Most nights there’s an old man standing downtown at the corner of Eardley and Franklin under the warm yellow light. His grey hair peeps out from under the brim of a brown felt hat that’s cocked a little to the right. Every so often he turns and looks out over the coursing crowds with a face full of expectance. He never finds who or what he’s looking for and always settles back into his grandfatherly slouch, his withered hands tucked delicately into his pockets.
If the air is brisk, and the cold city wind whips through the winding streets, he’ll stamp his feet and shiver in his faded tweed coat, light a lonely cigarette and throw it under his stamping feet when it finally burns out. The smoke seems to settle around him, like loneliness hanging in the air, and stays long after he leaves for the night.
On the weekends, when voices fill the air and the cold city lights are dimmed by gaiety, he might venture a few unsteady steps into the crowd. He’s hesitant at first, as if he’s scared the flowing traffic of life will drag him away from his corner and he’ll drift into darkness, but when he realizes no one has noticed him, he’ll boldly limp out a bit further – an anachronistic island in a river of modern fashion.
Before Annie died, we’d watch him from the fire escape of our third-floor apartment, catty corner to him, and speculate wildly in whispers, scared that he might actually hear us. We named him Cole, after our handsome tabby cat, and stitched and wove together a patchwork story of Cole’s life.
He was born in the city during the wartime forties to Irish immigrant parents and spent his youth getting chased out of Chinatown’s markets for stealing live chickens with his friends and pick-pocketing tourists on the piers and wharfs that lunged out into the bay. When he was eight, he’d broken his left leg at the bottom of California Street after a downhill bike race, but at least he had won. Every Saint Patrick’s Day, he and his best friend Mack would find themselves a pinch of alcohol and run through the floats parading down Market Street. On his thirteenth birthday, he and Mack swam to Alcatraz, snuck in through the laundry bay and met Machine Gun Kelly, spent the night in Al Capone’s cell, watched The Birdman stab another inmate, and swam back the following day.
Cole and Mack must’ve been a bit turned off by the Alcatraz crowd, because they both started studying and wound up across the bay at Berkeley. Following their graduation, they were both drafted into the US Army and because of Cole’s uneven height from his broken leg and Mack’s flat feet they were packaged in the 18th Engineers and shipped over to Vietnam. Five months later, their helicopter was shot down near Ninh Hoa and Cole spent three weeks steaming in the 9th Field Hospital in Nha Trang before being sent home, alone. Cole’s parents received his Purple Heart and Mack’s parents received a phone call, a gratuity check, and a folded flag.
Following his honorable discharge from the army, Cole returned to San Francisco in the balmy heat of the summer of love where he fell for a girl with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair. Her name was Sarah, and they spent the first few years of their love wandering the golden parks and sun-filled streets of Haight-Ashbury. When the drugs wore off and the hippies moved on, they decided to get married at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, and it was a grand affair what with two boisterous Irish immigrant families and all their friends and neighbors and the rest of the Irish quarter in attendance.
Every day after work they’d meet at the corner of Sutter and Jones, she with a charming Irish smile and a flower in her brown hair, he with the hat dipped to the side like his army beret, whistling cheerfully, rocking back and forth on heels in excitement in seeing his Sarah again. We never decided what happened to Sarah, why she never met him there – secretly we’d hoped she had died rather than left him for someone else. Now, in his old age, with the fingers of dementia slowly prying apart his mind and poisoning his memory, he’d forgotten her death and resumed his dutiful waiting.
After Annie died, I hoped that Sarah hadn’t. That, instead, she’d run away with someone else, or hadn’t ever existed at all. Otherwise, in forty years or so, you’ll see me shuffling down the sidewalk toward Dolores Park with nothing but a ghost and pocketful of memories. But I guess I wouldn’t mind that, as long as I thought Annie was going to meet me there.