It was a rare time in San Francisco when the streets were nearly empty. It was an hour that was too early for pedestrians, too early for drivers, or anybody else without a bit of wildness in their blood – and for the crazies, the dealers, the junkies, and even the street walkers and their parasitic clientele – the hour was too late; they were still recovering from their nightly exploits, suffering from early morning comas. This was the hour Charlie loved best. This was when he loved to run.
He rounded the corner from Ellis Street onto Jones, holding his breath a moment as he ran, knowing this corner was used as a urinal by the various bodies that now lie passed out on the sidewalks and in the adjacent park; he had learned long ago to spare himself the stench whenever running this direction. He tried his best to savor the ache in his leg muscles as they pulled in the steady vibrations of the pavement slapping against his shoes. The running wasn’t good for his joints, his wife kept telling him, but he did it anyway. “The pavement is wrecking your body. Come to the club with me if you want to stay in shape!” she would say. But staying in shape was hardly the point. His morning journeys through and beyond the streets of The Tenderloin were only in part physical. For even as he taxed his body, his spirit was waking to the framework of something more. And every day he was reaching for something more, straining to try and touch it or hear a whisper of it.
Maybe this morning, he thought. I’m taking the hill all the way; maybe this morning.
Market Street was in front of him, and he knew this was where he would find the first signs of life in the city. He crossed the street toward the corner where he knew a particular sidewalk preacher would later be found hollering about Jesus. The Market Street hollering preacher (that’s what he called him, because he didn’t know his name, and there were several of them, so he needed to give him a name) was not like the Union square preacher and definitely not like the Polk Street preachers – there were many of those, but the Market Street guy was more approachable than most, and even though he yelled a lot about Jesus, he didn’t resort to holding signs with pictures of hellfire on them, or any other sort of sign for that matter. He’d stopped to talk with that grizzle faced preacher once, told him he and his wife worked at the mission up the street, and the preacher got a big smile and told him he should start coming to his church on Sundays, and he’d show him how he could also become a street corner preacher. But he knew it wasn’t for him; there was something more.
Several blocks down he ran by a newspaper booth where a short, stocky guy in forest green clothes was unpacking copies of the San Francisco Chronicle. He thought about getting a paper when he was done running so he could check the scores, but mentally kicked himself when he realized he’d forgotten to grab some change before he’d left the apartment. He was always forgetting. It didn’t matter. The Giants were in a pennant race; people would be talking, so he’d find out by the time he got home.
Here and there, lights began to appear in shop windows, employees preparing for a day of tourists and window shoppers. The closer he got to The Embarcadero – the long, curved street that shadowed the bay – the more the city transformed into “that place” – the place of pictures and postcards and collectibles, over-priced clothing and memorabilia that people could probably find elsewhere, but they bought it here, paid more for it because they’d found it on their trip to San Francisco, which made it special.
Coming into view, the Bay Bridge awoke Charlie’s spirit again to the hope of something more. Its lights grew starry as sweat trickled into his eyes, warping his vision slightly. Looking at the bridge always gave him the feeling of something large, something majestic pulling him along into a grand adventure – the same feeling he’d gotten a few years earlier when he’d first decided to do something outrageous with his life and join Youth With a Mission. The worldwide missionary organization had bases all around the world, but the moment Charlie read of the San Francisco based urban mission, his heart was captured, and he somehow knew he was meant to go. That was three years ago, but he hadn’t lost his passion for this city or its people. Where he lacked much of the boldness and biblical fortitude of the street corner preachers, he was not lacking sincerity. He sincerely loved God, often trembled in his worship of Him. He hoped in Him, for something more in his life and for this city than the same old religious crap and broken promises that never resulted in anything but guilt over the fact that nothing ever changed. There had to be something more than that.
The Hyatt Regency Hotel was on Charlie’s left as he turned onto The Embarcadero. In a month or so, as retailers started decorating for Christmas, an ice skating rink would open near here. He smiled as he thought about the city during Christmas time. It was overly commercialized, but people usually seemed a little less depressed around Christmas, and the lights and decorations always made Charlie think of his mom. I need to call her, he thought. Better do it before noon to be sure hedoesn’t answer.
The part of the run along the bay always went too quickly. It offered some of the most captivating views around the city, and it preceded the part of the morning jog that had often been Charlie’s nemesis. As he approached the northern part of the city and Fisherman’s Wharf, his ears caught the sound of music in the distance; he knew it was coming from a diner across from the pier where his buddy Sal was getting ready to open for breakfast. The sun was rising behind him as he began to prepare himself mentally for the hill. Darkness quickly began to retreat from across the city; it often seemed to Charlie that mornings at the pier were like a veil being removed from the face of someone beautiful, and now, if you looked, you could be enraptured by those same buildings and streets that seemed ominous in the dark just moments earlier.
He laughed as he passed Sal’s diner and saw Sal, a middle-aged Italian guy who ran a 50’s style American diner and blasted old rock songs on the juke box every morning; he was dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT” while pulling chairs off tables. He knew by Sal’s upbeat demeanor that the Giants must have won last night. He waved, and Charlie could read his lips as he yelled “Yo Charlie!” while pointing at the orange Giants logo on his shirt. He smiled and kept running while whispering a prayer for Sal and his business. Soon the music was replaced by the barking of seals on the water. This told him that he was running a bit slowly; usually he was on his way back south by the time the seals were awake. No matter. It only meant he hadn’t wasted his energy on the easier part.
He rounded a corner – he wasn’t even sure which street it was, but it didn’t matter; they all took him up the hill – and started an incline that was gradual at first. Before it got steeper, he reached into the front pocket of his soaked sweatshirt and pressed a button on his mp3 player. Music appeared in his ears. He didn’t listen to it for most of the jog; he never used to run with music at all, but he found it helped motivate him toward the end when he was tired and everything in his body was screaming at him to stop running up that confounded hill, to just walk. He couldn’t admit to himself that he’d come to need the music, come to thrive on the energy and the hope it seemed to bring, because he hated to think of what that meant, hated to think it was nothing more than cleverly fused tones and words which drove him. No. There had to be something more.
The strategy for taking the hill was always the same – take it with force. Charlie had tried in the past to pace himself while running up, but that never worked. The hill would eat you alive if you ran it too timidly, so he always pushed himself to just short of a sprint. Soon he was laboring up the steepest part of his run, and he was silently cursing at an ache in his left shin that was growing in intensity with every footfall. It was becoming a labor just pick up his leg, but he pressed on, trying to find strength for himself in the music. The song he was listening to was slow and methodical – one of the Celtic numbers his wife had turned him onto. It was great to listen to during prayerful times, but horrible to run to. He made a mental note to delete the song from his player, knowing a song like that would kill his motivation. He could see the hill’s apex approaching; it was about six blocks up, but it seemed twice that length as Charlie was practically limping, his brain orchestrating the entire rest of his body in a revolt against his efforts to move past the pain that was shooting through his leg.
Charlie had a fellow missionary friend who often told him he had a bad habit of living beside himself. “There is the Charlie who everybody sees, and there is the Charlie who stands next to him, critiquing every little thing he does, worrying how others see him and how God sees him.” Limping toward the top of the hill, Critical Charlie was starting to talk to Runner Charlie.
[Don’t even think about walking this hill.]
I don’t think I can make it. My shin is killing me!
[Don’t be a baby. You are no kind of man if you walk this hill.]
If I push too hard, this shin splint will keep me from running for a week!
[Now you’re just making excuses! If you don’t push hard, you’re gonna end up a fat drunk like your old man.]
I know, I know.
[You think you’re suffering from a lousy shin splint? That’s not suffering! Think how badly Jesus suffered!]
[Think of all those poor kids on Polk, selling their skin for drugs or food or a place to sleep! You gonna help them when you can’t even make it up one lousy hill without walking? I mean, what are we doing here?]
[Run damnit, run!]
[Do you think you can change anything about this city? Does anything
Pulse pounding so hard in his ears that he could no longer hear the music from his headphones, Charlie crested the hill. It was an awkward, limping sort of run, but he’d made it without walking. Critical Charlie was satisfied for the time being. Either way, he was walking down the other side of the hill. If he ran down the front side, which was longer and steeper than the side he’d just scaled, he wouldn’t be able to stand for a week, much less run. So he walked, drinking in the endorphin-fueled euphoria he’d learned to enjoy so much. He only heard his own heart beat, and time drastically slowed, which was wonderful because all at once everything seemed so good. The air was fresh, and God is good. And the city –
Halfway down Nob Hill, as he limped by the homes of rich people, a door opened, and a raggedly dressed prostitute stumbled out, carrying her shoes because she’d been shoved from the building before she had a chance to put them on. Her over-moussed hair was sticking up and jutting out in all sorts of directions, and her heavy black eye makeup was runny and smeared like she’d been crying. But she didn’t look sad. She just looked really exhausted and a little bit pissed, like the guy in that building must have stiffed her on part of her fee. Charlie figured she and the john must have drugged themselves unconscious the night before, or she wouldn’t be out in the morning like this. Seeing a prostitute at night was depressing as it was, but witnessing this tragic soul pushed out into the morning light was almost too sad to bear, and now he was lamenting the fact that he’d come across her during a run-induced timeless daze, because he knew his mind would engrave her every feature permanently into memory, and his critical self would later use the image to antagonize him with guilt over how little impact his life was making.
Charlie stood still as he and the prostitute locked gazes. She peered at him for a moment with her tired, slightly pissed expression, and then she crossed the street, still carrying her shoes. He wondered what had happened to her that made her desperate enough to live that sort of life. He wondered how long she’d been doing this, and he wondered what would become of her when she was too old and too beat down for anybody to want her anymore. Does anything ever really change?
He continued back down the hill, back into The Tenderloin. He figured when he got home, he would tell his wife about the prostitute. Maybe she would know her name.