A Tale of Two Cities
Against everything I have heard and read about this practice, I keep my iphone on my bedstand. On the days that I work, it is my alarm. On the days I don’t, I still instinctively grab for it upon waking. It’s a habit that I can’t seem to break, especially in our present time when I feel I need to be braced for what will meet me when I step out into the world. Keeping my joy, as we are admonished to do, seems contingent on some degree of knowing what’s going to hit me in the face as another day unfolds.
Today, I wake to find a favorite art supply store closing. I only recently started shopping there and was amazed at the vast array of their merchandise; materials I had been shopping for on line or just foregoing because I couldn’t find what I needed. Convenient, too, a easy bus trip or walk. And then, one of the few remaining neighborhood theatres in our city is closing, to become another expensive dress shop or designer coffee shop or a fixed prise restaurant with no parking but plenty of valets?
Or maybe it will just join the empty storefronts, commemorating the greed and lack of forethought endemic in our community.
It’s a chilly day, but bright with that extraordinary light our part of the world is known for. I dress and head out for The Women’s March, eager to find solidarity and purpose, to be a body counted, to take a stand-and maybe find some joy on this gorgeous day.
The bus ride is uneventful and I hope nothing unpleasant happens en route. We pass too many empty storefronts, usually occupied by someone wrapped up in a sleeping bag, undisturbed by street-hardened passersby. As we get closer to the Civic Center, we ride by an alley full of tents, surprisingly clean. My first thought, was there some kind of police sweep? But in that case, why the tents. It occurs to me perhaps the people living there might have even tried to keep it tidy. I realize too, that “uneventful” means no loud, maybe smelly homeless people interrupting my so far quiet morning. Many shops are open and Saturday-busy of course, and people stroll with their signs and coffee in hand down to the march to demonstrate for equality and justice and compassion.
The rally has begun, speakers inspiring if sometimes dull, but there is plenty of spirit in the crowd. To be in such masses of the like-minded is energizing. And the signs; political truths spiced with laugh out-loud humor. The hot dog vendors I usually see in the Mission are grilling the franks and onions and peppers and my meager breakfast is wearing off. The crowd is forming to start the long walk down Market Street but I can resist no longer. I sit down on the short wall in front of the Library. Next to me is a woman dressed like a Haight Ashbury denizen from the 60s. I feel plain and sensible by comparison but we both are enjoying the hot dog and the warm sun and the good energy all around us, drums pounding, people chanting.
She gets up to join the march and as I finish my hot dog I notice an clean, neat middle-aged man carefully checking the waste bins for food and meticulously re-wrappng what he finds, putting it in a granny-cart he’s pulling. He seems embarrassed when I ask if he’d like a hot dog but accepts it graciously, without apologies when I bring it back to him – mustard, onions, peppers, no catsup. A stocky, older woman in a soiled but warm-looking jacket approaches me asking for a hot dog so she gets one as well, “the works” this time.
I join the throng. I’ve done these protests before and admit to the childish fun of walking down the middle of the main street of major American city. Of course I am surrounded by hundreds and see a huge crowd ahead of me and behind me. Spirits are high, everyone taking pictures with our phones, laughing and nodding, chanting. As we walk along, I find myself looking up at familiar buildings, like old friends from my long years of living in this city. Some I am pleased to see, still standing, still proud. Some are forlorn and in need of help, and there is so much new all around, cranes and scaffolding abound. I feel a sense of pride in the place where I live, in our big-cityness. I look at the crowd watching, mostly benevolent locals, smiling, taking photos, and TV news crews cameras aimed at marchers. Some amused tourists are seeing what they have come to expect in our town. We provide their entertainment for the day. And then there are the foreign tourists, more curious, more serious, taking in this spectacle of political mood.
In the midst of this feeling of power and solidarity, I see also a man sleeping or trying to, amidst the drums and shouts, laying on the ledge of a monumental sculpture of some significant event in California history. The stature shows men turning a press to crush something – the man sleeping under them?
The march is coming to an end and I break free at the Embarcadero, feeling now the exertion of the walk. I know getting home will be long and tedious, but I’m in good spirits. In front of the Gap store, a crowd waits for the bus, some women still in their pussy-eared hats. Tucked on the sidewalk, small and dirty and legless, not even a half-man, a torso, with, long string-y black hair. He does not put his hand out until I show a five dollar bill. Without looking at me he grabs it, filthy long nails with chipped red polish. How did he get there, in that spot? How will he get away from that spot? I’m shaken and move to the next stop trying to hold onto that elusive joy before it sips away.
At the next stop, the bus shows no promise of coming. On top of a trash can is a plastic bag. Spilling out of it, dozens of used needles and paraphernalia. My first inclination is to move the mess but to where? And I am afraid to touch any of it. I take a quick photo and send it to 311, hoping no one is hurt by this toxic trash before it is cleaned up.
I finally board a very crowded bus to Chinatown and walk through the street festival also being held this weekend. Lunar New Year is coming, I can hardly move on Grant Avenue but the mood is festive. There are stands selling plants and flowers, herbal remedies of every sort, cooking gadgets, lottery tickets. Brilliant red and gold is everywhere- the lanterns hanging above the street, tasseled souvenirs, toys, packets of red envelopes, stacks of printed new year greetings. The late afternoon light seems to make the reds even more brilliant.
I have lived many years near Chinatown. I consider it a part of my personal neighborhood and feel a part of it’s very alive-ness. Chinatown is crowded, dirty, proud, surprising, and rich with the activity of living. Right now, however, all that activity seems to be slowing down a bit. I walk by a forlorn ticket sales booth, a young girl pouting and distracted at an empty game stand, and two preteen girls gamely spinning around on the teacup ride.
Time for an espresso and a ride up the hill on a promised bus, “all routes returning to their normal schedule, my phone app reads”. This day is a Tale of Two Cities, my beloved bipolar city.