At an intersection near my house where a convenient store’s neon illuminates the sidewalk out front, an old man sits nearby, methodically smoking a cigarette down to its filter. I see him at all hours: sometimes in the morning as I pedal by on my route to work, but just as often at dusk as I walk to get groceries, the fiery red, lit end of his butt winking open and closed like a tiny eye from a distance. He sits in a way that does not suggest comfort, with his back to a telephone poll, knees drawn up against his chest with limbs splayed out to the side, the arm that shuttles the cigarette pivoting against his leg like a drawbridge being raised and lowered again. You can all but hear the squeaks of his ancient machinery as he drags deep and sinks lower into his pose. His eyes are fixed at an arbitrary point on the cement ten feet away, seeing something far beyond San Francisco.
I picked up a conch shell
and held it to my ear,
turning as I did
to look back at her.
We were riding the 38 home that night, trundling west on Geary Street. The bus was packed but we’d snagged two seats in the middle, in that section of the bus that conjoins the two halves and gives you a tinge of motion sickness when the bus makes a tight turn and breaks in two, giving you the fleeting sense that you’re to be shorn in half amidst a mess of steel. Across the narrow aisle, almost knee-to-knee, a man in his middle 50’s — white hair, graying stubble, weathered skin — bounced to the beats in his earbuds. He sported a straight-brimmed basketball cap, his pants were tighter than expected for one of his age, and he wore skate shoes on his feet. His eyes stuck to the floor, but we admired this unusual stranger in private, making small smiles to one another and gesturing with our eyes. His mystique deepened when he began rapping under his breath, no louder than a whisper.
At the beginning there’d been love notes, folded up into origami triangles of blue-lined notebook paper and tucked secretly into closed laptops. There were doodled-upon envelopes sealed with whimsical stickers, nestled into the hedgerow outside of the office and a cryptic text message alerting the other to the delivery’s whereabouts. There were sappy valentines delivered by bike courier and well-wishes written in chalk on their bedroom wall before leaving for work.
Living in a city sometimes feels like walking through a corn maze at night when it comes to spending time with friends: you’re all in the same general space, and you know they’re not too far from you; when you finally run into them you’re relieved — “I’m not alone after all!” — but with an accidental half turn away you lose them again, and it’s anyones guess when they’ll reappear. We all feel this, and sometimes even love cities for this very reason; we love the anonymity of being a single barnacle in a harbor at low tide, minding our own business amongst millions more doing the same.