Lives of the Tenderloin remembered

Jul 15, 2013

Nearly every city in the US has a Tenderloin. Here in San Francisco, it’s a neighborhood home to a dozen social service agencies, low-rent residential hotels, or SROs, and thousands of low-income – and-no-income – residents. Premature deaths from HIV/AIDS, heart disease, and complications from substance use and abuse mark the lives of many in the Tenderloin. It’s a part of the city known for open drug use. A place many people avoid and one where individual lives can be easily forgotten.

But there are those who try to remember them.

“I went to this hotel and the social worker there was almost in tears and she said it would just break my heart if no one comes. And no one came. It was the two of us but we had a memorial for the person who had died,” says Reverend Glenda Hope.

Reverend Hope has officiated memorials in the Tenderloin for over three decades. In 2004, she asked the neighborhood paper, The Central City Extra, to begin covering those memorials. Since then the Extra’s reporters have written more than 200 obituaries.

In early 2013, they were anthologized into a book called Death in the Tenderloin. The book includes obituaries and photos, as well as analysis – essays on the neighborhood’s health conditions, poverty, and crime. It’s all based on the meticulous work the Extra’s reporters have done. I accompanied Extra reporter Marjorie Beggs to a few memorials.

From the busy street I walk into the Ritz Hotel on Eddy and Taylor in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. I’m greeted by Heather, one of the social workers at the residential hotel. She leads me upstairs to the third floor kitchen to Randi Givens’ memorial.

Beggs reads his final obituary: “Randi Givens lived at the Ritz Hotel for two decades and had many visitors over the years, but, according to social worker Heather Venisse, he ‘didn’t socialize much’ with fellow residents. That’s why his memorial was so lightly attended by neighbors – only Thanapa Simphanth and Otto Duffy showed up for his Feb. 21 sendoff.”

Thanapa Simphanth still lives at the Ritz.  “I really miss him,” she recalls of Givens. “A memorial is really important. And nobody came and when I saw Otto, I said, ‘You don’t have to go anywhere, you come here first for a few minutes please.’”

Beggs finishes reading Givens’ obituary. “Despite the small turnout, Mr. Givens’ life emerged as extraordinarily full, productive and active, filled with loving family, political colleagues, and intellectual and artistic accomplishments. He died Feb. 6 in his room at the Ritz. He was 71 years old.”

Central City Extra reporter Beggs sits at her desk next to expansive windows overlooking busy Market Street. Silver hair dusts her shoulders, a few strands pinned back away from her glasses. Randi Givens’ memorial is one of many she’s covered over the years. Thinking for a moment. She remembers another. This one took place a few blocks away, in the intimate listening room at the Ambassador Hotel.

“There were probably 25 people there. It was a very small room that it was held in. And they were actually flowing out the door to stand and pay their respects and listen to what was going on,” says Beggs.

Speedy, as he was known, had many friends in the SRO. When I walk down there I meet one, Edmond Juicye.

“He was a navy guy, very grandfatherly, brotherly to us people who lives in SRO tenants,” says Juicye.

He says people took the news of Speedy’s death hard. “And I remember several others saying, ‘no, no, no not Speedy!’ They told me that so many people had a special bond with him because a lot of times in a SRO hotel you don’t know a person that much. We don’t see each other. But so many people had feelings to let out, and show that he was definitely connected to a lot of different people.”

Beggs says Speedy’s memorial was one of the most emotional she’s ever attended. One person who has lived at the hotel for over two decades and has been to over 50 memorials was particularly moved. “He actually started crying at the memorial because he said for two nights after Speedy died, he wasn’t able to sleep, he wasn’t able to close his eyes. He was really feeling for his own mortality,” says Beggs.

The memorials convene wherever there’s space: in community rooms, kitchens, lobbies, and other common spaces in the Tenderloin’s roughly two dozen SROs. No recordings is allowed: no video, no sound, no photos. Reverend Hope officiates most of the memorials.

“We give to the poorest among us that final dignity which all of us hope will be given to us,” says Reverend Hope.

Reverend Hope began holding the memorials more than 35 years ago, through her nonprofit, Network Ministries. She delivers services in a minister’s traditional garb – a clerical collar, black slacks and shirt over her slight frame. A cross with a peace sign always rests on her chest.

“I think that it’s important that we can offer comfort and an opportunity for healthy grief and healing for those who are the survivors. And that we communicate to the survivors that when they die, their deaths will also be noted and will be mourned,” says Reverend Hope.

At the memorials she asks everyone in attendance to close their eyes and reflect on the life of the departed. She reads a short scripture passage, then opens the floor up for anyone who wants to speak.

“All of these memorials end with Glenda asking everybody to stand around in a circle and hold hands and that’s always a very touching moment. And then she asks everyone to then turn and give your neighbor the sign of peace, which is a hug, so everybody ends up hugging,” says Carter. 

Central City Extra reporters Carter and Beggs have attended hundreds of these memorials. Both say that at this point, they’re as much participants as anyone else.

“We hold hands at the end. We don’t sit on the outside. We usually sit in the inner circle with the people who are talking. So we really feel we’re part of the memorial even though we’re taking notes and nobody else is,” says Beggs.

Carter says the memorials reveal the fabric of SRO communities.

“It is closure for anyone who has known the deceased and I really think it promotes community. The story themselves show community and how people are dedicated to each other. Every SRO is a little bit different but that glue of wanting to belong and be significant I think is there,” says Carter.

Still, some memorials have no guests - Just Reverend Hope and one of the reporters. Carter says when no one shows up they have to dig deeper.

“In one case I remember, they knew the man use to drink a lot at the corner tavern. So I went down there to find out more about him. And the tavern owner said, ‘look this guy was so fabulous. He would just volunteer help around here and then I would hire him to fix this and that. And he always sat in that stool. And I’m going to have a plaque and attach it to the bar where he sat,’” Carter recounts.

Carter and Beggs like to do their work while it’s fresh in their minds. After each memorial they rush back to their Market Street office to write their testimonials of the deceased. They each read excerpts from obituaries they’ve written:

“Raymond Tony Pugliesi was a lot of things – a motorcycle gang member, a body builder, a fix-it man, entrepreneur, a drug addict, and an alcohol abuser – but to a special few he was ‘the godfather’ of the Empress Hotel. When someone he knew that they had a need, Pugliesi invited them to his fourth-floor room for an appointment. The room is cluttered with nuts and bolts, and little tools, and crates of gadgets and plus a dozen cell phones and landline phones for his ‘businesses’ as he called his jack-of-all-trades enterprise,” Carter reads.

“Rose Ridolfi generated strong emotions in everyone who knew her, and she had acquaintances throughout the Tenderloin. ‘I knew her for two decades,’ said Rev. Glenda Hope, who officiated at Ridolfi’s memorial at the Franciscan Hotel. ‘I have to say, I wasn’t surprised at her passing, but I thought she’d always be around. She was like the little girl who had a curl – when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid. We can talk about Rose like that here,’ Hope added. ‘People tell the truth at Tenderloin memorials, that we’re all a mix of good and bad” Beggs shares.  

“Temperamental Louis O. Guzman likely got more respect at his memorial than he got in his 14 years living in the Turk Eddy Preservation Apartments. Cantankerous and combative, he was difficult to be around. He constantly complained and swore, and tried to hustle his fellow residents for money. ‘I told him once, Mr. Guzman you can’t go out on the street talking that way to people – you’ll get beat up or killed,’ said manager Patsy Gardner. She said he shot back, ‘That’s why I’ve got this cane!’ Guzman died at St. Francis Hospital two weeks before his 84th birthday,” Carter adds. 

In addition to providing closure the obituaries illuminate daily life in the Tenderloin, Carter says, “it’s a really hard place to live and even a harder place to die. And that for the most part people are very glad to die inside and not on the street. So we’re glad to document that." 

Before long the reporters will have another memorial to attend and another obituary to write – to remind us that the dead once lived.