This is the second in a four-part series on housing the substantial homeless population in San Francisco, featuring stories from the people living on the margins of life in one of America's richest cities. Click here for part one.
“Art school is a scam,” Ant told me when he pocketed the 8-ball, four minutes in. “I took out like five grand in loans, which wasn’t that big of a deal. But, you know, I didn’t have the money, blah blah blah, and the penalties ended up exceeding the loan amount.”
He twirled one of the two long antennae sticking out of the top of his head, secured by small blue rubber bands. I wasn’t sure if the nickname or hairstyle came first. “I owed like 20 grand. So then they come to my workplace and they threaten to garnish my wages. I was working at a real place with a W-2. I was makin’ smoothies.”
“So you had to pay it?” I asked.
“Nope. I quit and went on welfare. I told them I didn’t have a place to live, that I’m couch surfing, sleeping in cars. One thing lead to another, and I was rubber-stamped through into my first SRO in the Tenderloin. That was the worst.”
Ant was the only other person at a local Mission bar who wasn’t paying attention to the World Cup game in progress. Distracted, he was in the middle of his rounds, moving from bar to bar, carrying a tote bag stuffed with T-shirts proclaiming “I Like Yella Pussy” and “Holocaust Acknowledger,” as well as hand drawn posters of menstruating Peanuts characters. While making plans to meet for an interview in his single-room-occupancy on Valencia St., Ant informed me that he did not own a cell phone or computer. As he put it, “All I’ve got is an alarm clock, and half the time it turns on the radio by itself.” Before we parted ways, I bought a drawing of Lucy flashing her tits at an alarmed Schroeder, and wondered if this article would lead to a cease and desist from the Schulz estate.
When I arrived, to my surprise, Ant's room was nearly barren. Aside from a full-size bed in the corner that took up a third of the space, Ant had crammed some cooking and art supplies into opposite corners, with a few newspaper clippings and notes pinned near the doorframe. In college, I was friends with a few art majors, and every single one had wallpapered their bedrooms with their own shitty art—for inspiration, I suppose. Ant’s walls were blank; his posters and T-shirts were carefully packed away. Through the window was a view that the neighboring buildings were likely paying a few grand a month for. A few works-in-progress lay scattered on his bed and desk, but everything seemed to have a sense of what my mother would call "organized chaos."
VICE: Where are you from?
Ant: I was born as a US Citizen in Okinawa. My dad failed out of military intelligence school in the 40s, so they sent him to Okinawa to rebuild after the last battle of World War II. I was born inside of a military hospital though.
Like John McCain.
So what brought you to San Francisco?
I came here in 1980 because I got a brother in San Jose, and then I got two brothers in the city. But I don’t connect with most of them. I’m the middle kid, four boys.
You draw a lot of Charlie Brown menstruation art. Have you gotten a cease and desist yet?
Not yet. That’s one of my goals. I’m not looking forward to it, but if it happens it happens. It’s like, if I make too much money, word’s gonna get around and that’s when trouble happens. But I’m far from it.
What are you working towards?
Nah, nothing. I’m just trying to do this. Just like, if I make it and it sells, then I’ll make another batch, and keep doing that. While I’m doing that, other projects might come to mind. And I make my rounds: Zeitgeist, Benders, Lucky 13, Mad Dog, and Toronado—all over the Mission and Lower Haight. I go to the people instead of the people coming to me. It’s better that way for me. No website, no computers. And I stopped watching TV in 2008 when they switched from analog to digital.
So if someone wants to buy your art, they just have to show up at a bar in the Mission and find you.
Yeah. It’s all about timing, you gotta get to the right place at the right time.
What does this place cost, if you don’t mind me asking.
I actually don’t know. When I got here, they said, “Oh, well you can just sweep the street in exchange for the room.” So I do that two days a week from 7 AM to 10 AM, out on 24th. But everybody gets there like 7:30, then everybody quits around 9:30, so you’re really working like four hours a week. So far it’s like I’ve got four of five years perfect attendance, and the people up at the Department of Public Works should know that. It should raise a red flag, or some sort of flag that goes like “this guy’s overqualified to sweep streets.” I mean, I’ve been in survival mode since like fifth grade, so it’s like, when I was working and the people at the banks came down on me about my student loan, I was like fuck it, I’m gonna live in a car. So I lived in my friend’s car.
Ford Capris. Hatchback. In a parking lot on Scott and Steiner. I lived in there for about two years, yeah. Then I ran into my brother and he was like, “Dad’s sick, somebody’s gotta fly down to Okanawa and take care of him, at least be by his side.” So I just flew down there, he gave me the money, and I stayed there for about two years until he passed away, and then I came back here, and now this is all I’ve got.
Do you like it here?
It’s the best place that I’ve lived in the city. Before I moved here I lived in the Tenderloin for seven years on Post and Polk. That was the worst. It was like this but a lot smaller and a lot sleazier and dirtier.
I remember someone set fire to their own room. Actually, there was a murder two doors down from me, I think it was something about people getting drunk and using drugs in their room, getting into fights. We get about three or four deaths a year. People dying in their sleep.
Do you remember Boz Scaggs? He had a son that lived here. He was in his 20s, and he OD’d in this building, somewhere on the fifth floor. Same thing happened to Danielle Steele, the writer, she had a son that OD’d in this building, too. This was like when they had really good heroin back in the 90s.
How often do people OD?
It used to happen more when we’d get these subsidy checks from the Energy Department or some shit, this thing called HEAP checks. Whenever we’d get those, people would go on a binge, you know. Two weeks later and they’re gone. But we don’t get them now because there’s been government cuts.
Do you do drugs?
God, no. I just smoke pot. Crack, meth, and heroin are all too toxic for me.
Are any anti-drug rules enforced around here?
They’re not that strict. I’ve seen guys walkin’ around with a syringe, goin' up to their room to shoot up. They buy it somewhere, all pre-loaded and everything, and just walk around. I saw a guy with a crack pipe smoking down the hall, but he got evicted, sent out.
By the way, that's not Chaka Khan.
How often are people evicted for that type of thing?
God, there’s a lot of people that just keep coming back. They’re not rehabilitable.
What’s holding them back?
Oh, well there’s work out there for these people to do. But nobody’s telling them they gotta do it, that they gotta do anything. You know? They’re not tightening the screws. These people don’t have an ultimatum yet. They need to be in a situation where there’s no other option but to get it together.
Next week, we meet the unlucky individual who claims to have been stabbed 13 times and lived through it all.
Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.