A Day of Social Work Home Visits: San Francisco, 1968

I’m called to the stucco Sunset to meet Serena, just sixteen, blind from staring at the sun on LSD.

Poetry by Donna L. Emerson, Spring 2016


Let me go back to school, Ma, pleads Robert as his mother peels potatoes in their 1940s drafty Potrero Hill room. He’s my last of seven, she says, not looking up. Has to help me here.

A long row of unpainted clapboards, junkies next door talk loud. Widowed Mrs. Flannery can’t get all the kids to school. Eleven-year-old Robert washes dishes in a bucket.

I drive to a second-floor walk-up in Hunter’s Point: German shepherds and tall, thin men with shotguns meet me at the door. We sit in the kitchen on plastic red seats under Martin Luther King’s picture, next to Bobby and Jack’s, talk about Huey, Malcolm. Tyrone on my lap.

The aunties in Bernal Heights are still putting away their grits and bottles before they sit me near velvet Christ on the wall, next to Mary holding Jesus, and magazine photo cutouts of deer or buffalo, pasted on cardboard. Tacked up and crooked. They tell me to get Olin back to school. We know he’s running drugs for his father. And you know that can’t go on.

It’s my work: I visit homes. The San Francisco Unified wants me to evaluate one hundred twenty-five children on home teaching for more years than they can count.

Before lunch I go to urine-scented apartments in the Western Addition with shingled fronts that look like houses in the white suburbs for two years until they start to fall apart. Cornell has just swallowed the Drano again.

At noon I make a home visit to a gated brick façade home off Terrace: sculpted lawns, high hedges. A black maid minding white poodles escorts me to a drawing room. There a doctor and lawyer introduce their autistic boy, Benjamin. They want to send him away. Ben twirls his arms and stamps his feet.

I’m called to the stucco Sunset to meet Serena, just sixteen, blind from staring at the sun on LSD. I park two blocks away so I can walk near the ocean with her. She’s all in black. She grabs my hands and won’t let go. We smell salt, feel spray, hear wind in caverns. Will she agree to go back to school?

In a jangling Mission apartment, my nostrils full-to-the-brim with yesterday’s grease, Latin red and yellow singing lifts my mood, swish of skirts below brown knees. Click-click on the sidewalk; the Spanish interpreter adds her own take to what I just said. Juan wants to go to school today; he cries when I cannot take him. Music fills the eaves, the storefronts. The tires vibrate.

They let me in, these people who’ve never seen me before. The tall, white social worker from the school with her manila folders and miniskirt. They put blankets down on stained cushions, bring out lumpia or sweet potato pie, speak of Angela Davis and wear their hair like hers, notice that I wear mine like hers too.

I drive in my VW Bug to the edge of the city farmhouses, falling-to-the-ground barns, dusty eighteen-foot-ceilinged homes with women in holey housedresses, old fit men in jeans, the gagging smell of manure along the slimy ditch where I park, where Ryan can’t do chores anymore because of the cancer.

We sit on the floor in an airless square apartment downtown where voices on four sides whisper, then shout about school for the children, life as long as it lasts.

I take home Lebanese casseroles, smells of whiskey, the rest of Japanese lunch, sticky dirt on my skirt from sitting on the curb with Berte in the Western Addition. After we get Cornell to the hospital.


Donna L. Emerson lives in Petaluma, California, and her family homestead in New York. Recently retired from Santa Rosa Jr. College, Donna’s award-winning publications include the New Ohio Review, CALYX, the Paterson Literary Review. She has published four chapbooks. Her most recent awards include nominations for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and an Allen Ginsberg (2015) award. Website:

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