I was at Burrito Project the other day, a non-profit that gathers volunteers at Martin de Porres house of hospitality on the last Monday of each month to assemble and deliver burritos to the homeless or merely house-less.
As it’s my first time delivering burritos, the coordinators pair me with a veteran. Mine has longish brown hair that weaves its way down to just above the scarf wrapped jauntily around his nape, a knowing smile and a few more years than myself. Ken’s his name.
There’s people delivering on foot, and bicyclists like Ken and myself. We’re the last to get to the burrito supply, and what’s left seems so puny in comparison with our massive carrying capacity that Ken decides to go sweet talk someone at the end of the assembly line. He returns victorious, with a full box of hot foil-wrapped love capsules.
We get rolling as the sun is setting. Ken leading the way, we cross the rush hour traffic on Potrero Avenue more daringly than I would have on my own. We’re heading to the “hairball”, the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Bayshore Freeway, where homeless encampments clog the pedestrian pathways.
“How long have you lived here?” Ken inquires, once we’re safely in the southbound bike lane. San Francisco is constantly reinventing itself, and you can infer, or assume, a lot about a person by what stage of the evolution welcomed them.
“Four years” I said. Turns out he’s resided here eight times longer than that, as long as I’ve been alive. And that he has to be more careful on his bike these days because the city has become so congested with street traffic.
“And what brought you here?” I tell him about visiting San Francisco on a trip while in college and felt an affinity to the place. Years later, after leaving a job, it seemed like as good a time as any to make the move. He’s glad to hear that people continue to move here out of a love of place. I don’t say that in that first several months I had a lot of mixed feelings, that the grime and stress and overwhelm drove me away. But the city had gotten into my bones, the way wild yeast gets in to sourdough, and I came running back. This place inspires me to make great art, write poems, and attempt other things I can’t do. I didn’t share any of this, but the important thing, a shared love, had been recognized.
When it comes to Ken’s story, the cover did not mislead. He left New Jersey with Hollywood aspirations, took a detour through San Francisco and didn’t make it to Los Angeles until twenty years later. He now makes documentary films about mental health from a perspective known as radical psychology. Rather than pathologize emotional distress, the radical mental health movement considers madness largely as a reflection of a social condition, he explained. He also works as an Arts and Exhibition Preparator in a workshop for adults with developmental disabilities called, Creativity Explored.
We arrive at the hairball to find that the people living there had been “resolved” by SFPD, something a majority of legal residents voted in favor of but probably wouldn’t carry out themselves. As it turns out, there’s still a few of them huddled together in a cove created by the transportation infrastructure. You might think they looked threatening if you were just passing through in the shadowy night, but up close, with faces lit up by some foil-wrapped nourishment, I can’t help but feel some kinship. We rode on and pretty soon I spotted a tent by the athletic fields.
Lately I’ve been taking pains to be more aware of my surroundings, to see what’s actually there rather than what I’ve been conditioned to see by past experiences, to relish and be grateful for all that I have. Altruistic actions like Burrito Project are a good opportunity for that. Improving the powers of perception improves creativity as well as the ability to perform magic, the real kind. It’s part of a thesis I’ve been meditating on lately, the coalescence of a diverse bibliography: The Artist’s Way, Bacteria to Bach and Back, Siddhartha etc. I believe I’m not alone in my need for this kind of magic.
“Hot burritos! Anyone in there hungry?” I say in the most non-threatening voice I could muster. A man’s head emerges, there’s a woman behind him.
“What is this? Oh my gawd yes!” I hand them both burritos.
“And what do you do?” Ken asks once we’re rolling again. I feel apprehensive. Seems there’s a severe allergy to technology professions that afflicts a lot of non-tech people in San Francisco, and not without reason. I guess it was thanks to our common appreciation for San Francisco that he didn’t write me off when I told him that I’m part of an internet startup. I could tell from his questions that he’s definitely outside the tech bubble, and probably doesn’t even watch Silicon Valley.
“But” I say, “I’m going to leave soon. I just can’t bring myself to focus on it anymore. I still like coding,” I explain, “but my ideal arrangement wouldn’t have me doing it full-time. I —“
“I sense there’s a dream percolating there.” I’m glad for the interruption. I needed a second to gather my thoughts. Actually, I’m still meditating on that one. He’s right, though.
“I’ve always had an artistic side.” I said, starting with what I’m most certain about. Ken was audibly pleased with that answer.
“I have a theory that the weather and landscape here fosters creativity. The weather is so strange and unpredictable, creating a sense of instability, which the hills and mountains contribute to…” We dismount as we approach another tent.
“It keeps things from getting routine.” I offer. I read somewhere that one of the necessary conditions for creativity is just enough random noise in the environment that helps the creative generate ideas, but not so much that they can’t actually get any work done.
We come across several people living by the factory at 16th and Van Ness. One of them wants two burritos, then another, then another. He says they’re for so-and-so. Then he wants two more for some other buddies. We give them to him, asking him to just not let them go to waste.
The next group we come across seems to have re-created a living room on the sidewalk by a boarded-up building. They’re wishy washy about the offer of burritos. One of them asks if they’re vegetarian.
“Yep!” I said.
“Well I’m a meat eater. No thanks.” The others seem to follow his lead.
We get back to Martin de Porres as the operation is shutting down. Ken goes to give some feedback to the coordinators about how to better handle the migrations of the homeless population. I get talking to someone else who says we gave out 530 burritos.
It’s curious how sometimes you’re looking for something, and then when you’re not, it appears. During the ride Ken was telling me about how there’s still a thriving arts community here, despite the rampant gentrification. As we’re saying goodbye I ask Ken about his latest film Whisper Rapture, a music and mental health doc-opera about cellist-vocalist, Bonfire Madigan Shive and he informs me of a lot of other interesting things to check out, such as a meditation society founded by x-punk rockers, and how to be privy to local artists’ open studios. I haven’t quite figured out what I want to be when I grow up, but I at least have some things I’m excited to explore.
On my ride to Burrito Project I noticed a van on the side of the road by a discount grocery store. It was advertising tamales, $2 each. Now that all the burritos are gone, I need to feed myself, so I track down that van. It seems like a husband and wife team. Strong Latin American accents, but I can understand just fine. I get the impression they don’t see many customers who look like me. I order one pork and one beef. They were delicious.