The wheels of karma turn slowly.
In the case of Neil Taylor, a homeless man who lived on Division Street, he died awaiting a small piece of justice.
Too late to cash in. Do not pass go. Do not collect — in this case — $750, a settlement from the City Attorney’s Office after he was wronged by The City.
It’s not a lot of money, but to Neil, it may have made a difference.
In 2016, he was among the many people living on the streets who were quietly pushed out by the Super Bowl City sweeps, as city officials cleared downtown of “riff raff” for TV cameras, eager to highlight unblemished postcard sights.
And while the beautiful shots of San Francisco Bay went largely unobstructed, Neil sat at the Veteran’s Medical Center in the Outer Richmond for a skin rash. Meanwhile, a torrent of San Francisco Police Department officers and Public Works crews descended on Division Street.
That’s a story many San Franciscans may remember.
During the sweeps — and captured in a photo that later went viral — workers threw Neil’s walker into a trash compactor. Where Neil’s tent used to be, a neighbor scrawled a message on a nearby wall: “Neil, The Cops came & took everyone’s stuff, Sorry.”
During the day of ’round the clock homeless coverage by all San Francisco media last year, I met Neil. The bushy bearded, irascible, charming old grump told me his tale.
Neil broke down when his wife died a few years ago, and in his depression, he lost his home.
He had a musical mind and easily listed his favorite pieces to play on piano: Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor”; Chopin’s “Prelude in E minor”; Tchaikovsky’s “No. 1 in B-flat minor.”
Neil knew them by heart.
Laughter came easily in conversations with Neil. When I asked him how to spell his last name, he barked, “Well, I don’t make clothes!”
As for the walker, he didn’t always need it. His Parkinson’s hit him worse, or easier, depending on the day. But it’s a hell of a thing to crush an old man’s means of mobility.
It seems the City Attorney’s Office agreed.
On March 23, a deputy city attorney contacted Neil’s attorney, Joel Kim, with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, to offer Neil $750 for crushing his walker.
Kelley Cutler, with the Coalition on Homelessness, searched for Neil to tell him the good news.
“It was too late,” Cutler wrote in a Facebook post. “His body was found in the same location where his tent and walker were destroyed last year during a sweep when he was in the emergency room.”
Neil died April 1, nine days after the City Attorney’s Office offered the money.
He was on the verge of pay, but also on the verge of netting four walls and a roof.
After my first column on Neil, Swords to Plowshares reached out to find him housing, as he was a Vietnam vet. They had some back and forths, and definitely tried. Again, it was too late.
Cutler told me she’s working on finding next of kin, and perhaps hosting a memorial for him.
With karma on my mind, I asked Public Works and the City Attorney’s Office if they could spend that unclaimed $750 on food for Neil’s street neighbors. He always made sure they were fed and oft shared what he had. So why couldn’t The City, in his death, make a gesture on his behalf?
“Our hearts go out to Mr. Taylor’s family, it’s a sad situation,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office. “Unfortunately, when Mr. Taylor passed away, the legal basis for his claim ended. We have an obligation to taxpayers to treat every claim equally under the rules.”
So, that’s a no go. I wish I had done more for Neil.
Now, he’s beyond our reach, beyond a blanket, a tent or even comforting conversation.
But do me this favor, dear readers: After you read this, hop on YouTube, Spotify, toss on an old record, whatever, and listen to one of Neil’s favorite composers: Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Tchaikovsky.
Together, we can imagine Neil tickling ivory at the pearly gates.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.