All the Street People
I am walking back to the office after enjoying a lunch with she of the Boxes and Arrows, Christina, at The Butler and Chef (me: French Ham Quiche; she: Croque Monsieur) when I spy a stream of urine emitting from a garbage container on the corner of Brannan and 3rd. Upon closer examination (but not much closer) I realize that there is a portly hirsute man standing up from his wheelchair with his pants around his ankles just, you know, taking a leisurely public piss.
As he is doing so, he is suddenly accosted not by me, trying desperately to ignore said urination and pretend that such occurrences are not, in fact, as mundane in the city as I know them to be, but by a woman carrying a shopping bag from Saks, though by the look of her if she actually set foot in Saks she would be quickly and quietly shown the door, wearing a sort of turban/fez combination, slurring her words slightly but not so much that I cannot hear her say, loudly and with disgust, “That’s sick! Just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean we have to be sick!”
“You’re a squatter!” retorted the pisser, “I’ve seen you squat!”
I know what he means, because I have also seen my share of squatters. Squatters, though this is my first exposure to the term, leading to ponder both that there’s a word for it (however obvious) and that maybe there’s an entire dictionary of homless slang that I suddenly want to know more about, squat down in corners or over planters or anywhere slightly less noticeable though no less public than this man with his dick out on the corner of Brannan and 3rd.
“I only squat in toilets!” she responds, pointedly.
“I’ve seen you squat! No you don’t! I’ve seen you squat!”
I am waiting patiently for the signal to turn so I may cross and continue feigning ignorance of the state of things in the Streets of San Francisco in the new millennium, when her voice grows suddenly loud. “Don’t you think that’s sick?” she asks me, but I do not turn to her because I have trained myself that these things aren’t really happening, although I am rarely pulled into them as directly as I am now. “That’s just sick! Put that thing away! You’re sick!”
I am trying to think of a response for her that will suffice in such a way that she understands that I agree with her, but that it’s not an invitation to engage in conversation about, oh, the weather or politics or the general state of the world that allows things like this situation to pass by seemingly unnoticed every day. I think about the many occasions when I have seen other homeless people argue with each other in a sort of unreal bubble of distinct neglect from the rest of the world, how we all tell ourselves or teach ourselves that nothing, in fact, is happening because we are afraid that something worse will.
I start across the street, stepping over the stream of piss (though rather more to save my shoes from it than as a pointed though silent remark about the man’s demeanor) and she follows, asking again, “Don’t you think that’s sick?”
I can no longer pretend that this isn’t happening. I decide I need to dip outside my comfort zone of illusion and and answer her query. “It’s not very pretty,” I answer, “I’ll grant you that.”
“See?” She stops in the crosswalk now, turning around, “He thinks it’s sick too! You’re sick!”
“You’re a squatter,” he accuses again.
“I am not! You’re sick!”
A group of Asian tourists rounds the corner in front of me, although why I think they’re tourists I can’t say. The two men are in suits, one is a horrid blue pinstripe affair that he’s wearing with brown loafers, much to my dismay, and the two women are wearing expensive shoes and clothing that appears to be made up of pieces of other clothing in a more-or-less random manner as if they’ve been to a high-end mall and couldn’t decide on getting the Prada black dress or the Gucci gown or the hideous Versace anything and so had the clerk slice them into strips and attach them all together. The women have their heads together and are giggling about who knows what, while the men stride with purpose and ignorance along the sidewalk.
“Hey! Hey!” She calls out loudly behind me. I am intent on looking at the Asian women’s shoes, which are remarkably ugly. “Hey, isn’t that sick?”
Now I don’t know what she refers to, but I fervently hope it is the wardrobes in front of me and I smile, realizing that we all have some things in common after all, no matter what our station in life.
August 17, 2005