Friday, June 15, 2007

The Madwoman of McAllister

The Civic Center neighborhood is host to a number of crazy people who inspire everything from pity to repugnance to amusement.

The lady above manages to make me feel all three emotions.

Whenever she appears in the neighborhood, she always brings along her huge collection of plastic bags.

Woe betide anyone who actually tries to get between the lady and her bags, but otherwise she acts quite harmless.

This week she was engaged in the Sisyphean task of moving her bags in shifts from the median strip on Van Ness Avenue across the street to a bus shelter on McAllister Street.

The bus drivers used to actually pick her up and transport her places, but now refuse to do so because her bags tend to take up the entire front of the bus. I always wonder where she's actually going, both in her own mind and in reality.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog photojournal very much, but you have made a mistake. This lady is a person, a human being who suffers from a mental illness. She is not a joke for us to laugh at. Would you take a picture of a cancer patient looking undignified? Please respect the dignity of all persons. Would you please consider that she was someone's daughter, classmate, friend etc. She needs someone to look out for her and be a good caring friend to her and you are not being a good friend when you show these pictures. It's not a spectacle for public amusement. My suggestion is that you actually DO SOMETHING KIND AND HELPFUL FOR HER and that is not snapping a photo of her. Be a good friend and take them down. Be nice and kind and good. I am sure you meant no harm and didn't realize, but would you at least consider my thoughts? thank you.

cookiecrumb said...

(..... zzzz)

Talk about "Bag Lady"!

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: I wrestled with the ethics on this one. Since I take photos of strangers in public all the time, there are certain rules of good behavior I like to follow, which is #1: Don't use unflattering photos of people if it can be helped.

In this case, it couldn't be helped, because this is what the face of madness in my neighborhood looks like, and I've had to crawl over this lady's scores of plastic bags on buses and street corners for a couple of years. I don't usually focus on the poor and the wretched for all the reasons you've enumerated, but on this particular day, she was causing an amazing scene that had dozens of people standing and staring at her purposeful bag-moving behavior.

As for "doing something kind and helpful" what would that be, exactly? You don't dare touch her bags. She doesn't like people talking to her. She just wants to get her possessions somewhere which is sort of fascinating.

Still, I see your point completely and I'll take your urging under advisement, but the photos are not there to make fun of the madwoman. And by the way, I did take a picture of a cancer patient looking undignified and posted it not that long ago. It was of me in the middle of a seven-hour operation.

Anybody else?

kimo said...

It is sad but fascinating - anyone of us could wake up tomorrow with changed brain chemistry and be the same as she.

on the other hand, I couldn't help but think of Mirkarimi's recent anti-plastic bag legislation. What would he say about all this? :-)

janinsanfran said...

I wrestle with this one too Mike. Goodness knows, I could step outside my door, walk half a block and find my share of regulars -- street folks some of whom drink the days and nights away while others mostly beg a little and look for somewhere they won't be bothered.

One year I went downtown on Christmas eve and photographed some of the regulars. Since they were mostly trying to cash in on the crowds that seemed okay. And I did throw a few dollars to each of them.

The best though was the woman who drew me photographing her. I've heard from her occasionally.

Anonymous said...

Why do people think that just because something or someone is there, that means it's all right to photograph it?

A photograph is not something that exists in a moral vacuum. You are making a statement of what you believe in (or don't believe in) by the very act of taking the photograph and showing it.

You are behaving as though your desire to take the picture supersedes any other possibility of what may be the proper thing to do.

I would not have taken these photographs of this woman because the pictures are embarrassing and not nice, There's a possibility, they could be hurtful to her or to members of her family. I would consider it beneath me to take such pictures and I would never do so because it violates the golden rule.

A person who cares about trying to become a person of the highest quality would never have done this.

Other people's feelings are more important that me simply doing whatever I want.

Taking pictures of homeless people and then giving them some money is really sick. Look at what you're doing, you there, well-fed well-housed person with nice expensive camera. They're not animals at the zoo. People aren't here for us to gawk at. Have a little more respect. That was not a loving, kind thing to do and you know it.

Giving them some money after you have taken a picture that might be personally humiliating to them? That is so goddamned selfish and thoughtless. Putting a mentally ill person on the spot "can I take your picture?" when you know damned well how hard it is for weak people to stand up for themselves and say "No" to such a request.

You don't know what's really important in life. It ain't all about you, you know,

How dare you be so crass and uncaring. You want to take a picture of something that looks weird so you can make a "cool" picture and you have money to
give and they need money, so you make a deal without any regard for how this may affect the person in the future.

It's like raping or stealing or abusing something precious.

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: This woman is a neighbor of mine who is theatrically, publicly in my face and that of all my neighbors. She's fair game.

And I don't give her money to take her picture. You've gotten me confused with Jan, who may be one of the most ethical people I've ever met, albeit briefly. Please take your moralizing elsewhere.

WillySF said...

Well, well, it looks like you have touched a nerve. I for one, found your blog post rather amusing. Of course, even sane people tend to some really insane things if you stop and think about it.

Jon said...

Anonymous is shrill and self righteous. (Gee, ya think?)

I only know Mike from this blog, but all indications are that he is a kind, thoughtful and considerate man. I'm sure that he has shown this woman some consideration in the past, and today he is pausing to look at her.

Anonymous, feeling sorry for people is not helping them. Engaging with the people around you, looking at them, thinking about them even taking their picture somehow seems far more worth while than feeling sorry for them.

Anonymous said...

You think she is fair game because she is "theatrically" in your face all the time. In other words, you're playing tit for tat, The sight of her doing that with her bags is annoying to you, so therefore you deserve to be able to post pictures of her in order to "even the score" and get something back for the annoyance she's caused you. You're entitled to post them because she has injured you in some way by being "in your face" all the time. She's "fair game", huh? I don't agree.

She's just an oddball who probably gets some feeling of purpose or security by carrying a lot of bags around. Maybe she's got a problem with organizing herself, Or maybe she's doing OK because moving the bags around distracts her from other thoughts.

Posting the pictures does nothing good at all. Jon, if you want to call me names and say I'm shrill, OK, go ahead and ridicule me and maybe you're right. Maybe I get shrill when I see how un-insightful you people are, who don't see anything wrong with this.

Also I don't like how you make it either: taking a picture or feeling sorry for her. Both of those are wrong. The right thing to do is give a damn about her and only do things that will HELP her . Whatever that may be.

And it's HER right to carry as many bags as she wants. Who appointed you Master of the Universe to decide how many bags are too many?

She may be a mental case but YOU don't have good boundaries about where you end and the next person begins. She's not harming you by looking a certain way. It's YOU who is deciding that she's done you wrong by the way she looks, how she's "in your face" all the time.
She has a right to be there just like you do. Grow up.

I'm actually sorry I even tried to open your eyes to this, because I've come to see that sfmike is just a common, common person. Lots of people are like this, Probably most people. They care, but only a little. Not enough to refrain from posting pictures.

He's ordinary, common, nothing special. He sees everything as "fair game" to snap a picture of. These pictures tell me more about you, Mike, than they ever do about her.

She's just an innocent person, but you have hostility within you. You don't care about trying to become a truly great person. You aren't going to do the hard work on yourself that's necessary to become that. Your life as it is today is a reflection of how you made a decision years ago not to make this effort to become a great person. You're ordinary and as common as anyone.

And if you think Jan is so ethical, Let me tell you that no truly ethical person would do what she did. I know some REALLY ethical persons and they would NEVER do that.

Maybe you're just not a super smart person and that's why you can't see it. Maybe Jan is not super smart and maybe Jon is not super smart either. You can't help it if you're kind of smart, but not super smart.

Can't help it any more than this lady can help being mentally ill. So I forgive you. You're just too dumb to realize what you are doing.

And I knew you wouldn't take the pictures down anyway, because you're just like most people, you hate to admit you were wrong, You aren't big enough to correct yourself in public, in fact you're NEVER wrong (most people behave like this, it's pretty stupid, but I guess it's their pride).

You're not that bright, sfmike.

Don't put any more pictures like that up, because you are not Margaret Bourke White documenting the Dust Bowl for Life magazine.
Your photography is not award winning, and you are not on assignment for National Geographic. ok?

You're just a not so bright guy who thinks he knows everything and is too proud to admit he is wrong.

annulla said...

I don't know the woman in your photos, but there was a similar woman who lived in a subway passage at the World Trade Center. She was known to all the security guards, police officers and social service outreach workers, but she always refused offers of help.

She always had a scarf over her hair, which was always wound tightly on curlers, and while she toted some of her bags around, she stuffed others under her clothes, making her appear to be as puffy as the Michelin Man.

She would sit or squat and work the bags through her fingers, or sometimes a piece of cloth, and there were days when she'd pull skeins of yarn from her bags and crochet endless woolen chains.

She never asked for money, but some people brought her food and I once saw a woman giving her scraps of cloth, which she stuffed into her bags.

I wondered whether she survived, but never knew until I saw her on the street a few months ago. Her head was still wrapped, she still toted her bags, and she was standing on a corner digging through a trash can.

I went over and told her I remembered her from the WTC, and when I said the words, something connected inside her and she started to cry - without ever making eye contact with me. I felt so helpless and sorry that I'd made her unhappy; I didn't have much money with me, but I gave her my lunch and everything I had.

Without ever looking at me, she accepted them, put the sandwich and money in the pockets of her sweater and continued to rummage through the trash. I haven't seen her again.

sfmike said...

Dear anonymous: I deleted your last comment where you were calling everyone "assholes." Take your mental insanity somewhere else and stay away.