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Life as an Illegal Sidewalk Vendor at UN Plaza, SF

Updated: Feb 28, 2024 08:40
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By Nova Tania

A tall girl with dark hair sits with long legs crossed, stretched out and shining in the sun.  She calls out “eight dollars! eight dollars” from her beach chair while out in front of her sit a dozen slabs of packaged marinaded ribs, stacked on the ground. Jim Beam bourbon flavored. Sitting under an umbrella with her folding lounge chair, you’d think we were at the beach especially being occasionally misted as the wind blew through the remnants of the fairly filthy UN Plaza fountain. She sells me two for five because “we family”.

I can tell she means queer family but deep down I want us to be even more than that. I’m sure there are other things we have in common, as this underground market tends to attract a specific demographic.

Empty UN Plaza San Francisco. Photo Alex Mak

Since Covid hit and shut down the Financial District, something new was born out of the vacuum—something born out of a need for money, a need for connection, and partially a need for some of our city’s most marginalized to have something of their own. An underground market naturally emerged in an un-policed region of UN Plaza behind the fountain and along the walkway that leads to McAllister and Leavenworth. No official hours were ever written down and never was a penny spent advertising the space, yet it reliably functioned throughout every day’s “business” hours and well into every night.

No holidays, no days off. Any hour of any day, anyone could wander back behind the fountain to find every inch of the plaza transformed into a semi-orderly system of small shops laid out on blankets or found furniture or even on the protruding shelves of concrete that shaped the fountain.

If you looked hard enough and knew a little bit about the scene, every “shop” was a tiny glimpse into a life on the fringe, yet in the know. One could survive solely off of finds at this market, as I surely did try that year.  Some sold Ben and Jerry pints for $3 each. Some sold makeup and collections of clothes. Cords of all varieties were quite common (SO MANY CORDS!) Bluetooth speakers and candy; used electronics; flatscreen televisions. There was knockoff designer shit. Bike parts. Hygiene products. Single cigarettes and cheap packs of Newports. In addition, during all reasonable daylight hours, always stood a crew of Asian grannies selling groceries.

SF food bank groceries.

Clothes and style were a big part of the scene and looks were certainly turned. In my estimation, the plaza was the fashion capital of the city for that precious year, with a constant supply of the hottest streetwear.

For many, sales at the plaza was a side hustle or a main job. It was equally likely that they were selling things that they needed less than drugs at the time. Looking further, this aspect birthed moments of sadness when you might be able to walk away with an almost new pair of kicks worth $125 for a meager $20 because someone needed to get high so bad in that moment. A bittersweet deal. I always hoped that people tipped in extra if they were able in those moments. I always hoped that those moments were at least honored with some sadness.

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The aspect that made me feel the most welcome, and which I want to highlight, was that behind almost every sale stood a person who uses drugs, with their fentanyl foil or crystal meth bubble right at their side—very “in the open” and “in your face”. Someone might nod off while they were running their shop, or hit their foil while haggling over a fancy android cord. The unique struggles and problems associated with people who use drugs could easily and openly be discussed while at the plaza. Even better, was that one could assume some basic understanding. It wasn’t necessary to shovel through the layers of shame and stigma that would otherwise discourage such discussions. There was the slightest hint of a feeling that you were “at home” and that really was something.

Looking back, I have to reminisce about Chesa Boudin’s San Francisco, where we at least didn’t need to worry about being locked up and sustaining life-altering legal charges for doing something that, for many of us, is linked to our survival and involves much less personal choice than is often assumed. Chesa’s policies didn’t necessarily directly reduce the interpersonal abuse, stigma, and ostracism that we deal with daily, but still, it meant a lot to me to be able to walk down the street without fearing that I could collect serious drug charges that are designed to lead toward discrimination in housing, employment, and other aspects of life. Those policies, combined with more compassionate (and scientific) sentiments about people who use drugs, made the scene at the UN Plaza possible. That little slice of pie was everything to me, as cheesy as it might sound.

UN Plaza San Francisco. Photo Alex Mak

I tried selling my own shit a couple of times when I needed to get high (or risk getting sick) and was penniless, even while working a full-time job where I made $24 an hour. The old Asian ladies loved to buy half-priced cigarettes from me that I would buy with gift cards from family members who didn’t trust me with any other funds. It was quite a deal I was running (for everyone else). Packs of name-brand cigarettes for $5! One time I drew such a crowd that everyone, drunk on the energy (and maybe nicotine withdrawals), started grabbing my arms and trying to pry the cigarettes out of my hands! I had to search deeply for my “man voice” inside my non-binary soul that day, but I did find it. I yelled at everyone to back up off of me and my cigs. I got my $5 and, with that, a tiny bag of fentanyl to stave off withdrawal.

Another time, I tried to set up my own shop because I was running out of money…again. I gathered my tweaker’s finest– a collection of my fanciest and sturdiest cords, an Xfinity cable box that a former roommate left behind, 7 pairs of hoop earrings in pastels, an old phone, and a couple more cords.

Sidewalk vendors, Mission Street, SF.

I brought this really beautiful floral-pattern sheet to lay everything on. I got there at 1 pm and it was poppin’. Asian grandma’s selling groceries, check. Cigarette hawkers, check. Dudes on bikes asking if you have cellphones to sell, check. Everything was as it should be. I enthusiastically threw down my floral pattern sheet and was thoughtfully laying down my precious items one by one when someone sits next to me to smoke fentanyl. I smile and say “hey”. I know we aren’t regularly doing a lot of smiling at each other in this scene but I’m interested in breaking that down a bit. He probably thinks I’m hitting on him, but he says “hey” back as he lights his foil. We start talking about my wares and his eyes open wide when he sees my Xfinity cable box. He thinks I could get $60 for it! And then he swears that one of my USB C cords is a top-notch product. Needless to say, I am feeling gassed up.

Too quickly, another person sits down on my left side. This individual is in the middle of a loud conversation with a tall gentleman wearing a Nascar shirt. Well, I guess I’m making friends quickly at this popular spot.

Suddenly, and again too quickly, the tall man with the NASCAR shirt moves over to stand directly in front of me. I immediately feel closed in and very sensitive to the fact that there is too much happening in this tiny moment. This large man asks me for a cigarette, but too loudly. I don’t have any. He asks again-still very loud-and this time adding on a request for a dollar. I apologize and tell him I have none. He moves closer to me, now towering over me in a way that I cannot see his face, only to aggressively ask directions to a Walgreens.

This is all too much, I think. His non-verbals are all out of whack; he’s doing way too much. Combined with the inappropriate loudness, what could this all be about? I then very quickly put too many things together. These two apparently cis-gendered straight men shouldn’t be this excited to sit at either side of my obviously-queer ass. And eagerly talking to me? Gassing me up?

This could only be a set-up, I realize at that moment. I quickly gather my things and do a wallet/phone/keys check and my wallet is nowhere to be found. I hastily shove my cords into a pillowcase and get out of the plaza. I’m feeling taken advantage of, sad, an imposter, descending into an identity crisis. I’m not street enough to be doing this. I’m housed. I have a master’s degree. I’m a professional social worker, full-time employed. Yes, I run out of money a lot and, yes, homelessness is often a stone’s throw away for me, and yes, I regularly run these very streets to find friends, love, drugs, cute looks, and discount Ben and Jerry’s. But realistically, I am not hardened and vigilant enough to be truly “of” the streets, “of” this glorious plaza.

I get myself home while shaking my head at myself, missing my wallet, gritting my teeth. I drift off into a shame nap.

Later that evening I find my wallet, stuffed in a secret pocket in my bag and I feel so goofy having believed I was being robbed, having thought myself such an imposter, though myself unworthy of the plaza.

Now, the scene behind the fountain at UN Plaza is an absurd embarrassment.  A thin strip of heavily policed AstroTurf hastily laid down beneath a few useless structures with a “dog park” sign. I’ve never seen a soul anywhere near it except for a bored Urban Alchemy worker guarding the gate, letting only the chosen in.

The Asian grannies continue to claim precious space in the plaza despite a constant deployment of SFPD officers and I salute them. I’ve heard a lot of people on the street grumble about the grannies somehow misusing “the system” by turning around and selling these groceries that they get from the food bank or other free grocery programs, but I say a hustle is a hustle is a hustle.

Recently, fences were erected in order to deter a similar market at the 24th St BART plaza. I’ve been delighted to see that this market persists, despite harassment from city lawmakers and SFPD who obsess over the fact that people use drugs there in public. If it was actually a concern that witnessing another person’s substance use was going to harm children or passersby, there would be much more moral outrage against public alcohol use – including all this new sidewalk restaurant seating where people with money drink expensive wine and craft beer. Instead of shutting down public markets that are used by so many in the city, maybe The City should be funding anti-stigma campaigns aimed at decreasing fears and hatred of San Francisco’s homeless and drug-using citizens. That is the problem I see here.

The market and the plaza that I knew are over, at least in the reincarnation discussed above. However, whatever energy or divinity that brings such beauty into existence is surely making its way through San Franciso. I know that we will see her again.

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