It’s possible to be at an event — a huge important event filled with people, sights and spectacles — and come away from it remembering something brief and important in its own way that wasn’t part of the event at all.
That’s what happened to me on Saturday at the Women’s March in San Francisco.
I was in the city seeing my girlfriend Shelly who wanted to attend the march. I was happy to go along, in part to satisfy my journalistic curiosity over how this famous liberal bastion would respond with its own demonstration that followed the main one held in Washington, D.C.
The anti-Trump protest in San Francisco was nothing short of large and colorful.
Local news reports said about 100,000 people participated, making it the largest demonstration there since the Iraq War.
It began at Civic Center Plaza, which covers several city blocks.
The plaza was brimming with demonstrators, many of whom were occupying the outlying streets waiting for the march to begin at 5 p.m.
Just making our way to the plaza was a physical challenge, akin to a sardine trying to move from one end of a can to the other.
The sidewalks along Grove Street were completely packed with people, some moving away from the plaza to get to the start of the protest line, and others like myself trying to get closer to the center of the action.
The last time I felt that wedged against other human beings was a Nine Inch Nails show, also in San Francisco, more than 20 years ago when just breathing was a strain.
The snail’s pace down Grove gave me ample time to notice the crowd. The Women’s March had no shortage of women or men.
The multitude of handmade signs revealed not only feminist messages directed toward Trump, but plenty of other opinions by those upset by the president’s campaign remarks and pledges.
The signs ranged from the playful (“Free Melania”) to the dead serious (“I didn’t survive a refugee camp for this s—-”).
The images were noticeable, perhaps even impressionable as short-term memory goes.
But I’m not sure if what I saw at the demonstration will stay with me as long as something else I glimpsed on my way there.
It was a moment so brief that looking back now, it is difficult to comprehend how such a fleeting instance could encompass so much, and burn itself so completely into my memory.
We walked down Hyde Street through the Tenderloin to reach the march.
Just two blocks from our destination, we passed a gaggle of homeless people, most of whom were lined up against the side of a building.
Except for one.
A woman stood right in the middle of the sidewalk. She was both there and not there, all at the same time.
If I had seen her from a distance, I could easily have assumed she was listening to music. She swayed and glided across the payment as though dancing.
But there was no radio on or near her.
Her eyes were barely open. I doubt her pupils, or the neurons connected to them were registering anything going on around her.
Only a few feet away, thousands of angry people were gathering to protest the ideas and words of the most powerful man in this country.
I doubt this woman knew what day it was, let alone who was now in charge of the launch codes.
She was in her own world, oblivious to the march. Oblivious to the entire world.
Her detached state may have been the result of a drug or intoxicant. It might just as well been the product of mental illness.
All I knew for sure was I had to step around her to keep moving down the sidewalk toward an event that was about women’s rights.
I have seen plenty of homeless individuals in my time. Having lived most of my adult life in major cities, those surviving on the streets have always been around somewhere during my travels.
I’ve had my share ask me for money. I’ve seen some defecate in doorways. I saw one jab a syringe in his forearm late at night while standing beneath a bright light, not a care who was passing by or watching.
I can’t recall what any of them looked like.
The woman I saw on Saturday is still with me, and may be for some time to come.
Her presence was almost like a specter. It was so startling to see her there, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, as though pedestrians were going to walk right through her.
We didn’t. We went around, on our way to something more important.
We joined the boisterous mass expressing its frustration at Donald Trump.
The woman I saw was silent. She didn’t say a thing. Not a word, not a moan, not a cry. She had no soundtrack.
When I think of her now, the memory is like a fragment from a dark dream. That brief, indelible scene that stays with you long after you regain consciousness.
This woman wasn’t conscious. Not to the real world. Her mind was somewhere else, possibly in a universe of her own that never has heard of Donald Trump, or politics, or homelessness.
Thinking this made me a little envious of this woman. Just a little. I wouldn’t trade my life for hers.
But I wonder what it must be like to live, as she seemed to, in a Trumpless America.