San Francisco — where buildings dot the horizon like assorted Easter eggs in a cramped basket and climb up up up on sidewalks. The streets give me that pre-fall kind of feeling. My eyes start off frog-like, protruding from their sockets. But I tone down my gaze, demote it to a mild shiftiness, still cautious and untrusting.
I think about a lot about brakes. About how continuously pressing on them is probably not so hot for cars. I wonder if anyone could last a lifetime here without a dent or scratch or two. How many precious hours of the day do drivers spend shaking their heads, waving their fists, or honking their horns?
We drive around and around, our car hiccupping down slopes between red lights. Sean chomps on a piece of the beef jerky we packed for road snacks.
“There’s a shitload of Teslas on the road. And blonde women driving Land Rovers. What’s up with that? And bikers — oh shit, I didn’t even see that guy,” he notes, his attention strictly on the road.
Sean steers our bare bones rental car. I imagine he’s homesick for his wet dream of a Suburu, probably missing him back and sitting in its lonely spot at the O’Hare airport.
“There’s also a lot of people without homes here,” is my first input.
I know we are on vacation, and I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but I can’t help but take more than a causal notice of the amount of people sitting like stones or wandering with no direction in mind. Back in Chicago, this is a commonplace sight and interaction. I’ve stood witness to lingering individuals as well as gotten as close as listening to a few stories, passing off a few cigarettes, purchasing a few sub sandwiches. But this feels different. It’s a clear pronunciation with extra glare. Here in the glittering California daylight, the numbers are overwhelming. Somehow in a city built on top of itself, with homes towering on hills, the lost and forgotten are at the base of it all, making it more visible, larger.
I try my best not to make anyone feel like an exhibit, but can’t help watch a man meticulously stack aluminum cans in a cart bubbling over with newspapers, bags, paper plates, lamp shades, and other odds and ends. He ties a rope to the end of the cart and drags it along the street with ease, singing in a voice as scratchy as the beard on his face. Here is a man at work if you look close enough. There are others working in between intersections. While we wait for a light to turn green, we watch two men shake hands and slip something into them.
There’s people slouched in lawn chairs, stooped over walkers, huddled under bustling, blue tarps used to cover cars to be sheltered from rain and people.
A woman, fast asleep on the ground, stirs at the sound of a sharp whistle. A cable car scrapes along metal strings in the sky like a marionette on wheels. The woman opens an oversized jacket, and out pops a puppy with fur the color of coffee with extra creamer and piercing, alert eyes that match the sky. The woman rubs her eyes in between petting the puppy. Her lids are puffy; she wears a look of exhaustion that says she hasn’t truly rested in years. She watches the passersby move swiftly past, not holding her gaze on anyone in particular, just the general blur of pants and sneakers whirring past her face. The puppy licks her hands as she continues to soothe him.
Sean clears his throat and redirects my attention. He suggests we explore the sights. We cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The traffic crawls, which gives us a chance to stare up at the high, metal beams.
“If you look to the right, you can see the Golden Gate. See, do you see?” Sean says.
Sean is wearing his boyish face. He’s all bright eyes and big smiles. Halfway through the bridge, I realize I have to pee. I cross my legs and whistle along with the radio. We’re listening to KFOG-FM, and the radio DJ keeps calling his listeners “fog heads.” I wait until I can’t take it any longer, and I inform Sean of my emergency. He makes it worse by telling me to stare into the bay water.
By the time we reach the Wharf, I’m screaming at Sean, demanding he pulls over. He barely reaches the curb as I rocket out the car door and haul myself into a fresh fruit market. I march bow-legged to the checkout area.
“Can I use your bathroom?” I wince in pain.
The cashier is a young man with a shaggy haircut and a nonchalant stare. “Uh yeah, but it’s outside. And I need your ID,” he said.
“I don’t have an ID on me right now. I literally just jumped out of a car, and I’m about to explode. Please, I gotta go.”
“Okay, but please return this key. Oh, but before you return it, be sure to use it to the lock the bathroom door.”
He hands me a silver ladle with a key hooked on the bottom of it. I thank him from the bottom of my bladder.
Outside the bathroom, a man asks me for a dollar. His teeth are nicotine-stained and his shirt is oily with a large hole near the collar. I search my pockets, even though I know my wallet is in the car.
“I’m real sorry, man. I don’t have anything on me,” I tell him, feeling guilty.
Sean and I drive on in silence. I apologize to him for snap-turtling him during my moment of urinary weakness.
“That’s okay. What’s next?” he asks.
“I want to see the Full House house. I want to thank Uncle Jesse for helping me through my childhood.”
Instead, we visit the Palace of the Fine Arts, a colossal domed structure that sits behind a lagoon with a fountain and drowsy swans warming in the sun and curling into their wings. The giant building looks like it was taken from a page of Greek mythology. There’s a motif on the structure that especially catches my attention — the weeping women, statues who are stationed at the corners of boxes above the colonnade. I can’t see their faces. I only can tell they are crying and holding on the best they can.
People on bikes ride and families with strollers saunter along the lagoon. Someone is running with a GoPro strapped to the front of his helmet.
A young girl rides between Sean and me. She’s wearing a helmet with ladybugs and pants with butterflies. She brakes, and all four of her bike’s wheels screech to a halt.
“Excuse me,” she says. “But did you know that there’s ice cold lemonade over there?”
Sean and I follow her stubby finger to the stand aside the lagoon, manned by two children who look her age.
I smile at her. “Do you happen to know the kids working the joint?”
She bashfully twirls the glittery streamers pouring from her handlebars. “They’re my cousins,” she admits.
“Well, I am kind of thirsty. What about you, Sean?”
“I could use a drink,” Sean plays along.
“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.
“Sasha,” she giggles.
“Well, Sasha, I like your salesmanship. And also, your butterfly pants.”
Sean and I feel good about ourselves as we walk back to his car. We slurp down our lemonade.
Sean pats my knee, telling me he’s low on caffeine. We stop at a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue. I volunteer to retrieve the coffee, and Sean stays with the car. The woman working the register is a magnificent piece of street art — tattoos swimming down her arms, Cleopatra eyeliner, curling nails, bleached hair, a halter top, no bra. Lana Del Rey gushing from a radio. The shop has a couch, a few tables and barstools lined up along the window.
Two women sip coffee at one of the tables, setting their cups down every now and then to interject an exclamation into a conversation that’s muffled against the sound of grinding beans.
A man lumbers in. He wears a wrinkled plaid shirt and a black hat with a straight bill and a patch of worn thread. He’s carrying a large monitor in one arm and pulling off a backpack with his other arm. He sits down at a table behind me.
I order an espresso and a mocha latte.
“Excuse me, but you can’t do that in here,” says the cashier.
“What … ” I hesitate.
I check my hands and glance at my feet to see if maybe my limbs are doing something without my knowledge.
“Sir, you need to leave,” the cashier says in a stern voice. She moves from the behind the register and steps into the sitting area.
I swing around to face the monitor man. He’s holding a blunt the size of a Cuban cigar in one hand and an orange BIC lighter in the other.
“Are you serious right now?” he asks, lurching from his seat.
“I mean, it’s one thing if you’re going to sneak it into the bathroom. But like, really, right in the open? Not cool. This is a business, and I need you to leave,” she says. Around her wide eyes are black eyelashes, straight as raised cat hair.
“Come on, Bro. I buy a coffee every single day here, Bro. You’re trippin’ right now, Bro,” the man says, raising his voice, taking a step closer to the cashier.
The women who were talking at another table begin to quickly gather their belongings. They tiptoe out the door. I’m the ghost in middle of the coffee shop with my mouth hanging ajar, standing numb and still, wondering if I should inform this guy that the cashier is not, in fact, a “bro.”
I look into the man’s eyes for the first time. There’s a yellowish tint in them. His eyebrows are scrunched together tight enough to become one brow. I can see the individual drops of spit flying out of his mouth. I’ve never seen someone angrier. He doesn’t seem to be looking at the cashier though, rather beyond her, like he’s confronting the demon standing on the other side of her body.
“Why are you playing me like this, Bro? I’m a good customer,” he pleads, his voice cracking with desperation.
“Leave. Now, before I call the police,” she thunders.
This sends him spilling over like hot coffee. “Bro, fuck the police. I’m not leaving. I’m gonna bust your face in, Bro. I’m going to break everything in this motherfucking store, Bro.”
I feel as inanimate as the plastic lid I begin to stare at in the middle of a table. I feel like I should say something. Except, I don’t know who to sympathize with. Should I utter words to soothe or distract him? Or should I back her up, tell him to get the hell out?
In the end, I choose motionlessness. I choose silence.
They both stare wildly at each other, daring each other to move first. The cashier makes the first move. She pulls out her phone from her back pocket.
She dials. Her voice quakes into her cellphone, “Yes, I need help. There’s a man here who is threatening to put his hands on me … Yes, it’s a real emergency … I swear … Yes, this is a business … Can you please come?”
Why does she have to convince the police to come? Aren’t they supposed to show up, no questions asked? I brew a silent war for her and other women who work alone.
He whirls around, rips his things from the table in one movement and flees the coffee shop.
“I’m so sorry this happened,” I tell the cashier woman who finally allows her face to appear shaken; creases line her forehead, which she rubs with her palm. She nods without really hearing my words, and I feel as if there’s nothing I can say to void the current events.
Business as usual, she finishes up my order and hands me my drinks. She follows me out without a word and locks the store behind me.
I walk to the car. Inside, Sean taps away at his phone.
“What took so long?” he asks.
I say nothing. I close the car door and take a sip of my coffee. As we drive, I scan the streets for the fleeing man.