The Unmourned Death of Elvis Presley in San Francisco

Elvis had been homeless in this neighborhood for over 15 years. His broken, tired, ravaged body provided sad evidence of what that was like. But he never complained, and didn’t see himself as a victim. Despite the toll taken by living on the street for so long, Elvis was unfailingly friendly.

Elvis Presley sleeps on the sidewalk in the South of Market neighborhood where he would later die. Photo by Robert L. Terrell

by Robert L. Terrell

 

I was immediately filled with dread while reading a recent newspaper article about the homeless man who was run over and killed while he slept on the ground at the entrance of the garage door of a residence in San Francisco’s South of Market area.

Even though the story did not contain the dead man’s name, I knew instantly it was Elvis.

I knew because of the location where the tragedy took place.

Elvis slept most nights in front of that garage door.  He huddled beside the huge, mechanically operated, metal door when it was raining and cold. And he spent more days than he should have passed out on the sidewalk directly in the path of automobiles entering and leaving the garage.

I knew it was Elvis because I have been photographing him for years, documenting his curbside saga, hoping to learn something, anything, I might use to assist people trapped in dreadful circumstances of the sort that defined his life on the street.

During one of our many discussions, he told me he had lived homeless in this neighborhood for more than 15 years. His broken, tired, ravaged body provided sad evidence of what that was like.  Nonetheless, he never complained, and he didn’t necessarily see himself as a victim.

Intrigued by his pleasant personality and jaunty attitude, I began to photograph him. He grew comfortable with this practice, and over the years I took hundreds of shots of him. In many of those shots, he is sprawled, drunk and oblivious, on the bare concrete in front of the garage door where the homeless man — unnamed in the first news accounts — was killed.

My intuition about the identity of that unidentified homeless man was confirmed a few days later by a second newspaper article, which presented the dead man’s full name: Elvis Presley.

Elvis had told me his name over the years, but I was never convinced he was telling the truth — until his identity was confirmed in his newspaper death notice.

As pedestrians walk by without noticing him, Elvis Presley sleeps on the sidewalk in front of the very same garage door on the 500 block of Third Street in San Francisco where he was subsequently run over and killed. Photo by Robert L. Terrell

 

The newspaper account of his death was brief, and minimally informative. It stated his age, 55, the location of his death, the fact that he was run over by a female driver, and that the driver had not been charged for his death.

The story did not say anything about where he came from, whether he had family, why he was sleeping on the street, or how long he had been sleeping in front of that particular garage door. There was no information pertaining to efforts that might be made to identify and notify relatives.

While pondering the article, which I clipped from the newspaper and repeatedly read, I wondered whether memorial services are held somewhere in this elegant city for those who die alone on the street.

After spending several days privately mourning Elvis, I attempted to obtain more information about his death from people in the neighborhood who knew him. Many of those I approached said they were aware of his death, but none of them showed any significant emotion or regret.

“He was drunk all the time,” said a local merchant, who happens to be one of the persons who sold Elvis liquor on a daily basis. There are, of course, other local liquor merchants who also profited from Elvis’s debilitating drinking via regular sales of whatever kind of alcohol he preferred to consume at any given time.

“Sleeping in front of that garage door, he must have known that sooner or later he would be killed,” replied a local woman, when asked her opinion of Elvis’s death. She also said she held Elvis in low regard because he had little or no control of his drinking problem.

Given the fact that Elvis lived mostly on the street where everyone could see and interact with him on a daily basis, he was probably the best-known person in the neighborhood.

He was also outgoing, talkative, and unfailingly friendly. Nonetheless, other than the two short newspaper articles, there has been no noticeable community response to his gruesome death.

This is almost certainly due in part to the deeply entrenched modes of avoidance currently practiced in our society regarding our many homeless neighbors.

In any event, the dispassionate, alienated opinions expressed by some in response to the gruesome death of a man who lived on the streets in this neighborhood for more than a decade is troubling because of what it says about the tattered, threadbare remnants of what people used to refer to as a shared sense of community.

Unfortunately, a shared sense of community is one of the things we don’t have a whole lot of these days in San Francisco’s South of Market district.  Mostly, people exist as individuals.

Bars, restaurants and supermarkets are our community meeting places.

The vast majority of those who work in local businesses leave the neighborhood at the end of the workday. However well paid they might be, and lots of them are highly compensated specialists in various aspects of high tech and the social media, few of them earn enough to purchase housing in a neighborhood where mini-sized condominiums and lofts are hard to find for less than half a million dollars.

Members of the chic crowd flood into the neighborhood when darkness descends. They are here for sporting events, art galleries, gourmet restaurants, underground clubs and adult adventure.

Money is the glue that holds the place together. All the new stuff streaming into the area is expensive, and every unused space is being transformed in accordance with its potential to produce profit.

His face may show signs of the hardships of his long years on the streets, but Elvis was always outgoing, talkative and friendly. Photo by Robert L. Terrell

 

Several years ago, there were numerous empty buildings and vacant lots in this section of town. There were places where low-salaried workers, the unemployed and homeless people could hang out and not be harassed. But the cheap food restaurants and low-rent housing that sustained such residents in the recent past are currently rare to nonexistent.

In other words, it has become difficult to impossible to hang out in this section of San Francisco for those who are not notably prosperous.

This is one of the primary reasons why people like Elvis spend their days and nights hovering precariously at the social margins of all that might be described as mainstream society.

It is critically important for as many of us as possible to understand that homeless people, largely due to economic forces far beyond their power to control, are being driven to inhabit increasingly dangerous marginal places in our public spaces.

For example, Elvis was run over by an automobile on two separate occasions in recent years. On each occasion, he was sleeping in a dangerous location.

When he was suffering immediate agony due to being run over by a car, healthcare officials would take him away for a few weeks to mend. During those periods, they more or less took good care of his physical problems. But I never got the impression that they made any serious effort to help him deal with his obviously deep-seated mental and emotional demons.

I have many photographs of him hobbling along the street with the help of crutches, or a walking cane. In some of the shots, his hospital bandages are still clean. In others, they are grimy and falling from his body.

Occasionally, Elvis would disappear from his usual streetside stations. Curious about his disappearances, I asked him once where he had been for the past few weeks. He told me he was being studied by a group of University of California doctors for health-related issues pertinent to the years he spent in the military.

His garbled, confusing comments regarding the reasons why he was allegedly being studied were never sufficiently coherent for me to truly understand what he was attempting to tell me. Moreover, I was never certain as to whether he was pulling my leg just to keep my attention, and thereby acquire company and companionship for a few more minutes.

I am certain that he was in the military, and that he probably participated in war. He lived in Texas and Georgia. And that’s about all I know about his background.

I do know that he was a fine human being with a warm and compassionate sensibility.

Many of the homeless people who used to hang out with Elvis along Third Street near South Park have drifted away over the years. Some of them have moved on to other cities. Others have been removed from the street via municipal outreach programs, and resettled in single room occupancy hotels located in the vicinity of the Sixth Street skid row corridor.

A few of the homeless people who used to hang out with Elvis have cleaned up and re-entered mainstream society. But far too many of them have simply died on the streets in much the same manner as wild animals.

City official say they picked up the remains of 28 people on the streets of San Francisco last year. But homeless advocates claim the number of actual deaths was more than 100. In years past, when the Medical Examiner’s office still worked with homeless organizations to more truthfully measure the death rates of homeless people in San Francisco (a practice that now has been discontinued), the number of homeless deaths each year always was more than 100, and sometimes added up to 150 or more. Approximately 200 indigents are cremated each year by the city government.

In any event, Elvis was one of the last members of the homeless group that inhabited this neighborhood before it began to gentrify during the Dot Com era. Little by little, as the neighborhood began the upwardly mobile transition from shop worn to tres chic, life became more complicated for people like Elvis.

For obvious reasons, they do not fit in with the upwardly mobile crowd that has essentially taken over the neighborhood. They are too old, too ragged, too unkempt and too much alienated from the cultural norms of the new breed.

As a result, the neighborhood’s homeless residents are finding it increasingly difficult to find local facilities suited to their essentially modest needs.

The cheap showers they used at the old parking facility for recreational vehicles located on Townsend and Third Streets near the new baseball stadium are things of the past. The parking facility, and all the minimal amenities it provided for transients, has been replaced by a massive, high-rise development, largely inhabited by wealthy tech workers and empty nesters from the suburbs.

South Park was the primary meeting place for local homeless people for many years. On sunny days, they gathered there in large numbers, talking, snoozing, and swilling cheap booze. But the new people, with their expensive cars and pedigree dogs, are taking over the park.

As a result, homeless people such as Elvis are relegated to a narrow sliver of territory at the far western end of the park, where they gather daily around a single picnic table and a couple benches.

The broad expanse of the park, including the grassy areas, is reserved, according to an unspoken agreement, for the new people, and their frolicking dogs.

Elvis was killed as he lay sleeping less than a five-minute walk from the South Park picnic table where he spent many sunny afternoons.

The spot where he was crushed used to be the driveway of an old, abandoned gas station. During the rainy season, homeless people gathered inside the empty structure and sheltered from the weather.

That building was torn down during the Dot Com boom, and replaced by a condominium development composed of individual units that initially sold for upwards of 700,000 dollars.

Most of Elvis’s homeless peers abandoned the site when the new owners took up residence in the building. But Elvis continued to drink, pass out and sleep in the same location he had used for years.

Unfortunately, that location had been transformed into the entrance to the new building’s garage.

They say he never knew what hit him.

 

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