04 October 2007

Stratified in SF

Last week I was lucky enough to land an interview with Jon Hammond [audio | video], a local blues musician and media fanatic and I really wanted to record our interview with high quality equipment so I called in a favor from Pyramind studios, in the office I was consulting for last year. Michael Roache (great guy) said ok, and so I was on my way to the studio Friday to record. But on my way, I had an interesting experience.

This is a building I passed, walking on 5th Street, from the Caltrain station. I have walked this way many times since I used to work in the area. It's the kind of street that's pretty surreal at dusk or dawn.

To me this street is the epitome of economic differences in San Francisco. There is dramatic construction happening here right now, dozens of projects, condos and business business cuildings shooting up into our skyline, overshadowing existing problems. I guess we couldn't give a *&^% about our homeless or the city's paperclip and rubber band public transportation system. No, we just want to build more things. I guess I saw this red building against the cold, morning sky and it struck me. I took out my iPhone and took this picture.

A voice behind me said "Are you taking a picture of the cars?" I replied "No, the building." A tall, good-looking, black man stook staring at my often too-friendly face. I smiled. We stood at the intersection and the light turned and we walked across it together, talking.

"You work up in this facility?" I looked around for what he meant. "No," I said. I saw overpasses and a barren block. As we walked, I saw a homeless man sleeping along the sidewalk, bundled in what appeared to enough clothes to fight off the chill of SF. It can get cold here, but I've seen worse.

I was born in San Francisco and I grew up in Marin County. We didn't have two Ferrari's and a hot tub with *close* friends in it or anything like that, so don't ask me to borrow $20 or score you some coke. When I was younger, we struggled for money and there were even times we didn't have a home ourselves. Luckily those times didn't last long, but I've seen some down and I've seen some out. So, it's not so hard for me to relate to.

"I'm Leroy." said the man, and he shook my hand, "What's your name?"


He seemed like a together guy, up early and on his way somewhere.

"What do you do, Lisa?"

I excitedly told Leroy about the blues musician I was on my way to interview. I explained that I did marketing for an Internet radio company. I had been working hard for months on a project and had neglected meetings like this, someone out of my realm, something to do with music. The interview was going to be a nice treat for me. I asked Leroy if he liked the blues. He gave me a funny look as if to say "What? Oh, I like the blues because I'm black?"

I squinted at him and asked "What do you do, Leroy."

"Nothing." said Leroy, like the punchline at the end of a bad joke. "I don't do anything."

Realizing Leroy was out of a job, awkwardness set into our moment. We came to the block where Saint Vincent de Paul is, the 'facility' where Leroy was headed, a community center for homeless and unemployed. I already felt a bit like an asshole for having an iPhone, for giving a shit about the color of that building, and for asking Leroy if he liked blues. That's when he scoffed at me, "I bet you never been in this building, obviously."

"Not obviously," I started to say.

"Have you been in it?" he asked, knowingly.

"Well, no." I tried to act offended, but the wind left those sails. I could see where he was coming from.

Leroy must have sensed my empathy and he asked me for my phone number. I told him I couldn't give that to him. I shyly thanked him I don't even know why, and I turned and continued walking. I pretended I hadn't really wanted to know Leroy better, but it wasn't true. I did. Ad I wanted him to know me. I wanted to tell him stories that would make him see I knew that side of life better than it appeared at first glance.

Not long ago on this same street I saw a man riding a bicycle get hit by a van. It was a very loud noise and a disturbing one at that, once I saw what had happened. The driver in the van half-heartedly asked the guy, who was stunned and moving the the curb, if he was alright. The bike rider said yes, and waved him off, and the driver got back into his vehicle and left. You got the feeling the driver wanted out of the neighborhood more than he cared for the well-being of the guy he'd nearly killed. I felt confused when I saw that.

Confused that we are all part of such a large species in which things like this happen. There are sacrifices to progress. There is an underbelly of people that gets swept under and crushed, people just like you and me.

After my interview with Jon, I came home and all day I listened to the CDs he gave to me. And I thought about Leroy, and what the blues mean.

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