The 70s was a strange decade. Maybe no stranger than other decades but any journey from the 60s counter culture to the decade of Reagan and Thatcher would surely rank high as one of the most bizarre decades in human history.
Court Haslett’s Tenderloin (280 Steps) takes place in San Francisco during the Summer of 1978. Yeah, we are knee-deep in the 70s, but life is much different than you imagine as Haslett’s outstanding novel in San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Here is the novel’s main character describing the T.L., as the locals call it:
Archie made me consider the Tenderloin. The T.L. was always the place where San Francisco’s outcasts gathered. Criminals, ex-cons, alcoholics, hookers, castoffs, hard-luck cases, and straight-up weirdos. These people were my people. People with unfixable flaws who, more often than not, lose whatever battles they’re fighting.
But the T.L. wasn’t only a wasteland of losers. It was also a place to have some fun. The neon lights of the Tenderloin’s hotels and bars were as recognizable to locals as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Black Hawk Lounge on Hyde and Turk used to host all the jazz greats, from Billie Holiday to Johnny Mathis to Charlie Parker; Polo’s and Original Joe’s still served food with style; and whatever your sexual proclivities and predilections, the Tenderloin had a bar for you.
Lately, though, the T.L. was becoming a touch more desperate, a bit more violent. Every year a few more homeless panhandled, a few more murders occurred, and a few more dope fiends overdosed. The fun was slowly seeping out, and more and more I found myself looking over my shoulder when I heard footsteps behind me late at night.
Haslett’s novel follows Sleeper Hayes, a man who lives and thrives in the T.L., not as a criminal, but as a gambler, drunk, a caretaker, and a friend to many, well, except for maybe the cops considering one of them wants Hayes dead. A few chapters in, one of Hayes’ friends is murdered and Hayes starts looking into the death for a T.L. john.
Simon sized me up. “Alright. Let me know what you learn,” he said, slapping a $100 bill on the bar. “Remember,” he whispered, “I’m your first call.”
Uh oh. When a pimp gives you money it can mean one of two things: you’re either the john or you’re turning the trick. Either way, somebody is getting screwed.
As the reader experiences the T.L. with Hayes, we also get to know Haslett’s other dynamic characters who live on society’s periphery, some by choice and others by need. Haslett’s writing makes these characters much more than bums, drunks, prostitutes and drug addicts. Consider Nelson, a “crippled, dope-smoking guru of a best friend”, who lives in Hayes’ apartment building.
Nelson was always my sounding board when life became overwhelming. Years of nearly constant smoking had slowed and slurred his speech. Some people mistook this for a slowness of the mind. It’s true that Nelson’s logic wasn’t always straightforward, nor his delivery articulate, but his take on any topic was always unexpected and enlightening.
I knew his counsel wasn’t for everyone, though. If you’re the conventional type, then his steadfast belief in sterilizing the very rich and the very poor wouldn’t spin your top. Nor would you believe his claim that he and Yuri wrote the outline for the SALT treaty. But if you were looking for weed, a fresh opinion, and a laugh, like I always seemed to be, then Nelson was your guy. I considered him my personal, stoned, black Buddha.
Not only does Haslett’s story have a detailed and almost character-like affection for the Tenderloin, the Peoples Temple also has deep roots in the novel just as it did in San Francisco politics in the 70s. Haslett does not bog us down with a boring history of the cult, his writing about its leader Jim Jones becomes an intrinsic part of the story. Tenderloin is as dark as the alleys of the neighborhood and as glorious as the City by the Bay itself.