Way way back in the 1980s, when hitchhiking was relatively safe for single young men with a destination in mind, we hitchhiked across the country, all the way from New England to the Great Northwest. Like most trips of this type, we didn’t take the most direct route. Along the way, we stopped for an extended visit in San Francisco, California, where we stayed with relatives of friends, an older couple who had never met us before and had only a vague sense that we were coming their way. Bless their hearts, they still put us up.
While there, we decided to look for work, thinking we might stay longer and get to know the city we’d heard so much about. It was not to be, unfortunately, although we’ve returned many times since. San Francisco is one of our favorite stops when we have both time and money to spend.
On this visit, however, we were decidedly down on our luck—depressed about the lack of employment and living off the kindness of friends and strangers alike. While wandering the streets of San Francisco, we happened upon a soup kitchen off Market Street, the kind that provides meals to the homeless and destitute. Given our state of affairs, we fit right in.
Waiting in line, we struck up a conversation with those around us. One was a Mexican day laborer who took us—inexperienced to soup kitchens as we were—under his wing. He showed us what to ask for and what to avoid. He pointed out the troublemakers in the room and introduced us to some of his friends.
It was truly a touching experience and showed us a glimpse of the universal human spirit. When you are open and friendly yourself, you tend to attract those qualities in others.
When we finally sat down to eat, our trays brimming with salty foods donated from who-knew-where, our new friend produced a handful of jalapeño peppers from his jacket pocket. They were dark green, ripe, and ready for eating. With a genuine smile, he offered them around to his friends, including us.
We didn’t want to appear impolite, and the meal certainly looked bland enough. We weren’t culinary cowards, having eaten and survived almost everything from Thai green curry to Chinese red peppers to Italian garlic pesto. A simple jalapeño couldn’t be any worse, and it might be just the thing to spice up the mashed potatoes and mystery meat decorating our plates.
The first bite triggered no alarms. Encouraged, a bigger bite followed.
That’s when the fire started. The tip of the pepper, we learned later, contains few seeds, and it’s the seeds that burn. Our eyes watered. Our noses ran. Our ears turned a rosy hue. No amount of water could quench the thirst or douse the fire. Our new friend, after he finished laughing, finally suggested cold milk, which did help, a little.
We can’t remember the rest of the meal . . . or the rest of the day, for that matter. The memory of the jalapeño, however, has remained seared in our memories for decades.
Lessons Learned: If a Mexican offers you a jalapeño pepper, and you have reason to believe it’s authentic, be very cautious. Don’t be afraid to say no. Even if you accept the gift, respect the pepper and take small bites. Also, have a large quantity of milk nearby: at least a gallon. Your taste buds, stomach, and intestines will thank you, and you’ll still be able to breathe after the meal.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
Native Population: 800,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The cable cars, architecture, and neighborhoods; Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and AT&T Park (home of the Giants); there are many reasons for visiting (if you have the money).
Final Point of Interest: San Francisco is a city built on fifty hills, which make it a singularly beautiful place. When you’re down on your luck, however, you have to hike up and down those hills to get anywhere. Beauty becomes relative to the thickness of your soles.