Ever since I moved to San Francisco some 40 years ago, people were living on the streets. Hippies, bums, panhandlers or just plain street people, what you called them depended on your point of reference. Most of the ones I heard of lived in Golden Gate Park, where an entire village could lie hidden in the underbrush. One might not find evidence of them unless one strayed off the paved path, and having grown up around forests I was not reluctant to dive into a thicket or copse if a hint of trail led therein. While I sometimes found evidence of an encampment, I rarely made contact with actual people and when I did, I kept on going. Nothing to see here, keep moving, but sir that is a pungent aroma.
When I started working night in the South of Market it was much the same. At the time, before the arrival of the glass towers, no one in their right mind ventured there at night. There wasn’t much there anyway except for the TransBay Terminal, with its cavernous lower hall illuminated by florescent lights and stippled with long wooden benches draped with late-night would-be passengers for the Grey Dog and Trailways long-distance buses. Up top, often wrapped in wet cold fog were the local lines. The all-night F from AC Transit carrying sodden students back to Berkeley, and the ghostly N-line streetcar that swept up the ramp and waited to pick up passengers headed back to the Sunset, looking so much like Charon’s boat in the gloom. Beyond the Terminal was nothing but a few dive bars and the deep underground club scene. And there the homeless were also, in their small cardboard capsules, swaddled in rags and bags and filth. And I walked on by.
There was a time when I made the acquaintance of a homeless guy. By this time I was working the day shift, and went out to lunch a few times a week. I was a manager, I wore a coat and tie, I was a member of the established set. Except I wasn’t, because the established set were part of a cultural syndicate that didn’t know quite what to make of me and ran in circles that were both inside and outside the team I directed. So my lunches were always alone, which was actually fine by me. I enjoyed a sandwich and juice on a bench or stair, watching the Financial District crowd sashay back and forth on the brick sidewalks.
It was there Paul walked up to me and asked if I’d like to buy a copy of the Street Sheet. I asked him what it was about as much out of professional curiosity as anything and he explained the Sheet was written, printed and distributed by street people. It was only a dollar. We talked more until I had to get back to work. Over the next couple of years I’d see him about once a month and we’d jaw about stuff. I’d buy the paper, read it while we talked, and give it back to him so he could sell it again. He’d been a printer himself once, in a life where he left a home to go to work. He’d had his fights with drugs, but it was behind him as long as he kept busy. During the summer months he made enough to stay in a residential hotel, which was a hell of a lot better than queuing up for a city shelter.
I lost touch with him when I got busyer. I know that’s not how it’s spelled, but if you’ve ever seen “In Pursuit of Happyness” you’ll get it. Anyway, I changed jobs and locations and that was it.
A few months ago I pushed my bicycle out of my garage in the pre-dawn light and started my commute to work. It’s a really pleasant ride: from the quiet residential street in my neighborhood the route intersects a cross-town link to BART, the regional train system, and then elevates to a long expressway that leads to and from the interstate. I then traverse three miles of trendy Valencia street, which T-bones Market Street, the spine of town. A coupe of blocks before that, the ramp of the Central Freeway passes overhead, providing a bit of visual cover for the street below. Just past its shadow, for some reason, I happened to look at the wall of shuttered shops along the sidewalk. In one of the doorways lay a bedraggled man in a sleeping bag, propped up on one folded arm, looking out at the curb. His beard was matted and his hair tangled. But his eyes were wide and clear, and held the expression of a person who was acutely aware he was again waking up on the street, wondering how the hell his life had come to that. It was the stare of a man who had once known what to do and how to get along in life, and now was just trying to figure out the next steps in his day.
He never looked up as I passed. I stopped at the light on McCoppin; another block beyond that lay Market and the intersection at Otis. Beyond that was Van Ness Avenue, home to mansions before the 1906 earthquake and fire, and now doing double-duty as bustling Highway 101 through the city, lined with palatial Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini showrooms and steak houses.
I couldn’t shake his face. I turned down Van Ness, taking a couple of back alleys that would lead me back to Valencia. In one of those alleys I stopped to pull a bill out of my wallet, stuffing it back into the pocket from which it came.
I pulled onto the sidewalk, navigating a dog and its walker, and stopped next to the guy. I leaned over and handed him the money. He looked at it, then up at me.
“Thank you, man.” he said. “God bless you.”
I’ve not seen him since.