A man stands in the street. He’s yelling about something, incoherently but with enthusiasm. He crosses against traffic and disappears. I cross with the light. Suddenly, he’s back in the road, continuing his rant. The group of hipsters outside the coffee shop are incredulous: “How the hell did he get back over there?”
San Francisco is like a crazy aunt – you love her to death but wish she’d remember to take her meds. She’s not intentionally racist or homophobic although she says the most inappropriate things. She’s incredibly tolerant, open and welcoming and leaves you to your own devices but still manages to be in your face though she doesn’t baulk at the guy with the bespangled gentleman parts strolling along Market in his birthday suit. In some ways it’s freeing – there’s a lack of judgement and a sense that you could do and be anything. In other ways it highlights the need for a universal healthcare system to protect those who aren’t simply expressing themselves. If the most vulnerable in our society aren’t able to access decent healthcare provision – particularly for mental health – the place they’ll end up is the middle of the road, imploring the passers by to ask the Israelis about President Clinton.
Not everyone needs pity. The grubby man sitting on the pavement with a group of drunks who asked me how my puppy’s socialization was coming along, the woman with the cart of junk who instructed the slurring man (whose pot habit was probably the mildest of his addictions) on the correct way to ask to pet the puppy may well be living with the results of their own actions and choices. But the veteran asking everyone within earshot alternately if they have any food and if we know what really happened in Vietnam is clearly not getting the help he needs. Who can say where these people will end up without the proper help? It’s important to remember that, wherever we are, some people aren’t just crazy, they’re very unwell – in a genuine sense that requires medical interventions they’re unlikely to ever see – something we should not only be saddened but embarrassed by. It should shame us that there are so many ways to drop out of ‘the system’ and so few ways back in.
Of course it should also be remembered that, particularly in San Francisco, some people are properly mad. Mad like your crazy aunt who wears oversized floral hats and a bright yellow track suit to go to the shops. It adds to the flavour, which is a good thing as long as there’s not a bitter aftertaste.
A man who crossed the street with me catches my eye. “I’ve not been in San Francisco for a while. I’d almost forgotten.”