To the People You’ve Seen Around for Years, But Never Actually Talked To
Reno calls itself the “Biggest Little City in the World.” That’s bullshit. Anyone who’s lived in San Francisco knows that that’s a title that should be wedged between “Baghdad by the Bay” and “The City That Knows How” in our pantheon of monikers. If you’ve been here long enough, it’s impossible not to run into someone you know; it’s one of San Francisco’s many charms. We encounter pieces of our past in the random people we run into on a daily basis. This can occasionally be awkward, depending on which chapter of your biography opens itself in your path, but mostly it feels like being part of a wonderful community.
There are people within this community, though, who float around the peripheries of our existences whom we notice, but who don’t always notice us. Some are people we’ve had brief encounters with but who don’t remember us. Others are folks we’ve seen around for years, silently witnessing the way they wear the triumphs and failures that life indiscriminately hands out. We see them on the bus, on the street, in the park. We see them at the café, at the bar, on BART. They are tiny question marks or ellipses in the stories of our lives, and they don’t even realize they’re part of it.
I’ve seen her around 16th and Valencia for as long as I can remember. Looking sallow and scabby, she always asked me for change, each time having a different story as to why she needed it. Just the other week I saw her walking down Folsom Street looking amazing. She had on new shoes and clothes and possibly had a new set of teeth. There was a healthy color and fullness to her face. Dangling from her neck was a big crucifix. It seems like finding God helped her find herself.
He worked with me for a couple of weeks at a mediocre Italian restaurant in North Beach. Our boss had seen him help an old lady across the street and hired him on the spot, despite the fact that the Guy Who’s Name Might Be Frank had never waited tables before. He was terrible at being a waiter and ended up quitting a few weeks later. He has the look of someone who enjoys camping/hiking/rock climbing and was probably an Eagle Scout/Marine. I saw him sitting in the window at Four Barrel recently and wondered if he still helps old ladies cross the street.
I see her more often than the others here because she works at a popular breakfast place. I met her when I was 21 and smoking a joint on Hippie Hill. She ambled up to us, plopped down, and then told us she was 16 and on mushrooms. She had blue hair, and we gave her some of our joint. A few years back, I ran into her at a bar and mentioned this, but she was drunk, so I don’t know if she recalled either of our meetings, or maybe she pretended not to.
I see this guy in bars or walking down the street, but he never notices me. I met him nearly 10 years ago on Christmas Eve at a bar called the Red Room, which no longer exists. The place was filled with a dozen or so people who had nowhere else to go, so we found each other on barstools and shared stories and loneliness. I’d never heard of Eritreans or Eritrea before that night, and he explained the history of the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict to me. There were a few other people who hung with us that night whom I doubt I’d ever remember. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve seen me around and recognize me, but I don’t recognize them.
In fact, she’s gotten worse. I met her many years ago at 3:30 a.m. in Orphan Andy’s. It was one of those late-night discussions, the ones that feel important, though you can’t recall what they were about – the kind in which all eight people in the late-night diner get involved. Many of them were pretty bad off, but she was the worst, tweeking and twitching throughout the conversation, contributing when she could. With her high cheek bones and big eyes, she might have been beautiful at one point, but years of drug use had ravaged her. These days, I see her on corners like 16th and Mission and 11th and Howard, among piles of possessions. She’s often wearing some strange wig and a few dresses that, just like her, might have once been magnificent.
In my early and mid-20s, I lived near 23rd and Guerrero. Next door to us was a duplex in which three generations of a family lived. At least once a month they had an awesome party attended by their larger extended family. Mariachi and ranchera music would play loudly from the garage, and a feast of food and beer would continue all day long. I’d always walk by on my way home and say hello, secretly wishing to be invited in for a beer and a taco, but it never happened. I still occasionally see the patriarch on Mission Street wearing his cowboy hat and boots. The one time I smiled and nodded at him, he responded, but he seemed to have no idea who I was. I still wanna go over for a beer and tacos.