Nothing Left to Say

Four a.m. and the phone call comes. Already I know as I rush to the phone exactly what waits on the line: My sister’s voice, struggling to get the words out. “Dad’s dying.” The words still a shock, words that speak reality into being. Don’t mention it. Don’t say it. Don’t make it real. A code my parents lived by for so long. Maybe it will go away, without doctors, without help, by faith alone.

Faith. That word, too, hangs empty in the air.

Four a.m. and there’s nothing left to say. I wish I could be there. I wish I could’ve talked to him. I wish I had spoken up. It doesn’t matter now. Words don’t matter now. Perhaps they never did.

Four twenty-six and there’s nothing left to do. The ER doctors have done all they could. “I think they’re going to pronounce him soon,” my sister says. They’ll say the words. The end will come. Like magic, speaking death into existence. Don’t say it, and maybe it won’t be true.

Four thirty-eight and there’s nothing left to feel. Shock, disbelief, anger, sadness have all washed over me in waves. They will return to scrub my mind again until it’s clean and whole, ready to face the pain that comes with living, and the cruel fact that everything must die. Even you. Even I. Those we hold closest to our hearts. Those we wish we’d held closer. 

Five thirteen and there’s nothing left to write, except, “I love you, Dad.”

Handlebars and Scars

Act One

Too fast! Too fast! Afraid to lift my gaze, I watch orange parking stripes fly by beneath the bicycle’s spinning tires. The Methodist church parking lot is a vast ocean of black asphalt that threatens to devour me. “Don’t let go, Daddy.” The ground’s surface that once seemed so benign now tilts at a grotesque angle. The training wheels no comfort. The brakes no remedy for the terrifying speed. My father’s hand, holding onto the seat beneath me, the only thing to keep me from flying off into that awful open space. Willful, stubborn child. She will not learn to ride the bike. And yet I did not fall.

Act Two

Time to try again. A lovely, sunny day. A quiet path beside the still lake. “That’s it. You can do it.” Again, my father’s hand beneath the seat, running fast, steadying the bicycle as I tentatively pedal forward, training wheels leaving the ground as I gain speed. Over the bridge, loud sound of bicycle tires on wooden slats. I see the water below. Sickening tilt before the training wheels reach the ground. Too far! Too fast! Awful feeling of imbalance, my body floating in space above the firm, hard ground. Stubborn, willful child. Sell the bicycle. It is no use. She will not learn. And yet I did not fall. 

Act Three

Evening falling fast. Cool, crisp fall air. Time to ride the bicycle – fast! Speeding down the steep driveway and into the street. Push hard. Pedal fast. Punish the body, willful, stubborn thing. A girl trapped in a woman’s body, rounded hips, soft, curving thighs. Pedal harder. Burn, burn, burn the flesh away. Bend the will. Sudden flight, flying fast over the handlebars. Sudden meeting with the firm, hard ground. Blackness. How long lying on the street in the fog of evening? Who knows? Walking now on unsteady feet, leaning on the handlebars, eyes on the pavement. Feeling with my tongue where teeth used to be. Put away the bike. Walk into the house. “Hey, hey, what happened there?” Kent, the family friend, staying calm, cheerful, trained as a paramedic not to show panic. “Everything’s going to be OK. Just be calm. Stay with me.” Walk past him, into my bedroom — no, wait, the bathroom. Look into the mirror. Funhouse mirror, reality suddenly tilts at a grotesque angle. My mom beside me, upset, panicked: “What happened!” The bicycle forgotten, the brain reboots. “I don’t know. I was just lying in bed, and when I got up …” 

Dad’s calm hands on the steering wheel, controlling the speed as we rush to the hospital. The world outside the windows now dark. The world inside my head gray as twilight, synapses switching on and off like a light bulb on the fritz. Emergency room, CAT scan, six shots of Novocain in the tender skin around the mouth, and then the doctor’s slow, careful needle, slight tug as he closes the ragged flesh. Weeks later, scabs gone, porcelain in place of teeth, I am ready to ride the bike again, but it is gone.

Trust will not tolerate training wheels, and yet the scars remain.

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.