Through a dark stretch of tunnel, BART screeches painfully loud. Light rapidly flashes away the black like a horror movie casting malevolence in each flicker. Like the last time I was in Sanny Franny, sleep deprived, hungry and only caring that I’m not slurping down a steaming punch bowl of pho right now. I remember it’s a long ride from SFO to anywhere in the city so I’m trying to rest. I’m dead weight in the worn, blue chair; body moving only with the motions of the train. Arms crossed with my head tilted back, it’s so much work to turn my head and lazily roll my eyes to the left to read the transit map. My phone data is switched off and I don’t care. I’ll be able to text but no GPS or Google Maps so I’ll just wander.
I guess it’s time to pick a stop, anywhere but Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. Too far, too touristy, not… Vietnamese enough. I’ll get off at Civic Center/UN Plaza as that’s probably the nice, lively downtown area. Besides I can’t take much more of this Asian chick incessantly swinging her phone around making duck face at different angles snapping pictures of herself.
Stepping up to Market Street where it meets Grove and Hyde, I experience the jam both of cars and the multicultural denizens of the city. Most are well dressed, busy with the their phones and eating on the go. Swinging a right at Hyde, I walk until a coarse looking man shuffles by the glints of gold around the rotunda of the proud standing San Francisco City Hall. He walks by looking directly into the lens of my phone with deeply lost eyes before I snap a picture. How odd.
Continuing past McAllister, I turn east on Golden Gate then come to Leavenworth, sadly still without pho. I quickly noticed the seamless transition of the people and property appearing less kept. Buildings look more worn to the point of appearing vacant and several people seem to be loitering on each corner. Most of them simply look like they’re trying to get by but there’s an unnerving mix of incredibly carefree but highly on edge gloss over their eyes. I try to maneuver around a man leaning on his shopping cart that sadly holds all that’s left of his life. By the time I head up to Turk from Leavenworth, I realize this is not the San Francisco I was escorted through last time. It’s not that bad but I can’t quite understand what’s going on like there’s a strange jumble of affluence and degradation. My girlfriend went to Cal so she may know. I’ll text and ask her while walking down Turk to get back to Market.
“Hey. I think I’m in a shitty area of Sanny Franny.”
There’s a man laying flat on his back on the sidewalk staring blankly at the sky on some old cardboard he scavenged. He grips the grocery bag resting on his chest like it will fly away if he lets go. A man just as disheveled further up leans on the wall intensely focused, reading aloud from an extremely worn and tattered paperback book. Crossing Jones Street I hear my message tone.
“lol whr are u!?”
“I just passed Jones Street walking east on Turk.”
The man walking behind me yells at the car coming out of the public parking garage on the corner. Further down the street a man in drag who looks like he’s had better days, leans against Aunt Charlie’s Lounge and asks a man in a business suit walking by if he has a light to spark his smoke. He doesn’t and neither do I.
“haha ur in the tl!”
Several people are walking towards me. All minding their own business save for one man near the corner who looks to be asking anyone he can for money no doubt. I look down at my phone while walking to read…
“the tenderloin! 😛”
“Sir can you give me change? I got to get to Oakland to see my son. It’s his birthday.” The man says. I don’t particularly believe him. “Sorry. All I have is Yen” pulling out three, one thousand note Japanese Yen and walk away looking to take a right at Taylor still in search of pho. He flashes a bewildered look, eyeing the currency and confusedly says “Oh.” Staring at me as I pass wondering what just happened but quickly continues to ask others. “Ma’am can you help me? I got to get to…”
“What’s wrong with The Tenderlion?” I type while turning the corner.
It’s an uneventful walk down Taylor to Market. A young father shifts the carrier of his infant daughter to his other hand to make way for me. There’s a homeless woman sitting in a small, brown doorway next to La Perla Pizza on a green blanket with an empty belly and broken soul.
While coming to the crosswalk at Market, I look to my right and see old men playing chess on a ramshackle table in front of Show Dogs. Other people are milling around with that same carefree but unnerving look. I’m running out of time, I’ll cross to 6th Street and hope for the best or I’ll just have to settle for not pho. Taqueria Can-Cun, no. Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers, no. Donut World, no. At the other side of Market I peak around and down 6th Street when in an instant of elation and in the mess of colors, I see the word “Vietnamese” literally as clear as black and white.
I enter Tu Lan Vietnamese Food and sit at the third stool from the door at the counter. “Pho bo and a water” I say before the man even greets me. He lets out a surprised laugh and a smile as he turns around shouting in Vietnamese to the lady at the end of the counter. When the water comes I gulp down the entire glass, take a breath and look at my phone. In my haste to get my steaming punch bowl of pho, I had received a text from my girlfriend.
“some parts of sf are just down on thr luck is all”
Turning on my phone data again and looking at Google Maps, I see now that I had wandered into the heart of it. Sitting there I remember I was told by previous and current residents to avoid this area. I guess I got to see a side of San Francisco some residents endure but most others try to forget. I did tell myself I didn’t want touristy.
Minutes later my pho arrives and the world darkens around me. Placing my head over the bowl, feeling the damp, warm steam soothe my skin, I inhale deeply and even with eyes closed, I see a life to be grateful for. With excited voracity, I snatch a pair of dark red chopsticks.