out performance. Because tickets had been sold out for weeks prior, most did not move from their place of protest. The mass of demonstrators moved to the edge of the main street where supporters honked and energy was maintained in a state of elation. Students from another high school gathered with angel wings representing the spirit of Matthew Shepard, an action mirroring the 1998 student supporters at a WBC protest. They sat at the curb in silence, waiting patiently for the ensuing war of words.

Fresno

The license plate was barely visible through the dust it had collected through the miles.  The deteriorated identifier read: Arkansas

The small campaign office had dubbed him Tattooed Knuckles Guy from the moment we set eyes on him.  For of course, every stereotype related to one with permanent ink on one’s knuckles applied. He was crass and intimidating, with an agenda to see us gone, even with empty threats.

I was 18, my partner, Jamie, only 16. He was ill equipped for what was to take place.

I had signed up to be a volunteer with Equality for All after I left my potentially permanent position at Youth for Christ. In a mere six months I had gone from worshipping Him with hands in air and lips singing out the lyrics to MercyMe proclaiming the word of God to standing in front of a Fresno Target in a bold red shirt proclaiming the need for social justice:

STOP

THE

INITIATIVE

I was considered a veteran after 6 weeks, training a newbie from the local Fresno High School to educate others, often in vain, of the oppression of the Limits on Marriage Initiative.

Do you believe in the freedom for gay and lesbian couples to marry?

The lucky were given thin blue ironing boards as tables for their efforts, but today we weren’t so lucky.  We were the least lucky that day.

He’s here.

I’m scared.

Don’t be. He can’t hurt you. The rule is you can’t speak to him.  We’re representing an entire movement in this city, and people are waiting for us to say the wrong thing: especially him. He’s going to heckle us, but whatever you do – DO NOT SPEAK TO HIM.

OK.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry.

Tattooed Knuckles guy set up his table across from us with a scowl.  He was a paid signature gatherer exploited by his lack of income from outside the state and had come to do anything to sell legislation by the signature.

Excuse me ma’am are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter?

My partner hesitantly followed me as we took our places directly in front of Tattooed Knuckles Guy. I had my tape measurer handy knowing I had to be at least three feet in front of his table.  But three feet would all I would be given. Our strategy was distraction, and it worked well.  With a big wave and the most American smile we could shine we began the process of “deflection.”

He locked eyes with a woman leading her red cart out of the air-conditioned department store and into the penetrating dry heat that sizzles the earth of the Central Valley each summer.

Excuse me ma’am are you a registered—

HAVE A GREAT DAY!

The tactic was simple: to interrupt the sales pitch with a sunny greeting. The woman stood in confusion as she hurriedly left the awkward situation.

You know, I’ve been readin’ up on my first amendment rights.

He said with a deep accent that made me envision a cartoon.  His consonants harsh and spiteful were somehow eased with his elongated vowels.

I know ya’ll can hear me. I know. I know you can.  Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here?

He was hushed as to not make a scene of his vulgarities.

No one’s listenin’ to you. What are you even doin’ here you dumb fuckin’ kids? Get home.

I was angry, but I understood.  The campaign had illustrated us as an enemy; intent on taking money from the hard work of the lower class men and women they employed to see cents instead of reason.  I imagined someone walking into my workplace and stealing my proof of work ethic.

We stood in silence.

Excuse me are you regi-

HAVE A NICE DAY!

His anger grew but felt some release as the manager of the Target placed a massive post and sign in front of my face.  The manager set it on the tips of my toes at first attempt but settled to lace it a few centimeters off.

NO SOLICITING

He gave a wink of solidarity at Tattooed Knuckles Guy before dialing the Fresno Police Department to arrest the youth that had harassed his customers for weeks now. I attempt to tell the manager, in the most mature tone of voice of an 18-year-old young woman, that the soliciting he speaks of also applies to the paid signature gatherers and if they stay we stay.  This was a mantra I had developed through the weeks. He shrugged at me with a smile.

I quickly call the lawyer assigned to our local chapter as to save myself from handcuffs again.

In the chaos, I had forgotten my young partner.

HAVE A NICE DAY! HAVE A NICE DAY! HAVE A NICE DAY!

But his words were disrupted with rage, not by those affected, but by a Target shopper.  With camera in hand he snapped picture after picture of my partner and I. Exclaiming he was sick of our obscenity he was sending the photos to the FPD, so our vile immorality would desist.

Sodom and Gomorrah paid for their sins and so will you!

I quickly turned my back to him as my partner’s tears began to flow in an attempt to shield him from the man’s frenzy.

In a fury of God and the love of Christ, he translated his anger to his hands as he struck the small of my back. I hit stonewall.  Above the concrete ringing in my ears I could hear only one voice.

Excuse me ma’am are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter?

Scene

A dozen young cast members, clad in jean and flannel, began various attempts at southern dialects. The first performance of the Laramie Project had attracted a large crowd to Gunderson High School. Though their nerves were about them, the true tension dwelled in the seats.  Mothers scratched at their cuticles when their daughters used the umpteenth swear word of the night, and fathers uncrossed and crossed their legs as their sons took the stage to proclaim their characters’ perspective of the “homosexual lifestyle.”  Little brothers and sisters were left at home.  For such young ages, the parents decided, the subject matter was considered inappropriate. Two teenage girls text friends, their faces light up in the bright blue of their iPhones. As the character of Dennis Shepard, the father of Matthew, takes the stage to address the murderers of his son, the girls quietly giggle about the most recent viral youtube video.

Buttrill watched her students begin their scenes but noticed small differences.

The WBC, notorious for not keeping up with their lengthy picket schedule, had made an empty threat to the children. But despite the church’s absences, the chilling notion of such hatred and Matthew’s memory combined to spark a passionate sentiment.

The doctor’s tears were streaming when she spoke of McKinney in the next room.  Ismahan Chire, casted as a young Muslim feminist, lost herself in her monologue. Only Buttrill and other cast mates realized the anguish she felt as she spoke of the responsibility of society for Matthew’s death.

The bows had been initially staged without youthful tears.

The voice of Youth

7:30 a.m. two queers and a Catholic priest

 

The words incited tension in her muscle each time she uttered.

She hushed the word “queer” for some time before she could build the confidence that her father would not hear her.

He would pass by her door in the morning; her eyes would dart around the room to secure that her script of The Laramie Project was not visible.

Priyanka Rao had emigrated from India where she knew the gay community as an entirely different caste of human.

“I came from a place where I thought is a gay person a whole person? “ she said.

Her father still has no idea his daughter was in a play-let alone cast as a lesbian.

“The thing that made me nervous was more, like, who to tell that I was going to be in this play. Could I tell my grandma?” said company member Beth Reyes. “There were certain people who would question ….. Can I tell those people or those people?”

Theresa Voss, a Roman Catholic, invited her priest and conservative family with a fear that her parish may criticize her for her role in the show.

Gabby Lorenzo hesitated telling her father.

“The play wasn’t difficult,” she said. “The fear was telling my dad because my dad is generally conservative.”

Though Gabby’s father had a positive reaction to the message of the production, others were not so lucky.

“Some of the kids’ parents never saw the play and it breaks my heart,” Buttrill said.

“My parents don’t talk about it; they completely avoid the subject,” said Alexandra Nijmeh who played a narrator.

At 73, her Jordanian father would hear nothing of the subject. Her mother, born in Jerusalem, would often tell Shaela she was not permitted to be friends with young gay and lesbian students.

The play had gained the name “gay play” by peers throughout the high school. As it was meant to be an insult, students would respond with patience.

Patty Boyle endured the constant questioning of his sexuality from peers without being bothered. The bright haired young man, wears his polo collar slightly upturned when he explains that hatred and contempt have become all too easy.

“I think hate is a very strong word and hate is used very lightly,” he said. “If we keep talking about how we hate one another, it’s not going to lead anywhere except down.”

Patty played Aaron McKinney, one of the young men who murdered Matthew Shepard.  While watching her child on stage, his mother said that was the very last time she wanted to see her son in an orange jumpsuit.

“Patty was actually lighter than a lot of us backstage because some of us would have to question do I agree with my character?” Alexandra said.  “Because a lot of us were so close to what we were saying.  I wasn’t sure if this really what I believed.”

Patty said he stood differently, furrowed his brows, puffed his chest out when playing McKinney. A hyper-masculine true-life character who showed little remorse for his heinous crime, some of the ensemble resented McKinney while others took a more sympathetic perspective.

“I didn’t feel sorry for either of them. He had the ability to go back and help him. Someone who feels anything would have not done that,” said Evan Rose, a young actor who played Matt Galloway. “People distance themselves – I think that people who try to be over masculine they have an insecurity within themselves about they’re own masculinity and they’re trying to prove that they’re not homosexual to themselves.”

Though all agreed McKinney’s actions were gruesome, many questioned the origin of the hatred.

“I don’t know if I feel sorry, it’s more remorse.,” said Beth Reyes, Gay Straight Alliance president at Gunderson and member of the cast. “I think it speaks for their society.  I think had Russel Henderson and Aaron McKinney  grown up in a more accepting place and instead of people saying ‘oh it’s a horrible thing to be gay’ they wouldn’t have taken it to the extreme.”

Students remembered scenes of small children from Westboro Baptist Church picketing for hate and became overwhelmed.

“These beautiful little kids and you see their parents they’re feeding them all this hatred,” Theresa said. “You want to blame them as adults but they were really just kids.”

The children are not to blame, the cast decided, but generations and generations of homophobia that has filtered down into the status quo.

“You can only teach your kids what you know, there’s nothing you can, do you can’t go all the way back in history,” Gabby said.

But this generation could be a beckoning light, the cast said. With openness and dialogue, such as The Laramie Project, lessons of  hate can be reversed.

“Doing this show made me think I have my own power and I don’t really need them to support me in what I think,” Shaela said.

Such courage and transformation did not develop dryly. Before shows the cast and director would often become “squishy”, the term the cast used for being emotional to tears. Buttrill remembers many tears of pride and mourning.

At one point of high frustration, with the upcoming opening night, schedules and the doubts of society, Buttrill was left in tears. In a moment of vulnerability, she dipped away from the cast as to not inhibit the casts energy. But she could not hide.  She was embraced by the entirety of the cast surrounding her in the love that she had created in them for themselves and each other. They then cried, squishly, tears of humanity and joy.

“I couldn’t have been prouder, I’m going to get all teary about it,” she said through watery eyes. “It was a big deal, it was a big deal. I just love them. They’re just remarkable.”

 

A Radio Evangelist’s Final Days

By Alberto Penalva

Harold Camping looks down at his watch and is ready. It is 5:15 p.m. and his radio show is going to begin in 15 minutes. He sits on a chair from Ikea in the middle of a set, in the corner of the studio, designed to look like your grandparent’s living room. The set is adorned with cheesy paintings of ships sailing along the ocean, seashells on shelves, family photos in frames next to wide leather-bound books. The room is even replete with fake ficus plants along the two perpendicular walls.

Harold Camping leans his thin head back against the back rest and closes his eyes. At 89 years old, he needs to rest up as much as possible throughout the day to make it to his radio show, Open Forum. The show is held every day from Monday to Friday at 5:30 p.m. until 7. The show airs over the radio, while simultaneously being filmed in the Family Stations, Inc. studio for later distribution.

He sits holding the Bible open in his frail hand, talking slowly and sonorously, his large ears like angel wings sticking out on the side of his head, and the skin of his neck sagging down with 89 years of age. His tan coat hangs limply on his thin shoulders. Camping’s rheumy eyes dart from camera to camera as he waits to address the callers.

Harold Camping believes that Jesus Christ will make His return on May 21, 2011 and that the world will end on October 21, five months later. He’s sure of it this time. When he made the prediction back in 1992 that the world was going to end in 1994, he wasn’t completely comfortable making it because the year 2011 seemed more significant. But he quickly got the word out and wrote a book called “1994?” When 1994 came and went without any apocalyptic incident, he chalked it up to not having studied the Bible enough by that point to be completely sure. His follower, Michael Garcia, even brings out a copy of the book and points out that Camping says he may be wrong about his prediction. But this time, things are different. Camping knows he’s correct.

A documentary crew walks in with a duffle bag full of equipment. They talk with the camera man as they quickly set up a camera next to the studio camera. Harold Camping lifts his head and squints through watery eyes at the strangers. He still can’t see clearly so he lifts his hand up to his brow to block the blinding studio spotlights. These must be the British filmmakers that Tom Evans told me about earlier, Camping thinks to himself as they come into focus. He doesn’t acknowledge them.

The Open Forum cameraman walks over to the wall and turns on the air-conditioning to battle the heat from the lights. He looks at his mobile phone for the time and walks over to the phone screener. He makes some jokes while the screener pretends to blast him away with an invisible pump-action shotgun. The cameraman walks over to the camera as a little screen at the base of the set glows blue with the Open Forum graphics zooming in as the show begins. Harold Camping sits up in his chair, straightens his light brown jacket, and props his well-worn Bible on his knee.

“Welcome to Open Forum,” a prerecorded man says to the listeners. “We welcome you to call anonymously to our program and ask questions about the bible with our Bible teacher Harold Camping.”

The cameraman motions to Camping to look at the first camera.

“Hello and welcome to Open Forum,” Camping says. “We’re so lucky to have the chance of continuing our education of the God’s word and his message. Before we begin, I’d like to talk to you about our Family Radio Caravans and the cities they’re going to stop by in.”

Harold Camping lifts up a white sheet of paper and reads, “Cleveland, Ohio. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Morgantown, West Virginia. Washington D.C. New York City. The caravan is really a good opportunity to spread the word of God and get out there and tell people about Judgment Day.”

Camping slowly bends over and slides the paper under his chair. He adjusts himself once again. “Shall we take our first call?”

The phone screener hits a key on his laptop and caller is connected.

“Hello brother Camping,” a voice says through Camping’s earpiece as well as a speaker on the ground next to the monitor. “I’ve got a question about praying to Mary. I’ve got a lot of friends who tell me it is okay to pray to the Virgin Mary like praying to Jesus. I’m just wondering what your opinion is.”

Harold Camping’s narrow, skeletal face makes a pained look. His saggy jowl shakes as he says, “I know there are churches that believe in prayer to Mary or some other people. But they’re wrong. It’s a terrible, terrible idea praying to any person other than God. Thank you for sharing. And shall we take our next call?”

“Hello, Mr. Camping?”

“Yes?” Camping says.

“You know Mr. Camping. I’m so excited for May 21. I keep telling all of my friends, family, and colleagues how excited, how impatient I am for that day. I can’t wait till May 21st comes so people can see what a damn fool you are.” The phone clicks as the caller quickly gets off the air before he can be cut off.

Harold Camping’s face went from glee to sadness during the phone call. “There are a lot of people who are relying on their own thinking when it comes to Judgment day. God has opened my spiritual eyes to see that. It is going to happen. The Bible guarantees it.”

Sad, Camping thought to himself. People were just trying to throw him off. But he’s been hosting the radio show for 50 years now and his days of anger over such a call are over. As Judgment Day approaches, Camping has noticed that the prank phone calls and the non-believers are growing in frequency. This day is an example of that. The phone calls range from questions about the purpose of the galaxy if God was going to end it anyway, to masturbation, in which the caller sounded like he was asking only to embarrass Harold Camping. The most inappropriate question of the night came when a caller asked, “What do you call a Jew burning on a cross?”

Mr. Camping, not hearing the question correctly, assumed the question was about the Romans crucifying Jesus at the behest of the Pharisees. In the middle of Camping’s explanation, the caller yelled out, “A kosher barbecue.” The phone screener quickly cut the caller’s line while Camping continued speaking, oblivious to the joke.

“84 days from now, our whole world is going to fall into collapse,” Harold Camping says a few weeks before that radio program. “I step on a lot of toes. Sometimes they call me a false prophet. They call me Satan. I never feel offended.”

Camping began his broadcasting career in 1961 when he started the Open Forum program on Family Radio. The hosting began after Camping decided to forego a formal master’s education and study the Bible instead.

“At age 35, I liked to study and decided I again wanted to further my education,” Camping says. “I know what my university is going to be, it’s the Bible. For the last 54 years, I’ve been cramming the Bible.”

This Bible study is what Camping claims is the source of his knowledge and gives him the authority to make the judgment day claims.

“It’s from God’s mouth,” Camping says. “God gave the writer the exact words to use. That means the Bible is fantastically authoritative.”

In 1988, he realized after reading the Bible that the age of the churches had ended and God no longer was going to use them. Now he stands holding the Bible open in his hand, talking slowly and sonorously, sounding like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.

“Since then, God has installed Satan in the churches,” he says, wagging his finger. This time, he’s not on air but rather talking to students from the College of Arts in San Francisco who are enrolled in Jessica Ingram’s Interdisciplinary Critique class. “You’re in church worshipping Satan.”

The hour with the students went by quickly as he spoke about the difference between faith and fact using evolutionary science as his example against fact. Camping mentions that human history can only go back 5200 years because that’s how old the oldest man-made objects are. Therefore, Camping argues, any person claiming to know what happened before that is relying on more faith than someone who believes in the Bible.

His lecture on the Bible and his studies continued until Ingram raised her hand after she noticed the time on the wall.

“Can you talk about the nature of prophecy?” Ingram says, cutting off Camping in the middle of his lecture.

“Sure,” Camping says. “God has given us absolute proofs it’s going to happen.”

Camping then talks about how homosexuality is being accepted now even though it has existed all throughout history. He says it’s because the Bible says that near the end of days, the people who are gay will be accepted, and Jesus will make his return.

Camping also talks about the creation of Israel as a nation in 1955 and that being the starting point for the study of the end times. It’s the marker that allows him to do the math from creation to the end of the world. Camping says that creation occurred in 11,013 B.C. Noah’s flood took place in 4990 B.C.

“It’s interesting to note that the span of time between the flood and judgment day is 7000 years,” he says. “Until three years ago, we got magnificent proofs from the Bible. Ever since, it’s been the time of reckoning.”

The reason that Camping has been most vocal about judgment day is that he’s been studying the Bible for the past 54 years. He feels it gives him a different perspective from the theologians.

“Theologians look at the Bible philosophically,” Camping says. “But the Bible was logically built by the people who wrote it using God’s words.”

When asked to explain his error in 1994 about his previous judgment day prediction, Camping offers the figure of Thomas Edison as an analogy.

“When Edison first patented the light bulb, was it perfect?” Camping says. “No. You don’t arrive at perfection. Like Toyota and their gas pedal. Anyone who thinks you’re going to get it right the first time, you’re not.”

But he knows that the big earthquake is going to come this time at on May 21st as each time zone hits 6 p.m. He quotes Revelations chapter 18 saying that plagues, death, mourning, smoke will fall upon the whole world. That there will be weeping, wailing, and the world world will collapse.

“They will stand and know it’s the Day of Judgment,” Camping says. “It will make the earthquake in Japan look like Sunday school. When I think about the end, I tremble. It’s going to be awesome.”

But that’s the literal view of the end times from the Bible.

Professor Mark Miller, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco whose interest includes the religious doctrines of salvation, believes that the Bible can’t be taken literally.

“People will use the Bible for all sorts of things,” Miller says. “It’s a good thing people are concerned about the world. But they’re waiting for an outside force to intervene. It’s about blame. I don’t think his prediction is based on a genuine interpretation of the Bible.”

Camping doesn’t agree. He sees the Bible as a literal authority and is convinced that Judgment Day will take place May 21st.

“In almost all religious traditions, there’s apocalyptic beliefs,” Miller says. “If you feel like things are hopeless, you want to have peace. The kingdom of God is not to be taken literally. I think all things should be put in the realms of relationships and love. Millenarians think about revenge. It’s better to think about restoring love to everyone.”
Harold Camping is not the first person to predict the Rapture down to the hour. The practice of setting specific dates for the Rapture began with William Miller. Miller, at the behest of his followers, was asked to specify when the Rapture was going to take place. He was uncomfortable giving the dates, but he decided to give in and narrow the suspected timeline. A contemporary book quotes him at the time saying, “My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.”

When those dates came and went, with no apparent sign of Jesus, the Rapture, or any heavenly signs, Miller expressed his disappointment and held onto the belief that the Second Coming was on its way. He believed it until his dying day.

One of Miller’s followers even made a further prediction, correcting Miller’s previous attempt, and set the date as October 22, 1844. The day began like any other. The Millerites waited for Jesus’ return all day. As the sun set on October 22, the Millerites began to doubt the prediction. As the sun rose in the morning, many dropped the belief and moved on with their lives. Others attempted to explain that they were wrong and the mistake was in the people who wrote the Bible timeline. The passing of the supposed Second Coming is now known as the Millerites’ Great Disappointment.

William Miller died on December 20, 1849, still convinced that Jesus was going to return imminently.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the Rapture in 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, and most recently 1975 through their Watchtower informational pamphlets. The lead up in 1975 was so big that the church promoted followers to sell off their personal effects and spend the last year on earth preaching their doctrine.

It wasn’t until 1979, after members had sold houses and property in ’75, that the church took any responsibility for being overzealous in its treatment of the end times.

In 1988, Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988. It sold 4.5 million copies. The Evangelical Christian community took him seriously because of Whisenant’s dedication to his cause. Christians prepared for the Rapture and the day came and went. It was a normal day. Whisenant wrote several follow-up books, making further prediction. He was largely ignored at that point.

Numerous groups made predictions in 1993, solely based on the fact that it was 7 years before the year 2000. It would give the Rapture 7 years to play out. 1993 was no different than previous years. Jesus didn’t show up.

Harold Camping made his first prediction in 1994 about the Rapture. But unlike the previous Doomsayers, Camping didn’t necessarily backtrack and justify his dates when Judgment Day didn’t hit. Instead, he points out that he provisioned for it, in case it didn’t happen. Now he’s 100 percent sure Judgment Day is upon us.

The headquarters for all this is a squat, unmarked, dusty green-blue building that sits along a parking lot shared with a sushi bar, grill, and lounge on an industrial road that leads to the Oakland International Airport. The parking lot leads to a chain-link fence with wooden slats, unremarkable save for the barbed-wire lining the top. The fence is motorized, requiring vehicles and employees to have the receiver in order to enter. Visitors are greeted by a motor pool where large trucks, the size of u-haul vans, sit with pictures of the earth from space emblazoned on all discernable surfaces and “Judgment Day is coming May 21, 2011” written all over.

The front door is tinted and unmarked and always locked. There is no doorbell. Instead, a paper sign is taped that reads, “If you would like to enter, please call…” The people who work for Harold Camping always screen visitors before they open the door for them.

To the left, down another hallway, are the kitchen, a warehouse, and most importantly, the television studio. The high-ceilinged studio lies behind double soundproof doors. The wall to the right is painted half blue and half green for the filming and insertion of digital effects into whatever films they wish to produce. To the left sits a circle of chairs with a stool in the middle, set up for talks and lectures.

Static hisses from the speaker on the ground next to the screener’s desk. Outside the set, the screener and the cameraman look at Harold Camping as he awakes and props the Bible open across his lap. It’s another Open Forum Program. Camping takes a sip from his mug, hands trembling as he does, as the hiss turns into a religious song from the local Family Radio station.

Camping clears his throat, the sound reverberating around the room as the screener lowers the volume on his mike. “Good afternoon,” Camping says to the two others in the room. He shields his eyes with his hand over his brow to drown out the glaring lights and looks out to the cameraman.  “How do I sound? Do I sound okay?”

The cameraman gives him the thumbs up and adjusts the cameras. As the hymn ends over the speaker, a voice reads a Bible passage and tells the audience to think about it. He then introduces the Open Forum program and tells listeners to call in and ask Camping their questions.

Camping quickly adjusts his coat and sits up straight his chair. The intro plays on the small screen. The cameraman holds up his hand with four fingers held up and counts down. As he reaches zero, the light atop the camera blinks red.

“Welcome to the Open Forum,” Camping drawls. “Once again we have the grand and wonderful privilege of looking together into the word of God.”

The first caller asks Camping when exactly the world is going to end.

October 21, Camping says. But it begins on May 21st and that’s when judgment catches up.

Yes, but what day? Asks the caller.

It’s a Saturday. Saturday is a special day according to the Bible, Camping says. It’s the day that in the Bible, God stopped saving people.

“Thank you for calling and sharing,” Camping says as he ends the call. “And shall we take our next call?”

All of the calls that day are related to the end of the world. Each caller wants to know how Camping knows, why he’s allowed to know, what will happen when it happens. Camping, in his slow cadence and resounding voice, assures the listeners that there will be a giant earthquake to signal the beginning of the end. Will it happen simultaneously across the globe? They ask.

“Every city and every region is going to have a huge earthquake,” Camping replies. “Maybe it’ll happen at 6 p.m. in one city. That city will experience that earthquake which signals judgment day. It’s going to be a moment of instant death. It’s just going to be horror, horror, horror, horror.”

As the show comes to an end, Camping thanks the screener and the cameraman as he pulls the microphone clipped to his lapel off. He walks off the stage as the lights dim behind him. He walks out the double soundproof doors back into the hallway and makes his way out to his car. He’s going home to study his Bible.

Harold Camping was born in Denver, Colorado on July 19, 1921. He moved to Southern California when he was six. The Bible played an important role in his life from the beginning.

His God-fearing mother took it upon herself to make sure that her son would learn the Bible and be a good Christian boy.

Harold Camping had memorized the first 20 lines of the Book of Luke by the time he was 5 years old in order to recite them in front of the congregation. During Christmas season, she had him learn all of the Nativity verses so that he could recite those as well.

His father was a different sort of Christian man.

“My father was a legalist when it came to the Bible,” Camping says. “He took the Bible literal in the most serious sense. My father didn’t understand salvation but my mother did. But by the time he died, he understood the Bible a little bit better.”

At 19, Harold Camping moved to the Bay Area in order to attend the University of California at Berkeley to study Civil Engineering.

Camping led a simple lifestyle during college. He had no interest in radio. He had no interest in making a lot of money.

“By 1942, I had never spent a nickel for a coke. I had no money for anything. I would go to church Thursdays and Sundays. Then I’d have dinner with a family and get a freebie dinner,” he says with a laugh.

He met his future wife Shirley at church. He saw her, became interested, dated her, and when he was 21 years old, he married her. They have now been married 68 years and she has always supported him in his endeavors.

Harold Camping proudly exclaims that she loves family. They had six children together. They have 24 grandchildren and 38 great grandchildren. She keeps track of all of their names for him.

But Harold Camping saddens when he thinks of his six children.

“Many of my children haven’t accepted the truth,” he says. “God hasn’t opened their eyes. As judgment day approaches, I pray every day that God will open their eyes and they’ll see his truth.”

After college, Camping started a construction company and joined the Alameda Christian Reform Church. He became an Elder and began teaching Bible study classes. But the rules of the church were too confining for what Camping wanted to teach.

“They didn’t want me there anymore,” Camping says. “That’s why they made the rules that you had to be an Elder to teach the adult class and the classes could be no more than 20 people at a time.”

In 1988, Camping decided to leave his church. He left amicably and respectfully from the church and attempted to start his own church with little success. In 2000, when he officially shuttered his latest church, Camping came out and said that the Church age was over. God was done with them.

Family Radio, Inc. began in 1958 when Dick Palmquist came into Harold Camping’s office at his construction company. Palmquist pitched the idea of a for-profit radio station by gathering a group of Christian businessmen to start it.

Harold Camping was intrigued but was wary of the message they were sending if the station was to be for-profit. So he convinced Palmquist to make a deal for a non-profit station dedicated to spreading the word of God where no board member could make a profit.

Camping and his fellow partners then purchased KEAR 97.3 in San Francisco and started Family Radio by playing gospel music and bible readings. In 1959, Camping was asked to get behind the microphone and answer questions about their mission in order to drum up support for the fledgling station.

Harold Camping enjoyed answering questions so much; he started offering advice and had people calling in asking about the Bible. Open Forum was born on that day and has been on the air since. It’s been on for a minimum of 5 days a week, for at least a half hour a night, depending on how busy Camping is. Even when Camping would go on vacation with his family, he would take time out of his day and go to a place with at least two phone booths, in case somebody needed to make an emergency call while he was hosting the show.

It took great discipline to host the show every night, but it helped Camping to learn how to teach the truth.

Harold Camping plans to host his final Open Forum program on Friday, May 20. After 50 years, he knows he’s done his best to spread the word of God and get his message out to everyone who is willing to listen. After that, Camping believes there’s nothing to teach anymore. He will go home to his wife that night and keep studying the Bible.

The next day, May 21st, Judgment Day, he plans on going about his daily routine of waking up, eating a light breakfast, and studying the Bible. When the Universal Time Zone reaches six at the Greenwich Meridian, Harold Camping will be sitting in front of his television in his home, watching as the Great Earthquake strikes each time zone at 6 p.m. local time. Once people see that first earthquake, he knows they’ll start praying. They’ll watch Judgment day as it is televised across the world.

When Judgment day reaches his own time zone, if he is one of God’s saved children, he will take part in the rapture and be lifted up into heaven.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” Camping says. “There will be no sin. We’ll be reigning with Christ. It will be a whole new dimension.”

And as he ascends, body and soul, into heaven, into the white light, Camping knows that it’s to the everlasting glory of God, Amen.

CLEAN STREAK

by Eric Green

The chairs stacked high in the corner of the large conference room seem as if they’re reaching toward the sky-high ceiling as the man moves toward them with a huge dolly to load them onto.  Columns reach toward the arched ceiling, with sunlight shining through each of the one-square-foot glass window panes that add such distinct curvature to the top of the room.  The lights inside of the Sunset Court inside of the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco are eventually turned down as day turns to night, as if a chairperson of the board was about to head to the front of the room and start his PowerPoint presentation at any given moment.

Jason Delgadillo, one of the hotel’s custodial and technical employees, moves the stack of chairs to one side of the room with effortless ease as he preps the auditorium-like room for cleaning.  It’s his job to not only make sure the room is clean enough for the hotel’s upper business-class clientele, but to also ensure the audio and visual technical equipment is set up and ready for use.

“Today really isn’t as bad as other days,” he says with a hint of optimism in his eye, shortly before taking a metaphorical crap on it.   “Sometimes some of the shit that I have to clean up is ridiculous. From food on the ground that’s been mashed into the carpet, to smashed and broken light fixtures, you name it.”

He’s just one of the People Who Clean.  Along with over 2,090,400 other people in the United States, who combined earn $11.60 per hour on average, he has to focus on cleaning up after others people’s messes for work.  Cleaning service is the eighth most populated vocation, according to a 2009 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  According to 23-year-old Delgadillo, custodial work is typically viewed as pretty low on the totem pole of job selection, and unappreciated labor that demands no gratuity when it’s probably the one job that deserves it the most.   It’s coincidental that in the same report, the BLS found that cleaning service is the third most underpaid profession that anyone could choose to pursue.

The People Who Clean are the people who make the world turn.  They’re the people who take the time to make sure everyone else’s lives are more convenient than their own, soaking up the stains of life with already-saturated rags, doing their best to clear up the blemishes of human existence.  From the woman sorting through your trash and dumping your used napkins and soda bottles into assorted bins at a recycling plant, to the man stuck washing dishes in the back of your favorite restaurant.  These are the people who make the planet its own fully-functional conference room.

It’s only fitting in the most ironic fashion that Delgadillo – known for never leaving the house without his grey beanie on his head –should have to cater to upper-management, bourgeoisie characters that get paid far more than the average government employee in order to earn themselves capital.  The job gets him just slightly more than minimum wage would garner, and is one of the three workplaces that he currently holds. At times, Delgadillo says that he’s had to work up to five part-time jobs at once to support himself, and  at one point, it even forced him to consider moving to a different city altogether.

“I grew up in a small town called Lemoore near Fresno, and would never want to return to that kind of lifestyle,” he says.  “And that’s regardless of how much rent costs.”

            It’s also coincidental that Delgadillo spends his vocational time cleaning and sorting through literal messes, only to go home to work out a mess of his own, by organizing and arranging colors on the canvas.  An SF State alumnus and former art major, he continues his passion for paintingthat was once only displayed in the creative and fine arts buildings on campus at SFSU, in the confines of his garage-turned-art studio located in the Haight district of San Francisco.

Jason Delgadillo stands with one of his paintings, which he completed for his senior project at SF State.

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While the exact history of cleaning and cleanliness may not be possible to pinpoint, its evolution can easily be traced back to the Romans.  Ancient Roman cities would have facilities next to aqueducts that were used for self-cleaning as well as socialization; they even had exfoliating cleansers.  Commonly referred to as the Roman Baths, this well-preserved historic site offers an insight into pre-modern personal hygiene.

            Texts also show a lineage that dates back even further.  The earliest recorded evidence of a soap-like cleanser was around 2800 BC, in ancient Babylon.  They would create a concoction made up of a combination of ashes and oil, which were used to clean various objects.  After centuries of humans developing standards of cleanliness, not only were people cleaning themselves, but they were cleaning their personal property, their walls, their floors, and anything else that had the potential to show a stain.

###

Whether or not one is responsible for their own personal cleanliness has a great effect on how they will turn out as a person.  Take Delgadillo’s roommate, for example. He lives care-free off of his parents’ trust fund, which supplies him with money for rent, food, clothing and anything else he could possibly ask for.   He doesn’t have to get a job if he doesn’t want to, and that’s just the way he likes it.

Spencer Combs, a SF State alumnus with a liberal studies degree, does not know what it is like to have to clean up after himself.  Born and raised in a city south of Santa Cruz, Calif, he loves the notion of a ‘small town.’  Like many others around him growing up, his childhood household was shared by a “housekeeper,” who was responsible for maintaining the state of cleanliness in the house.

“She cleaned everything,” he said.  “Toliets, dishes and laundry were just the start.  She cleaned our floors, our carpets and our walls also.  She also fed us and took care of us when our parents weren’t around.”

Having a Person Who Cleaned in his home from such an early age impacted how he looked at and thought about those kinds of people.  Because he was never told he had to clean up after himself, it ended up being something that he put on the backburner, so to speak.

“It was never something that I had to appreciate or show thanks for,” he said. “To me, it was always just a service that we acquired.”

Today, his and Delgadillo’s shared house is what most people would refer to as a metaphorical pigsty.  Dishes overflow out of the sink onto the kitchen counter, where they wait dutifully for someone to come by and wash the grease and grime off of them.  The carpet is coated in a thick layer of grey dog hair that looks like it hasn’t been vacuumed up in months.  Wrappers and empty cups crowd the living room table as if the two are trying to break a record for most items crammed onto one table.  A pungent smell wafts down the hallway leading from the bathroom to the kitchen, and sears nostril hairs with an unmistakable old-sink-smell, much like a forest fire would.

“I know that I have a problem picking up after myself and cleaning in general, and I do try to improve,” he said.  “In the end, it just comes down to who I am.  In a way, it’s embedded into my personality.”

It’s just one of those things; grandparents tell you as a child, it will help build character.  But there may really have been something to their seemingly trite logic.  According to the book Character Matters by Thomas Lickona, helping out around the house and taking responsibility for one’s own mess is fundamental in developing a personality with high values and integrity.

“Housework, yard work, helping to prepare meals and clean up…These are the many ways we can provide our children with opportunities to practice good virtues.”

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Children

The phone had already made a few calls by the time she noticed it was missing.  At least that’s what the phone records would show, anyway.  She had cross-checked the time codes on the phone bill with her own memory of the day and she clearly remembered noticing her phone was gone before the calls had been made.

The kid probably called a couple of his friends to tell them how he had just snagged a brand new Blackberry Curve 9000, and how he was going to try to flip it quick to make a couple hundred easy dollars.  She was talking to him about his performance and attitude in school and had only left the room for a couple of minutes when she came back and saw that her phone wasn’t where she had left it.

“That’s what I get for trying to better these helpless kids,” she thought to herself as she silently cursed the world.

She would never get the phone back, but that wasn’t the part that angered her the most.  The infuriating aspect of the encounter was that out of attempted and intended help to clean up a child’s life came a complete act of violating hostility toward her.  She felt as if she had failed the child, and failed herself as well, and could not clean up the mess that was this child’s moral and ethical boundaries.

Elisabeth Trevor, a former assistant teacher at Erickson School in San Francisco, recalls this moment as vividly as the day it happened.  Sunset rays shone through the large window pane and glistened off of the tops of the children’s school desks, reflecting shimmers of sun onto the ceiling, just passing over the art collages and science projects hung on the wall by a teacher proud of his or her students.

“It wasn’t that the phone was stolen,” she explained. “I’ve had my car broken into several times.  It was the contradicting circumstances of the situation that madethe betrayal feel all the more harsh.”  She adds, “I was only trying to help.”

The non-public and non-profit school located on Hudson Ave. in San Francisco houses students ages 8 to 19 and is “an ideal place for students who are experiencing learning, emotional, and/or behavioral problems,” according to the school’s website. It is a completely suitable environment for the type of less-than-appreciated work that Trevor and others like her put forth, continuously tackling untidiness and clutter with a viewpoint that the world can, and should, be better.

Trevor worked at the school as part of her graduate program at the University of California San Francisco in order to obtain a PhD.  Now a fully-licensed psychologist, she only hopes that the kid who stole her phone has tried to better himself in some sort of productive way.  She still prefers to work with kids, and gains nothing but the upmost satisfaction from helping them clean up their attitudes and living situations.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call the work ‘thankless,’ but it’s not like I ever have anyone patting me on the back telling me that I did a great job,” she said.

One of the first children whom Trevor had ever professionally worked with was a young girl who continually ran into disciplinary problems in school, which translated to disciplinary problems at home.  No matter what the subject matter was, the girl couldn’t maintain focus long enough and would eventually get distracted, and punishments just never seemed to work.  Trevor had the idea to sit the whole family down, and lay out the ground rules for what she called “proper behavior for school and home.”  She doesn’t know whether or not the approach ultimately got through to the child, but only hopes that the child, in some way, lives a better life.

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Carpet

The dark and tiled carpet soaks and absorbs a light, soapy moisture and feels damp under his feet when walked on, even while wearing torn and beat-up Nike tennis shoes. The shoes trudge along behind a power steam carpet cleaner, which mows the aisles of a San Francisco Best Buy from the early morning hours of 4 to 6 a.m.

These particular shoes belong to Francisco Reyes, a Bay Area native born and raised in Oakland.  He works for Sparkling Carpets, a Northern California carpet upholstery servicing company that gets commissioned by the electronics retail giant to steam clean the carpet  once a day.  It ensures for maximum cleanliness as well as a flawless and immaculate shopping experience.  In the hours of daylight, hundreds of people will walk over and benefit from the man’s hard work and laborious endeavors and never come to learn his name.  Yet he is merely one of over 1.5 million people in the United States who specialize in making sure consumers get the privilege of walking on clean ground.

“The bathrooms are what I hate the most,” he says as we march to the beat of the carpet-cleaning contraption.  “Compared to that, this old steamer really isn’t a problem for me.”

Reyes also doesn’t mind the all-too-often commute to the city that offers him such unique and pleasurable employment opportunities.  He and his wife support three kids on what they describe as minimal salaries, and according to him, do whatever is necessary to turn a dollar. He tells me that along with cleaning the retail electronics giant, he stops by an elementary school, a church, and some office buildings to make sure middle management doesn’t have to look at the crumbs and crumpled up pieces of paper that they left behind the night before.  The next day they’ll have the convenience of coming in to the office with a new suit, new pants, new shoes, and a new floor.

Reyes spends around two hours actually cleaning the retail store.  He allocates 40-50 minutes to clean the carpets of the 25,000-square-foot building at the intersection of Geary and Masonic avenues.  He then spends 15 to20 minutes to sweep and buff the hard tiles, before moving on to the men and women’s bathrooms.

“As soon as one job is done I move to the next,” he says to me with determined eyes.  “If I can get out of here early, I can get home earlier to see my family.”

Within the 100 square-foot bathrooms, his workload depends entirely on the level of destruction caused between the current time and when he last saw them.  Today, the men’s bathroom is worse than the women’s, although neither are a pretty sight to behold.  Toilet paper and throw-away towels explode out of the trashcans onto the white and green 6-square-inch tiles that line and pattern the floor, and everything seems to be wet.

The room smells sticky, and when the bottoms of your shoes stick to the floor with every step that you take, it’s only more affirmation. The faux-marble countertop that lines one side of the room drips water down to the floor, where it all mixes into a collective puddle made up of soap, water and urine.

Frank, one of the store’s managers, asked Reyes to specifically clean some graffiti off of one of the stalls, and to take out all three trashcans across the two bathrooms.  Before the store opens, he’ll spray disinfectant on the toilets and wipe them down, Windex and disinfect the mirrors, sinks, and countertops, clean and mop the floors, erase the graffiti off the stall, and take out all three garbage cans across the two bathrooms.  But someone must have really taken their time with the artwork inside of the stall.  Reyes said the graffiti tag looks like it was done in Sharpie and will probably take a couple thorough washings to come off completely.

The previous night before closing, a child had also vomited outside, and the digestive expulsion sat overnight waiting for Reyes’ perfect touch to clean it up.  The next day, thanks to him, the deed was done.  No thanks was ever uttered to him that day, according to Reyes.

But the customers will come through the door the next day, and trample all over Francisco’s hard labor, creating a perpetual cycle of never-ending work that drives Reyes to different locations to continually clean up after others.   At the end of the day though, he’ll get home to see his family, and eat dinner with them.  It’s just his one last hope that he’s not the one who has to wash the dishes.

The thing to remember about the People Who Clean is that they are people first and foremost, each with a face and their own story to tell. All too often with computers and technology becoming more and more an integrated part of society, and society itself becoming more and more fast-paced by nature, simple things get overlooked. Like the man picking up your trash can every week so that the filth doesn’t pile up, or the street sweeper who makes sure the pile of leaves on the side of the road doesn’t do the same.  Thankless as the job may be, they perform day-in, day-out, each on their own personal clean streak.

Before

After

By Alexis Chavez

Living in San Francisco skews people’s perceptions of crazy. Before moving here, I grew up in a very small, very conservative, agriculture-based town. There was little culture, a seemingly nonexistent homeless population, and anyone who acted “different” was just that. I hated it.

When I moved to the city, I was a sponge. I absorbed everything I could, whether it was going to street fairs, parades, or merely sitting in a park and watching the crowds walk by. Very quickly I learned there are lots of quirky folks gallivanting around. From the eccentric Burning Man crowd, to the leather daddies, to the oh-so-hip-hipsters, the city is full of characters.

Immediately, I realized, what is “normal” in San Francisco is not true of what normalcy is regarded as in other places. For the first few months I lived here, the homeless population that can be found surviving in many neighborhoods saddened me. Everyone knows about San Francisco’s “bums,” yet I was distraught not only  by the idea of homelessness, but also by the nonchalance and disregard so many people expressed over the issue.

My breaking point came one night while driving down Market Street. A homeless man, with his shopping cart of belongings parked next to him, was sitting up against the Muni entrance on the corner of Church and Market. He appeared to be passed out, with a needle sticking out of his right arm. Right then, my normal-to-crazy-gauge broke. Since then, nothing I have seen or heard in this city has shocked me.

It did not take long before I realized, that I, too, in order to get about my business, would have to put aside my feelings, essentially ignore the existences of said homeless. As a broke college student, I did not have any change to spare, and the heartache was getting wretched. I finally understood why so many San Franciscans turn the cheek to those on the streets.

Living in the outer stretches of the city, where there is not as big of a homeless population, has sheltered me from seeing the roughly 6,000 to 12,000 homeless people who live on the streets on a given day. However, in the last year, I have been working in Hayes Valley, and have once again been forced to face my feelings about homelessness and the issues that surround it.

***

Storefronts line the redeveloped Hayes Street stretch, offering the trendiest, specialized boutiques, cafes, restaurants and wine bars. Patricia’s Green lies in the center, a park where parents, pet owners and people looking to escape the cold, concrete city streets flock to admire the art installations and the traffic, zipping all around. But at the end of a bustling day, when the shoppers carry their bags home, the street is inhabited by the people who live on them.

They can be found everywhere. In the alleys around Hayes Street, napping on the benches in the park, digging through dumpsters behind restaurants.

Underneath the black, pre-dawn sky, a man I know only as Michael sleeps nestled in the alcove of the Room Service storefront, a new custom furniture business. Covered in a blue blanket, he is surrounded by his belongings — a plastic bag full of clothes, a crate most likely used as a seat or storage, and an empty paper plate, stained with remnants of last night’s dinner.

At dawn, he rises before street cleaners and 9-to-5 folks take to the streets. He packs his stuff, which neatly fits in both hands, erasing his traces. Tomorrow, he will find somewhere else in the neighborhood to sleep.

Before Hayes Valley became the modish neighborhood it is today, the area was a much different place.  In 1951, a plan to build freeways throughout the city was approved, one of which was the Central Freeway, eventually running through Hayes Valley. The first phase of the Central Freeway construction began in 1959, which is the same year the freeway plans were cancelled, per a vote by the Board of Supervisors. The vote prevented more work on the Central Freeway, leaving only what had already been built—a raised double-deck structure that jutted out from Interstate 80, across Market Street, and into the Hayes Valley neighborhood, with connecting off-ramps on Fell and Oak streets.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Central Freeway beyond repair and the northern portion of the freeway was removed in 1992. That year, the Board of Supervisors voted against building new freeways north of Market Street, so the freeway was not replaced, yet the southern part, which connected to the Fell and Oak street off-ramps, remained.

In 1995, a city task force suggested a street-level boulevard replace the freeway, but it would be a few years before this would happen. Caltrans started demolition on the upper deck of the freeway in 1996, yet neighborhood locals wanted the entire freeway removed. Patricia Walkup, founder of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, voiced her opposition for the plans of a redeveloped freeway, along with activist Robin Levitt.

In 1997, Mayor Willie Brown placed an initiative, saying the freeway should be rebuilt, on the ballot, which won, allowing Caltrans to begin designing a new freeway, much to Walkup and Levitt’s dismay. The activists began gathering the appropriate signatures to once again get the issue on the ballot in 1998. This time the initiative to remove the freeway won; however, this was not the final word on the subject.

Finally, in 1999, two initiatives went on the ballot — one to remove the freeway and one to rebuild it. Voters ultimately decided to remove the freeway, a decision that  stuck. The Central Freeway would come up to a light on Market, where traffic would cross over north onto the new Octavia Boulevard.

Fourteen years after the damaging earthquake, the last remnants of the Central Freeway were demolished. In 2005, the newly designed Octavia Boulevard was completed, and a year later the rebuilt freeway leading up to Market Street was also finished.

***

Rain pours down on Hayes Street, so much that the gutters overflow with water due to leaf-clogged drains. People scurry underneath umbrellas, jumping from one store overhang to the next. Yet, it is so warm inside La Boulange Café and Bakery that the windows are fogging up with condensation from all the bodies, piping hot coffee, and heat pouring out of the ovens.

Dressed in all black, save for a red beanie, Darnell Easter, 49, cozies up to a table by the window. His warm brown skin, slightly moist with sweat, compliments his dark brown eyes. When I usually see him, he is relaxed and conversational, as he always has something to say; yet today he seems slightly nervous, on edge. Easter has been coming to the café since last year, which he credits with helping him reach a new place in his life.

Though he often gets stares from the customers inside, some of the employees have reached out to Easter, giving him free coffee and food, something he says he would have stolen in the past. Easter usually graciously takes the food, thanks the “goddesses” who work there, and walks across the street to Patricia’s Green, a park he has often called home.

But on rainy afternoons such as this, he sometimes sits inside, quietly, and alone, without making a scene, until the rain stops or becomes a sprinkle.

Here is the story he tells of his life: Easter grew up in the East Bay city of Pittsburgh, CA, about an hour northeast of San Francisco. He was the first-born between his parents, each had one child from previous relationships, and together they had three more. Growing up biracial, Easter always felt like he did not fit in.

“I never had anyone I could identify with,” he says. The son of an African American father from Little Rock, Arkansas,  and Mexican-born mother, he was never white enough, nor black enough to identify with other kids his age, and he was often called an Oreo.

Having parents of different ethnicities was also very trying because of the racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s. The tensions were compounded by the fact his father and uncles were associated with the Black Panthers, an African American revolutionary organization.

The Panthers never approved of his parents’ relationship and for as long as Easter can remember, problems surrounded the marriage. His father, however, was not a militant soldier for the Panthers, like his uncle was. Rather he sold heroin for them. Drugs, violence and street mentality were an everyday occurrence, a lifestyle that Easter was raised in.

When he was five years old, Easter was molested for the first time by an uncle, one of his dad’s brothers. When he told his parents about what happened, they did not believe him. The molestation would go on for the next five years. Feeling guilty, confused and stripped of integrity, Easter struggled with what was happening to him.

Feeling that there was no place to run, 10-year-old Easter went to the St. Peter Martyr Catholic Church, where he cleansed himself with holy water and gave his confession about what had happened to him, in hopes he would relieve his guilt. Inside the confessional, as Easter confided about his abuse, he says the priest slid the partition aside and asked the young boy to step over.

The priest then asked Easter to explain in detail what his uncle had done to him, as he masturbated. Afterward, the priest warned Easter that, should he tell anyone what happened, he would never be an altar boy.

Feeling even more confused, Easter truly felt he had no place to be safe. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder. As a young boy, he was prescribed Ritalin, and eventually Prozac. “They never gave me a chance to be who I am,” Easter says, tears streaming down his face. “No one believed in me. It really ruined me and made me depressed.”

He says the feelings of despair and depression only worsened when his parents divorced when he was 13. His dad left his mother for their babysitter, a white woman his mother had once told him to get along with. He blamed everyone for the divorce, and became angry, throwing stones to relieve stress.

Acting out in a fit of rebellion, he began to steal. He stole candy and other small things from the store, though he never got caught, and he also began to steal pot from his father. His parents were never the affectionate type, but Easter thought if his dad saw him smoking marijuana that perhaps he would love him more.

Despite his reckless behavior, Easter fell in love with acting, and the theatre provided him with a place to escape. He began acting in high school with the Willows Youth Theatre in Concord, CA. His first role was as Judas Iscariot in Godspell. To this day, he can still sing every line to his solo with his thunderous voice.

High school came and went, and when Easter was 18, he developed a drinking problem. Still angry over the divorce, he would drink to develop enough courage to confront his dad about leaving his mother. Disillusioned and drunk, Easter decided to get back at the priest who had molested him so many years before.

The priest, still active in the church, lived next door to St. Peter Martyr. Easter says he went to the church to see him one day and ordered him to the granny flat in the backyard of the house. Once inside, Easter ordered him to lie down, as he blindfolded the priest. He then proceeded to “get back” at the priest, he says as his eyes flicker between uncertainty and excitement, by performing oral sex and masturbating on him.

Once he was finished, he says he took a picture of the priest and threatened to reveal the picture if he did not give him $100.

The priest obliged and Easter took the money and bought more booze. On his way out of the yard, he stopped at the statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in the front yard, and asked for forgiveness. He says he continued to blackmail the priest for the next two years.

In the 1980s, Easter spent a year in jail for embezzlement and fraud. He learned how to steal credit card information from carbon copy receipts from a pair of girls he met in the theatre. After his release, he went back home to find there was nothing there for him anymore.

Soon after, he met a retired Navy sergeant in Concord, who needed a crank connection. Easter, having drug connections in the ghetto, became the liaison the Navy sergeant needed. The relationship lasted for a few years, the pair grew close and Easter moved in with the sergeant and his family.

In  1992, Easter met his friend Lisa, who introduced him to the new and thriving rave scene in San Francisco. As a dancer and performer, Easter instantly loved going to raves. The scene was taking off, and as Easter remembers, there was a party going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Going to raves allowed Easter to make money by selling drugs, and provided him with a roof over his head. When he was not partying, he couch-surfed with friends, but always had money to pay his way. In the middle of gang wars and violence, the rave scene offered Easter an escape—somewhere he could feel safe.

It was at one such rave where Easter first tried Ecstasy. The drug made him feel things he had tried to repress. The emotions from the molestations surfaced and he began to cry. His friends hugged him, telling him it was good to let his feelings out, and for the first time, Easter felt secure. The parties routinely involved Ecstasy usage, which would turn the parties into a big love fest. Hugs, happiness, music, and dance, Easter finally found his identity. The rave scene provided him with a place where he felt he belonged. After years of feeling like “the other,” Easter, and hundreds of kinds like him, found a home.

Raves were happening all over the city in the 90s — 1015 Folsom, DNA Lounge, Groove Kitchen, to name a few. Easter began taking part in throwing these parties, including one called A Family Affair, which went on for six years. His love for theatre was showcased at performance art parties, where he would perform on stage.

Around this time, Easter also began a relationship with a man named John Pauli. The two shared a love for raves, and the relationship was Easter’s first. Because of his issues with trust, Easter had never allowed himself to get close to anyone.

In 2000, after one of his performances at Dubtribe, a local party, Easter was catching his breath backstage, when drag queen Joan Jett Blakk took the stage. Blakk, a friend of Easter’s, called Pauli on stage. Before Easter’s eyes, the two professed their love for one another, and announced on stage that they were a couple. The proclamation stunned and bewildered Easter, who says he became depressed over the announcement.

“When you fall, people throw stones at you,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes, “It’s happened all my life.”

When the rave scene died out in 2008, Easter began hanging out in Hayes Valley. He had never been homeless before, even though Easter never had a steady place to live. In May 2010, Easter took up residence at the Oak Hotel on Fell Street.

Using vouchers he obtained from Project Homeless Connect, an organization that aims to help the homeless get off the street and into housing, Easter stayed at the Oak Hotel until January 2011. His vouchers were used up in November, but he made an agreement with the manager to clean the bathrooms and do work to earn his keep.

He says the manager began running him ragged with all of the hard work. Though he had a place to live, he had no time to dumpster dive to make extra money for food and drugs. After his housing fell through, Easter started sleeping on a bench in Patricia’s Green.

During the day, he would wander the streets, but always find himself back at the park. He made friends with some of the other homeless people, though some were unapproachable, their minds lost to crack.

In March, Easter went back to Project Homeless Connect’s event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. He got more housing vouchers, valid for the next six months. He hopes the new pair of dentures he is having made, thanks to Project Homeless Connect, will help him look more presentable when searching for jobs. “I haven’t done enough in life. I want to help children. I want to show these parents how to raise them. I could change things,” he says.

***

Easter was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, who waited in line for Project Homeless Connect’s services on Wednesday, March 16. Hordes gathered in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium where the event was held, waiting in line for hours; some even camped over night.

Project Homeless Connect was started in 2004 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a way to bring critical services to the homeless. About 250 non-profits, private businesses, and volunteers come together to help the citizens in need. Sprint, Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, Larkin Street Youth, and the Riley Center, among others, provided services such as free phone calls, veteran services, free haircuts, wheel chair repairs, needle exchanges, medical attention, and vision and dental services.

Outside, the line wrapped around Grove Street and onto Larkin Street as people waited in lines to gain entrance to the auditorium. Those with pets could drop them off at the pet sitter facility, which was located next to the pet veterinary service booth. Cats and dogs could be heard barking and meowing, longing to be returned to their owners.

A mix of chatter and traffic buzzed along the streets, as City Hall suits walked by our city’s most destitute population.

The inside of the auditorium was set up like a convention of sorts. Once inside the building, the line of people extended into Larkin Hall, where each attendee went through a check-in process. Volunteers, speaking multiple languages, acted as guides, intermediating between the line and available seats at the check in tables, calling out numbers as if it were an auction.

“I have two over here!” one volunteer yelled at another guide, who then escorted two more people to the appropriate locations. The attendees were asked a series of questions before being allowed to roam about the main room.

The main auditorium, where so many high profile musical acts perform, was transformed into a type of shopping center. Each service had setup of long tables, draped in cloths, some of which were decorated with pamphlets, candy and other freebies. The blue drapes were drawn over the stage and the upper level seating was empty, yet the room was loud with chatter. Despite all the bodies in the room, you could still feel the enormity of the space.

“Man, I ain’t ever been in here,” one man gasped in awe, as he sat filling out food stamp paperwork. “This is amazing.”

Attendees exited the building through a food line provided by the San Francisco Food Bank, which gave each person non-perishable foods to take with them. Back on the street, many lingered around the auditorium, their bags heavy with food, some waiting for their friends, some with no other place to go.

***

It is a Saturday evening in the Mission district, the weather mild after a warm, sunny day in the city. The sidewalks along 16th Street are filled with people walking, pouring out of bars and standing in front of restaurants, while the streets are backed up with traffic as drivers look for a place to park.

On the same street, right between Mission and Valencia, lies Julian Avenue. At the address 179, the Julian House is located. It’s a hotel that features 36 themed single occupancy rooms.

Darnell Easter has been living in room 10, thanks to housing vouchers, for the last month. The first floor of the three-story Edwardian building is a sandy brick, while the rest of the building is painted pale yellow with brown trim. Inside, the hallways have white wainscoting, the upper half of the walls painted taupe.

Despite the clean appearance, and fresh paint, the place still feels old and dark.

I am greeted by Easter at the front gate. Dressed in a cowboy hat, brown blazer and unbuttoned shirt, Easter is especially frenetic. He tells me his roommate is having relationship issues and that now might not be the best time to visit.

As I try to figure out a more appropriate time to visit, he asks me if I want to take a quick look around the building. He grabs me by the arm and escorts me inside the building, acting as a tour guide, and it is not long before he is knocking on his door, yelling to his friends inside to let us in.

Room 10 sits on the left side of the hall on the first floor. The room is tiny, no more than eight feet wide and 10 feet long, and shared with a roommate. The walls are painted a bright blue and are speckled with a few posters, including one of Albert Einstein.

There is one window covered with a white curtain, a small closet, a sink, a bunk bed and a wall of shelves filled with CDs, a microwave and lots of clutter. The floor is covered with clothing, plastic bags, shoes and lots of unidentifiable objects that have been taking up space for who knows how long.

Easter’s roommate sits alongside a friend and Easter’s boyfriend Poe. The four men sit around a 13-inch television screen watching the musical Cats. The room smells musty, with faint hints of smoke.

I step inside for a brief moment, before feeling slightly claustrophobic from all the stuff and people inside the small space. Easter and I continue on the tour of the building, heading upstairs. In another room, we run into Chris, a tenant who is painting a room across the hall from where she stays.

At the moment, she is working on a giant sun, yellow with gold streaks, and long rays bursting from the center. Her idea, she says, is to have a beach themed room. She says she hopes the room will be tranquil, and Easter adds that the purpose of the art in the rooms is to uplift the people who stay there and keep a positive vibe.

“Crack and heroin can be so ghetto,” Easter says, his voice full of attitude and distaste as he refers to old tenants, though I wonder how long it has been since he smoked crystal meth, his drug of choice.

Easter walks me back out to the front gate, where my ride awaits, and says he hopes to see me soon. He waves goodbye, throwing up a peace sign, smiling, before turning his around and walking back to room 10.

***

If there is anything I have learned about San Francisco that I did not know before, it would be that this is a city of complexities. From the detailed and dated architecture to a diverse population to progressive politics and social issues, there are often multiple sides to any given issue.

When it comes to homelessness, the issue is as complex as any. I have heard many people disregard the plight of the homeless, by either ignoring the issue, making light of it, or by blaming those with no place to live, calling them drug addicts or saying they chose the lifestyle for themselves.

Sometimes, this is the case, but such generalizations are often stereotypical. I say that because often times the people passing such judgments have never taken the time to get to know a homeless person, nor see things from his/her point of view.

Other times, some say the resources are available, but it is the homeless who are not reaching out, however many resources are diminishing, like everything else, in this crumbling economy.

Whatever the sentiments are, the facts speak for themselves. According to the Coalition on Homelessness, in January 2009, the homeless count in San Francisco was 6,514 people, though they suspect this is a low estimate, since families and youth are usually underrepresented. And, the number seems to be growing, as 45 percent of the respondents were said to be experiencing homelessness for the first time.

To me, I think a society can only function as well as its weakest link, and those with no place to call home are in one of the most desperate positions I can think of. Homelessness, along with the problem of hunger, seems to say as much about society as it does about the people experiencing it.

Solving the issue of homelessness is not cut and dry, and the only solution I can think of is offering more resources, beds and facilities to help get people off of the streets and into housing. Sadly, the current state of the economy is only making things worse for everyone, from government employees to state-funded programs to the everyday folks struggling to pay bills.

Homelessness seems to be a major crack in the foundation of our system, splintered into all different kinds of complex issues. While this plight might not be solved overnight, if ever, what we can change is our perceptions and attitudes about those less fortunate than ourselves. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, living on this earth, and no matter what choices we make or what has happened to us, we all deserve to be treated with a level of dignity and respect.