The streets of San Francisco. I spend my first evening in the Marina district, visiting Allison. After we share a couple rolls of sushi, I wander down Chestnut Street while she takes care of some errands. I dig into my pockets and deposit 75 cents into the grubby cup of a guy not much older than me sitting with his back to a parking meter. He’s been on the streets here for two years, he tells me. He came from Columbus, Ohio for a change of scenery. He sleeps on that stoop across the street behind us. He’s friendly and he seems intelligent. “What do you do all day, man? What do you do with your time?” I ask. I’m trying to understand whether he is homeless by choice, and if he’s doing anything to improve his situation. He looks up at me and rattles his cup. “All day?” I ask. “Yep.” “How much do you normally come away with?” He peers into the cup. “I’ve probably got about $12 right now. Ima see if I can get another 5 or 6 tonight.” He will use that money to buy two pints of vodka, he promptly informs me. “I gotta drink it to keep myself warm at night, you know? But I gotta stop around two in the morning—at 7, when I go to pick up my methadone, they breathalyze me. So I get my BAC down, then dose in the morning, then keep drinking.” “Ah.” “You hungry dude?” He pulls out a box of donuts and offers it to me.
Later I cross the street to meet up with Allison. A trolley car full of elderly women singing Christmas carols rolls by and stops directly in front of me. They all wave vigorously from ten feet away, grinning. I smile and wave back. They continue to sing. “We’re serenading you, young man!” One of them calls out to me.
Allison and I sit in cafes, eat mangoes, and cook white rice. When I drop her off at the airport on Friday, I think about how grateful I am that our friendship has endured these five years since boarding school, despite distance or time between us.
I continue to explore the city through coffee. Christina meets me at a café downtown. People on the street return my nods, and some even say good morning. I finish reading Dharma Bums. I buy a set of sharpie markers that I will use to design shoes and hats that I hope to sell. I can feel myself beginning to settle into something. I search for the Mission District one afternoon and end up lost, sucked onto the 101 in San Francisco rush hour traffic. It takes two hours of bumper-to-bumper madness before I can undo my mistake, yet strangely I feel no stress as taillights burn and horns blare around me. I have nowhere to be.
In Inner Richmond, with Faith. I sit cross legged and bounce ideas off of her, and she sets me straight when what I say is nonsense. She tells me how to take the bus to the Mission, and my second attempt to penetrate this region is successful one rainy afternoon. A café with a pure vanilla latte, free wifi, wooden tables. I sit at a table by the rain-streaked window, the sound of traffic and passing conversations seeping through the glass as I write. On this block alone, I’ve found this café, a used bookshop, and a bike rental shop. I read the first couple chapters of Tales of a Female Nomad.
I step into the bike shop on impulse, to ask unreasonable questions about long-distance bicycle touring. I end up talking to a guy who has actually pedaled from Western China to Istanbul. He tells me stories about traversing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. Irresponsible ideas begin to blossom in my brain.
I learn that they buy, sell, and trade at the bookshop. I don’t have any books I’m ready to give away, but it’s good to know that I’ll be able to replenish my supply as I move. I ask the cashier where I can find the cheapest food around here, and he recommends a pizza place. I pay $2.80 and they hand me “one slice” that is several times the size of my face.
I relocate to the Haight, and then after dark I wait for the bus near Hippy Hill. A woman in a Santa hat is dancing provocatively in front of an old man who is grinning lustfully. Bob Dylan blasts from a boombox and the man begins to spank Santa Hat Woman. Meanwhile, a dude is having a showdown with a nearby trashcan. “Oakland Mofucka!” He shouts at the receptacle. “Gibbering babblish you Oakland shit.” A guy stumbles by with a leash in one hand and a half-consumed 40 of Olde English in the other. His dog trots over to where Santa Hat Woman is now bent over in front of the old man, her body moving to Bob, and the dog removes the Santa hat from her head, shaking it and growling. “Ha!” Oakland guy shouts at the trash. “I’ll cut your fucking head off!” Soon, Santa Woman bounces over to me, smiling. “Here, have a Christmas cookie!” “Ah, thank you, but I’m ok.” “Out of respect, take it.” “No really, I’ve already eaten—” Her smile vanishes. “I don’t give a fuck. Take the cookie.” I take the cookie. “Merry Christmas!” She shouts as she bounces away.
Back at Faith’s place, between cups of tea, I sample her home-brewed “Losing Daylight” beer as we peel persimmons to make honey rum persimmon butter. In the morning, she sends me off with fresh herbs clipped from her garden and a photograph of us barreling north on a train through rural Japan. She directs me to the Blue Danube Coffee House, where I write in one of the communal journals that lives in the café. Downtown, touched by rain as I wander through the farmer’s market, I walk away with a $1 bag of kiwis and a 10lb bag of fresh oranges that I buy for $5.