When I came down to the writing space yesterday morning, there was a small light already illuminating the room. I’d left the 7-day votive burning from the day before. Usually I light it for the writing time and then blow it out when I’m done, but that morning I shut the case on the computer when I’d finished typing and I hustled upstairs to let Sophie out, to get the day going. I’d moved the candle to the mantle behind me, next to my postcards and pictures, the bulletin board loaded with bits of paper, right in front of the prayer flags — everything flammable at the very least. As I stood there in the doorway, looking at the small flame making circles on the mantle, on the ceiling, I felt deeply grateful that it, that I, hadn’t burned the room, the house. I walked over, moved the candle from the mantle to my desk — even after burning for 24 hours, I could still pick up the top of the glass with my hand and move it to the desktop — and then I sat in my rocking chair for a few minutes and said some thanks.
Things could have gone differently and they didn’t and I am grateful. I just say thanks, as much as I remember to do it, all day long. Not because I think anyone’s listening, but because it shifts my presence in the world, my sense of being. Nothing is granted, nothing is a given. Everything could be different. So I say thanks for the cup of tea, thanks for the clothes I can wear, thanks for the fact of the hummingbird coming to check out the new feeder, thanks for the sunset.
Once again, these days, I go into San Francisco for work. Four days a week, into downtown, past the folks shooting up at Civic Center station, then up into the twitter folks wandering around in their thin expensive tshirts and shiny shoes, grown men on skateboards and young women still having to act like they’re impressed by it all. I walk past the encampments on the corners and the old man standing with his hand out on the corner of 9th and Mission, his hair long to his shoulders, clothes loose, his body a permanent question mark, spare change, spare change, spare change. His is a mantra, his song, his breath. I haven’t put money in his hands, and I wonder if anyone does. I make eye contact when I say no, though. Does it matter that I try to make human contact when I am still denying him what he needs? The need is so great all around the city, around the Bay Area, all the way across these just three blocks from the BART station to my office: open hands, cups shaking their bits of change, men playing instruments in the station — they bring amps and a box for bills. There is a woman who stands at the top of the stairs at Market and 8th. She just stands there, leaning on her walker. I don’t see her asking for money, I don’t see her seeking any particular kind of attention. She just stands there, watching the flood of people heading down into the mouth of the terminal, leaving work. I am one of that flood.
We are fish, we are a flock of seagulls, we are lemmings headed over the cliff and we think we have done something that day, we got a job, we sat at a desk and answered phones, we looked at a screen, we answered an email, we sent somebody something they needed and in exchange, we take home money, someone gives us money. The transaction has more middlemen but is not, in essence, different from that the man on the corner is seeking, or the man in the Civic Center BART station playing his guitar and singing and I wanted to sit and listen to him, his voice a lyre, his voice a rough panel under bare feet, his guitar a song in the morning — he was someone ought to get paid to play in a club, on a stage, but he is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the station and when I take out a couple dollars to give him, I notice there’s no money in his guitar case, and wonder if maybe he’s not doing it for money, I lean in and say, are you taking donations? and he laughs a kind of sharp thing he says, yes, yes, thanks for getting me started, and I see that I am the first to offer appreciation this way. There is the man with the saxophone, and the bald guitarist who likes to patter with all the passers by, all of us rushing, clotted in our headphones, we just want to get through it, we want to get home. I put myself now in the land of this other we, when it’s all just a different sort of hustle, we’re all in our hustle, some of us have it easier. It’s not that different from standing on the street asking someone to put something in my palm. Well, of course it’s different, but can you see the ways that it’s the same”?
I walk past clots of people passed out in the station, watch a woman push a needle into a man’s neck. It’s not that I don’t know it happens, but that it feels dangerous to me, maybe just that I am scared. Scared of what it means that this is happening out in the open, scared of what it says about our city, the violence of poverty and homelessness, what a violence, to know that just above you is one of the richest companies in the world and yet you still can’t get a place to live, still you have to do your drugs in the street. Let’s not pretend like the twitterites, the business people, we who have our dayjobs and dress like respectable somebodies, let’s not pretend that we don’t have our own addictions — we just have private places in which to indulge them, like we also have private places to piss and shit and have sex.
What has happened to this city that was supposed to be about love and sharing? This season there’ve been all kinds of remembrances of the summer of love. It feels like adding insult to injury.
When I say the city doesn’t feel safe, it’s not because of the junkies, the homeless men, the the screamers, it’s because of the money — the moneyed people who have pushed into this one last place that was supposed to be a haven for the poor, a place where poor folks could at least find shelter, food, resources. The companies come in because real estate is cheap and then push out the folks who have been living there for years, folks who were already on their last legs, already at the end of their rope. The companies come in and cut the rope.
Today I will bring change for the man with the open hands, and I will say thank you, and he will not acknowledge me, because that is not his job. His job is to ask and ask and ask and ask, to stand at the corner of money and access and put out his hands and hope that some little bit of it comes his way. When I get into San Francisco today, I will go to the Civic Center farmer’s market in order to remember why I used to love the city. I will buy lemons and a sweet potato hand pie from the dark man with the light eyes who flirts with me, flirts with all of us, because that’s how the work gets done, it’s part of his hustle. Every one of these sellers is in their hustle, as are most of us walking through. The gig economy is nothing new — there’s no one not gigging, no one not hustling, just some of us are compensated better for it, and not for any good reason. There’s no reason the man on the street isn’t getting paid like the man in the casual urban outfitters twitter uniform — that twitter guy couldn’t last a thirty minutes on the corner with his hands out, asking for money, asking to be seen, asking to be acknowledged, and getting ignored hour after hour after hour.
I don’t know what I have to give with this today. Maybe just deep grief, disappointment in San Francisco, the kind of ache you feel when you loved someone with everything in you and then it hurt you in places you hadn’t known you could be hurt, and the only reason you got hurt that way is that you were so open, you were all hope and wonder and delight and everything about them brought forth a yes in you. And then things happen that slowly reveal who they really are, and you keep taking them back, giving them chance after chance after chance. San Francisco broke my heart years ago, and still I keep coming back, in spite of the violence there — not the guns, not the drugs, but the rents, the cost of a cup of tea, the cost of butter. The way the city tells you, tells me, over and over, oh honey, you’re so cute — did you really think you were gonna belong here? and then tosses her bougainvillea pashmina over her shoulder and turns back to the one buying her drinks now.
Wasn’t this the city that was supposed to be about open arms, the haven for the broken and the queer and the weird and the artist, the haven for the creative soul, the mecca? Not anymore. Maybe, really, not ever. Maybe always only for some.
So I climb up out of the Civic Center station and I blink into the bright weird fog sun and I turn down 8th into the wind, just to get away from the fresh-faced techies and the tourists on Market Street, and I say into the hard wind, I hate you San Francisco. but San Francisco doesn’t care.
Thanks for your words today, whatever form they take, whether on the page or just mumbled while you wander across McAllister up into the Tenderloin. Be easy with you today, ok?