Nighttime in the Lonely City: A photo essay

(All photos by the author, from her 7th floor balcony across the street)

A city dweller is alarmed by the terrible sounds drifting into her window. Dark, guttural cries. No words, just frightened, frightening cries. They seem to be coming from below ground, probably the stairs that go from the sidewalk to an entry into the garage of the building across the street, below her seventh-floor balcony.

Finally, the watcher calls 311. 311 is unquestionably the best thing the City of San Francisco has going for it. An actual, real person answers your call, and sends it to the appropriate other real person. “Someone’s in distress,” says the caller, watching (and holding the phone out) from the balcony window. “It’s been going on for some time and I’m worried about him.” Within minutes a red van and a white car quietly approach.

Four men get out of the van. They begin talking in soft voices to the stranger in distress. The watcher only picks up occasional words, but it’s clear they are trying to talk him into coming up. He’s no longer shouting.

Eventually, a forlorn figure emerges from below. The would-be rescuers gather around him, keeping far enough away that he won’t be frightened further. For 10 or 15 minutes they plead with him to let them take him somewhere for shelter, perhaps medical attention. He is having none of it.

Finally the figure shuffles off into the darkness, into the streets of the city which are, the watcher suspects, his only familiar. The red van and the white car drive away. The watcher goes back inside her warm apartment, feeling grateful for her city’s resources, but sorrowful for humankind.