Inspired by life in the Tenderloin, one of our very own, Calder Lorenz wrote ‘One Way Down (Or Another).’ Read his reflection and personal views on the novel.
Most days, I’m in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, working with staff and volunteers and guests who all share in the labor, share in the love of St. Anthony’s Dining Room. It’s a kitchen that never really closes. It’s a kitchen that is open to the public three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Seven days a week. It serves as a shelter. A sanctuary. A community. Despite everything that swirls and storms on the outside, we are here, building relationships with our brothers and sisters. Everyone, all of us, in need of something, all of us, in need of each other.
I found this place, St. Anthony Foundation, in 2008. I was in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. I answered a Craigslist Ad. I applied for part-time work with their Technology Lab and ended up as a full time coordinator with their largest program, The Dining Room. It wasn’t entirely new work, my father had run a free kitchen in Baltimore when I was a teenager, my summers filled with sweeping and making sandwiches and sweltering days in the kitchen, but what was new, what was astonishing, was the size and space. It was the daily need. It was the sheer number of meals cooked and served. The astounding number of folks who waited in line. The intensity of the streets and the flashes of violence. The mosaic of what felt like little miracles.
When I tell people that we serve between 2,500 to 2,600 meals a day, there is almost always a pause. Sometimes a grin. Sometimes a narrowing of the eyes. Sometimes there is a prolonged shaking of the head. A “you’ve got to be kidding me.” And after all this time, that still feels like a normal thing to me. These reactions people have to this reality. These real contortions of disbelief. The folding of the hands. The leaning this way and that, as people search for the right response. The appropriate retort. It still feels real because it is unreasoned. It is unbelievable. Incompatible with a society, a state, a city, that holds the wealth and resources that we do.
In 2012, I left. I’d saved up to write my first novel. I took a break from San Francisco. I packed up and then went off to Canada. I rented a room, in a converted warehouse, in Montreal, Quebec. I drank wine and I rode a bicycle and I wrote. There were scars I needed to open. Experiences I needed to swim through. People I needed to resurrect and resuscitate. I needed the distance. And I found it. I needed the inherent hope that comes with a different type of social contract. The decency that comes with a country that invests and cares about things like Healthcare and Education and the Arts. It’s not perfect, nowhere is, but as Americans, we are taught to fight. We are taught to win. We are taught that once, a long time ago, this land was made for you and for me and for all those who will one day call it home. And that can be a powerful tool for change. But even the best fighters get heavy with their medals. They begin to miss a step here and there. They eventually fall if they are asked to fight, over and over and over again. If they are asked to fight the same fight. To struggle with the same damn opportunistic opponent.
By 2013, I’d returned to San Francisco. And after a time, I found myself where I am today. Back with St. Anthony’s Dining Room. There is the work of course. The coordination of volunteers. The distribution of resources. The transitioning of services so that we can meet the needs of our guests, an ever changing population. There is Job Training and Cooking and Cleaning. There are so many moving pieces when it comes to serving others. But that is not why you return day after day. At least not for me. There is a natural production of empathy that comes with working with and for others. There is coming face to face with what you want to see change. There is watching as others fall down. Sometimes over and over and over again. There is pulling each other back up in whatever way we can.
I’ve found this empathy production in my work with others and in the act of inventing stories. In the craft of sharing the living, breathing experiences of humanity that dance and laugh and fight to stay connected. This retelling comes from interacting with those who desperately want to be seen. To be valued. To be heard. These are the lifelines that we must honor and protect by any means necessary. Fictional. Non-fictional. This is not radical or new. This recounting is to be human. It allows us to share our stories. To tell our tales so that we might have the ability to come together and walk as others have walked. To know what others have known. To find the space to be someone other than ourselves.
The struggle I see, the struggle I know to be true, is more rooted in our ability to share what is not always pretty, or wanted. It can be hard to watch. It can be labeled, “dark.” It can be upsetting to see. But up against the act of isolation, or loneliness, or segregation that so many individuals experience; it’s simply a weightless undertaking. It can be as simple as picking up a book or asking someone how they are or even pausing and stopping and smiling, saying hello to say hello. Each of us intrinsically holding the right to be met where we’re at. It’s recognizing that our circumstances and traumas are as important to our story, as the twists and turns of our fate or fortune or journey through this life we all share.
It’s the act of care. The act of compassion. The act of helping others know that they are not alone. That there is always something to discover. That there is something to find. Somewhere you can start over.