Next Stop Wonderland

Written by Adrian Jenkins. Posted in Human Interest

Published on April 28, 2010 with 2 Comments

"The harmonies to be found in and around “the ‘Loin” are curiosities to be sure, a sometimes baffling array of dichotomies which somehow achieve something far deeper than the mere semblance or vacant suggestion of coexistence." Photo by Luke Thomas

By Adrian L. Jenkins

April 28, 2010

Dante Alighieri famously wrote of the three principal stations at which a soul that had been cleanly shorn of this mortal coil might find itself – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Each precinct was defined as a passing strange morality tale, as well as the allegorical lenses via which the more consistent vices and virtues of humankind might be poked, prodded and neatly summed with a great affect of curatorial care. The moral romanticism of these summaries were Dante’s shorthand for epically cataloging the best and worst of us all, as well as the sea change that occurs when those among us who are bad and perhaps even greatly flawed may stand in awe and contemplation of our apparent betters. In this regard, it is a flight of postulating fancy to wonder if perhaps Dante could have written his Divine Comedy by sitting with his laptop and staring out of his Tenderloin apartment window with the longing, loving and ultimately forgiving eyes of a schoolboy poet.

Having grown up on Chicago’s at times justifiably notorious West Side during the 70’s and 80’s, I believe myself to be something of an authority on “bad” neighborhoods, albeit with the bias via which personal experience anecdotally casts the lights of the familiar brightly upon that which should be strange . There are telling consistencies to be sure, and so from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of Mumbai, the indoctrinated and uninitiated alike can discern “high” living from “low”. Familiarity, however, is imbued with the capacities to breed either forgiveness or contempt. It is from these quietly warring wellsprings that the Tenderloin is unsparingly loved and loathed.

Misery perhaps does not love company so much as it adores the lavish affections of a fair and decent travelogue. Ask your average San Franciscan, native or otherwise, about the Tenderloin and the aura of a thing that has been dutifully demonized is almost instantly invoked. The mere mention of it seems to cast a potent and wafting spell, one which elicits moans of embarrassment usually reserved as a way of hazily chiding the hazarded citing of skeletal family secrets or the names of those presumed better off dead. There is a specter tangled like a badly wandered kite knotted up somewhere in the branching tendrils of every family tree, and among San Francisco’s family of neighborhoods the Tenderloin is indeed a crowned Cain that lords above the bad company of all the other aberrant children ever unwelcome amongst all the beautiful and goodly Abels – Hunter’s Point and sections of Western Addition. It is one of the very first commandments you are taught as part of the sacrament of being either a tourist or transplant here, and as to the latter it is truly the gospel truth of an earnestly urgent sermon: Don’t live in the Tenderloin. It is as if the selfsame inscription noted by Dante in his Comedy as posited above the very Gates of Hell were hung like some forebodingly shaped cloud over the Tenderloin:





Every villain, though, appears a monster from afar and all the more human up close. The Tenderloin is no different, and the quiet irony is that living there imparts not so much a gauzily romanticized sensibility about the area as it does the aforementioned notes of forgiveness. At its core it might be debated that patience is one of the elements most vital to true forgiveness. The swiftness of the more damaging emotions must be curbed, and a tolerance for offences and trespasses must be allotted their sway. A lasting bit of blindness has to take cold, so much so that particularly offending faults or frailties become overlooked if not altogether forgotten. Being a resident of the Tenderloin requires just this sort of forgiveness. The greater scrutiny must be cast upon the array of things that it is versus the kaleidoscope of all that it is not.

It is for one a splendid Babel, more so than it is frequently any sort of Sodom and Gomorrah. All the known languages of humankind are paraded about in a weightless kaleidoscope of upended white noise: Vietnamese, Spanish, Marathi, Cantonese, Urdu, Khmer, English, Maghreb Arabic, Ilokano – literally an ad infinitum chattering of mortal furies, kindnesses and urgencies. It is a heady intermingling of curses and prayers, and the juxtaposed flurry of all these vowels and consonants in their infinite variety can serve as a reminder of just how sundry humankind is. Humanity is underscored all along these oft maligned streets, and the reminders are plentiful as to the scope and scale of civilization and its miraculous reaches. Billowing among the atmospheres of all these gently buffeting dialects are dark hijabs and vibrantly diaphanous saris, sacred and purposeful fabrics which seem almost as if ornamental clouds to the strangely discordant arias being spoken all at once world. On the rare warm and sunny day it is indeed a bit like Around the World in a Day, a beautiful spill of immigrants and all the hand to mouth glories and humilities faithfully toted from the deeps of their motherlands.

There are, of course, elements of menace to be found here, let there be no mistake. This is, after all, a city. The whole of the variety of humanity is on clear display, its aberrant vices and susceptible virtues. There are friends and enemies to be found everywhere, as well as heroes and villains. The faces are mercurially kind and fearsome, and the visage of none is ever always writ in but one unchanging way – impassive cowls meld into hoarse peals of laughter, and jubilant reveries tumble down into infuriated miseries loud enough for several blocks to bear witness to.

Still, as to all aspects of life and living there is a certain balance to be gleaned, for amid the spastically acidic tempers of addicts made all the more virulent by the fogging senilities and warlike vertigoes of their addictions, there are as well the redemptive plumes of youth, holiness and art. Muslim men walk together with the elegance of the devout in small throngs to and from the local mosque before and after the hour of prayer. Sergeant John Macaulay Park rings with the din of small voices redolent with the quicksilver ethers of childhood as the Century strip club observes in looming muteness just across the street on Larkin. Murals practically vibrating with the multihued pulse of underground daydreams and vision quests adorn the outer walls of various tenements like bouquets of stone roses – flowers in the hair of the harlot that dares to decree that no matter how far she has fallen, yet and still she might be a heavenly creature. Nothing here is in complete or irreversible decay. Nothing is yet meritorious of wholly abandoned hope as to all who have entered here.

The harmonies to be found in and around “the ‘Loin” are curiosities to be sure, a sometimes baffling array of dichotomies which somehow achieve something far deeper than the mere semblance or vacant suggestion of coexistence. There is nobility in failure, and perhaps the most ironic thing about the Tenderloin is that it can’t be said to attest to any sort of aggregated mortal failure or shortcomings. It is hardly a final stop for the dregs of society, nor is it any proper variety of pitfall for those incapable of having nothing better or greater in store for themselves than the supposed monstrous thing that it is. Familiarity, it has been said, breeds contempt. As a willing resident of nearly six years within this demonized district, a neighborhood rendered as a Medusa by a great many, I’ll be among the first to say that there are worse places to live or even casually walk through. If the Tenderloin is to be classed as a monster, then by that very same token let it be a hopeful monster.

It isn’t heaven, no – but it certainly isn’t quite hell, either.

Adrian Jenkins

Bio Adrian L. Jenkins is a San Francisco-based writer who hails originally from Chicago. A self-described “Southern gentleman by default”, Adrian has contributed short works of fiction to Paris-based Purple Magazine and is presently at work on his first full-length novel. He lists as his personal heroes Helene Cixous, Paul Virilio, and – above all others - his mother and father and the beautifully insane myths and legends of their lives before they were his mother and father. Among his passions are truly old books, an impeccably cut suit, wise women on the steps of old Mexican churches and the unbreakable faith that can only be found in the eyes of tirelessly true friends.

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Comments for Next Stop Wonderland are now closed.

  1. Congratulations, Mr. Jenkins. You have compressed the fewest ideas into the most words.

  2. Do I really live here?
    It may not be long before snoots will look down on calling the Tenderloin “the TL” like they look down on calling San Francisco “Frisco”.
    Romanticizing poverty bugs me to be sure… but what a beautiful illusion– the imaginary world that poets and artists create.