St. Patrick’s Day in San Francisco.
Got there late, not til five or six pm. Drove to Milbrae down I280, “the pretty highway.” Nearly empty of cars, avoiding the congested and sneezeless 101, the Junipero Serra Freeway braids through bright hills and snaking vistas. Brush and trees pop gleefully along the surrounding forest and greenery. The setting sun girded slow, listless light over the wide rolls of the green tops, the roadway itself cutting the way across. Why don’t more people use it? It’s hard to imagine California has many secret left.
Twisted down Milbrae Ave to the BART station. Marveled at the houses costing unknown millions nestled in the shaded canopies and salted air. Lawyers? Financiers? Their conspicuous consumption was beautiful enough. And from here, at last, I could finally see the bay.
I haven’t been to San Francisco since I was 18, the result of a 24-hour there, 50-hour back Greyhound bus trip I undertook with a single friend; the only such similar trip I had ever attempted. It was frightening and new, but never truly overwhelming. I felt there was nothing I could not overcome by a stern, adaptable mind and a creative spirit of adventure.
This time was different. Startling so.
Parked in Space 2795. Foot traffic was middling. The BART seemed expensive to me, around $5 or more a single way, doubling it to come back. But then again most things were more expensive than I am used to.
The train screams like a mechanical banshee, making conversation largely impossible. Mostly people aren’t talking, anyway. I think about the people sitting around, largely solitary and almost all strapped to headphones bulking and obvious or discreet. All say: “leave me alone. The world is not worth paying attention to. This is my bubble of sound where only I reside.” I wonder where they’re going. If they’re leaving somewhere or returning. And if I stick out as I look at everything I can, trying to take it all in.
This place is so different from the desert I’m from. I don’t know if I like having someplace I’m “from”. If it give me strength or identity or familiarity. I’ve always been resistant to the idea I’m “from” anywhere, hoping that being from nowhere or everywhere or anywhere is identity enough to satisfy my need for it, or for community.
“I went to high school in New Mexico,” I say. “Albuquerque.” As if to imply that it is more the place I found myself in. Or the more recent stop in a series of stops, and therefore more situational than formative. Hard to say really anymore. My young and formative years have dripped away.
The BART stops amid the city, and I emerge. 16th St Mission. People bustle, all seeming to know where they’re going. I immediately feel lost and rushed. But none so much as when I am emphatically birthed into the light.
Horror is suddenly ubiquitous and omnidirectional. Despair and insanity are salient and gruesome. I am rushed through, unable to fix and pick at every detail. The first thing I see: a man with wild white hair and leathery skin lays, pours over a battered phone book, dragging an intentioned finger across the tome, searching for answers. He is spread across the subway entrance and in a moment, I am gone. There are dozens more, not scattered, not hidden, not anomalous. Omnipresent. Dejection and delusion seep like an ocean and the faster we walk, the higher the waves climb. We hurry down a crosswalk and a man stumbles stiff-legged past the other direction, half-suited, his mouth contorting and wriggling noiselessly in some unknown tick or cry. The waves seem to reach the tops of buildings, as the sorrow and decay writhe along the walls and cavities of the broken structures. I fixated on endless, fleeting scratches of graffiti, colorful splashes of rot tattooed in the corners of store fronts boarded, or smashed windows, or simply living businesses cloistered by iron bars. Mostly the cogent passersby stare ahead blindly, or bore their eyes deep into the earth, and I try to do the same and cannot. An old Asian man, hair lupine like Einstein, clutched his temples and nearly falls into the street, looking like he wants to scream. A hand outstretched and demanding, other picks at a baggie of brown clumps to sort and pull apart. As I pass around a corner for the next underground ingress, a man gnarled tightly and small in a wheelchair rakes along the ground with the points of his heels, dragging himself forward. I cannot remove my eyes from him. He stares down, his face lost under a mass of black, sticky hair. As he passes underneath me, I see where his intention lies. As he passes, I see his fingers on his right hand wrapped around a small, rusty razorblade, the tips of his nails turned white from his crushing pressure. He rhythmically claws at something thick and skinned like a rind restraining his left hand, deep impressions from his progress evident on the material already peeled and scraped away.
I slump down the steps into the cavern of the local light rail, and ride.