I find myself in a city of searching. I didn’t just get here, didn’t arrive by car, plane, or boat; or by the lure of a tech job. Nor did I get here by accident. My family has a long history in the city. My great grandfather was a San Francisco fireman, my grandfather, a Muni driver. My father’s people ran the streets of Fillmore for decades, starting in the 1930’s. I have family that was part of the African American journey that weaved its way through the Sierra Mountains. But I find myself in my city, searching. The faces of the past are gone, by way of eviction and with them their stories. I search the streets for a face, a face that knows me, a face that sees me, not only in the present but a face with eyes that look into my face and say, with unsaid words: I remember you. Didn’t you go to George Washington High School? Didn’t you hang out in such and such a place? Eyes that connect dots written in a face, each dot a memory, a song triggering other memories that are like being submerged in cool water. It is beautiful to experience the spontaneous beauty of memories that come out of hibernation and see light and breathe; and when you come across someone whose face you know in a city that no longer knows you or acknowledges you, it’s one of those rare moments when life is once again lived.
I search for an unevicted face, an unbeaten face, a face unriddled by unsolvable riddles—a face that just is. I walk down the block from my job. In the skyline invading my eyes is the twitter headquarters where any number of bluebirds are perched. I hear no music. I keep walking and suddenly I hear music. I follow the sound. It’s James Brown, then it’s George Benson, then it’s the Dramatics, and Marvin Gaye. I must be close to heaven, I think to myself. I walk and walk and I get to the music. It is coming from the garbage room of an apartment complex where the smell of rotten vegetables mingles with scraps of this and that in heaps of discarded and forgotten matter that no longer matters, heading for a place that is out of sight, out of mind.
A man emerges from the corner of the garbage room. It’s a black brother who looks like he has worked the land. It’s a shame he’s in the garbage room of an apartment complex and not in nature. He smiles at me. Part of his front tooth is missing resembling an axe blade. His eyes see me, sharing its light. “Say man” I say. “My pop used to listen to that song. It’s from the Breezin’ Album, right?” The man looked at me. He was somewhat muscular in his work outfit, probably mid 50’s. “Yeah, that’s the album that got Benson a grammy” he replied. And we spoke about how George Benson had been nominated year after year for a grammy and had lost to Stevie Wonder and Lou Rawls. And he smiles and his smile became my smile.
The brother was from the city. He had worked in record shops in the past, in the Bayview off of 3rd Street and on Fillmore Street. I remember my uncle telling me about the record shops he went to years ago where you could listen to albums in a booth before buying them. And more songs came out of that speaker that was somehow mounted in the corner near the trash compactor. And the brother and I talked music, talked jazz, talked soul, talked the music of our lives written in smiles and faces above the drone of cranes invading the sky and looming shadows of skyscrapers where no light comes through.
And slowly that garbage room turned into a record shop. And the music became louder and the walls began to quiver with movement in our skin and blood. In the corner stood my uncle, sampling a record. He is young and music is written upon his face in a score that cannot be erased or deleted. And the brother walked over to me. No longer in a janitorial uniform, but dressed sharp. In his hand is a record. “Check this out” he says. I take the record. It slips from the jacket like a newborn. I put it on the turntable and put the needle in the grooves. The sound seeps into my skin. It is the sound of the brother’s life. I listen and let it take me away from this place.
Then, somebody turned on the trash compactor.
(Photo from http://www.foundsf.org)