On the Streets of San Francisco with Monsieur Henry: A Life Lesson


By Bernie Lee

Just off of Union Square in downtown San Francisco is Maiden Lane. It’s a small street…well, it’s more like an alley, and it’s filled with hoity-toity little shops, boutiques, and restaurants. It’s only about two blocks long and it’s quite beautiful.

The only problem with Maiden Lane is that when the wind whips up in San Francisco, which it does practically every afternoon, Maiden Lane becomes a wind tunnel. And on this particular Saturday afternoon, on an otherwise warm day in San Francisco, I was helping my artist friend tend to his booth for the Maiden Lane Art Festival: dozens of painters, photographers, crafters and sculptors displaying their wares in the middle of this quaint little street.

On this particular Saturday afternoon I was sitting next to Monsieur Henry, a rather abrasive, verbose, foul mouthed, rude, and very funny Frenchman, who also happened to be a painter. We were enjoying the fine art of people watching and I was being highly amused with his crude banter. Shoppers were perusing the Marc Jacobs shops, the tiny coffee shops, and the art set out for them in the middle of the street.

Henry offered his oh-so terribly astute opinions on the upper crust of the fabulous city by the bay. “You American’s. You are so entitled and snotty.” I laughed. Never having been to France, but fully aware of ITS reputation, I found his observations quite hilarious.

It wasn’t too long before we started feeling the breeze. It was knocking some of his artwork off the displays; it was ruffling some of the awnings along the streets; it was messing up the ladies’ hair. Little gusts would hit us and we would scramble to make sure we didn’t lose any valuable merchandise. That’s when we first noticed the little crowd gathering.

We saw a few people huddled together with a common cause. They were looking down at the street but they were a little ways from where we were sitting. First there were four of them…then seven…then there were a dozen people all clamoring for something on the ground. Henry stood up to see what was so interesting that everybody was willing to drop their lattes. We both moved toward the commotion.

On the ground was a pigeon attempting to take flight. It would jump up as if it was trying out its new wings. It would get a foot off the ground then come back down. Two feet off the ground. It was running in circles and in figure eights, weaving through the art displays and through the crowd. The reason it couldn’t take flight was that it had the handle of a plastic grocery back wrapped around one of its wings that was acting as a parachute and prevented it from liftoff. And now it was truly panicked because there were a dozen people chasing after it. It was probably scared to death.

Finally, someone caught up with the poor pigeon and was able to remove the grocery bag from its wing and the bird soared off into the San Francisco sky. Henry and I sat down. The crowd of Maiden Lane do-gooders went back to their afternoon tea, congratulating each other on what fine work they had done.

Henry turned to me with even more disgust. “Ya know, monsieur,” he said, “in this city, there are streets lined with people laying on the sidewalk. You can walk down some streets and the entire block is filled with sleeping bags, blankets, make shift dwellings. People who walk on those streets will step over these people. People will walk INTO the street to AVOID these people. They won’t even make eye contact with them.” He took a sip of his coffee and looked around as if he didn’t want to be heard. “But…a PIGEON…that cannot fly…” He rolled his eyes and grunted.

About the author

When he’s not stacking apples, dusting wine bottles, or playing with the melons at the local market (his day job), Bernie Lee is planning his next big adventure…or writing about the last one. His blog is a collection of essays, short stories, and observations from a life on the road. From the California coast to the Big Apple and everywhere in between.

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