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February 26, 2013

Calling Autumn

Every day I wander into work. The starting point end point never change, but there are an infinite number of paths between the two points, assuming you're not in a rush.

I meander through the streets of San Francisco, perpetually amazed and mesmerized by the activity in the city-hive. Today, I wander down along Stockton Street, then off into the less familiar, bifurcating alleys and back alleys of Chinatown.

I stop into the Mee Mee Bakery to ask about some cookies they make there. Somehow, my iphone has been recording my conversation to send a text message. It thinks I said "Calling Autumn..." for whatever reason.

I wander on, shooting. Always shooting. Shooting.

I recognize the works of many of the artists that tag the city. But none of the people. The crazy denizens of Chinatown spit and stamp and wave their arms, and who knows what drives them?

They're setting up the Falun Gong propaganda stand in Portsmouth Square.

Eventually, I wander over to Montgomery, and try to keep up with the lights. They timed it so that if I walk at a reasonable pace, I never have to wait for the light to cross. But I tend to linger and shoot too much, so I'm always racing into traffic as the light changes, with countless cameras around my neck.

I cross Market street and, a block from work, I see my buddy digging through the recycle bins. Like, he's full-on into it, no different than the chinamen in chinatown. They're hawking chicken feet and fortune cookies. He's rooting through the recycle bins for all he's worth, grinning like a possum eating yellow-jackets.

I'm spotted my buddy. I can't believe my luck. Very nervous now. Don't want to screw this up. All of the planning has come to this. I turn away and root through my wallet for a $5.00 bill. White dove hands extract one out and fold it away into nothing in my palm. It's cleverly concealed now. No one sees it. No one will know. I think about what I'll say to him.

I approach him, and he stops rooting through the rubbish bins and stares at me, through steely marble eyes and insanely tattooed face.

I offer him the note, and a craggy hand reaches out to accept it. You can't imagine the filth. Cracked, rotting hand, raw blisters, splintered fingernails, soiled and leaking.

"Thank you," he replies, as he accepts the note.

"My name's Rob. What's your name, man?"

"D..J...ohnny," he replies.

"Donnie?" I clarify.


"Oh. Hey, nice to meet you Johnny. I've seen you out here before. Do you mind if I ask you who did the tattoos?"

"A friend of mine did them," he offers, and immediately begins to peel back clothes, exposing filthy arms. Underneath the grime, you can barely discern that he has sleeves tattooed all over both arms.

"It's kinda dirty right now," he apologizes, as though there are times when he's clean, which is hard to imagine.

He deftly reveals a skull tattooed across his back.

Where are you from, Johnny?"

"I'm from LA,"

"You like it better here than LA? LA is warmer," I laugh.

"I spent some time up north also. Up near Canada,"

At this point, a guy that services the office building vending machines comes out pushing a dolly full of expired chips up to a truck parked illegally on Market Street. He offers the chips to Johnny.

"Here...have these...take all you want..."

Johnny reaches down to accept a bag of opened chips from the box.

"You don't have to take the open ones, man. I mean, you can, but you can have any of them. Take all you want..."

"I'll just take the open ones. This is fine. Thanks," Johnny apologizes.

Another vendor emerges from the building. He works for a different company. His truck is parked illegally, behind the first truck.

The chip supplier picks up a full bag of chips and turns around and hums them at the new vendor by the second truck.

"Here you go, jackass!" he calls as he hits the other man square in the chest with his toss.

The man laughs, and tosses the chips into his truck, and says, "Thanks".

Slowly, it dawns on me that these guys know each other. They work for different companies, but probably run into each other.

"You know him?" I clarify.

"Oh yeah....every morning, I see him and he flips me off and says 'Fuck You!' ", he laughs.

And, it's kinda nice to see this. To see this camaraderie in the city. It's so hard to find someone to watch your back. But here, I'm seeing it in spades. Sort of restores your faith in humanity to see people treating each other like decent human beings.

"How much money can you make in a day panhandling out here?" I ask my new friend Johnny.

"Oh. Well, I don't like to beg. I do recycling see. But I already found a few dollar bills in here..."

"You found dollar bills in the trash?" I ask him incredulously.

"Yeah," he replies flatly. "But my friends...if they sit here...[gesturing toward some homeless coagulated around the BART tunnel entrances]...they tell me they make $60 to $80 a day."

"OK, Johnny. I got to get into work. Nice meeting you."

And as I walk into work, I think how odd it is that I have been so afraid of these people. But the ones I've talked to recently have been so friendly that it makes me question everything I thought I knew about the city.

Posted by Rob Kiser on February 26, 2013 at 1:40 PM


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