Jeffrey was walking along Larkin Street through San Francisco's Tenderloin district towards the Civic Center Plaza. He was stopped at a red light at the corner of Geary Street and saw Jenny, a nervous, emaciated neighborhood addict pacing about the doorway of the Outsider bar, talking to herself or someone Jeffrey couldn't see. She had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and bright vacant blue eyes. It wasn't so long ago that Jeffrey thought her beautiful, or something close to it. Today she appeared particularly haggard, as if something unpleasant she'd been managing to avoid thus far had finally caught up with her.
“Hey, babe,” she said, wobbling on her heels, “you got a dollar or two? I need a fucking burrito and cigarettes really fucking bad. I'm dying here.”
“Sure, I got ya.” Jeffrey pulled out his wallet, planning to give her a few dollars, and opened it to find only a twenty. After double and then triple checking his pockets for something smaller, he pulled the bill from his wallet and handed it to her.
Her eyes lit up. “Shit man, you fucking saved my day!” She clasped her skinny arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Her breath was hot and stank of whiskey, her body of old sick sweat.
“Not a problem,” Jeffrey said, pulling away to cross the street.
“Pop by here on your way home, and we'll get a drink, honey!” she called. Jeffrey smiled and waved his arm.
On the block between Ellis and Eddy Streets ragged tents of the homeless lined the sidewalks on either side. Empty-eyed addicts, street dealers, and the generally destitute wandered openly about the street, oblivious and impervious to the traffic. Undesirables, herded by the powers that be into the concentrated area of a handful of blocks and largely left alone, so that the rest of the city might remain tourist friendly. An impressive array of dreck was strewn about the concrete or loaded into grocery carts for sale or barter. Obscure videotapes, CDs, cassettes, and warped record albums. Tattered books and pornographic magazines. Expired food products. Piles of mismatched shoes and obsolete textbooks. Broken luggage and crates of busted cookware. Bundles and strings of useless wires and cords knotted and coiled together like piles of lifeless snakes. An open-air museum of things that nobody wanted or ever would. People were arguing with ghosts, aliens, the air. Pissing in doorways and on the hubcaps of cars. Prone and inert on the sidewalks and in the gutters.
An altercation was happening between two men outside a tent on the sidewalk in front of a Vietnamese sandwich shop. A scrawny shirtless man who bore a genuinely striking resemblance to Charles Manson was throwing what looked to be chunks of meat at another man who was holding a large piece of cardboard before him as a shield. “Get out of here!” the man with the cardboard yelled, “Get out of here or I'm going to fuck you up!”
The man with the meat chunks hesitated and then chucked another volley of three or four pieces. A skeletal woman sitting outside a tent drinking a tall can of malt liquor turned to the meat chucker and yelled, “Go! Just go! He's gonna beat your dumb ass if you don't!” The man's meat ammunition appeared to be spent and he grabbed an almost empty bottle of something from the sidewalk, tucking it under his arm. He kicked over a crate of assorted broken things, flipped off the man with the cardboard shield and ran down Eddy Street yelling about how fucked someone was going to be when they saw him again.
Jeffrey stood among a small group of passersby who had paused to watch the scene. Carnage of some kind or another in the neighborhood was an ever-present fact, but some animal thing within him wouldn't let him continue on his way if there were the possibility of violence to be witnessed. Things settled down to the usual level of minor chaos and he continued on through blocks of tents and waste.
Outside the Civic Center station, the man to whom Jeffrey assigned the name Rasputin was at his usual place, pacing about, mumbling to himself, making indecipherable hand gestures. He was a cartoon version of someone who had been stranded on a desert island or neglected in a small prison cell for many years. He wore broken sandals and was adorned in tattered rags of things that once perhaps were valid pieces of clothing. Wiry, stray tufts of hair sprouted haphazardly from his otherwise bald head. He wore a long and matted gray-black beard. Rasputin spotted Jeffrey from quite a distance, as he always did, and raised his arm, palm faced open in front of him as was his custom, like an arcane greeting from some secret society. “My friend,” Rasputin shouted in Jeffrey's direction, “my friend!” Jeffrey raised his arms in a gesture meant to convey that he regrettably had nothing to offer. Rasputin positioned himself at the entrance to the underground station and continued his two-word litany as Jeffrey grew closer. “My friend! My friend!” “My friend,” Rasputin said once more when Jeffrey reached the stairway.
Jeffrey again haplessly raised his arms and said, “Sorry man, I got nothing today.”
“Tomorrow,” Jeffrey assented. Rasputin nodded his head resignedly and put out his fist. Jeffrey bumped it with his own and headed down the stairs into the station. He made his way to the trains and waited with the late afternoon crowd at the edge of the platform. To his left was a large angry man stuffed inside a wheelchair that was a good amount too small for his body. He had gray stringy hair that sat heavy on his shoulders and a formidable beard, stained and unkempt. He wore a gray tank top, stained as well. Despite the chilly weather, he wore dark blue shorts, his oversized legs spilling out of them, white and sad, with large bandages wrapped about the knees. He wore tattered black tennis shoes, only one of which had laces. He sat there scowling in his chair like a bitter and defeated Santa.
The man talked incessantly, a barrage of insults complimented by droplets of spittle. Initially, Jeffrey assumed the insults were aimed at no one in particular, just the traitorous universe itself, until he noticed a small middle-aged Asian woman standing to the left of the man's chair. She had bobbed gray-black hair and thick glasses with large circular lenses and wore something that resembled surgeons' scrubs. Jeffrey realized that the man's tirade was directed at her. She occasionally nodded slightly with solemn contrition and offered whispered apologies. Or she would just listen with her head hung low as if she were a child being chastised. Jeffrey guessed her to be the man's caretaker. At her side was a large aluminum stroller carrying four paper bags of groceries.
“Do you know how long I had to wait at checkout before you arrived?” the man asked. The woman stood silent, looking to the ground. “Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Do you know how embarrassing that is? Sitting there at the counter with my cart full of groceries like an idiot, with no way to pay for them! The man at the register looked at me like I was a dog turd, It was a nightmare! Twenty minutes! I told you to be there at four, and you know I get done early sometimes! The ice cream must be half melted...the meat will be spoiled by the time we get home...unacceptable!” He looked around at the others waiting on the platform, hoping to find something in their faces that offered empathy for his incomprehensible situation. The people gazed expressionlessly at their feet and their phones. The man continued his berating, the bits of spittle flying from his mouth, the woman silently taking it. Jeffrey tried to stop listening.
The train arrived and the sea of passengers exiting parted to either side of the man in the wheelchair as he careened onboard, yelling that he was disabled and their ineptitude at departing the train in a timely manner could well prevent him from getting home at a reasonable hour. His assistant was close behind, pushing the trolley of groceries.
Jeffrey filed on board with the rest. He passed the wheelchair man and glanced at the assistant's face. In her eyes, he imagined a momentary flickering of something he took as a plea for help, or mercy, or understanding, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared, her eyes once more dully resigned. He shuffled on and found a space two cars down.
The train was crowded and Jeffrey stood in the middle of the car pressed close to his fellow commuters. Laid out on his side across two of the seats in the center of the car was a man of no discernible age wearing a heavy trench coat. His eyes were glazed and half open. He held out his hand open-palmed in silent want when someone chanced to look his way, and mechanically lowered it again when it was obvious nothing would be offered. He was a figure from a haunted carnival ride, performing his rote movements repeatedly to the discomfort of those around him. Jeffrey stood a few feet away and from the corner of his eye, he saw the man's arm rise and fall in this manner numerous times before he dug around in his pockets to find three quarters, a dime, and two nickels. He put them in the man's hand the next time it was raised. “Thank you,” the man said in a quiet and amiable voice.
“You're welcome, sir,” Jeffrey replied, turning his attention to his phone.
“Hey,” the man continued, “I don't do no drugs or nuthin. I drink, though. Just beer. I just drink me some big 'ol beers.” The man smiled to himself, thinking about it.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Jeffrey said.
“Just some big 'ol beers,” the man repeated, smiling. He stretched his hand out again as the train stopped at the 16th and Mission Street station and a good amount of people filed on and off, averting their gazes as they did.
A young red-haired woman boarded the train and stood to Jeffrey's left. With one hand she clung to the strap hanging from the ceiling of the car, in the other she cradled a phone. She typed into the phone with impeccable nails attached to fine, delicate fingers which danced across the tiny keyboard with remarkable grace and speed. The woman was engrossed with whatever was happening on her phone, which allowed Jeffrey to gaze upon her unabashedly. She had a pale, elfin face, perfectly adorned with a smattering of faint freckles. She laughed silently to herself and bit her bottom lip as she typed. A faint perfume drifted from her that brought to Jeffrey's mind the color of pink.
Jeffrey imagined himself someone who possessed the power to lightly touch her shoulder, somehow, in a manner neither creepy nor threatening, and tell her she was beautiful. To strike up a conversation in a way that wasn't awkward. People did it all the time, supposedly. He saw it in movies and on TV. It happened in books, and he'd witnessed it himself in bars, libraries, and grocery stores. Yet it seemed such an impossible thing to put into execution. He could find no entrance to such a world.
He forced his eyes from the woman and back to the man stretched out on the seats, who put out his hand as he sensed Jeffrey's gaze. Jeffrey gave him a quick smile and a nod then turned back to the red-haired girl to find her engaged in conversation with a young man of unremarkable presence wearing a backward baseball cap and a San Francisco Giants jersey. They were talking as easily as a pair of intimate friends, though as best as Jeffrey could tell they had been strangers just moments before.
The train reached the 24th Street stop, Jeffrey's destination. The man in the wheelchair barreled his way through the crowded car. “I need to get out first,” he shouted, “I need to get out first!” The assistant trailed with head hung low, pushing the melted ice cream and the spoiling meat in the rickety cart. The man was there, stretched out across the two seats, his eyes far away and his hand stretched out wordlessly.
Jeffrey emerged from the station out into the plaza at 24th and Mission Streets and maneuvered his way through people trying to sell him things he didn't want, asking him for things he didn't have to give. He sat down on a metal bench to tie his shoe. The plaza was scattered with people in broken wheelchairs, riding stolen bikes or electronic scooters, propped up with cranes or crutches. Boom boxes sat on the cement or on benches, booming.
A group of young, attractive people were setting up tables and handing out pamphlets. A blonde woman who looked like any number of local newscasters from most any small town in America was doing a mic check in preparation for a proselytizing session. Christian country music was playing from the sound system as her associates passed out cookies and muffins to encourage the sinners to stick around for the Jesus talk. None assembled there had any real expectation of being saved, but from experience, they knew more baked goods would be handed out at the end, so they found places to sit with their muffins and malt liquor. A Mexican woman was pushing an ice cream cart festooned with little bells in a slow circle around the plaza, giving the scene a surreal Christmas-like soundtrack.
Jeffrey headed South on Mission Street, his destination the art-house theater currently screening a newly restored version of Pandora's Box, the silent film starring Louise Brooks. He made it a few blocks until he came upon a large police presence spread about as far as he could see. Assorted police cars and trucks were parked haphazardly in the streets, as well as a handful of ambulances, firetrucks and other official-looking vehicles.
He walked until the yellow police tape forced him to stop. He stood with the crowds of onlookers and denizens of the neighborhood who were arguing in vain with the officers in attempts to convince them to allow them return to their homes located within the taped-off areas. Jeffrey asked some of the assembled people what exactly was happening. The best he understood after patching together various accounts was that a hit-and-run driver had plowed into three pedestrians, critically injuring two of them. The driver struck a man in a crosswalk at 19th and Mission, pinning him against the side of a northbound bus. The car then leaped onto the sidewalk and struck two passengers, a man and a woman, who were exiting the bus. The car continued awhile on the sidewalk at a very high rate of speed. The driver and a passenger initially fled the scene but eventually returned and were detained.
Jeffrey asked an officer how long it might be before the area was cleared and the officer replied, however long it takes. Jeffrey stood there thinking how the comic book shop he had hoped to visit was in the restricted area as well. He turned around and walked back toward the station. When he got to the plaza the blonde woman was telling everyone how merciful Jesus was if you made the choice to open your heart. The amplification was turned up very high in order to drown out the boomboxes and the general cacophony. Some of those gathered about were sipping from tall cans in brown paper bags as they learned about the paradise that waited for them if they but cared to embrace it. Others were sleeping, making drug deals, wandering uselessly about, staring wide-eyed to the sky as the sun shone down upon it all like some unconscionable machine forged for the sole purpose of manufacturing loneliness. Two skater kids seated on concrete steps were shooting up between their toes, and Jeffrey started back down the stairs into the station wondering if Jenny might still be at the bar.