I’m pulled over on 6th Street, waiting for the Golden Gate Theater to break, when my backdoor opens. A lady climbs in, followed by a young guy and a man.
“Uh, where to?” I ask the misguided family.
“Tell him your address,” the lady prompts the young guy.
“1056 Fell,” he responds.
“And if you don’t mind, after dropping him off we need to return to the St. Francis,” she tells me.
“Not a problem,” I say, making a U-turn.
As I wait for the light to change at Mission, a bedraggled woman on the corner is flailing her arms and bitching out the sky.
“Oh my god.” The lady behind me gasps. “What’s wrong with her?”
As I continue down, she points out the motley cast of characters hanging out on the sidewalks and expresses shock at the various displays of mental illness.
“How close are we to your neighborhood?” she asks her son. “I’m really not comfortable with you living around all this squalor.”
“It’s not my neighborhood,” he replies with obvious annoyance.
“It doesn’t look safe here at all,” she intones.
“Mom, I never even come down here!”
As they go back and forth on how much danger she thinks he’s being exposed to, despite his protestations, I feel the need to interrupt. Not that I’m feeling like much of a booster for San Francisco these days, but … someone has to do it.
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” I say with a good-natured chuckle.
“What do you mean?” she snaps.
“Homeless people aren’t necessarily dangerous. The most you have to worry about, really, is aggressive panhandling.”
“I don’t think I’ve been asked for money so much in my life,” the man says, matter-of-fact.
As I turn onto 9th Street toward Hayes, I try to explain the income disparity that’s plaguing the Bay Area and how people with normal jobs can barely afford to live here anymore. “All it takes is one bad decision or a greedy landlord, and you’re screwed.”
“I just don’t understand why they choose to live on the streets.”
“Most people don’t want to live on the streets. There’s just not enough available housing. And they need to stay close to where the outreach services are, which is why you see so many people concentrated in certain areas of The City.”
“Well, it’s been everywhere we’ve gone so far. Yesterday, right outside our hotel, I saw a man … defecate in the street.”
“We live in a society that doesn’t provide a safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. There’s just no protection for people with mental illness, which isn’t limited to schizophrenia. People with bipolar disorder or PTSD are just as likely to end up homeless. As well as those suffering from drug addiction and people trying to escape abusive families.”
When I pull up to the brick apartment building, the guy’s parents get out to say goodbye. On our way back to Union Square, they tell me their son is interning at a tech company for the summer.
“He really likes San Francisco but I don’t know …”
“Well, if he’s anything like the other young folks here, he exists in a bubble, where he’s shielded from the harsh realities of city life. He’s certainly not wandering the streets looking for trouble.”
As I turn onto Powell, the man jokes that I’ve made a valiant effort to assuage his wife’s concerns.
“How can I not worry? He’s my baby!”
“It’s understandable that you’re shocked by all this poverty and despair. Everyone should be shocked. The way people are being forced to live in these circumstances should offend us all. But you can’t be afraid of it. Or feel threatened by it. What you see on the streets are the consequences of a city that’s growing so fast it can’t keep up with all the changes. And in a city as small as San Francisco, it’s hard to hide the consequences.”
As I pull up to the front of the hotel, the doorman opens the back door.
“Thank you for talking to me. I feel … a little better.”
“Everything’s going to be OK,” I tell her with a smile. “He’s lucky to have a mom who worries so much.”
“Tell him that!”
After she exits the vehicle, the man hands me a folded $20 bill and shakes my hand. “Thanks so much!”
“Just doing my part,” I say, waving as I pull away.
On the corner, a man covered in filthy rags is shouting profanities as he barges into oncoming traffic, scattering a group of tourists in his way.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.