Iearn the cash that it takes to buy my Spam sandwiches by writing grants that support music and pottery classes and for teaching kids how to draw what they feel. I am privileged to associate with polite and well-mannered people. Many artists pack around enlarged egos, but only a few carry other concealed weapons.
The branch of the Smith family tree from which I was shaken was not held aloft by decorum. I’ve never traced its roots beyond Missouri. We are simple folks who believe in the inevitability for all humans to err. Beyond that, nobody gives a diddly squat which spoon you use to eat your possum soup. The only advice my dad gave me when I headed off to college was not to pick my nose with my fork. That is partially why I never understood the role of the large blue book in the following tale:
In the 1970s, I was the janitor in a seven-story building in the heart of the Tenderloin District, San Francisco. I have spoken of this job in previous editions of this word pizza. The building housed the headquarters of the Gray Panthers, (angry older white women) the See of the Western District of the Methodist Church of North America, and Glide Memorial Church, which was pastored by Cecil Williams who employed a full rock band, gospel choir, and light show in his Sunday services.
The Tenderloin has never been a particularly polite place. When I worked there it was evolving from a neighborhood of adult book stores, peep shows and street hookers of various sexual persuasions into housing for the post-Nam influx of Asian boat people. Tourists were advised to stay out of the Tenderloin. I worked there during the day, but slept elsewhere.
Reverend Williams’ flock came from this neighborhood, and from South of Market, an area where folks slept in doorways. Nowadays they would be called the homeless or the disenfranchised. They were called street people then. Nobody else went South of Market at night either.
Nobody but Cecil Williams. He believed that poor people deserved public services and warm places to sleep and three squares a day. In the basement of Glide Memorial Church we created a public restroom, with a wordless picture of a toilet out on the sidewalk and an arrow pointing down the stairs. We equipped a kitchen that served three free meals per day to three hundred folks.
Then we built Freedom Park. Reverend Williams scored a vacant lot on South Third between Market and Mission, where we installed a drinking fountain, two portable toilets, a concrete picnic table, two industrial trash cans, several benches, a patch of lawn, and two pyramids of sleeping tubes made from 6-foot long sections of 3-foot metal culvert. No rules. Free to all.
I became Freedom Park’s maintenance person. Most mornings I swept up broken green bottle glass and replaced the drinking fountain handle that someone removed and pawned each day. I tried to stay out of the politics of the park, away from the quarrels between folks who became territorial about the sleeping tubes or whose seat was saved on which portion of what bench.
To most of the residents I was merely a janitor, maybe working for the city, and they let me go about my work. The nicotine junkies, though, recognized me as one of their own and hit me up for smokes every two or three minutes. My solution to the problem was to arrive at the park with a fresh package of Camel straights daily, open it, dump the cigarettes out on the table, arrange them neatly in 10 rows of two, and announce that this was the entire booty for that day.
In much the same spirit that drives Portland public officials to tear down tent towns and under-bridge homeless settlements, the polite citizenry of San Francisco did not like the presence of Freedom Park. The poor are better for a city’s image when they are dispersed, a panhandler here, a guy with a sign saying he will work for food there. You put a hundred vagrants in a half-block lot and they are no longer invisible. They are objective proof of the failure of the system. I realize now that Cecil Williams created the park to make poverty more visible.
Now, the mystery. One morning I showed up at Freedom Park with broom, Camels and faucet handle. When I went to arrange the ration of free smokes, there on the table lay a copy of Emily Post’s “Etiquette,” signed by the author herself. I asked around the park. Nobody knew how or why the book was there so I took it.
The book’s genesis remains as one of the larger enigmas of my life. It was not Emily who put it there. She died in 1960. Was there some discussion at the prior evening’s meeting of the San Francisco Junior League that poverty could be erased if the poor knew a bit more about the proper technique of serving wine? If so, who in that sector of San Franciscan society had courage enough to plant the book? More likely, it was given to a chauffeur or maid to deliver.
Today the volume lives on a pal’s bookshelf north of Indian Valley, Idaho. It is a first edition, with Ms. Post’s signature cleanly inscribed on the title page and it might be worth some fun tickets to a collector. Perhaps someday we’ll sell it and host a free meal for the people living in the brush along the Umatilla River. Please do plan to attend. No RSVP or necktie required. And yes, hot dogs may be eaten with one’s fingers.