Always See Face

by Morgan Stohlman (Wheeling Jesuit Univ.)

First Place

“Hey Mom” I said

“Hey there, how’s the hostel? Is it clean?” She says

“Ummm, yeah haha you could say that sure but I don’t . . . Mom I don’t know if I should have d . . .”

“Wait a minute, here’s Dad” she says.

My paint chipped bed creeks and wiggles when I wipe my drippy nose and eyes on the hostel’s stiff bleached sheets.

“Hey Baby, how goes it?” he says

“Hey Dad, I made it to the hostel okay. It’s awesome. Glad I came.” I say.

“Awesome. Any big plans tonight, Miss Adventuresome?”

“I don’t know yet. I want to get settled with my locker and everything.”

“Okay well, call us tomorrow, and be smart and safe. We love you and are very proud.”

I pause.

“Mhmm okay, Dad. I know, I will. Love you too, Home boy.”

Click. Sniffle. Sigh.

There was an inch between the wall and the poorly locked door across the room and I can hear people speaking to the middle eastern concierge at the front desk, two flights below me. There are six black lockers leaning against, but not bolted to, the wall next to the entrance of the “personal” bathroom for six. Now I understand why this place was only $50.00 a night, in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I half-fall down the pipe ladder and open the only locker without a lock to throw my book bag in, until tomorrow.

*     *     *

There’s an area in San Francisco they refer to as “The Tenderloin.” If you circle it on a map it bares resemblance to a certain cut of pork. The Tenderloin has quite the reputation, as I learned from a quick google search after I took my first snapchat to reassure my friends I was alive and well. As I scroll through the filters to add some color to my pasty face I notices a filter caption that reads “The Tenderloin” in bolded golden letters that surrounds and an outline of said cut of meat. My curiosity leads me to some unsettling information. The Tenderloin is the most notorious area in San Francisco, known for its homeless overpopulation and drug trade. It is organized kind of like a Department store for Drugs with a different type of substance being sold on the different corners. Apparently, the drugs are not Gang related but rather sold by independent entrepreneurs and professional life-ruiners according to a local police article. Little did I know that my home for the next three days was right in the heart of this cultural slab of meat.

*     *     *

6 a.m. on a Monday in The Tenderloin is busy. I wake up early to avoid having to meet my five roommates and walk across the street to a small café to make a plan for the day.  I get a bagel and coffee and sit down facing the street. I write down all the places that I want to visit on a napkin and start plugging them into my map app to figure out which directions to start walking. By 7 a.m. I am hard-core people-watching as briefcases and suits are passing the window of the coffee shop in sophisticated herds. I look at their shoes, their coats and their perfectly treated hair in awe then a tall man, wearing a shabby, torn and balled up green sweater, long black pants littered with holes and an impressively dirty beard walked into the shop. It was approximately 74 degrees this morning so he must not have been too uncomfortable. I watch as he approaches the counter. Without any words or transactions, the woman at the counter hands him a bagel and a cup of coffee, the same order as me but his is free. The dirty man takes the donation, nods and sits down at a table in front of me. I instinctively start to pack up my iPad, my wallet, my copy of Pet Sematary and anything of value. I’m an easy victim; A college aged woman across the country from anyone I know and traveling alone. As I type the last few of my destinations into my phone the dirty man turns around looks at my table and asks,

“How do you like Stephen King? I haven’t read him.” He said with a gentle smile and a glance at my copy of Pet Sematary.

A strange guttural noise comes out of my nose and mouth simultaneously before I can even translate what was happening. It was a simple question. Two options here. One: Don’t respond, grab your stuff, and haul ass. He must be a pedophile. Two: Respond to the man’s question and remain calm.

“Uhhh haha uhhh good”. . . I say as I gulp my coffee. “I like him a lot”.

“I’ve never read much of King, I was more of a t.v. guy, ya know”, now turning his chair towards my table.

“Oh, I gotcha, ha ha ha. That’s cool.” I say as I grab my book to toss into my book bag. I want to retreat to the street. The same one he probably just came from.

“My name’s John, miss. What’s yours?” His eyes don’t follow my hand into my bag, like I expected. He keeps eye contact.

“I’m Mo.  Haha Morgan. Nice to meet you, sir.” I say.

*     *     *

John is 46. He has salt and pepper hair that match his beard. His sweater looks itchy with the grime and dirt that it had probably been earned from his time on the street. He asks some questions about my major and what I like to read but nothing about my family or personal life. He asks what my future goals were and what I wanted to do with Literature all in about 10 minutes. I reciprocated with a few questions like how he is doing, how often he comes to this coffee shop, and if he has any family. He tells me that he is alright and that he comes here every day to get a bagel and coffee because the owners are so kind to him and understand his predicament.  He tells me that he lost his home about four years ago after a long legal dispute with his landlord and has since struggled with addiction.

The population of people facing homelessness in San Francisco ranks 8th in the country, behind a few bigger cities such as New York, L.A. and D.C. As a state, California as a whole has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless people in the country. There are 7,000 people in San Francisco without a home. Most of those seven thousand are former residents, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The rising housing prices and sudden shift in job market to a younger entrepreneurial crowd caused people like John to start sleeping in shelters. His horrors, like many people facing homelessness, snowballed soon after staying in shelters. Shelters get full. People get pushed out. They are forced to resort to temporary help which eventually expires.  “No one ever thinks that they will be out this long. It seems like just a hitch”, John says. He explains that resources run out, people get frustrated and give up on themselves. People stop seeing faces and start seeing ratty clothes, ragged baggage or poor hygiene instead.

*     *     *

I speak to John, the Tenderloinian, for 20 or so minutes. When he finishes his bagel he gets up, shakes my hand, and thanks me. He thanks me. He, the homeless man thanks me, the college student. A 21-year-old girl in a coffee shop who gives him nothing more than a little time. I text my Mom as soon as John leaves the café. I’m wasn’t sure why. Like a kid in first grade who just got a participation award for losing a tee ball game, I am confused and unfulfilled.

Hey Mother Bird, just had a nice conversation with John the homeless man. Off 2 find the trolley!!!!

 

Wtf Morgan Elizabeth!!!??? Be careful please! Where are you now?

 

I share my location with her and go on with my site seeing adventure but keep thinking about John. Within two store fronts from the coffee shop I see two men lying under a terrace sharing one blanket. They are sleeping in a V shape around a shopping cart as if they are trying to protect it. I walk for 28 minutes following my app’s directions through headphones in an attempt to look like I know what I am doing. Every corner I pass I see someone “down and out.” I start to look at their faces. Most are men, but some are women. Most are older with some missing teeth and some are pretty young. There are a few my age, but I still don’t have the courage enough to speak to them. I am alone and not very fast.

I get on a trolley after mistakenly walking through Chinatown at 9 a.m. and ending up at a flea market down by the Wharf. I know it is going uphill so I jump on to the side and grab the railing. I am about four inches from the knees of a family, presumably on vacation. The mom rummages around her Louis Viton as the dad stare at his Iphone with a, less than secure, arm around their son as he stares wide eyed at the colorfully skinny houses we pass and the people, just as colorful, who inhabit them. I ride a few stops and get off before it goes back down the other side of the massive hill. The colorful houses and sea of man-buns are replaced by grey, blocky neighborhoods of apartments, gated parking and comb overs.  And there goes the third cop car in half an hour. As I make my way sauntering down the hill I dodge women in heeled booties and men in sunglasses instead of people in sleeping bags.  Crap lunch rush.

Men and women walk or half-run passed me as I try to blend into the blur of what I see as the San Franciscan flock of elites. They with their faces buried in their phones and ears plugged with various Bluetooth apparatus seem to be completely uninterested in conversation. These faceless people move like trolleys as if they were on rails themselves with only one destination and one route, expecting traffic to stop for them as they continuously ascend and descend the hills of San Francisco. Finally, I escape the silent zone and reach Columbus Avenue where the color comes back. Little Italy smacks me in the face with loud conversations over card games, old brick buildings and colorful storefronts.  As I pass a restaurant I think I should probably stop and grab some food to go. Not the most pedestrian friendly dish though.

After walking for 15 minutes I notice a steep street between two buildings that has stairs cut into it to help people ascend the severe incline. Perfect place to eat. It’s public, in a well populated area and convenient. I sit down, open the soup and noodles and break the plastic on the spoon. Leaning on my book bag I start to eat completely content with myself.

“FUUUUCCKK YOUUU DUUUUUDEEE” is shouted from somewhere across the street. Oh god. I’m not very fast and I’m really hungry.

“Get out man, we gave you what you asked for, now go,” said a short stout man with shiny black hair, a goatee and olive skin. He is backing a shirtless man out of the darkness of the restaurant across the street and he isn’t going easily.

“Fuck off you. Fuckkk. Yaghestyugui,” yells the homeless man as he is now backed out of the restaurant by three men, similar in stature to the first.  He crosses the street towards me and I watch completely caught up in my noodles and this bit of drama. As he half struts, half staggers from the corner 20 feet in front of me to the one adjacent to me he looks up and catches my gaze locked on to him, does a double take the stops. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

*     *     *

In 2012, a young female Canadian backpacker, was robbed, tortured and murdered by three of what the media had called “tweakers” in Golden Gate Park. Tweaker is a term, created by media, for homeless people under the influence of methamphetamine. God rest her soul. The media relentlessly told her story yet in 1995 when multiple homeless men all over the city of San Francisco were slain in their sleep with their throats cut there barely any coverage. People like John. According to the Washington Post, they were just sleeping, and were murdered in the dozens. No one cared who the deceased were or where they came from and surely didn’t showed their faces.

*     *     *

The man stops and doubles back to the corner in front of me and begins climbing the street stairs. I throw everything I have into the take out bag, toss my book bag around my shoulder, and stand up straight and say, “No Hell no!” I had some sort of noodle-endorsed courage, until he started screaming.

“Fuck you bitch! Suck baaslhuh! Bitch! Fuck! You. . . Fuck”

There is hardly any variation in the words he is spitting as I turn and run up the stairs toward a group guys, near my age, who are watching the incident happen as silent bystanders. Is no one seeing this? I get three steps ahead of him when he stops, screams “Fuck”, and starts staggering back down the stairs.

Within the next step a cop car flies down the side street, stops and flings open its doors. A female and male police officer gets out of the car with night sticks and apprehends the man as quickly as one might catch a rabid chicken. He continues to yell profanities in their faces as I turn the corner. I take out my phone and snapchat a video of myself retelling the story to keep my friends in the loop. Once, I hit send I think of John. “A lot of people like me, didn’t think we would be out here this long. Things just kind of snowball” he had said. That’s guy is one hell of a snowball.

*     *     *

Most residents in San Francisco live paycheck to paycheck, except the elite few, and save nothing for emergencies, according to an article from the local San Francisco News Channel 8. This is one of the causes for the recent explosion in homelessness. Something happens that requires money that people simply don’t have. They lose their houses. They lose their jobs because they lose their houses. They run out of options and resources and they lose their faces in society.

*     *     *

I take out my phone to text my parents and type,

SO Just got attacked by a homeless guy while I was eating noodles.

I don’t send it though. I walk all the way to the Pier 51, 25 minutes away, and take out my phone and I type:

Hey guys, miss you. I had an encounter with another homeless man just now. I think he was drunk but I’m okay. Hope you are having a splendid day.

 

I saw his face. I ran away but I saw his face. He was older, maybe 60’s. He didn’t have a shirt. He had a lot of wrinkles that were accentuated by lines of dirt that filled them in. I don’t know what color his eyes are. He had chapped lips though, and saggy skin.

I flew home two days later, exhausted and broke, a week before school started. I wasn’t the Canadian backpacker. I didn’t get bed bugs from the hostel that didn’t have screens in the window. I lived and I learned. I got to go home to family and a bed.

Thank you John.