Bay Area Stew
Brief Encounters in San Francisco
As I made my way to the Van Ness stop, I saw her, standing about ten feet ahead of me, leaning against the side of the court building. A blizzard of small pieces of paper cascaded onto the pavement. She quickly stooped to gather them up. One escaped her nervous fingers. I bent over, grabbed it, and handed it to her. It was a cents-off coupon.
“Thank you, thank you,” she fluttered.
I made the “it was nothing” shrug and went to move on. She placed a hand gently on my arm.
“I wonder if you can help me,” in the faint helpless tone of the voice of the helpless. “You see,” she continued quickly, afraid she would lose me, “I locked my purse into the trunk of my car, well, it’s really not my car, just borrowed from a friend and so the police said they couldn’t pop the trunk and I need to get home to Marin. The bus stops right over there and I tried explaining why I didn’t have the fare to the bus driver but he wouldn’t let me ride free.”
Now, I took a better look at her. Age indeterminate, between forty and sixty depending on how hard her life had been, she presented as disjointedly as the scattered facts of her story. The pieces of paper she clutched in one hand were all coupons of one kind or another. Her clothes were cast-offs of one kind or another, faded colors, needing mending here and there. What was once a fancy cocktail hat, left over from those long-ago days when women still wore hats to occasions, sat on an inexpert attempt to cover the gray, wisps peeking out here and there to offer a glimmer of red color.
“How much is the bus fare?” I asked. She was making a living the hard way, had developed a story that probably didn’t scare any tourists and might even touch a heart here and there.
“Six-fifty,” she said quickly.
I pulled out seven ones. She tucked them into her jacket pocket, then moved off to continue working. I continued to my bus stop.
* * *
A winter’s Sunday night, dark although it was not yet six o’clock.
“Five dollars for dinner, lady.”
No whining, just a firm request from a neatly dressed man in his thirties, carefully planted to one side of the Conservatory of Music performance venue, a fisherman casting his net.
“Don’t they have meal programs every night of the week?” I asked tartly, husband at my back, impatiently pushing me along.
The man started going through his pockets. I stopped politely. He triumphantly pulled out a small brochure, held it under my eyes.
“See,” he demanded. “Not on Sundays.”
I held out five dollars.
* * *
Three gray mice. They emptied the black garbage bags on the bus shelter seats. Waiting patrons nervously moved out of the way, less out of fear of the homeless, more about wanting to avoid the unknown contents of the bags. The woman among them pulled out paper, scattering it about, not worth her attention. One of her companions reached around her to rescue a box. There was no fighting over it. A silence indicated their patient need to assess the worth of this prize. Was it worth a discussion? An old watch, battered and broken. It joined the papers on the ground.
The half empty pizza box brought in a new player, the predatory cat, sleekly determined to assert his rights. He had been snoozing on the stone bench along the wall of the building behind the bus stop. He returned to the bench with his dinner. The mice twittered among themselves as they continued their task, finally unearthing a wool hat from one bag, some hamburger buns from another. The woman took the hat, the two men shared the buns. The garbage remained strewn on the ground as they walked off, ignoring the cat. The bus came.
* * *
When are you homeless, worthy of one city program after another, one despairing news story after another, and when are you just poor?
I think about this when I encounter each of the three West Portal denizens who could be one or the other or both.
The first man is seasonal. I refer to him as Santa Claus both because of the timing of his appearance and his appearance. He arrives with the holiday season, large but not particularly fat, flowing snow-white hair, a well-cared for thick white beard. He suffers from the irony rampant in our age as he carefully unrolls his sleeping bag, stowing his few belongings next to it, in the doorway of E.F. Hutton Brokerage firm. When I leave the movie, he is sleeping peacefully, ignored by the careful pedestrians that step over his feet.
There is a small parking lot in West Portal, just down the street from Vicente, on the west side. Benches line both sides of the entrance. The “attendant” is a large portly man, neatly dressed, who sits with a portable radio next to him. The music is usually an opera. If a car hovers near the entrance to the lot, he carefully checks for an opening, beckons if one is available, shakes his head if one is not, a public service that prevents long lines of waiting cars clogging the street.
Over the five years I’ve seen him, his fortunes have declined. First, the radio went. Then he moved north, sitting on the low concrete wall outside Citibank, holding out a paper cup, occasionally coaching one of his peers in the art of begging.
He always has a compliment for the women—“there you are, lovely lady,” “your husband is a lucky man,” “give us that smile, cheers up my whole day.” The women greet him briefly, their companions drop a dollar into his cup. One day he disappeared. Several months later he reappeared. Time had not been kind to him. His clothing was stained, his smile strained, the hand holding the paper cup shook. I stopped to rummage through my purse. Generally, I keep a few dollar bills in a pocket for occasions like this but he was too careworn for a dollar. I dropped a five into the cup. He was astonished. Leaping up, he startled me by grabbing my arm and planting a kiss on a cheek. Not a word from either of us.
“I don’t know when five dollars bought me so much satisfaction,” I said to my husband over dinner.
Like the woman along McAllister, West Portal Number Three has a story, in his case, mutely told. He sits quietly in a wheelchair, outside the Starbucks, an old man, cared for by someone, always clean and neat. He presents himself as a stroke victim, his eyes as vacant as his expression. The mouth hangs open. “Help me buy food” is written poorly on the sturdy box top that serves as paper for those collecting money on the streets of the city.
Occasionally a proud mother watches as her young daughter rushes up to the gentleman to offer him a sweet roll. One day, I was walking by when a car stopped to pick him up. He briskly folded the wheel chair, slid behind the driver’s wheel, and left, smiling warmly at the young lady next to him, not his daughter, I think.
* * *
There is a geography of the homeless population. According to the city’s Point in Time count, Sunset has thirty-one such individuals. I have seen, maybe, three. The rest are certainly not sleeping on the street. Golden Gate Park, on the other hand, hosts three hundred and thirteen. Ride the #29 bus along Lincoln and you can see the occasional camper disembark to disappear into the undergrowth, frequently with a grocery bag in hand. You can spy the tents from the 5R along Fulton. The large Powell Street MUNI station has a sizable number of sleepers scattered through the hallways. Civic Center attracts the buskers. The sixty Marina homeless individuals homestead the doorways along Lombard Street. These are all the quiet dwellers of our streets and byways, mostly out of the sight of tourists.
* * *
Two last encounters. It’s a Wednesday, market day at United Nations Plaza. I have just finished admiring the new public toilet, much-needed, attractive, multi-purpose with its needle disposal feature. Kumquats are on display in the market. The seller can’t believe I want four pounds. Well, you need to balance fruit and sugar in marmalade and sugar comes in four-pound bags.
The lunch crowd has come and gone. There are two tables next to each other, one full of food containers, one cleaned off. I sit down at the latter table to rest for a few minutes, bad back, you know. A young man sinks down at the littered table, litter to me, lunch to him. He is all spruced up, dark pants, checked shirt, dark jacket, hair heavily sprinkled with red chalk, ready for work.
“This one is still warm,” he announces happily, pulling the food containers to him.
We chat. “The family farm has a kumquat tree,” he says. “I always thought they were too bitter to eat.”
Late on a Thursday afternoon, I am walking from the Asian Museum to the MUNI stop. A middle-aged man starts to rush past me, then stops momentarily to urge me to greater speed.
“The nuns are there already,” he pants. “Unless you hurry, it will be all gone.”
As I reach the area of the MUNI Station, I see a large station wagon, back gate up, two nuns in their traditional dress ladling out stew. A long patient line of men stand quietly, each waiting their turn, each confident that there will be enough. There are no women in the line.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kaaren Strauch Brown is a lifelong student, retired Professor of Social Work, and post retirement museum docent. She is a recent transplant to San Francisco from the Midwest. After annoying her fellow sixth graders with her fiction many, many years ago, she has returned to writing. Her science fiction book, The Abril Legacy, is available at Amazon E-Books.