San Francisco’s Colorful Characters

Homelessness is an issue which plagues the city of San Francisco, and one which we can talk about endlessly because it is an issue which is complex and multi-faceted. There are sad tales and harsh realities and debatable options for resolving the problems associated with the topic. But I don’t aim to discuss the ups and downs of every side of the issue here. Instead, I wish to look at a more light-hearted side of the topic, and that is the way in which those people without resources sometimes find a way to be incredibly resourceful in their search for assistance from both tourists and locals. These colorful characters make up part of the social fabric which makes San Francisco such a unique and fascinating place to live.

For example, the other night I was taking a random walk with a friend down near Fisherman’s Wharf when we were approached by a man saying, “I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes, man”. At first, we ignored him – which is a habit I used to hate before I moved here and which has now become a way of life. With so many people constantly approaching me in request of money no matter where in the city I might be walking, I have found that it is usually best to just keep on walking. However, this guy was persistent, and with the right attitude and the right timing, he ended up getting our response.

My friend paused in his walking and said, “okay, go ahead and try it”. The man immediately dropped to one knee as if to get a closer look at the shoes. Not even a second had passed before he had squirted shoe shine on to the shoes and begun to polish them, talking a mile a minute about how this is the way that he had come to make a living. He added, “and I really can tell you where you got your shoes, you got your shoes on the bottom of your feet!” Although it probably wasn’t really that funny, the silly answer to his question made me life.

As he was finishing up the shoe shine, a second man approached the first man and gave him a twenty dollar bill. When the shoe shine was done, the man held the bill up as if in demonstration and said, “$10 and $10 is twenty”, pointing to each of the shoes as if to indicate that the shoe shine had a $20 cost. My friend wasn’t about to pay $20 for a shoe shine he had been tricked in to getting, but he did offer over a $5 bill, which isn’t really bad money for work that took less than five minutes to accomplish. The man managed to make us both laugh, and we both gave him credit for his creativity and ingenuity. After all, since we both live here, it takes quite a bit to make us pause for people who are clearly wanting money, and it takes even more energy to amuse us; the man had succeeded.

I tend to feel kindly towards the people who are out there doing something interesting in their attempt to make money. I’m the first person to know that not all people are cut out for working a 9-5 job and I support the efforts of those who make the effort to meet their own needs while still fitting in with the social network. For that reason, when I have a little money to spare, I’m willing to give it to the street performers and corner musicians whose talents add to the color of my days here in the city.

And if you take the time to stop and notice these people, you’ll find that some of them truly are amazingly talented. Just the other day, I was waiting for the cable car (because yes, I ride the cable car as a means of getting to my house) and there was a boy with a guitar and a harmonica trying to earn enough money to get himself back to his hometown. He had bright eyes and an open attitude, but even more than this friendly air, he had real honest musical talent. He was a joy to listen to for the few moments during which I waited for my ride. There are ups and downs to all stories and there are complicated socio-political issues related to the issues of homelessness and street performance in San Francisco (which themselves are two separate and only somewhat-related things). But in these moments, when the air is filled with music or the laughter of a just-amusingly-conned pair, San Francisco sparkles a little bit brighter than other cities.

5 Comments so far

  1. Karla (unregistered) on January 6th, 2007 @ 10:22 pm

    I must say that the “Bush Man” by Pier 39 always always makes me laugh when he startles unsuspecting tourists, and catching “Bucket Man” on Market makes my day.


  2. Kathryn (unregistered) on January 6th, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

    I don’t think I know “Bucket Man”. And I actually wanted to mention Bush Man, but I don’t know his story and I’m thinking he’s not homeless so I wasn’t sure it was pertinent. But I’m glad you mentioned him because he’s such an important character in the colorful background of SF.


  3. tyler82 (unregistered) on January 6th, 2007 @ 11:52 pm

    Have any of you ever seen that black woman with the frizzy dirty hair, pounds of bright red rouge on her cheeks, lipstick smeared all the way from her chin to the inside of her nostril, who always carried around PLASTIC BAGS filled with other PLASTIC BAGS?? The last time I saw her was at least a year ago. she would frequent the Van Ness corridor/ Wharf. I dunno what happened to her, probably died or transported to another world or something. She was beyond help, I don’t know where she was but she was never coming back.


  4. Dee (unregistered) on January 8th, 2007 @ 9:39 am

    Yes, I do still her occasionally and I give her a wide berth. Once while riding the Van Ness bus, I saw her heave a huge spit right in the face of a woman sitting down in front of where she was standing. I know this woman is not really mentally responsible for her actions-that’s obvious from her appearance, but still this was pretty awful.


  5. Darren Mckeeman (unregistered) on January 9th, 2007 @ 9:18 am

    The guys that say “I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes.” are transplants from New Orleans. Pretty much everyone that lives in New Orleans will tell you about these guys down at Jackson Square running this scam. It’s only good once, now you know the proper response. “I got my shoes on my feet. Now go away.”



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