San Francisco builds them crazier

After living in NYC for over 10 years, I was under the impression that New York had some of the craziest people in the country. I’m not talking crazy in the let’s build a bidet out of gold in our guest penthouse or let’s do 20 grams of coke and stay out till tuesday type of crazy. Because New York definitely leads the country in those type of crazies, IMO. I’m talking about the more traditional, make a track suit out garbage bags and fishing twine and urinate in a subway car type of crazies. New York has a lot of those, don’t get me wrong. But comparing dollars for donuts, San Francisco builds them crazier.

When I first visited the fair city of San Francisco in the late nineties – a fresh faced teenager – I took the BART from the airport down to 24th and Mission where my sister was living. Walking out of the subway on to 24th street I believe was the 1st time I ever actually had to step OVER a person on the street.  In the past I’d had to navigate AROUND a bum or two, or maybe avoid the general direction of some unsavory characters, but this was definitely the first time I had to pass directly above one.  In San Francisco there seems to be a definite trend in the bumming community to choose highly trafficked areas to pass out – frequently right on their faces or lying straight on their back staring at the sky (the creepiest!).

Like water flowing through a brook, pedestrians in SF find a way to navigate around these human obstructions and on their dutiful way. Once there was a man passed out right in front of our doorstep and I found myself having to stop and see if he was OK. I was able to elicit a groan from him and could move on in good conscience. Later when the story was recounted to my sister, she replied, “You stopped and checked on him? Don’t you understand that bums just do that here!?” Now that I have lived here for a little while, I see that she is right – they do. I’ve tried to theorize why people here are prone to passing out in the middle of the sidewalk and I’ve decided that it might have something to do with all the hills. Possibly they get really fucked up, set out in some general direction and then, upon encountering the difficulty of trudging up one of the many large hills, find it easier to just plop themselves down right there on the sidewalk. Ahhh…sleepy time. It may also have something to do with the super high rents in the city. But that is all mere conjecture…

Just passing out in the street does not mean you are really crazy, though, just really tired or extremely intoxicated. So how do I justify my belief that SF builds them crazier? Well, I invite anyone interested to take the 14 bus down Mission street on a sunny saturday afternoon to get a true sampling of the crazy flavour. Why just the other day I did it and it went  kind of like this: At the outset of our trip an enormous African-American lady hobbled on to the bus and took an instant disliking to the bus driver. I missed their initial encounter, but apparently the Asian bus driver had done something to set her off (or dare I say she was just crazy). She chose to sit within the vicinity of the driver and proceeded to hurl expletives at him for 6 or 7 stops. Something along the lines of: “Uh huh… you can’t treat me like that. Nope. I live in this city! I’m from San Francisco! You can’t talk to me like that, you fucking asshole. You think just because you driving the bus you can treat me like that you dick. Uh huh, that’s what I said. I live here…” And so on and so on.

I’ve gained a lot of respect for MUNI drivers since living in San Francisco. They seem to have become sort of the general focal point for the common people’s mistrust and agression towards “The Man”. I try to imagine what it must be like to show up to work everyday and chauffeur around a bunch of loonies – some of them who just yell insults at you the entire time. I mean, come on lady! Don’t you realize he is driving your bus!? He could blow a gasket at any moment and take the bus and everyone in it straight off a bridge. Shut the fuck up!! All bus drivers deserve medals in my opinion.

Later on a group of three Nicaraguan guys got on board and sat towards the back. They were sipping on tall boys while pounding those single serve gin bottles you get at the counter of liquor stores. They actually seemed pretty normal except that they were wearing surgical gloves. So while their fiesta was heating up in the back, a group of skater punks got on a few seats in front of them. Just when it seemed like the scene couldn’t be any riper for confrontation, this relic from the heyday of 60s San Francisco psychedelia hopped on board. He was extremely white and gaunt with long grey hair and a long grey beard. He chose to sit next to the skater punks.

This is where the trip started to get a little surreal. In any normal circumstances the skater punks, with their piercings, tattoos and general menacing appearance, would be the instigators in this situation but introduce a crazy white acid-casualty in to the mix and everything goes out of whack. He starts barking gibberish at one of the punks in an extremely loud and earnest fashion. Everyone is trying to make out what this creepy dude is saying because it sounds ALMOST like words and the skater punk is looking visibly uncomfortable. He just keeps shaking his head and saying “I don’t understand what you are saying to me”. This just made the hairy skeleton angrier and angrier and he began barking even louder and more incoherently. At this point the Nicaraguans in the back chime in and start yelling at the skeleton, “Yo man! We want some of what you got. Whatever your on – we want some of that! Come on man, I’ll give you a 100 bucks right now.” They start cracking up and the hairy guy for the first time becomes quiet, almost self conscious. He responds somewhat defensively (and even coherently), “What!? What are you talking about!?” – like a high school kid accused of drinking his dads beer.

Well that troop of characters all clears out around 16th and Mission and we start getting closer to our destination. We couldn’t expect to get home, though, without getting at least one more touch of the crazies. This time it came in the form of an unassuming older north-african gentleman with a slightly glazed look and no bottom teeth. Did I forget to mention that during all this my 18 month year old son managed to fall asleep in my lap? The gentleman across the aisle remarks on how peaceful my son looks sleeping. I remark back that I’m surprised he was able to fall asleep in all the commotion. The gentleman nods weakly and responds, “I know. I know. I haven’t slept in 138 days.” Hmmmmm… I see.

Just in case you were wondering if the crazies tend just to congregate on buses in SF, let me assure you that it is not the case. As we alighted from the bus at our stop there happened to be someone kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk. They appeared to be trying to push their nose into a crack in the pavement. We chose to leave that mystery unsolved and returned home after an exciting day on public transportation. Safely back to our apartment, I began to muse on why it is that San Francisco attracts such a large number of colorful vagrants.  The weather is certainly hospitable and conducive to passing out on the sidewalk most of the year round. That is pretty much the west coast in general, though, so that wouldn’t explain it entirely. It might also have something to do with how America was settled. With the expansion westward, cities and towns were continually rounding up their loonies and shipping them further and further west until they ultimately couldn’t go any further and voila: San Francisco. Or possibly San Francisco has just always been known as a place of extreme tolerance. Hard to say, but after living in a city with an almost militant police presence for many years, this acceptance of idiosyncrasy is almost a breath of fresh air (with hints of urine and beer thrown in).


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