“‘The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer in San Francisco.’
I think that’s how it went?
Was it Thoreau? Maybe Emerson?’”
I listened briefly to the yammering. Some dude behind me on United flight 1589.
Houston to San Fran. 7AM.
He was making small talk with my wife.
She brought up literature. He, with embarrassing flirtation, threw in some anecdotes to impress.
But I lost interest from pain: my skull pounding from the pressure change.
I slipped back asleep, red eyed, into what seemed like an everlasting flight.
I’d heard the quote before. Several times. But it was never attributed to the Transcendentalists.
It always came out of the mouth of Mark Twain. In a quotation bubble.
His wild, cartoon hair. His broom tipped mustache. Both covering a face, or rather a brain, that told the story of middle America.
The great hobo adventurer that he was.
And out of all the old heads of practicality–those lords of mundane literature–he would have been most suited to take the trip. Beating the Beats by decades. Arriving in the chilled city, to breathe the antiseptic, Pacific air that breaks heavy off the headlands. Twain arrived right before the San Andreas fault cracked.
Shaking the city flat.
Leaving the Bay Area ablaze.
I sat just feet away. My head between my knees. Sweating from the pain.
It was numbing to hear the dude’s lousy come on.
But, I will give him one thing. There’s truth to it. San Francisco is fucking cold.
Haight-Ashbury was the same. On every visit, it simply remains unchanged. The dopplegangers of trends past, kicking hacky sacks, tossing their mystic juggling sticks. The wind blowing their warm patchouli. Their weed smoke more intense than burning sage, creeping through tiered alleyways. Scott McKenzie’s lyrics–setting the Summer of love in 1967–still grabs at the puppet strings of those hangers on.
“If you’re going to San Francisco,
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.
If you’re going to San Francisco,
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there”
We walked through the Haight to Golden Gate Park. Within second growth redwoods–and the semi-tropical brush that defies equatorial lines–stagger the crust-punks, the homeless, and droves of incapacitated drunks. The mild, year round weather is prime for those folk down and out.
Some, victims to unfortunate circumstances.
Some, by choice.
To ask a dollar from every tourist could get you by.
Sometimes it does.
But just barely.
“I don’t have a dollar, man,” beating him to his question.
“How about this, I’ll give you a newspaper in good faith.
I know the next person will spare a dollar for sure”
Holding out the periodical, he so badly wanted to give me something.
He wanted to give without taking. Maybe a sad attempt at communion with another person?
In the cold streets, filled with colder people, he needed to connect.
With the tourists.
His lips were swollen and diseased. His gums, rotting, with stalactite teeth drooping from his sad mouth.
In the sea of those hardened by their own self inflicted hard times, he was a survivor.
I did have a dollar. But I had committed the lie. It was too late now.
“Well I appreciate the consideration.”
His elocution, calm. Humbled in hand-me-downs. He was through with any attempts to convince.
Folding the rusted paper back into his shoulder bag, he moved on. His gait, skewed. His right leg suffering a terrible limp. He hobbled down the grey pebbled path, as the mouth of Golden Gate park swallowed him up.
I felt as I had just shunned a leper. Banishing him back to his colony on the periphery.
Out of sight, out of mind.
In san Francisco.
The newest addition to the Haight is a compact Whole Foods. There, a historic city block was cut in half. And in its place–out of place–a cement foundation laid over its lovely grit and dust, and fed to the new age yuppie.
Crowded to the brim with hipsters. Packed with weekend warrior foodies and hippy vegans. The two of us were part and parcel. My wife and I. Part of what we pick fun of.
Between the wall to wall selection of Tom’s shoes, we ordered a Kambucha tea.
As a snack, a gluten free donut. And for environmentally sound travel, we snagged a Eucalyptus scented Dr. Brauner’s three ounce soap.
It feels good to be a part of something bigger. Something perceived as more politically correct. We consume it.
You are what you hate, in San Francisco.
We walked out of Herbivore. An all vegan dive near Haight. Its logo, a red pepper, carved in redwood, charbroiled amongst flames. There, the fog rolled in off the Bay. Engulfing street signs. Masking the sky: a nothing loitering along roof lines, conjuring the icy cold.
We bundled up. Two layers deep.
Hobbling along the sidewalk, the homeless man from Golden Gate and made his rounds. He couldn’t be missed. His head ducking, unnaturally, in and out of the commuting masses.
I reached for my wallet. Opened it as receipts feathered their way to the cement. I pulled out some dollars.
A token of good faith. A reward for his honesty, for his unnecessary kindness.
But more so, a selfish reprieve: To be forgiven for having lied.
“You guys want some Barbeque?”
In both hands he held white plastic bags. On the sides, printed in bold red lettering were the words ‘Thank You.’
Opening the styrofoam he presented his cache. Each container stacked high, overflowing with greasy ribs.
“Some guy at a bar…just right back there. A cook. He gave me all of this.”
Over his shoulder, he thumbed behind him, pointing into the fog.
“I’d love to share this with you.”
Somewhere in that cold void were people–Benevolent–practicing the altruism that continues to save us from being pieces of shit.
And this was the perpetual, golden city by the bay.
Where gentle people wear flowers in their hair.
**The folk singer Scott McKenzie died the day I started this project. Coincidentally, I stumbled upon the unfortunate news the day I finished the first draft.
Thanks to him for uplifting words.