Winner of the We Write Here writing award on June 30, 2021. Originally published on The Black and White newspaper June edition.
This piece can be viewed on their website at https://www.wewritehere.com/
I remember seeing Carl Payne for the first time when I was in elementary school. He was tall, extremely tall, and had kind, sincere eyes that would always express how he was feeling. The man never drank enough water. My father and his friends would sit at a casino diner with Carl, and he would always order the sweetest iced lemonade, shooing us away as we pushed at his stubbornness from across the table. To be fair, I don’t think it would be right to both him and me to refer to him as someone I wasn’t close with. Carl Payne is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. And to this day, his life is a source of hope, wisdom, and jaw-dropping stories that have become more precious to not only me, but to the countless numbers of people he has blessed with his presence, than ever before.
It’s a Monday, and Carl is planning for his windows to be painted after a day trip . We sit down for a little chat over the phone, and with a sad smile, I ask him how he’s doing. Chuckling, he comments about the beautiful weather, especially good for painting, and eases my worries.
Carl is an extremely easy-going man. He takes pride in his many jobs, and stories he recalls easily roll off his tongue. As of now, Carl is a San Francisco park ranger who spends quiet time with the park wildlife and friends who pedal by on bikes to say hello. However, Carl is quite well-known in the city, and it all started from a job years ago that changed his life forever.
“I went to the post office to sign up for a job. The same day I did that, I had put in an application for Muni. That afternoon, when I was supposed to go to the post office to get sworn in, Muni called me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to start working tomorrow?’” I said, ‘Yeah, okay!’ And that’s where I spent the next 29 years!”
Carl was a Goodwill Ambassador for the city. He recalls traveling with Senator Dianne Feinstein to Philadelphia and Los Angeles for a show to raise money to save the cable cars. Carl entered the San Francisco Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest and won 10 times (1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989), which is the most awards ever won by one contestant to this day.
Carl’s career with cable cars provided benefits throughout his life that not only gave him joy, but connections to the people he met daily.
“That was a really good, and most exciting time because not only did I learn where different people were from, but I learned how to speak different languages. I was able to master a little bit of Japanese. Meeting different people every day is really fascinating, it really is, because it gives you a chance to see, to listen and learn, how other people live, speak, and think of our city here! Almost everywhere I went, I would say, ‘Oh, I’m from San Francisco!’ They would say, ‘That’s my favorite city! I always want to go there.’”
“There are a lot of beautiful people out there. A lot of beautiful people in this world. If you ever get a chance to travel and meet other people, do it.”
After retiring from the cable cars, Carl decided to apply to the Police Academy to become an officer. For 24 years, he served at Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf where he learned lessons that he shares with me over the phone.
“All everybody wants you to do is just listen to them. Some of the biggest problems we have out there on the street is that no one wants to listen to them.”
Before becoming an officer, Carl was subjected to age discrimination and exclusion.
“When I first applied to the police department after passing all the tests and getting on the list to be eligible, about two or three hours before I was going to be sworn in to go to the academy, they called and said, ‘Oh, we just looked over your application again, and you have to be in the academy before you turn 36. We see you just turned 36, so you’re automatically disqualified.’”
Carl wound up in a lawsuit as the federal government was suing the city for age discrimination. He was then asked to testify, which he gladly accepted.
After a two-year hiring freeze for the academy, Carl finally got in after the age limit was lifted.
“I had an equal chance to pursue what I wanted to do. I was one of the oldest guys to ever go through the police academy.”
Carl entered the academy when he was 50 years old and retired when he was 75. He is currently in his 80s and is continually passionate about his days as a park ranger “talking to the trees.”
One year in July, my dad and I, Carl, and a few more of his friends sat in the humid, 106-degree weather as the seatbelts of Carl’s Rolls-Royce warmed our stomachs, and the sticky leather seats burned our thighs like a barbecue grill. Without a cloud in the sky, the car bounced over every pebble on the rocky city roads of Reno as we eyed the shimmering colors of the Hot August Nights displays.
I remember seeing Carl’s pursed lips and prideful expression through the rearview mirror, holding back a smile. His car turned heads as it slowly rolled through the rows of beauties parked near the chicken wing stands. I shrank back while peeking at the gawking tourists from the back seat and let out a tiny giggle as Carl hung his hand out the window of the car without giving the viewers a single glance.
“Do you know Chewbacca? I had him in the car. He is really tall, oh my goodness! That man is wow! I had Fleetwood Mac in the car, and a Giant’s player when he and his wife got married. I’ve always loved the old British cars. I think they’re the most prettiest things in the world.”
About a year ago, Carl Payne was diagnosed with cancer. He had broken out of CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) after being diagnosed years ago, but a new illness had formed. He was hospitalized while on chemotherapy, and with no cure in sight, the distance between my family and Carl lengthened by the day.
April of 2021 comes, and his voice fills the room as my dad paints the hallway ceiling. His strength booms through the phone speaker and smiles spread across our faces.
As my talk with Carl comes to a close, he shares his story with this life-changing illness.
“Your mind controls your body. Whatever your mind tells your body, your body responds to it! I have been blessed up to this point, and I can’t complain. I cannot complain. I won’t complain. You have to stay strong all the time, no matter how hard life may get! There is always going to be a tomorrow. I thank God that I wake up every day, and I’m still here. I’m still alive. I keep fighting that way. I say my little prayers to God at least a hundred times a day, thanking him for letting me see another day, for the air in my lungs, and for the beat of my heart. I push that message to anyone out there who finds out they have a problem, or if they’re battling something. Don’t let it get you down.”
Carl shares that his good friend is battling brain cancer this very day. He was told that he only has six months to a year to live.
“I tell him, don’t let that get you down. You can’t let stuff get you down. It will get better tomorrow!”