It took a few days on the streets to fall completely out of love with San Francisco. The City had been a playground for late nights dancing, long days of walking to “see the sights,” and places to spend money for a piece of luxury. Now I was faced with the dichotomies of the beautiful, shiny buildings and the shit that actually paves the streets.
Like many, I bought into the fantasy of the heart of San Francisco. I imagine the City as this slinky woman in a sparkly dress that speaks in a husky voice: “Come to me and I will hold you; I will kiss your wounds and made it all well.” Lady Francisca whispers to the lonely outsiders and offers a mild climate with a comforting bosom on which the hurting can rest their heads. This lady points to the sparkling blue Bay, the rust colored arches of the Golden Gate, and the mysterious fog as the environment where souls can be restored. But here's the thing: Lady Francisca is bullshit.
Lady Francisca has deep, sharp claws that will sink into your pocketbooks and flesh until you are dried up. Lady Francisca offers you a few hits to kick back and relax until your brain is obsessed with the next fix and the fix is no longer a kind gesture but a demanding fist. This mystical place of hippie love, space for all, and progressive politics pays close attention to the color of your skin: if your skin is not white, it does not matter if you were born here or work hard or have dreams.
I walked the streets and peered into the corners of this City of “Free Love” and found how many prices there are to pay to reside here. I saw the distrust in the eyes of faces that were hardened by years of judgement and being pushed out of their homes by the Bay. I saw the “affordable” high-rise lofts in the Filmore that replaced beloved neighborhoods of many African-Americans. I heard about the many years that Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans were kept inside the walls of Chinatown, not allowed to become a part of the community of San Francisco. I felt the desperation leaking out of people's voices as they whispered, then spoke, then yelled to be heard and seen from their spot on the streetcorner.
I lowered my eyes in shame as I waited in line to get food, use a restroom, or be able to sit down somewhere. There is nothing I could do to make myself not a young woman with shiny teeth and innocent eyes that glaringly told people that I did not know or understand the streets. My eyes deadened with exhaustion from sleeping on church floors and pews, walking for miles, and holding in pee, but that exhaustion didn't change that after 3 weeks of being immersed in the streets of San Francisco, I got to go home. As I walked the streets littered with trash, I knew that there were a few coins and bills in my bag that could pay my way into any coffeeshop or bar. What a luxury, to know that if worse came to worst, there were so many safety nets lined up for me to fall into. How terrifying to see that those nets can easily be broken apart into useless pieces of fabric.
The first days walking in San Francisco as a “cultural immerser” I felt myself on edge. My back was tightened, waiting for the sting of something or someone. The only person that was attacking me at that moment was myself; the fear held all of my ability to connect with others. I immediately felt changes as I boldly strolled down a darkened street as a night minister: I wanted to be seen and I wanted for people to talk to me. Every pair of eyes that I made eye contact with was someone that I could acknowledge, give a nod to, or maybe have a conversation with. I met the people that I would call the real Lady Franciscas: the night ministers who embrace those on the street who are hungry for comfort and a listening ear.
As I settled into being a person who walked the streets of San Francisco for hours each day, my eyes were opened in new ways. The people on the streets, whether they were hurriedly walking to an appointment, full-on running to catch the BART or bus, or sitting on a stoop while calling out for money, these people did not seem like strangers to me. I saw the fear in the eyes of young women walking down a dark street, I saw the seemingly powerful confidence of a suit-clad person walking with a cell phone. I watched many people pass by and ignore people that were sitting or standing on the sidewalk, asking for change. I have been that person that walked right by a person hoping for interaction; I have been an active part of this system of overlooking the real humanness of people in this city that we say we love so much. Rather than being a part of the system, I stepped back and saw all of these people as opportunities to learn more.
I walked past a man sitting on the street who was yelling out for someone to hear him: “ANYONE? DO YOU HAVE CHANGE?” His face was twisted in anguish as he called out to the people that quickly passed by who avoided his eyes. As more people encountered him and did not acknowledge his presence, his voice rose and fell in desperation. I looked over towards him and our eyes locked.
The man's face changed so instantaneously that I was in shock. His desperation and anger melted away into a smile that creased the skin around his eyes. He gave me a thumbs up as I asked him how his night was going; I told him I hoped he could find some warmth that night. He waved goodbye and with that broad smile, said, “Thank you, bless you and enjoy your night!” I was astounded by the sudden happiness that lept off of him as I took a few seconds to glance over at him. It seemed like there was a hunger that was running deeper than the need for a bite to eat or a warm, safe place to sit: he was deeply yearning for someone to see him as a person. This man gave me hope that night in the city that had been exposed to me as bleak, greedy, and cold.
The shiny lights of Lady Francisca still don't entice me the same that they once did. Yet I learned how to love San Francisco again from a man with a toothless smile who sat down with me at a senior citizen luncheon. This quiet guy talked me through his daily routine of begging for coffee each morning and then walking around the neighborhoods of San Francisco. He spoke of his favorite spots to view the rolling hills of San Francisco and the best benches to rest on for an hour or so. He described the Presidio's green trees with a fondness and familiarity; he advised about the best times to see the sun shine just right on the Golden Gate Bridge. After describing all of these beauties in the city, he said, “You know, every single place in this city holds so many perspectives; it just depends where and how you are looking at it.”
I can look at San Francisco from the eyes of a guarded woman walking alone in a darkened street; I can see this city from the eyes of a business person hurrying about their day. But I choose to see this Foggy City by the Bay from that man's gentle and caring eyes: I see the fog silently rolling in through the buildings or the sun shining on the pavement that is worn from walking. I see this City with tired feet and with a heart that is turned towards hope.