When San Francisco, a place of beauty and mystery, is revealed as a city afflicted by unexpected poverty, an encounter with a literary hero alters some perspectives.
The guy reeling towards me was skinny, dishevelled, and could have been any age from 30 to 60. He didn’t look dangerous, but he was intent on blocking my way, and he had his hand out.
It would have been easy enough to sidestep and ignore him – I’d ignored plenty of others that day – but instead I put my hand in my pocket and thrust a crumpled five-dollar bill into his outstretched palm.
He stared at it, then lifted his fists to heaven and shouted, ‘One day! One day! Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! One day!’
Was he invoking the second coming of Christ, or did he think that I was the Messiah? Either way, it seemed best to move on. But he shouted after me: ‘Hey!’
I turned. He drew himself to attention, and, I swear – he saluted. I could think of nothing to do but salute right back.
The number of homeless people in San Francisco had shocked the hell out of me. They seemed to be everywhere – white, black, all genders, all ages, on benches and under bridges, on sidewalks and mounds of trash, some with obvious mental impairments or addictions. I’d hoped to find beauty and mystery in San Francisco, but the weight of human misery was doing my head in.
An obsessive city-wanderer, I’d been looking forward to exploring San Francisco. It didn’t hurt that my favourite writer, Rebecca Solnit, was from the place and had written extensively about it. Her books would be my guide to the city.
Solnit’s work is full of unexpected leaps as she traverses history, folktales, art, nature, feminism, the political and the personal, with no concern for boundaries. This way of writing, unpredictable and digressive, is also her approach to physical exploration. ‘The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you,’ she writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000).
So my intention was to improvise, with no fixed route in mind.
Solnit’s work is full of unexpected leaps as she traverses history, folktales, art, nature, feminism, the political and the personal, with no concern for boundaries.
I wasn’t leaving it totally to chance, though. I had with me another of Solnit’s books, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (2010). In this collection of mini-essays, alternative maps and photographs, she draws unlikely relationships between the city’s places and populations; its birds, butterflies and fish; its queer spaces and radical politics; its music, movies and murders.
I had earmarked a few locations, among them the church of St John Coltrane, where jazz is regarded as the path to God; and the Mission Dolores, where in 1957 Alfred Hitchcock had filmed a pivotal scene of my favourite film, Vertigo.
So the day had seemed rich in possibilities. But it hadn’t turned out that way. Instead, I found myself getting more depressed and pissed off. The social deprivation on display made me feel like a tourist perving on the despair of others.
Before the incident with the saluting beggar, there had been other surreal and disturbing moments: a young guy slumped against a trash can with a towel over his head that read ‘Ask me about chiropractic’; people with intense frowns, chuntering furiously to themselves as they schlepped trolleys and plastic bags through the streets; a strung-out, haggard woman in an alley, whistling desperately up at a window for someone or something.
What was going on in this city? How could a place so wealthy, tolerant and liberal become a hell of poverty and hopelessness?
I didn’t know it at the time, but Solnit had already answered these questions in her essays about the dotcom boom. In the early 21st century most of the world’s leading tech companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, eBay, Yahoo!) had set up in Silicon Valley. Their executives and staff work at the other end of the peninsula but live in San Francisco where they have bought brand new condos, eat in fancy restaurants, and are ferried to work in Google Buses.
The boom has inflated property prices to the point that ordinary people – teachers, nurses, bus drivers, artists – can’t afford to live in San Francisco. Rent controls are supposed to keep a lid on inflation, but landlords find ways around the rules, and people have been kicked out of homes they have lived in for decades. In such circumstances everyone is vulnerable but especially those affected by the other booming stocks of our era: mental illness and drug addiction.
Hoping to lift my mood I took a train to the Mission District where I found Clarion Alley, by repute one of the city’s best galleries of street art. Most of the work there is political, captioned with slogans like TAX THE RICH, EDUCATE TO LIBERATE and DESTROY CONDOS NOT ART, along with messages supporting Palestine and LGBTQI rights.
As I took photos, women were preaching the word of God in Spanish nearby; a couple of young guys in suits strode past, one saying loudly, ‘Yeah, but the problem is, if the economy tanks…’
I found myself in front of a mural titled ‘Narcania vs Death, the heroine who fights heroin overdoses’. It was in-your-face to say the least, with strong lines and vivid blocks of colour in cartoon style, showing a young woman on the verge of death before a winged superhero, Narcania, arrives and saves her.
I seldom cry, but I was standing there with tears rolling down my cheeks.
I seldom cry, but I was standing there with tears rolling down my cheeks. Maybe it was the general weirdness of the day, my tiredness or sense of dislocation, or the everyday tragedies I had seen around me, but at that moment this didactic street painting was the most moving work of art I had ever seen.
I pulled myself together, went to a cafe to drink an espresso among the beards and MacBooks, and decided to go in search of the Mission Dolores, which according to Infinite City was close by and unmissable.
In the scene from Vertigo, the retired detective Scottie (James Stewart) follows the mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak) to the cemetery, where some inner compulsion leads her to the grave of a long-dead ancestor. This, I thought, will rescue my day: a visit to the setting of one of the most haunting moments in cinema history.
Except I couldn’t find the cemetery. I wandered up and down the streets where Mission Dolores was supposed to be, past beautiful and colossally expensive houses, but time passed, the day grew hotter, and I became weary, as out of my depth as the hapless Scottie. How could I miss one of the most prominent buildings in San Francisco? What kind of urban explorer was I?
At this point, lost and exasperated, I chanced on a baroque fantasy of a building, with a white tower a bit like the one from which Madeleine falls to her death in Vertigo, except that it was topped by an elaborate dome. I stopped to take a closer look, wishing I could see inside.
How could I miss one of the most prominent buildings in San Francisco? What kind of urban explorer was I?
The building was the Mission High School, and a band – the Brass Liberation Orchestra, I later found out – was playing jazz on the street. The music was joyful and boisterous, and my spirits began to lift. It was almost 2pm on a Sunday, but groups of people were rolling up.
Flyers on the door announced that the event was a memorial service for Ted Gullicksen. I didn’t know who he was, but the photo showed him wielding a large pair of bolt-cutters. I was intrigued, and it seemed like everyone was welcome, so in the spirit of embracing the unforeseen I walked in.
The place was buzzing. There was a guestbook where you could sign your name, and long trestle tables where people were invited to ‘make prayer flags for Ted’. They were painting slogans like ‘The whole damn town misses you’, ’Home always’, and ‘We [heart] you Ted’ in Spanish and English.
I went into the auditorium and found a seat. A beaming guy came up.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said, pumping my hand.
Whoever Ted was, he sure could pull a crowd. There must have been several hundred people, all races and ages. The mood was celebratory rather than mournful. The stage was hung with banners of the SF Tenants’ Union. The jazz band reappeared on stage, and in the breaks between songs, high-energy chanting started up:
Yuppie, yuppie, bad bad bad!
Yuppie, yuppie, stole my pad!
Fight, fight, fight!
Housing is a human right!
I joined in. Who wouldn’t? I had never met these people in my life, but looking around the hall I felt as though I knew them.
The service began. Ted’s friends and family told stories about him, punctuated by renewed chanting. He’d headed up the tenants’ union, advocating for the homeless, fighting evictions, breaking into locked empty buildings with his bolt-cutters and opening them up for homeless people. (‘Homes not jails! Homes not jails!’).
A Presbyterian minister recalled the times he and Ted had been arrested, a young activist told of how Ted had mentored her. An attorney from the Public Defender’s Office won a cheer for declaring: ‘We need to be able to collect Google’s taxes and use them here!’ There was a slide show, a video, more music, more chants, and poems from San Francisco’s poet laureate, Alejandro Murguia, while Ted’s little dog wandered about unfazed on stage.
Ted, I sensed, was the kind of guy who had no time for pessimism: there’s always something you can do. I felt ashamed of my earlier despondency. As Solnit wrote in a recent essay for the Guardian: ‘Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.’
Afterwards I drifted out to the foyer with everyone else; made a donation to the Tenants’ Union and got a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon of Ted. No one seemed to want to leave, so I hung around too. Posters advertised upcoming protests against the latest condos (‘No more monsters in the Mission’). In the way of community events everywhere, there were trestle tables with urns of tea and plates of biscuits. I took another look at the guestbook.
‘There are moments of harmony that rise to the level of serendipity, coincidence and beyond, and certain passages of time that seem dense with such incidents,’ writes Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005). Glancing down the list, I saw one name I recognised: Rebecca Solnit.
She was standing a few metres away, instantly recogniseable from the photos on her book jackets. In The Faraway Nearby (2013), Solnit tells the story of the Chinese artist Wu Daozi who stepped into one of his paintings and disappeared; I felt as if she had done the opposite, stepping out of her book into real life.
She was standing a few metres away, instantly recogniseable from the photos on her book jackets.
I moved towards her; she put her hand out and unexpectedly said: ‘You look familiar.’ I told her I was a fan, then rushed on to the odd chain of circumstances that had brought me there. I even had a souvenir, I said, showing her my Ted T-shirt.
‘Now I’m a souvenir,’ she said.
Afterwards I wished I’d said something more thoughtful, but what mattered was the serendipity, the moment.
A souvenir, from the French word for ‘a memory’, is something significant, encapsulating a memory of a place. What was the meaning of this one?
Connections are a recurring theme of Solnit’s work. ‘Each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world,’ she writes in The Faraway Nearby. Solnit is intrigued by the power of coincidences, which dramatise and reveal the mysterious connections between people.
When you embrace the unplanned, you make the unforeseen discoveries. No organised itinerary would have led me to Ted Gullicksen’s memorial service. But there was more to it than that. Ted’s story had affected me in similar ways as Solnit’s writing: both changed my perspective on the world. Such experiences are rare. But in the search for these moments of unexpected connection it’s often better to throw away the guidebook and the map, and – following Solnit’s counsel – allow yourself to become lost.