I got into San Francisco late because, somewhere south of Bakersfield, I had accidentally left the Interstate and didn’t realize it for about 30 miles. Must have missed a split or something, and so ended up on a highway tacking northeast. I should have recognized it when the traffic lightened and the lanes narrowed, but it was night, and I had passed the excitement stage of the road trip and entered into a grim, 300-mile grind.
The San Joaquin Valley is flat and brown and looks basically the same from any point, if you’re not paying attention, especially at night.
I was on the old Highway 99-E. It’s what used to be the main north-south route on the West Coast. I couldn’t cut over back to the I-5 until after Bakersfield, through some town called Wasco, I think it was. The only other cars on the two-lane road were 18-wheelers, probably hauling produce or chickens. The air smelled of dirt and cow shit and early summer as it whistled through the window.
Anyway, so I rolled into San Francisco sometime around 3 a.m. A friend was letting me crash on her coach. She lived in an apartment in North Beach and had left a key under the mat. She was already asleep. I didn’t see her at all.
I slept on her couch for three hours and woke up to move my car before the meters started. I didn’t have a ticket, and my car hadn’t been broken into, which was a relief because nearly all of my possessions were crammed into it.
It was clear morning. I could see Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, and a fog bank sitting out by the Golden Gate. I decided to get coffee and something to eat before I left.
As I was walking back to my car, I saw a homeless man sleeping in the alcove of a building. He was wrapped in a moldy brown blanket riddled with holes. He was barefoot, and his trousers were shredded up to mid-shin. He was splayed, stomach-down on the bare concrete under the blanket. He was one of the most destitute homeless people I’d seen in America, even San Francisco, which has a lot of homeless.
A middle-aged woman stopped in front of the homeless man and took out a small digital camera. She was wearing a visor and a sweatshirt tied around her waist—a tourist uniform. Maybe she wasn’t, but that’s what she looked like. Solid upper-middle class, short, graying hair and glasses with gentle, rounded frames. And she took a picture of the man in the alcove while he slept there, unaware.
A lot of things went through my head. Why was she taking the picture? What value did it have for her? Did she consider this a Kodak moment from her visit to San Francisco, one she wanted to remember?
“Go fuck yourself,” is what came out of my mouth as I walked past.
The woman wheeled on me without hesitation, like a dog startled out of a fighting dream . “Go fuck yourself,” she snarled.
I had thought I would throw her off-balance, but instead I was walking away with my jaw hanging. In an alternate universe, that woman is a third-world warlord or an outlaw biker (“Hell’s Librarians MC”).
I got to my car and drove 10 hours to a bar in Eugene, Oregon and ordered a pitcher of beer.