At the top end of Market St, where The Embarcadero and tram lines cross, and the BART Station intersects with the ferry building, there are many homeless men and women hanging out waiting to receive hand outs from any passers by who might care to give. Most pass without even looking them in the eye, but now and again, and more often than not an ‘out of towner’ will stop, stare and be ‘conned’ into passing over a buck or two, in the hope that the ugly, dirty, face in front of them will just vanish from whence they came, without creating an embarrassing scene. It’s often surprising to see an educated homeless person being shunned in favor of one who is obviously crass, and far from being polite. I can never understand why the fear factor of looking into a dirty face, outweighs the need to give to a clean face? Perhaps it is just that, the fear? The fear that if a dollar isn’t passed over, that dirty face will get in your face, and make life unpleasant. Looks however aren’t everything, as I was about to find out.
Although dressed up like a homeless person, my face was clean, if slightly unshaven. My attitude however, was totally different from most of the other homeless persons who frequented Market at Embarcadero. I was polite, to perhaps the point of being too nice. It was, after all, the end of my first day in this city posing as a homeless vagrant. I believed I had done a great job up to this point, however, I was still a virgin when it came to being homeless at night-time and believe me, night-time was horror time and nothing at all like day time. As the lights came on, the sun set, and the dark shadows turned into black and grey silhouettes of the city scape, every idiot known to mankind, every vagrant, every druggie and everyone in need of their fix, violence, alcohol, sex, and all things seedy and disgusting, arrived, as if by magic, to commence yet another evening of illicit, criminal and gang related participation. It was incredible! These so-called human beings just appeared. It was as if the gutters in the streets had opened and every rat that had ever set foot on concrete emerged. Some were hungry, others were starving, but most were just looking for a place to bed down for the night or a place to stop and practice whatever perversion, addiction or illusion, they were going to perform until that warm orange sun rose again the following morning. It was frightening, and it was frightening within moments. It didn’t happen over a period of let’s say, an hour. No, it happened all at once, just like when birds stop singing as nighttime falls, and sudden silence engulfs one’s tuned in ears. This was madness. From all over, bodies, more than I could count, sprung up and out of nowhere in particular, all ready to fight, like dogs, for scraps, scraps that were indeed, extremely limited.
As I sat back from my perch on top of a step which surrounded a WWII monument, I was aware that things were going to be tough, certainly tough for someone like me, someone without a clue how to survive this carnage of humanity. And yet, all around, life went on as if nothing was happening. It was about 9 pm, and tourists were touring, locals were relocating and people were just really going about their lives as you or I would, had we been in such a place at this particular time. Restaurants were filled, theaters were emptying, bars were crowded, and yet, here I was, here we all were, homeless, with nothing to do and no place to hide. It looked like we had all become a huge unwanted wart in the middle of the city of San Francisco, and that someone was going to come along and clean us all up. Only that never happened, and after several minutes, which seemed like hours, of watching all of this unfold, my priority of course was to find shelter. I knew I could manage without food until the following morning, goodness me, I thought, I have fasted for 25 hours many times before, for religious reasons, so a few hours in San Francisco should be easy. I also knew that if I could find food, or was offered food, like a squirrel saving up for winter, I would take it and keep it for emergency purposes. But, shelter was a priority. Where to start??
In San Francisco, there are many hostels for the homeless, some of which I’d read about before leaving the comforts of my previous life, which now seemed like weeks ago, even though it had been less than 24 hours. The only thing I remembered, and which really stuck in my head like a bad nightmare, was that if you didn’t manage to get in line for these shelters by 4 to 5 PM each day, you were screwed. There were so many homeless people in this city, the shelters couldn’t cope. If you were one of the lucky ones, and you did indeed find your way into that ‘lucky’ line by 4 PM, not only would you get a bed, sometimes and by chance, you could get a meal, and often a shower. My luck was not to prevail on this particular evening, my very first evening of being homeless, and I had already missed my opportunity to bed down inside the ‘luxury’ of one of those aforementioned city dwellings, but I knew that if this particular night ended up in disaster, without shelter, tomorrow, I would be on my way to stand in line by 2 and not 5pm! For now, I needed assistance, but I was unable to fathom which homeless person I could talk to, never mind trust. My first attempt at communicating with an unknown in the vicinity in which I found myself wanting, ended up in a slagging match.
“Yo!” I said nonchalantly, to this ‘tramp like’ figure standing just a few feet from where I was perched. “Where do I go to get a bed?”
“Fuck you asshole” came his curt response. “Go wherever the fuck you want white boy” and he started to walk towards me with a menacing looking strut in his drunken or drugged up two-step. ‘Fuck’ I thought, and decided quickly to move, and move like the wind. There was no point in getting into any trouble this early in my stay, and really, what chance did I have against a seasoned veteran of these mean streets? He could be carrying any kind of weapon, any kind of disease and any kind of grudge, so a left turn and quick step towards a more secluded part of this section of town was required, post haste! My retreat was brief. Before I knew what was happening, there were at least 5 other bodies blocking my path to freedom. My new best friend in life had called in reinforcements. Where they had come from, I had no idea, all I knew was I was surrounded and about to become chicken feed for this madding crowd. I decided to take the bull by the horns and go on the offensive. In my broad Glaswegian accent, I blurted out loud.
“You fuckers want to take on one of the Queen’s guard?” To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to say that, but it stopped them all in their tracks, totally bemused, dumfounded and unable to continue on their path, a path which I presumed, meant beating the shit out of my fragile being. So there we all were, in a stand off of sorts, just like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Them, surrounding me, and me, with bravado now my only friend, about to embark on a Scottish tirade of foul abusive language in the hope that I could cuss better than them, and that my profanity would be enough to ensure they knew I wouldn’t be a pushover should a fight ensue. I was shit scared, and about to pee my own pants when my voice took over, promptly.
“You stupid Yankee fuckers! Come any closer, I will knock seven bells of shit out of all of you, AND, I will take great pride in doing so, for the Commonwealth, for The Queen, and most of all for the great country of Scotland!” Silence. They stopped. They didn’t know what to do. I had them flummoxed, and all of their intentions too, with my brief but effective words. They backed off, at least most of them did, but, as is always the case, there is always one that has to go that extra mile, that half yard further. And, here he came. His long black coat looked menacing enough, never mind that ‘kill’ tattoo wrapped around his neck. He was coming closer and closer and then, without notice, other than is ugly face and bad breath, he was on top of me with his hand wrapped round my throat.
“Tonight my friend, you die” was all he could say.
Looking at him, trying hard to breathe, I smiled, as best I could, and in a very quiet voice, I spoke these immortal words. “I do?” He looked at me, and laughed, then let go, and stood up looking down at my body, which by now was squirming with fear on the sidewalk. “No, you don’t” And just like that, he offered his hand in friendship and elevated me back up to a standing position as if nothing had ever happened. What the fuck was going on?
“Never seen you here before my friend?” Geez! Now I was his friend? I was so confused, but I ceased on this opportunity to get comfortable in my new skin, and befriend, what I hoped, would be my ticket to a good nights sleep.
“Alan” I said, as my hand was outstretched looking for natural reciprocation. He just looked back, never offering anything other than all of the mistrust that was written right across his beaten face. He was obviously the leader of this ‘pack’, but right now his voice was bathed in silence as he tried hard to sum up exactly who I was and why I was standing here, in front of them, so obviously a complete contrast to anything they were used to. His mind was working hard and I could see that the computation he had arrived at was so far away from what he’s expected, he was actually dumbfounded.
“Why you here?” he asked, talking in a language without verbs.
“Same reason you are, I need a place to stay, I have no money, no food, no friends, and no hope” They laughed.
“No, why you in this country?” He wasn’t smiling.
“I got lost on the ocean, and was washed up in that bay” I said, as I pointed to the water at the end of the street. Sarcasm seemed to be working, and suddenly some of his cohorts were laughing.
“Yep, that’s what I said” hoping now that being a ‘foreigner’ amongst them would have its advantages. They looked at one another, and then at their leader, the one who’d flattened me, and it seemed they were deciding whether to invite me into their little ‘gang’ for the evening.
“Got any money?”
“Fuck” he was pissed. “Weed?” he was getting more pissed by the second. “Pills?” I shook my head in the negative. “OK” he said, “Come with us. It’s time to scavenge” And with that last statement, his whole crew, including me, got up, and started to march, just like an army unit, although, without weapons, food and direction, I failed to see the purpose of this little adventure. Right now I was tired, lonely, scared, and intrigued, and this was just the beginning of what would become, one of the longest nights of my entire life. But for now, I was content to join this madding crowd, in the hope of a bed, some food and perhaps, and I use this word lightly, some friendship.
To be continued……..