San Francisco is a great place to people watch. Like most fiction writers, I am always on the lookout for interesting characters and often find myself wondering about somebody’s story. Where did they come from? What is their life like? What kinds of decisions have they made that ended them where they are now?
I am especially curious about some of the denizens that frequent North Beach. There is a homeless man who could easily double as Gimli from the film, Lord of the Rings; most days he stands silent and solemn on the corner of Hyde and Union, watching the cable cars go by. There is a girl who shows up in Washington Square Park on sunny days in a rainbow leotard with a dozen hula hoops which she twirls, swirls and tosses in the air for hours. There is a woman with a face of tattoos who speaks only in a high mono-pitched bird shriek.
And then there is Millie, a small dumpling-like woman who, since the 1950’s, has made nightly rounds to the North Beach restaurants and bars, selling roses and until recently, Polaroid snapshots to romancing couples. Her usual inquiry is to ask the man if he's behaving himself, and advising him to take good care his companion. If you’re lucky enough to be a familiar face, you might get a wide toothless grin, a soft pinch on the cheek and blown kisses. Nobody seems to know Millie’s whole story; only that she was born in Ohio, came out to San Francisco after World War Two where she married a newspaper vendor who had lost his arm at Pearl Harbor. He passed away some time ago, leaving Millie to live alone above the cutlery shop on Columbus Avenue, watched over by a number of neighborhood angels.
Millie celebrated her 87th birthday last year at Café Divine, where she can often be found sitting under her portrait in “Millie’s Corner.”