Walking through the 16th Street BART station, I hear a guy who calls himself The Jonah Kit playing Take a Walk on the Wild Side. 1970’s Lou Reed glam rock about transvestites sounds downright futuristic in Betsy DeVos’ 2017, where we’re all meant to use the bathroom God meant for us. As usual, the past and present are living side by side in the Mission. And I haven’t even left the BART station.
As I walk up the escalator, I accost an entrepreneurial-looking young man to find out what exciting thing he’s up to on this warm spring night in the city of sin. He tentatively takes out an earbud and looks at me like I’m going door-to-door selling solar.
“No thanks,” he says, but instead of slamming the door on my face, he sticks his earbud back in.
As I walk across the BART plaza, I see a woman feeding pickle popcorn to a flock of pigeons and a woman with a hat on her head and a cat on the hat.
I take out my smartphone to snap a shot of the woman with the cat on her hat when a guy interrupts me with a half-hearted attempt at interaction. As I make a half-hearted attempt to avoid this interaction, I lose sight of the woman with the cat. I remind myself that the entire reason I’m here is to interact with people in the Mission, so I turn to the guy and ask what he’s up to tonight.
“Trying to meet a beautiful woman like you,” he says. But even he doesn’t seem to believe the line. “Actually I’m out here panhandling. Can you help me out with a dollar?”
His name is Jay and when he finds out that I’m writing an article, he asks if he can get a job at Mission Local.
“I write pretty good,” Jay informs me. “I can tell a story, ask anyone.”
When I want to know how long Jay’s been in the Mission, he gets defensive. “Why are you even asking me these questions?”
“I’m asking you because you came up to me. Before that, I was watching a woman who had a cat sitting on a hat on her head.” We both look around and I feel like I’ve made the whole thing up: was there really a woman with a cat on her head?
Jay relaxes as he remembers that it was he who initiated the conversation. “Well, this is my home so I’ve been here my entire life.”
“In the Mission?” I ask.
“Whole city. Like the concrete, I’m everywhere.”
I nod, thinking this is a nice line and wondering if he’s used it before when he taps my arm excitedly.
“Hey! The woman with the cat on her head!” She’s walking across the BART plaza, but by the time I get my phone out, she’s disappeared into the crowd.
Leaving the plaza, the first thing I see on 16th Street is a mom pulling her son’s pants down so he can water the concrete. He’s about four years old with sneakers that light up and Spiderman underwear. The mother seems embarrassed to be orchestrating such a public pee, but from the look of things, he couldn’t wait.
Further down the street, I stand outside City Smoke on 18th and Mission and watch a petite young woman, around twenty-one, with long curly hair. She sits against a street lamp smoking a cigarette when a stocky guy with a blond buzz cut approaches. He’s wearing an oversized t-shirt and ill-fitting cargo pants.
“Are you busy?” he asks.
“Me?” she wonders, even though she’s the only one there.
“Did you just get off work?” he asks. He’s a few years older than she is and speaks as if he knows her well.
“Yeah,” she confirms. “We just closed at Project Juice.”
“If I was the boss at Project Juice, I’d close when you left too.”
She laughs nervously at the awkward compliment and he decides to take it a step further.
“In fact, I’d like to open a Project Juice just for you and let you choose your own hours.”
“That’d be nice,” she says, followed by more nervous laugher.
“Could I buy it with gold?”
“Doubt it. No one takes gold anymore,” she says, as if gold is as obsolete as a floppy disc.
“The city of gold! This could be our destiny!” He exclaims.
“El Dorado!” She calls out excitedly.
“Really? You’ve seen it?” he asks. “I love that movie!”
“Me too!” she says.
At the beginning of the interaction, I doubted the guy had a chance, but I’m starting to wonder if this evening might end well for him after all.
A little boy on a skateboard asks the petite woman for a cigarette. “A cigarette?” she asks incredulously. “You can’t smoke!”
“Can I have a cigarette?” he asks again. His little brother follows behind him and next comes his mother sucking hard on a cancer stick.
“Is it for your mother?” she wonders, but the boy keeps asking her the same question until finally she snaps, “I’m not giving you a cigarette!”
Throughout the interaction, the family has never stopped moving and now they’re crossing the street.
“That was weird.” The young woman turns to the guy who’s hitting on her. “That kid was like five years old; he can’t smoke!”
“Not unless he’s a polar bear,” he says, as if this somehow followed. “Polar bears can withstand anything.”
“Except global warming,” she cautions, taking a hit off her smoke.
“Global warming is all part of God’s plan,” he says with confidence.
“I don’t think so.” She shakes her head and flicks an ash.
“No, it’s cause the carbon goes back into the ocean. The trees produce the oxygen and the gravity holds it all down.”
“I don’t think so,” she says again, and now it’s clear he’s losing whatever ground he’d gained with their El Dorado movie bond.
“If we don’t have enough trees, we’ll die,” she says.
A shiny blue car pulls up with a handsome, well-dressed guy inside, presumably her boyfriend.
“Well, nice to meet you,” she says, stubbing out her cigarette and opening the passenger door.
“Gravity! It keeps everything down!” he yells as they pull away from the curb.
Back at the 16th Street BART Station, I see the kid who peed on the sidewalk. He’s with his mom and they’re waiting for the same train as me. He’s sucking down juice through a straw and holding his crotch like he’s desperate to pee again.
And so the night comes full circle: the smoke, the gravity, the warming globe and dying trees. And then there’s the small bladders full of juice with nowhere to empty them but onto the concrete.