Welcome to the latest chapter of Urbane Studies, in which our agents suss out the finer points of city lore by scrutinizing its individual street corners. This week: film-inspired apartment buildings, one-legged prostitutes and neighborhood vibes at Hyde and Ellis.
This intersection, it doesn't kill you with excitement, what with TBT Tax Services flanking the northwest corner and Dair's Speed Wash due south. But why should it? This neighborhood is, well, just a neighborhood: lots of families during the day and stumbling kids closer to last call. Coming up on the grubbies, scattered storefronts, a block mostly given over to the stately sort of apartment for which the area is known. Which brings us to a point that comes up because it must: what do you talk about when you talk about a neighborhood?
If you've been playing along (congratulations/sorry?), then you'll recognize one or two points about the nature of the column.
Firstly, this is not an exercise in apologism. To write about any city's Tenderloin is to write about what a city is, and the city as we know it is a densely packed assortment of personalities that don't fit easily. One might say of a city that this is a requirement. If the place you came from doesn't fit you, the city seems to say, "C'mere, you. Miserable as you were, here you are as welcome as you can make yourself."
What else? This is a hard place, but it is also a place of entry. Perhaps it's simpler to picture those who seek exit, buying death or sweet oblivion in front of a particular doughnut shop. And yet, amidst rent control legacy cases and arrivistes, you'll find a goodly number of families who find the rents amenable enough to fit into an extravagant city. Their children will grow up here, and hopefully, have a birthright sense of pride. Tell that to your friends with the new baby who take flight because this place is too damned expensive.
Just depends which side of Sunday you are, optimism or pessimism. Having worked in the neighborhood nearly ten years, we aren't ones for the dark side. So, onward into the Tenderloin, to Hyde and Ellis.
Ben Hur Apartments has its thematic catch, but unless you lived across the street, you might not have noticed: a story up from street level, a motif of chariots in profile. You've walked by countless times, maybe noticed the stentorian plaque--but the chariots, that's the real treat.
Of note: Built in 1926, the Ben Hur Apartments takes its name from the second eponymous film, which premiered in 1925. The first filmic Ben Hur dates to 1907, its 15 minute running time mostly consisting of a chariot scene filmed on a New Jersey beach.
This particular intersection comes with a treat. After realizing we'd never get a decent shot of the Ben Hur Apartments, we recalled someone who had done so. Friend of The Society former San Francisco street documentarian and current New Yorker, Sex Pigeon, used to live across the street with his lovely and talented novelist girlfriend. Who but an actual resident should intone on the environs:
The best thing on that corner is the little Viet shop on Ellis. There is a lady who sleeps in front of it and keeps a pillow in her sweatpants. They have canned coffee for $0.75 (not that unusual, but an excellent mid-day grab to have below one's apartment). There was a rotating stable of four or five prostitutes: one who dressed like a schoolgirl and was very nice, one who had only one leg and was very mean. I don't recall the others. When we moved in a man was shitting between cars and pleading loudly, existentially for a roll of toilet paper. Please, please. The movers were unhappy about this.
There were a lot of Muslim families in our building and I remember a prostitute asking me, 'Can you imagine? Living like that? Having to wear all that?' I shrugged. We shared a basement with the tax accountant below. I liked to peek into their offices while doing laundry. We were next to a single-family house, which some art gallerists bought, or maybe rented. They had some parties.
There's a bahn mi shop on Hyde just below Ellis (Sing Sing? maybe?) that I was intimidated to go into, and I never did go in. Didn't seem to have menus and most of the people there didn't seem to be eating. Always packed.
The Brown Jug got expensive for no apparent reason and there was a gnarly meth vibe last time I went. Used to be one of my favorites. There was a man who slept in his car outside, sometimes, and listened to very loud, very smooth Rn'B. It felt like sexy bedtime for the whole neighborhood.
The man behind the counter at Serv-Well, he calls his colleagues habibi. In a plaintive voice: "Habibi, don't put that down there." "Habibi, what are you doing?" For everyone else, a smile, a joke, a wink. Somehow, he's on the right side of things, lacks the tired rage of other bodega proprietors.
"That's my chicken," he tells the slightly swaying patron, poking at the rotisserie bird sweating under a plastic dome. The neighbor, testing him, pokes the plastic again. "My chicken!" he shouts, playfully hits his hand, laughs. Is it too early to call it for best bodega?
Probably. But in the event of a nuclear holocaust, this is where you want to be. Place is built like a bunker, and is well-stocked with every flavor of Now and Later, a deli counter, sizable dry goods aisle, not to say the least of one rotisserie chicken, which you will probably have to share. Shouldn't be a problem, we're all neighbors here.