There Were Men Everywhere
I’ve been here before.
Earlier in the day, my legs began feeling wobbly, the effects of gravity after a few days of walking the up and down sidewalks of San Francisco.
I’d been ready to stop for coffee at the next Peet’s. But there it is on the marquee: The Raphael House.
A few steps further down Sutter toward Union Square, there’s a woman standing near the curb, smoking a cigarette.
“Pardon me,” I say. “Wasn’t there a Brother Juniper’s café here?”
She glares at me, then relents.
“That was a long time ago,” she says.
I find a cigarillo in my jacket pocket, take it out and carefully light it.
“I remember eating brunch there,” I begin.
“Really?” she responds, taking a half-interested drag on her own smoke. “Sorry they closed it. There was something about how expensive it would have been to bring things up to code or something like that.”
“When I was last here,” say, “there was a church group that had something to do with it – an aunt and uncle of mine were part of their social services work, they brought me here.”
“Hmmm,” she mutters, as a cab drives by, heading toward Union Square.
“I remember there was breakfast, and a Monk’s sandwich, a Happy Hermit, freshly baked bread, all good – it really stood out then, the food they made here.”
“I wish it was still here!” she says. “There’s a place called Mr. Holmes’ Bakehouse right around the corner on Larkin, have you tried it?”
“They have cruffins, half croissant and half muffins, very tasty but they only make tiny batches and you gotta get there in the morning and wait in line. But they’re sogood.”
I’d trade ten cruffinsfor one Happy Hermit, I’m thinking, but smile and nod.
After a few more pleasantries, she goes inside and I resume my walk down Sutter, thinking I’ll snap a picture of the Marquee on the way back. Brother Juniper’s is gone but Raphael House remains, as a family homeless shelter.
I feel strange, tingling and trying to absorb the synchronicity. It was my Aunt Josephine and Uncle Dick who brought me here when they were both priests in the Holy Order of MANS and I’ve been thinking about them ever since getting to San Francisco.
When I left Camera Obscura at Lands End, I was determined to find the vista Uncle Dick had taken us to, crossing over what seemed like the likeliest spot. From that vista, at least it’s how I remembered it, we could see everywhere. But I never found it again, despite walking ten hard miles and bound by that simple desire. Now my legs feel heavy, not exactly gravity’s rainbow.
Back then, I’d suddenly feel chilly as fog appeared, but now it’s warmer for longer stretches and there’s a drought.
From Land’s End, I walked in between the big windmills at the ocean side of Golden Gate Park, following a footpath straight into the woods. Suddenly, out of some terrible folktale, there were men everywhere, territory staked out about every fifty feet, some with old suitcases and some with backpacks and sleeping bags and others with small shopping carts piled with clothes and miscellany. I forged ahead, ready for fight or flight.
“Don’t go down to the railroad tracks and watch out for hobos in the woods,” my mother warned me as a kid growing up in eastern Pennsylvania. She wasn’t kidding. To get to that area, I would either have to walk down Ridgway and across the old bridge and then loop around to the right -- not too far from where my grandfather lived with Aunt Peg – or go down the alleyway behind our house, through thick woods and down the slope, right into a hobo encampment. At age five, my notions about “hobos” were almost as scary as conjuring up hobgoblins and witches – the stuff of nightmares. There was no way I was going to go among them if I could help it.
And here I was, so many years later, in the thick of homeless vagabonds fighting over turf. I wondered why I had felt compelled to find this place again. I’d been to many places twice, usually at my dad’s request, even spreading his ashes at Shiloh, a place he’d taken me as a child. He’d been the kind of man who almost always got his way.
As I walked through this haven for men who had lost their way, I wondered what Uncle Dick had found here, if he’d ever thought to ask someone to spread his ashes in this place but didn’t trust that anyone would care enough to make the trip. My dad had disliked my uncle and mocked him for what he had perceived as mental weakness, probably undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from an abusive childhood from which he had escaped by enlisting in the Marines. Had my uncle found peace among his fellow travelers? Did anybody? Shiloh means peace, the site of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. Despite my trepidation, I walked on, unable to find the place that existed in my memory, not for lack of trying, dodging the makeshift tents and trash, the fragments of lives all around me.