In 1995, Ellinger was introduced to heroin. "Three months after that," he said, "I was on the streets."
Ellinger tried to kick his habit. By the middle of 2000, he'd been clean for about six months and was working as a contract laborer, digging ditches one day, moving boxes in a warehouse, living in a shoddy residential hotel in the Mission District. The work was "god-awful, soul-numbing stuff," he said, and the drug beckoned.
Right before that Thanksgiving, Ellinger shot some tainted dope into his hip. A friend later found him wandering the streets, delirious. He woke up in a hospital two days later, watching sea gulls dip beyond the window of his fourth-floor room.
"If your friend had brought you in five minutes later, you would have been DOA," were the first words out of the surgeon's mouth. Ellinger had contracted a flesh-eating bacteria, he said, and "we almost cut off your leg."
Ellinger left the hospital in February 2001, with just a cane and the clothes on his back. He spent the spring bouncing from SRO to SRO, each with its own particular horrors. These days he finds beauty in their crumbling exteriors, but life inside, he said, was anything but lovely.
When he landed at an SRO called the Shree Ganeshai, he knew he was home. The walls of his room were riddled with holes, the bed a pile of old mattresses covered by a torn and filthy blanket. Unlike every other residential hotel he'd lived in, however, it was quiet and safe.
"I reinvented myself," he said, "in that hotel room on Sixth Street."
Reading helped. And drawing. Ellinger painted water colors, with stanzas by his favorite poets captured in calligraphy: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all about pain and loneliness and loss.
He kept a journal, useful, he said, "if you're deliberately trying to get your mind back." He became a tenant activist, fighting for things like sprinklers in SRO hotels. Then a neighbor, a Hungarian house painter named Jozsef Orgovan, gave Ellinger a 1-megapixel digital camera he planned to throw away.
"I was shooting the architecture with that little camera because, well, I was surrounded by it," he said. "I love the architecture of decay. One of my favorite parts of town before it was totally gentrified was South of Market, all the old rotting warehouses, the train yards, the tracks."
As his cameras improved, so did his pictures. He photographed the views from his window -- a moody streetscape with a pawnshop at its center; a roofscape with smokestacks suffused with the rosy light of dawn. He shot SROs inside and out: their peeling walls and twisting staircases scenes of abstract beauty.
His first shows were on the same day in 2003, one in a bookstore, the other in a satellite office of the district attorney. In 2005, he had an exhibit at City Hall.
Making photographs changed Ellinger, but he wanted those images to do more -- "to change the way people see this architecture, this part of town, to shift their perceptions."
Six years ago, Ellinger won a housing lottery and now lives in a low-income studio apartment on a busy South of Market thoroughfare. He survives on a Social Security disability check of about $900 a month, along with sales and commissions from his photography.
He's also the resident photographer at Intersection for the Arts, a nearly 50-year-old institution that develops new works and uses art to inspire social change. It's a six-month position with a small stipend.
"Who I am and what I have now is what I have created since 2001," he said. "That's it. That's all I've got."
Ellinger has become the "boots on the ground historian" for groups like San Francisco Architectural Heritage, where he has lectured on the landscape of his favorite neighborhoods.
He was the first person Elias called when she was commissioned by the Cutting Ball to create "Tenderloin." She had stumbled on Up from the Deep, his website about San Francisco's Central City, saw his photographs, read his stories and thought: "This person really knows this place."
They walked through the gritty neighborhood. He took her drinking at the Brown Jug on Eddy Street and talked about the neighborhood's key players -- SRO owners and tenants, police officers, neighborhood advocates, artists.
Ellinger's story bookends the two-hour production. Early in the first act, slides of his most-prized images flash across a small screen on stage, and the Ellinger character muses about San Francisco's troubled but hopeful Central City.
"I, I've always loved, um, not just architecture," he begins, "but old, rotting, neglected and forgotten things."
The play is a documentary, woven together by Elias from lengthy interviews with dozens of Tenderloin denizens -- people like Kathy Looper and her late husband, Leroy, owners of the Cadillac Hotel; Capt. Gary Jimenez from the San Francisco Police Department; and a man who works at the Boys and Girls Club and has spent 26 of his 27 years in the same three-block radius.
"This is the Tenderloin," Elias said recently, "a little bit through Mark Ellinger's lens."