It's not exactly official. It's just two square logs tucked between the pavement and the Caltrain depot, flanked on either end by rusted fencing and graffiti-coated windows. But the people who work on this busy stretch of Townsend between Fourth and Fifth streets know the narrow cubby is more than some streetside eyesore.
It is the office of Lyn Silas.
Silas, a 54-year-old homeless man, can be found here eating McDonald's burritos and gulping cans of 211 Steel Reserve beer almost every weekday afternoon. He is here today, a sunny and wind-whipped Thursday, with his knees folded up like two safety cones, his back against the teal siding, and his prominent brow crinkling in annoyance over a newspaper article about the five-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.
"Bring our troops back," he tells anyone who will listen. "Don't get our people killed."
Sometimes Silas gets so engaged in news articles that he forgets he has a job to do. But in the morning, when the cars start circling his row of SOMA office buildings, he hustles into the street with the casual but determined stride of a basketball player entering the game.
It's time for woo-woo.
That's what they call it, "they" being the self-appointed parking facilitators and de facto vehicle security guards of SOMA. It's called woo-woo, Silas explains, because that's the sound of the men on the job.
"Woo! Woo!" they call out to drivers who are desperate for street parking. When somebody takes the bait, the woo-wooers guide the car into the open spot, waving their arms wildly and then putting up the big okay. You're good. And do you see how I've helped you?
The woo-wooers then stand a few feet from the car door, wearing a hangdog look. "I'll take care of your car," they'll say. "Do you have five dollars?" And more often than not — out of pity, intimidation, thanks, or some combination thereof — the woo-wooer will be awarded somewhere between one and five dollars. A night's pay can range from $5 to $250, depending on a woo-wooer's skills, location, and luck.
For most woo-wooers, it's enough to buy food and clothing and support various addictions. But it almost never adds up to a new home, particularly in San Francisco.
Woo-woo takes place every day and night throughout this city and others with inadequate street parking, including Miami, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. But SOMA — with its limited parking, large homeless population, and thriving nightlife scene — is widely recognized as the epicenter of San Francisco woo-woo.
There are two kinds of woo-woo. The first involves choosing a block and sticking to it. The second requires floating around the city and "hustling"; in other words, asking for money to watch a car, then disappearing — or, worse, breaking into the car.
Both types call for charisma and endurance. But for less-nomadic woo-wooers, more is required. This species must befriend his regular customers, perform a vital service, and stay out of trouble (or at least maintain the appearance that he has). Only then can he root himself in a block.
"I make it easier for people to park their cars," Silas says. "I'm a polite homeless man that helps people and I don't harass nobody."
But even the most tactful woo-wooers can't always control their own destiny. There are powerful forces working against them: competitors, skeptical neighbors, building managers, the cops, and even the Municipal Transportation Agency.
Lyn Silas has squared off against all of them.
On weekday mornings, Townsend Street hosts a transportation symphony. Trains barrel into the Caltrain depot with dinging bells and whirring engines. Motorcycles, mopeds, delivery trucks, cars, and bicycles buzz and whoosh along cracked streets beneath soulless, boxy buildings that sprang up too fast during the dot-com boom. The slam and release of Muni bus brakes provide abrupt, cacophonous percussion, sometimes faintly backed by the batting wings of gulls against the incessant SOMA breeze.
Then there's Lyn Silas, shouting above it all with a Louis Armstrong throatiness, sounding as though he's recently eaten a small lump of charcoal.
"You need a spot? I got this one right here!"
"Do you want me to save that one?"
Theresa Nielsen, the assistant director of a first-offender DUI program, has just arrived for work at 350 Townsend. She's looking for one of the all-day spots, rather than a two-hour spot.
"Is that guy moving?" she asks Silas, indicating a man walking down the block, keys in hand.
"Yeah," Silas says without hesitation. He just knows. After three years of working Townsend, he's able to pair faces with cars. He knows who's leaving, who's coming back, and why. At this moment, he knows where a spot will open up for Nielsen, and he's willing to play favorites.
"You want me to hold it?" he asks.
"Yeah, you hold it," she says.
Silas sprints over and holds Nielsen's place, then beckons her in. In return, she hands him a wad of bills.
Nielsen is a longtime customer. For three years, she's been inviting Silas into her office building for water breaks on hot days. She buys him meals, reads to him from the Bible, and even had his red Marmot winter coat dry-cleaned. "It looked so bad," she says. "He's a clean-cut kinda guy, and he deserved to have the jacket cleaned."
Few would guess, judging from his looks alone, that Silas spends his nights in shelters or on cardboard boxes. Everything he wears is clean: the khaki baseball cap with the Native American dreamcatcher designs; the khaki zip-up jacket with a fuzzy gray lining; the frayed, easy-fit jeans; and the comfortable brown shoes. There are sprouts of gray hair poking through along his coffee-colored jaw and creased neckline, but it's clear that he shaves regularly.
The deep folds in Silas' brow hint that he has done his share of worrying. He grew up entrenched in Hunters Point gang warfare and gun violence. But the intricate lines at the corners of his eyes, embedded from many years of smiling, suggest plenty of good times, too.