The Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion

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Back in 1976 when I first became homeless I used to hang out at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion with my crazy friend Fearless Frank. We used to eat lunch at St. Anthony’s Dining Hall with the other bums, then we’d walk a couple blocks to 5th and Market and hang out at the pavilion and watch the world go by.

There weren’t too many homeless street people in San Francisco back then. Believe it or not. And most of them got herded off to the couple blocks of skid row on 6th St. and the Tenderloin. So me and Fearless Frank stood out a bit as we sat there on a bench in our rags. Amidst the tourists waiting for the cable cars, and the business people from the financial district, and the rich people shopping at Union Square.

We were an odd pair, me and Fearless Frank. Because we didn’t have much in common. I was 19, he was 30. I was straight, he was gay. I was an acidhead and he was an alkie. But for whatever reason, we both hit it off. I think because we were both damaged. Even as Frank had given up on life and was going down. While i was still fighting to make something of my life and trying to pull myself up. But at that particular juncture we both intersected at the same level of damage. And that bonded us.

And we both had a weird, gallow’s humor, sense of humor about our plights. Both considered life to be absurd and ridiculous, and we could laugh about it, even when the joke was on us. We used to say:

“Would you like to adjourn to our luxury suite at the Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion?”

“Why surely. That strikes me as a simply marvelous and splendid idea.”

And we’d sit there on the bench — it was sort of like a balcony looking down on the plaza below —  like we had box seats to the latest grand opera. We’d watch all the people rush by. Talk about our lives. Gossip about the latest freaky scenes on the street scene. Just killing time basically. And we had plenty of that.

And it was an odd juxtaposition. Two bums at the bottom of San Francisco’s society sitting at a pavilion named after one of the richest movers-and-shakers at the top of San Francisco’s society. And it was like an inside joke between us how we’d always refer to it by its full name — “THE Benjamin H. Swig Pavilion” — in this very regal and stuffy tone. We’d imagine ourselves holding little umbrellas over our heads like uppercrust snobs, sipping on mint julips.

Life seemed so different to me back then at age 19. Like my life was mostly a blank canvas, with an endless expanse of time to fill it. As opposed to now at age 61, where the picture has mostly been painted, aside from little embellishments on the sides.

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