Once the Irish, the Germans, the workers pressed together, clustered little Victorians, where they were born, lived, then died. Now babies in strollers, babies pressed against mom, against dad, toddlers wobbling, wide blocks of deconstructed, reconstructed, houses, pasted photos, smiling women and men, realtors, listing, listed, selling, sold. White buses, elevated people, wearing laptops like blankets, heading south to touch more technology. Hilly hills, wisps of fog, oceanic clouds, permanent winter like they say Twain said. Past and present commingle in gusts of wind, September summers, sometimes rain and rainbows.
We wait in a large quiet basement room, a voice calls out our last names. We are the citizens, non-convicts, resident San Franciscans; the ones able to judge right from wrong, upholders of the Constitution. The orientation video entices us, invites us to witness the criminal justice system up close, be Judge Judy for a day. We shuffle into the courtroom, African-American, Asian, White, Latino, all here when called upon. I become a witness to factual knowledge, as people in the jury box state their occupation, marital status, whether they rent or own. A voyeur, I listen for stories. The man married 32 years, the older woman still living with her parents, the UCSF nurse who helps the chronically ill, bits of life shared with a room full of strangers. Potential unlawful eviction, but I’m not to reveal trial details, took an oath not to tell. I scribble notes on the book that I brought to relieve boredom, think of my father and sister, both lawyers, they’ve lived in rooms like these. I observe while the attorneys work, sweating, brains churning. Who to keep? Who to release? Juror number 5, tell me again about being a landlord, you own three houses? They query, looking for answers, for an advantage, sizing up faces like poker players. Women stand up, men sit down, human beings shifting seats 1-21 like musical chairs without the melody, money at stake. Hours have passed, I find myself spacing out, listening to my breath, what am I doing here? I’ve forgotten. Then suddenly the words, the rest of you are dismissed, you have done your duty. We walk out of the room, the doors of democracy opening into afternoon sunlight.
Cigarettes sucked to the butt, lie dead on the sidewalk like flat white and orange cancer worms. Not my ideal place to meditate, but I’ve committed to 2 hours of sitting on this grungy street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The handwritten sign above my head reads Free Meditation scrawled with one of my son’s purple smelly markers. I’m surrounded by a small legless dog, its toothless owner, and a woman muttering to herself. They are waiting to take a free mobile shower thanks to the nonprofit Lava Mae. I had some kind of fantasy that the cardboard box campers, hungover, strung out, would sit with me, close their eyes, allow me to guide them through some mindful breathing. Instead the first hour is me and them, the guy blasting AC/DC on his cassette player boom box, a mom with two toddler children sitting in my guest meditation chairs, and a homeless kid talking to himself about fairies. I close my eyes, breathe in the secondhand smoke, try to ignore the broken needle on the curb a few feet away. The Lava Mae staff encourage people to sit with me. We are offering meditation today Charlie, want to try it? They ask the toothless man. But Charlie just looks through me like he’s on his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam. They all ignore me, like they ignore the Back in Black screeching out into the foggy Saturday morning air.
I try to meditate, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes catching glimpses of people throwing their used towels into a bin as they trudge away to get dirty again. Then this guy sits down next to me to dry off after his shower. My altruistic heart skips a beat. This is what I’m here for, to save someone, to be an example of peace, to add hope to the psyche of the streets. He’s tall, maybe 6’6, light skinned, African American, carrying a large blanket like a cape, like a king. You meditating man? He asks. Yes, would you like to sit with me? I say, almost sounding like Linus speaking about the Great Pumpkin. Nah man, but that meditation stuff is some good shit, I like that shit, but I came here to get my ass clean. His eyes look at me clearly, no booze on his breath, no weed smell around his edges. You’ve meditated? I ask. Yeah, meditated, yoga, visualization, all that shit. We talk about his hoops career, (he played divison one ball in college), his ex-wife, his old job selling cars, his race (Man, I didn’t discover my blackness until I was like 20, I was raised by white folks who’d adopted me), his descent into crystal meth. I ask him about living on the streets. Dan, man, I never miss a meal, I sometimes walk 12 miles a day from place to place. I sleep wherever, in a tent, in a box, on the bus to the casino up north. I don’t ask him if he’s still using, but my money says yes. You want to get off the streets? I ask. Yeah, but I want someone to write my story. I was a pro baller in Europe man, fuck, people need to know about this shit. I look down at my watch, an hour has passed talking with Dennis and my time is up. I grab my sign, say goodbye to the Lava Mae people, then to Dennis. I want to give him my card, meet with him again, write his story, save him from his end, but all I can manage is, really good to meet you, stay strong. With that he is off, clutching his blanket, a giant of a man, almost elegant, owned by addiction.
I get home and immediately go to my computer. There he is, averaged 9.7 points a game his senior year, his LinkedIn profile shows his last job as a car sales manager near Sacramento. He was telling the truth, I think. A real man, a real human being, off the grid, gone, maybe forever.
The French Club in San Francisco, where wealthy men eat, drink, and smoke cigars. Perfect spot for a teetotaling, mostly vegan, meditator like me. Why do you go? You might ask. I probably shouldn’t, but I’ve never been one of those righteous, vegan, meditation people, the kind who constantly judge others. I have a close friend who’s a member of the club and usually go when he invites me, maybe three times a year.
I went last Friday for lunch. Daytime at the French Club is jacket, no tie, with no women allowed. The elevator opens on the 8th floor, a large black and white photo of Paris greets us, followed by image after image of tuxedoed men with contented smiles, leisurely cradling drinks. Over a hundred years old, the club is a throwback to a time when genders were separated. Tall men, big men, greet me, shake my hand firmly, ask about my family. Cocktails before lunch, white wine, rum, vodka tonic, whatever you want. I opt for a sparkling water. I always opt for some version of water. Tap water, still water, water with ice, bubbly water.
All the members bring expensive wine bottles to share at the meal. I sit down at the main table, ten empty glasses greet me, five for whites, five for reds, like crystal ships waiting to transport me away for the afternoon. The servers come around with the white wines. I’m not drinking today, I say, as they are about to pour, a half second of awkwardness, like telling someone I have four toes. The glasses fill up around the table, about 24 other men, and me the lone dry guy. Conversation starts out like trading baseball cards, my Pacific Heights home, your golf game, my Master’s from Dartmouth, your daughter about to get married in Lake Como. After the lobster risotto the wine has softened the men up, they circulate around the table, grab shoulders, laugh more freely. Then comes pheasant on a bed of potato puree and carrots, the red wines flow.
I’m surrounded by swirling pinots, burgundies, sipped, caressed, quaffed. The younger me would have looked for conversation, inserted talking into the scene, but I now know I have nothing to say. Instead, I find my breath and start meditating. Short inhales at first, my stomach a bit too full. But after about a minute, I’m back in me. I sit for quiet seconds there, my eyes open, focused on the sun’s light coming through the window.
Eventually the chocolate flourless cake arrives to end my meditation. I take slow bites, listen to the buzzed euphoria of the room. I wonder if they are all happy, really happy underneath the food and booze, but then I let them be, focus on my breath again.
I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.
No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.