One moment is all it took to inspire artist Kurt Schwartzmann for a lifetime.
A gay man diagnosed with AIDS, his life was profoundly changed when he lost the vision in his left eye in 2006. In 2008 he became homeless, roaming The City’s streets feeling lost.
“The worst part of it was being so lonely,” he told the San Francisco Examiner Thursday. “You’re around thousands of people every day but you’re alone in the crowd. Not one of them knows you, or wants to reach out.”
It’s a feeling many unhoused people describe — the loss of humanity as people try their best to not see you.
One day in the early morning hours, Schwartzmann sat trying to ignore the cold, huddled at a bus stop just a stone’s throw from City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus. A Muni bus pulled up and it’s doors opened.
For the first time in many days, another human being looked him in the eyes and spoke to him.
“Come aboard,” he recalled her saying.
When he told her he didn’t have any money to pay for his fare, she told him it didn’t matter, and invited him to keep her company.
Schwartzmann teared up, recalling the kindness of the Muni driver. To this day, he remembers the sudden feeling of warmth as he rested on a Muni bus through her whole work shift.
“That human touch,” he said. “It was instant soul.”
A decade after his bout with homelessness, Schwartzmann’s life has turned around. He has a home now, he married the love of his life, Bruce, and they have a sweet dog in their lives, Louie.
But that pivotal moment in his life inspired his collection of sketches called Yellow Line, now on display in the lobby of the Lighthouse for the Blind on 1155 Market Street. They were produced as an assignment during art classes at City College of San Francisco in 2015 as a way to honor the Muni operator who helped him.
LIghthouse for the Blind provided Schwartzmann with therapy to help him deal with the many questions those in the world have for him — How did you become blind? What’s your vision like now? Some even ask “can I wear your patch?” he said, or call him a pirate.
“People can be mean or rude,” Schwartzmann said. “They don’t know what they’re saying sometimes.”
But the Lighthouse helped him navigate the language behind his disability, he said, in order to explain it — or not — to the world. His artwork is an extension of this ethos — it shows flat views of Muni operators from the position of a passenger. The sketches show sights aboard Muni vehicles from a man who no longer sees in stereoscopic vision, but who does see so much good in those who helped him.
Sadly, he said, he never got the name of the Muni operator who showed him kindness and inspired his work. So for his series, Schwartzmann sat and drew other drivers.
“This whole series was about saying thank you to Muni for doing a good job, because they’re under-appreciated,” he said.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, is grateful for Schwartzmann’s work. Ed Reiskin, the agency’s executive director, said in a statement “Our operators have very difficult jobs, and despite the challenges, most excel in the service of others. I am proud that this type of kindness is a common thread amongst our operators.”
One of those Muni drivers depicted in Schwartzmann’s work is Rafael Calderon, who has been with the agency for eight years. Schwartzmann asked to draw him while he was driving the 6-Parnassus bus one day.
“What really impressed me about him, what caught my attention, was his good outlook on life. He had a great positive attitude. He’s a very resilient man,” Calderon said.
Calderon even attended Schwartzmann’s gallery opening in January.
Though Calderon said he has seen anger aboard Muni, including fist-fights and clashes, on January 10 the bus operator and the artist stood in the Lighthouse for the Blind and shook hands in goodwill.
“He’s a great artist,” Calderon said, “but I’ll tell you — he’s an even better person.”
Schwartzmann’s gallery show launched January 10 and will be on display for about six months. lighthouse-sf.org