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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

Page 4 of 6

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.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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