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Free Parking for Sale 

Many say homeless guys who help commuters find street parking provide a valuable service. But others complain that they cause trouble.

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

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.

"Wait there!"

"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.

Today, Silas says, he's one happy guy. He has his own business and seems to do quite well, though he's reluctant to say just how well. And he's got his girl — a homeless woman said to have a master's degree in psychology, along with a crack addiction. They're working on that.

Silas fought off his own addiction four years ago, and he's determined to help his girl, which is partly why he has asked her to be his woo-woo subcontractor. This job, they agree, is a way to keep people out of trouble.

Like an air traffic controller on the tarmac, Silas flags down cars and directs them into free parking spots with his rolled-up City Star newspaper. He watches over these cars all day. At five o'clock, he helps drivers back out of their spots, which are perpendicular to the curb.

Although he never physically parks a car, on this street Silas is considered by many people in the area to be an unofficial valet. This work doesn't seem to concern San Francisco transportation officials as much as his other service — the one that prevents parking-ticket money from going into city coffers.

A few times a week, parking control officers roll by on their blue-and-white Cushman money carts. They used to chalk the tires of every vehicle parked along Townsend's two-hour parking zone, but people kept rubbing it off. Now the officers punch the license-plate number into a handheld computer. If the vehicle is still within one block of its original spot two hours later, it earns a $50 ticket.

For years, parkers on Townsend who weren't vigilant about moving their cars wound up owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fines. Then came Silas. "Now I'm going in the office to save these people $50 a ticket," he announces around 11:15 a.m. on a recent Thursday. A parking control officer had come by at 9:15. Now she's back to issue the citations.

Silas sprints into 320 Townsend and then 330 like a homeless, horseless Paul Revere. "They givin' tickets! They givin' tickets!" he rasps. A week ago, he would have been on his walkie-talkie, calling regular customer Serguei Komarov in his 330 Townsend office. To facilitate Silas' job, Komarov and his officemates purchased the Motorola walkie-talkies several weeks ago. "I don't think you'll like the paper they gettin' ready to put on your car," Silas would announce. "It ain't advertising. That's a wrap. 10-4." But today, from frequent use, the battery is dead.

Once Silas screams his alert, a sea of drivers rushes from the buildings to move their cars. And that's still a pain. Some days, it can take as long as a half-hour to find a new spot on another block, which is all part of the transit agency's strategy to compel infuriated motorists to ditch their cars. But judging by the number of people who still drive to work, that goal has seen limited success.

Meanwhile, the city has been flush with parking ticket income: In the fiscal year of 2007, it amounted to about $90 million. That's a significant chunk of the MTA's budget ($685.5 million last year), which has a projected deficit of about $83 million over the next two years. On March 19, the MTA board met to discuss options for increasing revenue, including upping the fees on parking tickets by $10.

When he heard about Silas' efforts to reduce ticketing along Townsend, MTA spokesman Judson True became concerned. "He's making it easier for people to drive who we'd like to see on transit given the city's transit-first policy," he said.

Actually, Silas operates in a legal gray area. If somebody complains of feeling threatened or intimidated, then what Silas is doing is considered aggressive solicitation, or "flagging." But there's no law that prevents someone from alerting people when a parking control officer is coming.

"He may not be breaking the law by helping people out like this," True said, "but our job is to enforce the laws, so we'll find a way to do that despite his efforts."

Today's parking control officer, a short, dark-haired woman, seems to ignore Silas. However, he believes she's perfectly aware of him. Some days, Silas says, she waits for him to take a break before she records the license plates. Then their drivers don't get proper warnings, and dozens of tickets are issued.

Whether or not he catches the officers in action, there are always some drivers Silas can't save. "I don't know these people," he says, indicating a row of unfamiliar cars. "Some come and catch a train and go somewhere. I can't do nothing about that."

One of the chronically unsaved is Markus Merlino, who owns the cafe Tazza d'Amore inside the Caltrain station. He estimates that he's paid $3,000 to $4,000 in tickets over the past eight years. He got one yesterday. He has another one today.

"The city needs money, and this is how they make it," Merlino says, arms akimbo. "But some people can't afford the tickets and it's very, very unfair."

Those whom Silas cannot or does not save — including those who take public transportation — are not always receptive to his presence. Some give him the finger and tell him to fuck off.

Sometimes people say things like, "Dude, these are free parking spots. It's annoying to have you standing there and making me feel obligated to pay you," says Steven Isler, an attorney who works in 350 Townsend.

One time a woman got so mad she called over a police officer, Isler says. His well-heeled clients have also expressed skepticism, and the block is constantly abuzz with gossip about Silas' girlfriend, Isler says, who has been seen cracked out in the street and referring loudly to herself in the third person as "this white mother-fucking bitch."

For a while, Isler gave Silas the benefit of the doubt. The lawyer travels to Europe frequently, and sometimes brings back clothing for Silas. He also gave him a pair of tennis shoes. "He's sort of been adopted by the block," Isler said. But soon, Silas was asking for money every day. "I told him, 'I don't want you asking for money every time you see me,'" Isler said.

Some have questioned whether Silas and his crew may be responsible for a recent rash of burglaries in the buildings. His battle to keep his de facto business afloat amid accusations that he's an extortionist and a thief is, in essence, every unofficial valet's battle. Across the city, woo-wooers are mistrusted and blamed when cars are broken into.

Sometimes, of course, that blame is deserved.

The quality of service provided by an unofficial valet can range from excellent to nonexistent to detrimental. Logically, the best service will always come from those valets who have found a home on a residential or commercial block, since they serve the same customers time and again.

But when it comes to the numerous nightlife hustlers, well, that's pretty much a free-for-all. They move with the business, and there's nothing to keep them on their best behavior.

On any given night in San Francisco, dozens of unofficial valets venture into the night to claim blocks. In the Mission, two wiry guys in beanies work Valencia between 16th and 18th streets. In the Tenderloin, valets jockey for position near hotels, nightclubs, and any major event. In SOMA, most of the evening action takes place within a ten-block radius of Slim's nightclub, near the intersection of 11th and Folsom streets.

On a recent Friday, all the usuals showed — Michael, George, Cheddar, Reggie, Tony, Taylor, and more. They all know each other, and sometimes fight over turf and curse each other out. "You know I got in here first," Taylor screamed at Michael as they both tried to park cars near the intersection of Isis and 12th streets.

Ask an unofficial valet to evaluate his competition, and you'll get a narrow selection of answers. George calls Taylor a "maggot" and a "hustler." Taylor says Michael is "total scum," and says the guys in the Tenderloin never stay to watch the cars, and if they do, they break into them.

It's not exactly the best PR for the industry. But the game is not always every man for himself. On certain blocks, when the workload becomes too much for one valet, he may — like Silas — begin to accept protégés.

That's been the case on Juniper Street, an alley between 10th and 11th streets off Folsom. The head unofficial valet, whom we'll call George, has been there for five years. He has hired dozens of assistants, who wash cars and help drivers find spots. So far, they have all eventually disappointed him by trying to hide money, or guiding cars into towaway zones.

"They just want to get their money and do whatever they gotta do," he says. "Feed family. Buy some dope. But for me, it's a job."

George says that several years ago, he tried to band the unofficial valets together under one federation, thinking maybe they could wear similar jackets as a "uniform," but there was apparently little interest in that kind of unity. And in the end, there were plenty of guys with whom George didn't want to be associated.

Taylor, for instance (also not his real name). One Tuesday night just outside of Slim's, Taylor is ripping signs off the meters along Folsom and tossing them underneath parked cars. They are expired "No Parking" signs, but Taylor admits that sometimes he tampers with still-active ones.

"I overrule 'em," he says, with a wide smile revealing a missing front tooth.

Clad in a brown beret, glasses, and an acid-washed jean jacket, Taylor is quick-witted and charming, and he will not disclose where he sleeps. He makes lively conversation with his customers, and never demands compensation. But he doesn't mind using every sales trick in the book.

His main gimmick is a small white flashlight he waves at the asphalt in tiny circles, illuminating an empty spot near the club. "Slim's, baby! Slim's!" he hollers as a white sedan speeds past. "See, you gotta convince the motherfucker that this is the place to park."

Not many drivers have taken the bait tonight. That's just the way it goes sometimes. But Taylor is here for good reason. Tonight at Slim's, the bands Clutch and Death by Murder are playing. They sold out both Monday and Tuesday, Taylor learned, which meant a lot of people would need street parking.

A few more cars roll by. "Hey! Hey! Wake up!" Taylor yells. "I got your spot." Nobody stops. "I talk to them even though they can't hear me," he says.

A rock crowd isn't his favorite. But there's worse, he says: "I don't like parking nobody black. They bullshit. They want to blow smoke up your ass and not pay you, too."

Taylor checks newspapers' calendar listings every weekend to find out where he can park the big spenders on their way to the ballet and the opera, and to see "what's that girl's name? Latifah?" He reckons he must have made $250 the night Queen Latifah performed at Davies Symphony Hall.

But tonight Taylor is striking out. He pauses for a contemplative scan of the desolate, piss-stained block, illuminated by a giant Coors Light ad. When a spot opens up right in front of the club, he vaults onto his bike, speeds across the street, and arrives just in time for a white truck to begin a parallel parking job.

"I got you," he says, waving the driver in. "This is a good spot."

The driver remains in the truck for about five minutes. Not a good sign.

Finally, Taylor approaches the window. "You stayin'?" he asks, then points in the direction of a reporter. "My boss was saving this spot."

The driver, a double-chinned man with a goatee, mumbles something about not being sure. Then he hops out and says he just needs to see if his friend is inside Slim's. He promises to come back and pay if he's going to stay.

Surprisingly, he returns two minutes later. He smiles and hands Taylor two dollars, then hurries back inside, perhaps thinking: What will this guy do to my car if I don't pay him?

To combat this, the San Francisco Police Department established a policy on aggressive solicitation in January 2006. It includes soliciting within 20 feet of an ATM, in the roadway, on sidewalks, and in parking lots. The acts must be witnessed by police, and victims must state that they felt intimidated or threatened. Since January, police officers have written more than 450 citations.

But Sergeant Neville Gittens acknowledges that the problem can be best handled by the drivers themselves. They can refuse to pay, and then call the cops if they feel they are being harassed. "Nobody can charge for parking on a public street," he says. But sometimes when you get to know a guy, maybe you do want to give him something.

Lyn Silas is not a perfect man, and there are things in his past that he doesn't want people to know. For instance, he won't talk about his 26-year-old daughter, or why his family moved around a lot. But his descriptions of his stable upbringing, alongside a mostly fruitless search for criminal records, suggests that he does not fit the standard profile of an unofficial valet.

"They say I'm one in 100,000," Silas likes to say about his status as a well-liked homeless man without much of a rap sheet.

Silas' parents met in high school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. They moved to San Francisco, had nine children, and stayed together until his father, Ed Silas Jr., died 48 years later. Smack in the middle of six boys and three girls, Silas was number five, "and I don't care if you start from the bottom or the top," he says.

The children grew up in a series of stucco hilltop homes in Hunters Point. They had views of the bay and Oakland, and the family kept beehives and chickens. "We didn't know what we had," Silas says.

His father worked in a warehouse in Oakland, which meant there was always food on the table. "One thing my father believed in was that none of the kids would ever be hungry in his life," Silas says. "And we never was."

In high school, Silas paid little attention to his studies, which he now admits was a mistake. He spent most of his time in the pool hall, on the basketball courts, or chasing skirts. He was involved in occasional gunfights.

Although it was rough growing up in the 1960s in Hunters Point, where everybody had a gang affiliation and racism lingered like winter fog, Silas finished high school, moved to Daly City, and got a job as a breakfast cook at Zim's at 18th and Geary streets, which he kept for 16 years.

Then he ran into trouble one night in July 1975. At 4 a.m. after a party, Silas found himself back in Hunters Point defending a friend in a fight. Bullets flew, but none came Silas' way.

Compared to the danger of that gunfight, trying crack for the first time didn't seem like a big deal.

Ten years went by before Silas tried it again. And again. And again. "I saw myself going downhill, and I couldn't believe it," he says. "Along with that, I was drinking hard alcohol. Whiskey. Vodka. Anything. I'd cuss anybody out. That's the Indian in me." (Silas claims his mother is Cherokee; he says he means no offense to Native Americans.) During that time, three women accused him of domestic violence.

Silas has two criminal cases on record with the San Francisco Superior Court. One is a 1998 charge on possession of illegal substances, of which he was acquitted. The other, from 2001, could not be viewed before press time. Four years ago, Silas says he weaned himself off crack when a woman bet him $100 that he couldn't stop for 30 days. He won, which solidified his position on addiction that "it's in the mind."

Around the same time, his father was dying of prostate cancer, which Silas took hard. He began visiting his mother every weekend and decided to clean himself up.

Enter woo-woo.

Silas credits a homeless man who calls himself Don King with teaching him the art of woo-woo, but he stumbled into his steady Townsend gig all by himself and by accident.

Around 7:30 one morning three years ago, Silas rounded the corner of Fifth and Townsend and saw two cars competing for the same spot. He pointed out another free spot down the street, and the drivers seemed grateful. "Well, I'll waste my days down here," he thought. "It'll keep me out of trouble."

It's practically a rule that every woo-wooer eventually has trouble with the cops. Silas' most recent run-in happened last month when he was ushering drivers into spots and a cop car rolled around the corner.

"They said I'm directing traffic," Silas says, holding up a citation that requires him to appear in court. "To me, they're harassing."

When Silas asked how much he owed (there's no amount on the ticket), the cop apparently didn't know. "He said it's the first one he gave," Silas says.

The cops aren't Silas' only problem. Somebody has been breaking into the buildings where some of his customers work, and stealing laptops, wallets, coats, and cell phones. Nobody knows who's doing it, but some — including the building management — say the homeless people in the street look pretty suspicious.

Especially Silas' girl.

About a year ago, between the echoing blue, orange, and green walls of the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter on Fifth Street, Silas first encountered Ann O'Gara. She was a bright, funny woman who boasted a master's degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz. She was also addicted to crack, "with no kinda priorities," Silas says.

O'Gara, a bony fortysomething, sports a distinguished, pert ponytail and a few sparse chin hairs. She also has a teardrop tattoo just below her left eye. Because of her drug problem, she has been homeless for eight years. She often sleeps on cardboard in a nook at the base of the San Francisco Tennis Club on Fifth Street, right near the fire station on Bluxome. The firefighters there, some of whom attended Catholic school with O'Gara's brother, affectionately nicknamed her "Ms. Bluxome." She liked it, and it stuck.

Some days are better than others for Ms. Bluxome, who remains modest about her role on Townsend. "I'm not a professional like he is," she says, smiling at Silas. "I was doing some things that were not feeling good inside — some things that would not increase someone's self-esteem. This became an alternative."

For unclear reasons, several weeks ago Silas and Ms. Bluxome were "86ed" — as one caseworker put it — from the shelter for 90 days. Program director Lessy Benedith did not return phone calls, but Silas says shelter staff claimed he had been harassing someone. It's untrue, he says, and he has no idea why he was really forced out. He plans to reenter that shelter on April 12, but for now he has a bed — if he wants it — at the Episcopal Sanctuary at Eighth and Howard. Instead, he usually sleeps outside at the tennis club with Ms. Bluxome.

Some of Silas' customers say he'd be better off in the shelter. They also wonder if Ms. Bluxome and her habit are responsible for the recent rash of burglaries. Although O'Gara does have a history of theft, "around me, she's not stealing from nobody," Silas says.

After months of inaction, the property managers decided a memo was in order. "It has come to my attention that a few select tenants in the building are paying homeless people around the area money," wrote Trisha Andreini, the services administrator for CB Richard Ellis real estate services, which manages several buildings along Townsend. "This is absolutely unacceptable, especially with the recent thefts that have occurred within this area and our building."

In her office in 330 Townsend one afternoon, Andreini said she was only trying to appease tenants. "There are a lot of people who aren't paying this guy, but are concerned that he's coming into the building," she said. "They don't know the history of him. I don't really know anything about him."

Indeed, opinions on Silas seem neatly divided. Those who know him trust him. Those who don't are skeptical.

Rob, a SOMA business owner who asked that only his first name be printed, has been on both sides. "My attitude when I first started working here was, 'I hate these people,'" he says. "I can park on my own. Why do I have to give a buck? He's standing there waving me in and I don't need that."

Rob felt intimidated by the homeless black man, and thought it best to pay up. "It could be a white guy, too, but certainly everybody has a racial impression in their heads," he says.

Then Silas started giving helpful updates on when parking control officers were issuing tickets. Rob also had a few conversations with Silas and found he genuinely liked the guy. "With time, I realized it's beneficial to me and everybody who works here," he says.

Silas loves helping people avoid tickets and find parking spots, but lately, he's beginning to feel a bit beaten down. There was that ticket for directing traffic. There are the cold stares from traffic cops, and talk that MTA would prefer for him to disappear. And the memo was the worst of all.

"You can't prove something you didn't do," he says, sitting at a kelly-green picnic table in South Park. On top of everything, Silas recently learned that he has a "bad heart," which explains why he's been getting short of breath lately. So instead of parking cars for the rest of the week, he'll be getting things in order to visit the doctor.

He's also in a somber mood, because on the walk over, another homeless man — a big one in a camouflage jacket, with a thick torso and a thick head — demanded that Silas share his pork cracklins.

"You beggin'," Silas scolded.

"Beggin'!" the man thundered back, reaching into the bag. "Don't say beggin'!"

Silas doesn't normally apologize for much — he's stubborn like that. But in this case, he made an immediate exception.

"I didn't mean to insult the guy we just passed," he says. "I just say what's on my mind and it come out fast and it come out simple."

Silas takes a sip of his Steel Reserve, hidden in a paper bag, and pops a piece of pork cracklin into his mouth. He chews slowly, careful not to get any crumbs on his army fatigues, which he is wearing in honor of Saint Patrick's Day. On another bench in the park, three more homeless men — including the thick one — are also dressed in green for the occasion.

One of them is Don King, who taught Silas to woo-woo. When King comes over for a chat, Silas smiles so widely his eyes disappear into slits. "I love this man," he says.

Don King is wearing a knitted green hat and gloves that look new, and for good luck, he's carrying an apple-sized glass ball he found near a cherry tree last month. He says he prefers not to give too much information about himself, but he talks slowly, as though he doesn't have a care in the world. "One day I didn't have nothing to do," he says about the time he started woo-wooing. "That was seven or eight years ago. I found it provided for me."

"You still goin' woo-woo?" Silas asks.

Don King nods and smiles.

Though he's tired, Silas says that for the meantime, he, too, will continue to woo-woo. Besides, the baseball season is starting, which means the demand for Silas' services will increase. "They're not going to scare me off when I'm helping all these people," he says.

Like other woo-wooers who forego hustling for a steady gig, Silas has come to feel a sense of obligation to his block. It's become a job, a home, and a place where he has meaningful interactions with friendly people whom, without woo-woo, he almost certainly would not know. They try to compliment him sometimes by telling him he could have a real job if he wanted one. Silas just shakes his head and sighs.

It's real to him.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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