People Lost in the Barren Expanse: The SF Underworld.
I paused at the threshold of the underworld.
There was a time when I glided through it, slipped through its dark embrace, clad in my leather bomber jacket, weathered and impenetrable like an aged aegis.
But now, I balked at Pine street, the boundary in my mind of The City’s daylight, Apollonian realm and the dark, chaotic space of the subterranean Dionysian.
A space peopled with those stricken by madness, addiction and primal urges given ascendancy: The Tenderloin.
It’s well known that this area has descended further into the grip of entropy. Even the sky seemed to warn me to not embark downwards, a burnished opalescence above me swooned into murky shadow further down the hill, like a sand-choked seashell split open on the shore.
I needed a passport within the week, and the place to go was located on Market Street. The fastest route was through The Tenderloin, I steeled myself and walked down.
Almost immediately I felt overwhelmed by the despair of the place, worse than I’d remembered. In the phase of life I was in when I frequented bars, concert venues and gallery spaces that are in the Tenderloin, I was younger. I was fueled by excitement, novelty and the adventure of the Night World of SF.
I rushed past the decay and degradation in a gilded bubble of youthful insouciance and complete self-absorption reinforced with bourbon. Each passerby seemed an actor playing a role for my midnight amusement, each swerve in my step set my heart racing with madcap delight.
I wasn’t interacting with the reality of the space, not deeply, not empathetically.
The TL, as it’s known locally, has gotten more dire, languished further into squalid hopelessness. I sped up, the idea of a passport shone like a beacon of escape from the base of the hill. A gold and blue ticket out of the dystopian fever dream my hometown is now caught in the thrall of. The area is now girded by monuments of enterprise, gilded towers of tech’s triumph.
The juxtaposition of the area really must be seen to be understood. Bodies lying in the street covered in filth, people shooting up, caught in an opiate haze or crackling tunnel vision, oblivious to the movement around them. Even my erratic, desperate leaping as I bounded over human waste and needles went unnoticed.
Not buffered by youth or spirits, I was aghast, gagging and pounding downward into the vortex of ruin. A new gleaming tower of tech caught the sun and threw beams into my eyes, dazzling and blinding.
The contrast caught me in a snare of schism, trapped me between the spotlight glare of technological domination and the seething underworld.
It further intensified the overpowering sensations and herded me into even more strangling quarters of compression. A labyrinth of seemingly endless chambers of dereliction, searing into my eyes and nose with abhorrent vividness, like the most raucous panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden Of Earthly Delights.
I instinctively pressed the images into my ocular margins, defocusing my eyes as I do when I want to evade clarity. I allow the swathes of my peripheral vision to overrun the delineations of distinct forms in my sight, blurring and billowing they consume clarity.
I was determined to cut a path through, to not use a shiny device clutched in my moist palm to summon an escape. I would not flee, I would not turn a blind eye to what my city has become.
Though inviting the unfocused swell of optical diffusion was an escape, less so in my mind than slipping into a sleek, tech-summoned chariot and being ushered away.
Somehow even my watery-eyed disgust and frenetic jumping felt more real, more participatory than a glass-enclosed retreat, something demonstrated by the tech sector that I seem to view with increasing disdain.
I slipped my glassy phone into my pocket, its guilty gleam like an onanist’s hand.
The battle of Dionysian primitivism full of oozing, animalistic impulse and the Apollonian clear-eyed intellect, exacting dispassionate hierarchy, is illuminated with gorgeous complexity in the book Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia.
It’s been one of the most formative books for me. It depicts the endless struggle between The Dionysian and The Apollonian in Western Culture, from ancient Egypt to our current moment.
I had never experienced this battle with more overpowering visceral force externally. The cutting edges of tech’s new kingdom and the roiling depravity of the TL that I try to view with compassion, and can, from a distance.
From my gated garden or the fog-veiled hills, I can think of that place as a sad sieve where those without the ability to navigate this city collect.
I feel sorrow for them, I wish them well. With my body sheathed in clean clothes and swept in unrestricted freedom of movement, this is just an issue of heartless enterprise overtaking the most vulnerable.
In the TL, however, I felt the heavy, saturated anchoring of it all. The miasmic air seemed to congeal within my lungs and pull me down to the earth. Aqueous and unruled, the very atmosphere seemed to claw around the throat, dragging the body ever lower, to the spattered sidewalk painted every hue of havoc. Inner fluids fusing their ferment into the foundation.
My sandaled feet clad in minimalism for natural movement seemed stricken in their bareness, exposed to the gnashing, slavering maw of this realm.
The patterns of the pavement could be read like tea leaves or coffee grinds in a psychic’s salon, predicting the eventual collapse of each body they spouted from.
The grinding, oppressive weight of this was unbearable, I wanted only to be free.
And that’s just it, in this wild struggle between pitiless enterprise and the primal world of the addicted secreting their secrets into that sanctioned space, it’s hard to think about anything but your own survival. It’s hard to think about anything but being smashed against the cruel fortresses of fortune, or being devoured by the ravening underworld, consuming all who might lose their footing and fall.
I once worried about what gentle softness I’d lose by staying in San Francisco, some subtle quality, a personal warmth. Now I worry about an essential aspect of humanity that one could lose here.
I reflect on how I recently turned and ran from someone who was like the people there, though in the context of the the place I saw him, I could discern him, I felt his humanity. There, in the Tenderloin, surrounded by the wreckage of my city, guarded and goaded into a ravaged riot of forms, I was tunnel-visioned.
The merging and morphing in the crescents of my vision beside my ray of determined linear sight obscured those people, I was unable to see and feel that resonance, that connection.
I believe this unwavering focus on personal survival robs the internal feminine, the anima, as Jung called it, within me. The nurturing, the protecting, these are feelings that can be overcome by the harsh dictates of personal survival.
Market Street lay before me, an area that has been usurped by tech and serves now as a barrier, a boundary of Apollonian-ruled clarity, buffering the city by buffeting back the chaos of the lawless Tenderloin.
I was struck by the loss of vision, by being blind to the suffering of entire city blocks of people. Like Orpheus, I wanted only to emerge from the underworld with my feminine counterpart, my anima, my compassionate gaze.
I turned to look back at the border, and saw people lost in the barren expanse. Caught in the liminal space, between cold citadels in the harsh sun, and the people in the shade, I turned into the bright sunlight, eyes stinging.
Maren Zweifler enjoys teaching Yoga with a focus on free movement and intrinsic shapes, emphasizing spinal fluidity and innate, primal posture. Deeply inspired by movement systems that embrace nature like Sridaiva and Continuum Movement. He completed a 500-hour certification in SF and has taught both there and in Austin where he honed his skills teaching private classes tailored to the individual needs of his clients. He created a wellness/yoga program at a non-profit. These experiences allowed him to explore both the unique individuation of the physical experience in one-on-one sessions, and the commonalities of the human form that can be witnessed in large groups. You could connect with Maren on Instagram.