Life in a Centennial ORS in San Francisco’s Tenderloin


Most mornings at Polk Manor I woke up to the sound of seagulls. Or car break-ins. Or nothing at all. Living in a single room in the Tenderloin is actually a lot quieter than you might think. For about three years, I lived alone in a century-old 8-by-10 hotel room above a radical feminist bookstore, a cluttered storefront that sold glittery negligee, and a massage parlor called Healing Winds that seemed never be open. If I hadn’t, I would probably be a completely different person.

Single rooms, or SROs, are perhaps the last remaining vestige of affordable housing in San Francisco. These are converted hotel rooms that have shared bathrooms and kitchens (if you’re lucky) and generally serve low-income residents. They are home to around 30,000 city residents and most of the units are in the Tenderloin, although a few are still in the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods. Once ubiquitous, in the 1970s the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency nearly wiped out them. Their “slum clearance” and “plague elimination” efforts have deprived low-income residents of stable housing, directly contributing to the city’s current homelessness crisis.

Even though my rent was $ 850 per month including utilities, I knew why most people didn’t opt ​​for hotel life. Whenever I mentioned the shared bathroom situation, they could barely contain their disgust. “I’m sorry, but I could never live like this,” said my coworker who slept in a dining room with a sheet partition.

However, I didn’t care what people said, I loved my apartment and my neighborhood – living there was special. My room had high ceilings, an ornate old fireplace, and a sink moved next to my bed. I didn’t have a kitchen, but I certainly had a rigged hot plate that set off the fire alarm. I draped my mantle in philodendrons and filled the empty corners with odds and ends, records and books. According to building manager Rick, who served in the Vietnam War and still wore military fatigues, the hotel was also haunted. Other tenants said they saw spirits, but I never did.

From my window you could see the crumbling aquatic mural of the O’Farrell Theater and the glow of the cheap dive bars waving to passers-by. On Friday and Saturday nights I drank whiskey and PBR at the Edinburgh Castle Pub; the next morning I was healing my hangover with watered down coffee and an omelet from Moulin’s, a Dutch themed restaurant run by an elderly Korean couple. Then I sorted through the Goodwill shelves on Geary and Larkin and left with full arms. To this day, I still believe it was Heaven on Earth.

Even though I lived alone, I never really felt alone at Polk Manor. A motley group of tenants occupied the building: they were all elderly artists, veterans and weird locals, the kind of people who cling to the fringes. With the exception of David, the baker from Costa Rica, and Daniel, the barber, everyone should have some form of social security. They probably found it strange that a 22 year old moved into Unit 405, but they still treated me with kindness, curiosity and respect.

One of the first tenants I met was the old woman who wore her Sunday bathing suit every day of the week. When I got in the elevator and told her my name, she said, “Ooh, this is sexy, it sounds like a siren! and gave me a big kiss on the cheek. She was friends with another tenant, a 5ft tall woman with a speech impediment who brought everyone’s packages to their doorstep. I could still spot her on Eddy Street because she was wearing a miniature backpack with a garish pink pom pom on it. Then there was the old painter in front of me, the one with the tortoiseshell kitten who was still running down the hall.

Even though I ended up forgetting everyone’s names over the years, I will always remember Gabriel’s. He occupied the unit next to mine, and it was so small and dark it must once have been a closet. He was a towering Native American man who carried a Harley-Davidson and had coarse, knotted hands from the construction work. Like many of the other seniors there, he didn’t speak to his family – it was always dark in our neighborhood during vacation.

Polk Manor, 743 Polk St., San Francisco

Ariana Bindman

One day I found Gabriel crying in the hallway. I asked him if he was okay and he sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor. He took out a picture of his daughter and told me how much he missed her and how he wanted to meet his grandchildren. After listening, he gave me an eagle feather, an abalone shell, and a bundle of sage, which I still have. Then he started asking me for money to buy medicine.

He could be unstable at times, from the medication I think. One evening he knocked on my door and yelled at me for taking a shower and leaving water all over the bathroom floor. But the next night, he again approached me shyly and asked me, “Are we still friends?” I nodded and said yes of course we are. That’s the last thing I said to him.

When he was killed on O’Farrell Street, his daughter and widow helped clean his room. She was in boxes up to her knees; it was amazing how much Gabriel was amassing. According to his widow who worked at the Irish gift shop near Powell, he collected dolls and talked to them – he had told her they were his friends.

After his death, it seemed like things were changing at Polk Manor. Rick, the longtime property manager, announced his retirement via the lobby bulletin board. His wife, whom he had just married less than 24 hours ago, died suddenly. He wrote that he was going back to New Jersey to mourn and most of us wouldn’t miss him. In a way, I was happy.

Maybe a year later, when I packed my bags and moved in with a boyfriend to Oakland, I felt like a chapter in my young adult life was over. For obvious reasons, the world now seems more complicated. The Goodwill on Geary has closed, the gay bars are all gone, as are many Polk Manor residents who have wandered the streets of the city. I still wish I ever dialed 777 for Healing Winds, and I always wish I could remember everyone’s names. Like old friends, the neighborhoods we know and love change and move forward, far, far away, until they become like bright neon lights in the distance.

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