It’s 11:30 p.m. You’re standing in front of your apartment building. You had been to a reading by Antero Alli, at Field’s metaphysical bookstore on Polk, of his new book, The Eight-Circuit Brain, featuring illustrations by your friend Beau. You never heard of the guy, but since Beau led you to him, you figure he’s got something to say you need to hear. Afterwards, a bunch of you go back to Beau’s house. You ask him to pull off your new boots, which are killing you. He thinks they’re cool. A mellow glass of Trader Joe’s red later, another friend driving back to her home in San Jose offers you a ride to your place. You gratefully accept.
Now you’re standing in front of your apartment building, and as her car retreats, you realize that your bag with your house keys, your wallet, and your cell phone is on its way to San Jose. So what are you going to do? You can’t call her, she has your phone and you don’t know her number anyway. No one’s lights are on to let you into the building. The fire escape is too high to jump onto and crawl through your open window, and the one thing you will not do is call your landlord with two kids at midnight and expect him to run to your rescue.
So what are your options? You could call the locksmith, whose number is posted on the door, but, actually, no, you can’t. No phone, no money. You could get some money from the ATM. No, you can’t. No ATM card. You could go back to Beau’s house, except no, you can’t, because no bus fare, and it’s too far to walk wearing your punishing new boots. Maybe the bus transfer the driver gave you earlier was an all-nighter. Doesn’t matter. It’s in the bag in the car on its way to San Jose.
It’s a mild enough night. You could spend it in Dolores Park. If anyone wanted to rob you, you have no money. If anyone wanted to accost you, hell hath no fury like you when your boundaries are crossed. But it’s early, too early. The long yawning night looms in front of you. You could go to a bar till 2:00. No, you can’t. No money. Safeway’s open all night, and they have free WI-FI. So what? Your laptop’s upstairs. You could read the two Alli books you acquired. No, your reading glasses are in the bag as well. You could help yourself to a paper bag, bum a pencil, write all night. But the Starbucks stand is closed. You certainly look sane and solvent, even hip, but if you can't buy anything, can you sit at a table till dawn without being moved along? How much of a threat can you pose? You are clean, coherent and color-coordinated.
What do people do, with few or no resources and nowhere at all that they’re welcome? What are they going to eat that day, how will they make it through the night? No, this is no Adventure in Homelessness. You have friends and family behind you and a bank account, like in that bogus movie The Amazing Adventure with Cary Grant as a bored millionaire who swears he'll live for a year on his own wits. You can't pretend you don't have backup options when you do. You can't fake desperation. You are blessed.
You think of the story Alli told, of driving from LA to some remote outpost for some psychedelic soul-searching, and running out of gas in the desert just as he and his friend are peaking on orange sunshine. They’re out on the road when two giggling young men run towards them and inform them with glee they have just ripped off a warehouse and the cops are after them. They keep running, and the two of them are now standing there with the cops on the way. They decide to hide in a ditch and watch as the officers scan the dirt with their flashlights. They escape being detected, but somewhere in the hustle-bustle Alli loses his wallet. So they now have no gas and no money and are screaming high. All they can think to do is go door-to-door until someone is trusting enough to offer them some work—scrubbing mud off of bricks—for a pancake breakfast and gas money back to LA. Alli's take's on this experience is that no matter what situation arises, he is a survivor, and is going to make it through.
So this is hardly a “survival” scenario but you do have to put yourself somewhere. You would simply “walk the earth” all night if your feet didn’t hurt so much. You’re in the Mission and it’s late but 16th St. is still hopping and Adobe Books is open. You tell your sob story to the nice guy with the long grey beard and tapestry hat who lets you use the phone. You can’t reach Beau because his cell number is in your cell phone which is in the car. So who is the closest good friend you can impose on? You call her, tell her your sob story, and explain you need a place to stay for the night. You know she would love to accommodate you, but her apartment is under renovation, dirty and dusty, and she has no couch. What she will do for you is lend you her credit card to rent a room in the nearby Days Inn in Hayes Valley. Although the Adobe’s couch is looking mighty good to you, you tell your friend it will take you about a half-hour to walk there on your crippled feet.
She’s waiting on her steps for you. She admires your boots. You walk around to Days but there’s no vacancy; then you try the pricier charming B&B where friends from out of town stay, but they are not answering the bell you repeatedly ring. They assume you’re some homeless person, and at the moment, they are right. That’s why you’re ringing the bell. You don’t want your friend to walk too far from her place at that hour, and there’re your aching feet, which just want to stop walking. On your way to the Travelodge on Market, you pass by the Albion House and give it a try. At this hour you have to check with the restaurant staff at Sauce, which shares the building.
You polish your sob story and appeal to the handsome bartender, “Is there any room at the inn?” He smiles, puzzled. “Seriously,” you say, “I need a place to stay tonight. I lost my keys, my money, my cell phone, everything.” “How were you going to pay?” “A friend is charging the room to her credit card.” He’s sympathetic, makes a phone call, and leads you up to the Embarcadero Suite, facing Gough St. and its traffic which will keep you up all night. He processes the paperwork and also remarks on your boots. His name is Rial, and he will be here till 2:00 a.m. if there’s anything else you need. Your friend lends you $10, and you immediately think about using it to sit at Rial’s bar for a nightcap. Rial is damn cute.
But, “actually,” you tell him, you need a paper and pen. You’re a writer and you can’t be sitting in some room for hours without writing about it. He goes through a lot of drawers till he finds something suitable. Your friend has brought you a nightshirt and a banana for breakfast. She is an angel. You ask for one more favor before she takes off. “Will you please pull these fucking boots off for me?”
The next morning you are grateful for the banana. You dread having to walk around in the killer boots to break the ten so you can make phone calls and have carfare, much less find a public phone. But you go to the great room for the energy bars they have on the counter and someone is in there typing on a laptop. You get out the sob story, and luckily, she has a cell phone you can use to call your landlord. You stare at it for a minute before you’re willing to admit you can’t see the buttons without your reading glasses you left in the car. You have her dial your friend, to get your landlord’s number, then dial your landlord to leave a message on his voice mail telling him you’ll have to call him back because he can’t call you back, but he does, on the person’s phone, a few minutes later.
It’s around 11:00 a.m. now, and he can’t meet you till 3:00. No big deal, except you need to feed your cats. You figure you survived the night and they’ll survive missing breakfast. Anyway, you have your writer’s group meeting at Café Bohème in an hour.
You have spent $2.00 on grape juice to break the ten. You’re at Gough and Market and notice an exterminator's truck marked "Dr. Kilzum." Is that you, you ask the driver. "Yep!" he smiles. "All my patients die!" The easiest thing to do is hobble to Mission St. to get the bus. On the way you pass a homeless person lying face down on the street, his shopping cart filled with the dirty, dreary miscellany that comprises his mobile home. You remind yourself your biggest problem is your aching feet. You once slipped a $5 bill inside the paperback a sleeping woman on a bench held to her chest, and wish you could help him too. But you spend two more dollars on the 14 bus to 24th St. You’re late for the group but you write, with Rial’s pen and paper, about falling off the continental shelf into the Mariana Trench and then about Silencio, who has the hots for his supposed father Playboy.
Ben lets you use his laptop to email Beau and offers to buy you lunch. But you still have six of your ten, and use $4.00 of it on a bagel and coffee because you have to patronize the café. You have two bonus dollars left. You pick a “prompt” sentence from Casy’s hat to take home with you. It is, “If you leave a house in Malibu, the people from the hills will come down to barbeque their dogs in your fireplace.” That’s another way to survive, you guess.
You use your transfer to take the 14 back to 16th and Mission and, walking home, pass two well-worn young travelers on the street asking for food or money. Sob story, etc., and you can’t help right now. But as you walk off, you reflect you don’t expect you’ll be going anywhere that night, and turn back to give them the remaining $2 you’d reserved for carfare. Every step along the way, someone was there to help you out, and now it was your turn to pay it forward. And it wasn’t even your two dollars.
You reach home, and you’re sitting in front of your apartment building, writing with Rial’s pen and paper, until your landlord drives up. You remark on the climb upstairs that your friend helped you spend the night in a hotel rather than call him at midnight, knowing he’ll insist, next time, that you do. You resolve there will never be one, because this was a $142 lesson in absentmindedness. Home sweet home was never so sweet. First you feed the cats. Then you yank your cursed boots off and toss them across the room. And never are you happier than while watching the rerun of Project Runway you missed the night before. Beau has emailed he’ll return your bag on Sunday. You get a great night's sleep in your own bed.
Next day is your writing workshop. You consider skipping it so you can watch the last half-hour of Must Love Dogs with John Cusack. But you scrounge up sixteen laundry quarters for the four bucks to take the N Judah there and back.
You arrive an hour early, and it’s too cold to walk along the beach. You count the handful of loose change you find at the bottom of your book bag and wow, you can just afford a cup of ginger peach tea for $1.43 at the Java Beach Café at Judah and La Playa. In line, you drop a dime at a gentleman’s feet. His shoe is in the way. “Excuse me,” you say, stooping, feeling stupid, but you need the dime. You’re embarrassed to drop the remaining seven cents in the tip jar, but it’s all you can do. You love the Java Beach. It feels like a different San Francisco, a corner window on the Pacific Ocean culture of the Sunset. Heavy sweaters mix with long shorts and flip flops.
You walk against the wind on the Great Highway, sipping your tea, to Cary’s house. And now here you are, and the assignment is: arrival, trouble and resolution. You write:
It’s 11:30 p.m. You’re standing in front of your apartment house.