by Jennifer Sey
I took the kids to Panhandle Park this morning. A usual occurrence. We go when the sun is out to throw the baseball around. Virgil pitches, I hit and Wyatt mans the outfield. Today we had a few extra players. My brother Chris and his two little guys joined us, creating more chaos, and fun, than normal. Anyway, all of this is to say, it was a beautiful day and we were having a pleasant time of it.
You get used to the fact that there are always vagrants lingering with 40 ouncers of malt liquor, matted hair and mangy dogs. They're generally fairly benign. I guess it's a San Francisco thing. I've lived near that panhandle, which shoots east off of Golden Gate Park, for almost 20 years. They gather in groups, near the park benches. They drink their forties, talk smack to each other and generally leave the joggers, kids and vast array of health seeking exercisers alone.
Today a bigger group had gathered. They were each of them identical in layers of sooty clothing, dreadlocked hair, smudged faces and a Pigpen like cloud hovering. We settled in not too far to begin our games. I didn't think twice about being close. I suppose a suburbanite might have balked. But like I said, they are fixtures of panhandle life and I barely pay them any mind. Like dogs, dog poop and bicyclists who would just assume mow you down if you cross the dotted white line on the bike path as key your SUV. (I don't have an SUV. They're not well regarded in these parts, which isn't why I don't have one. I don't have one because I don't regard them highly. But wouldn't key one. Some of the SF-ers are more aggressive in their eco-stance. But I digress...)
Wyatt and my brother are playing catch. Virgil is teaching his nephews how to hold the bat. I'm going back and forth between the two sects. When I hear: "You did this. We didn't do this man! You did this to yourself!!" I turn and two of the homeless men have a third on the ground and they are stomping on his head. I'm floored. I'm not scared. But don't really want my kids witnessing this not that they are even paying any attention to it. I've never seen any kind of outbreak, the group turning against a member, in all my time living here. At no point do I fear for our safety. Oddly no one really pays it the whole thing any mind. We are trained to tune these people out. They are everywhere. There's a general notion that some of them have chosen this life, that if they were offered something different they would not accept. They are not like the homeless people you encounter downtown. They don’t ask for money. They don’t get in your face and demand to be seen.
I don't know if I buy into this "they chose it" stance. I suspect many are runaways, many are mentally ill. I don't hold it against them that they drink. I'd drink if I lived in the park and slept in a tunnel. They don't ask for money. It's a strange dynamic. They don't want to be seen, it seems.
So it's not terribly surprising that no one stops. No one appears to even notice. When they're done kicking him in the head, which takes maybe a minute, the crowd of them disperses. The guy who was beaten gets up, stumbles around (was he stumbling because he was drunk? or because his head was smashed?), his face is bleeding but not very much. He walks in a circle for a bit and then plants himself and seems to doze off on his back. I play catch.
But then I can't. What if he has a horrible head injury and he's actually dying right in front of us? I get the feeling that I am breaking some code between the Golden Gate Park homeless and it's nearby denizens by just seeing him. And calling the police. But I do. My brother is surprised. Not because he lacks empathy. This he does not. It's just that no one does this. You're not supposed to notice them. They want it this way. If you don't notice them you won't care if they drink and smoke pot in the park. And you also won't call the police if one appears down for the count. There's good and bad for them in this silent pact. What's in it for those of us who live here, I'm not sure other than our liberal mindedness would be proven disingenuous if we were to chase them from their 'home' when they're not bothering us.
After calling 911, I have a fleeting thought - am I calling because I saw that show "What would you do?" on TV last weekend? Where terrible pranks are played on unsuspecting passersby. A nasty act (performed by an actor) is performed upon some other actor - a fat woman is counseled by a waitress that she shouldn't order a cheeseburger, a teenage girl is denied birth control by a pharmacist because he is morally opposed - to see if the witnesses will intervene. Many do not. Some do. I hope this is not why I call, for fear of appearing heartless on some candid camera type of show. But if it is, I guess the show's not all prurient badness.
The police and an ambulance are there in seconds. Go San Francisco. They put the man on a stretcher and take him away. I approach and tell them it was me who had called. They take down what I know. They are un-phased. Of course. No one was murdered. It's a beautiful day in the park.
I'm left wondering if he's ok. I supposed I'll never know. I'm left wondering why they kicked him. And where they went when they wandered off. And why why why I've only chosen to notice, really notice, these people for the first time today, after two decades of San Francisco life. And what I do now that I have.