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.