When Travis moved to San Francisco in 2011, he was 21 years old and had $174 in his pocket.
His first job was tossing salads at a restaurant on 2nd and Market. But soon, his career in the service industry would take off. His next job was at Quince, a fine dining restaurant that now has three Michelin stars. After landing at Quince, his career gained momentum. Hired as a barista, Travis moved up the ranks quickly, absorbing as much as he could about the operation. He even took ballet lessons to improve his grace in the fancy dining room. Within a year, he was managing waitstaff and taking reservations as the Maitre’d.
One night, Travis noticed the sommelier, a woman whose role was to walk around and try wines. “She didn’t have to take a table; she got paid to booze it,” he said. Inspired, Travis bought the sommelier textbook for $25 online and studied all year. The following year, he passed the exam.
The process was a great professional step for Travis, who declined to give his last name. By 2015, he was making real money. “I managed to go from $175 bucks in my pocket to making $87,000,” he said, “I was 25 years old and I drank for a living.”
However, all this success didn’t translate to happiness. Travis looked around at his friends, who all worked in the service industry. “They all had hot girlfriends and houses in Alamo Square and dogs, and were, like, leas- ing cars and had savings accounts and shit,” he said. Even with the money he made, Travis struggled to pay his rent, which was $1,000 per month. “I was really depressed and I didn’t know why,” he said.
Distressed and unsure of what to do next, Travis decided to take time off for travel. He left everything he owned in San Francisco and got on a plane. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing but I kept telling people, ‘I’m going to Thailand, I’m going to Thailand,’” he said.
So that’s what he did. Travis had a vision of traveling to Melbourne, where he’d landed a job picking grapes for Chandon Champagne. But his plans were foiled when he slipped on a wet floor and broke his elbow at a house party in Costa Rica. After several failed attempts to obtain medical help, a friend finally convinced him to move back to the U.S.
Moving back to his hometown of Morro Bay quickly turned into a nightmare. The elbow surgery was more complicated than expected. Then he blew out his knee while standing up from an air mattress. There was a second elbow surgery, two knee surgeries, and a long recovery period spent in bed, hooked up to opiates.
By the end of 2016, Travis was physically weak, depressed, and broke. “In my mind I was still traveling, still going to move to Australia and my visa was still valid and all that,” he said. The reality was harsher: he had been staying with a friend for free and hadn’t signed up for social services, so he’d blown through all his savings just getting by.
When Travis moved back to San Francisco, he was homeless. He spent the better part of 2017 using drugs, bouncing around from couch to couch, and living on the street.
“A lot of that, I don’t remember,” he says. “Drugs are a hell of a drug.”
Now, Travis is putting the pieces back together. Six months ago, he had an epiphany about his mental health, and started to wonder whether he might have an undiagnosed develop- mental issue.
“A lot of my life started to make more sense under that context,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the two men sitting close by. “I’ve known them for a couple of years and I’ve got big love for both of them,” he said, but sometimes he privately wonders whether they hate him, “or if I did something wrong or if I missed some kind of social cue that other people wouldn’t have.”
But finding professional help is a whole other matter.
“I’ve gotten in front of a couple nurse practitioners that will gladly write you a prescription for Wellbutrin and send you on your way.” But Travis wants more than another round of antidepressants; he wants a diagnosis. With a bit more information, he might be able to understand himself better. “I hold out hope,” he said, laughing. “Sort of.”
Despite everything that’s happened, Travis is warm and optimistic. In the short-term, he wants to join Sips N Sews, a sewing club on Sutter Street that allows members the use of all their equipment. “I have some weird, urgent desire to make clothing,” he said.
Travis has developed a passion for selling clothing since moving onto the street. “I pull designer garments out of the gutters of San Francisco and sell them to the Nob Hill crowd,” he said. To make sure his products are good quality, he researches labels on- line. At first, his discerning taste was fueled by need: finding an expensive garment meant he could afford to eat for the week. But now he is genuinely interested in fashion, and enjoys learning about specific designers and their styles.
‘Now that I’m homeless, I’m wearing designer clothes’
The irony is not lost on him. “When I made $90,000 a year I didn’t care
for shit,” he said, laughing at himself, “Now that I’m homeless, I’m suddenly wearing Kenzo, you know? Or Givenchy.” That’s all short term, though. “For the long term, I would like to do something to help the world,” he said. This can start small. Travis recently helped a man clean up a vintage snakeskin wallet with the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser he keeps on hand, and a few weeks before that, he performed CPR on a man in an alleyway off Union Square. Eventually, he might want to work for a humanitarian organization, or be a farmer in Southeast Asia or Africa.
He still thinks about making good on his plan to do sommelier work in Australia. He turned 31 this year, which is the last year he’ll be eligible for the year-long work visa in Australia. But he also wonders if being a sommelier truly benefits humanity.
“It’s a weird esoteric knowledge base that I have, that is somehow needed in the world, but only by those with enough money to care.”
Furthermore, homelessness has made it difficult for Travis to keep up his sommelier work. Up until a few weeks ago, he still had a few clients
in the wine industry who he worked for remotely, from his laptop. But after being arrested, Travis went to retrieve his belongings from the police holding and was told his items had been stolen. This included his grand- mother’s one-karat diamond and the laptop computer with the contact information of his remaining clients.
“Part of being homeless in San Fran- cisco is that you lose everything you own, many times over,” he said, “If you fall asleep, someone will steal it from you. If you look the other way, someone will steal it from you. If you walk away for five minutes, the Department of Public Works will throw it away for you, or they’ll steal it from you. You get real Buddhist about things.”
I told Travis that his attitude is generous—that many people might begin to hate a city that routinely destroys the only possessions they own. “You know, it’s that or be miserable about it,” he said. I get the sense that he’s tried that approach, and now, he’s trying something new.
Emma Arnesty-Good is a writer and researcher living in her home town of San Francisco, CA.