I am uneasy about my wanderings, uncertain as to their purpose, queasy about their evasiveness. Not that it matters, once I and my motor neurons are up and at it for another day. They are anxious moments, those first ones. The human is, after all, vulnerable on so many fronts. Just kicking my one working leg out from the bed, in concert with an abdominal heave ho, to get me sitting upright…well, that is an existential shock in itself. I don’t sit up in the middle of the night, not ever. Well hardly ever. It is hardly worth the effort, a mighty effort, to untangle feet from sheets…only to reposition them later. The concentration involved in such tasks tends to wake one into a startled state that does not encourage slumber. The added annoyance mixing in a batch of anger neuropeptides that can guarantee 3 AM alertness.
No, I am either up or down. And on this morning, just after 6 AM, I am trying to fit myself into up. Seated on the edge of the bed, balance seems tenuous, further activity futile. 6:13 AM, according to the clock, but who’s counting? I stand, swivel, drop into the wheelchair to head for tea. The latter tips the balance, of course. Things are possible with tea. There is a long tradition behind this beverage and its drinkers. By the time I’ve finished a cup, the thought has occurred to me that the conquest of India would be easily possible. Play Mughal against Hindu, install a viceroy, build a few railways and Bob’s your uncle. Sam’s your real uncle, but never mind. All this planning is only going as far as the bathroom.
When I emerge, I am not alone. Good to have Menchu applying talcum powder here, socks there. More than good, reassuring, my abandonment anxiety lapping about like tiny waves on a cold shore. What is she up to this weekend? Work. Menchu tends to the children of the ruling class. She succors their aging and dying. And they need her all weekend, not to mention all week. She will be working until midnight this night, Friday. Parents are going out. Kids are staying in. And so is Menchu. Sobering to consider my life of options. Sobering to pause as I leave my office for the day. Right by the door, Marlou and I pose in eternal photographic embrace. It pulls at the heart, how love can be ripped from us. But in this moment I realize the feeling is more expansive. I have felt bereft much of my life. Such was the family experience. And Marlou? After much living, after many years, decades, I was able to open my heart to her. The specter of loss spurring me along, perhaps both of us. At least we got here. Got to where we are in this picture. Her warmth tangible, for Marlou had a glow about her. Perhaps I am glowing too.
Puzzling to hear the Caltrain conductor mention that he has boarded me twice this week. It isn’t true. It feels true to him, and this is not an entirely bad thing, I decide. Too bad that all the bran muffins are gone at The Creamery, the San Francisco café where I am meeting a rabbi from Jewish Family Services. Over our cappuccinos, we work it out, that it’s been more than a year since we last did this. I make a banal reference to time flying…with echoes of something else there, particularly with Daniel, who lost his father last year, and me. ‘Who are we kidding,’ this is the natural starting point for anything we say to each other. And I like this. For he is a gentle, lighthearted and young person, at home with death and mortality and life and me. He has a background in James Joyce, including graduate studies in Dublin, all of which led him to Hebrew. Which I quite understand. Discoursing in the way I do, Daniel points out, I might enjoy learning a bit of Hebrew myself. I tell him I am too old. He laughs and gives me a certain look. I’m glad that I know this guy, very glad.
Why me? I know that the San Francisco Municipal Railway is not all about me, but at the moment it feels that way. The Muni Metro, the name for the light rail lines converging under Market Street, has ground to a halt. It does this periodically, infamously. Minutes tick by. I ask the driver if he has any idea…. No, of course, he has no ideas. Trains ahead of us, he says. I already have my mobile phone out, hoping that we are not too far into the tunnel for reception. No problem, for here is Jerry, my lunch date. Yes, he sighs, the Muni Metro.
Funny thing though, about things mechanical. There are like things political. Squeaky wheels suck in energy. The Muni Metro and its ills have become the focus of news coverage over recent years. Which may explain why a surprising number of transit guys in brown uniforms have appeared on the platform at the next station. We get going in minutes. I am deep underground in minutes too, phoning being useless. Up the familiar route through the center of town. Then Church Station. Castro Station. These stops are underground. Which, Jerry explains over lunch, has been true for over 30 years. Has it been that long since I journeyed to this part of San Francisco on the trams? Apparently. Certainly, I took the old streetcars out to San Francisco State University as a graduate student a time or two. But mostly I drove. So. Here it is, for the first time, Muni modernity. I am most impressed. In San Francisco, the public transport system carries the equivalent of the entire city population every day. In this best of transit moments, I can see why. I breeze off the tram at West Portal, phone Jerry, and we arrive at the restaurant simultaneously.
It is an oddity of America, wide streets like this one. West Portal does not have enough traffic to warrant such a massive boulevard. The street’s excessive width does make it possible to park in front of businesses. Perhaps this is the purpose. The downside, and surely this affects businesses as well, is the loss of intimacy. I journeyed here for the very purpose of experiencing a San Francisco neighborhood. Jerry says there is still a shoe repair shop on the street. I passed an actual news agent. The parking, it seems to me, should go behind the shops. This would pull everything and everyone closer. Perhaps at the stage of traffic planning, no one knew that West Portal ranked, in today’s parlance, as a transit-friendly neighborhood. Even wheelchair-friendly.
It seems to me the finest achievement of a city that such a neighborhood is linked by swift trains-in-tunnels to, say, the Opera House. Much of this being news to me. Don’t get around much anymore. Should know better. Particularly about the wind, which is blowing bitter. Everyone knows this about San Francisco, everyone but me. Yes, I did the weather forecast for this postal zone just this very morning. But I didn’t factor in the wind. The locals are wearing jackets. I am cold. I am heading home.