from Book II, Chapter 3 of Out of Zion
by Robert Marswood
Surprisingly after his unnerving meeting with Joe, Brad slept soundly for the first time since he’d arrived in the San Francisco. He knew the postcard would comfort his mother, even if she thought he was at the other end of the country. In the next weeks, Brad’s guilty feelings and survival anxiety also began to dissipate and a new, genuine curiosity about the City began to grow. He started thinking about staying in California and going back to university.
By some miracle, he’d managed to flee Provo with just a five-minute warning and all he could stuff into a backpack. Now after having lost two weeks’ rent and a month’s deposit on his first shared apartment, he’d still managed to get a second, studio apartment—“roach motel” or not—for himself. And he had a steady temporary job photocopying documents—even if it was just for two more months.
In addition, he was becoming familiar with San Francisco’s unpredictably hilly streets and its changing neighbourhoods and microclimates that had him unzipping and then zipping his jacket as the sun shone and then hid suddenly behind clouds or fog as he commuted from work to his apartment.
Brad could now find his way around town without looking at a map. He automatically knew where to get off the bus, tram or Bart. And he finally realized, after watching the scores of “clones” with short hair and tight T-shirts walk under his kitchen window each hour, that by accident he had ended up in a place most gay men dreamed of living.
Brad’s escape fantasies, however, had always run geographically in the opposite direction—back East where he wanted to get a Masters degree or a PhD and then teach. He wanted to live again in some green, suburban neighbourhood similar to where he’d been born in Ohio, where the trees planted themselves, were watered by rain not artificially irrigated and grew in forests thick as broccoli tufts. As an adolescent, Brad had daily fantasies about running away from his Mormon convert family in Utah back East to his relatives. From what he’d seen, it seemed that people only got more zealous about religion and/or sex the farther West they went. Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles were proof of that.
For the first time since he’d arrived in San Francisco, however, Brad began to see the City not as an irritation or a temporary weigh station, but as his new home—even if his uncomfortable, noisy, expensive, tiny, cockroach-infested apartment could ever be compared to the two, large, detached homes with front and back yards where he’d lived in Ohio and then Utah. Brad comforted himself by remembering this apartment was safe and warm and his own. It had a long way to go, though, before he could call it comfortable.
At the moment, Brad had only two chairs “for friendship,” but no third “for company” as Thoreau had said in Walden. After three months of living in his apartment, the only other pieces of furniture were a mattress and box springs that were on the floor in his studio’s living room. The rest of the apartment was echoingly empty. Brad needed a desk, a kitchen table, a nightstand and a dresser. In desperation, he took a board out of the kitchen cupboard and put it over the bathroom sink in order have a “desk” where he could write. And the bathroom was the only room in his studio with a door that could close to shut out the constant rumble of Haight Street traffic. To shut out his loneliness and fears, Brad re-read Walden cover-to-cover as he did Emerson’s philosophical works—especially his essay on Self-Reliance and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass along with Der Zauberberg, which Brad read to keep up his German. These books were more than enough to satisfy any sudden urge he felt to open the Scriptures or get dressed and go to church, especially on quiet Sunday mornings when he seemed to be the only one awake as he ran through the Panhandle and into Golden Gate Park.
And as he ran in the early morning on the weekends, Brad began to notice abandoned tables, chairs, lamps and other furniture left at street corners or along curbs. Brad guessed that these had been dumped at night by people who had left town quickly. In addition to the furniture, piles of clothes were not uncommon. Shirts, pants, underwear, socks and shoes were often left behind in a line or in a pile on the pavement. Brad wondered if their wearers had performed a striptease or been squirted out of their clothes, taken up in a sudden Rapture or abducted by aliens. And there were the abandoned boxes of personal belongings—books, stereo records, framed pictures, cigarette lighters in the shape of guns and ships, bookends—personal knickknacks that were too heavy, bulky or considered worthless.
Brad soon began to collect some of these abandoned items for his own use. And furniture and clothing that were good, but for which he had no use, he “recycled” to second-hand stores to make some extra money.
Some furniture was too bulky or heavy to carry. For that, he used a dolly his supervisor, Cathy, had been complaining about at work.
“I wish somebody from building services would come down here and get rid of this,” she said as she stumbled into it every Monday morning as she tried to hang up her coat and forgot the dolly was still there. “We don’t need this anymore to move files.”
“Don’t worry,” Brad told her. “I’ll take care of that.” And he did, putting it over his shoulder after work that day and walking right past the security guard who didn’t even look up.
He used the dolly to move a pine desk someone had painted army green that had been abandoned on the corner of Fell and Clayton. It now stood in his living room against the wall facing the kitchen. Its pinewood was light enough that he hadn’t had to take the drawers out before he rolled it up two blocks to his apartment. The neon purple and orange, four-drawer, oak dresser that stood next to the silver steam-heat radiator across the room, however, was different. Brad had found that farther away at Cole and Judah. It was so heavy he had had to take out its drawers to make the shell light enough to roll it back to his apartment. He prayed that the drawers would still be there when he got back. And by some miracle, they were. Less interesting finds were a saggy, six-shelved, cherry bookcase that was missing its back. It had been abandoned, for good reason, at Oak and Masonic. Brad brought it home and wedged tall books between the shelves to straighten them out. He also had a piece of pegboard cut at the Haight Street hardware store that he nailed to the bookshelf’s frame to close up the back and add support.
On the corner of Ashbury and Page, Brad found a blond-wood telephone table. He used it as a nightstand on top of which was a digital AM/FM alarm clock, the only new purchase he’d made for his apartment. On the floor in the alcove of the three bay windows, was a black, plastic stereo record player. Next to it was a stack of Longines Symphonette Society recordings of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and ballet music. Brad had found all of these things in a box left out on the curb at Cole and Page with a sign that said: “Take What You Need.” Brad guessed that since most people played music from cassette tapes or CDs, no one had wanted the plastic ’60s portable stereo and worn classical records. The stereo still worked, though the scratches on the records and the hiss from the old needle spoiled the quiet passages. And in the kitchen in front of the windows and next to the refrigerator was a maple table that had a deeply scratched top and two broken legs. Brad had glued and wire-trussed the legs back together and covered the scratched top with a red-and-white checkered restaurant tablecloth he’d found sticking out of a dumpster.
With his apartment “furnished,” Brad turned his attention to making extra money from collecting more things abandoned on the street. The biggest moneymakers were the books, especially hardbacks with dust jackets that he bought sometimes for $5 a box at garage or estate sales in the Haight or the Inner Richmond. Just one book, if it was a first edition or a relatively popular one like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, could be worth at least what he paid for the entire box when he resold them to used bookstores on Mission Street in the City or on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.
Clothes were initially Brad’s least popular kind of second-hand goods, but Brad needed “new” clothes since he’d only been able to jam two pairs of jeans, one pair of dress pants and temple undergarments, three button-down shirts, and two pairs of socks into his backpack before he ran out the back door and jumped over the back fence to elude the Provo Police. The first items of clothing Brad looked for were things he could wear himself—especially to work. Things like socks and underwear seemed to wear out the fastest, but were hardly ever sold at second-hand stores.
Brad sorted the clothing under his bathroom’s bright, 100-watt light. Wearing rubber gloves, he shook the clothes against the tub’s white enamel to see if any articles harboured wildlife. Clothing, which was too worn, torn or stained, was moved immediately from the cardboard collection box to a plastic garbage bag that went down the building’s trash chute that evening. Clothes Brad thought might fit him or which he thought he could resell to second-hand stores, he washed first, by hand, in the tub. Then, he took them to the Cole Street laundramat for a complete wash and dry. Within two months, Brad had an extra dozen pairs of wearable socks, three pairs of dress pants and shirts, four T-shirts and a week’s supply of “normal” underwear.
What surprised Brad the most, however, was how much money baby’s and toddler’s clothes brought at the Mission Street thrift stores. The first time Brad put the baby clothes on the counter next to the jeans and T-shirts, the store owner’s hairy, tattooed arm reached surprisingly for the toddler’s garments. He offered Brad a dollar for each piece in good condition. Brad didn’t realize how many poor, young families lived in the Mission.
And as he became more experienced and made more money at his “recycling hobby,” as he called it, Brad bought a second-hand bicycle. He fitted it with saddlebags like those he’d used in Germany on his mission. The bike increased his range, so he could cover all the garage sales in the Richmond and the Sunset from early Saturday morning to early mid-afternoon before the fog rolled in and people usually gave up for the day. Sometimes they just dumped what they hadn’t sold at the curb with a sign that said: “Take What You Need.” And Brad did, again and again.
Brad was able to replace many of the books he’d left behind in Provo, especially the 19th– and 20th-century novels and the Norton Anthologies. He even came across a copy of Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend from his anthropology courses. He added these books to the old bookshelf in his living room. Within a few months, all its shelves were filled.
As Brad put the last book in his bookcase, he decided that he needed to change his “hobby” from something a little less hunter/gatherer to something more settled. He continued scanning classifieds every Thursday and Saturday. However, instead of concentrating on estate sale ads, he looked under the help wanted category to find work on the weekends since his “temporary” weekday assignment had been extended for another two months. Most of the ads he saw were for second- or graveyard-shift cleaners, security guards and attendants at senior citizen centres.
Brad had thought about getting a second, weekend job for a long time. He couldn’t really afford to go out to the bars—not if he wanted to save money. Most bars in the Haight and South of Market charged a cover on Friday and Saturday nights. Once he paid to get in, all he could afford was a bottle of mineral water, which he spent the night nursing and refilling from the bathroom sink tap when no one was looking. And the people Brad met at the bars—if he could even communicate with them over the deafening music—seemed only interested in one-night stands. Three times he’d made the mistake of inviting guys home. All three men had looked and seemed nice in the bar. Once in his apartment, however, all they did was complain about Brad’s mismatched, “junk furniture,” “an apartment with no TV” or that Brad wanted to use a condom. So Brad finally decided it wouldn’t really make much difference to his “social life” if he worked seven days a week.
He interviewed for job at a new senior citizens’ centre on Geary Boulevard in Japantown. The interviewer, an overweight middle-aged woman, was so desperate to fill the second-shift, weekend position she hired him on the spot without doing a background check.
“We can get that done later,” she said.
Brad wondered for a moment what would happen when she did. Then he decided: ‘Flip. I need the money,’ and just crammed that worry, along with many others, so far back into his brain that he didn’t even think about it again for the rest of the week.
His new boss’ name was Peggy. Peggy Lee from the way she piled up her hair in the kind of a beehive Brad hadn’t seen since he’d left Utah. And Peggy was so happy that Brad showed up for his own and other’s shifts early—unlike many of other security guards who came to work late and half-drunk or stoned—that she decided to let sleeping dogs lie. She was afraid that if she dug too deeply she might lose Brad like all the other attractive, seemingly well-adjusted men who had come into her life, who, with a closer look and a few hours of research by private detectives, turned out to be con artists and/or living under an assumed name usually so that their wives couldn’t track them down for alimony payments.
In addition to working the second shift weekends, Brad was called in at least once a week to pick up a graveyard shift. Brad soon began to look forward to working at the centre because he got a free, hot meal for every shift he worked.
And as he worked seven days a week, Brad tried to forget the $6,000 he’d saved and spent on his two-year German mission. That money would have been more than enough to have gotten him started comfortably in San Francisco without Brad having to work two jobs and scrounge through other people’s trash. Brad wondered if he could ever save that much money again living in San Francisco. At the moment, he was only saving about $250 a month. He wondered if that would be enough eventually for him to go back to university and get a degree. But thinking about the past or the future only made Brad feel angry or panicky during the day and unable to sleep at night, so he forced himself to concentrate almost exclusively on the present.
When he got home one Saturday night around 1 AM, he left the lights off in his apartment as he looked out through his windows down at Haight Street. The electric #7 bus twanged by, singing along the overhead wires. Above the store tops across the street were the hills of Cole Valley, which led upwards towards Mt. Sutro and its red-and-white striped radio and television tower, tipped with red flashing lights. Up by the tower, simple, two-story, three-bedroom homes were built into the hills. Brad followed the housetops and streetlights westward until he could see the gray-and-white concrete blocks of the University of California San Francisco hospital and its parking garage wedged into the side of the hill. This is where Glenn worked as an intern. Brad had stayed away as Glenn had instructed him when he’d first arrived in town so that Glenn wouldn’t get involved in any of his trouble. But now, six months later, Brad thought it was time to pay Glenn a visit again.