The sign always said “Smile,” and whenever I passed him on the corner of Market and Mason, I thought it was the least I could do to do what he asked, but it’s a sad thing to smile at the same man sitting on the same corner each day when you know that what he really needs is a lot more than that, so for a while what I would do was act like I didn’t live three blocks away, like I didn’t see him each day, and like maybe he didn’t remember me. I would act like I was just a guy walking down Market, seeing him and his sign for the first time, so that my smile would look like a spontaneous one. Of course that was no good because halfway past Taylor I would always remember that I was going to see him in half a block, and then I would be thinking about what to do with my face in order to lead up to a spontaneous smile. A couple of times I frowned for half a block to give more contrast to my smile when I saw him, but that felt very foolish, and I thought that if he didn’t recognize me before, he was surely going to recognize me now as the guy who went from a deep frown to a sudden smile each time I saw him.
What I liked about him was that he never smiled. He had a serious look to him and it made his decision to write ”Smile” on his cardboard sign, as his chief communication to the world, seem like a serious one. It came from a concerted effort towards the question of what he wanted from the world and what the world could give him. Certainly he could write something on cardboard asking for spare change, like other men and women along Market Street and up Powell did. He seemed like too much of a poet for that, like coming out and asking for spare change was fine–it expressed a need, simply and directly, maybe a bit like a billboard advertisement–but it didn’t do justice to the moment of sitting with a writing instrument in your hand and a canvas on which to use it. To use that moment to ask for what you needed directly wasn’t what that moment was for. It was a heart-baring moment for him, and the seriousness on his face as he held his sign always looked to me like a commitment to the idea that heart-baring moments were the real need.
There was something a writer could learn from that. To get at the thing sideways, at an angle. To let the reader be the one making the important realizations. Once I was coming from the other direction and I saw someone put a dollar in his cup without smiling. He nodded in appreciation and pointed at his sign. All without any smiling on his part. It was the same way with writing: You could come out and say the thing directly, the same thing that any story was trying to say, namely that this was the place. While we were alive, this was the place for us to live. Or you could write in a way to let the reader discover that, while acting like you were hardly trying to say that at all. Everybody could still know you were trying to say it, just like everybody knew the fellow at Market and Mason was asking for a dollar. But what you gave to the world still mattered, and could stand on its own.
I’d see him when I was coming home in the evening sometimes and I would see the same resolve on his face that he had in the mornings, only a little wearier. That is how I want to look after writing, I thought, like I’m still carrying the story with me out to the world, like I’m still carrying anything decent and good about the story out with me. It made a lot of sense then that he held a sign that said, ”Smile” without smiling himself all day. He knew it took work. He knew it took work to mean it, and what was the point of writing something if you weren’t going to mean it?
The morning that I saw him at his usual spot, only surrounded by three cops, I knew that somebody had misunderstood his resolve, the way that it seems like somebody always eventually misunderstands resolve, believing it to be bitterness or aggression or something else that might somehow interrupt public safety. The cops stood around him very easily and casually in the bright morning sun of San Francisco, with that look you see sometimes downtown as though the cops were saying that only a cop truly understands San Francisco, only a cop really knows what its downtown streets are made of, how eternal its grit and smoke and morning air are. They look like they are thinking that only cops are the real poets of the city because of how intimately they know it. It was a look I hated but also had a hard time arguing with somehow. It was more common in older cops but you’d see the younger ones look at them and take it on in imitation. That was how the three cops–two of whom were older–were standing around the fellow at Market and Mason that morning, and a small crowd was forming around them.
I asked somebody what what was going on and he said it was something about the fellow’s sign, and that’s when I felt something in my blood, because his sign meant a great deal to me, and I knew I could do something that could get myself hurt, so I took a deep breath before pushing through the crowd, and I made sure to approach one of the older cops, whose ease and casualness about the morning streets downtown looked genuine and not imitative, and I felt my own resolve as I asked him, “What the hell is wrong with his sign?”
He smiled and looked at me like a young kid getting worked up about a bum on Market Street was one more expected part of the San Francisco he knew.
“You can’t say something like that,” he said, calmly explaining the world to me.
He pointed at the man and I saw that that day he’d written, underneath the word “Smile,” “I could be asking with a gun.”
I knew what he meant. He meant he could, but he wasn’t. That was the only way to read it.
“He’s right,” I said to the cop.
“You can’t just say a thing like that,” he said, still calm.
“He’s saying he could, but he isn’t,” I said. “You can’t arrest him for saying what he isn’t going to do.”
The man with the sign looked at me. He seemed to know he had a good reader in me.
“Nobody’s getting arrested,” the cop said. “We’re just talking.”
I wanted to explain to him that of course somebody who shows up day after day with a sign that just says ”Smile” and who doesn’t smile himself has had to decide to do that, and that that decision includes deciding not to do a whole range of other things, one of which would certainly be to do his asking with a gun. I wanted to say that, but saying it would be a case of taking somebody else’s writing and spelling it out for other readers, and you ruined a piece of writing when you did that, and the older cop seemed to have enough of a philosophical outlook on the morning and on the city that he might come around to that interpretation of the man’s writing on his own, at least enough to just ask him to make some edits and then leave him alone, which didn’t do anything to answer the question of why a man should sit on Market Street in the morning with a sign asking people to smile, but within the confines of the day, it was a literary way to go about handling the whole thing.
I looked at the sign again. It looked the same to me as before he’d ever put that part about the gun. I didn’t think anything of it. His sign had always said that. It had always said that if you really knew how to read.