Its 7:30 in the bleeding A of M. I am standing on a lawn by McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park with a host of other benighted souls watching a police paddy wagon pull up on the grass.
"Let the cops go in first," my supervisor says. "Then move in with your bags and pick-up sticks." We are General Assistance recipients doing our workfare in the parks. Up to now, we've been pruning, mulching and clearing paths. Today, we will add a new skill to our resumis: busting up homeless camps.
They tell me Matrix (a San Francisco program aimed at clearing the homeless from public places) is dead, but as far as I can see, it's business as usual. Call it Stealth Matrix. The cops go in and roust the campers, telling them to pack up and blow. No arrests are made.
We follow to clean up and immediately realize why the city's Parks and Recreation department is so keen on evicting these campers. These folks are slobs. In the course of our rounds we find used needles (my partner stuck himself on one), maggot-infested cartons of rotten Chinese food, rain-soaked clothes and bed rolls, condoms (new and used), shopping carts loaded to the brim with gay pornography, a reindeer hand puppet, human excrement, one Krugerrand, two traffic cones, a stun gun, a tent, a VCR, zillions of little plastic drug bags (empty) and enough dead wine bottles to construct a life-sized statue of King Kong.
After cleaning out the area, our usual practice is to go in with loppers and saws in order to eradicate any shrub or vegetation large enough for a homeless person to crouch behind and lop off all tree branches lower than six feet from the ground. Sometimes the supervisors bring in chain saws and take out full-grown trees. We are making the park into a no-sleep zone. I am told this horticultural practice is called "police gardening."
One of the more interesting places to "police garden" is in the stretch of park by Stanyan Street. It is home to a permanent tribe of urban tree dwellers unequaled in arrogance and panache. Composed of equal parts toothless old alcohol-soaked hippies and young post-punk kids, they, like the tribes of Israel, have settled in the land and found it good. This is their home, and we are their maids.
They're a jolly crew, panhandling Haight Street by day and partying in the park all night. I can always tell when the SSI checks have come in because the volume of needles, crack bags, liquor bottles and condoms triples. Once, I stumbled upon a knee-high pile of trash composed of nothing but McDonald's effluvia. Apparently, they'd had one hell of a Big Mac attack and had thoughtfully piled all of their junk against a tree for the maids. Us.
I had one park denizen watch me clean up after him for a half-hour and then charmingly remark, "You know, I'd rather sleep in the park than have to pick up garbage all day." I almost replied, "I'd rather pick up garbage all day than live in the park like an animal." But we had been instructed not to get into confrontations with the natives.
These folks have all the arrogance of the Normans after conquering Britain and an aristocratic disdain for anyone bourgeois enough to sleep indoors and actually do physical labor for money. They pull it off with a raggedy panache that, at times, leaves you torn between the urge to admire their chutzpah and the desire to break their scabies-infested necks.
I have no idea how all of this will end. Park and Rec seems determined to kick them out, but these guys are dug in like the West Bank settlers and ain't goin' nowhere without a fight. They'll probably still be there when Park and Rec is just a memory and Golden Gate Park has reverted to 40-odd blocks of sand dunes.
At any rate, I find myself a little bit queasy about being caught in the middle. They're using the poor to bludgeon the destitute, and I wish I could just get back to ripping out blackberry vines in peace.
Thanks, Mr. Greenspan!
"Greenspan set a trap for the market. Now people are left wondering how much of a correction will satisfy his concerns. Now anything that looks like bad news is going to be seized upon."
-- Andy Hartwill, an equity strategist with London-based SocGen, on U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's remarks about the "irrational exuberance" of stock markets. (From a) Reuters report on Friday's falls in European and U.S. markets.)