Until We Are Strong Together: Women Writers in the Tenderloin

Caroline E. Heller


I lived an ordinary life among down-to-earth routines. And yet I felt two things very strongly: I felt, however ordinary those routines, that I stood at the Iyric center of my experience, and that I wished to make a visionary claim for that experience.
Eavan Boland, “When the Sprit Moves”

The lobby window of the Hotel Herald, a residential hotel in the heart of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, opens onto the diversity of neighborhood life. Across Ellis Street, the Battamangang Market, a convenience store owned by a Cambodian family who moved to the Tenderloin in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, and Wagner’s Garage, a repair shop that has been in the neighborhood as long as anyone can remember, stand alongside the Roosevelt Liquor Store and the Elite Hotel–the latter representing the red light staples of Tenderloin life. Street noise, particularly the agitated voices of those known as the eye openers, men and women who meet in front of the Roosevelt for their first bottle of wine for the day, usually finds its way into the Herald lobby. At 9:30 this Friday, like every Friday morning for nearly a year, a group of women, pens and notebooks in hand, are seated around the lobby’s weathered mahogany table. Under the gaze of a resplendently painted circus clown sharing the lobby walls with four lavishly framed rodeo cowboys, the women of the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop, graciously and resolutely challenging the street noise for the “floor,” are reading to one another.

Mary says, “And then this crazy thing that I did yesterdayI call it ‘Material Talk.”‘ She breaks into a grin and begins to read her new story to the group, today numbering 11.

Thrift Corner Thin Sweater shrugged. “You’re too fat,” she growled. “My last lady was slim! A figure like Marlene Dietrich’s.”

“Come on, now,” Bulky Sweater ripped. “See how shabby you’re getting? Marlene wouldn’t want you now!”

There is much laughter from the group; Mary’s now mischievous grin turns to laughter as well as she glances around the room, seeming to delight in the pleasure she’s giving.

Beaded Vest primped shyly. “See how bright my beads are? Look how dirty yours are.”

Older Vest rejoined, “Oh, your satin’s ripping. Your beads are falling off. Not even a bag lady wants you!”

The group and Mary break into laughter again. Several elderly Hotel Herald residents peek in. Mary continues.

Yawning, Leather Jacket growled, “You flighty girls!! Leather is my bag and well-worn leather is definitely in!”

“Ha ha,” tinkled Beaded Vest. “Look at this macho! His Levis worn through. Look at his kneecaps!”

Leather Jacket is skipped past. Suede hands move right, then left, plucking clouds of beads, leaving four debeaded and forlorn rag dolls.

Laughter and applause from the group. Mary looks pleased as she takes off her glasses. She joins in the laughter, her voice evincing a touch of naughtiness.

Mary (still chuckling): I think I kinda like that! But I don’t particularly like the ending.

Anita: Oh, I do like the ending.

Mary: You like the rag dolls without any stuff?

Anita: Oh, I do. I can see them!

Marsha: I like the personification of the clothing. That’s just wonderful.

Mary: I think I got it here in the class. Some time ago, remember? We were talking about things in the Tenderloin like this and we said why not be somebody you’ve seen or heard about? Put yourself into the place of a bag lady or a street sweeper or whatever! I think we talked about people in the streets and in the thrift corner there on Leavenworth Street.

Salima: I remember.

Mary: But any suggestions now?

Martha (the workshop’s facilitator): It’s such a good reading piece, Mary. A performance piece. You read it really well.

Mary: Mmm-huh. Well, it’s something funny! Funny! I’m always looking for something funny because the stuff I usually do is sohatefully sad, don’t you think? You’ve got to have some rest! (She chuckles again.)

Martha: It was funny

Linda: I was just thinking to myself, well, I could write something funny now maybe. I thought the ending really fit in good, Mary, you know.

Nikki: Yeah, I think it’s a good reading piece too, because you’ve got the different voices down and it’s

Mary: If I could act those voices! I really have to. You have to help me a little

Martha: You could have people in the background wearing the clothes. There’s something about it.

Mary: It would be kind of funny to do a little skit with it maybe and have them kind of dolled up in the old thrift shop stuff, (Putting her glasses back on, she rustles through her papers.) Do I have time to read one more?

Martha: Anita, you wanted to go?

Anita: I’ve only got two very short things.

Martha: And Emily?

Emily: Well, I could. But I’d just as soon hear Mary as read.

Martha: Okay, go, Mary! (Martha raises her fist toward Mary as if cheering an athlete about to come onto the field.)

Mary: I finishe d “Soogha Dancing.” You know, you

Marsha: Oh!

Mary: You know, you critiqued that for me the last time.

Salima: What’s “soogha” mean again?

Mary: “Soogha” is Athabaskan language for “brother.”

Anita: Afabaskan?

Mary: Athabaskan. Mmm-huh. I’m a Koyukon Athabaskan from the depths of Alaska, and this is a brother that I never saw.

Anita: All right. I remember now. Right. Right. Right.

Mary: Okay. His name is “Soogha” because that’s our word for “eldest brother.” “Soogha Dancing.” For my brother, Bernie.

Soogha eldest brother I never knew,
the people gave you new clothes.
In spring they honored men
outstanding in Kaltag village.
At potlatch after giveaway
those honored danced alone

Your arms flying
Ermine parka whirling
beaver hood like brown velvet
Iynx-trimmed mukluks
furs trapped by your friends
the women stitched in winter.

Dance house drums thumped,
people sang thirteen Koyukon songs,
fiddles thrummed,
wooden ocarina whistled,
you stomped around the floor.
what were your dreams?

Did you see new tall
traders come Iying, cheating?
You told the people to keep peace
overlook greed, bad bargains,
insults, but hold strong,
make friends.

Did you remember Mother Earth’s
lessons of the Being With No Name,
how in Distant Time the people
talked with animals in different voices,
played among Alaska’s bluebells, roses,
small spruce trees, mastodon cliffs?

You dance bright behind my eyes.
Soogha brother, I see you
in that spirit-given spring
dancing for the people,
arms open like furry wings.

(Published in Quick Brush of Wings, Illustration by Barbara Engberg.)

Nikki:: Oh, that was a wonderful last line.

Anita : I alwa ys liked that line.

Mary: All the help you gave me, you know, here. (She leafs back through her papers.) It’s back here, all the different things you suggested.

Martha: It’s a wonderful poem. And it’s a pleasure, I think, for us to hear it after, you know, we critiqued it, to hear the suggestions in it.

Mary (looking around the group): You consider it finished, then, do you?

Clara: That fumed out beautiful, Mary. That turned out beautiful.

Martha: Yeah, it’s like you took some of the suggestionsother ones didn’t workand it turned into something true to you.

Mary: I did . I think we have to take everything that is said to us and then sort it out, whether it applies to us. We know in here that it does and these things did that you gave me. (She pauses.) Mmm-huh. The trouble was that I went up there to Nulato (Mary’s Athabaskan homeland in northern Alaska) and he had died the year before. But I didn’t say it here in the poem. You see, I didn’t feel I needed to. It was enough to say “I never knew.”

Martha : I think so.

Mary: Mmm-huh.

Martha: Yeah, Mary, I think it’s a beautiful poem.

Mary: Well, it’s finished. (Mary pauses, looks down at h er poem, and rests her hands on it.) Thank God.

I’ve thought of Mary often since that morning in 1988 when a disappearing Indian culture, a never-met brother, and a band of raggedy but oh so-self-possessed thrift store garments came to life. I’ve thought of the other women of the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop as wellof their experiences, their lives, and their capacities, often against unwieldy struggles, to “hold strong” like Mary’s Soogha.This was a wonderful morning in the workshop but not a unique one. Each week when they met, the women gave life to all manner of thingsthe spirit of their individual histories, the neighborhood around them, their growing affections for one another. Just as Mary’s Soogha, the honored one of his tribe, was invited to dance before his people, each week, members of the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop invited each other to “take to the floor.” In varied ways they showed each other who they were and what they stood for. Together, in a neighborhood where, like the worn clothing in Mary’s thrift shop, they were so easily dismissed by the outside world, they experienced the enormity, as Martha noted, of “creating something true” and of putting it into the world. One of their members, Maria Rand, said it best: “We were a crackerjack unit!” They were. It was my great fortune to be part of them for three years. This is their story.

© copyright 1997 Teachers College, Columbia University

reproduced by permission of the Author