“You get SOMA, you’re screwed,” says a woman in leggings and a tightly drawn hoodie, hopping, impatiently, from toe to toe. The drivers are late, as usual, and the work line at Hallidae Plaza is getting antsy. We’ve been warned against using earbuds, so instead we listen to ambient Mozart, piped through the sunken granite expanse over a tinny PA system. We watch a pair of forlorn pigeons attempt to strike up a mating dance to the melody. The seduction is ultimately unsuccessful. The hopping woman starts jogging in place, boxing the air. She had bad luck last weekend, she elaborates between punches, shoveling excrement, needles, and burned vinyl amid the city’s famed startup offices. This time, she concludes, the lottery better not screw her.
I clutch a laminated square of paper, today’s ticket to somewhere, bearing the number 3. Typically, lining up at 8 a.m. for Saturday street cleaning at the San Francisco Department of Public Works involves a court order. Community service might have been ordered for a misdemeanor or offered as an alternative to court fees or fines. Or you may have sought it out yourself, hoping to clear a sheaf of parking tickets to your name. That’s most of us, known, charitably, as “volunteers.” We have each paid between $75 and $150 to be here, plus $60 more if we needed a payment plan. “Nonrefundable,” the administrator noted, forebodingly, as I made out the check a few weeks earlier. “You need to actually do the hours.”
Number 3 is called along with numbers 4 and 5. Our driver leads us to a dented Ford pickup and distributes Day-Glo yellow vests and industrial gloves. We’re Mission bound, he informs us—a middling assignment. Friendships emerge fast in a cab stuffed with cleaning supplies, its occupants forced into intimate proximity by a thicket of rakes and mops. We bond over rap sheets of double-parked deliveries and bumpers edged too close to driveways, tallying the hours we each have left to wipe the slate clean. We lament that, a year ago, our volunteering would have set us back only $20, before the city outsourced the program to a private contractor. The driver joins in, laughing; he’s had his share of tickets too, of hopeless nights spent circling the Mission until, consequences be damned, he squeezed in beside that fire hydrant. Too many people in this city; too little curb. It would be nice to have a garage, we agree—to not park on these hostile streets, where the tickets match the rent as the most expensive in the nation.
Our job is to pick up things that failed to reach their proper bin: blown by the elements, left without care, by people coming and going, renovating. On big streets, like Mission, the game is “I Spy.” Theme: urban blight. We take turns calling “I got it!” and leaping from the cab, winding through lazy morning traffic to retrieve our prize and hoist it into the bed. We make a good team. We pick up: dismantled furniture; castaway paint cans from an exuberant paint job in daisy and teal; garbage bags springing surprise drips; decaying palm fronds; needles; a pink scooter with gold tassels that sparkle in the breeze, left suspiciously close to a doorstep. So this is how things vanish. We leave the cardboard for the homeless and the scavengers.
Neighborly complaints guide us on the side streets. They flow, anonymously, from 311 dispatchers to a touchscreen mounted by the ignition, giving our work an algorithmic pull, benign yet merciless. It’s as if we’ve been roped together for an especially circuitous Uber carpool.
We’re steered up and down alleyways with names like Lilac and Osage, Balmy and Lucky. In the most famous of the streets, early-rising tourists mill past muraled homages to Cesar Chavez and The Little Prince, as well as invectives against police brutality and gentrification (“Whole Evil,” a character’s grocery bag menaces—painted, apparently, before Amazon bought Whole Foods and democratized avocados). Other alleys are just alleys. They have signs of being lived in without fanfare: a mural of the Virgin Mary half obscured by a vigorous rosemary bush; a desolate pupusa stand, which the vendor wheels to one side to make room for our truck to pass by. We spot the shopping cart we’ve been assigned to haul away and find it locked to a steel pipe. A no-go, the driver says. This trash means something to someone.
Our driver tells us that if each day could be like this one, his job would be much easier. Most days he does all the cleaning and hauling himself. But he likes working close to home. “That’s my landlord,” he tells us on a leafy street, pointing through a cafe window to a photograph of a mustached man in tinted glasses. The man is a patron saint of third-wave coffee enthusiasts, thronged daily by pilgrims seeking $5 artisanal cups. The driver lives above this mecca, single-origin scents wafting through the floorboards.
“Homeless encampment!” the driver calls out. It’s our last assignment for the day. He prods the touchscreen for details. Neighbors have been calling 311 all morning: there’s a park nearby, families coming and going. The driver is sympathetic; his kids live here too. We turn right at Alabama Street, onto a block where the sidewalk is blindingly white and the Victorians tastefully pastel. In front of them, a structure has been built with organic haste: stacks of crates and luggage, strung together with blankets and an oiled tarp that gleams in the midday sun. The scene is uniquely, iconically San Francisco. The driver asks one of us to talk to the man inside, but when he sees how we eye the scene, he goes himself. The encounter is brief. He returns to the truck and radios the police.
As we wait for the dispatch, we are watched. The bystander is skinny and tall, with a pierced septum, and wears a long dark coat and a wool cap. He’s paused on his morning stroll to somewhere, and now he stares at us, three Public Works volunteers—a waiter, a writer, and an accountant—standing with broom and shovel and rake in hand. He addresses the driver:
“Where’s he supposed to go?”
“The navigation center’s a block away,” the driver replies.
“What about his stuff?”
The driver shrugs. He’s not looking to have this conversation. The driver asks one of us to climb into the bed of the truck and jump around a little, trample things down and make room for more. My workmate, the waiter, obliges. He stands astride our day’s work, declaring himself king of the trash, and asks for a photo, passing down his phone. I remove my gloves and get him a few triumphant angles, set against the scalloped Victorian gables. Beneath the tarp, the homeless man lies still.
When the police officer arrives, he looks surprised by the large audience. He tries to rouse the homeless man, who barely lifts himself from his cherry-red sleeping bag, and he has a change of heart, or at least tactic. He begins picking up the man’s scattered belongings—an empty suitcase, a tattered blanket—and presents the man his own things, one by one. A nod yes, and the officer carries it to the truck and puts it in the bed. If not, he leaves it be. The officer works alone, though the bystander intervenes, once, in a moment of unclear consent. The volunteers don’t offer help, and no one asks us for it.
Once the sidewalk has room for the burliest of strollers to pass through, the officer calls it quits. The homeless man will remain here, for now. Resuming his walk, the bystander remarks that this went better than it usually goes. Every time is different.
Our shift is over. We slip off our gloves and our vests, and hand them back to the driver. Same time next week, we agree. We’ll see where the lottery takes us.