Sunday morning as I head to classes I pass many homeless sleeping in doorways. One of them is sitting up and blearily looking around. Next to him sits a small cat in a red harness, looking alert, well-fed, and calm. I grin at the cute kitty, and the man — in his wheezing, cracked voice — compliments me on my smile. I grin at him too as I pass by. A short ways further on there’s a slender, well-groomed young man folding up a bicycle preparatory to entering his place of business. I study the little technological marvel in fascination; so many bicyclists in this city, with so many marvelously different sets of wheels! The young man gives me a wary glance and I wonder what he sees when he looks at me so: a potential snatch-and-grab artist? Surely not a mugger… a grifter, perhaps? I grin at him in amusement at that thought.
He unlocks the door to his building and slips within, carefully locking it behind him. On the glass door is a small, extremely discreet sign announcing two photographers work in there. In the window by the door is a plastic sign which nearly yells that this building is protected by guard dogs! The heads of two rabidly snarling dogs — a Doberman Pinscher and a German shepherd — are drawn under the writing. That causes me to laugh, as I know most guard dogs don’t actually spend all their time slavering from fiercely gaping, fanged jaws — they’d get thirsty, if nothing else! Most of the window is blocked, of course, but I can just spot what looks like a simple movie poster depicting several broad-chested, shirtless, well-tanned white men, all looking serious and entirely too aware of how attractive they are. The movie’s title is something like After Aspen VI, which makes me grin — Aspen must have been very good to these photographers!
Over the days I am in San Francisco, it’s always slightly jarring to me to see signage with elegantly, expensively dressed models… plastered up in the bus shelters in the poorer sections of town. I just shake my head the night I spot two men arguing amiably with each other while one of them urinates on one such sign; people are so strange sometimes. There’s a lot more smoking here than I’m used to, as well. By the third time I see it happen, I no longer blink an eye at someone smoking, while standing right next to the neat signs directing all smokers to stand at least 15 feet from the door the sign is posted on.
It’s not just the smokers, either. Waiting for the light to change at one street the next day, I watch in mild incredulity as a wild-haired, blank-eyed young man in an over-large suit strolls out and crosses the street against the light. Only one car is discommoded by the jaywalker, and they pause politely for him to pass. His daft grin widens at that and I wonder: is he truly mentally lacking, or is this his attempt to wrest some power into his powerless life — his self-defense against a world too big for him? Later, I’m sympathetically amused by a burly man in a pickup truck who backs up enough to look directly at the “wrong way” sign on a narrow side street, then frustratedly roars his truck hastily down the road to the next cross street.
Looking down the side streets is vaguely perplexing. What about this street means it gets to be tidy, empty, lacking in personality; while that one has greenery growing lushly up about a building facade partway down the clean street, and a “Love SF” cloth banner hanging on one of the streetlights… but the side street between them (despite sporting two trees) is both shabby and garbage-strewn? What are their stories, I wonder? Maybe the first one is the lair of a perennially hungry troll, while the last one is the home of Oscar the Grouch? :)
The buildings along the main street which I walk are all quite varied, ranging from blank stuccoed walls with arched entries like the old Southwestern missions; or battered and ancient brick pierced with multiple barred doors — through neatly painted but personality-less boxes; and ornately decorated and painted facades where it’s clear, by the flowery stone decorations still framing the many mirrored glass windows, that the main entryway has been relocated. One building has a repeating pattern of a set of small windows above a tiny dirt-filled shrubbery box, with a glass door set on the far right. There are four such sets, and I blink a bit startledly as I realize the third one has two slanted steel bars bracing it up — and one of the bars blocks the door, so that even if the door swung inward, you would have to crawl over the bar to exit!
The San Francisco Federal Building, on the other side of the street, is a modern miracle of truly ugly design: bits of stairwell or window stick out randomly from the building’s sides, while one entire section seems mismatched, as if it broke free during an earthquake and now is several feet off being flush with the side of the rest of the building. Metal screens all over the building look rather as if it were half-unwrapped by an impatient child who abandoned it before done, while parts of the roof seem to have been left over the plaza in front of it, in a sort of zigzag pattern.
The entire thing, in fact, looks rather like it was put together like a jigsaw puzzle, with the metal screens, sheets of opaque and dirty yellowed plastic, metal tinker toys, and a bit of glass — and they ran out of materials partway through. I raise an amused eyebrow at the police trucks parked in front of the Federal Building when I see they have “Homeland Security” painted on the side of the front, over the wheel well. I wonder what true security of one’s homeland would be. Would it involve everyone having a job, food to eat, and a safe, sheltered place to sleep?