My steps are measured. Casual, determined, as if I belonged here. My bag with a screaming-orange priority luggage tag betrays me. I ignore it. Head raised high, confidently, but not defiantly. I’m staring ahead, like a horse. What you can’t see won’t scare you. No, not that. I’m staring ahead, avoiding all eye contact. If I meet his eye, I might smile. Then he will kill me.
My first business trip to San Francisco. I was warned not to stay in Tenderloin, so I picked a 4-star hotel next to Union Square. That walk from the subway station to the hotel, on a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon was a walk of a lifetime. They stood there, sat there, lounged there, doing nothing, quietly staring at me. Was I intruding?
A cool winter evening. Tired, I am on my way to the hotel. I gape at the majestic Salesforce tower, stop by a closed bookstore to read the titles of every book in the window, walk into a Starbucks for a soy latte, leave immediately. Here, Starbucks is a dirty, slightly creepy, faceless chain where you do not go to quietly sip your brew, unwind, watch people. A young man in a baseball hat asks me for spare change, I smile, shake my head, apologise. The man is polite, and I do have spare change. But the street is dark, and if I take out my wallet, someone will steal it.
I walk away, tears fill my head and my chest and my solar plexus. It’s the jetlag.
To my mother, American means best. I’m on a mission to find face cream. It costs $5.99, and it’s magical. I turn the corner for my fifth CVS — magic is proving wickedly difficult to track down. Right there, in the middle of an American-sized sidewalk, a figure in a grey sleeping bag. Most passers-by walk around it from the left. I take the right. There’s a broken bottle there. I see a brown hand.
For a moment, I am one with the passers-by. We all pretend a human being is not sleeping on the sidewalk. We avert our eyes. We walk around this inconvenient lump as if it was a pile of trash.
San Francisco scares me. I am scared of gun violence. I am scared of getting my own mugging story — all my friends have one. I am scared of disheveled men hurling insults at me.
I am scared of indifference. That dark haired woman in her thirties? She’s making $155,000/year. Most of these passers-by do. And most walk by the 8,035 people who have no home as if they weren’t human.
But most of all, I am scared of what I see in that broken San Francisco mirror. Yes, they are indifferent. But I can be that, too.