San Francisco’s jumble of socioeconomic experiences never fails to astonish. And after five years in this burg, that is, five recent years, one would think that day-to-day reality would take over. It hasn’t. I can’t quite accept what I see, all the time, even if this particular day seems heightened.
Vive la Tarte is one of those San Francisco establishments with an industrial feel and, in this rare instance, perhaps an industrial reality. It occupies a lofty warehouse, high ceilings and exposed beams, with a large open area in which it may be that bakers are actually involved in large-scale commercial baking. If this reality is somewhat vague, the fact is that baking is an early-morning activity. So by the time I roll into the outer part of the industrial space, given over to counters for food and coffee sales, with wooden tables and a three-tiered stadium seating arrangement for customers…well, production baking is probably over for the day.
Lunch isn’t, of course, and most tables were full. My friend Stephen and I found the last empty one by the drafty front door. By the time I was done with lunch and had bid goodbye to my friend, the draft had turned into a California deluge. In heavy rain I hurled from the world of lunch hour thirtysomethings discussing software development, venture capital and executive placement to BART, the regional subway’s station at Civic Center.
The elevator was in operation, not always the case, and particularly welcome on this day. The tiny lift that descends from the street to the station now has a permanent operator. Actually, ‘operator’ is something of a misnomer. The person actually sits there observing the comings and goings. Three people would be a reasonable fit in this elevator. Four would be tight. So one elevator attendant, one wheelchair and one additional passenger represents capacity. Fortunately, that one additional passenger was quite pleasant, ushering me in first, and this stage of the downward journey passed without event.
I hurtled through the station concourse, heading to the next elevator, the one that goes to the train platforms. I was surprised to see a queue, but upon consideration, with the rain pelting down outside, okay, people were in line. But not all of them. As I waited, a scruffy looking guy happily elbowed everyone aside to get in first. People protested, yelling at him in various types of ethnic argot. Then they fell silent. The man had produced a syringe, with which he was fumbling, in the open. That is to say, he was half mad or entirely stoned or some combination. His trousers were not quite falling down, although that possibility seemed imminent.
We began our descent. Once again, the elevator operator looked on. This time, with a surprising gentleness and tact, he said something like ‘brother, you don’t need to have that out’. This was a remarkable understatement and showed what is probably the most effective level of response. As for me, I was eyeing this guy, mentally preparing a description to phone into the BART police. I don’t see why people have to openly inject drugs in a public transport system. But many people have told me to cool it. The point being that we have lost human beings, crazed and drugged, and they aren’t going away. I do understand this point of view.
And then I was back in the neighborhood, hurtling up the hill and passing the local grocer where balsamic vinegar ranges from $10 for a small bottle to $40 for another small bottle aged and medallioned in authentic Italian Italy. And on up the hill to my home, where Jane was ministering to a sick cat with surprising effectiveness. I’m glad of this. Our pets are old. I am old. I want us all to hang on for a little longer.