As promised, I’m posting a personal essay written in 2021 during lockdown, shortly after I got the vaccine, which seemed so, so significant at the time. I realize that it is about time, hope, and gratitude.
[Image is of a flowering cherry tree on the USF campus that I found on Yelp, taken around the time of the trip.]
I finally got the vaccine toward the end of March 2021. When the statewide MyTurn site opened up, I assumed I would be making an appointment for myself online at one of the mass vaccination sites, but it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. I made a “ghost” appointment at a local Walgreens in the southwest part of San Francisco, turned up at the appointed time, and was promptly turned away because my name didn’t appear in the system. It was a glitch, the female pharmacist said without much sympathy. A stressed-out young Indian American woman ahead of me in line was kind enough to tell me that she had an appointment for the same time I had made mine. It helped me to know that someone else had gotten “my” appointment. I bowed out, but shared this frustrating story on a Facebook group dedicated to people seeking vaccine slots in S.F.
Somebody saw my post, and with the lightning-speed with which things happen in America (as opposed to the glacially slow rollout in Ireland, where I grew up), a kind woman I didn’t know suddenly messaged me and told me about a UCSF pop-up community clinic in the Western Addition, at the Third Baptist Church on McAllister Street. I could get Johnson & Johnson there, I learned, and this was what I was hoping for, fearing the harsh side effects of the other two. But I still hesitated. I’d lived in that area over thirty years ago, when I first came to S.F. It had been a dodgy neighborhood then, and I hadn’t been back for many years. Was this a foolish thing to do, trekking across the city when I could make a nice, safe appointment online someplace close to me? In fact, I had also snagged a back-up appointment at S.F. State for a Pfizer shot, but something made me push forward with the pop-up.
Turned out it was all for the best! On Sunday morning I hopped on a bus in my neighborhood near S.F. State, then caught another bus going north down 19th Avenue to Park Presidio, and then the 5-Fulton, which I remembered as an incredibly slow bus in 1988, when I had lived in a shared house in the Inner Richmond for a few months before moving to the Western Addition. I had often walked about ten blocks to Park Presidio back then to get the bus to S.F. State because the 5-Fulton was so slow. Well now, here I was again, standing at the side of the road on Fulton Street, on a nice grassy verge actually, glancing up at tall Douglas firs, waiting for twenty-five painful minutes for the bus to come. One finally came trundling along; but to the dismay of myself and the exhausted-looking Indian man standing at the bus shelter, the driver slowly waved a sheet of paper at us marked “Drop-Off Only” as he approached. It was surreal… but I hoped it meant another bus was coming. And another bus did come after another watching-paint-dry ten minutes. The Indian man, myself, and a nice gay boy who told me he studied at University of San Francisco hopped on.
It took ages to get to my destination, which was less than a mile away. Absolutely ages. But I was relaxed, to my amazement. At least I was on my way. I was nearly there. I watched out the window as the bus crept east along Fulton in a lethargic crawl. We passed the pale cream stone facade of U.S.F., closed up for the semester, I assumed. I had worked there for five years in the 1990s, my longest job ever, but up on Lone Mountain and then in the former Presentation Convent on Turk Street. As the bus moseyed along, I reflected that my friend Denise had lived on Fulton near U.S.F. for a time. We’d carpooled together to school at S.F. State a few times. That had been nice for me, although Denise drove wildly. Once she drove us onto the median on 19th Avenue, I remembered. We’d met in a Memoir class my first semester of grad school, and she invited me to join the writing group that she and a few others started up in 1989. That group lasted more than ten years, during which time I wrote two novels, and published one.
They were all older than me. Denise is long gone, a Spanish linguistics professor now in far-off Chico, a tenuous Facebook connection only, whom I always expect to disappear one day. (A few months after writing this essay, I was horrified to learn from an obituary posted to her Facebook page that she had died of breast cancer.) Betty, the dynamic red-haired teacher from the South Side of Chicago who started the group with Denise, and a good friend of mine for many years, died of lung cancer a few years back. In fact, of that group, I am the only one who still lives in S.F. Two of the group have left California. And two are now dead.
At this time in my life, I am more aware of patterns, of the way life tends to be lived in thirty-year cycles. I’ve been in San Francisco so long that it seems impossible to leave. And there are some days when S.F. reinvents itself, shows a sudden bright beauty, so that you wonder why you ever wanted to go. It’s particularly that way in early spring, I have found. And in San Francisco, spring always comes early.
The bus trundled along McAllister, a street I’d never spent much time on, but I’d lived only a few blocks from here on Scott Street at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake in ‘89. The beautiful old, colorful Victorians on McAllister towered over me gravely as I waited in the parking lot of the church. It was an odd modern building on a corner; presumably its facade looked more churchlike, but I was facing the other way. I didn’t even know if I’d be let in—I had never received proper confirmation—but I’d brought a printout with me of the registration form I’d filled out. Somehow, I’d acted quickly enough and I was in the UCSF system. I was waved through to a basement reception room, answered a few questions that a Latina with an iPad asked me, showed my I.D., and was soon waiting for my turn in a smaller room, sitting down in a little partitioned space where I found myself staring at a row of old gray hymnals on a metal shelf.
The solid hardbound hymnals grounded me. What could go wrong? I thought, and in fact nothing did. First, a slim Asian American woman from the fire department stood in front of me in her uniform, checking politely to be sure I was not likely to have an allergic reaction. A nice African American woman gave me the jab on my left arm. I felt the brief chill of the vaccine, which reassured me, actually: something had happened. “One and done,” she said cheerfully, a line I was sure she said to everyone, but it landed well. I was handed a vaccine card and a sticker. I waited as instructed for a little while, to make sure I was not going to pass out, in an area in the main room near a shabby old piano. I saw a nameplate for a dance school on a closed door. Everything was reassuringly ordinary. People were warm, kind, but not overbearing. And somehow it all worked. I stepped away, feeling light.
I felt relieved, grateful. I said so on the survey form they gave me before I left. But what I couldn’t quite articulate was that I knew that I was privileged to get that shot. I’m early fifties, well under the eligible age of sixty-five at the time. It’s true my high BMI made me eligible, though I’m not a diabetic. There’s a privilege here that I want to acknowledge. I was perhaps the only Caucasian person there that morning, and I worried that I was grabbing a spot that should have gone to someone else. But no one there made me feel that way. And this is America, I pondered. You have to make stuff happen. It’s an elitist place. I haven’t done “well” in this city by most standards: I’m low-income, overweight, unmarried, don’t have many friends… But by other, more basic standards, I’ve done well. I’m housed, have health insurance, I’ve been on unemployment since the pandemic started. The State of California provided for me much better than I ever could have expected. I’m grateful, and there would be something very wrong with me if I wasn’t.
In all, that day, I took seven buses. It was a joy to take the 24-Divisadero heading south back through the Castro, getting off by Bernal Heights, where I lived for almost twenty years. First, I passed Bus Stop Pizza on Divisadero, one place that I still recognized from my earlier grad-student life there in 1989-90. The bus drove swiftly past the boarded-up Castro Theatre, another place where I’d spent many, many enjoyable hours of my time starting in the late eighties. There was a crowd milling around the plaza at 17th and Castro. I spotted a drag queen. Perhaps it was the Hunky Jesus contest, I thought, put on by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. But it wasn’t Palm Sunday or Easter yet, so perhaps not… Perhaps it was a protest against the anti-Asian violence sweeping the Bay Area, or a gathering more specifically connected to the recent Atlanta spa shootings. I just don’t know. But it was a small slice of the LGBTQ community on display, a community that I’d once been deeply attached to.
In the Excelsior district, I waited at an intersection for what I thought was the right bus to take me back to Balboa Park station, where I could transfer to get the 29 bus home to the small cream-colored house with purple trim that I have shared with my ex-girlfriend, Laura, for the last ten years. I was starving. Wolfing down a slice of pizza I’d brought with me, I threw the crust to the pigeons that were gathering on the sidewalk and perching on the overhead lines on Silver Street. They looked healthy, these birds. Maybe the shelter-in-place had even made the pigeons healthier, I mused. Because everything seemed quieter and less congested than normal, and I liked that. I had time to reflect on the wavelike dark orange top of the bus shelter, which I’d only recently learned had been designed by a lovely artist that I once knew, Anna Murch, who died of cancer in 2014. A dedicated art teacher, she would have been horrified that the school she taught at, Mills College in Oakland, would be closing soon. (It has since merged with Northeastern.)
The 44 bus stopped on Silver and the driver opened the front door when I tapped. He winced irritably when I asked if the bus went to Balboa Park, but a long-haired young man walking by with a group called out, “The 49!” and he was right, I realized… the 49 would take me almost all the way back. I crossed the street to Mission, and a 49 came along in less than five minutes. The constantly passing buses in the sunshine had an air of unreality, a strange abundance given my earlier experience waiting for the 5-Fulton.
Sometimes the city seems like a bunch of different communities who dislike each other, who compete for scraps. But my experience that Sunday in early 2021 made me feel that at its best (its Sunday best?), San Francisco is still the tolerant, quirky multicultural city I came to in 1988 as a depressed and alienated twenty-one-year-old from Ireland. It is an unpredictable place, to be sure. Just when you start to view it negatively, stereotypically, it smiles on you, hands you a gift. Sometimes that gift is just a good memory to add to the other grab-bag of memories and experiences one has acquired over the years. One thing is for sure: putting down roots here is difficult, but amassing memories and experiences is not!
Waiting at Balboa Park as the teen skateboarders did their thing in the skate-park nearby, I hopped on my last bus. The one that would take me home.