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May 20, 2022

Window on the World Column | Our City by the Bay

The last time at the hotel, there were young Asian girls next to us wearing facemasks in the elevator. We thought they were a bit strange. Little did we know that the world was on the cusp of the largest, strangest pandemic in our lifetime. Days after that and we were all wearing masks and everything was strange. 2020 has to go down as one of the oddest years ever.

Finally, she made it here. I warned her that things had changed a lot in the last two years, that she shouldn’t be sad if a few things had altered, if stores had closed and the streets were just that bit sadder. Our cities have not fared well the last several months.

I booked, what I thought was, a nice classic art deco hotel with stunning 1930’s entryway. How bad could it be? Hating to drive and scratch around for parking in the City, we left my Rosie truck at the airport and took a cab to the hotel. The first thing to be observed was not the beauty of the architecture, but the street people crowding the entryway. A tiny Asian lady padded over to us in ill-matching shoes, as we rushed into the hotel. She told us the owner was going to get the hose to rinse away the street people, as it were. Move them on to another site, so the guests could enter the hotel in peace. Good grief, I thought.

“Where can we get some milk for our tea?” we asked, ever used to a nice cozy setup in our usual hotel room off Union Square. The café next door is closed, they advised. You’d have to go up to the corner market. Right-o. Easy enough. We turned right out of the hotel and into a sort of barrio, where everyone spoke Spanish and several carried baseball bats. It was the opening scene from “West Side Story” — of sorts. Adapting our tough London posture of yore, we armed our way into the “corner shop,” grabbed the milk and tough-strolled it back to the relative sanctuary of our hotel room. Wow. The Tenderloin is not for the faint of heart.

Gathering up our common sense into a large basket, we resolved that we were not going to be walking anywhere in that neighborhood. Fortunately, lots of cabs are available to be hailed. “Are you busy?” I enquired of one of them. “Not at all,” he said. “The tourists have not come back. I’m thinking of moving to Florida.” That made me a bit sad.

My favorite city on the bay was lacking in love. The street people outweighed the tourists, the local people were leaving in disgust. Empty storefronts gaped pitifully along the shabby streets. “DSW is gone!” my friend wailed. “Oh no, not Lori’s. Lori’s is gone!” Our fave diner, the mainstay of many a year of visits and meals had left the building. Not even Elvis nor the classic car remained. We were sad upon sad.

We were happy, however, to see the good Japanese with the grouchy waitress still in place on the hill above the former Lori’s. We quietly ate there and then caught a cab back to the hotel where we swiftly bolted ourselves in for the night.

The next morning, the café right next to the hotel was open. As I waited to be served, I started up a convo with the lady who sat there peacefully at the counter with her little service dog. We talked about this and that, including her dog and mine. I showed her photos. It was all very companionable. And then she thanked me for chatting to her, whipped out her blind cane and found her way out. What a brave young lady, I thought to myself. Blind and acting like she sees as well as any of us.

I started chatting to the barista. “I’m embarrassed by my city,” he tells me. “They have to do something about all the street people and try to bring the business and spirit back to the city. I was born and raised here and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.” He went on to tell me that bus loads of street people show up in San Fran because of the relatively decent weather and generous welfare system, noting that the care systems and services for them are overloaded. I then again felt really sad. Our city by the bay was doing even worse than we thought.

But then I thought again. The soul and the spirit of the city is still there. As the streetcar ting-tinged her way by and a gull flew overhead with salt on its wings, I remembered how sometimes there is an appropriate time for resurrection — rebirth and hope — and our City was likely at the cusp of exactly that. More people are traveling now; it is becoming easier to navigate the world again with masks and vaccinations.

San Francisco has always been a destination and will be again. The powers that be will find a way to better balance the needs of the needy and the residents and visitors. They have to. Things have really gotten out of control in that regard. It’s no good feeling sad. We have to be supportive.

I had considered maybe canceling our next visit completely. But that is not the way to support an old friend in need. My friend and I will be going back to the city to help her in her recovery. We will stay at our usual hotel and try to eat at our usual restaurants. We will visit the shops and do our small part in assisting the resurrection of our city by the bay, one dollar and one heart at a time.

Maybe you could do your part too? Check out the travel sites — there are many deals to be had to have a few days away in our City by the Bay. The spirit of our city is still there; she’s just a little battered and bruised. She needs you to show up and be present in her rebuild. She needs to know you love and support her through these difficult days.

Let’s be a part of the change we wish to see and begin the movement toward a better tomorrow. She’s waiting for us.

Lucy Jensen
Soledad Columnist

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