We were in San Diego for a few days, entirely by accident. (Long story; let's just say that our flight to see family in Seattle was cancelled -- twice -- and JetBlue airlines has lost all credibility with me). Paying for the vacation we didn't take -- all those missed reservations in Seattle -- kind of ate into the budget, so our time in San Diego felt very much like a return to student days: bare-bones motel, backpacks and picnic lunches, public transportation. Not an unwelcome change, really.
I hadn't been to San Diego since high school, and even then, tended to stick within the physical and social confines of the Orthodox Jewish Community. I have fond memories of a friendly, welcoming community of families who graciously opened their homes to host us young people for Shabbat.
This time around, we met an entirely different community, gracious hosts in their own right.
As we made our way through the city, the amazingly thorough public transportation system* revealed itself to be a vast social conduit of homeless and semi-homeless individuals who spend their days on the streets, buses and trolleys that flow through downtown, Old Town, and into the coastal region. Some of these people wear identity cards around their necks. A large number are veterans. Some are more comfortable starting their day with a drink, and some really know how to keep up their end of the conversation, no matter who's listening.
That Guy I Married is a magnet for the down-and-out. I already knew this, from the disproportionate number of people who ask him for hand-outs when he walks down the streets of Jerusalem. In San Diego, apparently, some similar, unspoken power was at work, encouraging total strangers to include us in their conversations. Y'all Jewish? one dark-skinned, exceedingly loquacious man yelled from across the airport bus. I knew it, 'cause of that beanie you'all's wearin'.
We had just arrived in the city, and his forthright question made me ill at ease. Still, there was no looking the other way. He was talking to us.
Me: Yeah, we are. But we don't call it a beanie. It's a kippah.
Loquacious Man: Kippah. Yeah, I knew that!
Later that afternoon, our flight cancelled, we walked from the airport, along the bay's shore, past the marine base, the yacht clubs, and a myriad of middle-end hotel chains, until we reached a small, privately-owned motel. A few minutes' drive down a main road would have brought us to some of the wealthier neighborhoods of the city.
The next morning, from our spare but spotless room, I spotted our elderly male neighbor, wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, throw some laundry over the balcony into a downstairs bin, then pass by our window and make several unmistakeable attempts to peer inside. He startled and backed away when he caught sight of me standing inside, almost within reach, but moved on to peer into the open doorway of an adjoining room.
I was completely creeped out. We were supposed to be staying there a second night, but at that moment I wanted to bolt without looking back. Then I stopped to think.
Older man, alone in a cheap motel. Wandering in pajamas, peering into doorways, yet memorized the laundry schedule. Seems he's been here awhile, yet only a person lacking a better option would opt for an extended stay.
Down in the motel courtyard, I poured myself a cup of coffee and ran into the motel owner. Is everything alright? he asked with a genuine expression of concern.
Me: Everything's fine, for the most part, but I was just wondering if you could give me some advice about the older gentleman staying across from us who keeps staring into our room.
Owner: Older man?... Oh, I'm very sorry. That's Mr. Sherman. Mr. Sherman has been a guest of ours for two years. He's completely harmless.
Me: If you could just suggest to him that ladies prefer not to have a gentleman staring at them, I'd really appreciate it.
Owner: Of course, I'm very sorry about that. I'll have a word with him, right away.
Half an hour later, the motel owner has spoken with Mr. Sherman, and everything is cleared up. We finish our breakfast and head down the block to the nearest bus stop, where a 40-ish man is finishing off a McDonald's breakfast sandwich and a 16-ounce can of beer, still wrapped in its brown paper bag. He looks at me a bit sheepishly. Bon apettit, I offer. Thanks, he says, and after a minute, You tourists? Where are you from, Italy? I thought maybe because of the "bon appetit."
Me: No, We're from Israel, actually. Where are you from?
Breakfasting man: Ahh, Israel. I thought so, or maybe New York. I'm from around here, local. (Looks down at his shirt, brushes the crumbs off, embarrassed). Oh, I always mess up my shirt.
Me: Don't worry, me too. Just ask my husband. Nice to meet you. The bus pulls up and as we try to pay the fare, the driver covers the automatic till with one hand and waves us on impatiently with the other.
Breakfasting man: Don't worry about it, that driver never collects
This leaves our imaginations running wild, as we settle into our seats, wondering just how the driver explains his empty till to the transit authority at the end of the day. Do they not bother to check? Is he nearing retirement and a pretty good guy so they just let it slide? Is it some unannounced "free second Tuesday of the month" policy?
Breakfasting man: Now tell me, where do you need to get to?
With his guidance, we make it to the trolley, where an exceedingly shy man, arms and legs folded inward, moon-sized glasses over downcast eyes, insists on sitting within view so he can guide us off the trolley at the right stop. We thank him for his help. I'm glad to help. I travel a lot and it's always nice when someone helps me out. Be sure to stop at the lobby to that hotel on your way to the bus stop, he adds. It's beautiful, and world famous.
The last leg of our journey into the park, city bus line no. 7, brings with it yet another friendly tour guide, an African-American gentleman in his sixties, eager for conversation with anyone who will listen. His eyes settle on us. You're tourists? Of course I'll help you. Where you tryin' to get to? He insists on getting off with us and walking us into the park, stopping to point out every museum along the way. I'm just on my way to the veteran's services. Nice people. You know, I served seven years, Vietnam, then I found G-d, and I'm a new man.
Me: Didn't we already pass the veteran's center?
Him: You're new here, right? The vet center's down that way, he tells me knowingly, pointing ahead. If you don't know, you shouldn't say. Excellent point. He continues to tell us about his children, now grown, and we tell him about ours. He insists on accompanying us all the way through to the other side of the park, so we won't miss locating the free park shuttle.
Later bus rides bring new introductions and sometimes, new guides as well. Sometimes we just sit back and observe, as yet another restless rider boards the bus and falls into intense conversation with himself, another passenger, or most typically, the bus driver. The driver usually expects, and often invites, these conversations, which might include discourse over a mutually familiar soul who also wanders the city, day in and day out.
Any unfamiliar city can feel unsafe and unwelcoming, all the more so when so many of the people around appear to be transient or lost. What a misleading impression. As tourists, we were the transients, unfamiliar with the system, and likely to lose our way at any time. The people around us were home, even if their daytime homes were park benches and bus lines, and their nighttime homes a veterans' center or public park.
I can't say I felt safe every moment, and there were times and places when I was on high alert. Still, I learned to trust people who, until this visit, I might never have made an effort to meet, let alone guide me through an unfamiliar city.
Keep the balance,
* In San Diego you really can get almost anywhere, for a reasonable price, via public transportation. Sometimes it seems like they've thought of everything. Most of the buses we saw have fold-down bicycle racks above their front bumpers, and an electric wheelchair lift stowed under the first step of the forward door lets those with limited motion ride the bus without a problem. The seats and floors are clean, and the drivers we encountered were helpful and patient. Some of the buses even run on "clean gas" instead of gasoline. I'm sold...