A Congenial Heart -- Incubated
The Haight-Ashbury District -- 7 a.m. on another slow Sunday morning –- I’ve been empty for about 45 minutes.
FOR FIVE OR SIX BLOCKS I haven't seen a soul on Haight Street, and then I spot a guy standing all alone in the bus zone at Cole Street. I can see that he is attached, via clear plastic tubing, to a small oxygen tank on wheels. He looks to be about 30 years old.
I pull over and lower my passenger-side window: “Every day I give away one free ride. Where are you headed?”
“Oh, thanks a lot -- I’m going to Geary and Polk.”
He lifts his little cart in ahead of his body -- a flurry of cords, wheels, and tubes -- arranges himself around it, pulls the door shut, and sighs.
“Looks like a lot of work,” I say.
“I’m on a waiting list for one of the backpack kinds. But there’s been some hangup with the paperwork, and it’s taken a while. A year and a half on the list. I’m not complaining -- they’re really expensive, and Social Security’s going to pay for it all. I’m just glad I can breathe. And get around. I can’t think there’s a better city in the world for public transportation. Anytime I get on a bus, the bus driver hardly ever asks me for money. And now here’s you!”
We head along the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park, lush green, dripping wet. Back in the 60s and early 70s, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead used to walk the two and a half blocks from their house on Clayton Street and play in the Panhandle for free.
I ask: “How long have you been using that?”
“Two and a half years. I was just living my life. Worked on foreign cars in a little garage out in the Sunset. A mechanic. Then I started feeling a little funny, losing energy, weak, not able to do things I’ve always been able to do. When it got so I couldn’t even walk a block I went to the Free Clinic, and they sent me to St. Mary’s for tests. They still can’t really say exactly what all’s wrong with me, but they say for sure I’ve got a congenial heart condition."
My notebook is open on the seat beside me, and my immediate instinct is to start scribbling but I keep my hands on the wheel. I can remember this.
He's got more to say: "I have trouble breathing, too. Every now and then I pass out and wind up getting incubated -- one minute I’m just minding my own business, and the next minute I wake up with all these tubes stuck all down my throat. Pretty freaky.”
We chat the rest of the way, but I’m not really registering any of it -- I’m too busy running his exact words over and over in my mind. Congenial... Incubated...
At Geary and Polk he says, “There are some asshole cab drivers, like there are asshole everythings, but most of you guys are all right.”
The instant he closes the door I grab my notebook and start writing as fast as I can.
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