When I arrived in San Francisco in May 2021, I brought with me three umbrellas, which had been useful in Sonoma County where it often rained 40 to 50 inches in a year, though there were also years of drought. Extreme weather was the norm. Two of my umbrellas, one black, the other red, would have protected me in a torrential downpour. The other, which was also black, would have been good for a sprinkle. My brother, Adam, who has lived in the city since 1970, looked at my umbrellas and said, “You won’t need them. It hardly rains here.” Still, it does rain occasionally. I looked it up. The average precipitation is about 24 inches.
On Sunday, October 17 it rained all over northern California. I was in Sonoma County visiting friends. I listened to the sound of the rain on a tin roof, watched football on TV, made friends with a black cat named “Killer,” and talked in a mix of Spanish and English to a thirty something year old Mexican from Oaxaca named Jose, who told me that he paid a coyote $16,000 to bring him to California, and that he sat in the backseat of a car the whole way. I thought that $16,000 was a lot of money. So did Jose. It took him two years to pay off the debt to the coyote.
Now, Jose is a student at the Santa Rosa Junior College taking classes to be a carpenter. Pedro, my Sonoma County host, had been a union carpenter, became a contractor, and built green homes when green lumber was hard to come by. A clerk at Mead Clark laughed at him when he said he wanted to buy green wood. “The idea,” Pedro told me, “is that you plant the same number of trees in the ground that you harvest.” Only folks with big money could afford to go green. But before long most of the rich folks Pedro worked for wanted green houses.
Back in the city, where there was a break in the rain, I joined two friends from New Jersey who were visiting, and who explained that their town had been taken over by Orthodox Jews of the sort who have two sets of dishes, two refrigerators and two of everything related to food, one set Kosher the other not. My non-orthodox friends and I went to a fish restaurant in my neighborhood, where one of the cashiers, a Mexican, explained when I asked that a payment of $16,000 to a coyote wasn’t a lot of money. “It’s more like $24,000 now,” he said. He added, “If you don’t pay, they come after you or after your family.”
That afternoon, I sold my 2009 VW Jetta for $1,000. The San Francisco VW dealer told me he’d give me $100 for the vehicle, but that $1,000 was a reasonable price to ask. The buyer paid me in cash: 20s and 100s.
Everything in my world seemed to be about money. Or maybe I was just more aware of it. I was making money by writing articles, but not enough to live on. Savings saved me. Now that I was car-less, I wouldn’t have to pay for insurance – $2,600 a year – or for registration, license and gas. I’d save money, but I’d have to take public transportation in a city where it’s challenging to get from one neighborhood to another, especially from Ocean Beach—where I live and which is largely Chinese, with a smattering of hipsters—to the Excelsior, for example, where a friend was to give me a massage; $120 for 90 minutes.
In the Excelsior, a largely working class Filipino and Salvadorian neighborhood, the avenues are named after countries—some of which (like Persia) can no longer be found on maps. The Excelsior streets, which run up and down steep hills, are named after the cities of the world, mostly European. They haven’t kept pace with newer waves of immigrants and shifts in immigration.
It took me 80 minutes by tram and bus—the number 52— to make the epic journey from Ocean Beach, on the western edge of the city and along the Pacific Ocean, to the intersection of Persia Avenue & Prague Street. I felt like I was in another country, though by helicopter a flight would have taken five minutes. “I bet you didn’t know Persia and Prague were next to one another,” a friend who drives a cab said. He added, “My favorite intersection is Moscow and Russia.” Understandable, since his grandparents were Russians who immigrated to the U.S. and lived working class lives.
On the return journey, I tried to find the stop for the 52 going back the way I had come. After 30 minutes of walking uphill and downhill I gave up, took Lyft home for $16.35 and talked to the Filipino driver. “I love the rain,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Rain is good. But driving in the rain is bad. The roads are slippery and drivers don’t take the extra care they should.“
On the street in front of my house I noticed a bumper sticker that read, “Make War on Fentanyl.” One of my nephews died in San Francisco a couple of years ago of a Fentanyl overdose. A single dose costs $2.00, cheap and deadly. His body was found in an abandoned building. Making war on Fentanyl didn’t sound like a good idea. “’War’ on almost anything is a bad idea,” a next-door neighbor said when she recognized me on the street. “It’s the wrong paradigm.” It started to rain again. I opened the black umbrella I had carried with me to the Excelsior and stood on the sidewalk in a bluesy mood, listening to the rain come down, knowing the drought wasn’t over, knowing, too, that every drop counted.