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VOLUME 2, NUMBER 15    <> MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2001
My daughter, who is studying in Vienna, asked me what it was like to be a poet in America. “Cassandra, my dear, it is not a profession you enter seeking to make money; it is one which you enter seeking to gain knowledge. But once in a while you experience a moment in which you are able to communicate with the rest of the world in a language which belongs to the muses.” This poem is for a little kitten who lived in the apartment complex I lived in out in the Richmond District, which had a beautiful garden in which he reigned king, until he died, unexpectedly, at an early age. Cassandra. This is what I do.


A requiem


A butterfly flirted
with the wind


A hummingbird flew
by so fast that you
couldn’t tell
where it
just had been


Several bees buzzed
around very menacingly


As two stray dogs
sang out so mournfully


You took it all in
so complacently


A cat in his garden
on an early Saturday morning
watching the world wake up
to another day


A courtyard garden
where you were king
as you sat in meditation
taking in everything


I remember the
evening when you
whispered in
my ear
in a secret language
which only you & I
could hear


“Be free
give yourself over
to the mystery
one day you will
become what you were
always meant to be”


We all will miss you
taken from our lives
so suddenly


Be free


Patrick Cassidy


Sunday preaching

Living in a place like the Mission is a remarkable thing, really. As I was out on the back porch of our flat scraping the dogshit out of the waffle treads of my shoes one Sunday afternoon, I could hear the unmistakable voice of the street preacher from around the corner. He’s always in the same spot, standing, safely strapped into his guitar, facing the intersection but back from the corner. He’s there speaking and playing, and singing to no one in particular. There are usually people waiting for a bus, or headed for the subway steps, but it seems like there are always fewer folk directly in front of him.

If you haven’t lived in San Francisco’s Mission District your whole life, you’ll see lots of things you’ve probably never seen before. I’d lived most of my short life in small farming communities before moving to San Francisco, and though I’d lived here a year already before moving into this particular neighborhood, I came to it relatively “unexposed” to many urban goings-on. I knew I’d get along, and for artists, rents were more reasonable, but I was vastly undereducated about things that go on in a long-underprivileged, civicly ignored neighborhood. My new neighbor, an old, dilapidated man named Joe, said something as I was moving in that I’ll never forget. From his perch in the streetside window of his apartment (which I was to later learn was his favorite place to sit, especially so he could proposition women and solicit the prostitutes), he said: “Buddy, you just got to live and let live down here. If you don’t bother other people, and let them do their thing, they won’t bother you.”

To charitably describe this preacherman’s look, you might use words like “conservative, low-budget,” which, let’s face it, isn’t going to attract young mobs. Neither will “dignified thrift store” win converts, or, perhaps, being a middle-aged white man preaching to your mostly Latino neighbors. But, who knows? Anyway, I always kind of guessed through his themes and language that he was somehow targeting the skinny addicts who were, just as often as not, white. This may be my own prejudice, I know. But the hardcore addicts, at least the ones who are not hard to spot, usually look to me like they’re wishing shadows could somehow come to their rescue as they cross the street during a sermon. Just when they want to crawl and hide inside their own clothes, the preacher brings a minimum of zest into his delivery, and maybe a drug reference. The preaching in Spanish is done by a family, which is seen less often on the corner than this preacher is. I think they are connected somehow, maybe members of the same church or missionary group. The family’s not much more popular, although it has a keyboard, which plays accompaniment to the zippy Spanish delivery of the dad. The kids standing in the background with mom give him the right to get way out there, almost to the corner, with his microphone.

Now, this is a corner which is known for its many uses: in addition to being home to three major bus stops and two subway entrances, it is a playground, a toilet, an obstacle course for skateboards and scooter-riders, a place to drink, to cruise for women, to eat, to beg for money, to sell, to score, and to meet and greet friends. I knew it was him by the sound of his monotone English, amplified as it always is by a portable amp and speaker he pulls around on one of those cheap handcarts used for luggage. His spiel has a flat cadence and the voice is of an ordinary color, as beige as his fuddy-duddy hat with its battered feather. I know his voice even before the scraps of words like “Jesus Christ” and “road to sin” float to me on the crisp November air. I know his voice before I’m even aware that it’s a Sunday.

This man preaches every Sunday, I think to myself, as I turn to look for something better to scrape with than the folded piece of cardboard I’d been using. He’s out there for what must be three or four hours, though it could be more. His voice prevails over all the other sounds on that corner, wafting triumphant over the bank and the donut shop to reach me on my back step. The sermon starts out as your run-of-the-mill fire-and-brimstone catchall that everyone’s heard, and the fact is, he doesn’t sound all that excited about it either. (Maybe it’s because he preaches so much?) His tone weakly chides those he wishes to reach as though they’re the members of an opposing team. He sounds like a high school football announcer, I think to myself. His team is the home team, and they’ve got guts, but they’ve got no chance against this unordered, insurgent force surrounding them on all sides! His team is vastly outnumbered, doing battle with one claiming no real quarterback or coach, no clear leader from the looks of the field! It’s a shapeless, shifting lot of lost souls wandering around, some trying to score. The preacher, however, believes there to be a phantom hero among his adversaries: His name is The Devil. The Devil radios plays to an anonymous offense that are known for their potency. The Devil’s not actually on the street level, or even on the sidelines: he’s in the coach’s box high above the action, perched atop the hotel, or maybe the bank building, watching. The Devil shows up shortly after the preacher does, riding atop the number fourteen bus, so close to the electric contacts that they spark. The preacher goes into some of the weaknesses in The Devil’s offense as if to disprove his admirable reputation. The play-by-play occasionally drifts over to me on my porch, and mixes with the smell of shit coming off my shoe in my hands, as I gouge out its channels with a screw. I imagine him saying, “You’re not going to find what you’re looking for in the drugs,” perhaps as someone scores a bag out in the open. I’ve seen him, in fact, preach to one person, but vaguely, broadly, as if he were pointing them out to an audience during that player’s appearance on the corner. This larger audience is, overwhelmingly, not paying attention. I hear, “The Bible states that the wages of sin is death, and that the way to eternal life is through the Lord Jesus,” perhaps as no one listens, no one except the shockingly thin woman with scabs dotting her body, who, to show her indifference and make the most of her time in the game, strikes up giggling conversations with each man at the bus stop in a falsely lighthearted, overly friendly way. She would not want to appear to be listening but loves the attention.

It sounds like the game is a close one. I’ve been working on the unimaginably complex intaglio in the shoe’s sole for quite some time, ejecting pungent mush from its deepest recesses, thinking about the kind of moralistic self-righteousness you get from well-heeled believers in the Bible Belt. But, I’m thinking as I scrape the last pebbly brown marble of crap out of the tread, you’ve gotta hand it to this guy. He’s not getting rich, and he’s got the balls to go and preach where he believes his faith will do the most good. He is standing there, alone with his guitar, saying what he thinks. Pretty admirable when you think about it. Am I really thinking this, I wonder? I hear his voice preparing for a weak crescendo just as a bus blows through the intersection, sparking, horn blaring, and then I’ve lost him. Shortly, I hear the strumming of the guitar and the first few words of a hymn sung in a voice somehow unchanged from its monitory dispatch. He was building to a song of faith I think, intended to stir even the darkest heart out there, somebody who may just have plenty of their own troubles and can’t cope any other way. But I knew that it wouldn’t. As I put the still-stinking shoes down, I can’t help but think that Sin is winning. His singing sounds like shit.

Kjell Cronn