His name is Richard and he sells dreams.
We met him on a street corner in Chinatown, my sister and I. We were doing a bit of sightseeing my first week in San Francisco. After eating delicious vegan Chinese food and even more delicious fortune cookie flats, hot off the press, we were ready to catch an Uber back to my new apartment across town. Waiting for a light at a street corner, the man stopped us and introduced himself.
His name was Richard, and while I suspected he had an “angle,” he didn’t look like a panhandler. Trim and nicely dressed, he had a camera around his neck like a tourist. He began to talk with us about the Chinese Historical Museum, pointing to a high-rise building a hilly block or two up the street. Whatever your heart desired, it seemed, could be found behind its high and stony walls. On his digital camera, he showed us photographs of tables piled with food fit for a king,” the best in all of San Francisco.” He scrolled through photo after photo of lavish interiors, spectacles of light and color, rooms with fairytale views of the city. Intimate spaces one could rent for a nap should you grow tired of exploring all the wonders within that magical building.
I suspected the stories he spun were not true and yet his delivery was mesmerizing, each photo and story more spectacular than the last.
Every time we tried to politely pull away, he would draw us back with gentle persuasion.
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” he said, waxing philosophical.
“You are un poco Chino,” he said, looking into our eyes that revealed the Latin heritage my sister and I share. He talked of how we were all connected, all originally from the same family.
As the wind grew brisk, the pictures continued, each more fantastic than the last. He came to an image of a small group of people merrily rowing a boat worthy of Venice through canals he claimed ran right through that tall building. The photo looked like a still from a movie set and I knew beyond doubt that there was no truth to his grand ruse. The spell was broken.
Shivering in our thin coats, we were eager to leave when he finally made his pitch. Tourism was down since COVID and while the merchants of Chinatown had recruited him as an ambassador to drum up business, they could not afford to pay him. Could we spare a dollar or two for the cause?
I gave him the last three dollars in my wallet, which he accepted with a bow. It seemed a small price to pay to this strange merchant of dreams on a chilly San Francisco night.