BAD NEWS Harpo Corleone throws a seven

Tiny - Posted on 26 February 2011

Chance Martin Editor, Street Sheet

June 2000

I finally wander into the COH offices around half past noon Saturday, June 3rd. People who call me a workaholic are closer to the truth than I'll ever let on: Money jingles in my pocket, and teeming along sidewalks linking all the many liquor stores of the Tenderloin are the typical legions of dealers and hustlers and runners and lookouts and all the whatever elses I don't care to contemplate and am trying to avoid - all of them choking back the despair of poverty and illness for a few moments at a time… sealing their fates in the bargain.

On Saturdays, all that chaos and misery stays out on the sidewalk because the office door is locked, limiting the measure of turmoil and anguish in the office to only that which we permit, or that which we bring with us.

The office seems empty at first but the lights are on, then I run across a couple of volunteers in the back office. One flashes this funny look to the other, and then they get real quiet. Before I can ask what's up, one of them says to me in that bearer-of-bad-news tone "Sit down, bro. There's something I gotta tell ya."

After he successfully insists that I actually sit down I'm racing ahead to the presumption that A) the bad news is he fucked up my workstation and now he's afraid I'm going to go off on him, and B) an entirely inappropriate level of drama is accompanying our little moment together.

"Trent died last night."

I discard premise A, but premise B isn't disproved. I automatically chant the standard response I learned along the years: "OK, Trent's dead. Everybody dies, man. That's just part of life. How did it happen?"

The volunteer reels off a sketchy account gleaned from earlier conversations with la Tiny. Died homeless last night at Larkin and McAllister. Other people who knew him were present. Suspected overdose. When Tiny had arrived at the scene via some freakishly macabre category of coincidence, he was already in the body bag. One of Trent's companions at the scene reportedly charged that the SFPD officers present "let my friend die." Or hasten the process perhaps?

Later, after the volunteer had finished relating events long on reactions and short on details, I realized that the circumstances surrounding Trent's death would come to light soon enough. He had joined the ranks of San Francisco's homeless dead, and we would be studying his premature demise along with the many scores of others. We will then distill all the year's homeless mortality data into a report to be released (perversely enough) between Thanksgiving and Xmas. That, and Trent's name will go on a list which will be read, and later burned, at an evening memorial ceremony in Civic Center on the next Winter Solstice. The list grows longer each year.

Every year my "private list" - the names which conjure memories of familiar faces - grows longer, too. Call it an occupational hazard.

But this wasn't the case for the bearer of the sad tidings. He'd camped out by the beach with Trent and another homeless COH volunteer for a while about a year ago, and it was clear that he hadn't yet grown accustomed to witnessing the savage mechanisms which render loved ones and friends into statistics. I told him it would be harder when he hears Trent's name read in December.

Trent was homeless, and volunteered in our Civil Rights project. He was bright and talented and sarcastic. He was well-schooled in that anarcho-punk DIY attitude of cooperative collaboration. When he was fully engaged in an issue he could compose some of the most original copy we've ever published. Trent didn't need any of my guidance or encouragement to be one of our best writers, he only needed to find refuge from the dehumanizing and alienating milieu of grinding poverty and homelessness on these quality-of-life streets of San Francisco. He just needed to be part of something bigger than himself that accepted him as he was.

His best work was usually captured in one-shot marathon sessions at one of the civil rights project's workstations - transfixed in the separate reality of focused creation. And that's the only place where Trent Hayward (aka Harpo Corleone) ever found respite from a life of shit. The only reward Trent had found on the bottom of society was a passion for justice, and Harpo was justice's champion. And like many other creative, passionate people - homeless or not - his sensitivity would nourish the roots of his demise.

In an impartial analysis, Trent's death isn't very surprising. His appetite for alcohol and drugs was formidable, and he often carried a clear plastic sport bottle brimming with Royal Gate vodka as an accessory to his urban camping kit. Trent's face frequently bore cuts and bruises - souvenirs of the previous evening's impromptu endover to the pavement or tumble down a hillside at the beach. His smartass wit would eventually devolve into loud confused drunken hostility. Bitterness always lay just below the surface, awaiting chemical release.

Darkness courted Trent. He had a "past." Everyone who's ever been homeless has such a story. The dynamic is best expressed as an amalgam of bad luck compounded by bad choices, or vice-versa. A busted relationship, family violence, drugs, disability, prison, death of a loved one: loss and grief and despair. After someone then internalizes the stigma of their state of homelessness - when they come to believe their lives aren't worth much more than the all the "urination and defecation" that flavors so much of what issues from their persecutors' mouths - getting loaded enough to find fleeting unconscious oblivion in whatever park or doorway you find yourself in is about as good as it's ever going to get.

We had occasionally shared a few beers after 5 pm, trying to relieve the sometimes unbelievable frustration that come from trying to educate a public constantly propagandized by television and all those "horse traders" at the Chron. One such night last December, as y2k drew near and the end of the world was in the back of everyone's mind, we were half-drunkenly speculating that if the Christian Messiah were homeless in SF, what would he be doing right now? I told Trent the old joke that Jesus must be in jail, because that's where everyone finds him.

This led us to the not-so-terribly-clever speculation that he would be in a mental ward, but not in SF because mental health care has been the red-haired stepchild of our Dept. of Public Health for decades. Then Trent got real serious and told me that Jesus would be an addict - that's how we crucify people in our capitalist society.

Trent was trying to become his own savior. He was finding a way out through his writing. When he landed the gig at the GUARDIAN I was excited for him. I told him that no matter if it was shitwork, or if his co-workers ever turned their noses up at him, it still represented a quantum leap up from the STREET SHEET - sex ads and all.

He also wrote an article recently that chronicled the downward spiral of a once-promising comic named Doug Ferrari. More recently, an EXAMINER human interest story told us how the (uncredited) article led to a chain of events where one of Ferrari's successful friends found him living in the Tenderloin and was helping him to regain a career in entertainment. I hope Trent's life had more purpose than to only serve as the agent of another's fortune. If Trent had friends with the means that Ferrari's friends had, he might be with us today.


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