A woman sat on Polk Street her life scattered around her. Six or seven plastic shopping bags from Walgreens and Safeway, a cuddly koala perched by her feet, a large black trash bag, mostly empty, a half full bottle of mad dog 20/20, a child’s pull along dog with flapping ears and yellow plastic body, paper plates with the smears of sauce and grease clinging onto them for dear life, piled up neatly. She had a scarf tied around her head, her face was dark with dust, grime and the smut from the traffic blowing into her face as she lay on the sidewalk, trying to get some rest while it was light and safer to close her eyes and let her guard down. She looked to be about my age, but could have been anywhere between thirty and 75. She was taking up most of the sidewalk on the intersection with ____ Street, just one block up from the methadone clinic, legs splayed, sitting as if the street belonged to her: Queen of Polk Street. Ribbons and tassles, pins and scarves, bags and sticks, trash and treasure. Drunk enough to act as if everyone else was in her front room, rather than she being in the way of their travel – thankfully, blissfully numb. She beamed at me as I walked past. “Hey ya! “troit, right? Hec says hello. ”
What else could I do except stop? I told the Boy to stay back up the road, and crouched down next to her, pulling a buck out of my back pocket. I put three bucks a week aside to give away – I won’t miss the cake, or the coffee, and looking at the Queen of Polk, with her collection of treasure and fetishes, dolls and scarves I saw myself. She offered me a slug from her bottle – the ultimate pat on the back, the “you are ok, I like you”. The hand of friendship, as disgusting as it might be, it is not grotesque in the slightest if you really need that ethanol. “Thanks darling, I am on the wagon. I can’t drink. Pushed it too far too many times.” She nodded and pulled her bottle away, and patted my hand with hers. I wanted to hug her, I wanted to pledge my allegiance. I wanted to help her. I stopped to talk, laughing and giggling with her, her happiness – alcohol-based as it might be – infectious. Pulling a buck from my pocket, I gave her the second dollar of the week. One left. She whisked it away and laughed so freely, so freely, so freely….
And the wind blew, and the cars passed, and the people looked down at us, and their shoes kicked up dust as they hurried past in disgust or fear or a desire to not look at what happens when someone gives up on the world that has given up on them and says to hell with what you are meant to do when nothing is possible, nothing is safe, nowhere is warm, nothing is biddable or comfortable or private or yours. “I gotta go, Mandy*,” I told her gently, “gotta get the kiddo to ball practice.” She let go of my hand, and a shiver travelled up my spine. Girlishly making the shape of a heart with her thumbs and middle fingers, and blowing me a kiss, she took a long pull off her bottle, and lay back on the sidewalk. Laughing. In her eyes I saw love and kindness, hope and friendship. The good Queen observing her kingdom from the only place that matters: down here with the rest of us. The ground floor. The gutter. Long Live the Queen of Polk Street.
“She gonna be ok, Ma?” The boy looked worried as I rejoined him. “In her own way, honeycakes.” Boy shook his head, “it is brutal ma. Brutal.”
On the corner a few blocks up, as we were walking towards Filmore a drunk man played “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” with a smartly dressed gentleman who was covered in a liquid, and on the phone to the cops. A half cut Doc Holliday, in a tall hat and military pants lashed to his waist, swinging a bottle of clear hard booze around, ignoring us as he tried to blend into the brick wall of the bar on the corner, a place that he would be thrown out of as soon as he walked through the door, if he was ever dumb enough to walk in there. We hurried past him and his victim. “I hope that is just booze, ma!” the boy looked vaguely concerned as he put himself between me and the drunken man. “Let’s just get to baseball, dude, then get back home.” Home.
Twisting the keys in the lock, letting the metal gate slam behind us, and closing our apartment door on the day and the drunks and their sadnesses and the lives they are pouring down the gutter, and the street walkers that hurry by them quickly in case they get some unknown liquid thrown in their faces, and the San Franciscan fog that closes the curtains on yet another day in this city on the Bay.
- Like Dylan said, I’ve rearranged some faces and given them all another name..