Good Decisions

Note: This post reveals my unconscious biases. I own that and realize how flawed they were in this case. But this post is also about an experience that many women share in navigating the world alone. I believe both things can be true.

I arrived at the trailhead early on a weekday morning. After winding through a maze of tortuous residential streets, I wedged my rented convertible precariously at the top of a dead-end street. Sitting in the car, I studied Google, trying to determine if I was in the right place to begin a hike billed as having one of the best views in Santa Barbara. After several moments, I got out of the car, grabbed my inadequate bottle of water, texted my friend in Texas and headed in the direction I supposed the trailhead to be. 

A few paces later, I heard a car door slam behind me. I had noticed the truck—it was massive, with oversized offroad tires and a license plate that read “Renegade”—but I hadn’t noticed anyone in it. Not wanting to conspicuously look back, I kept walking. Stepping off the road and onto the dusty trail, I turned around to look for a trail marker, stall for time, and get a look at the person behind me. I realized then that it was only the two of us on the trail that morning. Not knowing what else to do, I asked him if I was in the right spot to hike the trail.

“Yeah, it starts here. Want to hike it together?” he asked.

I immediately began to run a rapid mental calculation about whether this was a good idea. I was alone on vacation. He was tall and young, and thus bigger and stronger than me, with tattoos in gothic script running up and down his arms and neck. Dressed in jeans, a plain t-shirt, and sneakers, nothing about him suggested hiking enthusiast. As my brain raced through these calculations, it occurred to me that he might have been waiting for me to get out of the car before following me to the trailhead—the timing certainly seemed suspect. And yet … something about him seemed trustworthy. I think it was the bottle of orange Gatorade that finally convinced me—it seemed like a reasonable thing to take on a hike.

“Sure,” I said, my heart pounding in my throat.

I let him lead the way and continued to scan the trail frantically for other hikers, but it was just the two of us. I began to make conversation, talking about my family, searching for connection.

“Oh, you were humanizing yourself,” a friend later told me as I recounted the story. I was amazed at how quickly she was able to label this strategy we both had apparently internalized for making ourselves less murderable.

As we continued to hike, Renegade and I talked about our dogs and our siblings and our mothers’ cooking. He told me that Santa Barbara was still affordable for working-class families like the ones he and I had grown up in. As we slowly made our way through the rocky winding path, I began to feel more at ease. Kind and considerate, he offered me a hand up on tough passes. At the top of the trail, we took selfies and paused to enjoy the view. I felt an occasional gentle hand on my back as we made our way back down. At the end of the hike, I felt equal parts glad that Renegade didn’t murder me and guilty that I had judged him based on his truck and tattoos. 

But this isn’t a story about Renegade … or even about me. It’s about the dozens of micro-choices that women make every day to avoid being raped or mugged or murdered simply because of our lesser size and the fact that we have something that can be taken by force. These choices might take the shape of walking on the other side of the street from a construction site, getting off the bus three stops early to bypass that station, cutting a run short to beat the darkness, or huddling for safety with other women on a lonely train car. 

Hiking with Renegade turned out to be a good decision. But just as easily, it could have meant ditching the hike and missing out on something I really wanted to experience just because I happened to be traveling alone as a woman … or it could have meant an abandoned rental car and my body at the bottom of the ravine. 

These decisions might seem like minor inconveniences, but they abridge our freedoms and take up space in our brains and are part of the fabric of living life as a woman on this planet.

I’ll Have Three Orange Fanta and a Cup of Kindness

He rolled up to the bus stop at Ocean Beach in a fedora and worn suit jacket with nothing underneath, pushing a cart of sundry provisions. 

“It is only one bus at this stop?” he said in accented English. 

“Yes, the 5 bus,” I replied. 

My friend and I had walked the length of Golden Gate Park on a perfect sunny, San Francisco day. After spending some time gazing at the ocean, we were hungry and looking for a quick ride back into The Haight. 

As we walked up to the bus stop, he had asked my friend for a cigarette, and I had begun to make that mental calculation of whether to engage.

As we sat waiting for the 5 bus, he continued to talk about the cigarette.

“I only want a cigarette when I’m at the beach, something about the water, it makes me want to smoke … and when I’m with my lady, of course,” he said. “Don’t judge.”

We nodded in silent agreement. He was coherent and polite, a bit eccentric, perhaps homeless, but harmless.

A few minutes later, the articulated bus rolled up, and my friend and I took a seat in the back section, while he sat near the front. While I fumbled for my backup bus pass, he proceeded to knock back three cans of orange Fanta in quick succession, and that’s when things got weird.

A younger man sitting in front of us began to get agitated.

“Are you going to clean that up?” he asked the older man, who continued to drink his Fanta, dropping cans that rolled around the bus floor, spilling their sticky remnants as other passengers hopped on and off the bus.

“Bus driver,” the young man yelled. “This man is deliberately creating a hazard here for other passengers.” 

The bus rolled on.

“Bus driver, you need to call the police and report this man. If you don’t, I’m taking down your bus number and having your license revoked,” the young man threatened.

The older man muttered something about being on the way to the hospital. Standing up to shift to another seat, his worn pants sagged down, exposing his bare backside. 

“Bus driver!!” the young man shouted. “This man is exposing himself to the entire back row of the bus and creating a deliberate hazard with his Fanta. I need you to call the FBI.

“Call the FBI,” the older man scoffed. “It’s none of your business who I expose myself to.”

“Bus driver, are you going to call the police? I don’t think this man is going to the hospital after drinking three orange Fanta.”

The exchange escalated a bit until the older man finally made his way to the front exit, showing even more of his bare behind in the process.

As the doors opened, someone kicked an empty can of Fanta to the curb as the older man made his exit, leaving one can of Fanta on the seat he had occupied.

“Do you see this, bus driver?” the young man said, determined to have the last word. “He left this empty can of Fanta on the seat deliberately so that it would spill.” 

From the curb, the older man shouted something in his native tongue and raised three fingers in the air.

As the bus rolled on, the Fanta can stood defiantly upright, resisting the bumps and jostling along the way. Nearing our stop, I decided to do something about this “hazard,” and reached for the can on our way out the door. It was empty.

Reflecting later on the whole episode, I thought about how much different the old man had seemed at the bus stop and I wondered, again, whether what we put out into the universe is what we get in return. 

Shop Windows of Sadness

We live our lives on display in this city … shop windows of sadness. One: A girl strokes her grey cat and curls up on a sectional with a pillow between her knees, windows open to the unseasonably warm February breeze. Two: A cat sits on a dais fit for a deity, a king or queen of her domain. Three: Faith stands tethered to the wall while her owner gets something from the kitchen and then roughly grabs her leash and takes her for a walk. Child of the pandemic, Faith has had a rough day today, yelping all day in protest of her captivity. All of us here … alone.

Going Off the Rails

I had an appointment in The Mission, so I decided to take BART instead of Muni, and what a contrast that was. BART looks like a 1970s version of the future—fast, streamlined cars with beige vinyl seats, wide aisles and lots of legroom. 

Within minutes of a boarding, I heard a commotion at the back of my car—a man yelling at the top of his lungs. He was ranting about how he used to be in charge of it all. He was the one, but then … his wife did something to his testicles.

“Oh, Lord Jesus, save me from this pain … in my groin, in my testicles,” he raved.

My first reaction was pity. What kind of pain, addiction and suffering drives a man to plead with God like that? I thought of the passage in the Bible that I had read just the night before about the boy who would throw himself on the ground and thrash about. Viewed through the modern lens of science, he was likely epileptic. The disciples could not heal him, but Jesus did, telling them offhandedly that it required fasting and prayer. 

Soon the man on the train came into sight, pacing back and forth along the length of the car. He had left his blanket on the seat across from me and came to pick it up. He was young, white, casually dressed. Were it not for his behavior and the blanket, he would have been indistinguishable from all the other commuters on the early evening train.

He continued to rave as he paced energetically back and forth, gesturing wildly with his hands, spinning a tale about his wife, a lawsuit and Donald Trump. Passengers began to force their way into the next car via a somewhat dangerous passage between cars on a moving train. At one point, he stood directly in front of me and continued to rant about his testicles. I half expected him to pull his pants down. An older black man in a suit moved across the car to stand between me and the man who was ranting. 

I began to worry that the ranting man might be dangerous, so at the next stop I exited the car, along with every other female passenger, and quickly ran to the next car before the train left the stop. On my way out, I made eye contact and nodded at the man who had put his body between me and potential harm – hoping the gesture was enough to express my gratitude.

Where does the train stop for people trapped in pain and fear?

John Wayne Walks Like a Girl

I found myself one early Saturday morning working at the food pantry with two delightful older men, Clive and Stuart. They were old enough to have children my age and had lived full and rich lives. 

Clive was a lawyer from Upstate New York, who had lived in San Francisco for quite some time. Now retired, he enjoyed taking long walks in the city. Stuart was newer to the city than I was, still trying to make a mental map of this densely packed warren of hills and houses. So far, like me, he mostly lived life in his neighborhood, trekking to the Safeway at the top of the hill and exploring his little piece of urban forest.

The two men’s banter made the time fly by quickly though the chatter was apt to make them forget to put their assigned items in the bag.

“Slow down. You’re working me like a government mule,” Clive said, when we attempted to whisk away boxes he hadn’t yet supplied with rice.

“Isn’t that the name of a band?” I asked, sending us down a musical rabbit hole.

I mentioned that I was from Texas, and that prompted Clive to bring up John Wayne (who’s not from Texas but Iowa).

“John Wayne walks like a woman,” Stuart chimed in unprompted.

“Wait a just a minute,” Clive cried after recovering from the shock of Stuart’s impromptu musing.

Stuart was undeterred.

“Just watch him walk away in a movie some time. You’ll see.”

“Now Stuart, you’ve gone too far. I mean, John Wayne … he’s my hero.”

Stuart just shook his head, completely convinced of the truth of his observation.

Meanwhile, my sides were nearly splitting with laughter over this strange, unfettered observation.

And so, as the morning rolled on from one topic to the next — movies, music, city life — I kept a close eye on quality control and basked in the camaraderie of complete strangers.

Outside, the long, long lines of people filled their bags and walked away a little less empty. Inside, we filled our hearts with the joy of laughter and human contact made so precious in this strange pandemic world.

Merchant of Dreams

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.

Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Christmas morning dawned crisp and sunny with the promise of beautiful weather ahead. After a leisurely breakfast, I decide to walk my dog the third mile from one city park to the next. Descending Main Street, the scene gets predictably seedier as we leave behind the touristy hotels for dive bars and office buildings, all shuttered for the holidays. 

The homeless sleep in doorways. At the entrance to an optometrist’s shop, a man pulls his pants to his knees and urinates in a cup. Devoid of even traffic, the street is quiet and still, but there is no holiday from life on the streets. Oddly, not a single person asks me for money. I try to make eye contact but am met with mostly blank stares. 

On this most holy of days, the streets are a tapestry of sadness, a symphony of silence, a testament to the ragged edges of human frailty. 

Pizza Run

I’m not sure what made me notice his feet, but once I saw them I couldn’t get them out of my mind. 

Cruising through Victory Park at the end of an exhilarating long run, I catch a glance of a man sitting on a ledge outside of the stadium parking garage, right next to the luxury Lexus on permanent display. Running at a good clip, the scene doesn’t register in my brain until well after I pass him, but then I realize that his feet were red, blistered and painful looking. He had taken off a pair of uncomfortable looking black boots and set them on the ledge beside him. 

I remember that someone once told me socks and clean underwear can be a godsend to the homeless. Impulsively, I circle back to CVS, where I scour the shelves for a simple pair of non-diabetic men’s socks, all the while feeling foolish about this harebrained plan. What if he’s not there by the time I return? What if he’s not homeless and is insulted by my presumption? What if he’s angry, crazy or violent. All plausible possibilities, but I won’t forgive myself if don’t go back. 

Socks in hand, I run back to where I saw him and find him still there, eating pizza out of a Styrofoam shell. Tentatively, I hold out the socks.  Without saying a word, he stands up and embraces me, tears welling in his eyes. He thanks me and offers me some of his pizza, willing to share with me what might be his only meal that day. I think it is perhaps the most selfless gift anyone has ever offered me. I think that I have been blessed beyond measure for the price of a pair of five-dollar socks.

Homeless Holly Golightly

It’s Sunday morning, that time when the downtown streets are quiet, recovering from the madness of the night before … sleeping in, sleeping it off, waking up to the sticky heat of a summer morning. 

I’m walking with my dog to my favorite breakfast café. We pass the flagship downtown Neiman Marcus. He stands there gazing into the picture window at all that unattainable luxury, high heels and high-end cosmetics, polished floors and gleaming surfaces. He stands in rags, long, matted hair hiding his face. He’s one of the homeless “regulars” downtown; I’ve seen him in almost every area in the center city. I always notice him because he looks like one of my favorite singers … if he were to live on the streets.

I wonder what he’s thinking as he stands there staring. I think of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly seeking escape from the “mean reds” in the windows of Tiffany’s where “nothing very bad could happen to you.” I’ll never know. This particular man never speaks, rarely makes eye contact. I dare not break his silence, and so I leave him to his reverie and continue down the Sunday street alone.