An Empty Chair

Travel Flashback:

It was my first night in San Francisco. I was a bit timid about entering any restaurant. But an Italian Family Restaurant sounded unpretentious and delicious. Inside, I learned there was a thirty-minute wait. Now what? I saw a man at a clean table with a spare chair. He had a glass of wine. I walked over and quietly asked, “May I join you?” He warmly pushed back the chair and nodded in slight amusement. I sat down like I had meant to sit there all along. Thirty years later, I still remember.

Mike was well spoken and put me at ease right away. I told him this was my first night in the city and I was hoping I had picked a good place to eat. He assured, “I’ve come here many times before.” Mike asked me where I was from and what had brought me to San Francisco. I told him I was on vacation from Boston and had wanted to visit since second grade, when I had made a shoebox panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. Through my questions, I learned he was in his 30s, of Chinese American heritage, and a civil engineer. (We were blocks away from the country’s largest Chinatown, but I didn’t know that then.)

I told him how this was my first trip to the west coast and gushed, “I can’t believe I touched the Pacific Ocean today.” Mike said he had been born and raised in San Francisco; he added wistfully, “The City has lost its soul in these last ten years.” Mike related that, like many San Franciscans, he had moved to the northern coastal states to get away from the commercialism overtaking California. He was living and working in Seattle now but had returned for a visit. Mike bemoaned that this commercialism now was starting to creep north.

I told Mike, “Thus far, I’m impressed with San Francisco.” I recounted how earlier that day, I had walked on the baseball field where Joe DiMaggio had played ball as a kid. I asked him, “Since you’re a local, what should I definitely not miss seeing? He listed some of the sights already on my list. Then I asked about the changes he had seen in the city, and he fondly described the San Francisco of his youth. I enjoyed listening to his nostalgic talk. Then I asked about his work. While soft spoken, Mike was passionate about his conservation work in Seattle. He believed we needed to foster a better awareness of how our actions impact the earth. I noted, “In Legal Services, you get to know about land impact when a tree falls and nobody wants to pick it up.” I think we both enjoyed the conversation.

Our meal was coming to a close. He was looking at his watch, getting ready to catch the last train back to Seattle that evening. I thanked him for sharing his table and started readying to leave too, and quipped, “I want to reach my hotel before it gets much darker.” He looked at me quizzically. I explained, “Triple A rated it a double star hotel, but the neighborhood is a bit scary.” Mike asked, “Where again are you staying?” I told him. He shook his head, “That isn’t a good neighborhood.” He recommended I stay elsewhere. I promised to consider his advice and urged him on, “Go ahead. Don’t miss your train.”

When I left the restaurant, Mike was waiting outside the door. He told me he would feel better walking with me to my hotel. “It’s not in the best neighborhood,” he repeated. I asked, “Are you sure?” He answered, “Are you ready?” We quickly walked toward my hotel. Ten minutes later, with just two blocks to go, the sidewalks became an obstacle course of broken glass; we walked by groups of people sitting on the sidewalk and scenes of violent bickering. We plowed on and didn’t talk much. I was hoping he wasn’t going to miss his train.

Once inside the hotel door, I took his hand and promised, “I will find another place to stay. Thank you.” Mike smiled slightly and nodded, then quickly left. I peered through the lobby window and watched him running down the sidewalk. Though grateful not to have walked through that urban war zone on my own, I agonized that he might miss his train.

That night, I went through the Yellow Pages looking for alternate lodging until I found a vacancy I could afford.

I still remember jumping the line to join this kind man, who was sitting at a restaurant table across from an empty chair. I still like visiting San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge

TATTOO—Journeys on My Mind by Tina Marie L. Lamb is available at Amazon and BarnesandNoble and iBooks and Audible.

Buy it. Read it. Let me know what you think. –TMLL

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