I used to ride the San Francisco city bus (Muni) to work many years ago.

One day, something happened that has stayed in my mind ever since.

At the time, I lived in Nob Hill and my office was in SOMA, so I took bus #19. It was perhaps the most entertaining bus line in the world, because it started near the yuppy/posh neighborhoods of Nob & Russian Hill, traversed through the gritty Polk Gulch & Tenderloin, and ended in the hipster haven of SOMA. Every kind of personal identity, affliction, brand, odor, and expression could be found all at once — at any point in time — on Bus #19.

One morning, the bus came to a halt at one of its stops in the Tenderloin. A rather large, African American man dragging a hefty-sized black trash bag made his way onto the bus. He wore a white t-shirt that was so dirty it had become light brown, and shoes that were untied and falling apart as he slowly walked. The bus instantly filled with an aroma of garbage, dust, and sweat. He took a seat towards the front of the bus, not far from me. I watched as people scurried toward the back, and moved their books closer to their faces, hoping to shield their eyes and noses from the “situation” at hand.

Again and again, the man would scan his fellow bus riders, trying desperately to make eye contact and conversation. As he did so, books would move closer to their faces, or eyes would even more intently gaze out of windows, in hopes his stare would just go away. But like a child lacking any sense of self, he just kept staring at everyone with a hopeful twinkle in his gaze.

I couldn’t take my eyes off this man. I don’t know why, but I just had this feeling that something interesting was about to happen…

Suddenly the bus came to a halt again, and “whoooosh!” — the doors opened.

A pair of red high heels stepped up, quite loudly, attached to a long pair of legs.
Black, fishnet stockings.
A short, tight, hot-pink skirt.
Long, blonde hair.
Cheap, pungent perfume.
A black patent leather purse.
Red, lacquered fingernails.
And big, hairy, manly arms.

This was not your typical lady.

Phones inched down as eyes peered above them, to get a glimpse of the newest passenger. She surveyed the scene of Nob Hill snobs, looked over at the man with the big trash bag, and decided to head his way.

If I could have taken a picture of his face, I would have (but iPhones were not a thing yet). His mouth was agape, his eyes were incredulous, and he stared at her as if she was the strangest animal he’d ever seen.

She walked over to his seat, and grabbed the pole immediately above him, standing while the bus careened through the city. The man’s mouth was still wide open, and his head repeatedly whipped toward the other passengers and then back towards the woman, again and again. The more he looked back and forth, the more repugnant his expression became. After a few minutes, he started breathing heavily in complete disgust, trying with all his might to get the other riders to pay attention to the unbelievable sight at the front of the bus.

But everyone was doing their best to avoid his gaze and impending commentary…while I couldn’t wait for it.

At the next stop, the lady with the manly arms made her way off, her red high heels loudly announcing her departure. The man watched her every move as she left, while he huffed and puffed audibly in bewildered revulsion.

When the doors closed, he whipped his head to face the passengers again. And while he gripped his gigantic trash bag, his tshirt stained and covered in wet spots, he smiled from ear to ear and loudly exclaimed:


Every head turned to look at him, some in disapproval while others giggled uncomfortably. I doubt anyone agreed with his judgment, but it was just the kind of rare scene you can only really find in a place like San Francisco.

I watched the man’s face as some of the passengers continued giggling and smiling. His expression was like an insecure child who finally made his classmates laugh. This man was so hungry to connect with others, and so hungry to be seen, and this was a moment of glory for him.

The bus halted again, and the man stood up. Still chuckling, he again yelled “What a freak!” as he dragged his trash bag across the ground and made his way down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk.

I thought about how sad it was that the other passengers ignored the homeless man who just wanted to connect. And then how terrible it was that the “lady” with the hairy arms had been so discriminated by the homeless man. And how I was glad the homeless man still found a moment of connection that he clearly needed. And how none of these things really fit into neat boxes, or justified the other.

This is life in the city, and even for the country folks who never experience it, this is actually life. A jumbled mesh of all kinds of people, from all sorts of places, with all flavors of identities and hang-ups. Sometimes the funny things are sad, and the sad things are funny. Some of us are avoiding being seen, while others so desperately want to be seen. The lines between the rich and poor may be easily discernible, but discrimination isn’t so simple. And in the end, we are all just imperfect human beings trying to find our way through life, in the best way we know how.

The bus doors closed, the passengers’ eyes turned back to their books, and we continued making our way through the city.