Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Gun on Hampshire Street

1. This summer, we moved back to San Francisco's Mission district after a year-long sojourn in suburban Palo Alto. Three weeks ago we were putting my son to bed. He was finally drifting off, and so was I. The heavy curtains were pulled shut and it was very dark in the room. I heard sounds outside but they were phantasmagoric nighttime city sounds, spectral sirens and echoing shouts and groaning buses.

2. Then I heard a string of words, blurry but filled with fear. My eyes flew open and I was awake. The next words were absolutely clear. "He has a gun! He has a gun!"

3. We've met most of our neighbors on Hampshire Street. There's the Mexican family of six above us, who share their three small rooms with another family of three, a mother and two children who are not supposed to be there, according to the lease, who slip in and out of the apartment like ninjas. Next to them, there are the five (or six, or seven, or four?) almost-certainly undocumented Mexican men, who also live as invisibly as possible, running shadowy errands at all hours of the night. There's the nice, professional, Euro-American lesbian couple in the apartment next to ours. There's the childless, biracial, heterosexual couple next door, one an architect (I think), the other a composer (I think) who listens to Satie and Debussy in their bamboo backyard garden. On the corner, there's the self-appointed Chairman of the imaginary Hampshire Street Sidewalk Gardening Society, a gray-bearded gay man who always dresses in black from head to toe and spends his weekends trimming the leaves and watering the soil of the potted plants that line our street. There's the elderly Chinese woman who butchers and plucks chickens on her stoop, streaking the sidewalk with wine-dark blood and bone-white feathers. Then there is the house directly across from ours, the one whose picture window is covered by the proud pirate banner of the Oakland Raiders. I don't know how many people live there. I see and know the two matriarchs, one Latina, the other white. There are two very young kids, one toddler and one baby. There are two (?) pre-teen girls. There are many teenage boys, boxer shorts always visible above the low line of their jeans. Only once have have I seen a grown man enter the house.

4. Liko was awake and I was awake and my wife was awake. I crossed my arm over them and told them to lie still, and we waited. I waited for one minute, my eyes on the clock. I didn't hear anything else. No shots. There were noises of misery, but they were subdued. I asked Liko and my wife to stay where they were and I went to the window. I parted the curtains. I found our street carpeted with police cars from one end of the block to the other, their lights silently flashing. I could see a line of civilian cars beyond them, stalled and waiting. I was disoriented. How could I have not heard the police arrive? Why were they there? I watched. Two of the young men who lived across the street were on their stomachs, their hands cuffed behind their backs. One of the boys, the older of the two, had an officer sitting on him, knee in the small of his back. I looked for guns. The police had drawn theirs, shadows in their hands. There were no other weapons that I could see. Now I was aware of one of the mothers who lived there, whom I'll call Maria. Maria was hysterical, standing over the police and her sons, now crying. It was her voice that I had heard, shouting about the gun. "Daddy?" said my son. He had gotten off the bed and was standing next to me, his face next to mine against the window, taking in the cars, the police, the guns. I put my arm around him but I didn't tell him to go back to bed. Part of me wanted for him to witness what was happening, so that he would know these things happened. "Did the police get the bad guys?" he asked.

5. I went outside. The stepfather of the girls who live upstairs was already there on the sidewalk. He doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Spanish, but in a roundabout sign-language and Spanglish way we shared what we knew, which was practically nothing. We watched as the boys across the street were hauled to their feet and pushed into the backs of police cars. We watched as the mother fled up her stoop and ran screaming into her house, wrapped in the arms of a man I had never seen before. One by one the police cars pulled away and the backed-up traffic trickled slowly down our street, the drivers' eyes wide, wondering if they had taken a wrong turn into the wrong neighborhood. Then everything was still and quiet and dark, and we, the other father and I, slipped inside, returned to our families, not knowing what had happened in front of our building.

6. That morning I was angry at the families across the street. I assumed many things. I assumed the gun in question belonged to one of the boys and that they had been engaged in some kind of criminal activity that brought the police down on them. This hadn't been my first encounter with the neighborhood's simmering violence, and I was angry with myself for having moved there and exposed my son to these things and other things, from the trash on the street to the stink of urine that we walked through on our way to school. I pledged to move back to Palo Alto as quickly as possible.

7. The following weekend one of the girls upstairs had a birthday party. They grilled and shared their steak and corn with us, and I brought up a six-pack of beer. My wife and son played a board game with the birthday girl. Then we strung up a homemade Spongebob piƱata on the sidewalk and the kids took turns pounding on it with a baseball bat, enraged one minute and laughing the next. I stood there with beer in my hand. I stopped watching the kids. Instead I was looking across the street. The matriarchs were on their stoop with the youngest kids. They waved at me and I waved back. Then I crossed the street.

8. I asked what had happened the other night. I wanted to know and felt I had a right to know what happens on my street. I was polite but underneath that, I was angry with them, and at myself, for exposing my son to violence. I expected to hear, I guess, that their sons had been the targets of a stealthy drug bust, which would explain why the police cars arrived silently on our street. I expected to hear that one of their sons had pulled a gun on the police. I suppose that some part of me wanted an apology. Not just for that, but for everything. All the shit we had to deal with in the Mission. I was so fucking sick of the filth and the stench and the criminality and the weapons. The night before, a father of two had been shot and killed in back of the restaurant where he worked, five blocks away from our building. He had been sitting in the alley taking a smoke break. The newspaper said he had been killed by two gang members; it seems he had been wearing the wrong colors. I wanted an apology for that. I wanted someone to be sorry. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I was remembering how I had almost been killed on my birthday, three weeks before my book was released, by three young men from the Mission. They had beaten me over the head with a tire iron and pointed a gun in my face. I wanted an apology for that, too. Someone had to be responsible. Why not the mothers of these dangerous children? If they're not responsible, who is?

9. Maria told me that her two teenage sons, the ones who had been arrested, had been in trouble with the police many times. The other mother, whom I'll call Nancy, sat with us. As Maria and I talked Nancy wove in stories of her own life on Hampshire Street. Nancy's seventeen-year-old son had been shot and killed in front of our building, I discovered. He had not been in a gang, she said. He hadn't done anything wrong, his mother claimed. He just got into a fight with the wrong guy. It was after Nancy's son had been killed that things seemed to go wrong with Maria's boys. They got angry. They were kicked out of school. They were arrested for stupid things related to fighting and vandalism. The older one became intensively, obsessively protective of his brother. I stood on their stoop, the beer can warm and tight in my hand. I held my head still and I listened, and the awareness grew in the back of my mind that I was a privileged idiot, a judgmental prick, a tourist, a gentrifier.

10. The night they were arrested, the two boys had been sitting on the stoop talking, just as I was with their mother as she told me this story. A police car glided down the street, slowed, and stopped. Out jumped a police officer. The cop knew the boys. He had arrested them before. He walked up the steps, his hand resting on his gun, and demanded to know what they were doing. The cop didn't know it was their home. He didn't know about Nancy's son, probably. He didn't know anything about them, except that they were known to him. Maria's oldest went off. He yelled at the police officer, told the cop to get the fuck away from his brother and away from his house. Yes, that was not a smart thing to do. Young men often do dumb things. The cop's partner called for backup. As cars arrived, the confrontation escalated. It got physical. Maria saw the flashing lights of the police cars through her curtains--like me, she hadn't heard sirens or heard the argument outside--and she raced out of the house and saw both her boys being thrown to the sidewalk. She didn't know why. She had been talking to them not 30 minutes before, and all had been peaceful. She saw her younger son struggling as he was pushed to the cement, and as she came out of the house she saw a cop pull his gun. That's when she screamed. That's when she shouted, "He has a gun! He has a gun!"

11. I don't know how much of this account to believe; my gut feeling is that Maria was telling as much of the truth as she knew. This much is certain: neither boy was armed. It was the police who had the guns on Hampshire Street, not the boys. It was police who drew weapons outside of my sleeping son's window. The brothers were booked that night, the younger for disorderly conduct, the older for resisting arrest. The older brother was taken to the hospital for minor injuries. When the boy, eighteen years old, emerged from the ER, he didn't see any police waiting for him. He asked the nurse where they cops had gone. "They left," she said, not looking at him. "Can I go?" he asked. "I guess so," said the nurse. The boy had to walk home from the hospital. He didn't have any money or a cell phone. He couldn't call his mother. His mother didn't know where he was. As Maria told me this story, I remembered my son's question. He asked me: "Did the police get the bad guys?" The bad guys.

12. Palo Alto is a funny place; maybe it's just typical. A friend of mine once said, "Nothing can ever go wrong in Palo Alto." The streets are clean and they smell great. The schools are excellent and safe. There are no homeless, there's no visible misery. You can't buy a home for under a million and a half dollars. Everyone works for Google or Facebook or Stanford or one of a hundred start-ups. Everyone's angling for their IPO. Disaster is something that happens to people you don't know. It's other people's children who are shot on sidewalks, other people's fathers who are shot in back alleys. And you know what? Disasters will happen, but I don't want them to happen to my son. I don't want him anywhere near disaster. I don't want to ever see him bleeding on a sidewalk. We're going to leave the Mission, or at least this street in the Mission. We're not staying. You can judge me for that if you want. You can call it "white flight." You can call it anything you want. But we're ultimately leaving. (I say "we" but I should make it clear this is what I want; my wife, for the record, has a different take on things, seems willing to put up with the things I won't.) That's our personal solution. For some, there are always personal solutions. Some of us have options. We can, for example, run away.

13. We're not going to leave because of Maria or Nancy or their sons. We're not leaving because of the families or the men upstairs, our friends and neighbors. We're leaving because of the police, or what they represent. We're fleeing the front line of a war that our society is waging against poor people. The Republicans have accused President Obama of "class warfare" for suggesting that maybe possibly we could ask America's richest people for a few pennies to help finance infrastructure, education, health care--and yes, the two wars and occupations we put on a global credit card, not to mention the militarization of the border with Mexico (where tens of thousands have died in a drug war that reaches into neighborhoods like the Mission). The rich are refusing. Places like Palo Alto are refusing. Let someone else pay, they say. They're explicit: Why, there are Americans who are supposedly too poor to pay any taxes at all! Parasites! That's not fair! Or--some, not just Democrats, whisper--let's just raise the debt ceiling. Let's put it on credit. We'll pay it off later, after our IPO, after the next election. After, later, someday. Let the children pay.

14. This morning I saw the rivulets of blood flowing across the sidewalk. There on the stoop squatted the old Chinese woman, a coffee-colored Americana headless at her feet. I said hello and she did not answer. Instead she turned her face and hunched her shoulders, as though ashamed of what she was doing. I walked more quickly and plunged my hands into my pockets, my footprints bloody on the cement behind me. I felt ashamed as well. Ashamed and angry.

For a less personal, more political take on the same issues, see Sally Kohn's op-ed in Friday's Washington Post, "President Obama shouldn’t be afraid of a little class warfare."


ND said...

Nice post, Jeremy. A very difficult situation. Your commitment to a better world places you in some vulnerability some times.

And I can totally understand wanting to leave the Mission. You don't have to go Palo Alto, though, do you? You could go someplace in between these extremes? Or has the disparity in the wealth in the US meant there is no middle in the San Francisco metro area?

I could help but notice a few sentences:

" . . . I crossed my arm over them and told them to lie still, and we waited. . . . I told Liko and my wife to stay where they were and I went to the window."

Why are you ordering your wife around? I ask not to be critical, but to say that women knowing how to deal with these situations and being present for them (not crying like Maria but dealing with them) is one key to fixing these issues. If you try to make your wife into a child, how can she do this? To help with the situation, she then has to contend both with the blocking by you in her house and with the difficult neighborhood situation.

I imagine it took some discussions with Liko afterwards to explain what happened as well?

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I wasn't ordering either of them around; I was just more awake than they were and slightly more aware of what was going on. When our positions have been reversed, I've relied on my wife for guidance.

Yeah, I know we don't have to move to PA. It's just that we PA is known to us and we kinda miss his school.

I have not discussed it with Liko.

Anonymous said...

As I read this, I kept cringing as at the thought of how the imaginary liberals and conservatives in my head would respond to this or that line; there's something here to offend everyone. That's why I'm probably incapable of writing something so gutsy. Thanks for telling the truth, man, and for being willing to learn and grow and fight in public. We should all be ashamed of what goes down in places like the Mission, but proud that there are some folks who try to make it better. Try to stick it out, if you can. Maybe you're helping gentrify the place, but maybe the presence of you and your family is a positive thing.

Colin said...

Interesting piece. This very succinctly captures the tension between wanting to do best for our families and living out broader social goals. Or not even necessarily social goals, just wanting to live in the city, while having the choice and ability to live elsewhere. I think it's a million little moments like this, which would make any reasonable person want to flee, that have hollowed the middle out of our great cities.

I thought the format was interesting; the numbers made it feel like a legal pleading. Was that your intention?

Kyddryn said...

Beautiful. And sad.

I don't see it as running away, as "white flight" (I never heard that before)...I see it as doing what you need to to give your family the best, safest home you can.

What's wrong with that? Who says we are obligated to remain in dangerous places when we have the means to get out? Wouldn't every one of the Mexicans, Chinese, Persons of African Descent, or other ethnicities get the hell out if they could? Doesn't everyone strive to find safety, community, a place to raise their kids without fearing racism, bigotry, profiling, and/or heavy-handedness on the part of the authorities?

You made a presumption of guilt based on your surroundings, history, and what you've been taught/socialized to believe (and then are told is wrong by the very same society that taught you to believe it in the first place). At least you were willing to listen and hear Maria's truth rather than sit and simmer in silence. Good onya.

Shade and Sweetwater,

Anonymous said...


A thoughful tale and reflection on the situation, that addresses the complexities and challenges of urban living. I would also echo the thought that there are many options between the Mission and Palo Alto, especially in a city like SF.

And I wouldn't be too concerned about "white flight." You want to leave the neighborhood because of the danger from violence and the negative effects of poverty and social neglect, not because your neighbors aren't white. And plenty of people of color are right with you - Ta-Nehisi Coates has writen about the fact that African-Americans also want to leave bad neighborhoods to find better schools and safer places to raise their kids. The notion that diversity equals the ghetto is a false one.

We live in a relatively high-end neighborhood in Seattle, but one with fair diversity and a lot of urban cross-over. It is safe enough that I don't fear gunfire, but members of the local homeless population wander down the street regularly and I have found used needles in the backyard (carefully capped and placed in the trash-can - I guess even heroin addicts are polite in Seattle). It means that we cannot let our kids walk to the park by themselves as I did when I was there age. But they have also learned important life lessons - like the fact that the homeless folks include kind, decent people we bring cookies to, and dangerous people we avoid. There is a balance between safety and isolation that we all confront in sorting out the best way to raise our children.


PS - the economist in me cringes a bit at "Let's put it on credit. We'll pay it off later. . . After, later, someday. Let the children pay." There are good, solid reasons why you expand borrowing in a bad economic slump and worry about paying off the debt when things recover - but that is another conversation, for another day.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

John, I'm just saying that we should consider raising taxes before we consider raising the debt ceiling, or at least consider them in tandem. I have no objection to taking on debt during a recession, of course, as long as it comes with other measures. The fact that raising the debt ceiling is more politically viable than raising taxes on the superrich speaks volumes about our political culture, in my view.

I think it's funny (just from a personal POV) that two commentators seem to think it's either Palo Alto or the Mission for us--those just happen to have been the two most recent places where my family has lived. But they're total opposites, and the differences are instructive, which is why I dwell on them. (I've actually wanted to move to Berkeley for years...but my wife ain't into it.)

This piece is not primarily about race--it's about social class. Yes, there's diversity in the MIssion, but, as you point out, that's true in most urban communities. Palo Alto is actually very diverse, in terms of race and culture. My son's class in PA was much more racially diverse than his class in San Francisco (to my surprise), with no one ethnic group dominant. But PA was educationally and economically homogenous--lots of Stanford grads making big bucks. There are immigrant communities (of mostly Indians, Chinese, and Japanese), but they are highly educated and well-compensated immigrant communities. In fact, diversity in our urban lives has been a given for years. So the choice for us isn't about diversity per se.

Now that I'm thinking about it, this piece is really about empathy between social classes, on both individual and societal levels.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I just realized I should respond to Colin: That's an interesting interpretation! It was selected subconsciously. It's actually a device we've used quite a number of times here at Daddy Dialectic, by me and other contributors.

Colin said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I'm a new reader (and have a hard enough time keeping up with current posts, much less getting into the archives), so that's the first I had seen of that device. I dig the writing here and look forward to more.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

You know, honestly, it's really a sign that blog entries are essentially first drafts...or lazy writing, if you want to be uncharitable about it. If I were to turn this into an essay, I'd probably weave it all together more tightly and ditch the numbers. said...

Jeremy - I feel what you're saying. I've spent my life in Brooklyn, where you balance the good and bad of urban all the time. We're looking to move and are thinking a lot of the same things you are mentioning. I will point out that a lot of the ideas drifting about don't stand up to scrutiny. My in-laws live in a nice suburban community in New Jersey. They have more problems with drugs then I do in brooklyn. Head over to Coney Island and that won't be true anymore. Take some deep breaths and try to do a reality check. There isn't a reason to stay or go besides you want to and can. Class, race, gender, all of the categories we use blend together. IMHO there is no what to look at one without implying the others.

As for gentrification: all cities are in a state of constant flux. What you are doing is adding your stamp to that piece of a building you live in. Nothing more.

I actually rather liked the numbers in the post. I can see the Legal Brief point, but the language gave it a more poetic twist: clipped and intense rather then lyrical. In polishing an essay, to many people polish the life out of it. I prefer gramatical issues and spelling mistooks to bland.

Ex-"bad" kid said...

I grew-up in bad neighborhoods all my life, West Philly, even in the mission here, but one thing I know... evil happens in the absence of good. If your neighbors (especially children) don't see any good happening around them, what is there for them to aspire to. Don't leave, you and your family are agents of good, spend more time with those boys, root into that culture don't flee it, don't be another NIMBY idiot, cause for sure you're not a gentrifying idiot... which I don't believe is a bad thing. If you want proof how Gentrification can change the micro-world around you, come to my old neighborhood in Philly.

DiFisk said...

You do know that Palo Alto has some scary high teen suicide rates, right? Palo Alto, for all it's surface serenity, has it's own darkness. There is really no safe and good place in this world, all you can do is choose your poisons. Me, I work in Palo Alto and know that I couldn't live there. I take a deep breath of relief every single day when I come home to the Mission. But that's my choice, your own may be different.

Anonymous said...

That took a lot of guts to write. I'm kind of speechless. I want to be all profound, but this piece has me shook a little bit.


Daddy by Default said...

I have lived in 8 states in the past 15 years. I have found an affordable home in a "safe' neighborhood in every one of them, including in Los Angeles and New York.

I've also had my car and home burglarized in one of the safest neighborhoods in Seattle, WA.

I don't care who lives there, what race they belong to, or how they make their living. If there is violence...we move. In my opinion, there are too many neighborhoods without it to waste time and risk safety living in neighborhoods with it.

neal call said...


this was a great post. I don't tend to gravitate towards the kinds of stuff on Daddy Dialectic, but after reading this post, I've decided that I need to spend more time here. Great story with a lot of nuance, a lot to think about what I would do in the same situation with my own family, my own daughter.