Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Travel Story with a Bit of a Twist

A long journey need not cover a long distance, don't you think?

Alan Johnson
November 10, 2006
Travel Story

The glistening marble floors of the San Francisco Shopping Centre, home to high priced stores and even higher priced restaurants, extend in every direction under the omnipotent dome of the old Emporium on Market Street. The new carpet and the luxurious seats spread on the top floor of this shopper’s paradise have not lost any of their original comfort. The smells of Italian espresso and fresh baked pastries permeate the air early on a Monday morning. Having passed through the new Bloomingdale’s store just minutes prior, San Francisco Chronicle staff photographer Brant Ward’s eleven student photojournalism class from the University of San Francisco is filled with a sense of wonder and awe as they explore the edifice. For many this is their first visit to the mall. The students have no idea what is in store for them next.

All of this was to be part of a planned class trip to the San Francisco Chronicle led by Ward to familiarize students with what a real working newsroom is like for a photographer. Prior to the San Francisco Shopping Centre stop the class spent some time at the San Francisco Chronicle building itself, walking through the dim hallways and absorbing the smell of instant coffee.

After some of the students devour their rich pastries and consume their warm, but not too hot, specialty coffee drinks under the San Francisco Shopping Centre dome Ward leads them down to market and towards the derelict Tenderloin area of San Francisco. Immediately after crossing Fifth Street panhandlers approach the group of students as if each of them is a cartoon dog and the students each have a big piece of fresh meat in their pocket luring them over. Many of the girls are assaulted with calls detailing disgusting acts. The smell of urine and cigarettes fills the air as the class files down the sidewalk, not daring to move an inch in any other direction than straight ahead. Ward, a frequent visitor to the Tenderloin due to his intensive exposé on the homeless in San Francisco, walks with a cool calm demeanor, even greeting many of the characters lining up for food at a soup kitchen.

The Ward-led beeline stops at St. Boniface Catholic Church on Golden Gate Avenue, a place that opens its doors at night to allow the homeless to sleep on the pews. Ward is searching for someone that he has taken photos of in order to get his name and has heard that St. Boniface is a spot this individual frequents. As the students enter the church, the smell of unwashed clothes and human being cuts at the nostrils. The sound of snoring is overwhelming yet barely there, as it is the only sound in the entire building. The students walk up and down the pews as Ward converses with some people who oversee the building when these unfortunate guests are occupying it.

As the students file out of the church the students become less and less sure where they are going next. Ward leads them to a corner where a man that was featured on the cover of that day’s San Francisco Chronicle often spends his time, looking to show him his picture on the newspaper. Ward asks a couple of people where this man, Michael Dick, is as the students huddle together.
Ward and the students enter a refurbished hotel where many homeless have been taken in by a citywide program attempting to get people off the streets. The lobby of the building looks like a place where a 12-step program would be taught, complete with Dixie cups and a plastic water cooler. The squat lady at the front desk says she knows Dick and says that he should be by any minute. As the group waits for Dick some of the residents of the building vagabonding in the lobby start conversation with some of the students.

When Dick passes through the door he is greeted by Ward jovially and is excitedly led across the street to an amalgamation laudromat/icecream shop/internet café. The proprietor of the business is none too pleased to see a group of young people enter his establishment, so much so that the words “you break it, you buy it” seem to be broadcast from his face. Ward rents some time for Dick to use the Internet and watch a multimedia presentation that he is featured on, only to find that the computer is not equipped with speakers. Ward continues to show Dick his presentation, paying no attention to the fact that there is no sound.

Once the presentation is finished, Ward leads the group now with an additional member, Dick, looking for a friend of Dick’s, Ricky. Not finding Ricky but many others is the menu for the day. One woman that approaches the group claims to have been stuck by a bus and being launched across an intersection just a few days prior. The woman is marked by large gashes across her face but walks as if nothing has happened.

After unsuccessfully scouring the streets for this character and being pushed for cigarettes, Ward concedes his search and takes the students and Dick to a cramped local Vietnamese diner.


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