An urban oasis
A favorite weekend afternoon pastime is visiting the Fort Mason Community Garden. Always a delight, but never more than on a clear, crisp autumn day like today. The slanting afternoon sunlight adds an extra dimension, more texture, to the flowers and plants.
No pills needed
For the cost of the bus fare, it’s easy excess to low-cost, effective mental and physical stress relief. A small escape from the other part of the City, where the stress of living in a city bursting at the seams takes its psychological toll.
We distract ourselves so that we might not notice how many of us fly under the radar of macroeconomic trends. Making something work in a town that costs too much. Hanging on to a disappearing City; before the iPhone, before the City came awash with superfluous cash; before 50-story buildings were built on spongy ground.
When landlords didn’t suck so much.
Money and misery
At the Garden, we’re all equals, in awe of the plants, the sweet smells, the sun.
Elsewhere, the consequences of the yawning social gap in San Francisco are hard to miss. The soaring prosperity embodied in Millennium Towers inches sideways on an uncertain foundation. Down on the street, money meets misery.
Sometimes, the pathological edge of a city unfolds unexpectantly in front of you. A dramatic, spine-tingly penetration of the barrier of distraction.
So it happened at the bottom of Van Ness, just outside the walls of Fort Mason. All for my preference for the 49, instead of just taking the 47.
Muni and the zen of riding the bus
It was kind of a quirky joke that we didn’t get on the 47. Both it and the 49 take us where we need to go, “Middle Polk” as the City’s PR team now calls our neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine neighborhood.
It was a better neighborhood when it was Polk Gulch.
Whether a Gulch or a Middle, given a choice, I prefer going home on the 49. They’re bigger and roomier. They have that new bus smell. I’ll even prefer to wait and let a 47 go by.
And so that’s what we did.
Missing the bus
Running up behind the departing 47 came running a woman. Distressed and disheveled, her tattered clothes and bald head belied any reminiscence of youth. Whatever her age, she looked older than she was.
Nonetheless, she had motivation. For whatever reason, she needed to catch that particular bus.
The bus driver could well have seen the woman running up behind, or not. I can only speculate.
He could have seen her and didn’t want another crazy-person incident on his bus. Wanting only to finish his shift and go home. This time he wasn’t going deal with people flailing widely behind him.
Sometimes you miss the bus.
“Do you people know this is hell?!?”
Half out on the street, half out of her mind with drug-fueled rage and frustration, apparently completely down on her luck, she desperately looked for somewhere or someone to focus her despair.
She cursed, screaming something about a “book” she had to follow. “This is hell, do you know that?” It was said to no one in particular, but it landed on me. Our eyes met, the question was mine to answer. In that moment, the obvious option of just turning away seemed too uncomfortable, too inhumane.
“I know it’s a hell for you,” is all I could think to say.
Picking up her scattered belongings she cursed San Francisco; then turned back to us, “and you’re not helping, fuck you!”
Mustering the slimmest thread of empathy was not going to help. Any conceit I had of calming her down quickly dissipated. She was right; we weren’t helping.
Unable to cope emotionally, think rationally or behave coherently, the woman’s torment exposed how helpless we all are much of the time.
By grace and gratitude
Other than the specific incidents I describe, I have no idea who this person was or what was going on in her life in any larger context than trying to catch a bus. I can only speculate about how and why she came running after that bus as if her life depended on it.
When she cursed the City, she gave voice those who live on a razor-thin edge, in one way or another. Perhaps not as existential as the personal crisis of this one poor woman, but to which end of the spectrum are we nearest?
We all make mistakes, endure times of despair. We all find a bottom. We all, occasionally, miss the bus. And we all sometimes need help. We’ve got that in common.
It’s easy to be philosophical on a full stomach.
In the end, it is by grace and gratitude that we thrive. We abandon these at our peril.
Images by the author. All rights reserved.