Friday, August 31, 2007

Mac and Tuna Memories

Rosa made macaroni and tuna for lunch. I love this dish, and it brings back old memories.

From 1993 to 1998 I lived in a loft apartment at the corner of 6th and Market streets in San Francisco. It was a rough neighborhood, one that the travel books advised tourists to avoid. Drug dealers, junkies and alcoholics, homeless people, nutcases and just plain down on their luck folks lived in this neighborhood. There were often homeless people - including children, at times, and once a boy and a dog - sleeping in the doorway of my building, and I'd have to step over them to get in. It's incredible to me that we could have homeless children in America, but we do. Most are teenagers, but some are as young as eleven or twelve. I volunteered for a while at the Larkin Street Youth Center and I saw many of them.

Once I had to step over a man who was seizing, foaming at the mouth, blocking the doorway to my building. Often I had to step over or around human waste.

At night I would hear the street people fighting, bottles breaking, drug dealers clapping out their codes, police sirens. Black dust from car exhaust came in through the window and formed sludgy little dust balls. The smells on the street were disgusting at times.

So why did I live there? It was cheap. The rent was only $550 a month when I moved in - cheap for San Francisco. The landlord, a burly fellow named Rocky who was gradually buying up many of the nearby buildings and renovating them, allowed me to pay my rent bi-weekly when I couldn't manage the entire month at once. Since I was a bike messenger at the time, riding 10 hours a day through San Francisco traffic for a meager paycheck, the low rent was very helpful.

Also, there were a few interesting features to the neighborhood. On the ground floor of the building there was a legendary burrito joint called Taqueria Cancun. My Irish friend Ian, another messenger who worked with me and was my closest friend in those days, used to drop by my apartment regularly and drag me downstairs for Cancun's fiery, sauce and cheese covered, $2.75 "wetback burrito."

Next to Cancun was a Cambodian-owned donut shop that made good chocolate twists and cake donuts, and beyond that a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint called Tu-Lan that was so delicious that I still compare all Asian dishes to it. I used to eat at Tu-Lan three times a week or more. I'd get a delicious place of curried shrimp fried rice - a big mound of yellow rice with eggs and chock full of shrimp - for $4.75.

Here's a photo of the lunch counter at Tu-Lan. It's a small restaurant, and I often had to stand in the doorway, waiting for a table or a stool to open up. Either that or go up to the second floor, where they have a few extra tables, but where the kitchen staff also chop the vegetables and meat.

Also, my building itself wasn't too bad. It was a haven to artists and working class folks. Yes, I got tired of sharing bathrooms and showers with the entire floor (actually the showers were shared by two floors) but I met some interesting people there, including the young woman who would later become my wife.

The building is still there, with its artists and odd characters, leading a very slow process of gentrification along the Sixth Street corridor. That's it on the right.

We're getting to the mac and tuna. Be patient.

A few doors down from Tu-Lan on Sixth Street was a small neighborhood market called Tom's Groceries. Tom's was utterly unique in this area because they did not sell liquor. Tom, a tall, elderly black man with a blond Swedish wife, did not want to contribute to the degradation of the neighborhood, so he steadfastly refused to sell beer, wine or spirits of any kind. Tom's truly was a grocery store: milk, vegetables and fruits, sodas, and a number of cheap prepared foods that were popular among the street people and the residential hotel residents.

One of the prepared foods that Tom's sold was - you guessed it - mac and tuna, or Tuna Mac as Tom called it. I don't think it was more than $1.50 a dish, in cellophane-covered Styrofoam dishes in the fridge. Whenever I needed a hot and filling snack late at night, I'd go down to Tom's and get a Tuna Mac, then pop it in my microwave and add a dash of hot sauce.

I still think of those days when Rosa makes mac and tuna. It's funny how some things stick with you, years later.

I have another tale to tell about Tom's Groceries, if you're interested.

As I said, in those days I was a full time bike messenger. For a while I also drove a Yellow Cab on the weekends, doing the day shift that all rookies get, and I sometimes worked as a bouncer at the Bottom of the Hill club on Friday and Saturday nights. Jim, one of our dispatchers at Professional Messenger, got me that job. Mostly I would just patrol the club with an extra long flashlight in my hand, making sure no one made trouble or tried to sneak in. For a five hour shift - 8 pm to 1 am - they'd pay me $80, and when I swept the club after closing time there was often money on the floor. That's the bouncer's version of job perks.

Even with three jobs and occasional financial assistance from my mom, I was always looking for a way to earn a little more money, so I once asked Tom if he needed any else at his store. He hired me. I don't know if he really needed another person, since he already had his son Tom Jr., his Swedish wife, and three lesbians in boots and flannel shirts, or if he was just helping me out.

Tom's was halfway down the block on Sixth Street, a rough stretch in a rough neighborhood. Even though Tom didn't sell liquor, he still got plenty of junkies and street people coming into the store. When the junkies had no money for dope they'd buy candy, since sugar in large quantities mimics the action of heroin and provides some relief from the jones, apparently. Shoplifting was always a problem.

The first day I started at Tom's, one of the women showed me the layout of the store and the back room. Rather than teach me how to work the register or stock the shelves, she taught me the security procedures. She pointed out the locations of the mirrors, and how to use them to monitor the customers at all times. Then she walked me around the store and showed me all the hidden weapons that the staff used to beat up shoplifters: a crowbar, a baseball bat, and a hammer. In case all that wasn't enough, Tom kept a shotgun and a .357 magnum pistol behind the counter.

"But we don't shoot the shoplifters of course," the girl explained to me. "We beat them up with the ball bat. We don't bother reporting it to the police because it happens so often that we'd spend all our time filling out reports, and the cops would get sick of it too. Just give them a few good whacks with the bat so that they know not to try it again."

I did work there one day, but the second day I told Tom that it was not the right job for me. It's not that I was afraid for my safety. I'd spent a lot of years in rough environments. I just didn't want to be in a position of having to beat up homeless people, junkies and crazies. I didn't need that kind of karma or emotional energy.

Some time later I read an article about Tom in the newspaper. It was one of those community interest pieces, describing how Tom had stayed in the neighborhood for so many years, working with the local merchants to bring about positive change. The article listed some of the challenges that Tom faced in that neighborhood. I learned that he had been forced to use that shotgun behind the counter more than once. Between he and his son they had shot five people over the years, and killed two, all in self defense.

Even after I'd moved to Oakland, I used to go to San Francisco for business or to check my P.O. box, and I always made it a point to go to Tu-Lan for lunch. One day I saw that Tom's had closed down. Tom had once told me that his wife had land in the countryside back in Sweden, and his dream was to move back there and sit on the porch with his wife, drinking lemonade and listening to the birds. I hope he is doing that now, just as I am doing it here in the lovely town of El Valle de Anton, Panama.

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