Noe Valley Voice March 1999

City Song

By Janis Cooke Newman

My 4-year-old son Alex has become transfixed by a Ken doll with an enormous penis in a Castro Street window. Ken is wearing leather chaps, pulled down around his knees to better display his frightening endowment.

"Look, Mommy," Alex says, "a cowboy." And I wonder what the cowboys of my childhood -- Roy Rogers, John Wayne -- would have made of this particular rider of the range. I also wonder if we've made a mistake.

My husband and I have just moved from the Marin town of Corte Madera to a hundred-year-old house that straddles the hill between the Castro and Noe Valley. We missed the city, we told our friends. Missed being able to walk places. Missed having someplace to walk to. And besides, we said, growing up in the city will be good for Alex.

But now, watching him examine a video called "Rosebud," which features an excessively good-looking man in a leather thong, I'm not so sure.

We leave the window, and Alex and I walk up to Market Street, where we climb aboard an old restored trolley. The trolley, painted silver and cream, is named Philadelphia. We sit in the back, and Alex pretends to be driving. I look out the small round windows that make me think of the 1940s and of ladies who wouldn't dream of going downtown without hats and gloves.

Alex practically wriggles off the seat with delight every time he catches the trolley's pale reflection in the shop windows on Market Street, and I think that perhaps we were right to give him this city life.

On the return trip, a man in a Motley Crue baseball cap takes the seat two rows in front of us. Turning to the woman behind him, he removes his upper teeth. "I feel much better," he says, absently shaking spit from the teeth, "since I added Chinese herbs to my medication."

Next to me, Alex stares with his mouth open, his tongue pushing experimentally on his square baby teeth.

After the trolley ride, we walk to the Mission. There, we poke around shops that sell plastic boxes painted with scenes of the Last Supper and glass clocks with flashing images of the Virgin Mary. In one store, Alex begs for a piñata of a sombrero-wearing burro, while above him pale pink and yellow communion dresses hang from the ceiling like stiff flowers.

The sidewalk with its blue tiled border is crowded with people: intense 20-somethings dressed in layers of black, children with dark eyes and extravagant lashes singing something in Spanish, shoppers weaving around a man nestled in a cardboard box to stay out of the wind. Alex is intent on all of this, and I'm thinking of the day when he will learn to sing in Spanish, when he will sit in cafes and furiously write in little notebooks.

At the bricked plaza near the BART station at Mission and 24th, we pass a man who lies crumpled on the ground. He is wearing polyester pants and a brown vinyl jacket, his black hair is wet and combed. He looks confused, baffled as to how he wound up too drunk to stand in the middle of the day.

"Are that man's legs tired?" Alex asks, perhaps thinking of the times he has sat on the ground just to rest.

"I think maybe he's sick," I tell him.

"Why doesn't he go to the doctor?" he says.

And as we head back to Noe Valley, I realize that this is what has been making me lie awake at night under my hundred-year-old ceiling with the crack in it -- all the things I won't be able to protect Alex from in this city. Some are sad, like the big sweet-voiced man who sings outside the 24th Street Real Foods, holding out a styrofoam cup and standing on bandaged feet. Some are more threatening, like the used hypodermic needles that parents have found near where the tricycles are kept at Alex's new preschool.

When I think of these things, I wonder if we should have stayed in Marin. In Marin, it was easier to protect Alex. I'd put him in the car, lock his five-point restraining seat, and drive him from the playground to the mall to the grocery store -- places where everybody looked and acted exactly like we did.

But if we'd stayed in Marin, Alex might not have known that there are all kinds of people in the world. People who find it encouraging to look at the Madonna when checking the time. People who have to live on the money they collect in the bottom of a styrofoam cup. People who, like the Ken doll on Castro Street, fall in love with people made the same way they are.

I grew up in a suburb. A small New Jersey town where the air smelled of coffee from the Savarin plant and everybody looked like me. On Sundays, my father would take us driving in New York City. Sometimes, we'd travel the length of Bowery, a wide gray street lined with empty liquor bottles and the men who had emptied them. I would lock the doors against these men-- men who barely had the energy to shamble over to our windshield with a dirty rag. If one of them had stepped in front of our car or tried to block our way, I would have shouted at my father to keep driving.

It is easier to fear what you don't know. And easier to hate what you fear. This is what I tell myself when I wake at night, worried about having taken my son away from the relative safety of Marin County. If Alex grows up in the city, there may be less chance of his becoming the kind of person who tells racist jokes, who can walk by a styrofoam cup and keep his hands in his pockets, who would hurt someone because they are gay.

On 24th Street, Alex and I stop for hot chocolate at Martha's Coffee, where a man dressed only in a gold lamé loincloth and high heels is playing the violin. The man is singing. The music is eerily beautiful, like opera in a language no one has spoken before. The notes hang in the cold air above the people drinking their cappuccinos. From time to time, the man leaps about on the sidewalk, and the tall red feather stuck in his hair bobs up and down like the feather on a quail's head.

Watching the man dance, Alex climbs into the stroller that's getting too small for him. Slipping his fingers into his mouth, he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep.

Janis Cooke Newman is a writer and ex-Marinite who now lives on Liberty Street. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Country Living, and Sesame Street Parents Magazine. She is currently working on a memoir about her son's adoption from a Russian orphanage.