Platinum Jubilee

I was recently awakened at the ungodly hour of noon by an anonymous 800 number caller. I never answer these auto-calls because it’s no business of Citibank’s how my day is going. Occasionally, however, I will take one on for sport.

A favorite tactic is to be cooperative yet confused. After the first hundred words of the script I beg their forgiveness. “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand, could you please repeat that?” Usually they will, maybe in an abbreviated format, to which I’ll again confess “I really don’t get what you’re saying, could you explain that one more time?” Two rounds is usually enough, though I have gone three. These calls end abruptly with their indignant “hanging up” and then a dial tone.

A couple of times I’ve gone phone sex on them. If I’m really irritated.

“You as horny as I am? You got it out? Playing with it?” These calls are over quickly with just a dial tone. In the old days I might have gotten a “you’re disgusting.” Maybe so, but it’s no more sickening than their wasting my time with aggressively obnoxious marketing techniques.

As they robotically infer in their preamble, I hope they’re recording me for training purposes. I can think of no better teacher.

That morning/early afternoon I answered pounce. But there was something about her tone that gave me pause. In a halting, uncomfortable cadence she introduced herself as an executive with the American Airlines Platinum Program. Whereas I never hold back on the hostility with sleuth marketers, I try not to be intentionally rude to real people. I shifted gears from subversive to gracious. Within seconds we were both laughing.

Achieving elite status with a frequent flyer program is such a non-accomplishment. So was getting a B.A. in Political Science. My new executive friend explained I’d crossed the lifetime Two Million Mile threshold and was forevermore vested on the platinum level. In addition to no more qualifying annually, new benefits included checking two bags for free, boarding with the second or third group, and automatic upgrades. In the rare instances where customer assistance is staffed with human beings, there’s the shorter, preferred line.

I’d been close to the milestone for some time but since they changed the rules it wasn’t exactly clear where I stood. A thousand mile trip to Denver was once worth 1000 miles. Now it might only be 500 or 700 miles depending on how deeply discounted the fare is. To stay in the program, however, required flying at least once per calendar year. As of December 1st I hadn’t been on an American flight all year.

To preserve my status I searched for cheap flights. I bought a one way ticket to LA for $99 then watched for a good return fare. Up at 4:30 a.m. for the 7:00 flight, I was on the ground in LAX at 8:30. Checking one last time for a decent price back home, they were still in the $200+ range. So I executed Plan B.

For a $1.50 the metro took me downtown to Union Station where I purchased a $51 ticket for the next train to the City. It would be a seven hour trip but then I’m retired. What the hell else do I have to do?

From the ages of five to ten my family lived in the San Fernando Valley. Being in the Spanish Colonial station brought back memories of greeting relatives during the holidays or embarking on our summer vacations. There were those funky square waiting chairs that belied how comfortable they really were. And the garden courtyard that served as the backdrop for family portraits.

Among the throngs of passengers back then I remembered porky, corn-fed women in blue wool coats and smug smiles. I thought they must be important with their big corsages that said “Iowa.” Granddad explained they were in town for the Rose Bowl.

The metro links to the old station via the subway tunnel leading to the track gates. Deserted these days, one can stop to marvel at the majestic simplicity of its art deco symmetry.

In my youth this passage was truly scary. It was teeming with chaos as arriving passengers cooped up for two days scrambled for fresh air and ambulatory freedom. They competed for space with those who just heard their gate called and only had minutes to board. It felt especially panicked the summer Mother, 27, traveled alone to Indiana with her four boys ages one, three, seven and nine.

On that vacation Dad met us for the last week and we all returned together on the Super Chief. With a longer than usual stop in Albuquerque we walked around the station. Dad left me to my own devices, counting my change to determine if I had enough to buy an Indian Woman souvenir. She wore a fringed buckskin outfit with a papoose strapped on her back. He probably watched from afar but I couldn’t see him so it felt like I was on my own.

When the transaction was complete Dad suddenly reappeared and we scurried back to the train. Mid-scurry he lectured me on the importance of watching the clock so as to not miss the departure. Images were planted in my mind of a seven year old stranded in the Chihuahuan desert, never to see his family again. (Dad’s tactics were harsher than Mother’s.) That episode created a lifelong phobia for missing trains.

For my most recent train trip there was an hour between purchasing the ticket and departure. I relaxed and was spared the phobic curse. Although a seven hour train sounds like a huge waste, when you factor in the chaos and delays of air travel, or freeway traffic jams, it’s a wash in terms of time. And far less stressful.

The train doesn’t terminate in San Francisco. The last stop is Oakland. San Francisco passengers transfer to a coach in Emeryville for the 20 minute ride to the City.

As I was deboarding I heard a woman asking an Amtrak attendant for help. She had expected to end up in San Francisco. The conductor was not very forthcoming which made the situation a lot more confusing than it needed to be.

I turned to say I was headed to the City. If she wanted to walk with me about 100 feet I’d show her.

On the bus over the bridge she asked if I knew where the Tenderloin was. I said yes but was surprised. That’s not a destination point for most visitors. I asked if she had an address. She said no. Some friends of her son had called to tell her he was homeless and living in a tent in some alley.

They also said his girlfriend had overdosed on fentanyl recently. He was deeply despondent and using too. She hadn’t talked to her son in several weeks because he changed phones frequently and did not keep her up to date on numbers. She wanted to find him quickly to get him into rehab.

Her urgency was warranted. Fentanyl has killed so many lately. It appears to be highly addictive, batches vary wildly in strength, and there’s no antidote. Even if the EMS does arrive in time there’s not much they can do.

In San Francisco I offered to walk with her up Market Street. My route home would be close to the Loin, I could point her in the right direction. She was grateful and we proceeded together.

She’d only been here once before, very briefly. She did not know the City at all. I stressed she was headed to a rough neighborhood, that it might be better to wait for morning and daylight. She brushed me off, certain she would find her son.

She talked about him with such pride, how good looking he was. He had once modeled for major designers in the U.S. and Europe. He made good money but he hated the artificiality of the scene, the manufactured stress of it all. He quit and his slide into drugs began.

Because of his looks he’d been taken under the wings of a group of transexuals who lived near his tent. He loved the attention but insisted he was not into them sexually. They were the ones who called her to inform her of his circumstances.

Throughout our conversation I waited for the other penny to drop. Strangers with dramatic stories usually means there’s a scam involved. She was going to ask me to do something out of the ordinary or hit me up for money. But the more we talked, the more her credibility grew.

She resembled Meaghan Markle’s mother, Doria, both in appearance and demeanor. Although she found herself in an unnerving situation she was full of determination and kept her cool.

At Powell Street we exchanged phone numbers and prepared to part ways. I offered to help find a cheap room to use as a base. She couldn’t stay out in the cold all night. She demurred saying she’d deal with it later. She wanted to dive right in to find her boy. Then, for the second time that day, I invoked the retiree’s credo: what the hell else did I have to do? It was only 8:00, I would help her get her bearings.

It’s only one block from the cable car turnaround to the Tenderloin. The Union Square area with it’s big chain hotels forms the eastern boundary of the neighborhood. Miraculously, the populations of out-of-town tourists and the inner-city impoverished rarely mix. There’s a perverse thrill in thinking of white-bread Sioux City couples making a wrong turn out of the Hilton to search for a $50 Alcatraz t-shirt in the city’s barrio.

As we traversed the filth and squalor of Eddy Street I shared my method for dealing with potential danger. Maintain an unaffected and spaced out look while working the peripheral vision overtime. If someone greets you, make a casual reply but keep moving. Do not make eye contact, do not engage.

Shoulder bag purses make you a sitting duck for a snatch and run in any neighborhood. My friend said her shopping bag only contained fruit and reading material for the train. She was wearing one of those zipped up puffer coats and her valuables were secured in an interlined pocket.

The puzzling thing about her information was he camped in an alley. Even in the 19th Century when the grid was first laid out, space was at a premium downtown. There aren’t many alleys. When we got to Polk, the commercial street that bounds the Loin on the west, I thought of one.

We walked up to O’Farrell then over to Hyde. There’s a cul de sac that cuts about a third of the way into the block where it abuts the backside of an apartment building. It has a Gothic, picturesque quality because of the growth of older trees. Alas, that night there were no squatters. We continued on.

At Leavenworth we descended the hill to the street’s base in the UN Plaza on Market. The sidewalk was packed with street people selling goods spread out on blankets. It was now 9:00. I was tired and cold and told my companion I was going to head back to my place. She looked me squarely in the eyes and thanked me sincerely.

At home I contacted a community activist friend. He gave me the names of two agencies that might help. He also mentioned a bar called 800 Larkin. It’s a gathering spot for the transexual community and, if she was up for it, she was bound to learn something there. I forwarded this info on and went to bed.

The next morning there were no messages so I accepted the experience as just one of life’s unresolved mysteries.. Mid-morning another text from my activist friend said that, from what I had described, the guy was probably in one of the tent encampments on the short alley-like streets between Polk and Van Ness. They are named for indigenous ground cover like Fern, Ivy and Myrtle. I forwarded this too..

About 1:00 in the afternoon I heard from her. She had not found her son and got a room for the night, She was heading back out to search that afternoon..

At 7:00 there was another message saying she was on the train back to Modesto. Her daughter had insisted she return home but she planned to resume her quest early the following week.

A few days later over the weekend she texted again. Her son had called her. She had spoken to enough people that word eventually filtered back she’d been there. After talking to her he said at one point she’d been just a few feet from his tent on one of the ground cover streets. He said much of what she heard was grossly exaggerated. He wasn’t as bad off as she feared. But he admitted he needed help so was cooperating with her to find a facility. She was thrilled.

When I was 19 and in Fort Wayne for the summer, Jim and I struggled to find places to hang out. We were underage so couldn’t get into bars. If Marilyn was in town, though, she knew enough bouncers to sneak us in somewhere. Otherwise our choices were a coffee house that closed at 10 or the all night burger and breakfast joint, Azars.

Jim also liked to go to the Switchboard. It was a 24 hour hippie hotline staffed by volunteers and housed in an old Victorian church rectory. They offered advice on birth control, drugs, police issues, housing, then made referrals to more professional resources.

Calls could be few and far between so the volunteers didn’t mind friends hanging out. The room was outfitted with ratty used furniture to lounge in. You could get stoned there.

One night around midnight, someone offered to drop Jim off at his parents house on the north side. I lived south of the city and intended to leave soon too.

The next thing I knew it was 6:00 a.m. I was awakened by Mother’s voice, a firm “Chris.” She had not heard me come home. When the car wasn’t in the drive that morning she borrowed my brother’s GTO to look for me. After driving around downtown she finally spotted her Karmann Ghia parked in front of St. Mary’s.

As I pulled myself together on the beat up old sofa she asked if I was okay. I answered “yes.” Before I could say more she turned quietly and left.

I arrived home a few minutes after her. There were no histrionics, no scolding. We didn’t discuss the matter at all She just wanted to make sure I was safe. The rest would have to sort itself out.

Will the circle of concerned mothers with wayward children be unbroken?

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