Sunday, November 11, 2012

R.I.P. Elvis the mechanic

This is a photo that I just ran by someone else who confirms what I thought: the man who died October 23, run over by a car pulling out of a garage in eastern SoMa, was the curbside mechanic known as Elvis who saved vehicles over and over for the RV community of San Francisco's southeastern waterfront. [Earlier I didn't credit the photo properly: it's by a professional art photographer, Tom Stone. Also, I've added some comments below about the problematic design of the condo garage entry where Elvis died.]

I remember Elvis busy and competent on a day in 1998 when the police had served notice to vacate on a huge group of RVs and buses and old trucks and other inhabited vehicles on a vacant lot just south of the Fourth Street bridge over Mission Creek. This was long before the Mission Bay development, or AT&T Park, or even the branch public library on that corner of Fourth by the northward end of the bridge. Where the public library is, was a vacant lot with a big camp of tents and shelters. Where the wreckage on pilings is, was a functioning restaurant, Carmen's. South of Carmen's was a vacant lot. The RVs and all were parked along what was then a big unpaved margin at the edge of Fourth Street.

And suddenly everyone had to get out because the police were coming, they were bringing tow trucks, anyone not out within a few hours was going to have a vehicle impounded, maybe be dispossessed, at least likely be homeless until the tow charges could be argued away or paid off.

And Elvis was in the middle of the mess, saving the day. Setting up tow chains, starting difficult ancient engines that tended not to start. Strapping a mattress onto the nose of a tanklike 1940s International Harvester bus that had no brakes nor functioning engine, all so it could be towed verrrry carefully to safety behind a rental truck.

Everyone or almost everyone got moved in time. The man was a hero.

I think it was Elvis again, years later, who was said to have done a "direct drip" into another old engine -- actually standing over it dripping gasoline into the works while someone at the wheel tried to start it. Terribly risky. A risk he assumed willingly to help a friend of his who had to move the vehicle before another one of those police tow trucks came. It worked.

In the comments thread to the Chronicle article, and also on Twitter, someone signing as @supertamsf is concerned that police and the Chronicle may not have given enough attention to the matter. This followup report in the Chronicle seems to agree with supertamsf's account that police describe the woman who ran him over as driving forward out of the garage, not backing out as originally reported. I don't have any direct information on the details of his death but of course believe Elvis' death deserves the same level of attention as a middle-class housed person would receive.

Also, the jerks in the comments thread who seem happy to see the end of this man who they didn't know, who they seem to presume was useless -- they're wrong. He had his problems but he was a good neighbor and a good gearhead. R.I.P.

[More: @supertamsf has posted a link to this article and discussion at, where Elvis' death seems to have become the subject of an argument about the responsibilities of car drivers in general.

His death was his own first, before it was a symbol of something. And I still haven't heard enough information to form an opinion about the driver's level of responsibility.

But I do have an opinion about the design of the garage the car came out of -- pictured in a photo with the Streetsblog item. @supertamsf says the address is 549 - 3rd Street and that does match the picture per Google Street View. It's just north of the Third Street entrance to South Park. One of these SoMa garages, probably built in the late '90s or early oughts, that opens out of a building constructed to insulate the residents from the public spaces outside. Unlike many, it's set back from the sidewalk. There's an alcove next to the garage door where it would be safe to sit upright, but if someone sat down and then rolled sideways, well, not safe.

So, two problems here: an alcove that looks inviting to someone in search of shelter, and a windowless garage-door exit so that the driver emerges from a closed dark space into daylight.

We have a big condo garage on our street too. Drivers come barreling out of that garage without engaging with any neighbors who might be passing by, not because they're bad people but because its design encourages them to do so.

If Elvis' death is to be noted mainly as an illustration of something -- which is a pity because he was a person first -- then maybe what it can illustrate is that condominium entrances for people and vehicles should be designed to encourage engagement and awareness at street level rather than encouraging a sense of insulation.] 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful piece. I have exited that type of garage in the dead of night, and often worried that seeing over my hood to the ground was not possible, and hopefully there is nothing in the way. It was a tragedy, the loss of human life, and the torture the female drive most likely is suffering. The cruel comments left by the uniformed add nothing but fuel to the fire. Your piece adds an element that must be addressed as these types of garage ways are prevelant around town.