Middle Market, Noon
San Francisco, California
From my desk on the sixth floor, I often gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I can’t see the shady characters on dirty sidewalks below, or the Crazy Horse Gentlemen’s Club across the street. Instead, I watch the blue sky, sun, fog, and clouds playing over the cityscape. San Francisco’s changeable weather means I often see bright sunny days turn to milky-white, fog-zooming-in afternoons in minutes. Sometimes the wall of fog comes in so fast, rolling over the hills and into the valleys, that it feels like the city is rushing into it instead of the other way around. I feel a bit queasy if I watch too long.
Today, I alternately stare at the computer monitor and gaze out the window. On this bright March morning the sun highlights the buildings of grey, blue, peach, yellow, white, and hot pink, staggered on hillsides and outlined against a deep blue sky. The sky is bluer here than anywhere else, I think.
I don’t have a lot of time to take a lunch break, but want to get out into the sun for awhile. The forecast was for “unseasonably warm” temperatures today (although, it occurs to me that in San Francisco one never knows what “seasonable” is anyway).
There is no place near my office to sit outside where I wouldn’t stand out as quite possibly the only person with a home, a job, or a clean bill of health, so I decide to take a quick walk. I head downtown, away from what the Examiner dubbed “Sixth and Mayhem” after a recent midday shoot-out.
As usual, I try not to make eye contact with anyone on my block of Market Street. This is pretty easy since I need to be watching where I step to avoid gobs of spit, piles of shit (hopefully a dog’s but I’m not quite sure), trash, and mysterious substances strewn across the sidewalk.
Near the Social Security Administration office, I wait to cross to the sunny side of the street. I step off the sidewalk, anticipating the changing light. As I start to move forward, a police car comes careening down Mason Street. I think he’s going to turn in front of me onto Market, so I stop and wait. He’s coming closer, so I back up a foot. He’s still coming – and I hop back on the curb seconds before he comes to a screeching halt right where I had been standing. I glare at him, shake my head and mutter “Jesus” with my usual self-righteous pedestrian attitude as I cross the street, carefully looking both ways. By the time I get to the other side, another cop car has arrived. Then another. And another – all wreaking the same havoc on traffic and pedestrians as the first.
The police officers start running for a building entrance. I think, “never a dull moment in this neighborhood – I’d better stick around to see what happens.” I watch as onlookers gather and more police and emergency vehicles arrive. Everyone’s heading in, but no one’s coming out. I scan the building – no frightened occupants waving from the upper floors. I remember I don’t have much time and continue down the street.
I pass grocery carts piled high with belongings and several derelicts muttering to themselves or shouting unintelligibly at others. Near the corner, the chess games are in full swing, a few tourists daring to take on the regulars. I cross Fifth Street, passing the shoe shine guy, whose sign displays the rates for shines ranging from “good” to “cool as hell” and “2 cool.” I notice that there are always a lot of men hanging out in this spot, and I wonder what they’re up to, imagining them assessing the vulnerability of the passing families of oblivious fanny-pack wearers.
A half a block further and I’m surrounded by tourists. The cable car turnaround is ahead; the line of riders-to-be snakes around the turn and up Powell Street. I can’t get through the crowd very easily, so I stop to enjoy the rare warmth of the sun and watch the tap dancer who always sets up shop here with a boom box and a piece of plywood to dance on. I quickly discover there’s a reason why he’s out here and not rehearsing in a theater up Market.
I push through the crowd of onlookers and continue down Market Street. A warm day in San Francisco brings everyone outside, and the sidewalks are crowded – a mix of tourists, workers on their lunch breaks, and the standard freaks that can be found anywhere in this town. The crowds are too much for me, though, and since they seem to throng towards the sun, I duck down Ellis, the shade making it seem dull and cold.
I pass a young family reading the menu outside John’s Grill, and I remember how hard it can be to decide where to eat when traveling. Memories of a terrible evening in Italy with my family, roaming the streets, unable to agree on where to eat, come flooding back. I have no idea if this family is experiencing anything like that, but for a rare moment I feel a connection to them and the other tourists I see everyday.
As I reach Powell, a cable car heaving with tourists clanks past. Many riders have cameras strapped across SF-emblazoned chests. Nervous mothers hold their children close. For a minute I wish I were just visiting and could hop on (I admit, it’s a cool ride) instead of heading back to work. I turn left on Powell. A couple I passed earlier on Market is coming my way up the street. I wonder if they saw me earlier and notice that I’m walking in circles – or am I the only person who notices things like that?
Back at the cable car turnaround, the tap dancer is taking a break, towelling off his sweaty, well-muscled chest, back, and bald head. I continue through the same scene as before – vendors, shoe shiners, chess players, the homeless. As I cross the street I notice most of the police cars have left, and while there are still some people milling about, there are no clues to what happened to cause such urgency earlier.
I pass a co-worker on the street, and we half-smile at each other in that resigned, “Well, here we are in this shitty neighborhood’ way we all seem to have developed. A man sits on the sidewalk near the door to my building. He’s patching a hole in his well-worn pants, and I’m impressed by his resourcefulness. I walk back inside, say hello to the security guard and continue up to the sixth floor. My humming monitor and blinking voicemail light greet me. As I sit down at my desk, I’m once again distracted by the sunny scene outside.