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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke
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Editor, writer, journalist, student of history. Chicago native, long-time resident of Berkeley, California.

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SEPTEMBER 23, 2008 8:27PM

Shakespearean (I)

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[Note 9/23/08: I've edited this piece to remove the real name of the man involved.]

After we got done with our two little afternoon newscasts at KQED the other day, and after I had cleared a couple morning stories that had been awaiting edit, I walked up to the Safeway a couple blocks away, at 16th and Bryant streets. There's a big shopping center there that runs a full city block over to the east, to Potrero Avenue. Before the center was there, the site was occupied by a giant car dealership. Before the dealership, it was home to Seals Stadium, where the city's Triple A baseball team played until they were kicked out when the Giants arrived in 1958.

The shopping center has a huge double-deck parking garage. The upper lot is above street level along 16th, so there's a wall that runs, at varying heights because the street slopes, the entire block between Potrero and Bryant. Last night when I got to 16th and Bryant, there was a man lying at the base of the wall, a few feet from a bus stop at the corner.

You encounter people lying on the street in San Francisco every day. So many people have plunged through whatever gave their lives structure and support that they've become part of the landscape. Every once in a while, one will attract particular attention: because they're particularly abject, because they're acting out in some outrageous way, or because there's something in their physical attitude that makes you wonder whether they're still breathing.

The guy I spotted at the base of the wall last night was in the third category. He was lying on his side with his back to the wall  and a blue-jean jacket pulled over his head. He wasn't moving. He was wearing dirty jeans and some beat-looking hiking boots. I stood over him for a few seconds to see if I could see him breathing. I thought he was, but wasn't sure. Then I walked up into the upper level of the parking lot and stood above him and decided to call 911. Since I was on a cellphone, I got routed to the California Highway Patrol; the delay was long enough that I changed my mind about the emergency call. I hung up, then called information for the number of the Mobile Assistance Patrol. MAP started back in the '80s, I think, when the city's homeless population first spiked and emergency services found themselves swamped with calls for destitute people unconscious on the streets.

I called MAP and got an operator and described the situation. "OK. Is he breathing?" she asked. "Yes." "Do you think he's intoxicated?" "Well, yeah, that's the usual situation, right?" I said. "OK ..."

At that moment, the figure on the sidewalk below me came to life. The man--he was white, middle aged, unshaven, close-cropped brown hair--said, "I'm fine. I don't need anyone to come help me." I was relieved, told the operator the guy was still among the living, and hung up. The man put his head back under his jacket, and I walked over to the grocery store.

My errand was to buy a couple cheap Safeway sandwiches for me and one of the reporters back at the station. I bought one for the guy lying on the sidewalk and got him one of those protein smoothies, too. When I got back to the street, he was still lying there. "I know you heard me when I made that phone call before," I said. "I don't want to bother you, but I'm going to leave a sandwich and something to drink right here." He pulled the coat off his head and tried to sit up. "Thank you, thank you, I need that," he said. I gave him a hand so he could sit upright against the wall. He thanked me again and told me his name. I'll call him Richard. He was disheveled and dirty but not drunk or drug-addled at the moment. I told him my name, and I asked him how long he'd been out there. "Three years on the street," he said. He looked up and down 16th. "I used to ... I don't know how I got here."

I asked him about his family name, thinking it might have come from Ireland. "Where are you from?"

"I've lived here for twenty-six years!" he said. "I've ... I was the director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival." The festival is a well-known company that has put on free plays in parks since the early '80s. If this guy had been the director--well, he had had things together at some point and really--desperately--lost his way.

"Shakespeare? 'Midsummer Night's Dream'? 'Richard the Second'?"

"Oh, I can give you all thirty-eight of them if you have time," he said. " 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances. ...' "

He trailed off. I asked him where he stayed at night. "On the street," he said. But where--any particular place, or wherever he found himself? "Wherever I find myself," he said. "I was so tired that I just sort of collapsed here." He had nothing with him but what he was wearing.

I had to leave, and I told him to eat. "Have a good night," I said. "I'm sorry, I don't mean that ironically. I'll look out for you when I'm in the neighborhood."

I walked back to the office, and when the work of the shift was done, I looked up Richard online. There he was. He'd been involved with the company from its inception through 2003. I found an item from July 2003 that described his departure:

A farewell to the Bard: Just as the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival prepares to open its 21st Free Shakespeare in the Parks season with "Love's Labour's Lost," it's lost one of its primary laborers. Producing Artistic Director [Richard] , the company's leader since '97 -- and a member since its first season -- has quietly tendered his resignation.

The reasons were not artistic but personal, festival members said (Richard was not reachable at press time). After setting the schedule and hiring Ken Kelleher to direct the summer show, Richard took a brief leave, then decided to make it permanent. With the summer opening on hand, the board of directors named managing director Toby Leavitt the executive director for now.

I wrote Rob an email about my encounter with the man on the street. He said he really didn't know what had become of Richard and suggested that his successor at the festival might.

After work, I walked back up to the corner where I'd found Richard. He was gone, and he wasn't one of the dozen or so homeless men that I saw in the walk down to the 16th Street BART station.

(First posted at Infospigot: The Chronicles, 9/10/08)

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tragic, sad tale told with empathy......

"What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?"

- The Tempest
"So many people have plunged through whatever gave their lives structure and support that they've become part of the landscape."

This is so sad and so true. I encounter a lot of homeless folks in the city. It's hard to kno who wto help.

Robert Novak recently hit a homeless guy with his car. The homeless guy was in his 80's and I think he had some past claim to fame in theatre as well.
oops. That would be "know how to help".

(Please somebody add an edit button to comments!)
There but for the grace of God go any of us.
Gripping story, very well told. Since this is Shakespearean (I), I hope there is a II. I went to your blog to read ahead, but didn't see it.

It (Part I) left me with so many questions: Did you follow up with the successor? I would think the Festival isn't a huge, corporate-type organization (at least I wouldn't think so -- if the similar organization here in Boston that puts up marvellous shows every summer in the Commons is any guide) -- did they follow up with this man? And much more. I'll wait for the continuation.
Enrique: Exactly.

There is a Part II. Still coming.

-- db
A fascinating story, thank you.

Unfortunately, the link to your story on the Salon.Com front page carries the title "The homeless man I helped once was "somebody""

We need all to remember that EVERY homeless person is "somebody." To think otherwise devalues them and undermines the point of your writing. I do hope someone changes the title of the link.
How tragic. What does this say about our society? You sir, are a good man. I can only wish that my own children will do the same. My husband works downtown and sets aside $5/week in his pocket for those ask for help. It isn't much but it is something. Bless you!
He told you his name and some information to personalize himself to you - to connect with you. Person to person. His actions humanized you.

And now you are using him - exposing him - as an object of sensationalism - of persuading others to react emotionally.

This is most likely at odds with your motivation and intentions - but those are truly known only to you. I can't judge them.

But know this - you are using him as entertainment porn. He has become an object no different than a peep show performer. You look at him because he has nowhere to go to avoid your gaze. He has no private space, no control over his chaos.

Unless you take first person action to change the underlying problem, you have done nothing but prey upon him. Did he give you permission to share his identity and his situation as you perceived it?

To test my premise, make yourself truly homeless, hungry, and vulnerable - no cell phone, nothing in your pocket but perhaps a library card. Dress in the same type of clothing he had on. And go out for at least a week. If someone approaches you, offer up the same info - your real name, real job.

See what happens.

Experience that reality of absolute vulnerability.
Nequals: I take those criticisms to heart and am thinking about them. My primary motivation, both when I saw this man on the street and in writing about it, is to persuade others to pay attention to what they see and act on it when they can.
Enrigue said it well. Yup, I could be that guy. I actually used to live (and drink) near there, back in the day. I'm in LA now, sober. But I am reminded of where I was heading when I read stories like these.

Beautiful story, btw. Full of sadness, though.
Alcoholism is a slow death killer, even if you can direct Richard III.
Nequals1 I will have to respectfully disagree with your point of view. And - perhaps the fellow portrayed in the story above might agree.

Some of the best playwrights in history wrote about such tales in order to provoke positive change. One example I can site is the naturalist play "The Weavers" by Gerhardt Hauptmann, presented in 1892. "The Weavers" presented the horrible predicament of the working class and the squalid miserable lives that they were forced to endure. Hauptmann's intended audience for this play were the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. His play created a huge scandal.

A contemporaneous response from one of the bourgeoisie? " "What! Workingmen, dirty, emaciated and starved, to be placed on the stage! Poverty, in all its ugliness, to be presented as an after-dinner amusement? That is too much!"

It is important to hear stories like this. By sharing this homeless person's tale with us, Dan made him real to us, which is a favor to any homeless individual. It is all too easy to make assumptions about someone based solely on their destitute facade.
I should probably add that I do for the most part agree with changing the name, but due to the nature of the story it would still be relatively easy to find.

Excellent post