2013, NOB HILL, San Francisco, California
This is not a good piece.
I don’t like anything about it, really. It puts me in a terrible light while at the same time managing to be a really cheesy story about something that’s been told time and time again. But hey, it’s honest.
As I was walking up the comically steep, ninety-degree hill to my apartment while trying to step in time to what was reverberating from my headphones, thereby looking like I had learned how to walk the day before, I saw a very enormous dog. He was sitting on the sidewalk, and he was in the shadows, almost as though he had sought it out, in the same deliberate way that a cat would have avoided it. As I got closer, I noticed that that this dog had a person crouched behind him, who then acknowledged me with a tip of his head. This person was skinny, bearded, and was wearing a fishing hat that was shaped just wrong. He wore a t-shirt, and oddly, a hoodie underneath it; I remember how strange this seemed at the time. By wearing his shirt over it, he had foregone access to the kangaroo-like pocket and hand warmer that comes tandem with a hoodie (very useful on San Francisco nights), and he would have been just as warm wearing them items the other way around, if not warmer. He must have just really wanted to show off his Joe’s Crab shack t-shirt that day.
If you’ve ever lived in any large city that has both an upper class and sources of heat on the street, you then know the extent to which you have to turn a blind eye to everyone who has lost everything, and learn to walk the fine line between empathy and nothing. The homeless problem and people’s reaction to it is a touchy subject in San Francisco. After working a few months in the idyllic utopia lovingly known as the Tenderloin, it had all become very calculated and deliberate for me. I noticed everyone, on some level because I couldn’t help but look, but I would also hope that I forced myself to be hyper aware of each face I saw on the street in order not to lose too much faith in myself. I did have to learn to, in a way, forget them, in order to not lose faith in…well…everything else.
In this particular case, I found that I couldn’t not pet this dog. Before I could even take off my headphones, in fact, he walked up to me and just leaned against my legs, like a battering ram covered with stuffed animals and ShamWows. The dog was so large that I almost fell over. Seemingly content with having pushed me over to the right a couple inches, it then stumbled back towards his person.
Almost without thinking, I started talking to said person, maybe because he hadn’t tried to talk to me first.
Here are some things I found out:
The person’s name was Bobby, and the dog’s name was Cody.
Bobby had had Cody since Cody was ten days old, and Cody was now eleven.
Bobby had made his slightly deformed fishing hat with his own two hands out of leather he found over the years and dental floss.
Bobby had been a “drifter” for 11 years. He explained that this was because he had also been a sniper in the military, and after trying for over a decade, he was just now able to get on disability.
Next week Bobby was moving into his first apartment (in eleven years, remember), by AT&T Park. I’ll give you my most eloquent description of Bobby’s soon to be new neighborhood: rich, richy, rich.
Bobby’s kids, who had been taken away from him ten years ago or so, were then going to come live with him, just in time for him to get to try to raise them as teenagers. He previously had raised them “on the road, also as drifters” as he put it. I carefully sidestepped the thought of my own childhood dreams of living in circus tents and in trains equipped with nothing but a bandana and a stick over my shoulder (just being honest here, guys). Realistically, that must have been terrible.
Bobby was only going to stay in this shiny new apartment for six months, because he and his “lady” were going to buy a bus and travel the country.
Cody, that I can only describe as being the muppet love child of Old Yeller and Air Bud, was wearing an American flag bandanna. He was wearing this bandanna as a testament to the fact that, although Bobby had needed (and not received) disability for eleven years, the government had regularly paid for Cody’s vet visits. The government had, at least, financially supported Cody, because Cody was a service dog. In fact, Cody had gradually taught HIMSELF to be a service dog, because Bobby got seizures. Bobby said it was ok, though, that the weed helped. Conveniently, weed also alleviated all that came with the stage four terminal stomach cancer and severe PTSD.
My reaction after hearing this is similar to what I am experiencing now as I write this sentence, and a fairly common one at that – best described as a complete inability to decide whether to try to offer some hypocritical optimism/empathy with a tentative “I’m so sorry” or to acknowledge the ridiculous harshness of this man’s life with a simple “…damn.”
Realizing I was too stunned to do either and maybe needlessly worried that my reaction would come off as pity, I snapped into action and swiftly regressed into the comfortable territory of bad humor. I told Bobby he was the happiest man with PTSD I had ever met, and it was probably because of his awesome hat. Thankfully for me he graciously laughed, pulled out a bottle of cinnamon whiskey, and took a pull. We talked about the legalization of marijuana for a bit (after having lived ten years in Colorado, people who meet me tend to just to gravitate towards the subject).
I told him his life was awesome, and it sounded like in a couple days it was going to get even better, and then I went home. And here I am.
I gave him the three bucks I had.
It wasn’t at all enough, and I still wish I had had something more useful to give him.
If badly retold, I suppose all of this could seem like some guy’s story to get me, the girl prancing around San Francisco with a bike messenger bag and an iPhone, to give him money. I suppose the long list of Bobby factoids fits the bill for being delivered dispassionately as a monologue, and they could easily belong on a piece of cardboard followed by God Bless. But I did, and still do believe him. He was probably the happiest person I had met in weeks, and he didn’t ask me for a thing, but rather gracefully didn’t refuse the change I awkwardly handed him.
I’ve found a resolution to the conflict of my blindingly privileged naivety and the impossibly positive attitude of someone who I’ve just described as a cartoon character but who is very, very real. As with the little moments people forget to remember, this little stitch in reality was real and it was a cliché.
Maybe if I ever start writing again I’ll turn this into a story. I’ll give it a moral along the lines of “stop bitching because there was this guy, once, outside my apartment, who was dying of stomach cancer, had seizures, suffered from PTSD, had been on the street for more than a decade, but was content to get to hang out with his kids, his dog, and to travel the country in a bus with his lady, (and I quote) and ‘to eat the pot cookies she makes.’”
Too long? It could also be “dental floss is the best string to sew with,” if you prefer (‘cause it actually really is).
I’d probably just write him a really happy ending, though.