When I lived on Treasure Island Naval Base, I had a friend who would disappear into the city on our weekends off, choosing to be left alone to drown his sorrows in a bottle of booze.
Despite having a warm bed in the barracks, he would find a cardboard box, and spend Friday and Saturday night under it in the alleys south of Market Street.
All his buddies worried something terrible would happen to him after dark on the dangerous streets of San Francisco, and we wondered what tortured his soul so, that would lead him to self-medicate and find refuge among the homeless.
He was from Delano, California, an agricultural town north of Bakersfield, known for being the home to Hispanic union leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America.
Delano was also the site of two state prisons.
I never learned what led my friend to escape the central valley for a concrete jungle, but I knew whatever secret or scars he held were strong enough that alcoholism and sleeping on the streets were his only solace.
In 1985, at age 23, I knew the streets well already. Having experienced homelessness in not only San Francisco, but Sacramento, and Los Angeles.
Despite an intergenerational pseudo-marriage and fathering two children, I wasn’t welcome at home, and unable to provide for anyone much less myself.
Without a high school diploma, I struggled, through numerous menial jobs like washing dishes at a coffee shop or flipping burgers in a fast-food joint. None of which were enough to support a family, and neither promising any type of future beyond minimum wage.
The California Conservation Corps was an opportunity to reset all that had gone wrong in my life. Promising “Hard work, low pay, and miserable conditions,” the program (still today) helps young adults 18-25 develop a strong work ethic.
While most of its efforts are environmental, emergency response and natural resource focused, residential locations are mostly located outside urban environments.
My experience with the CCC began with attending the Academy at San Andreas (where I received basic wildland firefighter training), before being assigned to Delta Flood Center in Stockton.
It was at Delta Center where the compelling reason for failure of my marriage began to resurface: my sexuality.
Four years prior, in an earlier attempt to build a life, I had joined the military with disastrous consequences. Before my 19th birthday the United States Army had deemed me unsuitable based on homosexuality.
The federal government had threatened to destroy my life, but fortunately the state of California promised otherwise.
However, an affair that sparked at the academy grew more intense when the fellow corpsmember also landed at Delta (and in the same dormitory), following graduation.
Prevailing attitudes were telling me being gay was wrong, while nature told me differently.
My marriage threatened the burgeoning romance. Yet, for the first time in my life, I had met and become romantically-involved with someone my own age, but I felt a guilt for not being the parent I should have been or could never be.
In an act of desperation, my boyfriend and I quit the C’s, with the intent of moving to San Francisco and building a life together. We stayed briefly with my parents until my father could no longer tolerate us lounging around all day with no immediate plans for self-sufficiency.
My plans were to retrieve my belongings from my wife’s home and tell her our marriage was over, while he went on to San Francisco to search for a place for us to stay. Wondering where he’d get the funds, I shamelessly schooled him in where to go and what to expect, suggesting he hustle on Polk Street until I got there. We kissed and hugged each other goodbye at the Greyhound depot. I never saw him again.
With my marriage over and boyfriend gone, I entered a second chance program with the CCC, asking to be assigned to the San Francisco Center on Treasure Island.
The center at TI consisted of all-male and all-female barracks, offices, plus a dining hall, located amidst the operations of a naval base.
We were issued identification card to access the base and also given commissary privileges.
Located steps from our dormitory was also a three-story building which housed sailors undergoing discharge for homosexuality. Walking to catch a bus outside the gate into the city, it wasn’t unheard of to find a date while passing this building, but neither was finding a tryst in the men’s room next to the base exchange (a notorious hotspot).
My new life on TI consisted of early morning jogs around base, through the coastal fog, and physical training in the shadow of San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge as commuters traveled into a city coming to life.
Days were spent building an inner-city park near SF General Hospital and other conservation projects, including restoration of Baker Beach, a historical building at Oakland Zoo, in-addition to clean-up efforts near the bay bridge toll booths. It was there where our crew once found a cardboard box filled with hundreds of wallets, all missing ID’s and credit cards, undoubtedly stolen by pickpockets.
While at TI, I also received additional firefighter training with California Department of Forestry (at Mt. Diablo), which prepared me for a seasonal position on a hotshot crew with U.S. Forest Service (in Sequoia National Park). Six years earlier commanding officers said I would never work for the federal government again. I proved Uncle Sam wrong.
Living on TI had a certain cachet, especially when partying in the city on days off. For whatever reason, gay men were attracted to (and sought out) those of us who lived on TI.
Regardless of being drinking age, I hung out in familiar territory of Polk Gulch rather than the Castro or South of Market. During the height of San Francisco gay life, Polk was geared more towards a younger (and minority) crowd, Castro the more-affluent (and privileged), and SOMA the leather S&M types.
Long gone were my days of hanging out with DJ’s from Trocadero Transfer, but I still frequented the legendary disco, as it was a quick cab ride over the bridge back to base.
I kept an eye out for my lost love, wondering what may have happened to him, hoping that he had at least returned to his family in southern California rather than meeting any unfortunate demise.
Had he survived and escaped Polk Street? Was he homeless in San Francisco? I would never know but forever regret abandoning him. Foolishly believing that I had survived the streets and everyone else was capable also.
Today, whenever I see a homeless person I realize that they too have a story, a reason.
But I know too there are ways out, and up, depending on how wounded and committed one is to surviving.