In “Bess,” a short story in our first issue, author Daphne Gottlieb examines the world of SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing in San Francisco. The picture is bleak and centers around a young girl addicted to heroin, who finds herself shuffling between Tenderloin tenements, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. At the beginning of the piece we get this description of the tenement in which Bess is found:
The carpet does not match. Each room is different, and it is different as it staggers along the hall, here blocks, there a floral pattern, there industrial grey; all are faded to a muted graybrown. The walls are a muted brown tinged with gray. If you were to stretch out your arms, you could easily touch both walls in the hallway at once. You might not even have to extend your arms all the way out. The hallways close in on themselves. The hallways end in windows that don’t open or windows that are broken or just a wall. The hallways dead end after spiraling back and around and in on themselves and there is no way out.
The story is narrated by a social worker trying to help Bess. Early in the story a metaphor emerges comparing the social worker with Theseus, the mythic Greek hero who, among other things, once entered a labyrinth and killed a Minotaur. Others had tried to slay the Minotaur before him, but they got lost in the maze and were literally swallowed up by the monster. Theseus traced his progress through the labyrinth with a spool of yarn, that’s how he survived. He kept in touch with the world outside. Like Theseus, the social worker must not get lost in Bess’s world.
Recently, Vice magazine published an interview with a social worker in San Francisco’s notoriously destitute Tenderloin neighborhood.
To summarize: it isn’t fun to work in the Tenderloin. It’s basically terrible. The woman interviewed presents a pessimistic view of the work she does and the good it fails to accomplish. She speaks of a community of hopelessly dependent people with no interest in saving themselves. She describes corruption, desolation, drug abuse… she talks about men who defecate on themselves and then try to eat their own feces. The social worker presents herself as completely demoralized by her work, overwhelmed and under appreciated.
That interview elicited a rebuttal from a fellow Tenderloin social worker who perceived the situation differently. Hope is palpable in the rebuttal, in which the Tenderloin is a diverse community where struggle can be beautiful and the people, for the most part, try to look after each other. The social worker in the reply holds the city responsible for much of the Tenderloin’s problems and acknowledges a system that makes his work, and the lives of his clients, more difficult. He doesn’t blame his clients. He sees the nobility of trying to get by under harsh circumstances and is proud of the differences he and his colleagues make in the community their work touches.
Hope, or the absence of hope, is central to “Bess.” Where does the social worker in “Bess” land on the gamut of hope? Our insight into the social worker’s feelings come from work logs; short hand records documenting the case as it folds. These notes are formal check-ins with the institution the social worker is employed by. Confronted with Bess, the social worker behaves like a hero, but through these official notes we detect a quiet, human struggle. Through the notes we perceive, and we are grateful to perceive, that the social worker is relating to the world outside. In Greek, Theseus literally translates to “institution.”
Image: Still from the Su Friedrich film “Rules of the Road” (1993)