A quote ripped off from a well-done blog called The Obit Patrol: “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall be gone, like ghosts at cock-crow.” That’s from a 1949 essay by the British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan.
One night at work last week, I had a conversation with a colleague that started on public radio fund-raising, traversed the difficulty of asking strangers for money, and led to an exchange about homeless people on San Francisco streets. I said that it had crossed my mind that I’d have a hard time if I were forced to panhandle because I thought I’d find it hard to ask passers-by for help.
“Yeah, I hear people say, ‘Hey, get a job,’ ” my colleague said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s hard out there.” He went on to say that an acquaintance of his, a man who had once been the director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, had wound up on the streets and had died there.
I knew who he was talking about. I’d run into the guy myself, about two and a half years ago, lying on the street near a supermarket. I bought him a sandwich. We talked briefly, and he had come out with some of his personal history. He even recited a couple of lines of Shakespeare. I had not heard that he had died.
Later, I went looking for an obituary, and came across The Obit Patrol. The site featured a story by a critic in St. Petersburg, Florida–the hometown of the man I’d met. It can’t help but be heart-rending: It’s the story of a promising, brilliant, talented, handsome, charming young man who ends up dying on a sidewalk at age 51.
After my first encounter with this man, I ran into him once more, about a week after that first meeting. It was a Friday night after work. I was walking down 16th Street toward BART in a drizzling rain and had reached the tough blocks between South Van Ness and Mission. He approached me and asked for change. He didn’t recognize me, but I mentioned that we’d met before and that he’d told me about his theater work. Maybe he remembered, maybe he didn’t. He was trying to hustle up enough cash to buy a can of ready-to-eat soup from a little market across the street. He said it was his birthday. I think I gave him twenty bucks and asked him where he’d go to get out of the weather. He had a place he could stay dry, he said. He said maybe it was time he got off the streets with another wet season coming on. He had a sister in Florida who had offered him a place, but only if he stopped drinking. I had a sound recorder with me and thought about breaking it out while we talked. But it was raining, and I didn’t want to go through the whole song and dance. Besides, I wanted to get to my train. “Florida doesn’t sound bad,” I said. “You should go to Florida.”