Sunday, February 18, 2007

John-Ivan Palmer ~ Intellectual Seekers in the Notorious Tenderloin, San Francisco


Late one night in the Tenderloin, 1968, my girlfriend (if you could call her that) was talking to one of her topless-bottomless dancing friends at an unlicensed bottle club deceptively called Coffee Ron. I ignored the riffraff staring at me for reading a book. Suddenly three men pulled a gun on the manager, and beat up the bartender who tried to intervene. Panic, screaming. My two lady escorts rushed behind me for protection. I held the Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism (1947) over my chest in an equally absurd attempt to protect myself from bullets.

It was horrible what happened next. The manager, a naive ex-prize fighter named Gene Echols, was beaten almost to death. [1] In the hospital for weeks. Of course no one called the police, and when they asked questions afterward, no one talked. This was a typical night in the Tenderloin shortly after the Summer of Love.

Around the time I was living in that black hole, a San Francisco journalist wrote, "The Tenderloin seems overwhelming and eternal and no one can really say for sure what is happening within its sprawling reaches." [2] As close as most people got was reading about it in the paper - salacious stories of sordid sex, thug wars, and murder. Having lived there, I can tell you it was indeed a horrific place. But the cost of living was cheap.

Some people, however, liked the thrill. There's nothing like a little danger to enhance your whoring. If you were brave enough to enter those sprawling reaches of several dozen square blocks, the open depravity was something to behold. In an atmosphere where violence was taken for granted, people acted out their paraphilias on bar stools at noon, and boiled methamphetamine hydrochloride over snifter candles in front of nude dancers at midnight. Or maybe it was the reverse. It didn't matter. Police acted mostly as undertakers, picking up the bodies, both dead and alive, or, like Echols, in some state of suspension in between. In spite of all this, it was still a lure to a certain kind of tourist. A businessman attending a dental supply convention at the nearby Hilton could venture a few blocks over to the Why Not at 393 Eddy Street for a 60-second sex act with someone who looked exactly like a woman. Adrenalin on the house.

Few would have seen this nihilistic gulch as an intellectual environment, but I discovered otherwise, and it might say something about all environments that appear hostile to higher inquiry, from a juche prison to a Basiji checkpoint. Among the predators and the prey, carefully hiding among the junkies and the slashers, was a thin scattering of stoned entomologists, hopped up Latinists, whorehouse biblical scholars, and obsessed littérateurs. Unlike the happy hedonists of the Haight, these were haunted ascetics who traded physical comfort and safety for the ever more lavish luxury of time itself.

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