Shattered Illusion of a Perfect City

by Lisa Willis

On February 2, 2021, my life took a sharp left turn, and I wasn’t ready for it! 

As I’ve written before, my mom and I struggled a lot with homelessness, and often relied on each other to survive. But we were doing ok. My mom was working from home, and I had a job at a casino. The pandemic lockdown was coming to an end, at least in Reno, Nevada, where we lived. 

My mom was eligible for the first vaccination phase I think. Remember the vaccination phases? I get them confused, but I think I was in phase two: over 50, with asthma. But then last year I started training as a Medical Assistant, which bumped me into the first phase as a frontline worker. Then I won a $10,000 grant as a Music Creator, and was given $500, weeks late, because of some kind of technical error, I never did get the full story. It turned out only the $500 was guaranteed, with “up to $10,000” in performance fees. That was almost a year ago and I haven’t heard diddly!

Anyway, my mom had a vaccination appointment in early 2021. At that time, she had a terrible pain in her side. But because we both have severe osteoarthritis, which can cause awful pain, my mom was sure that’s all it was. I begged her to go to the hospital, but she didn’t want to go before being vaccinated and risk getting COVID from the hospital – just for a doctor to tell her the pain was from her arthritis. 

But, it wasn’t arthritis, and by the time she went to the hospital, she was close to death. For four and a half months from her hospital bed, she fought and struggled in terrible pain, had ups and downs, and was constantly sick to her stomach. She fought for four and a half months before she died. 

At that point, I decided to move to San Francisco. My mom had lived there in the early ‘60s, and she always spoke so fondly of it. She made it sound like heaven. That said, I had never been, and a lot had surely changed since my mom was last there around 1965. But, I made the move and maintained my belief in the city. 

Then, everything changed. The day started out great, with my (un)usual morning regimen. I wake up very early, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. Then I drink two 20-ounce cups of coffee with French Vanilla coffee creamer and lots of sugar, and nothing for breakfast. Then I smoke marijuana for my osteoarthritis and CPTSD—you know…for medical reasons. But seriously, I do use it as medicine. I also find that as a musician, the mental effects make for some really cool music, at least in my opinion.

This morning ritual costs money, and sometimes I don’t have it. But this particular morning, I enjoyed the full gauntlet. I had my two cups and my smoke, I listened to Metal while playing online blitz chess, and then I practiced the piano. Everything went great! In fact, I actually remember saying to my cat, “This is gonna be a good day, Rico”. He’s 14 years old, from the Reno SPCA. He’s named after the character Rico Cooper from Miami Vice.

I was in the process of moving, and was getting help from various people. I set out to an appointment at Mission and Seventh streets. I had been there and spots nearby close to a thousand times in the year plus that I’d lived in San Francisco.  

After I finished my appointment, I got on the bus. It was 2 p.m. and very crowded. I found a spot next to a lady, and continued my phone call with someone helping me move into my new place, which I finally did a couple of months ago. But believe me, I’m not rich! And without going into details, I needed lots of help with my move. On the phone with me was one of the very nice ladies who was helping me. We were discussing the various business details, what I needed to do next, what she was going to do next, and so forth.

When I got off the phone, the lady next to me said something I couldn’t exactly make out but thought was “hi.” So, I said hi back. But then, totally unexpectedly, she pulled out a can of bug spray from her purse and sprayed it in my face. I ran from her, and a second lady hit me over the head with something, almost knocking me to the floor. 

Now listen folks: when it comes to attacking you in chess, I’m your girl. One guy told me I attack like a junkyard dog, and he meant it as a compliment!

But in any kind of physical confrontation, I’m about as useful as a mule in the Indianapolis 500. I did what I felt comfortable doing: I ran. 

A few weeks after the attack, I was playing piano, and lost control of my right arm. Fearing I was having a stroke, I rushed to the hospital. They ran all the necessary tests and ruled out a stroke, but the doctor asked if I had been hit over the head recently. I told her about the attack. I still haven’t seen a neurologist since the events of last September, but it seems that I’m now living with an undiagnosed brain injury—probably a concussion.

My illusions of that nearly perfect city my mom used to describe are now shattered. And a core belief of mine has been questioned.  

When I first came to San Francisco, I noticed the homelessness problem right away. I have been homeless more than once, and I have such tremendous compassion for anyone forced to be without a home. 

Sometimes, when you’ve had a long day, you’re on the bus, so tired, but almost home. And I remember when I felt exactly like that: on the bus, but without a home. Nowhere to lay down, no shower, just feeling cold and tired. 

Two people on the same bus at the same time can experience it so differently based on what is (or isn’t) waiting for them at the end of that journey. 

The woman who sprayed bug spray in my face was homeless. I must confess to a fear I have now when I walk past a homeless tent. For that matter, I must confess to a fear of the world, but in a weird way, I’m glad about that. 

Because I understand a homeless person is just a person. Some good, some bad, some in the middle. Some sweet, kind, and generous, and some not. Some charming,well-read, well-mannered, and some not. 

But that’s just the world, and now I fear it. I’m a musician and chess player, and before the attack I had a plan to do open mics in various big cities like San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland—all of them at least semi-liberal.  And in each city, I was gonna play a 10-game blitz chess match with a local player. In my head, I called it The Lisa Willis Open Mic tour.

But now I’m afraid to leave my own neighborhood. I’m terrified if I have to go more than a few blocks, and the bus scares me to death!

I don’t go out at night anymore, and I really only feel safe at home. I’m lucky enough to be in a secure building with 24-hour staff and surveillance cameras. I’m not the same person I used to be: I don’t go out and live anymore. 

Despite all that, my compassion for homeless people has only increased, because I know from personal experience how dangerous it is out there. 

I feel lucky to be inside. My studio is so small, you can look through the peephole without getting out of bed! But the neighborhood is nice. Not super rich, but just a nice, quiet neighborhood with friendly local small business owners and generally friendly people. 

Through my bedroom window, I have such a nice view of some trees.  And sometimes as I’m drinking my coffee, and it’s raining—it’s been raining a lot lately—I think about the people still out there without a home, and it brings tears to my eyes. 

That attack stole a lot from me. I lost some of myself, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. But it hasn’t stolen my compassion for the homeless—just the opposite.