I’m in San Francisco, the City by the Bay, for the Women’s Spirituality Intensive Week — which actually goes from Saturday to the following Sunday thereafter. It’s going to be an 11 night stay, including all the extra retreats, welcome dinners, and caucus demonstrations. The actual classwork is indeed extremely intense, and my brain is not up to sounding academic just now… heck, I’m deliberately rambling here, as a means to clear my head. Thus the title: mental snapshots of what I’m seeing and experiencing here.
The hotel is… kitschy. There is no other word for it: the lobby and my room are both incredibly, cutely kitschy. The lobby has several of those big, white plastic, molded chairs, carefully designed so you cannot find a comfortable way to sit. There’s one of those white plastic, half-sphere chairs that’s completely lined in bright, lipstick red cushions; and the hanging lantern consists of myriad little red-glowing globes, like a cluster of grapes that decided to arrange themselves strictly on the x-y axis. As well, in my room all the lamps have the round-molded white plastic stands, and one of the chairs is the little pedestal type — the kind with a small seat and almost no back support. There are two decorative mirrors in there as well, with a segment from a Stratego board in one, and a piece of the Clue game-board in the other. Everything is very 60’s: I wouldn’t want to live in it long-term, but it is cute to visit.
I walk about four blocks down Mission every morning to class, and back again at night. It’s August in San Francisco, though — it’s not dark when classes end, so I don’t feel worried. I’m as fascinated as a child sometimes by what I see, although I don’t tend to let it show on my face. I see, flashing randomly through memory…
Dark-ragged, scruffy old men hunched in their wheelchairs, their fragile bags of belongings heaped around them. Huddled under one of the bus shelters in the cool morning air, they talk and laugh together in their cracked, wheezing voices. The sickly-sweet scent of pot drifts out to me as I walk by; I wonder if the medical cannabis law has passed here. They smile pain-dimmed, gap-toothed smiles at me and I smile tentatively in return as I continue briskly walking by. After a few days I can pick a few of them out; I always smile and wave at the one with the rough-painted, simple wooden flute.
There’s a St. Anthony’s along my route; they give out free clothing donated by volunteers, I think. In the morning I weave-walk neatly through the various dark-clothed shapes emerging from the gated, narrow archway. Each of them finds a spot, their backs to each other, so they can examine their findings, refolding and packing the clean, new-used clothing into their many plastic bags. The plastic is usually slightly stretched thin, any printing worn off long ago. Everyone has bunches of them; I find myself smiling faintly as I think of the nursery rhyme-riddle about traveling to St. Ives.
Coming back to the hotel one evening I glance across the street I’m approaching, and spot what I assume is a homeless man sprawled on the pavement, one leg kicking randomly in the air. A part of me is extremely wary: is this bait for a trap of some sort? Another part of me is nudging me internally: the man clearly needs some assistance! I continue approaching the street, arguing with myself in my head: what could I do for the man? I have no idea where to take him, or how to get him what he needs. I have no idea how to handle someone out of their head on some substance.
I notice another scruffy street man, shorter and sturdily broad, stumping determinedly past the tripping man. As he arranges his handfuls of full-stuffed plastic bags carefully around a nearby light post I realize he is Asian. By the time I’m crossing the street he’s bending over the downed man, firmly telling the babbling fellow that he has to move, he can’t stay here or he’ll get picked up. As I pass I hear him insisting he’ll help the fallen man to the nearby bus shelter. I walk on by, relieved as I realize the presence of the Asian man has alleviated my conscience.
The multi-story hotels on the street have parking on the bottom floor, at street level. They play parking tetris with the cars in order to cram in as many as possible, so they can charge (for this area a very reasonable) $10 per day for non-hotel guests. I notice a particular SUV parked in one hotel’s lot, rear end out toward the street. I smile, each time I pass, at the car’s little window stickers: a leatherman flag and a small “Make dildos not war!”
Late one weekend night as I’m walking home I have to step around a small cluster of skirted women standing around several boxes full of stuff. One of them is older and seems to be in charge; she looks a bit exasperated. The rest of them are a bit younger, and several are wearing corset-style tops. They have emerged from a black-painted building; it’s my guess they’re waiting for someone to come pick them up.
I continue on, but something in the women’s body language is giving me a mental ‘ping!’ The next morning, still curious, I try to figure out which building they came from — there are, after all, several black-painted buildings on my route. I notice one of the buildings has windows up high, all painted black except for a small central circle. Framed by that circle, hanging inside the building, is a pretty, round, stained glass decoration of a sun with a sickle moon overlapping. I stare up at it, intrigued, then glance at the sign on the door as I go by. I do a double-take, then continue on, laughing quietly to myself: I have stumbled over the San Francisco Citadel. No wonder the women’s body language triggered my non-conscious notice!
Clothing and people flash by constantly, noticed and vanished. The occasional cops I pass on the pavement are in dark blue, pulling on bright blue or cream-white medical exam gloves as they chat together while preparing for something. I smile at sight of a broad, well-muscled, bearded man walking with a woman. He makes me think of mythic dwarves: he’s combed his beard into a long, neat bundle that reaches to mid-chest, bound with three hair-bands spaced equidistant down its length. Another day I see a slim, elegant, dark man with an ascetic’s thin face, trimly dressed in a black trench-coat. His hair is in multiple extremely neat, beautiful braids curving over his head and ending in short tails that curl above his coat collar. I study his slightly age-lined face with its dark, expressive eyes; I’m reminded of Egyptian statuettes I’ve seen in one of the King Tutankhamun museum displays. Young women in boots, snug leggings, and jeans shorts are common, both riding little mopeds and walking briskly. I like the style and find myself wondering where I can get a pair of shorts so I can wear that style too.
Later as I walk home, I notice what looks like brilliant blue, wilted blossoms tossed carelessly on the pavement near the street, next to an electrical box that has a large, dark spot splashed on it and around the base. It takes me a second to realize, with a faint sense of shock: those are medical exam gloves, tossed carelessly to the ground after use. I blink at the dark stain as I head on by, wondering what caused it. I take a small comfort in realizing, from the color and spread, that it is unlikely to be blood.