San Francisco Bus Shelter Upgrades

Old and new bus stops side by side

The San Francisco Metro Transit Authority began replacing its bus shelters in 2009. The design/fabrication firm, Lundberg Design, won the competition among 35 other entries. Indeed, the new shelters (RIGHT PHOTO) are cool. In this transition period, one can really appreciate the upgrade as old and new bus shelters coexist on the same street.

The old shelters (LEFT PHOTO) are dark and cramped. These old brown shelters are tired. The glass mini alcove (far right) is especially awkward. The bases of the posts are almost always corroded as the amount of dog urine they’ve received can be measured in gallons. The old shelters seem to be a mix of underfunding, code-driven design, combined a general disdain for those taking public transit.

The new  bus shelters reflect the burgeoning use of the Muni. It makes sense to make the bus shelter look good since the design will be repeated hundreds of times across the city. Even the advertisements are better. Compare the drab and depressing sign on the left with the sexy Virgin America sign on the right.

Unfortunately for now, the new bus stops receive fanatical vandalism. They get only spray paint but shattered windows and melted seat from cigarettes. Luckily, the new design is reslient as the parts are easily changed.

Oppossum Sunrise

Oppossum Cowering on a Doorstep

Cinderella’s helpers turned into many things after the stroke of midnight, but I don’t recall an oppossum being one of them. This oppossum must have had quite a night scavanging on the street litter. Thursdays are garbage days, and many buildings put out their trash the night before. Throughout the night human scavangers come by again and again, rummaging through the large plastic bins looking for glass, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans to recycle. Inevitably, a large amount of garbage ends up on the sidewalk. Lo! An ecological niche is created.

The tenderloin’s fauna mostly includes just pigeons, seagulls, and an occasional crow in places. All other creatures are usually on a leash. (What about rats?) That is why I was certainly surprised coming across this guy yesterday morning. There is no forest or natural area nearby. There aren’t even that many trees in the area. He must have wandered at least half a mile that night.

In the end I called the San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC), who promptly arrived to pick him up. It only took the worker a few seconds to corral it into a box. It went pretty quietly. I’m just glad that he didn’t get hit by a car because O’Farrell St. is a commuter corridor into downtown.

Someone on the street said that it my be euthanized, but I highly doubt it. Actually, San Francisco’s ACC has a really low rate of euthanasia. When they capture wild animals such as this, they usually re-release them back into some natural area. If you’d like to learn more about the San Francisco ACC, check out their website:

And if you’re really interested in oppossums:

Tenderloin Census 2010

July 29, 2011 4 comments

San Francisco Census Map

Racial breakdowns are not necessarily the best way to understand a place, although the US Census certainly places a heavy emphasis on it. Nevertheless, the US 2010 Census numbers are still interesting because they reveal a striking level of density and ethnic diversity.The Tenderloin essentially lies within the following Census tracts: 12201, 12202, 12301, 12302, 12401, 12402, 12501, and 12501. Geographically, these are relatively small areas of only a few city blocks. Here’s the breakdown:

San Francisco Population – 805,235 people
  • White 42%
  • Black 6%
  • Asian 33%
  • Hispanic 15%
  • Others 4%
Tenderloin Population – 31,565 people (3.9% of the city)
  • White 32% (10,162 people)
  • Black 11% (3,339 people)
  • Asian 28% (8,911 people)
  • Hispanic 24% (7,542 people)
  • Others 5% (1,641 people)

The Tenderloin’s population density is one of the Tenderloin’s most defining characteristics. For example, tract 12402, centered at Leavenworth and Turk streets is just six city blocks but is home to over 5,000 people, which is among the densest in the entire city. (Meanwhile, the rent is among the city’s cheapest, which is why I moved to the Tenderloin!)

The neighborhood’s diversity never ceases to amaze. The population seems equally shared among whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. On any given day, I hear so many languages on the street. I regularly hear Cantonese, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Vietnamese and English too. When including tourists, I often hear German, French, and sometimes Russian around the hotels near the Tenderloin’s east side. Perhaps this blog should be translated into these languages.

By the way, this resident moved to the Tenderloin just few months after the 2010 Census finished, and therefore was not counted.

These numbers come from the  New York Times’ interactive Census map:
The US Census also has a lot of data ready for download on its website:

Before You Use the Street ATM

Street ATM

We take for granted that ATMs simply work. You press a few buttons and get your cash. The public loves ATMs for their convenience and the banks love them for their fees. Everyone trusts them. Over the last three decades, the public’s level of confidence in ATMs has increased as ATMs have moved from bankside to streetside. Indeed, ATMs in the US have stellar records. Today, these mini banking outposts  may be found within souvenier shops and next to hot dog stands. But make no mistake–streetside ATMs in San Francisco, especially in the Tenderloin, are under siege. Many locals in the neighborhood know about it, but unsuspecting travelers have no idea they are about to get burned by the criminal ATM tinkerers.

In a nutshell here’s how the scam works: At night, when few people are looking, the criminal walks up to the ATM and pries open the cash dispensing tray. Then they insert an object within the tray behind the door, out of sight. Then when an unsuspecting victim comes to withdraw money, they find that only a receipt comes out but not their cash. The ATM records a transaction, but the cash will remain stuck within in the machine.

Usually confused victims first read then reread the reciept to make sure they’re not crazy. Just like at a snack machine whose Cheetos are hanging tantinglizingly in the window, the victim will start pushing buttons, slapping the ATM screen, and even trying to shake the cash dispenser. But that’s no use as the ATM’s are secured in the building’s facade. Finally, out of desperation,  the victim jams their fingers into the dispensing door, trying to pry out the dollar bills.

Unfortunately, the casual ATM customer is not as persistent as the criminal, and he or she will usually give up and angrily walk away. Probably this is because they either don’t understand the ATM’s mechanical workings or they never suspect that the foreign object, placed by a criminal, was meant to thwart the casual passerby.  Finally, the criminal will come back later (day or night) to claim their prize.

As a kid, when payphones were ubiquitous, my brothers and I would casually stick our fingers in the coin return hoping for a precious dime or even a quarter if we were lucky. (I’d be halfway on my way to buying a pack of baseball cards!) Now think about how much you typically withdraw from an ATM. You can imagine the criminal making between $60 and $100 on a single successful ATM hunt.

What makes this criminal activity particularly clever  is the fact that a large percentage of San Francisco’s independent bars, shops, and restaurants do not accept credit or debit cards. Tourists often have to make extra, unexpected trips to the ATM. This is ironic because of San Francisco’s large corporate banking presence. These ATM trips is what makes them vulnerable to losing their cash.

San Franciscans are highly supportive (and protective) of their independent businesses, so they may be upset when I write that those shops’ independent ATMs are the most dangerous to withdraw your money from. Just check the cash dispensing doors for yourself. The hardware of ATMs from the big banks, such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, are designed with much more secure doors that prevent anyone manually prying them open. The independent ATMs are far less secure and are regularly pried open.

Sure, you could save the receipt and complain to the bank. But who wants to spend their vacations harassing a bank for their money back. Worse still, those independent ATMs don’t exactly having banking offices where you could walk in a complain. Calling the number? You’d be lucky to get a live operator. And if you did hit a homerun, you’re refund wouldn’t be mailed for 6-8 weeks. Mailed to a foreign country? Forget it. Don’t be a victim. Your cash belongs to you. Use your street smarts, stay away from the sketchy ATMs, and keep your cash for yourself.

Mutated Bedbugs Overrun San Francisco!

There is an itchy feeling among the few people left sleeping in the homes of San Francisco. A new strain of bedbug has been discovered in the Tenderloin is reeking havoc throughout the historic, low income neighborhood. Grown, healthy adults are losing blood while some weak and elderly have needed blood transfusions, according to a local emergency room nurse. There is even one haunting rumor of a neighborhood baby being found “shriveled like a dry raisin.” The rumor is referring to the bedbug’s classic trait of feeding on human blood, similar to fleas or mosquitoes.

Despite the insect’s common association to with beds, they are also found within commercial establishments. Hotels and movie theaters are especially vulnerable. “The sneak preview of ‘Little Rascals: The Musical’ was halted in mid-viewing says a local representative of the Chamber of Commerce. Patrons thought that the crawling sensations across  their arms and legs were a part of the Metreon’s IMAX experience. When one of the bugs was inadvertently smashed, moviegoers were enveloped by a hoard’s frenzied clicking. “I think they sensed the passing of a lost comrade,” said one teenager.

“You see, clicking is the hallmark distinction of this new strain of bedbugs,” says Dr. McPherson of the CDC. “Mosquitoes buzz but bedbugs are normally silent biters. Traditionally, their survival chances increased if they remained undiscovered. But these new bedbugs are…more aggressive.”

Security says that the stampede out of the theater did the most damage, as a number of people emerged with minor cuts and bruises–along with swollen red welts. The teenager’s date described the scene once the lights in the theater flipped on. “They were all over people’s necks and backs. It seemed like the bugs were disappearing back into the plush red seats.” It was their first date, and she declined to say whether she would agree to a second one.

A sense of panic and conspiracy now shrouds the city. The sidewalks are filling with abandoned mattresses and sofas. Some are mercifully sealed in plastic wrapping and labeled with warning signs. Others are simply tossed out of second and third story windows and smashed to pieces on the concrete. So much furniture is being disposed of in this way that pedestrians have begun walking in taxi lanes to avoid being crushed.

For months now, policemen in pickup trucks have been patrolling the streets at sunrise, quietly picking up bedbug-infested sofas. In recent weeks other city departments have been contributing to the efforts, working around the clock while the furniture still piles up. “Geary Street looks like an IKEA sidewalk sale,” said one patrolman.

Infested mattresses and sofas go to one of two bonfire-lit destinations, one at Ocean Beach to the west and the other at Crissy Field to the north. “They say that heat is the best way to get rid of ’em,” says one guard at Ocean Beach. The government is treating the bonfires like biohazard areas. “It wouldn’t be a problem,” said the guard, “except that many residents are also coming to the beach to camp out.”

One of the campers said, “The sand seems naturally sterile. A bedbug would have to crawl across 200 yards of sand to get to us. I’d like to see them try that.”

Residents who stay in their neighborhoods are afraid to turn out their lights while they sleep. It has become a city of 700,000 insomniacs.  Many go to great lengths to stay awake. San Franciscans love their daily coffee, but now residents have a nightly pot of joe. The demand has led to a mini shortage and spike in prices. Safeway has limited the number of bags customers can buy while Starbucks is temporarily cutting back on their refill policy. The beaches still are the best place to get sound sleep.

San Franciscans who remain in their homes are doing whatever it takes to beat the bedbugs. Many yards of carpet have been ripped out. Certain buildings, some four stories high, are being wrapped in special plastic, then fumigated. Others are reaching for their caulking guns to seal up any cracks where he bedbugs might be hiding. “I found a brood hiding in the electrical socket near my bed,” confessed one man. Some are simply wrapping their mattresses in plastic, entombing the critters.

People are trying all kinds of schemes to find a bedbug repellant. One rumor says that bedbugs can drop down from the ceiling, so people erect mosquito nets. “This isn’t sub-Sahara Africa,” says McPherson, “mosquito nets won’t help much.” Some think mosquito sprays like OFF will keep them away. However, people need to sleep eight hours and the sprays only last three to four hours. These are all practical steps compared to the liquid concoctions being sold on the streets in the Mission District.  Many claim that their drinks can repel bedbugs, but they are usually nothing more than 5-Hour Energy drink.

Bedbugs used to be pervasive throughout North America before WW II. They were considered just another annoying inconvenience. The renaissance in chemical engineering that occurred after WWII spawned a pesticide, DDT, which not only completely eradicated bedbugs from the continent, but kept them away for more than five decades while it lingered in our built environments. Now with low budget air travel to exotic locations, travelers have reintroduced the bedbug, Cimex lectularius. Now the CDC is at a loss on what can be done. The country is less tolerant of chemicals, and one might say suspicious, of any new chemicals. Could there be an organic, fair-trade substitute to DDT?

There are rumors of a quarantine, but they are unconfirmed. After all, who would really believe they would seal off the Golden Gate Bridge?

When One Shoves

When recalling the number of times I’ve called 911 this year, I realize that I’ve beaten my personal record of all other years combined.

The first time I called 911 was in the second month after my wife and I moved to the Tenderloin. We were standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn green when a homeless man stumbled out of the corner liquor store. He was leaning up against the door threshold and looked half asleep. The muscular shopkeeper seemed to have just escorted him out and then stood cross-armed in the doorway, just to make sure that the would-be customer went about his business–and didn’t forget his plastic garbage bag of personal belongings. The groggy customer inched his way toward the sidewalk dragging his plastic bag alongside him. He just got a few inches and didn’t seem to have the energy for much more.

A brash young man then appeared on the scene ready to take swift action. Immediately sizing up the situation, he gave the groggy customer a hearty shove. The groggy customer (let me be straightforward and call him a homeless guy) then tripped over his plastic bag and was lifted head over heals in the downhill direction of Hyde St. The thickness of the human skull is around one quarter inch. The sound it makes when it hits concrete is one that I can best describe as a steady bowling ball being dropped from chest high. The deep thud transmitted a force through the concrete that I could feel through the soles of my shoes, standing about ten feet away.

I did what I guess most people do when they are startled by an act of violence–I gasped and made a stupid looking face. The crosswalk light turned green, but no one was moving. Staring faces swivelled between the unconscious bowling ball/man on the sidewalk and the young shoving champion, who was also making a stupid looking face. Wide eyes and an opened mouth. Evidentally, he overestimated the violence of his push. The light was green. He leaned in the opposite direction, turned, and started in the opposite direction. The homeless man wasn’t moving.

This was the first act of public violence that I have ever witnessed. Shamefully, my first action was to cross dazedly shuffle across the street in the direction I was already walking. Did that just happen? I unlocked the front door to my apartment building and stepped inside. After a half a minute of shallow, unfulfilling breathing I decided to go back outside to make sure that didn’t just happen.

The man on the concrete still wasn’t moving, but now there was a circle of onlookers, different than the ones standing with me at the red light. That’s when I finally I remembered the cell phone. “Should we call 911?” Of course, what a stupid question to ask now. But to me 911 was series of push buttons that, as a kid, I avoided pushing at all costs. It was the ultimate prank call that no one but the really disturbed kid ever had the guts to make. In all my life I never even came close to needing it. The frantic voice recordings heard on TV throughout the years seemed alien to me. Certainly it was something I would ever be a part of.  But here I was looking down at a guy whose head just collided with the sidewalk with a force that I could feel through my feet. I pulled out my phone and pushed the three button sequence for the first time. Now there was a thin trail of blood inching its way down the hill. “Hmm…gravity,” I thought. It’s weird what comes to mind during these times.

The fire truck came first. They always come first since the station is just up the hill. I stepped aside, refusing to be an ameteur gawker. The paramedic bent down and shined the pen flashlight in his eyes, which were slivers of white. He lightly slapped the injured man’s cheeks a few times, like they do with the town drunk. “What are you doing?” I shouted. Was I the only one who knew what really happened? The shopkeeper had already placed an emergency call help. The replacement cashier arrived right after the ambulance. He had just gotten in a car and left. “No witnesses,” I thought. When I walked away the first time, I guess everyone else did too. Afte finally getting the paramedics’ attention, a soft padded blue neckbrace promptly emerged from their kit. He was loaded up and the ambulance rolled away, along with the firetruck.

Visually, everything appeared normal again. New people were walking by talking, joking, and on their way. I stood there not knowing what to do next. “Doesn’t anyone want to ask me what happened? I was a witness! Won’t there be a police report to file? Doesn’t someone want to interview me?” It was just another evening on the job in the Tenderloin. The next day the thin red stain would be dark as it mixed with the dust. It was powerwashed the next day along with the black smears of old bubblegum.

Taking a Jab on the Chin from a Total Stranger

Living in San Francisco has been quite a struggle since we moved here a few months back–competing to get an apartment lease, negotiating with exploitative bosses and just simply trying to eke out a living. This morning that existential struggle turned physical as I found myself in a fist fight with a total stranger!  

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was in a real fight, but I’m sure it was before I finished my little league baseball career. I mean, I actually had to put up my dukes against a wide-eyed, crazy man with a huge chip on his shoulder that could  only matched by the magnitude of his insecurity. I was warned this was a tough San Francisco neighborhood, but never considered the notion to be taken literally.

Needless to say, I was caught off guard. Imagine me heading to a BBQ, carrying a backpack and an 8-pound puppy when this guy comes up from behind and starts punching at me. The guys on Ultimate Fighting at least have the luxury of knowing the fight is coming. They work out, train, at least leave their puppies at home—then focus on the fight ahead. My mind, on the other hand, was totally on BBQ and puppies (you know, normal stuff) when this danger came a-knocking.

When he approached me, my first instinct was step aside, as I do everyday on the sidewalk. Yet when the fists neared my face, I surprised myself when I suddenly fought back. I just reacted without thinking. Of course, that couldn’t have been his excuse because he walked almost an entire block to come find me!  Sure, I glanced at him as I passed by, but what would possess him to get out of his car, walk an entire block, and start a fist fight with someone he’s never seen before? If the roles were reversed, I’d have to be pretty damn sure I was actually insulted before doing anything. Or at least be sure that the stranger even opened his mouth (which I didn’t)! For all he knows, I could have just been telling him “good morning!” He was parallel parked in a bus stop, listening to loud gangster rap at 9:00am.  I must have just strolled into his field of vision at the same moment an insulting rap lyric entered his ears. He projected lyrics onto me, and had no recourse but to seek revenge against his own imaginary slur.

I see and hear strangers arguing on the street everyday in my neighborhood. Mostly, they are either overly political homeless or cash-strapped drug users. Yes, they all look, act (and smell) crazy when they shout at someone else from across the street.  Yet here I am dropping f-bombs to guy a half-block away with 30 pedestrians staring back at me. How I should reserve judgment!

I have now become one of them.

A 10-step account of the action, which I must later document in comic book form (All Rights Reserved)!

  1. Man walks down the street, with a backpack and a puppy.
  2. Man passes parked car, with mad-whak gangsta rap coming out of the windows.
  3. Crazy guy in car begins yelling and cursing.
  4. Man continue strolling down the block thinking it’s just another neighborhood crazy argument in a crazy neighborhood.
  5. A block later, the cursing gets louder and…footsteps 
  6. POW!! a shot to the man’s chin!!
  7. Keeping his cool, man sets puppy down while skillfully dodging a flurry punches left and right.
  8. Man throws off  his backpack and jacket, hockey-player style, and powers up for a toe-to-toe fistfight.
  9. Crazy guy, clutched with fear, back peddles, leaving the normal man dreaming of all the blows I would have landed. 
  10. Verbal insults reign down on all sides, ironically directing at the crazy guy 10x the number of curses he originally imagined.

Epilogue: Man picks up his coat, backpack and puppy as he continues on to his previously scheduled BBQ. Meanwhile ninjas come out of nowhere and start wailing on guitars.