Nov 10, 2009

I hadn’t heard from him in years but then one day an email appeared. He started right in with his health. “I’m taking some new medicines for my heart,” he wrote. “Last year I was also diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. I'm feeling better now. The cardiac and Parkinson's medicines agree with me and are keeping things in control. When I'm sick or have symptoms, I never know what causes it. Is it my heart? Parkinson's? Old age (72)? I've always been interested in politics. In January Nancy Pelosi invited me to Washington for her swearing in. Washington was exciting. February 23 I met and talked with Hillary Clinton. She has an outstanding intellect. I also met Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was delightful. I met John Edwards three years ago. I liked him. I'd like to meet Obama.”

He suggested we have dinner, just as we used to do once a month. “I’m free on Tuesday for lunch, or Thursday, or Wednesday for dinner.” I told him I’d come get him on Friday but then at the last moment I couldn’t, I said I would reschedule but didn’t and half thought that might be the end of it.

Then two weeks later he sent another message saying he was free on the following Friday. I wondered why he cared so much. We had had a minor argument a few years ago, I can barely remember what it was, but I wondered if he wanted to resolve it. I resigned myself and got him. He was standing outside the parish as always, in an A’s baseball cap, his ancient windbreaker, talking to one of one of the homeless people In line for food at St. Anthony’s.

The neighborhood looked worse since I’d lived there, 15 years ago. The new apartment buildings then now looked worn, their prefabricated fronts looked prefabricated, the seams and joints all showing through, the color fading, dripping away. The mask was coming undone. When they first opened, designed as low-income housing, those buildings held such promise; just the look of newness in that part of town, held such promise and all the politicians foretold a new day.

Once on a campaign tour with TH we walked down Eddy Street; the cops pointed out this improvement and that safe street corner. A new day they told him, but privately they sneered, at him and at optimism. “It’s bullshit, the crime is worse than ever,” a patrolman told me between smiles. Still, you thought it had to get better. How long could the poor hang on in the second or third most expensive city in the country. There would be no market for drug dealers....

Plus the faux gentility is all sweated out. This city loves to say it loves the poor “we love you, poor people, and we have every program for you, every good intention, right up to the Speakers door, but you need to be heard not seen. See that’s the way we can all get along. Yes, let’s play a little game. Hide and seek. You hide and we’ll find you. Go along now.”

But 15 years ago the Laotians and Cambodians and Burmese were all moving in. They were filling up the schools in the Tenderloin and they didn’t tolerate crime, to the extent they could resist. But apparently the promise could not be kept, can never be kept, only the endless programs for the heavily laden, those fly traps for hope, and so the neighborhood remains rich in crime and loss.

* * *

My friend got in the car and right away confirmed it all. “The cops think of it like sand and whatever you make better falls away, the SROs are jammed, there are more stabbings and murders and assaults than ever.”

He looked gaunt; I didn’t want to look at him closely. And there was a familiar smell around him that I couldn’t identify at first. We drove into the Mission, and on the way he told me about his graphologist, who had examined his handwriting, and how he was this on the Miller Briggs and that on the Ennagram test. I’m a number 3, he said conclusively, as though he were in line at the sandwich counter. I want to be judged by my appearance but I’m also a leader.

He’s always loved to tell the truth about himself, and startle you with self-criticism. I’m a compulsive truth teller he said and I remember that the very first day I met him he confessed he was having a sexual relationship with a African America over in Oakland. The man worked as a blood taker at a local hospital. He showed me pictures of him.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this, he said. You won’t print it will you? No I said and I didn’t. Nor when he told me later about his adventures down in San Carlos at the gay movie houses where he could slide in during the middle of the afternoon and get a blow job in the dark and anonyme....

The bishop is a number 7, he went on. Father F. is a 1. He added that F. had gone to Rome and become a huge success.

How is your faith these days, I asked.

“Never been better, Brother. I feel very close to God.” And he added, “He has not forsaken me, after all...”

His is a simple faith, no more than an acquired conviction that the voices he hears are His and correct and when he needs reassurance he hears them. But this faith gives him no self knowledge. A why but not a who. So he finds refuge in the ennagrams, the graphologist, hazel-eyed seers in the street, his psychiatrist — a Norwegian who tells him how to deal with say, his brother’s death, but also how to think about death.

We stopped at a Tea House he used to go when he lived at St. Anne’s. I dropped him off, parked, and returned. He was seated on the banquette, his back to a mirror that stretched the length of the restaurant. He’d taken his cap off and scanned the room with the air of a man accustomed to being not just regarded but honored. His greatest hope has always been that he would be beloved by this city to which he has given so much. But no one notices him anymore, no one knows who the man is, and his anonymity sometimes hurts him....

There was a family at the next table, no doubt from Bernal, the man showing his kids a new i-phone, which had come to stores just the day before. They were chattering on about the coming week at Camp Mather, the city’s gift to the upper middle class, a lodge and lake near Yosemite.

My friend went on about the mayor, the new DA and the police. The gossip about Supervisor Jew lives. I asked about the mayor’s scandal, sleeping with his campaign manager’s wife, his best friends’ wife, the stories of his cocaine use, and still the people love him, seventy percent of more. How is it possible that character isn’t any issue?

“It never was,” he said. “Not here. The people love him. When he opened City Hall to gay marriage he could do no wrong. But that’s what cost the Democrats the election....”

I was surprise to hear him say it. I always imagined him tied to the establishment but he seemed genuinely offended that the mayor had slithered out of his scandal. “Something about this town,” he went on. “Character has never counted for much, it’s the nature of seaports.

The conservation turned to the Church and how it had become so rife with pederasty. I didn’t know it was as bad as it was, he said.

I didn’t believe him, but he said it so sincerely that it occurred to me that whatever he knew or might have known he believed it was all new knowledge. We tried to remember when news of the scandals began. He told me how bad it was still in LA. “There are 200 or so bad priests that we know of.”

How many here? I asked.

He looked at me and shook his head, as if it suddenly occurred to him that I might write about it.

I’m a compulsive truth teller, he said to me once and he said it again on the way to the restaurant.

He also wanted to tell me the five top women he hated. Kid stars mostly. Paris Hilton was at the top of his Five although he told me that someone had suggested he show true compassion and send her a note. He did, a few lines about how she was a good person and should not let herself get down about being in jail. "She didn't write me back," he said

He ate slowly. From time to time he looked off, his eye followed someone and then just stopped. I noticed the terrible bruise spots on the underside of his arm, from his illnesses I assumed. He went on about that again and then the waiter asked he wanted desert. No, he didn’t want any but could they wrap what was left on his plate. He looked out of breath and owl like in his oversized glasses. He looked frightened and suddenly I remembered that scent, that smell my father shortly before he died.

I got the car; we drove back down mission street. I asked if he seen his old lover, the man he told me about the very first time I met, in the fall of 1985. The lover was African American and lived over in Oakland. Took blood at a local hospital. They were happy for a year or two. No, he hadn’t seen him, but had heard the man moved into a retirement home.

We were back at the end of the world. People were literally piled up on his doorstep. It took him a while to get out of the car. He was gracious as always, summed up his impressions of me, always in a positive light, always a father doling out the good news, even when there isn’t any. He made his way to the gate and stopped to chat with the people preparing for the night. ‘The coldest winter I ever spent’. But he didn’t just chat, as if to pass the time, but he asked them what they needed and could they make until morning and did they know of the free beds over on Leavenworth or others over at Episcopal Sanctuary. He was in no hurry. The good Franciscan was doing his work say what else you will.

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