He calls them the desperate hours, and, most nights, that’s an apt description for this stretch of downtown San Francisco. It’s not yet midnight but already a prostitute weaves down the street in exaggerated slow motion, her face candied by the neon backwash of signs advertising pizza and booze. Men’s silhouettes watch her from hotel doorways and blow smoke out from the darkness. On the corner, in front of Glide Memorial Church, homeless people have improvised bedrooms on the sidewalk, but they don’t sleep — they stare into the night the way you stare into a bonfire.
The desperate hours are 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., when Reverend Lyle Beckman makes his route through the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods and a haven for the dispossessed. Beckman is the city’s night minister, the fourth man to hold the job since 1964. He’s out here almost every night, no matter the weather, to hear confessions and offer prayers to those who need them.
“As the night goes on, the situations that we hear, the circumstances that people find themselves in, are much more dire,” Beckman says as we edge past Jonell’s Cocktail Lounge, a corner dive bar. In front of the building, two men stand in dazed meditation. The hot-plastic char of crack smoke clings to them like radiation.
Beckman has seen and smelled it all during his 11 years walking these streets. His vocation demands that he play a combination of father, confessor, therapist, and minesweeper. He’s disarmed strangers of guns, knives, and baseball bats; he’s been threatened with a screwdriver. Still, his biggest fear isn’t other people.
“I’m not concerned about catching any diseases, or violence, or about not being able to help folks,” he says. “I’m concerned about the rats. That sounds kind of foolish, but that’s my confession.”
There are no rats tonight. Or if there are, they’re less visible than the people camped in doorways, swaddled in wool blankets or crusts of broken cardboard. Faces seem to hover inside hoods. Craggy voices mutter “Hello, Father” as Beckman passes. His clerical collar is as vivid in the darkness as his meringue of white hair.
Halfway down otherwise empty Ellis Street, a man leans on a disheveled push broom. He smiles with such fixed enormity that I wonder if something is wrong with his mouth. It’s a smile of no particular pleasure — it’s just there, open as a wound.
Beckman walks with a practiced saunter that’s calculated to invite eye contact. His expression, like that of a seasoned bartender, is attentive but noncommittal. It seems to welcome every kind of grievance and confession, every one-liner and interrogation. If someone answers his salutation — a curt smile and a nod — odds are Beckman will stop to chat, which is what he does now.
Behind the smiling man is a jumble of possessions: a wheelchair, luggage, plastic crates, shopping bags stuffed with other shopping bags, sheets and pillows, tarps, and remnants of out-of-season clothes. It looks like someone’s apartment exploded onto the street. Which, in a way, is what happened.
Hendricks, the smiling man, tells us he was evicted from the Drake Hotel, a residential hotel a block south. Worse, Hendricks says cops confiscated his buckets to stop him from drumming, although apparently he managed to salvage a few: Amid the clutter behind him are plastic buckets nested inside each other.
“You can’t take somebody’s gift,” he says. “God gave me this. I’m 56 years old. Let me do what I do best.”
What Hendricks does best is drum. Jazz, reggae, funk — he does it all. He gestures behind him, where four or five snare drums are stacked on a jury-rigged dolly, and says the set is for his son, now six years old and also named Hendricks. He hasn’t seen the boy in a while but plans to teach him how to drum someday. Tonight, Hendricks Sr. is on Ellis Street because his girlfriend of 11 years lives about 50 feet away, inside the Coronado Hotel. He lived with her too until he couldn’t stomach the bed bugs anymore.
“I told her I’m gonna marry her,” Hendricks says. “She’s going through a lot of things. She’s been beat up, and I’m kicking her off the heroin. She believes in me. I just bought her a diamond ring.”
Beckman smiles the way you might smile at an old photograph. “If she believes in you, and you believe in her, and you know you’re going to be together forever,” he says, “then a few more years just to make sure it’s the right time is nothing, right?”
Across the street is what looks like a crime scene but is really only the epilogue to another night in the Tenderloin: a body asleep beneath a white sheet, dreamless under an awning’s hard floodlight, sleeping off whatever damage the day has wrought. A man nearby nurses his tallboy of Olde English and pretends not to listen to us.
“I’m proud of her,” Hendricks says of his girlfriend. “She’s very smart. I’m just trying to get her out of that snake pit.”
We all turn toward the Coronado, an anonymous place with a gated entrance and five floors of murky yellow-lit windows. I wonder which window is hers.
“She says there’s a whole family of mice in the closet,” Hendricks says, still smiling. “She opens the door and they go…” — he pantomimes skittering mice, which could also be the gesture of a man scattering ashes.
Hendricks says he was eighty-sixed from the Coronado for unspecified reasons and can only talk to his girlfriend outside. When they’re married, and she finally has his name, perhaps he’ll reconcile with the manager and go back into the building. Perhaps they’ll live happily ever after.
“Keep encouraging her,” Beckman says, his own voice now featherweight. “The worst thing that can happen is she thinks she’s stuck there forever and there’s no hope.”
Hendricks smiles. It seems he has no choice not to.
As we say our goodbyes, it occurs to me that cities are more honest at night, and more eloquent. It’s at night, after all, when our loneliness feels most naked and our fears most relentless. We vow that we will do better tomorrow, that the morning will surely bring some comfort. For most of us, darkness is the closest we’ll come to mercy.