I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. A lot has changed since my first time here in ’06 when we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process.
In my second and third years, we helped build drywall and roofs for those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. In the last few years we have been helping with sustainability programs such as establishing a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area, or helping create a community center. While the work changes, the need of the residents to tell their stories remains. New Orleans, and particularly the low lying parishes, remain a traumatized community.
One surprising aspect is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.
The piece below is from my next novel, Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.
Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In
Yeah, I grew up in London with fog rolling off the Thames, but I do not recall locals stopping to admire it. Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco: Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it is not thrown in your face. It just is.
I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning mist. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.
The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That is what makes San Francisco special. It works without pretentiousness. I am told that the metal mother and child stand at the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.
We could do with a fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of cloud hover above the water. It is very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day when the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It is simply preparing for the onslaught. In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby paying less for the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.
Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I cannot tell if he is awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!
Clarence customarily stakes his position in the early morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this time of day, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I do not have spare change to throw in his open sax case—perhaps he would feel insulted if I did.
Later, around 9.30, when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he will come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, the owner, is not looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I had already poured his cup and there is no point wasting it. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse so I just place the steaming cup on his table without a word.
No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass him in the early morning. He will sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he is part of my life—another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.
Two weeks ago, a bunch of students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him, but I was wrong.
“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? What y’all doing with New Orleans?”
A young woman, blond, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she said.
“Ain’t no hurricane did that, gal,” Clarence replied with a growl. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’a done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away. Broke her, it did. Such a proud w’man.”
Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”
We saw his tears as he left, leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I could not stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.
He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear, caressing his saxophone, and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He was not playing for me that time; he was not even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf Coast.
When he finished, I approached, unsure what to say. We stared at each other.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
I had spoken with Mr. Tzu, that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects, and as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled, because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).