Dec 2020. Embarcadero

I sometimes walk down to the Piers on the lower end of the Bay, down to the Embarcadero. It is heavily touristed, full of sourdough joints, clam soup shacks, seafood sawdust not so cheap vendors of maritime treasures. Turning a sharp left somewhere up Polk, headed down Russian Hill and the hip small boutiques and darling bookshops whose tchotchke offerings are as tempting as their used paperbacks. If you want a votive candle with Frieda Kahlo depicted as a Latina virgin Mary you are luck. Small cuddly sloth? Canvas tote with a cartoon Alcatraz island? A set of literary magnets and a cuddly puppy in a velveteen purse just the size for a two year old child to carry around town? These things are all delightfully possible: Russian Hill has got ya. Smart hardware stores, florists and tiny cafes that specialize in Mac and Cheese in various formations, Oktoberfest sausage and beer cheerfully serving up Germanic party food and beer year round, even a Cigar Shop Café called Mario’s Bohemian…I have no idea if they sell cigars or just the bohemian dream. Either way I am glad it exists.

Russian Hill tips you out towards the Bay soon enough, you see the water peek over the brow of the hill, and downhill all the way to the shoreline, carefully treading so as not to injure yourself tripping down the insanely steep descent. All that hip uphill climb, tumbles down in a hurry. The descent can’t wait, it shoves you off a hill that tends towards vertical impracticality. I like to hit the bay Pier One, or else Cannery Row at the other end, close to 35. Pier One has the most beautiful clocktower, a nice piece of grass that wants to be a park, but fails to make the grade. The Ferry Building has a Farmer’s Market at the weekend, and a collection of shops inside, all food and drink based, that are open on various days. If I am lucky the little gluten free bakery is open, and has a berry muffin left. Mariposa Bakery’s bakers are so clever, that the breads and sweet things most importantly don’t make me unwell by triggering my celiac, and taste as good as I remember the glutinous versions tasting. These days I am on a strict diet – my health became somewhat fragile, and I can’t often risk that much sugar. I miss the Mariposa Cinnamon Rolls and carrot cakes.

There is a man who busks outside, playing sad songs skillfully. People wind past him, towards cheese or gourmet mushrooms, fancy cheese or meat, jarred cherries and Chinese tea. The peaches are always ripe at the market, and the Asian pears crunchy and sweet. From here I take the road up towards the higher number piers, walking along the waterfront, trying to forget about downtown and the crack parties next door, the lack of sleep, the brutalized women and the little tragedies carried in black garbage bags and carpet bags full of cheap liquor.

The boys skate, the runners heave themselves forwards, the rickshaw drivers peddle along sidewalks sending people scattering so they can carry their here-for-the-weekend cargo towards the Exploratorium or Aquarium of the Bay, to the Dungeons or Ripley’s on the Marina, or for lavish sourdough lunches and bitter coffee. I can’t move too fast nowadays and so they shoot me angry glances ringing their bells as if that means I can drag this poorly healed leg any faster out of their way. The sidewalk is mine, I want to scream. There is no point. It all hurts too much, anyway.

There is a man who says he is homeless that I always see just about here between Piers 10 and 20, near the place I stepped over the dead wharf rat, under the palm trees that sway and remind me I am in California not some war zone. Not that palm trees signify peace or safety in any place except my mind. He sits in a wheelchair, a neat sign reads some stuff about being a ‘Nam Vet, in need of assistance. He is about 45 to 50 years old at the most. His skin is unlined, and apart from his legs not appearing to work, he seems in pretty good shape. He is cleanish, if drunk, and dressed in clean clothes that are not shredded or ratted with dirt or blood. He doesn’t seem homeless to me…not street homeless anyway. He doesn’t smell right. I think about my old friend in his senile delinquency, and count years. If this vet was 17 in 1975, the absolute youngest he could be is early 60s. It doesn’t add up. What does it matter, I wonder. It doesn’t I guess, at least not until he angrily wheeled himself towards me shouting about fighting and losing his legs (of which he has both present, if not working) for me, me personally, and how me, a bitch, won’t even give him a buck, a few bucks, a drink, a sandwich, the time of day. Shouting, screaming about my privilege, demanding money. He strains in his chair. I don’t trust him not to get right up out of it in a moment of forgetfulness and grab at me still demanding, still insisting, still spitting vitriol. At that point, it bothers me. Hey man, live and let live….until you demand and you call me a bitch, at that point my hand is on my mace and my trigger finger is itchy.

I walk on by, he screams after me. I turn back, and tell him “Listen. I live in a homeless shelter. I own two pairs of jeans, 4 tee shirts and a jacket. My son has much the same. I ran away from a man that beat me, I have no money for you. Nothing I can give you. I am not in a position to help you out. Do you FUCKING UNDERSTAND, man?”

He doesn’t. I am still a bitch, and he is still yelling.

Heading off to Pier 35, kicking cans up the road, sneakily taking breaths of sea air from my loosened mask, I look out over to the boats and the swimmers in the toxic soup of the bay, towards the honk of the sealions and the scent of freshly frying dough, or fish, or bread, or burgers from the intently cheerful fair-like atmosphere of the Pier, which mingles with the sea salt and the various fish joints, towards the seagulls that wait for the crumbs, and the happily comfortable families of pier walkers, towards the stalls that sell oysters with cultured pearls inside, that you can open for the right money, and the Carousel that turns again after a tiny virus stopped it turning at all.

I am friends with one of the cleaners on the Pier. She is Korean and elderly. We stop and chat for a moment when we see each other. “Why they do like that?” She asks me, as she scrapes a fully formed adult sized human turd from the area next to the bathroom on the Pier. “I don’t know, Mrs K.” I reply. “I have no idea why they do like that.” “In Asia, they do not do,” she insists. I agree. In one sweet moment, she looks at the boy and declares him handsome. Handsome and tall. She knows he is part Japanese, but intra-Asian fighting and pains are secondary to the fact that in Asia they use the toilet and here in San Francisco she is scooping human shit. Those who do not shit in the street band together in a sweet smelling brother and sisterhood of clean habits. She would give him a candy, she says, but…she looks at her gloved hands and the dirty job she is doing, and shakes her head. Mrs. K should get a medal. She deserves one, or even two.

Christmas baubles and baseball hats, cheap rings, necklaces, and posters, and teeshirts and robots, Buddhist statues, cops on scooters, candy by the barrel, cruises round the bay, hamburgers and donuts crowds and blue sky.

A man wearing small antlers strapped across his head smiles at me, and I smile back. This is the Frisco I dreamt of – the hippies and the painted houses, the Harley riding Hell’s Angels and the writers. The ghosts of the Wharf rise up from the water. The City is sleeping, spontaneously self combusting, rising from ashes anew, shaking off the bloodsuckers and the tech talkers.

Years ago, I walked this same stretch, reading the writing on the wall, looking for Billy in the doorways and the bushes, waiting for him to catch up with me. I decide I prefer this grittier scene to the past sheen: it’s happiness was fake and only fleeting anyhow.

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