There is no difference between compassion and rejection. I learn strategically, crossing the street with the rest of them, when the red hand goes up. I was on 17th and Mission, where the bagels smell like shades of memories—warm, uninterrupted—and the people smell, well, like people. We had to wait for a right turn because a one legged man wouldn’t smile and say, “Go ahead”. We had to cover our heads when we walked under a scaffolded building because we were afraid the nails might rain down. Then again, I guess it was just me that was afraid.
We were parked 3 blocks from the studio, and I was confused when the homeless man yelled “pity” at my shoes. My mother passed a drunken man, when she was alone. He was smiling, the euphoric kind, where the lips are too damn high just to say they’re “happy”. I wondered, if I was there: would I feel drunk too?…would 21 greet me at a green light and I’d feel too young to be a child?…would I be drunk if my shopping cart were my suitcase?…if Japanese tourists were my neighbors 25 hours of the day?
My mother said the Mission was never on the city’s restoration list. “Bernal Heights had been checked off,” she told me, “Noe Valley; that was another lucky one.” I nodded, pressing my lips together.
Drained noise, from the insides of the passenger window. The graffiti was ashen, even the murals in the schoolyards. The million dollar apartments, stained with the profanity of strangers (all over garage doors and fire escapes).
We drove down Divisidero. “No traffic,” I said. Despite the construction and the minute hand pointing to rush hour. “The locals keep to the indoors on Wednesdays,” I suggested. Maybe the bachelor didn’t shave his beard. Maybe the hooker didn’t shave her legs. Maybe for once in everyone’s lives, the fog was telling them where to go. I must have been unfamiliar with where it was they were going.
I am astonished at a Golden Gate that would be so much as red if its towers weren’t rusted with the stop and go of foreclosure signs, empty storefronts, and singles protesting social injustice. He stopped us, a white man who brought up starving children and racism all in the same sentence. We were out to lunch, and we said we would come back. “Keep up the good work,” my mom whistled back from an adjoining block. We didn’t come back.
I had a twenty in my pocket—it wouldn’t take much to toss it in a guitar case or a plastic bucket. It wouldn’t take much, I said to myself, to read a cardboard sign that had “God Bless” scribbled in Sharpie. Give a hollow man my takeout. Anything.
But I didn’t. I walked those 3 blocks to the studio. I took class like I was back in Marin County, and I had clothes, and I had an identity that had more or less manifested itself into a journal for 4 or so years. So yes, I am capable of patting an untalented child on the back. I am capable of biting my brother’s arm if he’s watching too much TV. I learned strategically, however, that I cannot ride the MUNI without washing my hands 7 times over after I get off. I cannot stare at a pedestrian without saying that I’ve had a life-changing experience. I cannot observe that green-glass sea without imagining the bodies breathing un-hopefully at the bottom. I cannot live here. I can only look here.