Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rhonda Becomes Invisible

Try sitting on the sidewalk. The rhythm of the noontime San Francisco foot traffic is steady on the corner of 2nd and Market, and the skies have been graying on the verge of rainfall. Businessmen and tourists stroll by and hover over you. This is the epitome of power, like Cassius Clay looking down at a destroyed Sonny Liston.

From this vantage point you become invisible. You don't really see more than shiny loafers and stylish pumps skitter across the cold concrete. This angle doesn't allow for much eye contact, either way. For a homeless woman named Rhonda this arrangement makes her disappear. Her obscurity lets passersby off the hook. I don't see you and you don't see me. People like Rhonda are easily forgotten.

Rhonda has made her home on 2nd Street for 10 years or as far as anyone around here remembers. John, the shoeshine man on Market, remembers her that far back, and the manager at the Men's Wearhouse, whose wall Rhonda uses as a backrest, agrees. "She thinks that's her home," says John, who is has been a fixture on that corner for 20 years. Members of The Commonwealth Club may have passed her by on their way to a fanciful speech on the downfall of our society, or something like it.

Rhonda's spot is quite large. She lies sideways on the sidewalk. Her elbow propping her body up against a few worn blankets -- a homeless Cleopatra without consorts. To her left is a large cart filled with a sleeping bag, cardboard boxes, half of a broom, a sheet of plastic to shield the rain and various sundry items. "Nothing I have is worth anything," she says.

Rhonda herself is a large African-American woman, though the the multi-layers of shirts, coats and sweaters makes her look rounder than she really is. She says she is 72, but like a lot of what she will tell you, this is subject to debate. The upper bridge of her teeth is gone, along with a few on the bottom, and she tugs a dark blue knit cap to her eyebrows and covers her ears. She's listening to her radio with her earphones. She likes R&B music with a little jazz. She listens to KBLX and sometimes the news to pass time.

There is no denying that Rhonda is one of many homeless people suffering from mental illness. Our conversation devolves into a jumble of non sequiturs and delusions of grandeur, but in between she realizes her life is not what she once imagined.

"I don't want to live like this -- like some wino -- or some dope addict," Rhonda says, "I don't want to be one to beg the streets. I don't want to be a panhandler." By all accounts, she does not ask for money, though she wears a small button on her coat saying donations are welcomed. She says she typically receives $5-$10 per day. She does, though, beg for food, saying "I love to eat."

On this day, she was nibbling on graying pieces of chicken presumably from the Subway two doors down. She would not say whether the sandwich shop gave the food or she found it in a garbage can. With Thanksgiving around the corner, Rhonda says she might visit a local soup kitchen or get in line at Glide Memorial nearby.

"Everybody who loves me helps me," she says, "There's a lot of people who hate me and do nothing."

John says there's a woman who visits Rhonda every day and gives her food and other necessities, but Rhonda doesn't want to talk about it. She calls her "just a friend."

Having survived on the streets for over 10 years, Rhonda has seen awful things. She says she was stabbed early on when another homeless person attempted to steal her purse, and she says she has been in the crossfire of numerous gunfights. Her meager possessions are also always in danger. "You can't leave nothing. You can't even close your eyes with all these vagrants and dope addicts around," she says.

Like many of the downtrodden among us, Rhonda is prone to alcoholism. "I love to drink liquor, especially gallons of liquor," she says, "I hate to even drink if it isn't a gallon."

John has seen her go on binges and notes "when she drinks, she gets the good stuff," but also says she doesn't bother anybody. The manager at the Men's Wearhouse agrees and says it is that fact that justifies not bothering her in return.

"She cleans up after herself. She sweeps her spot. If she would be throwing chicken bones all over or using it as a bathroom it would be different," he said.

Before I leave, Rhonda shakes my hand and blurts out, "I'll probably be locked outdoors for Thanksgiving." As I rise from a kneeling position next to her, my face floats out of her view and our line of eye contact is broken. All I become is just another pair of black shoes walking away from her and Rhonda becomes invisible again.


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