On the Julia Morgan church, in the Haight Ashbury, a black angel sits staring at passers by with a bemused smile. The clouds behind her are the flattest white of cotton, in a sky as blue as a baby’s bedroom. She used to be a white angel, with pale skin and a blond page boy, flirtatious in her catholic school girl uniform. When she changed races her posture, dress and the proportions of her face stayed the same. Only the hairstyle and skin changed — her hair morphed into two long dark braids, with a feather sticking up off to one side. Her skin is now the color of morning coffee, laced with heavy cream.
The church where she sits, cocooned in her mural, houses the Haight Ashbury food program. For close to thirty years the program fed, provided job training and a daily community for hundreds of San Franciscos’ homeless and needy. Recently, facing federal funding cuts, and the swift gentrification of the Haight, it cut its daily operations down to a once a week food pantry. When the soup kitchen closed the patrons who lined up daily along my street, who provided me with most of my social encounters, disappeared. Amoung them was the man who painted the mural of the angel.
When I began to notice this man I called him the hustler. He wore aviator sunglasses, and partially unbuttoned gigilo shirts, remnants, I guessed, of a former studliness. He rode a bicycle and trailed behind very young girls on Haight street, girls no older than his angel, who perhaps bought drugs from him, and let him be their guide or mascot to the touristy streets of a former social revolution.
He had a bit of a mullet, too tight pants, and a bicycle — all the anachronisms the young hipsters around the Haight find delightfully tacky and try to mimic in an I’m-so-cool-I-can-afford-to-be-tacky kind of way. I felt patronizingly sad for him. His wardrobe was stuck in the early 70’s, while his face and body aged. The last traces of handsomeness were threatened by sinking fat pockets and the hardening of muscles. He had the look and volatile energy of a meth addict, and I stayed away from him. He wasn’t one of the soup kitchen regulars I said hello to.
Yet when he started painting the mural on the front of the church I began to think differently of him. Other things were changing as well. As renters on Waller Street we were recipients of the “Waller Street Association Newsletter,” although we were not invited to the association’s meetings or Christmas parties. The newsletter was geared toward the “clean up” and “safety” of Waller street and the Haight in general. According to the newsletter all the social services around the Haight — the Homeless Youth Alliance, the free medical clinics, and especially the soup kitchen were floundering, not due to lack of funding, but because they were mismanaged. They attempted to serve too many, left too many sleeping on their street, and sitting on their front stoops during the day, deterring them, the nice landed gentry, from coming out of their houses and patronizing the businesses on Haight street. The newsletter blamed these organizations for perpetuating the problems they attempted to assuage. In reality I think the homeless served to remind the organization of the unpleasant downside to their free-market wealth, of sickness and mortality. Although they were careful not to say this. Instead the newsletter complained of specific cosmetic issues and safety: the church was an eye sore and possibly dangerous. It’s paint was peeling, a few drain pipes looked loose, there were a boards up in some of the church’s stained glass windows, and people left piles of discarded clothes on the sidewalk for the homeless to rummage through.
Concurrent with the newsletters, the regulars at the soup kitchen banded together to fight for their turf. A few men I didn’t know erected scaffolding and began to paint the three story Mission style façade of the church, and the Hustler began his mural on wall in front of the stair well. Tony, a small speechless man, who would waggle his finger at me if I walked too close to broken glass, or dog poop on the sidewalk, was let loose to do his compulsive cleaning. Tony was ubiquitous on the street, always with some makeshift janitorial tool in hand. Now he was given a proper broom. He swept and pruned the bushes infront of the church parking lot until they were completely chewed up, with just a few leaves clinging for dear life. He also tried to clean our windows, and the windows of the homeowners along the street. I’d be in our apartment alone, when our door would start shaking as if someone were trying to break in. I’d remember that it was Tony washing the pane of glass with his dirty mop, leaving brown streaks, where none had been before.
Charlie a professional recycler, who I imagined operated as the kitchen’s bouncer, seemed to suddenly take his job more seriously as well. Previously, this large bald man in a black beanie cap, this man who looked liked a guy the mafia might hire, would sit perched on his stool at the entrance to the kitchen, a thug like sphinx. He smoked quietly, head thrown back, looking out at passerby with slit eyes. The first time he said hello to me I was completely rattled. I was pregnant and in the middle of my third trimester, so perhaps he took pity on me. “When are you due,” he yelled out. From then on every time I passed, he or one of the regulars would yell, “Coming soon?” And I’d say “I hope so!” By the very end of my pregnancy, as the newsletter came with more frequency, Charlie was up and pacing the line. If a patron was holding forth too loudly on God and the Universe, or yelling greetings at passers by with aggressive jollity, he would tell them to keep it down.
Then there was the hustler. He sat on a plastic crate his supplies laid out in front of him. With what seemed to be a great effort, he confronted his angel. He worked all morning, took a break, and came back to pace around in front of the mural in the afternoon. His process involved almost as much paceing as it did sitting and staring. It was no surprise that the outline emerging on the wall was the same height, and build as him. The figure even mirrored his intense posture as he sat on the sidewalk scrutinizing it. Her legs were crossed, she leaned forward, elbow on chin. There they sat, nose to nose, the painter and his empty outline.
The church’s façade gradually brightened from dull beige to a pale yellow, gold paint was added to the lintels, and the street, thanks to Tony was clean, but the artist progressed more slowly. I thought I understood him. Just as the renovations began I’d given birth to my son. I was amazed at his beauty, and at my ability to bring him into the world, and now I was afraid I might mess him up. I was terrified of my responsibility, doubtful of my ability to just sit and be lovingly present with him, when I had mind that was restless and easily bored. I imagined that the hustler too, had a hard time being present with his angel, or worried about his ability to finish what he’d started. On one of my many walks, with baby in stroller, I told him that his outline looked good. Still, he sat staring.
Then one day he painted her shoes — two black disks with a strap – simple Mary Jane’s. Next, he painted her white bobby socks, and then rising up from them two legs, one crossed behind the other. The front leg looked in proportion to the leg tucked behind, but, alas, compared to the rest of her body appeared stretched by a fun house mirror; very out of proportion. I thought I understood this too. This was the kind of distortion that happened when you stared too long at just one element of a painting, or any other work, ignoring the rest. It was a perseverating myopia and overvaluation that I was all too familiar with cooped up in my small apartment, staring at my baby, imagining that I alone was responsible for his health and well being; that every little thing I did or didn’t do would significantly impact him. I forgot that there was a whole world out side that would teach and shape him, if I let it in. I didn’t understand that if I stepped back, he would do most of his growing on his own.
It was probably a relief to worry about something other than my baby. And so I worried about this man and his angel. He started to bring some of his other artwork and prop it up in front of the mural, maybe for motivation. Perhaps it was for sale. They were canvasses of thick multicolor swirls of paint. I looked away, embarrassed, from these paintings, unable to offer a compliment. I was afraid he would interpret them as wicked LSD trips. I’d found out from one of the volunteers that he truly was a recovering meth addict, and I thought maybe the paint swirls were all he had the concentration for. But then one day I walked by and the bottom half of the angel was sitting in a field of grass and flowers.
The grass was clumpy, rising up in patches out of brown earth. The flowers were impressionistic — smudged in the wind or caught in the light, seen from a distance. That the smudged flowers were actually in the foreground didn’t matter. They were satisfying, and I imagined the environment would provide the angel with a safe peaceful place to manifest, or come into being. The next day the artist had extended the environment of the mural out onto the sidewalk. He’d painted a blue bubble-like arc, dotted with grass; a tiny front porch, brushed over by glitter. His angel needed still more space, another protective dimension. Perhaps he imagined her standing up and stepping outside of the wall to stretch her too long legs? Perhaps this piece of painted sidewalk was for him: a place for him to stand and be transported into the mural?
After the Angel’s “front porch” was added, the painting progressed faster, albeit with the same idiosynchratic results. Her arms, one pitched to prop up her chin, the other draped over her legs, were out of proportion in a way that somehow balanced her stretched shins; her white blouse and black vest were stiff, flat planes, but a scarf swung over her knee loosened the ensemble. The modeling of her hand was crude, but her face was finely detailed. She had that intimate look in her eye, the look that said she’d been around and knew a few things, and maybe even knew you. I stood smiling in front of her the first time I saw her completed. I had my baby with me, and said “Look, the Angel is finished.” My baby was becoming more of a person as well, and I was more comfortable with him. I was confident that I probably wouldn’t space out and let him roll off the changing table, confident that he wouldn’t look at me and immediately absorb my worries and fears. The angel’s completion was a good omen – a sign that things pulled themselves together, there was order in the universe, struggles passed.
It was then, about a week later that someone took a knife and scratched two x’s across the angel’s eyes. At first I imagined some lonely sociopath, waking up under her at night, offended by the forthrightness of her gaze. Later I wondered if the X’s weren’t a comment on the artist’s meth addiction. Perhaps the angel was a stand in for the artist, and the X’s represented the way a meth addict saw the world — the restricted vision of the lows, and the fractured kaleidoscopic highs, through eyes that were prisms and prisons.
A day later I found the artist riding his bike in circles in front of the mural. His face looked more gaunt than I remembered, his hair a little oilier than usual.
I stopped and asked, “Do you know who did this?” I hoped to show support, to let him know I’d noticed the X’s and didn’t like it.
“Who?” he said, turning to me accusingly. “What do you know?”
Startled, I kept walking. “Nothing” I said, “I’m just sorry it happened.”
I was half way down the block when he yelled at my back, “Oh I know who did this, I know who did this, and he’s a dead man.” He was quiet for a moment then perhaps remembering that he knew me yelled, “peace.”
Around this time my husband and I left for two weeks. We took our son to visit his grandparents across the country. When we returned the street was strangely quiet and the sidewalks no longer clean. Tony and Charlie and the other regulars around the street had vanished. Despite efforts the “clean up” and “beautify” the soup kitchen, it had still closed. For a couple days I avoided looking at the mural, I didn’t want to see the violent X’s over the angel’s eyes. When I did finally look up I was surprised find that the she had changed. She was now a dark angel, and the skin color suited her. Before her skin had been a little flat and pasty, and the blond page-boy, too oddly sexy for a little girl. I liked her long dark braids. Her face looked more stoic, and thoughtful, and the artist had done his best to cover the gouges over her eyes.
Impulsively I walked up to the mural. I stood inside the grassy bubble painted onto the sidewalk and ran my fingers over her eyes. It felt like the right thing to do – as if I was laying something to rest – the blond angel, a difficult passage of my life, the struggle of the artist to complete the mural, the struggle of the regulars to keep the kitchen open? I’m not exactly sure.
Eventually the soup kitchen opened back up on Saturdays for a farmers style market. Families in need now come to load up bags of groceries for the week. The kitchen is filled with a different kind of patron, people who have homes, but are still struggling. Occasionally someone on the street will stop me and ask when the soup kitchen will open for daily meals. Occasionally someone traveling with a backpack and sleeping bag will spend the night on the painted patch of grass under the angel, hoping for a meal in the morning.