San Francisco, California: Feeding the inner man

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San Francisco, California: Feeding the inner man

He didn't give his name and it didn't matter actually. My guess is he just wanted someone to listen. So I did, and it wasn't a pretty story.

It was mid-afternoon on a weekday in the 21 Club, a bar in the rundown Tenderloin district of San Francisco with a handwritten sign which read "No bicycles inside" on the battered glass door.

Outside broken and damaged people pushed supermarket trolleys of their belongings past cheap strip joints and rundown hotels, others muttered to themselves, and pan-handlers slumped in doorways extending grubby hands towards anyone passing by.

Every now and again a police siren would strafe the urine-heavy air.

The bar was as interesting as such places are: an impressive collection of tawdry souvenirs (dolls, an African mask which could have been made in Taiwan, team pennants and sports memorabilia) and there was a collection of books beneath the Myers Rum and Jack Daniels' bottles. It included dictionaries of baseball statistics and movies, and a World Almanac (1953 edition). They were doubtless used to settle arguments.

The guy asleep on the small wall seats in the corner didn't look like he was in a mood to argue about anything, or even have a coherent conversation. Nor did the bearded white guy who looked like he'd fought in the hippie wars 40 years ago and lost. His conversation rambled and it was all pretty forgettable, until he complained about his tumour.

"The doctor says I should get it seen to as soon as possible. It's the size of a fist and all the skin over it is pulling real tight now."

He didn't offer the information about where this thing was located on is anatomy, but got up to feed the jukebox. He chose the blues song Last Fair Deal and a version of Little Feat's Willin', the lyrics of which in part run: "I've been warped by the rain, driven by the snow, I'm drunk and dirty and don't you know, that I'm still willin'."

That seemed appropriate.

"You workin'?" asked a wild-eyed guy, then laughed and rolled his eyes. I laughed and he shuffled off.

Tumourman came back and with great effort pulled his substantial belly and bum back on the bar stool and ordered up another red wine. He started talking again, but my attention wandered to the guy in the other corner who kept asking the pleasant barman the time and if he could have just a little more water in his tumbler of whisky.

He was making his drink last a long time. No bad thing, there was nothing to do back on the deadbeat streets anyway.

But I was different.

Alone among this company I did have places to go and people to meet.

I finished my beer, made my farewells and walked out of the 21 Club into the bright sunlight and the promise of a Northern California afternoon.

I left them all behind, but for days I carried with me the image of a tumour the size of a fist trying to escape the world-weary shell of a man with food scraps in his nicotine-stained beard.

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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