Last week we went to San Francisco for some vacation. Henry’s parents used to live in the Bay Area and he took his kids there frequently for vacation, long before he and I met and married. He hadn’t been back there for a while and felt ready to run the risk of earthquakes to revisit some of his favorite haunts.
It had been even longer for me; I think I’d last spent time in the Bay Area was as a teen. I loved it. Having once lived in the heart of Boston, the city vibe is something I enjoy, even as I also love—and prefer—smaller town life and the mountains. I was happy walking the streets, riding the old streetcars, feeling the energy of the city and the sights and sounds—if not always all the smells….
San Francisco has some of the last remaining PCC trolley cars in active service. From my perspective, they were a real pleasure to ride, and not just from nostalgia. The streamlined shape is beautiful, the enameled colors pop, the old, hand-cranked windows are cool…even the barred windows that prevented people from falling out of the windows are somehow fun for me—although they made it difficult to get photos out those windows!
But there are disadvantages, too. One evening we went down to the newly refurbished Ferry Building after dinner, just to explore. We watched the Bay Bridge light up and saw dozens of scantily clad young girls and their dates emerge from restaurants, take selfies, and shiver as they waited for their rides to take them on to whatever else was on their night life agenda.
As it got cooler, we headed for the F Line and a couple of the old streetcars passed us as we made our way to a designated stop. We got there and the helpful little display said, “F Line Market and Wharves, 23 and 25 minutes.” We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and decided we’d wait and watch the night life rather than seeking another, indirect route back to our hotel in Union Square. A homeless man wandered by and, in a friendly voice, assured us that the trolley would be along soon. We thanked him and he headed toward the Ferry Building.
Fifteen minutes and some Bay Bridge photos later, the display said “9 and 10 minutes” and the homeless man walked back across the tracks toward us, carrying a cup with a straw in one hand and some fresh cardboard in the other. As he went by, he assured us that the trolley would be along soon, that they sometimes got delayed at night. We thanked him and he went over to the trolley’s handicap ramp and began to set up his bed for the night.
Fifteen minutes later, the display said “10 and 10 minutes” and we figured something had happened down the tracks. Modern buses can leapfrog each other when one gets overcrowded or breaks down, but anything running on tracks and/or attached to overhead wires for power has to stay in line, at least until professional help arrives. We knew we were probably in it for the long haul. The night was getting chillier, but we had the little glass shelter to keep out the wind while we waited. Unfortunately for the friendly homeless man, another homeless person had already claimed it, long before we arrived, so our friend was literally stuck out in the cold.
We chatted with him, off and on, as we waited—nothing deep or serious, but he was friendly and it felt important to be friendly back. In between, though, he sometimes began to cry, loudly, with words I could only partially understand. Henry and I talked a bit, during those times, about the choices people make, even when there are housing options available, to live on the street. We don’t know this man’s story or situation, and we knew there wasn’t anything we could do for him—especially since he didn’t ask for money—except treat him with decency and courtesy and pray for him.
The next morning, I found myself thanking God for that glimpse into big-city night life. We can get so sheltered in our privileged lives and lose track of the very different lives of others. We forget that others can make choices so radically different from our own. We forget that—from any perspective—every other person is deserving of our prayers.
The trolleys did eventually show up, within a couple minutes of each other. The first was so packed that we could hardly get on—and the driver told us it was leaving the route at the next stop, so we didn’t try to squeeze in. The second was empty enough that we could get seats together, which was a blessing when most of the other folks from the first, crowded car crammed into our car at the next stop!
Whose life experience is totally off your radar these days—perhaps someone on the street, or someone who lives in a very different situation, on the other side of the world? How might you pray for those people today?