Standing with my wife on the corner of Fillmore and Sutter, waiting on the 22 Fillmore to take us to Haight Street to meet friends for dinner, we chatted casually with two women – tourists visiting from Switzerland.
As often is the case when chatting with tourists in San Francisco, the subject of the being panhandled by the homeless came up. I gave them my standard recommendation in such matters – give them food, give them coffee, but don’t give money. If you really feel compelled to part with your hard earned cash, donate it to one of the numerous not-profits in town that can help them such as Glide Church or Raphael House (where I volunteered off and on for over 5 years).
The words had barely left my mouth when we were approached by a 20-something black guy with gold “grills” on his teeth, baggy jeans, a t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. “Y’all got any spare change? My moms car is outta gas”, he asked. “No, sorry”, we replied in unison. He got louder, “WHAT? NONE OF Y’ALL got any spare change?”. We repeated our original answer. “Damn!”, he said, moving back to the bench where he’d been sitting with a friend.
Talking to his friend loudly, mostly it seemed for our benefit. “Did you see how he disrepected me?”. I assumed he meant me, because other than the three women I was with, the only only man around was waiting a bit further away. We dared not turn around, in fear of seeming confrontational.
He got up from his bench, and strode into the street, cell phone pressed to his ear, “Y’all better get down here,” he was saying, “some fool is disrespecting me in my own neighborhood”. I looked at my wife, at the tourists, and then with some relief up at the bus two blocks away. He was back on the bench, still ranting. “This is my neighborhood! The FILLmore! Nobody gonna disrespect me here!”
The bus arrived. The women got on, and I as was climbing aboard, I felt him behind me. “Where you going?, his friend asked. “I’m getting on this bus with him”, his voice still full of anger (real? mock?). “Don’t even, quit playin'”, his friend said. To my relief, the doors closed without him, and the bus crawled at an interminably slow pace down Fillmore.
The adrenaline coursed through my body and I ran the whole scenario over and over in my head. Years ago, a self-defense instructor told me that any confrontation you could walk safely away from was a victory, but I did not feel victorious. I felt frustrated, scared, and angry. Very angry.
As we walked from the bus-stop to the restaurant, we resolved not to mention it again that evening and not let it spoil our evening. We had a wonderful dinner with good friends, but days later, I still find myself troubled by the incident. I grew up in San Francisco and I never used to feel unsafe here. And then of course, there is the racial context. I’d like to think that the whole incident at the bus-stop was not a “race” issue, but an “asshole” issue, but that would be naive.
If you were to swallow everything the media doles out, particularly in light of Barack Obama’s campaign to be president, we’re either having a national dialogue on race or supposed to be having one. Things never felt this stratified when I was a kid. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, where I can’t remember race mattering all that much.
My friends came in all shapes, sizes, colors, and sexual orientations. So did those of my siblings and parents. I was very much in the minority at every school I attended until high school, and I don’t remember it ever being a problem.
As I’ve gotten older, the ratio of non-whites amongst my friends has diminished greatly. This is not something I felt myself consciously moving towards, it just seemed to have happened. Maybe part of it is how the demographics of the city has changed. Thanks in part to rent-control, I’ve been able to hang in here, but others (including some family members) have gradually been priced out of the city
I feel the racial divide more personally now than when I was younger. I’ve always prided myself as a person who saw people not color, and now I search my soul, hoping that has not changed.