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Stockton Street Encounter
By Travis Jensen It’s a lively December afternoon in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The air outside is crisp yet warm enough not to need a coat. An elderly Caucasian woman standing less than 5-feet-tall, carrying a cane half her size and dressed in an oversize navy blue hooded sweatshirt, fleece hat and plaid scarf exits a Chinese convenience store on Stockton Street, between Clay and Sacramento streets. The storefront’s signage is all in Chinese character. “They don’t have any SamTrans passes,” she says repeatedly, shaking her head, speaking to nobody in particular. The passersby pay the woman no mind. She then points to the storefront window, which has both an old MUNI Fast Pass and SamTrans pass taped up to it from the inside facing out. “See, they have them right here,” she says, again speaking to nobody in particular, pointing at the old red, white and blue sun faded SamTrans pass in window. (SamTrans is a public transportation agency that provides bus service throughout San Mateo County and into portions of San Francisco and Palo Alto.) “Why don’t you try Walgreen’s down the street?” I say to the old woman, standing just a few feet away. She doesn’t respond, so I inch a little closer and repeat, “Try the Walgreen’s between Vallejo and Broadway.” Again, no response from the old woman. With camera already turned on and in hand -- my purpose for being on Stockton Street in the first place was to shoot photos -- I fire off a couple shots from the hip. While shooting, I take notice of some of the pins the women has attached to her fleece hat. Among them, an old World War II era U.S. Navy insignia, the Star of David and the Flag of the United States. My friend and I then watch as the old woman makes her way to the 30 Stockton bus stop near the corner of California Street and positions herself in-between a pack of middle-aged Chinese men. “I think that’s Millie, ‘The Polaroid Lady,’” my friend says to me. Squinting, I take a closer look. “Naw, that’s not her,” I reply. “She’s much older than the Polaroid Lady. Plus, she doesn’t have her signature camera on her.” Millie, a.k.a. the “Polaroid Lady,” is a renowned street character in North Beach who takes pictures of people with her Polaroid camera on the street, in bars, cafes and restaurants for $5. She also sells roses sometimes. “They need to hire more handicapped drivers,” we hear the old woman blurt out from the bus stop. Bemused by her remark, my friend and I turn towards one another, smile and shrug our shoulders. Minutes later, a crowded 30 Stockton bus pulls up curbside. Chaos erupts as people franticly scramble to exit and board the bus. My friend and I watch as the old lady boards the bus and flashes her MUNI Fast Pass at the driver, who is preoccupied yelling at the mob of people trying to board behind her that the bus is too full and that they need to wait for the next. Of course no one listens. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Pardon Me.” we hear the old lady say as she navigates her way past the front seats designated for the elderly and handicap. Unfortunately, no one gives up his or her seat for her. The old woman eventually finds a space near the middle of the bus and grabs hold of the silver rail. We can see her mumbling to herself, but not in a frustrated manner, rather appearing to be thinking aloud. The driver, now beat red in the face and looking as if he might all of a sudden spontaneously combust, manages to close both doors without splitting any limbs and the bus pushes off down the street, eventually disappearing into darkness as it enters the Stockton Street Tunnel. Fast forward one week… I’m sitting on my computer at home, scrolling through the folder containing the pictures from my Stockton Street outing. I get to the two pics of the little old lady and pause. “Check these out,” I say to my wife. “Hey, that’s the Polaroid Lady in North Beach, right?” she says, kneeling in for a closer look. “Cool pic.” She then goes on to remind me of one specific encounter we had with Millie while gallivanting late night through North Beach with some friends. Apparently, one of the couples we were with even purchased a Polaroid. My memory of said event is rather hazy. I then plug a few keywords into Google, click search, and wait for the results to populate. It was immediately evident that the little old lady in my photo was indeed Millie, North Beach's infamous Polaroid Lady. However, as I had mentioned to my friend when we saw her that day on Stockton Street, she appeared much older than what I remembered, but then again, I’m notoriously bad with faces and every time I’ve ever come across the Polaroid Lady was during a night of heavy drinking. In addition, she did not have her camera on her that day. What kind of photographer leaves home without a camera, especially when you’re nickname is the Polaroid Lady? As I continue to scroll through the search results, I come across a 19The one who lost her slipper
I was told to photograph absolute subservience. I photographed myself as both cinderella and the stepmother.
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