16 November 2005

On A Warm San Franciscan Night

Anyone familiar with the Bay Area will know that a warm night in San Francisco is rare enough in summer, let alone mid-November. But last night was shirtsleeve weather, and with a full moon casting a luminescent glow over the city, even the shabbiest streets in the Tenderloin and Mission exuded an ineluctable sort of charm. Gone were the usual chilly winds that slap you in the face as you come around corners, send bits of paper and trash swirling skyward, and drive shivering pedestrians scurrying toward home or into the nearest bar. In their place was the faintest of zephyrs, carrying with it the exotically elusive scent of night-blooming jasmine. It was enough to turn anyone's head, and you can consider mine suitably turned.

I wandered through the Mission, down Market Street, up Powell past Union Square and over Nob Hill, then back down to BART by way of the Tenderloin. Because of the unusually warm weather, there were a lot more people than usual on the streets, though it still felt like a sleepy village compared with New York. To some people, that's a good thing, while I usually find it annoying, but on this particular night, I wasn't in the mood to be critical.

Maybe that's why the city also looked cleaner, safer, more inviting than it has in ages. It couldn't have changed that much in the six months or so since I was last here, could it? No, probably not, and even by warm November moonlight, it still compares unfavorably with New York, but for once I just didn't care and was glad to be right where I was.

It got me thinking: how much of my ranting and raving against San Francisco, against the Bay Area in general, is justified, and how much of it is simply a reflection of my personal tastes and prejudices? For years, for a couple decades, actually, I would have insisted that the SF Bay Area was beyond a doubt the best place on earth. Now I denounce it at the drop of a hat, and almost every time I visit manage to wind up in some neighborhood or situation that totally confirms all my worst opinions.

Walking up Bush Street, I saw some apartments for rent and caught myself thinking, "I could actually live here," which is probably the height of lunacy. I liked, always have liked, those old-fashioned San Francisco apartment buildings, and there are a few blocks on Bush that feel genuinely urban, sort of like New York's Upper West Side. But once the weather turned cold and I'd walked up and down the street a few times, I'd go completely bonkers. Small town life is not for me.

One thing that hasn't changed: between the St. Francis Hotel and Powell Street BART (about five blocks, for you auslanders), I was asked for money by 15 different people. Add to that the 5 people around 24th and Mission, and if I'd given each one a dollar, I'd be out an extra 20 bucks for my brief night on the town. And that's not counting the two New York-style beggars (regular subway riders will know what I'm talking about) on BART. First was a woman who announced to everyone that she had multiple sclerosis and needed X number of dollars to get to the hospital for her treatment. Then a young guy came into the car with a similar story: "I've just come from San Francisco General and they're sending me to Alta Bates (hospital in Berkeley) to have this burn (rolling up his pant leg to show everyone) looked at, and I don't have enough money to get off the train." (No explanation about how he got on the train, or why San Francisco's biggest hospital would send him to a smaller East Bay hospital at 11:00 at night.)

Everyone ignored him, and I did as well, burying my nose in my book, feeling ashamed of myself even though I was pretty sure it had to be a scam. He got more intense in his pleading, and then suddenly broke into tears. After a minute or two of sobbing still failed to produce any results, he snapped, "You fucking people need to grow up," and stalked into the next car to try again.

The thing was, his tears sounded real, even if his story didn't. And I hated myself for not just handing him a couple bucks; after all, I'd spent more than that just on coffee. But what I hated even more was the way that begging has become such an everyday part of life that most of us no longer see the beggars as individuals instead of as a pervasive urban nuisance. It's true that most beggars have alcohol or drug problems and that you're not doing them any favors by giving them money, but in order to cope with the constant hassle, I fear that we end up turning off part of our own humanity.


Anonymous said...

i remember going for a walk with one of my friends in downtown toronto, before i moved here. we were walking along college at bathurst street and there was an older homeless man convulsing on the cobblestone corner. And as we walked across the street i couldn't take my eyes off him. As we got to the other side my friend looked back or asked what i was looking at or something, and he saw the man aswell. but the sad part is that you say people see homeless people as a pervasive urban nuisance, but i think that a lot of people have chosen not to see homeless people at all. i think that street beggars, or just people who live on the streets in general have become such a part of our way of life that we don't even consider what it must be like to be in their shoes that they become invisable to us all together. a shadow of a former life. my friend then said to me that after 6 months or so of living in the city i wouldn't really see them anymore either. sadly and happily though, it's been about two years and it still tugs at heart when i see someone. though i don't always help them out, which also always makes me mad at myself the moment i lose that chance. anyways, when i do spare the extra buck or two, regardless of what it goes towards i don't really mind. i guess i figure that if drugs or alcohol is what will get them through the day, their lives aren't going to be changing much in the near future, so living in their altered world is probably better than ours. though if it was somehow tangible that my money to buy their drugs has a negative effect (where i just see it as irrelavent), i'd have to admit i would think twice. oh well, sorry this is so long.


Aryamehr University said...

Try LA.

Larry Livermore said...

Emily, I admire your sentiment in wanting to ease people's plight, even "if drugs or alcohol is what will get them through the day." I've had that same thought myself at times, but I've come to believe that contrary to getting people through the day, in most cases drugs and/or alcohol are precisely what are keeping people on the streets and unable to care for themselves. I think you'll find that most people who've managed to get kick their addictions and get off the street will tell you much the same thing.

Anonymous said...


i don't doubt that addictions are what keep a lot of people on the streets, if not partially at least. but i'm a pessimist when it comes to this subject. as much as i like to submit to the "one person can make a change" belief, i don't see it happening in this scenario. i think that to make any sort of change in the amount of people living on the street requires an entity greater than myself. be it an organization or the government. i suppose it's also partially selfish aswell, even if not conciously. that giving that buck or two here and there eases my pain or guilt or sympathy or whatever you want to call it. that giving what i can spare to someone who has less makes me feel like i've done something positive, that in some small way i've helped, and can better go on with my day. although, i have to say, if for nothing else but to make myself feel a bit less sad about this whole thing, that i give food almost as much as i give money. which is a much more sound means to the end i would argue, any day.


and "aryamehr university", i hope to make it to l.a. one day soon, or california in general, not for the reasons mentioned in this thread, but i'll make it still.