Column: He left heart, and comfort zone, in San FranAugust 21, 2014
By SCOTT SAALMAN
I first visited San Francisco for 24 hours four years ago. A business stopover with my coworker, Jon. We stayed in a frou-frou boutique in the financial district, conveniently close to work, though our travel budget basically put me in the basement boiler room. I believe part of the deal was we had to shovel coal into the furnace.
Unfortunately, Jon beat me to the registration desk. I heard him say, “My partner and I are here from Jasper . . .”
The word “partner” echoed in the lobby, carried up the stairwell and elevator shaft and into the hallways, seeping beneath the door crack of each guest room.
Those in the adjacent social area glanced up from their books and magazines and fireplace and two-figure drinks — men, all men, mind you. Suddenly I felt like a fresh cut Kobe fillet placed on a freezer rack of ground round. “Dammit, Jon,” I muttered, as that classic Seinfeld line came to mind: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
The hotel clerk looked confused, wondering why my “partner” and I requested separate rooms. In the elevator, fueled by his faux pas, I advised Jon to refer to us as business partners (which we were), not partners — so as not to, if anything, raise the heads and hopes of our fellow hotel guests. “This is San Francisco,” I added. Hadn’t he at least seen “The Birdcage?” We laughed, went our separate ways, unpacked and shoveled coal.
Recently, I returned to San Francisco for 72 hours, falling in love during my walkabouts with this hilly city by the bay.
Beyond the Chinatown Gate, red lanterns dangled over Grant Avenue, dense with pagodas, gift shops, Asian cooking, tourists and locals. Corner musicians slid bows over their two-stringed erhus, sad Asian songs snapping at my heartstrings, primal tears simmering.
I ate breakfast at The Posh Bagel on Sutter Street, a place I vowed four years ago to return to for the ham, egg and cheddar bagel, my best breakfast experience ever. I rushed in, ordered the Eggwich Deluxe and sat at the front window.
At first bite, I noticed a homeless man sleeping outside against the glass at my feet, our different lives divided that morning by nothing more than thin window pane, this vision bringing with it a moral dilemma not encountered in the small, homeless-less town where I live. The dream bagel hovered between me and the down-and-out Asian, his dime-store tennis shoes and skinny ankles sticking out a red, ragged blanket.
WWJD came to mind, as in What Would Jen Do, Jen being Jen Chapin, my humanitarian/musician friend who is on the board of WhyHunger.
A venomous fog of traveler’s timidity engulfed my conscience though, making me too fearful to tamper with the food chain of a strange town, causing me to move farther from the window so as not to see the sidewalk sleeper. I didn’t want to disturb his sleep. Self-justification in action. Still, this thought haunted me: “Would Jen give him her bagel?” A few chews later, I wondered, “Would Jen give her half bagel to him,” since I had selfishly scarfed the first 50 percent. Eating the second half, I pondered buying a whole bagel for the man, but not without first asking the owner if it would be OK since it might unwantedly attract the other homeless to his storefront.
I was reading USA Today’s story about Robin Williams’ suicide when the homeless man rose. He rolled his blanket and hobbled away, leaving behind a cardboard mattress. “The Fisher King” came to mind. Dumb pigeons inspected the vacated spot for crumbs of the hungry. I felt ashamed by my inaction. I lost heart in San Francisco.
Being in San Francisco during Williams’ suicide compounded the news’ sadness, for he lived here. I recalled how he moved me in “Dead Poets’ Society,” and suddenly his “seize the day” mantra contributed to a spur-of-the-moment decision to pedal across Golden Gate Bridge. It was my last evening. I might never return. A bike rental booth and $14 was all that stood between me and carpe diem.
It was about a five-mile bike ride to the 1.7-mile long bridge. On a couple of steep hills, I walked my tourist’s bike while wafer-thin cyclists flashed by on titanium-frames, a rainbow blur of Lycra brilliance.
The world-famous suspension bridge is not flat. Movies don’t show its gradual incline, nor its suicide hotline phones. The bay’s gusts were bike-toppling. Dismounting, I nearly crumpled from rubbery legs. Shooting a selfie, I nearly lost my phone to the wind.
The dizzying height, the whipping wind, six lanes of rushed traffic inches away, an overindulgence of lunch, not being in biking shape, the ghosts of countless jumpers and being outside my comfort zone discomforted my stomach, alerting me that I was going to upchuck on this famous landmark. I imagined leaning over the railing and unleashing a 245-foot free fall of vomit. I didn’t want to look down, period. What if a passerby thought I was jumping and intervened? Onward I pedaled, despite the bad taste and burn of bile, over, then back. Mission complete. Carpe Diem.
Strangely, it was the suicide of a beloved actor who encouraged us long ago to “seize the day” that inspired me to bike across the second most used suicide site in the world.
Next morning, I left San Francisco with a satisfied, sunny sensation of an un-wasted life swelling within, yet feeling too the pang of knowing that fog will roll and Na Nu Na Nu is no more.
Scott Saalman and the Will Read and Sing For Food players will perform their 50th show Monday, Aug. 25, at 7 p.m., at VUJC to benefit Community Food Bank. Admission: suggested $10 donation.
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