The High Road

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It’s the hottest day of the year in San Francisco, says the driver over his roaring air-conditioning. It’s like being delivered into a desert with streets — strange streets, I see on closer inspection, when we’re deposited, gasping and sweating, outside our hotel, the Metropolis, a timeworn ’30s Art Deco joint behind a lively Modernist sign. I knew it was situated in an interesting part of downtown San Francisco, near Union Square, the centre of the city, but over on the border of an edgy, oddly named inner-city zone called the Tenderloin. But that was research and this is reality — our first confrontation with the nerve-rattling reality of life for the

people who live on the streets in these parts. I thought I was used to seeing street people, but this is a shock, a genuine culture shock.

They are many and mostly they appear to be pretty fucked up. They’re right here with us, all round the edges of the footpaths outside the hotel — crazy, loud, damaged people, mainly coloured. Several of them are screaming about various grievances. They keep a little distance and don’t come right at the pair of us, standing here dizzy with jetlag beside our tempting suitcases on their little wheels, full of clean clothes and money.

Am I imagining an interesting tension in the air? I think so.

A soothing joint might be good for the nerves at this point, but that doesn’t seem immediately likely. Seeing these troubled people lurking around — dozens of them — is unsettling, like we’ve dropped in on the set of a zombie movie. That must be why they’re not attacking us.

Safe inside the hotel, we check in, drop those bags in our hot rooms on the fifth floor and head out for a walk up Mason Street, at the bottom of which the Metropolis sits, just off San Francisco’s major thoroughfare, Market Street. There are hobos and hobo-ettes everywhere. Though hobo isn’t the right word for them. It doesn’t capture their particular world view, which isn’t exactly folksy. ‘Street people’ doesn’t get it either. They’re on the street all right, but they mostly look like they’ve been burnt by some unholy fire, victims of defeat, despair, drugs, abandon, loss of control.

‘Don’t catch their eyes,’ I whisper to Bruce, but he doesn’t listen, of course, being a sweet guy with a trusting heart. Just up the road, as we stop at a crossing, we’re approached by a skinny, grubby, bedraggled woman, eyes mad, teeth mostly absent. First she tries me.

‘I like your hair buddy,’ she tells me in a burnt, awful voice. I ignore her. Bruce, bless him, doesn’t.

‘I have twins in my belly,’ I can hear her telling him. She’s been in church all morning praying for help, she further reveals. Bruce’s eyes widen.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he tells her, but that isn’t a good move.

‘I don’t want your fucking sorry,’ she shouts right back. ‘I want your fucking money.’ The light turns green. I pull him away.

Union Square, as its name suggests, is a square, a big, raised paved one with a great phallic monument in the middle. It’s big enough to give some perspective to the city, pushing the towers back. Saks Fifth Avenue looms from across the square and, much closer, Bruce notes, there’s a hotdog stand. He’s been muttering about wanting a hotdog since we landed. He reckons it’s our first important culinary experience. It’s on his eating bucket list. I just hope we don’t need a bucket after we eat them.

They’re five bucks each, which seems quite a lot, and ‘organic’ apparently, whatever that means in hotdog world. The dog guy hands them over, bare in their buns, and we help ourselves to an array of sauces and pickles on a rack at the end of his stand. They actually taste good. Either that or we’re starving. The beers in a bar round the corner, local pale ale, are even better. It’s a lovely old bar, nice and dark, all arches and plaster and carved wood and cool.

Excerpted with permission from The High Road, HarperCollins Trade Paperback Original, on sale starting this month.