San Francisco and Pop Culture

As I did in New York, I decided to write blog entries about my conference in San Francisco, so my students can see what I’m up to at these conferences (this one over Spring Break no less!). But this time around, my conference hotel is not offering free wireless, so I’m having to write these offline and post them later. Still, I’m dating them retroactively, so they’ll still reflect the intended date of the post.

Flying into San Francisco, I was more taken by the West Coast mountain-and-Bay scenery than I thought I would be, particularly with the sun high overhead but the Bay and low hills thick with gauzy fog. On the ground, I found the warm, breezy hills and meandering roads relaxing, the sight of all those thick evergreens and swaying palms oddly comforting, even as I realized that I was recognizing them only from film and television: I had been coddled and nursed by Hollywood, and now felt almost infantile in the presence of California. It was like the Chili Peppers song internalized, brought into an almost religious reality. Perhaps it was the BART subway train we rode from the airport to the hotel–it was hands-down the cleanest, most comfortable, most efficient rail system I’ve ridden so far; the seats are larger and softer than those on our plane from Madison!

Our hotel is downtown, in the center of a shopping and arts district that is home to what seem like hundreds of what my friend David Horsley calls “alleywalkers.” (I remain in the habit of calling them “homeless,” but in a personal essay titled “The Alleywalker,” Horsley argues that for many people who live on the street, a home is the least important of the things they are “less.” Therefore, he chooses to call them “alleywalkers,” a better descriptive of their lifestyles.) I’m used to encountering alleywalkers in my travels–I’ve become something of a magnet for them, often chatting with them for blocks as I walk to a restaurant or a reception or a bar and they follow, hoping without begging that I’ll hand them some change (which I often do, in exchange for the conversation). In Atlanta last spring, I actually followed a man more than a mile into the depths of back-alley Atlanta; he’d asked me to put him up for the night in a shelter, and rather than simply hand him the money, I chose to walk with him and see the shelter myself, in part out of curiosity, in part out of suspicion (I didn’t know what he’d really do with my money), and in part out of simple human companionship. He told me about his children in Florida, about his struggles to find work without a local permanent address, about his life on the street. When a gang of shadowy figures began crawling from beneath a distant overpass and making their way toward us, he stopped me and explained that we were entering a part of town dangerous for white people (he used the word “Caucasian”; he was African-American), and that on second thought, he’d feel better walking me back to my part of town. He didn’t ask for any money. I gave it to him anyway, along with my leftover Indian dinner, and he hugged me and offered again to walk me back, but I waved him off and wished him well.

Here in San Francisco, the alleywalkers are different, or at least, more open. I’ve seen more in just these several blocks than I have in all the other cities I’ve visited combined. Having so many in such close proximity, many camped out in front of the swanky downtown hotels and the pricey shopping centers hoping to catch wealthy tourists, I’ve had the opportunity to make some observations I had long assumed from pop-culture presentations of the homeless but had never fully encountered before. Here, many of the homeless have gathered into tight communities, small traveling congregations of friends and fellow beggars. Some of the lone wanderers carry signs and sit silent, as though in meditation or stoic repose; others try to sell trinkets made from found paper clips or woven bits of discarded thread, or hand out free community newspapers in hopes of a donation; others simply sleep, an empty Starbucks cup held loose in their hands. But the congregations conspire, they arrange themselves in lines to beg collectively or vote on representatives to follow shoppers and tourists, debate the amount to be begged and then allot the money they collect, like a church charity plate in reverse. As my wife and I walked down Market Street to the city’s public library–a regular pilgrimage in all new cities we visit–I overheard such a conversation, a stooped, bearded man in a dirty denim jacket explaining to his colleagues that he needed five dollars, the rest electing him to track down the money (and telling him he needed to get more than five dollars if he expected his share), at which point he tucked away the capless prescription bottle he’d been holding, stuck his long-reused plastic water bottle under one arm, and followed us across two streets and half a block, shuffling in a limp, rambling a barely coherent but clearly practiced narrative in hopes of getting our change.

I find such encounters difficult. The truth is, I often have some change to spare, and if I can do so safely, I’m always willing to offer a bit of help. But here, the alleywalker population is so dense that I can’t donate funds without revealing the money I have on hand, and–excuse though this may be–I worry about giving some money to some people while excluding the rest, and I certainly can’t afford to help out everyone. So I choose to help no one, often explaining–falsely–that I’d love to help out but I have no change. Everyone I’ve encountered seems to accept this, not as truth but as the code that it is: I have some change, but I don’t have enough, and I’m not going to give. No one has so far seemed offended. It’s just a part of the culture, a part of the dialogue of this place. It’s been an education for me.

The other thing I’ve encountered here, not for the first time but in the most open ways and in the greatest numbers, has been vocal activism of various sorts. On our way to the library, my wife and I watched the set-up for an anti-war protest we’d heard announced on the previous night’s news. On our way back, we strolled through an open market of vegetables, baked goods, and falafel vendors, and we wandered into the United Nations Plaza, where I met a young Tibetan woman handing out flyers about the Olympic torch and it sole stop in the US (in San Francisco), a Free Tibet tote slung over her shoulder and a quiet sadness on her lips, in her eyes. (I thanked her when I took the flyer then, once I saw what the flyer was, I turned and said, “Thank you very much!” but she’d already gone, gently pushing flyers at the crowd behind us.) When we got closer to our hotel, we got stopped by a small crowd of people, many with their cameras and cell phones raised to snap pictures. I cast about, unsure what was happening, but then I remembered–it was the protest, quieter than I’d expected because it was less angry march and more guerrilla theatre. On one side of the small square, a group of people in fake fatigues held cardboard machine guns aimed at hooded “prisoners” like the ones we held at Abu Ghraib or that we currently hold at Guantanamo or other “secret” prisons. In another corner, a man in a fishing vest displayed a Ken-doll Bush hung in effigy from a flower-wrapped fishing pole; behind him, signs were arranged like a bouquet in a large white bucket, with a note to “Return signs here.” Across the street, arrayed in front of Bloomingdale’s as though protecting the shoppers, a line of twenty police officers sat on blue-and-black dirt bikes like a street gang or a motocross team. Down an alley half a block away was a large police bus prepared to cart away arrested protesters.


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