Sometimes you visit a place and leave with souvenirs and pictures. Other times, like when I visited Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, you leave changed. Touched by what remains, you are one in a million who has been there before only to leave after a brief visit. How many others have seen below the surface? How many have seen what really is the heart of San Francisco?
With a destination in mind and a camera around my neck, I stood with about twenty other people waiting for a cable car at Powell and Sutter. Several full cars passed by before I was able to climb aboard one.
“You move to back of car! Move! Move!” The driver shouted at us in broken English like we were prisoners and he the officer transporting us to the big house to serve the sentences rightfully imposed on us. The famous “ding-ding” of the bell rang. I tried to keep my face out of the guy’s armpit next to me while with every stop made, I realized that the pedestrians were making better time than I. Still, riding a cable car is part of San Francisco.
Stepping off the car, I walked the three blocks to Fisherman’s Wharf. I passed a man with long hair sitting cross-legged on the concrete playing bongos with taped fingers. The hide of the bongos was worn yellow from use. The yellow formed a circle that surrounded black circles that stood out like eyes in the center of each drum. There was a look in the eyes of the man that I really couldn’t place. I wondered if he was blind or just blind to all the people dressed in designer jeans with wallets bulging with credit cards and paper money. His cup sat near him waiting for a coin. He didn’t accept credit cards. Some people stopped and stared while others passed by never looking his way.
Walking on toward Pier 39, I had to stop to avoid a family with Daddy passing out money to his two teenage daughters. They were dressed in crisp outfits. Their new white Reeboks were blinding in the afternoon sun. They all had smiles on their faces and sparkling eyes reflecting the prospect of spending money. As I turned, I saw the cross-legged man in torn jeans playing on, with white taped fingers and empty eyes.
Looming behind him, Alcatraz sat alone in the San Francisco Bay. Sail boats drifted around the island that no longer held prisoners. Tourists stood in line to by tickets so that they could ride a boat to the middle of the bat to see what the old prison looks like on the inside. Many years ago, prisoners would pay anything to leave, to never see the inside of those walls again; to never again smell the stench of caged animals. Yet, people with bulging pockets and blinding white shoes pay money to see it.
The gray bay water was rough, not smooth or mellow. It struck out at the pier with increasing persistence only to subside and begin again. The was not inviting and I had no desire to shed my shoes and feel its touch. It was not transparent nor reflective but opaque and concealing. I wondered what lay deep within those waters, but I did not wish to explore. Instead, I did what I shopped in numerous every other tourist does when he visits Fisherman’s Wharf, over-priced shops and ate in the many over-priced restaurants. After I had my fill of shopping and eating, I headed back to the cable car stop.
With packages in hand, I passed the man still playing the bongos and, like everyone else, I didn’t look his way.
As I approached the cable car stop I saw over a hundred people waiting in line to return to the city. The prospect of waiting in the hot afternoon sun for my turn to ride the cable car irritated me a little. I looked around at the other tourists and from the scowls on their faces, I knew I was not alone. The foul graffiti scribbled on the buildings across the street told me it was not the best part of town. The neatly dressed tourists with their many packages looked out of place standing next to the rundown apartment buildings.
Realizing I had forgotten to buy my ticket, I asked the two young women behind me if they would please save my place. I then headed for the ticket machine. When I arrived at the machine, I saw a dark-haired man wearing faded blue jeans offering to help a tourist figure out the complicated ticket machine. He took the tourist’s money and went through the process outlined in the many steps and purchased the tickets for the man. Being grateful that he did not have to figure out the complicated machine by himself, the tourist gave the beggar a dollar for his trouble. The beggar continued to help other tourists until a female police officer approached him and, pulling out her billy club, ordered him to leave at once. I was sorry she chased him away because it took the tourists even longer to purchase their tickets when they had to figure out how to work the machine by themselves.
Ticket in hand, I resumed my place in the line after thanking the two women for securing my spot. Just then, I noticed a man with long, stringy brown hair standing next to the line. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he announced. “I am here to perform balancing tricks for you while you wait for the cable car to come!” He reminded me of an act in a three-ring circus. He took a dirty looking, empty pop bottle and proceeded to balance it upside down on his forehead. With it balanced on his head, he lowered himself to the ground. He then made his way back up to a standing position without touching or dropping the bottle. I looked around and I saw that the scowls of my fellow tourists had turned to smiles. This dirty, stringy-haired man had managed to transform a filthy bottle into an entertaining act. He then made an over exaggerated bow while saying loudly, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen!”. The majority of tourists clapped. He then continued balancing bottles, a pair of sunglasses, a knife and anything else the audience would supply. Whenever a cable car approached, he would say, “Here comes the cable car, ladies and gentlemen! The next act starts when the cable car leaves! Thank you!” Periodically he would pass around hat around for donations and the dispose of his earning in a dingy blue knapsack that was slowly filling with money. In what seemed like no time at all, I hopped aboard the cable car after giving the entertainer two dollars for making my time go by.
As the cable car climed Taylor toward the city, I looked back at Fisherman’s Wharf. Pier 39 was in the center of it all while Alcatraz stood in the gray waters of the San Francisco Bay. The poorer neighborhood with the beggars entertaining and offering assistance to the tourists provided a rippling effect that lost its shine the further away I traveled.
On the last evening of my stay in San Francisco, some friends took me to dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf. After we ate, we decided to go for one last walk. Faced with what I saw my first day, I suddenly stopped. There with the moon in the sky and Alcatraz in the dark bay behind him was the man in dirty blue jeans, sitting cross-legged playing worn bongos with taped fingers and empty eyes.
I had to run in order to catch up with my friends who had continued walking ahead of me. The impact of seeing what will remain, like that man still there and the presence of Alcatraz in the bay, was so great that I tried to explain the emotion I felt to the. But, they were obviously not as moved as I was. Realizing that some people don’t see the world in the same way as others, that they don’t see below the surface, I kept it all to myself. Until now, that is.