Time is one of those things that we have no control over yet it has such a big impact on all of our lives. With time, things grow, things fall apart, things become something new. With time, things change.
About 15 years ago, my family and I spent our Christmas break in San Francisco. It was the first time any of us had visited San Francisco. I’ve always had an excitement for big cities, and I fell in love with San Francisco immediately. We were staying at a Westin or Ramada (I can’t remember which) in a part of town that seemed very old to me. The room we had was a suite, with two tiny rooms that we all crammed into for our week-long stay. It was old and I felt like it might be haunted. I can remember the smell clear as day – old, musty, and like paint. And the curtains were just as antique, with little flowers printed on them. For San Francisco though, this tiny room on top of a hill was probably hundreds of dollars per night. And we weren’t there to enjoy our hotel room.
We had a week to explore the entire city. We walked across The Golden Gate Bridge. We visited Ghirardelli Square and ate along Fisherman’s Wharf. We went to Alamo Square Park and photographed the Painted Ladies. My sister was so excited about the Painted Ladies as they were a big part of her favorite TV show, “Full House.”
We rode the trolley, which was a bit of a struggle since they stop for only seconds at a time, are always packed full of people, and have several very large, steep, wooden steps to get up and onto the platform. My dad was ready though! We lined up on the sidewalk, my backside facing the street, and as the trolley approached, he pulled me backwards quickly and up onto the trolley. Away we went. Just like that.
My dad did a lot of pushing and pulling on this trip. The hills in San Francisco are more like small mountains. Straight up and straight back down. It’s a city for walkers, and that’s what we did during our visit. Our experience at Lombard Street, a one-block street with eight turns in it due to the steep incline, was especially fun. We started at the bottom and walked our way up to the top. Well, I should say the rest of the family walked. I attempted to propel myself, but there was no getting to the top for me. My dad pushed with all his force. The ride down, of course, was much easier…and a lot of fun!
After visiting San Francisco, I knew I would never live there due to the hills and the struggles I would have with getting around. Fifteen years later and I work right along Fisherman’s Wharf. Never say never. Of course, I had to come up with creative ways to make this work. I bought a tiny little electric car to help me get around the city. It’s small, but I am able to easily put my wheelchair in the backseat and commute without having to conquer those nasty hills.
We visited Alcatraz, the island where the city used to house prisoners. It was cold. Eerie. The walls were cement, covered in gray paint with large areas that had chipped away. We walked slowly through the hallways, listening to a pre-recorded tour on a set of headphones provided by the island. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had died in this cold, abandoned building. And it saddened me.
My favorite part of San Francisco was Chinatown. It was nighttime when we visited. And the streets were brighter than the sun with an enchanting buzz about them. The shops amazed me. It had to have been the culture. It was really the first time in my life that I had been completely surrounded by Asian culture. And it fascinated me! The food shops, full of seafood and dried bugs, with a potent smell that can’t be replicated anywhere else. And the knickknacks. Little trinkets everywhere. At incredibly cheap prices. The streets were covered in people, just wondering and looking around. Everything and everybody was so close together. It was a struggle for me to get through each store with my wheelchair. The signs were all written in symbols and there were beautiful, red, glowing balls – bigger than me – hung high on the street poles. There wasn’t a car in sight, and I’m sure any attempt to drive down this particular road would have been a failed attempt. To this day, it is still one of my favorite experiences. I have not been back to Chinatown since. But my recent trip to Hong Kong brought back all of those great memories – it smelled the same, looked the same, and felt the same. It was incredible.
While my favorite part of San Francisco was Chinatown, it is not what I remember about the city. It’s strange how our memories form. I have been to dozens and dozens of places, and visited some of the world’s most well-known sites, yet when I think of each of my trips, those are not the things I remember.
On Christmas Eve, we ate at a very nice Italian restaurant in the heart of San Francisco. I remember the old wooden table back in a corner where my family of six sat. It was a warm building, both in temperature and in spirit, and the food was delicious. It was one of those moments that just seems so perfect it can’t be true. I had ordered a large order of fettuccine alfredo. And of course I couldn’t finish it! The server packaged it up in a clear, plastic container. I had planned on bringing it back to the hotel and keeping it in the mini refrigerator for the next day.
It had started snowing while we were inside, and the brisk air from the ocean cut straight to the bone as soon as we opened the door. We bundled up in our gloves, hats, and scarves and started our trek back to the hotel. By now, it was late and very dark in the city. I had somehow gotten a few yards in front of my family. I was passing by a business building when a man who had been lying in the cutout entrance, under a few pieces of cardboard, slowly got up and asked me if he could have my leftovers. He was tall, maybe 5′ 10″, thin, with a scruffy gray beard, and was wearing jeans and a worn black coat. I didn’t know how to respond. I had never really been exposed to homeless (until this trip, that is). I simply ignored him, as though I couldn’t even see him, and went on my way. Later, back at the hotel, my mom told me she would have just given him the extra food. The guilt and sorrow I had for this man tore me up. How could I be so selfish to not give away extra food?
The next morning, we slept in and when we woke up, the perfect Christmas Day snow was falling from the sky. It dusted the city the way you would imagine in a movie. We had a few gifts to open and we took our time enjoying them and just being together. At one point I had taken my leftover fettuccine out of the refrigerator and microwaved it. When I took it out of the microwave, the bottom of the plastic container had melted and the noodles were no longer edible. I threw it all away.
Later that day, we went to an afternoon Christmas mass. I am no longer religious, but at that time, I had been used to Catholic churches. The church we went to was different though. The ceilings were high and a big organ, from floor to ceiling, filled an entire wall. The music was striking. “Oh Holy Night” was playing and it filled the air with that deep kind of sound that just brings out a warm kind of love. The people were so friendly, greeting everyone who passed by with a hug or a handshake. Rows and rows of benches filled the floor. It was one of the biggest churches I’ve ever been in. During the mass, we were asked to pray for all of those without homes, stuck in the cold. My heart stopped and all I could think of was the man who had asked for my leftovers. The same leftovers I had thrown away that morning. I will forever wish that I had given my fettuccine to the man under the cardboard on Christmas Eve. This is what I remember about San Francisco.
It’s amazing how this touched my heart when I was a mere 15 years old. Today I pass by homeless people on the street virtually every day. I pass by them as though they are part of the scenery; San Francisco wouldn’t be the same without them. Yet it never crosses my mind to help them, to give them a quarter or the extra food I will end up throwing away days later when it’s covered in mold. I just mind my own business and they mind theirs.
Time changes things. I no longer see big hills in San Francisco. I no longer get excited about the possibility of being in Chinatown. The Golden Gate Bridge is just a part of life. And I no longer have that soft spot in my heart for the homeless. Except for one – I will never forget that one man.