A torn banner flutters above the billboard on Polk Street. Yellow shreds of plastic holding jumbled up letters whip around in the wind, just behind an advert for something I can’t even remember. T. E. H. RS ! At one point those letters were filled in, arranged in ordered fashion, and declared something that people were meant to read, and now they just sit there hanging uselessly in the cold spring air. The remnants of time past are plastered semi-permanently over Polk Street. Art deco style buildings from the 1920s, with cool yellow glass and ornate façades jostle for position with ugly concrete boxes from a later period. The 1960s were not a good time for architecture, so utilitarian, so ugly, so boxy. Now everything is brittle and made of glass that is easily smashed. There are not buildings being built, but simply metal frameworks for so much glass. I do not trust them. I want walls around me. I never open my curtains for long. I detest feeling like an animal in a zoo.
I had broken my drinking glass and my spare mug. My hands do not work as well as they should, my grip is faulty and I have not adjusted to my new painful reality. To be frank the walls were starting to close in on me somewhat, and I needed a walk anyway, so rather than order something online, and so I would have something to drink out of that afternoon, I headed up Polk Street to the little boutique shops. I have favorite streets like I have favorite bands. Polk is my Joni Mitchell. My go-to, my comfort street. It is where I meet people if I have to meet them. It is where I take The Boy for coffee so he can talk to me outside of the home and get stuff off his chest. It is where I head to if I need a book (yes, books are a need), or a mug or to wander around a vintage clothes store. Polk eventually leads down to the water, once you get by all the bistros and cafes, independent boutiques and raggedy drug stores with homeless men sitting outside them, their dogs nosing at you expectantly as they sit rheumy-eyed and desperate. I admire the buoyant even if that ability to float above it all is either a put-on, a self fake-out or an act.
There is one man that sits there, J____, he has his two little dogs that used to belong to his wife. He transferred all the love he had for her to them. She passed away, and J_____ was left on the street, homeless. He is in his 70s, deeply intelligent and emotionally lucid. He might be one of the most open people I have ever met. He doesn’t so much rap, as have his own jive-talk from a different age. Spoken word beat. “Hey red, bada bing bada boom, watcha got cooking, girl!” I am not sure why he calls me red, but he makes me smile. The man has got bars. That man has a soul. We talk about his wife, I give him a few bucks or a cup of coffee and pet the dogs. We have known each other a couple of years now. Nothing much changes. I met him one Christmas day when my heating failed and I had to find the only hardware store open in the area to buy a space heater. He wondered what I was doing out. I gave him a buck. We spoke for a while, and the next time he saw me he didn’t ask for anything, except how I was and if my heating was fixed. He asked if MY heating was fixed when HE was living outside. That is someone’s grandpa for crying out loud, drink or no drink. Heck I would drink if I were back outside again, wouldn’t you? Still… it is not my business. I am merely a friend and like his dogs. He has kind eyes, but that is his problem, not mine.
Love is so much packing material, earthly cotton wool fluff, but without it life is meaningless. Perhaps the packing material is really the gift itself. Where people suffer the most is where you see the most love. Where they are the poorest you see the most generosity of spirit and material goods. Where time on this earth is short, people’s patience is longest. Witnessing the love J____ has for his wife, though she is long dead now, is one of the things that makes me human still, instead of a cold hearted bitch that hates because love failed me. I can’t deny the beauty of it, even if I am denied that romantic connection.
Two girls stood with their daddy and mommy outside of the Oyster Bar on Polk. It is a famous place. I have never been there. The lines are long and staff look as if they are run off their feet. If you want to sit at the bar and be served oceanic morsels there is a wait. I am not sure it is a wait that can be appreciated by two little girls on an Easter Saturday afternoon. Their mother had her arms folded. This adventure had the stench of a Man Plan about it. “Hey Honey, let’s take the kids to that fancy famous Oyster place on Polk! They will love it!” What he meant to say was that HE wanted the oysters and a glass of something cold and white and dry from France to go with them, and that he was going to pretend it was for the Greater Good, so he could have what he wanted. The girls, about five and seven years old had run out of patience about 50 people up the immense line that snakes up Polk Street. One of them was hanging on his arm, taking all the weight out of her legs, and whining softly, but with increasing loudness about how she wanted to go hoooooooome. The other clearly had already been chastened and stood with tears in her eyes two fingers pinching the fabric of her mother’s sleeve. The man boomed at his pretty little daughter, “BE QUIET! SHUT UP! I WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS.” I whispered the word asshole at him as I walked past. I think he heard me. I hope so. Some women need to have more balls, but who am I to judge. The poor cow probably has been browbeaten into accepting the status quo of the marriage. At least she is in America. At least I know she can leave, even if she probably won’t want to exit from a nice house, a man who wears an expensive watch and can afford to take the family out for oysters on an Easter weekend. Feminism needs resurrecting. Women need more righteous anger.
I was almost there. I just had to walk past the Cinch Saloon with its rainbow flags and leather clad clientele. I envy gay men sometimes, it is all so easy for them. They have that male directness which cuts through all the sensitivity. They know what they want and go and get it. Shame is now a luxury not a necessity. How far we have come! I almost wanted to go sit inside and drink a soda. Hah. Now I am being fake. I wanted to go inside and order a shot of vodka and shoot pool. I won’t do either ever again, no doubt. I walked past and smiled at the boys who are living their lives with ebullience and joy. I need to capture a little of that myself.
The little store I was thinking of sells an eclectic mix of kitchen items, books, homeware, scarves and jewelry. I have no idea what it is called. The staff are sweet, and the prices are good. I picked up a mug for four bucks and a glass for a dollar. I was feeling like hell. Weak to the point that my legs were wobbling, and tired past the ability to think straight. My hands are on fire. I thought back to sitting in that taxi alone, travelling to the hospital, heading through the Tenderloin. The day was cold and bright, a cruel trick to play. It deserved some dramatically dark rain clouds, but of course none showed up. There is one thing I have learnt in all of this: you rarely get the curse you wish for. I wanted it to be merely rheumatoid arthritis. I got more than I bargained for. I was feeling so sorry for myself on the way up there. I didn’t want to go, but was left with little choice. I simply cannot go on feeling so unwell all the time, and my hands are excruciating. Let’s not even mention the final straw of the blood in the sink…
In the pits of the Tenderloin, the Skid Row of the Bay, you see much suffering, cruelty and pain. Life is pain, but the pain there goes untended to and grows wild like a rose amid the briars, blossoming into sprigs of bloody agony. I saw two women coming out of a liquor store. One was in a wheelchair, the other pushing her. The one pushing only had thin flip flops on her bare feet, and not enough clothes to keep out the cold. It was about 45 degrees and so very cold, and she was dressed for the height of summer heat. The other in the wheelchair had no shoes, no socks, no blanket over her knees. What they did have was a case of beer. The pusher cracked open a tall yellow can with one expert finger and took a long sip and smiled the biggest brightest happiest smile, then passed the can to the woman in the chair, who did exactly the same. They both laughed and the pusher grabbed the sitter by the shoulders and squeezed her tightly. It was a portrait of pure love and happiness. That beer looked like it tasted better than champagne. They found a measure of joy in life out there on the streets of the Loin, by embracing each other. Of course the mealy mouthed and snide will only bitch about how they are drinking, and they are dirty, and they probably….x or y or z…If only they cared more about themselves and the state of their souls than about two women sharing a drink and looking out from the depths of the Tenderloin. They were so joyful they looked as if they were sitting on the beach by the sea instead of dying in increments of neglect and other people’s vain judgement. I pulled myself together. There are worse things I have survived than this current irritating bullshit.
I had to go and get some air and sit outside in the park after being given the kind of news that can blow a girl’s hair back. I was struggling with tears and not quite alright. I watched as a white female doctor angrily marched, quick step, fast, trailing a small older white homeless woman. The hunchbacked older woman was grasping a gatorade and a bag of doritos and looking small and broken and saddened and ashamed. The doctor was walking way too fast, and not caring to glance behind and see this tiny bent backed lady struggling, gratefully holding sustenance. There was no humanity there. Just a woman who knew she had to toe the line, and another who had nothing but distaste for her patient. It was grotesque. The tableau of the two black women, caring for each other in the pits of the Loin floated back into my mind’s eye. The two couples were in direct opposition to each other. Humanity and Inhumanity. Care and Disregard. Equality and Unbalance. I knew what J_____ would say. He would tell me that people are strange and I would nod my head and scratch the little terrier behind the ear and agree.
The nurse was disgusted by my feet. They are clean but one is nastily infected round the nail. My circulation is horrible. I have vasculitis. She scolded me, “I will have to change my gloves now! Why did you let it get like that?” I told her I was sorry. I didn’t have insurance, and the over the counter antibiotic cream didn’t fix it. I am meant to go back to the primary health clinic to show them the infection, though now am somewhat too embarrassed to let the old dogs fly free and show someone else. Human beings are so disgusting, aren’t we? The only question is, which one of us is grosser? The nurse grossed out and disgusted by an infected toe, or me, rotting slowly?