It’s confusing enough getting oriented in a new city…and even more confusing when the city is far from new…and one’s memories are far from accurate. South of Market Area. Being Americans, we even have an acronym. SOMA used to have a reliably post-industrial identity, but not now. These days parts of it have given over to designer warehouses. And the part where I was just yesterday has given over to software developers and New Age health consultants and my massage guy, Tony. Following our appointment I asked him a simple question. Is there a supermarket around here? The answer was simple enough in terms of geography and extremely complex in terms of sociology. Still, San Francisco is full of pleasant surprises, so you can’t go wrong setting off on a wheelchair jaunt north. Or was it east? The streets don’t care, of course. And I only care about the quality of pavement, the general jolting to my sacral region and, well, time.
In my mind, the distance from 17th Street to 14th Street is relatively minor. On the pavement, it’s relatively exhausting. These particular city blocks are long. And bouncing down Folsom Street, they are slightly bleak. I mean it’s hardly an aesthetic crisis, just a fact of urban evolution. The warehouses have become offices and institutions, such as the University of California medical school. It’s hard to say what UCSF is doing in these parts. But they employ uniformed guards who stand around in front, there being a small homeless encampment just down the street. In fairness, the latter was quite small, consisting of two tents. Well-maintained, they were, and gazing at them from a distance I was almost expecting to dance by a sporting goods store. But I knew better. No, people were camping on the sidewalk. And my only objection…a wheelchair had to do quite a maneuver to get by.
To be without a home…to have life’s possibilities run out on Folsom Street, in the shadow of brick buildings and in the way of pedestrians, cars whizzing by…is certainly an end. I make an end run, of course, slipping by the campers and slipping inside the Rainbow Market. And what is at the end of the rainbow but this? An erstwhile warehouse, concrete floors, brick and exposed beams, sheltering an expanse of what used to be called health food….which went mainstream, of course, decades ago…now being whole and real and natural. Where else can one find at least 10 kinds of agave (cactus-derived sweetener)? Who knew that agave came in amber as well as dusky…and a syrup or a nectar? Above all, it comes in as many prices…a chemically unvarying sugar available at up to four times the price at the specialty grocer, Trader Joe’s. Jane also has coconut milk on her shopping list and, yes, there are choices, even more in this case, perhaps 20 variations on the theme. I settle on some organic coconut milk from Manila, grab a stick of lemongrass and am out the proverbial door.
On the way back to my van, parked in front of Tony’s warehouse/office building, scene of my quite pleasant massage an hour ago…I take the other side of the street. The wheelchair will probably squeeze by the homeless in their tents, and probably I won’t encounter any trouble. But, still, I feel vulnerable. Maybe it’s enough that I have bounced my quadriplegic self over one mile of San Francisco. Or maybe I should have bought the guys in the tents some agave. You never know. What I do know is that someone is blocking my parking space.
It turns out to be a guy who has a small street front office just in front of Tony’s. I rap on his door. He is a black guy, about my age. I’m glad he doesn’t frighten me. In fact, he kind of inspires me. We are brothers, if I think about it…which I don’t at the time…in the realm of minority-owned businesses…me ex officio. He wants to look inside my van. They got that down, he says, in open admiration. I nod. There isn’t time to ask the obvious question – what ‘they’ got disabled vans down? Lucky people like me who can afford them. In another era, ‘they’ was the California Department of Rehabilitation, source of my first van…a perfectly serviceable vehicle that cost me 25 times less than this one. It’s time to go, and I slide the ramp shut…hoping that I can keep my mind open.