Arrival in San Francisco, 1989

On the first day I arrived in San Francisco, I wandered down to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I bought a sandwich, and sat on a bench with my book, reading, eating it and enjoying the salt air. A small black man, ragged, seemingly homeless, approached me, and asked for my sandwich. Which I refused to give him. So he started shouting, at the top of his lungs, “RACIST! RACIST” and all the tourists waiting on line to catch the boat to Alcatraz stared at me angrily, racist that I was. He wouldn’t stop, so I walked briskly away, and he continued following me, screaming “RACIST! RACIST!”, until I started running and ran up a hill and finally lost him and settled in at a nearby cafe where I had a cup of tea and caught my breath.
As I was sitting there, addled by this distressing experience, and trying to calm down, a man came up to me and without preamble said:

If you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
A soft bodied dog, a hen­­––
feathers and fur to begin it again.
When the sun goes down and it gets dark
I saw an animal in a park.
Bring it home, to give it to you.
I have seen animals break in two.
You were hoping for something soft
and loyal and clean and wondrously careful­­––
a form of otherwise vicious habit
 can have long ears and be called a rabbit.
Dead. Died. Will die. Want.
Morning, midnight. I asked you
if you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.

And then smiled, bowed, and left the café. What an extraordinary city, I said to myself, and looked out the window into the overcast sky, a sky I would come to know so well. And I tried for a long while to find the poem, which I did, finally. It turned out to be by Robert Creeley, a poet from San Francisco and environs, and it was called If You.

I know it by heart now, and it was difficult to fathom. What was so unsettling about it? Why was it so rich in meaning?  It starts off so innocently, like a question by a grandmother to a child: the world is gentle and kind, and in order, and in the world are pets, so dear to us, and one can choose one as a friend. Suddenly you’re presented with a hen, which is not a pet at all–disconcerting–and then the author tells of animals breaking in two. Pets are animals, after all, and what is an animal? Hoping is introduced, and it fails by force of vicious rabbit. Death comes, finally, in all its forms, but then–the bliss of returning safely to the question again–a recovered innocence, and back again to the safety of being able to choose, and not have things happen to you.

Oh it is a magnificent poem. I was profoundly struck by it then, and every time I think of it. What a gift the stranger gave me, my first strange day in San Francisco.
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