The Elements: San Francisco


A little quiz. For those of you who know both Jesse and me, who would you say would be more likely to be the bleeding heart at the sight of sad-looking people holding out cups asking for spare change?

(You answered me, right?)

I mean, when I was a kid I once saw a man in a parking lot pushing a shopping cart full of ratty belongings, and I nearly burst into tears. The first time I came to San Francisco, I’m sure I didn’t go home with any change on me.

Well. Out here now, I’m a little, shall we say, different about it. For instance, while Jesse was out here, you could regularly overhear me hissing at him, “No eye contact!” I mean, I am serious about it. Put a cup in my face and ask for money, and I will not acknowledge you. I will not shake my head and apologize. I will not seem sympathetic. I will keep walking as if I had heard nothing, seen nothing.

Part of this stems from the knowledge that San Francisco, of all cities, has a host of social services, and a very small percentage of homeless people are panhandlers, and not all panhandlers are actually homeless.

But, it was a little shocking to me to see how quickly I could lose that little girl who once cried at the sight of anyone in pain.

Then, the other day I was on the train and we were stopped outside a pharmacy waiting during a shift change for the driver. I saw an older man in faded blue jeans and a blue plaid shirt struggling to stand up. He was gripping a cane in one hand, the wall with the other. I could not see his face, but from the back he reminded me of my grandfather.

He couldn’t get up. He struggled and struggled, and he couldn’t muster the strength to stand.

On the Science Channel the other night, a man with an Australian accent and floppy straight hair talked about the elements, how there are only ninety-two elements in the universe, and how we’re all made of the same things. I thought of this: that we are all, essentially, exactly the same, that we were all at one point rocks or dust or a thought somewhere, and now we’re here, and some of us ride trains and some of us struggle to stand, and there isn’t a single scientific difference between us, not a single quantifiable difference.

Why am I not the man at the wall?

And whose grandfather is he?

The train started up and we sped off and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses. And I thought about how many stories there are in the world, how many stories have come from a little over ninety elements, how many heartbreaks and deaths and illnesses and births and stillbirths and love stories.

I wanted to weep for the man, and I wanted to weep for myself, because I stayed on the train and kept going, and I said nothing and I did nothing and today I will do nothing and tomorrow I will do nothing. I will take my good luck or whatever it is and will keep buying chai lattes because I’m not sure what else to do. I want to help every old man stand up, but I can’t, and my apathy is only apparent to me in glimpses. Most of the time, I am able to keep myself sufficiently numb.

There isn’t going to be an answer here, just thoughts and questions. It seems sometime that we are all the same person in different forms, all the people on the train, and the man, and everyone sitting in the coffee shop while I type this. I still don’t acknowledge people who ask for money. I staunchly avoided looking at the drunk man on the F-line today who was shouting, emphatically, that his name was not Sharon. I once sat next to a woman on the train for several stops before even noticing that she was actually a man. I am caught up in my own world and find myself lodged there.

A mystery, how different we are and how very much the same.

I hope time and growth erodes my apathy, but we will have to see.

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