Thursday, January 27, 2011

Leaning Man and the German Tourist

I called him Leaning Man. A few people knew his real name, but I wanted none of it. To me, he was Leaning Man, not Bob, Muhammad or Esteban. Just Leaning Man!

He did most of his leaning in the spring and summer and concentrated most of the leans in front of his apartment or next to the Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, I once saw him leaning at 6th and Market Street. Seeing him there, out of context, got me interested in him. Some would say obsessed.

I informed my co-workers, who had offices on the west side of the building, to be on the lookout for Leaning Man. They knew me and my eccentricities and would usually indulge my rich fantasy life. This was no different.

Before long, I started receiving calls: “Greg, Leaning Man is out front.” After a while, people worked in their own vernacular into the call: “Greg, Leaning Man is getting his lean on.” Sometimes I would get people on their cells: “Greg, I’m over by KFC and Leaning Man’s at the bus stop.”

I would run to the west side of the building and watch Leaning Man strike his classic poses: right elbow resting on a parking meter with right leg slightly bent, crossing in front of his left leg or leaning against a wall with his right leg bent, resting against the wall. I called the latter the Marlboro Man.

After a while, I tried getting close to Leaning Man. I’d get the call, grab my camera and discretely walk across the street, where Leaning Man was leaning. Out of respect, I’d keep my distance, but I tried leaning too. He would notice me and move on. After a few months of observation, I learned that Leaning Man didn’t like people milling around his leaning area. He would get anxious and move on. I would later understand this.

Eventually the lean craze died down and I replaced him with a new distraction - the dysfunctional, chaotic customers of Subway. Subway was about 20 yards from Leaning Man’s favorite leaning spot, so many days I would see him out for a fresh lean when going to get a sandwich.

One day, after getting my usual - 6” turkey on whole wheat – I walked around the neighborhood, looking for a stretch of sidewalk that received direct sunlight. We were going through a cold spell and I wanted a little natural warmth.

Kitty corner to the Subway was the Civic Center Inn. I crossed the street and leaned against the waist high metal grate fence that surrounded the parking lot. After about 5 minutes I grew bored and returned to work.

I repeated this process for a few days, hoping to last a little longer than 5 minutes. Eventually, I grew more accustomed to the boredom, counteracting it by counting the number of cars between red lights. However, the metal grate fence never worked for me. It was at an awkward height and the grating made it uncomfortable. I decided to sit on the fire hydrant that was directly in front of me.

The hydrant was way more comfortable, but it had its own problems. When I leaned against the grating, people tended to leave me alone; the hydrant, though, was an invitation to a party. Who knew the subtle change of scenery would be so drastic?

Like Leaning Man, I didn’t appreciate people in my area. Even though I wasn’t leaning - I was sitting – I felt domain to the corner. Maybe I didn’t notice it before, but everybody was now hovering around me: the kids from Larkin Street Youth Center, dealers asking me if I was ok and a user inquiring if I was holding. The latter received an indignant glance with a side of anger.

I told my friend at work about my problems and that the kids and users were driving me back to the grated fence. I also expressed empathy for Leaning Man.

On my first day back on the grated fence at the Civic Center Inn, I encountered a German tourist named Franz. In his early 20s and round faced, he was holding a map of San Francisco.

“Do you know where the Tenderloin area is?” he asked.

My first response: “You asked the right person.” I loved giving direction. If I were rich and didn’t have to work, I’d set up at table at the Cable Car turnaround at Market and Powell with a sign that said: “Free Directions (and advice).” That’s how much I love giving directions, especially to tourists. It makes me feel like an ambassador of San Francisco.

Thinking he was going to a specific place in the Tenderloin, I replied, “Where are you going in the Tenderloin? Do you have an address?”

We went back and forth on this issue. His English was adequate, but I had no idea where he wanted to go - somewhere in the Tenderloin, that’s it.

Finally, he said: “I don’t want to go to the Tenderloin, I don’t want to get shot.”

Ahh, now it all made sense. A few months prior, a German tourist was shot and killed on Mason Street. It was big news in SF and I’m sure even bigger news in Germany - another story of American violence that scares the shit out of foreign tourists. But they still keep coming.

I felt bad for him. Obliging his original request, I showed him the Tenderloin, taking my hand and spinning it 360 degrees.

He said, “I hear you get shot in West and South Oakland.” Not correcting the South Oakland mistake, I tried my best to explain violence in America, being as gentle as possible. Finally I blurted, “I live Oakland, I’m 47 and I haven’t’ been shot.” It was concise and easy to understand.

As simple as it was, he responded to it. I could tell he thought I was some American badass, since I lived in Oakland. I did nothing to dissuade his opinion. I enjoyed my new status.

With both of us feeling empowered, I said, “Listen, the Tenderloin is full of career drug users looking to score drugs. There’s not a lot gang kids down there. If you’re not buying drugs and it’s not dark, you should be fine. Hold your head high and walk with authority.”

We shook hands and parted ways. He stomped off at a good clip down Ellis Street, on his was to downtown.

I was proud of him and proud of San Francisco.


  1. This was awesome. I love it.
    Now please go vote for modern kiddo at the homies. I'll let you lean all saturday morning.....

  2. I love the Leaning Man story. It made me remember "funny shoes man" from my old neighborhood. I think I may go drive around central Phoenix and see if I can find him again.