street encounters in san francisco

These are not climbing stories…

…but they felt important to tell nonetheless.


“Hey brother, can you spare a dollar?”

I’m sitting on a rock between the Fillmore and Wendy’s, hiding in the shade, waiting to meet my date for the day. She said she was less than four minutes away, and I perform the ritualistic modernist tic, pulling out my paradox machine, mindlessly (hopelessly?) checking in on the virtual universe I’m god of, checking out of the physical world I currently occupy.

A man approaches on a cheap Chinese-made box-store mountain bike and calls out to me.

I’m annoyed. Unusually (for me), I’m carrying quite a bit of cash. The Taste of Denver requires cash. My date and I have planned a lovely afternoon, eating Americana, the price of which is cash.

I decide to lie. Maybe he’ll go away.

“Sorry man, I don’t have any cash on me.”

He doesn’t go away.

“Can you at least buy me a burger then? I’m starving…”

I don’t hear the rest because my mind is wandering but quickly. My date will be here any second; a cashless transaction appeals to me — I hate cash. I appreciate the irony of buying Wendy’s for this man; I haven’t eaten Wendy’s since my disastrous experience with the Wendy’s Challenge years past.

“Sure, let’s go.”

I am concerned for the man’s bike; I see no lock. I’m a cyclist too and I don’t want his to get stolen. That wouldn’t be a very good trade: Wendy’s for a bike? Ugh.

“Do you have a lock?”

He’s already angling it through the door.

“I’ll just bring it inside.”

So practical. I’m impressed.

I look back and see my date standing outside the Fillmore, looking for me, looking confused because I told her I was there, waiting for her.

Her hand raises to her ear. My pants vibrate. I sigh.

“Would you mind if I made it a meal?”

I was going to suggest a meal to him anyway, but his lizard brain is going full-tilt in the presence of food and my neocortex is rather preoccupied at the moment. I regret making him ask for more, forcing him to prostrate himself further to me. It’s not what I’d planned.

Besides, Wendy’s fries are pretty good.

“Of course.”

The man tells me he wants the #1 meal. He’s mumbling quietly. I don’t want to be this man’s proxy any more than I already am. He doesn’t need me to order his meal for him. I smile (why do I think a smile is appropriate?) and tell him to order directly from the guy behind the counter.

The wheels of modern commerce roll smoothly, and in less than 20 seconds, my card is swiped, the transaction is approved, and I’m trying to leave.

“Thanks man, I’ll pay this forward when I get a chance.”

Oh boy, I like Kevin Spacey, but that movie was terrible. I mean, the trailer was terrible, so I never even watched the movie. That is literally my internal response to this man’s genuine appreciation. What is wrong with me?

“Just do whatever you can.”

I’m pleasantly surprised that my external response doesn’t suck. Has my ego any bounds?

I shake the man’s hand, and wish him good luck. Conservation of non-sucky responses, I guess. In any case, he looks happy. Of course, now the man has to deal with the horrible Wendy’s service, but that is his problem, not mine.

I rush back to the Fillmore and apologize to my date. She seems confused, seeing me come out of the Wendy’s, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to really explain, and in an instant, it’s forgotten for the rest of the day. I’m too busy doing the complicated dating dance to dwell.

We’ll go on to spend more than $60 on wild boar bratwursts, beer, deep fried strawberries, deep fried cookie dough, and the Gravitron.

Now it’s hours later. I don’t have a stomach ache — I don’t get stomach aches — but the memory of the man is keeping me up. My ambivalence is deep and I feel lost.

I’m weaving quite the conceit here, but don’t have an endgame in sight.



“Hey man, you hungry?”

Those are four of the most powerful words I know.

I was standing in line at the Civic Center Burger King, having just ordered my meal after a fairly forgetful okcupid date, and was lost in my own head when a guy standing next to me asked if I had $0.38 so he could buy a cup of water.


“I need $0.38 so I can buy a cup of water.”

“They charge for water?!”

He was holding an empty liter bottle of water in his hands and a small 6 oz crappy plastic cup. You know, the tiny free water cup. Thirty-eight fucking cents!

“No man, they’ll give me water, but I need to buy the cup.”

Normally I say no to the indigent. But this indignity made me indignant.

I fumbled out a dollar to give to him and for about 10 seconds, watched him try to pay the counter worker so he could fill his crappy 6 oz cup, and then the ridiculousness of the situation struck me.

“Hey man, you hungry?”

“Naw, I’m all good. Just wanted a cup of water.”

“Dude, I know you’re hungry. Come on, let me buy you dinner.”

“Aight, I jes’ go for some nuggets, man.”

“Get as many as you want. It’s all good.”

“20’ll do me.”

“You sure you don’t want more? How about a drink?”

“Hey you have free refills?” to the counter worker, who shakes his head. “Nah, I’m cool with this water and them nuggets. Hey you want your dollar back?”

I shook my own head. He asked my name and then introduced himself as Kevin. As I handed over my credit card for the second time, I thought I was done. Having bought the man some food, he’d go away, and I could eat my own meal while playing with my äppärät.

Kevin shambled away while I waited for my card and set his empty water bottle and slim backpack on a table. Then yelling and gesturing at me:

“Yo Alex, you wanna eat with me?”

After pausing for just long enough to think but not long enough to be awkward but also right before Kevin just kinda disappeared, I said “Yeah sure why not.”

I got my meal and sat at our table, deducing that Kevin was in the bathroom. I watched his stuff like I would watch anyone’s stuff for them in a public place near San Francisco’s Civic Center. Kevin came back and I got my first good look at him. There were tiny white spots salted on his black face. I was mildly alarmed at his skin condition until several minutes into our dinner when some of them fell off. Bits of paper towel, I decided, the cheap kind that Burger King stocks and that fall apart when they get wet.

Kevin asked me what I was doing. “You just out and about?”

“Yeah man, just came from SOMA.”

“Oh whatchoo doin’ there?”

I figured why hide anything. “Oh, I was actually just on a date.”

“Whatchoo all do onnadate?”

“Just drinks. I’m here now.”

“Shit man, I just left my girl. It’s a long story. Too long to get into. How old areya?”


A smile. “Same age as me.”

There but for the grace of god, go I.

Kevin alternated between rapid-fire questions and highly entertaining monologues.

“How long you lived out here?” (About 2 years) “Where you from?” (NJ. Where *you* from?) “I’m from Oakland, but my mom lives in Sac. I like it here in Frisco better. Spent some time in jail. Came here after that. Why’d you come here?” (Job. Weather. And where I was had too many white people. I wanted to hang with brown folks.) “Ah man, people are people, you know what I mean?”

[mildly surprising to learn that I am more pissed off about race than he was…]

“Man, I had a great summer. Went to Waterworld. Went to Magic Mountain. Went with my buddy. Was cool, but then we had to stop hanging out because he was all into me. I mean, he a cool guy and all and he’s gay, but I had to tell him I’m not into that. I mean, he was really into me, but you know, I ain’t gay. Got a little awkward. I mean, I let him suck my dick and he wanted to get all these candles out and shit. Shit man, I don’t know why I just told you that story.”

[I didn’t know why either, but it was an amazing story]

“You like football?” (Um… no, not really.) “Baseball? Basketball?” (I… don’t really watch much sports. How about you? You a Raiders fan?) “Naw, I just love good football. Raiders probably 0-10 this year. But if we talking AFC… the Broncos are good.” (Oh yeah, I like Peyton Manning. And I guess I like the Giants too. NY Giants, that is.) “Eli got more rings than Peyton.” (Right, he’s got 2.) “Ah shit, see you know a little something about football!”

“My girlfriend, I had to break up with her. You know what sadomasochism is? Man she was all into that shit and it was fun at first but then she was really into it and it started making me crazy and the more crazy I got, the more she got off on it. Man, one time she wanted me to piss on her but I didn’t want to do it but she kept asking so I pissed into a cup and then threw it on her. BAP-tized that bitch! But I had to go.”

[amazing story #2]

“You see any good movies lately? What movies you like?” (Last thing I saw was Django Unchained, and thought that was pretty good.) “Man that’s a revenge movie. You just like it because it’s shooting white people! You crazy!”

[cue long discussion about who the star of Django Unchained was without resolution]

“Man someone stole my backpack with my clothes, my phone, and my Samsung Galaxy Tab. Now I don’t got no phone!” (That’s terrible, why would someone do that? (response was a blank stare (so I guess there are stupid questions after all) followed by more monologuing)) “Backpack had the clothes I liked. This one I just went to Goodwill and got it. You work a job? That’s the good thing about being homeless I guess. Don’t nobody make you have to be nowhere. I’m like…. a nomad. A Frisco nomad!”

[a bona fide local says Frisco unabashedly, so I’m taking my cues there]

Kevin mumbled something about politics so I asked what he thought of Obama. “He’s a pawn. There’s a global elite and he’s just a pawn. He is controlled by entities that are… not of this realm. The Federal Reserve doesn’t exist. You walk into a bank and get a loan for five thousand dollars, they don’t print no five thousand dollars and give it to you, they just type that into a computer and somehow that’s money. You know that ain’t money! David Icke, you know him? You gotta read his stuff. That’s I-c-k-e. Reptilian theory, 4th dimension. Small global elite rule everything man. It’s all there.”

And while I thought Kevin actually had a pretty good grasp on how our modern banking system works, he lost me a bit when he mentioned reptilian theory.

In any case, an hour had passed, and I was ready to go. I’d already insisted earlier that he eat my onion rings because “I was full” (which he did with gusto), and now I asked if he wanted the rest of my soda, but he laughed at me when I said it was Diet Coke.

“Well, what do you like to drink instead?”

“Dr. Pepper man. But you heard that guy, no free refills.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Walking up to the counter, I handed the service worker my mostly full cup. “I ordered this Diet but didn’t really like it. Can I get a Dr. Pepper instead, please?” (Sure, no problem.) I can’t remember the last time I used my class privilege in such a blatant manner no matter how minor. But hey, I asked politely, so no harm, right?

Kevin said, “Hey man, why’d you help me? I wish I didn’t get my Galaxy Tab stolen. I’d show you a movie to say thank you. Hey what’s your number? I’ll get my phone back and you gotta read that Icke I-c-k-e and you can tell me what you think.”

I paused again… and then thought, fuck it, why not. I gave it to him.

I won’t call that girl back, but if I get a random text from Kevin, I’ll answer it.