This man defies all estimates of age,
And seems to have no name, or need of one.
He shuffles, mute in tongueless tennis shoes,
Army surplus coat, and ragged dungarees.
The scraggly beard and hair so nearly match
His sun-scorched skin, that his cheeks
Trail off into matted fringe that hides his mouth;
Red coals glow with wild light where eyes should be.
With no address, he lives nowhere, everywhere.
He forages The Embarcadero
From China Basin to the Ferry Building.
On good days, the coin-return slots
Of newspaper vending racks can yield
A few quarters that missed the lock boxes.
On good days, the grocery clerk fails to see
The pocket’s bulge, a can of Spam: tallow
For the candles behind his haggard eyes.
On good days, he sleeps in the sun
On a concrete bench, his arms flung wide
As if to embrace a tide that has receded
And left him stranded, mired in a mud flat
Like a worn, discarded tire.
On good days, stockbrokers and analysts
Leave scraps of lunch behind as they return
To their glass castles, having enjoyed the sun
And the fashionable promenade
Of trim sailboats on the blue, carefree bay.
For these slim, pretty girls, and prosperous men,
There is romance in faraway sights
Whose names are crisply spelled on passing ships;
They see the distant mirage, cities of gold
That sparkle beyond the horizon, yet here
The scuttling wharf rat is invisible.
But the bay in not always benign and blue—
In reflecting a darkened sky, it becomes
The gray-green shade of serpentine, the crumbling,
Faulted rock that underlies the nearby hills.
The August breeze that ripples the skirt
Around that girl’s bronzed, untouchable legs,
Tousles her sun-bleached hair, and turns
The smooth sailboat on its majestic wings,
In December can lash the underground man
And drive him to the shadow of a doorway.
There, in wakeful hibernation, he burrows
For hours, waiting for the wind to blow itself out
Before his own dim flame flickers and fails.
One by one, the old wooden piers burn down.
And Progress encroaches on the habitat
Of this rough, scavenging beast
That slouches its way in narrowing circles
Toward a carcass already picked clean.
David Olsen (born 1943)