This is a story about three of the best friends I ever had. We met long ago in a job training program run by the Salvation Army in San Francisco. Wei Phanh was a Vietnamese immigrant, Jesse was a middle-aged Chicano man who’d fallen off the wagon after 15 years of sobriety, and Judith L. was recently sober, a Jewish artist from Brooklyn, New York. My own qualifications were simply Low Income Uneducated Youth. I don’t know if those are still qualifications, but they were enough to get me in the door – long ago.
Long ago, San Francisco was far away. It was not always a white, gentrified, compound with the highest real estate prices in the nation.
It was first a city of conquest and thus had a huge Latino neighborhood, the Mission District, which was filled with large exterior murals, flowers, baskets of fruit for sale, salsa and mariachi bands, parades, Caporera masters and their students, drumming groups, churches, and restaurants with Christmas lights twinkling all year round.
The Virgin Mary was everywhere in the Mission District. So were poor people.
The Fillmore was a historically African-American neighborhood, beautifully described by Maya Angelou throughout her autobiographical series. Chinatown was exactly that, and as old as the city itself. Fishermen and bakers lived and worked in Little Italy, and the descendents of hippies had expanded the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic to a major municipal health service.
The Tenderloin was a genuine slum, with people laying on the sidewalk, either napping or passed out, open drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. Many Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants also lived there, working 18-hour-days to keep small businesses open.
Gay men had flocked to the city’s Castro District by the thousands, refugees from the towns and cities that despised them, and lesbians had established a very viable but smaller and far less dominant presence in the Mission. They had elected a gay mayor, seen him murdered in cold blood and had rioted in the streets, setting San Francisco on fire and putting the nation on notice.
Working-class white people lived in the Avenues on the city’s western edge. Rich people, mostly white, lived in places like Pacific Heights and Nob Hill, and seemed to understand that although they owned mansions in these exquisite places, they didn’t own San Francisco itself – which, being a peninsula, has a very finite amount of land.
Long ago, San Francisco was packed with exiles. You could say freely that you didn’t suit the people and circumstances of your origins and just receive a smile and a nod of recognition. My friend, Akamu, had been kicked out of his family home at gunpoint at the age of 14 for being gay. My friend Johann had been locked up at 16 for being sad, and my friend Lisa had been officially and legally un-adopted by her family when she was 17.
New people were in a daze for at least a month, as they slowly figured out that defective kids were evidently some kind of national plague. Most arrived convinced that they were one of a handful of shameful freaks – but clearly, countless other families had also been forced to eject a bad apple from their midst. It was common to meet people who had been abused, marginalized, kicked out, objected to and silenced – people who just didn’t fit in and didn’t have the sense to hide it. They had failed to please, they had missed the boat, troublemakers who had seen too much and could not pretend they hadn’t. They were resisters, yet were easilly tricked by every cheap offer posing as hope. They had been on the wrong side, they had lost the war, then found their way again – and quickly lost it.
The most important things they learned long ago in San Francisco were that they knew the truth – and would be believed.
But the most important thing they did was to have fun.
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About 25 of them, including me, gathered daily in the San Francisco Salvation Army training center ( South of Market) under the tutelage of an old man named Cecil and learned how to be printers on an old AB Dick press. We did everything from layout to processing film to inking up the press and collating our final efforts: Salvation Army flyers and newsletters. Actually, only a few people got to really learn. And for some inexplicable reason, I was one of them.
That’s because from the moment I first walked in the door, the program’s real leaders, Wei Phan, Jesse G. and Judith L. embraced me. Don’t ask me why. Jesse and Judith had been through very hard times, and Wei had survived the trauma of an obscenely destructive war. Yet, the three of them took me in and, well … indulged me.
Maybe it was my extreme youth: Jesse and Judith were in their early forties, old enough to be my parents, and Wei was in his mid-thirties. Maybe it was my crew cut (I was in love with Sinead O’Connor), my skateboard, my loud expressions of political passion, my ungrateful attitude towards the Salvation Army or my suggestions that we unionize, which were met with huge amusement. Maybe it was because I had arrived in San Francisco alone with $100 in my pocket.
Maybe it was because I was an exile.
Whatever the reason, for the first time in my life, I was part of the in-crowd.
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Jesse was the most maternal person I’ve ever met. Before falling off the wagon, he had worked for the city health department, driving around the city in a van picking up drunks and bringing them to detox. He missed his job passionately – and San Francisco’s street alcoholics missed him. The police deferred to Jesse’s judgement before hauling drunks off to detox on their own: if he said a guy wasn’t ready because he had to have some alcohol in his system ASAP, they’d leave the guy alone and Jesse would buy him a pint. Then he’d pick the guy up in a few hours or maybe the next morning and take him in.
Jesse took care of his guys with great tenderness. He loved them. And he treated me with the same tenderness. He should have been somebody’s mother.
Judith brought me healthy snacks and made me earrings and listened to stories about my obscure band and its tiny gigs as if we were the Rolling Stones. We’d sit on high stools, peacefully taping film on layout sheets and discuss Brooklyn, art, the High Holidays, and communism.
Wei was incredibly, incredibly gracious. Every morning, I entered the shop, yelled “Chou anh, Mr. Phanh!” and skated over to him while Cecil yelled at me to get the hell off that damn skateboard and Wei turned his head to muffle his laughter. For some reason, he found me to be hilarious and it went right to my head: there was nothing I loved more than making Wei Phanh laugh. As soon as I saw him, I practically went on stage and he encouraged me by chortling at every stunt I pulled. Irreverence struck Wei’s funny bone with particular force: he was basically responsible for my imitations of the Salvation Army captain ringing a Christmas bell in July for Jesus, the private sector, the conversion of Asia and democracy
Wei was by far the most advanced student, and the only person Cecil allowed to run the press alone. He took great pains to teach me, and was infinitely patient and skillful. We never discussed the Vietnam War, as Wei made it clear that he did not want to. Sometimes he cooked delicious little dumplings for us. I gave him a t-shirt with a logo of a band called the Lemonheads; Wei thought it was hysterical and wore it all the time.
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I think of those days as a glorious kind of blessing. As the old press rumbled along, my friends and I made sure the rollers were evenly inked, and then inspected our work with pride. We ate dumplings and oranges, played spades, sat so close together our shoulders and knees touched, and told one another stories.
Outside was our city – blooming, feisty, nervy, outrageous and welcoming.
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