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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
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Page 5 of 6

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.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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