San Francisco is a ghost town in the sense that you’re always haunted by the familiarity of someone’s face. This is a city where we live in the streets and on mass transit. We cross paths with thousands of people every day, which leads to lots of: “Where do I know that person from?”
Did you meet at a party? Are they your friend’s ex? Do they just have the same commute as you?
But there’s also those people you’ve had a relationship with for years — without them even knowing it. You recognize these folks because you’ve seen them everywhere, even if you’ve never met.
I was at Rainbow Grocery last night, searching for my favorite crackers to go along with the amazing cheese I was getting. One of those strangers who’d has been at the periphery of my life for probably a decade walked down the aisle. For all the years I’d seen him around, he’d had dreadlocks. But now they were gone, and his hair was closely cropped.
“You got a haircut!” I said smiling at him. He gave me a quizzical look, so I followed with, “Didn’t you have dreads before?”
“Yup,” he said with a confused smile before continuing down the aisle away from me.
“Oh man,” I thought, “I just really creeped that guy out.”
I don’t usually do that. In fact, I’m almost never like, “Hey, guess what? We’ve had a relationship for years, and you didn’t even know it!” But I was pretty excited about my cheese and crackers, and I guess it spilled over.
Sometimes I do think I should break down that wall though. There’s one woman I’m really proud of, but I just don’t know if it would be OK to tell her.
For years, I saw her strung-out and panhandling around 16th and Valencia. Then, without realizing I hadn’t seen her for awhile, she suddenly appeared back in my periphery and had totally gotten her shit together. She had clean new shoes, clean new clothes and clean new teeth. She also had a big crucifix around her neck. It appeared like she’d found God, and that had helped get her clean as well.
It’s been a couple years now, but I still see her around every once in awhile, and she seems to be doing great. That said, I still don’t know if I should stop her and be like, “Hey! I know you don’t know me, but I just want you to know I’m really proud of you. I’ve seen you for years, and I’m so glad that you got clean.”
You know what I mean? Part of me wonders if maybe I’m not 100 percent right and it’s a different woman. And the other part of me just wonders if it’s rude to do so.
San Francisco is a special place because you constantly encounter people who live very different lives than you, yet exist in the same space. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into her in Rainbow in the cracker aisle sometime soon, and I’ll and give it a try.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in The San Francisco Examiner.