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Spare Changes in Faith 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2009
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Lately I've been wondering if my strict adherence to atheism is really the correct way to go. There comes a time when logic gets the best of you, and you realize that being sure that there isn't a God is just as foolish as being sure that there is one. Granted, there's a lot more evidence that He doesn't exist (disease, John Wayne Gacy, Dance Your Ass Off). But like most liberal Bay Area middle-class dipshits of a certain age, I've been reading Eastern philosophy. You might remember from a few weeks ago that I've been dabbling in Buddhism. At least with Zen you don't have to actually believe in any deity.

Having scraped that dharma trough dry, I am now moving on to Hinduism. I'm studying Gandhi, to be exact, and his translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita. I won't bore you with the details, but Gandhi believed in an actual God, so I figured he was a good place to start. He believed that "right action" opens you up to this higher power, that if you act nicely to other people, you are beginning on the right track. Granted, he was a Jain, so he wouldn't even pluck fruit from a tree, finding that action too "violent." He took fruit that had already fallen off the branch naturally. He also didn't believe in fashion or any sort of material attachment, so in truth, his way to God will never work with me. But the longest journey begins with just one step, as they say.

I have decided this week to reopen the debate on the Holy Spirit and try to see evidence of this divine being wherever I can. This means trying to see what may have always been there, right in front of me. Including bars, natch. I began by going to a place that I pass just about every day on the way to work, but have never ventured into: Little Joe's on the corner of Fifth and Mission streets.

You've probably seen the bar. It has a sandwich board outside that says "Rain or shine, there's always a line." But there is never, ever a line. Nor are there many customers seated inside, either. If there is a God, then He has in fact given us free will, because Little Joe lies.

I've always chalked this place up as a tourist trap. But I also like-a da people who frequent tourist traps, so I was excited to finally sit myself down at Little Joe's and get a gander at the goings-on.

As I said, I pass this place several times a week, and I also see the same forlorn homeless woman begging out front. She is grizzled and toothless, and slight of frame, and she holds her hand out as if asking for alms. She has a very sad lilt to her voice and always says the same thing, "Can you give me some change? I'm hungry and I want to get something to eat."

The first time you see her, you just want to rescue her. I didn't have any change for her on our first run-in, but she looked so lost that I reached into my bag and pulled out a banana. "Here," I said. I figured Gandhi would happily hand her his banana, but only if it had come from a bunch that had ripened and fallen off the tree already, of course. I got this one in the produce aisle, so technically I hadn't forcefully plucked it from its sacred nest. I held it out to her.

"I don't want that shit," she said, in an entirely different tone from that of the near-death waif who had spoken before. She went from Cicely Tyson in Roots to Shirley Hemphill in What's Happening!! in about 10 seconds. Over time, I have developed resentment toward this woman who always asks for food and then rejects it because she really wants cash.

But on this day, I was looking for evidence of God. So I had to rethink Ms. Hemphill. She was outside Little Joe's, as usual.

I went in and sat at the bar, which is in the very middle of the restaurant yet still manages to blend in with the rest of the nondescript place. I ordered a drink and perused the menu. There were regulars, older working-class men, seated at one end of the room. A man and wife were next to me, tourists who were actually wearing cameras and looking at a map. I thought how cool it would've been if they'd worn San Francisco couples' hats, with a cable car that ran from head to head on a train track sewn into each of them.

The bartender at Little Joe's was a really nice woman, and very efficient. And despite its rather generic ambience, there was something to the place that I liked. You can't judge a book by its cover. Just look at Gandhi.

"Are you guys having a nice trip?" I asked the tourists as they gathered up their stuff to leave. I always make a point of being nice to travelers. I take pride in the fact that we Bay Area people are reputedly friendly. And, if I really think about it, by being nice to people I am inviting God into my life. Cool.

"Oh, we are having a great time, thank you," the woman said. "I can't believe how clean it is here, too," she added.

I had just come from Sixth and Howard streets, where I had gingerly walked around a man who was excreting in a doorway. I suppose this showed on my face, because the tourists seemed shocked at my shock.

"I mean, compared to other places," the woman continued.

I guess she was right. As I said, I need to start seeing things through fresh eyes. One man's Calcutta is another man's, er, San Francisco.

The couple was going to the Metreon, so I pointed them in the right direction. They would have to pass the beggar woman outside on their way, and I wanted to see how they would handle it. As expected, they were uncomfortable and wary. They hadn't yet developed the steely detachment needed to walk through SOMA.

The man fumbled for some change and placed it in Shirley's hand. She mumbled her thanks and quickly moved to the next passerby. She was ignored by most, but tourists felt moved to give her money. If I sat there long enough, I thought, I could really see God working a lot.

I finished my drink and knew the moment of truth would come, when I would have to pass the lady again and blow her off, offer her more (rejected) food, or give her change. It was clear in my head what I was supposed to do, according to the Bhagavad-Gita: Give her money. But then the Bible saying came into my head: "God helps those who help themselves ... to go buy drugs."

Fuck it, I thought. I gave her some coins. She mumbled her thanks with rheumy eyes and chapped lips. "God bless you," she said.

Amen.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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