“Let me leave you with one thing,” says Herb Wendroff, who claims to be 116 years old. He pauses to let the gravity gather. “Time is candy and we ate all we bought.”
It’s a lyric from an early ‘70s country song, and the last words from one of the last men out the door of a senior center where time ran out.
It was the final day that the St. Francis Living Room, a place for homeless and low-income elders in the Tenderloin, could afford to stay open. In the neighborhood for nearly three decades and at its current spot on Golden Gate Avenue since 2000, it serves some 15,000 meals a year to people over the age of 60.
There are also movie screenings on the small dining room’s television (often hotly discussed), bingo games after breakfast (even more hotly discussed), and staff who help with everything from medical referrals to text messaging.
“It organizes our lives,” says Wendroff, sitting on one of the worn and bandaged leather couches in a camouflage jacket. (“Are you a veteran?” “Yeah, of bad luck!”) “It’s got a little bit of a rough exterior but the staff are like angels. Begrudgingly polite angels.”
Before the gate opens at 8:30 for breakfast, there’s already a line of people waiting outside. Always the first to get there are several individuals in wheelchairs, who yell hello’s to the breakfast volunteers as they see them coming down the street.
One of those waiting in a wheelchair is Pam Hall, 72. She’d heard that it would be the Living Room’s last day. “I know they’ll be back,” she says, once she’s settled at a table with her toast. “You can’t keep a good man or a good woman down.” She wears a black sweatshirt that could fit two of her. “You can’t keep a good man or a good woman down!” she says again, louder, in the general direction of the kitchen counter, making sure the people serving oatmeal can hear her. She laughs, but her expression changes abruptly as tears come to her eyes.
José Diaz is always the first in line for breakfast. He waits for the doors to open on the Living Room's last day.
The Living Room is different from the dining rooms at other organizations around the neighborhood – St. Anthony’s, Glide, and even Curry Senior Center serve many more people, and they have large, cafeteria-style operations. St. Francis Living Room is small and intimate, with just a few 4-seat tables flanked by loveseats and bookcases. People eat in shifts, and they’re willing to wait.
Beyond the cozy environment, the oatmeal is what the place is known for.
“I like the oatmeal and the people,” says Marilyn Chan, 66. She takes “the whole nine yards,” she says, with all the toppings that are offered – raisins, brown sugar, canned fruit cocktail, and milk. Even with the pastries often donated by Philz Coffee across the street, it’s a far cry from the rarefied food culture that San Francisco has come to be associated with.
Bob Shirley, 71, is behind the counter every day washing dishes. Shirley is homeless and a veteran; he went off the deep end, he says, after his wife Ivy died 16 years ago. (They met at the Lafayette Coffee Shop on Hyde, where Ivy was a waitress. It’s just two blocks from where Shirley stands now.) He’s a San Francisco native who grew up in Hunters Point and all the other old family neighborhoods – the Avenues, the Mission, Crocker Amazon.
He started coming to the Living Room for breakfast just over a decade ago, and for most of that time has been taking care of the dishes as soon as he’s finished eating.
Greg Moore, the Living Room’s executive director, says that many seniors in the neighborhood are isolated and the Living Room has become part of their social structure. They keep coming back, he says, because “when they come here, they can feel assured that they will be treated with respect.”
“There’s a semblance of law and order,” adds another client, Charles Rosh. A native of Mumbai, India, Rosh comes all the way from the Duboce Triangle area to have breakfast and hang out. As a Catholic, he says, he likes that the Living Room practices the Catholic tradition of welcoming the poor. “It’s not just about going to church,” he says.
The Living Room is funded partially by the Department of Aging and Adult Services, but the finances are always a struggle, and right now there’s a shortfall of about $100,000. In all likelihood, that money would need to come from a corporate or private donor. For now, Moore is trying to hold onto the site until next year, when the Dignity Fund, if approved in November, could bring more funding for services for the City’s seniors and adults with disabilities.
But the doors can’t stay open right now, so there will be no more oatmeal on Golden Gate Avenue.
“Time is candy and we ate all we bought.” It’s a Tom T. Hall song called “Another Town,” and it continues:
Another town is somewhere down the line
Another town, another grocery store
Another town, another set of swinging doors
And somehow I’m a little bit suspicious in my mind
It’s another town that don’t need my kind
Photos: Anna Challet / New America Media