I was in line at the Civic Center post office in downtown San Francisco when the far off smell of salty air hit me. I looked around for something that resembled the ocean and saw a passel of light blue shirt clad postal clerks weighing and affixing postage to letters and parcels, each doing the job with a personalized diligence gleaned from years of repetition. How can one inhale the vast blueness of oceans and seas in a post office? I was in line, in whose juxtaposition I occupied a place behind 15 others whose postures ranged from assertive, hurried, bored, fatigued, ambivalent or misguided aplomb—each holding sway to the pendulum of impatience moving within. The post office is always crowded but I don’t mind standing in line. Standing in line at the post office to send a handwritten letter is a resistance to our techwashed reality where everything is done via a click or press of a button. As the second hand on the clock ticks its tiny steps of supplication towards eternity, the salty air smell becomes stronger and soon my face is awash in a breeze coming from somewhere.
“Excuse me” a voice cut though from behind. I turned and saw him—an African-American man who I’d seen around the city since I was a kid. The man was about 5 foot 5 or 6. He was dressed the way I remembered from back then—rugged pants, boots, denim jacket, turtleneck sweater—topped with a wide-brim leather hat. “Do you know how much it costs to send a certified letter” he asked. I’d sent only 2 certified letters in my life and didn’t remember what I’d paid. “No, I sure don’t” I replied. His thick fingers held a fanned out set of certified mail forms as if they were US currency. He looked about for a list of postal rates. If they are posted they are well hidden, along with the machine for those whose only wish is to purchase a single stamp.
On the man’s jacket was a patch that read: Karate. I tried to imagine what he’d look like in a Karate gi. He is short but solid. I remember driving somewhere with my uncle years ago when he spotted the man walking down the street carrying a shoulder bag. “That guy is a karate man” my uncle said. My uncle practiced Okinawan Karate and came across the man in that world. I looked at the man was we passed him. He looked as if he’d just returned from a long journey by ship. A merchant seaman, maybe? I’d see him from time to time, always with that shoulder bag and sometimes a guitar case. He’d pop up in different places in the city, always unexpectedly. Somehow I felt I knew him. Hey there’s that guy…I’d think upon seeing him. I was just a little kid living in the Projects of North Beach, running in every direction except the right one. Once while running, I came upon the man again. This time he was among a crowd of tourists. “Do you speak German?” he asked someone in the crowd. “I do too”. He smiled and strummed his guitar and said something that sounded like:
Stop ‘n drop…thank you!
And the tourists showed teeth that spread as far and wide as the bridges that connect one place or person to another, smiling and dropping coins and dollars in that guitar case. I was just a kid watching. Hey, it’s that guy…I thought again, offering only a smile exposing the bashfulness of a boy in the presence of a guitar case that was a wide mouth that knew about laughter and hunger in any language.
The man stood jotting information on the certified mail receipts. I’d never spoken to him yet I felt I knew him. He was someone from the landscape of my childhood, the feel of which is on the bottoms of my feet–in the sand and pebbles and shards of glass that have collected in my shoes. I looked at the man’s face. It seemed he hadn’t aged at all. He didn’t have his shoulder bag or guitar case. He glanced at his cell phone that was tucked into his denim jacket pocket. Standing in that line, I wanted to ask him his name, where he was from, what he did for a living. The only thing I could say was, “I remember you when I was a kid”.
Displayed on the circumference of his leather hat rests a multinational array of pins proudly bearing the flags of many nations as well as the emblem of the state of California. Had he been to all those places? I remembered him talking to those German tourists long ago. I mentioned this to him. He explained that he spoke 15 different languages, including Asian, African and Polynesian tongues. I wanted to know more. Where did he live? Was he married? Where was his guitar? The line was moving and now I was at the head. The postal worker at the counter called out, “Next in line!” I turned to the man and said, “It was really nice seeing you again, sir. By the way, my name is Tony”. The man just smiled and nodded. I went to the counter to take care of my transaction.
I wanted to hug the man. I was so glad to see him. The feeling I had was ineffable. Seeing him gave me the feeling that the city was still mine, still strumming with memories which move slowly though the crowds, the traffic—memories still alive, memories that still breathe. I wanted to thank him for still being here.