I arrived on Valencia Street at 6:30 a.m. and took a stroll, soaking in the lovely loneliness of a street usually bustling with energy.
A homeless man was reading the Calendar section of the SF Weekly with interest. I wondered what he thought as he envisioned the various events he’s unlikely to attend.
A guy sitting on a bench nearby was drinking a large can of beer wrapped in a small paper bag. He asked me if I lived in the city.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Too expensive. But I like it when it’s quiet like this.”
“Quiet is good. I work on 16th and Mission and I see some crazy stuff.” He was a guy in about his late forties with black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Because he’d been drinking before his shift as a he didn’t want me to include his name or where he worked.
“Why do you think I’m drinking this so early in the morning?” He held up his 25 oz. can.
“Well tell me a story.”
“Decorum prevents me from telling a lady the kind of stories that go on at 16th and Mission. But I will say this: they spit on the sidewalk, they litter. It’s disrespectful. They couldn’t possibly love this city the way I do. If they did, they wouldn’t spit on its streets.”
He believes that every city in California has “dumped their crazies into our city. We’re tolerant so we get punished.”
I told him I’d come visit him one day to watch what goes on at his job.
As he wrote his number he said, “Yeah, give me a call. But careful; my wife is crazy. She won’t like a woman calling me.”
I promised to use a pseudonym like Dave.
“Oh, please don’t. She’ll figure that out quick. Just say exactly why you’re calling.”
I vowed to see him soon, then walked into E&M Discount Center on the corner of 15th and Valencia.
There were no customers at E&M, but the inventory told the story of the two Missions these days. The items offered were a mix of old school liquor store goods like a cheap bottle of Orange Soda and new trendy food like a can of Synergy Kombucha for nearly five bucks.
On the top shelf were Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms, and below were Chia Seeds by Bob’s Red Mill. Cans of Spam and Van Camp’s Pork and Beans were next to Paul Newman’s Own salad dressing.
I made my way to the Pop Tart section to examine a package of Mrs. Freshley’s crème filled cakes. They looked like they’d survive a nuclear holocaust. The owner asked me what I was doing.
“Oh, just…looking around.” Since he’d been talking on the phone, I’d forgotten him and he caught me off guard.
“Why are you writing stuff in that paper?” he asked, eyeing my notebook with suspicion.
I buried the notebook in my bag and said, “I’m writing a story for a online news site called Mission Local. The things you stock here are interesting. They tell the story of how the Mission is changing.”
His body relaxed. “They’re remodeling the whole city,” he said. “Tearing everything down and rebuilding.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Good!” he said. “Newer is better.”
“How long have you had this place?”
“Eleven years. Got it from my uncle.”
“He gave it to you?”
“Gave it to me?” He laughed. “I don’t have those kinds of uncles.”
A middle-aged man came in and grabbed a bottle of beer from the shelf. He must have been a regular because the storeowner teased him. “Get out!”
“It’s too early in the morning to be picking on me,” was the customer’s response. They laughed, chatted and completed the transaction. A few others came and went and the owner knew most of them.
Outside, someone had left a copy of the New York Times. I stood in front of Four Barrel Coffee reading it. Now that I consume my news digitally, it was a luxury to hold.
I looked up to see two young European men. One had a huge camera around his neck with an even huger lens attached to it. The benches they sat on faced Valencia Street. Nameless white Google buses roared by. Buses stamped with Genentech raced down the street too, competing with bikes and the increasing rush hour traffic. The two young men sat in a cloud of exhaust, teeth chattering in the gray morning fog. Someone forgot to tell them there are chilly places in California.
The sun broke through in a sudden blast. Realizing I hadn’t brought my sunglasses, I headed over to Community Thrift to pick up a pair. I stood in back of a woman buying flowered ceramic plates. The worker was wrapping them with newspaper. I thought about how good it felt to read a physical copy of the Times earlier. And of the homeless guy reading his calendar section. I headed down Valencia Street happy that there’s still a free weekly paper and a thrift store for cheap plates and sunglasses. They haven’t torn everything down.