San Francisco is a divided city, and the African-American neighborhood of Bay View/Hunters Point is where it projects its fears and its power-plant pollution. Tim has wanted to take me there for months. It’s Red Hook without the architecture or the Statue of Liberty, he says, but 3,000 miles from Brooklyn we have to take what Red Hook we can get.
Nosing around the Allemand Brothers boatyard, we meet El coming back from a jog around the India Basin Shoreline Park. He is imposing and friendly, with long white hair and sideburns, and a sports announcer’s voice. Tim asks him about the rumors that the boatyard is going to close.
“This used to be a full union boatyard,” he says. “John and Flip, the brothers, have been here for sixty years. John died in December. He would have been 93.” He jerks a thumb at the office shack, and we hear radio sports. “Now it depends what Flip wants to do with the place.”
He points to a tall crane. “John was driving that thing until two weeks before he died.”
“Sounds like Sal,” I say.
“My 78-year old landlord is like a mountain goat,” Tim explains, “Still running a sawmill and a dozen building projects.”
El shrugs. “See, Flip would say he’s just a kid.”
El lives on a houseboat moored to the boatyard slip. It’s far removed from the architect’s million-dollar restored Icelandic car ferry a few miles up the bay, but even though it looks like a floating toolshed, Tim is drawn to it. For as long as I’ve known him, he has wanted to live on a houseboat. “I take it out once a year to scrub it down and and repaint it,” El says. “Wooden boats, you have to maintain them.”
We have permission to wander. Tim admires the lines of the Taba II, a peeling wooden sailboat. Tacked to the transom is a faded photo of its glory days under sail. It turns out to be the first boat that John and Flip built, in the 1930s, and it got them their first boatyard jobs.
“To me, this is the heart of San Francisco,” El says. “The water. The bay.”
It may be, but its arteries are clogged. Allemand Brothers is in the shadow of the huge Navy Yard, once the largest shipyard on the west coast and now toxic landfill. On the other side, there’s a huge, coal-burning electricity plant. They’ve built a narrow concrete path around it that goes out to a pretty but polluted salt-marsh, where the shore birds pick their way. Fishermen of the apocalypse haul catch from the power plant’s cooling streams.
The few factories add more filth to the air, and on the radio later that day we hear a fierce Hunters Point grandmother talk about what this has done to the kids. Asthma, itchy welts, and nosebleeds. Stunted growth. Learning trouble. Visits to the emergency room, where doctors hesitate before bringing out expensive oxygen tents for the Medicaid patients. She believed them, she said, when they told it her it was caused by genetics, ignorance, and poor diet in their community. Only when the healthy Asian immigrant kids came down with the same illnesses after a few years in the projects did she start to fight to get the power plant closed down.
A Saturday farmer’s market opened in Bay View a few weeks ago. It’s struggling, but it marks the first time in years that fresh fruit and vegetables haven’t been a bus ride away.
We passed a store that was as dark and low and cluttered as a Bolivian bodega. The sign said “Keys cut”, so I went in. Inside was festive, with kids milling around the soda coolers and loud weekend chats. The owner belly-laughed when I asked him to copy my mailbox key.
“Oh, I gotta change that sign,” he said. A very old man in a walking frame stood at the counter.
“WHAT?” he said.
“Just a second. He don’t hear so good. I have to tell him again,” said the store owner. “I said, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LOUIS. MAY YOU HAVE _BLESSINGS_ ON THIS BEAUTIFUL DAY.” The old birthday boy shuffled out, and the owner turned back to me. “Now, I _had_ a key cutting machine. Then I gave a guy the key to service it. And he never came back! Can you believe that? He took my key!” He shakes his head. “Same thing–I had a salting machine. You know what that is? Well, I gave it to a guy to fix–and _he_ never came back.” Belly laugh. “I say, let it go. It’s not worth caring. They didn’t take from me that which is most precious to me, my life, or my faith.”
He looked just like Cedric the Entertainer. A small boy tried to take the bag of snacks he’d paid for, but the store owner held it. “Now, just a second. I was talking, and I didn’t pay attention to who paid me. Was it you? I gotta make sure the _right person_ gets the change.” The kid nodded, still trying to slide the plastic bag from under the huge hand. “See this boy? This boy is a great fisherman. Been fishing his whole life. And he’s getting pretty good. The bigger he gets, the better he gets. Ain’t that right?” The boy nodded again, and escaped with his change and his bag of treats.
“My name is Sam,” said the store owner, and we shook hands. Sam held up a empty sachet. “None of that soda for me. I’m drinking an energy and vitamin supplement. GIN-seng.” I examined the empty packet. “I take no sugar, no refined flour in my diet. No sir. See, I used to weigh 495 pounds.” I goggle, and he laughs again. “I’m down two hundred.”
“You must have covered that wall of coolers.”
“That’s right! He sure did!” Sam’s friend said. “There’s a photo of him from a few years back in front of this great big pick-up truck, and he just about covers it.”
“Covers it. That’s right,” said Sam, and preened. “And never had a health problem.”
I asked what made him change, and he took it as a diet question.
“I’d tried just about everything. Nothing worked. Then I finally found this thing–it’s kind of like the Twelve Steps. With a spiritual aspect. With faith, I can take each new day, count my rich blessings in this beautiful life. I’ve been running this store for thirty-one years. Thank the Lord for every day.”
There’s a sculptor’s yard next-door to Sam’s. It’s stacked high with ship’s containers, each rented out to artists who weld and twist and hammer giant sculptures for Burning Man. The entrance is festooned with metal stars. An middle-aged white guy in rainbow braces showed us some kind of a cage, possibly for giant desert squirrels. When he realized blowtorches weren’t part of our repertoire, he lost interest faster than I did. We watched a nice young man strap a huge glittery mattress to the top of a truck, and moved on.
Outside, Louis, the old birthday boy, watched his family load picnic supplies in the back of their car.