The Heart of San Francisco

The Heart of San Francisco

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

The Heart of San Francisco

If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.

Lucy Larcom

Recently, one Monday afternoon, I found myself walking the colorful streets of downtown San Francisco. The sun was shining, the sky cloudless and unsullied, thanks to a chill, gusting wind that made me tighten my baseball cap and stuff my hands into my trouser pockets for warmth.

My wife, Sally, and I were on the first day of a vacation trip that would take us to the Napa Valley wine country. Wine tasting is not one of our favored activities. Instead, we were looking forward to a few rounds of golf and spa activities in weather that would be warmer than we could expect at home under the Central Coast’s early summer marine layer of fog.

That morning I had stuffed my wallet at the ATM in our hometown of Pacific Grove, about 135 miles south of the city. We would be meeting our San Francisco-based older son for dinner at a pricey restaurant once evening rolled around, but we had driven into town early to give ourselves time for window shopping and savoring the sights and sounds of our favorite California metropolis. We split up after lunch, Sally to browse the emporiums near Union Square, while I meandered to our Post Street hotel, making a few purchases of predinner snacks and a bottle of wine to share with our son before claiming our reserved table at the restaurant downstairs.

My route took me through the neighborhood known as the Tenderloin. For the unaware, the term comes from the brawling days of yore when the police were paid extra to patrol this area of high crime and lowlife. These days, according to the guidebooks, the streets are not as clean as you might wish, and a number of homeless sleep in doorways if they are not awake and panhandling. Were I to write my own guidebook, I would encourage tourists to stroll the area and enjoy its mix of classy bars, ethnic restaurants, evening jazz locations, mom-and-pop markets, corner sandwich stops, and theatrical sites. If there are mentally-disabled wanderers, dope peddlers, and prostitutes, they are not obvious to me. On this occasion I got a chuckle out of a panhandler’s cardboard sign that said, “I’ll be honest. I’m just looking for money to cover a few beers.”

I had strolled just beyond the upper fringe of the Tenderloin, at Post and Mason streets across from the Donatello Hotel, when a sudden wind gust ripped my cap from my head. I jerked my hands from my pockets in a vain attempt at catching my cap, and with my left hand out came my bulging wallet, which I always carry in a front rather than a hip pocket for comfort and security. I watched in helpless horror as the wind-borne billfold disgorged its wad of greenbacks and other contents that swirled in the howling wind before descending yards away to scuttle down the sidewalk, gutter, and lightly trafficked street.

I retrieved my hat and empty wallet first, and was wondering how many bills I could chase down, when the parade began. One person handed me the plastic window inserts that had separated from the billfold. A young boy and his younger sister approached me to return my Medicare card and my secondary insurance card that had been doing cartwheels in the gutter. Then came a stream of pedestrians, young and old, male and female, clutching twenty-dollar bills and handing them to me. I uttered a stream of thank-yous and stuffed the bills into my pockets. Last in the parade was a street person I had seen a block or two down the hill I had been climbing.

“Hold on there, my man,” she shouted, waving her right hand that held a couple of bills in it. She was dressed rather shabbily, but I focused on her broad smile and the gold tooth gleaming in the lower jaw of her mahogany face. As she approached me, she said, “I found these two twennies blowin’ down the road near Taylor Street. I guess you’re the litterbug been fouling our streets with filthy lucre.”

She handed me the bills, and I tried to give her back one of them. “No, honey, I accepts handouts, but I don’t get fat on people’s misfortunes. Don’t you be givin’ away twenny-dollar bills, unless you richer than you look.”

I found two singles among the returned bills and pressed them on her with heartfelt, mumbled expressions of gratitude. “Well, that I can gratefully accept,” she said. “Now you have yourself a very nice day. And come see me whenever you’re in town. I don’t stray much from where you first saw me.”

A few minutes later I was in my hotel room at the Kensington Park, rummaging in my pockets to assess my financial loss and its effect on our plans for our vacation in the Wine Country. My credit cards and ATM card had fortunately remained in their wallet slots. I had withdrawn $200 from the ATM that morning and remember having had a couple of twenties and some singles before making the withdrawal. Now, I had twelve, twenty-dollar bills. As nearly as I could calculate, I had not lost a thing except a scrap of paper with some phone numbers that had been in one of the wallet windows, and the two singles I had given to the gold-toothed street lady.

I have no idea whether those other honest and kind people who returned my money were San Franciscans or out-of-town visitors like me, but my faith in humanity moved up several notches, and my affection for what the late Herb Caen used to call Baghdad by the Bay is renewed and redoubled.

My son, wife, and I marveled at my good fortune as we munched hors d’oeuvres before dining that evening downstairs in the Farallon restaurant, under the glowing medusa jellyfish. Still unable to believe my good fortune and the honesty and kindness of people, I tipped the waiter more than my customary amount.

Kerry M. Wood

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