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  • or, Walking Quietly Through the Tenderloin on a Sunny Day

    for Colby Buzzell


    a desiccated chicken bone on the crosswalk, broken

    shattered people lying shoeless on the concrete, facedown, no cardboard

    a guy whistling up to a wall of windows, some of them open

    wafts of piss and pot

    a white girl buying pills “…what if it says it's something else?” “It won’t…”

    a construction worker with orange spay paint marking cryptic lines on the street,
    his boots shadowed orange by how many years of such lines

    no tents like under the highways, just people on the ground, people more “not dead” than “alive,” like grass between sections of sidewalk: trampled and invisible

    blue skies and sunshine

    grass between sections of sidewalk: aesthetic problem


    On the train to Palo Alto I drank cheap whiskey while my seatmates, a corpulent black man and a wiry white man, talked about machine learning and their tech jobs. And I was further gratified when, that evening, two friends, biochemists at Stanford, explained how much they liked their Apple smart watches. This is so Bay Area, I thought. That, and all the Teslas hissing along new pavement, seemed to confirm that the central industry of a city shaped its character.

    San Francisco: technology. A pervasive optimism that we’re advancing into a future of our own conscious creation, a sense of inevitable, inviolable Progress.

    New York: finance. No lofty notions of collective advancement, only a ravenous onward impulse inspired by capitalist voodoo.

    DC: politics. A Sisyphean struggle for power where change, much less progress, is an anathema.

    LA: entertainment. Beauty and fame and box office sales all tangled in a positive feedback loop.

    In all the other cities the homeless represent personal failures—poverty, powerlessness, ugliness. But here they represent the failure of the central ideal of the city. They reveal the fallacy that a smartwatch with a faster processing system somehow embodies progress in a meaningful way.


    I was visiting though, walking around thinking about all that, and my only direct interaction was a young black guy saying “smile, man” as we passed. So maybe the only certain failure is my own: I never spoke to anyone, let them remain an easily characterizable “them.” I didn’t have (make) the time to build enough trust to ask someone if I could take their picture, ask them to tell me their story. And I never lived in any of those cities, am the wrong person to define them each in a sentence. They’re wilderness to me, and I brought the wilderness mentality with me: Take only memories, leave only footprints (and spare change).

    Silence will suffice in the mountains, because silent knowledge of geology and ecology and meteorology can explain most everything there. But in the city there are mysterious truths in every detail—a string of conscious actions led that chicken bone to the third stripe of the crosswalk—that could perhaps be discovered. Silent knowledge of market forces can explain the passage of a hundred-thousand-dollar electric car past an unconscious man with no shoes, but it can never explain the man’s presence precisely there. What sequence of decisions—which propagate backwards through generations infinitely outward to inevitably encompass the great-great-great-great grandmother of the electric car’s driver—brought him to that stained sidewalk? He doesn’t know either, but he is an architect of a world nonetheless, a shoeless god asleep in the sunshine. And day after day he lies there unpropitiated, harboring truths and lies that I will never know.
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