Afrose Fatima Ahmed, on-the-spot poet
Strolling out of the Ferry Building, an unexpected sound cuts through the clatter of trams, calls of seagulls and chatter of tourists. An insistent tap-tap-tapping noise. Following my ears, I come across a young woman – dark hair pulled back, septum ring, look of deep concentration – sitting by the road, working at a beautiful red typewriter.
After a few more lines of text, she pulls out the paper and hands it to the customers. As they move away, excitedly scanning the page, I see her portable sign:
Poem Store: Your Subject, Your Price
This is Afrose Fatima Ahmed, an on-the-spot poet: give her a topic, she writes, you pay whatever you’d like. She’s been doing this for around ten years, but only recently in San Francisco, where she’s found people ready and willing to engage with her work.
“There’s definitely a creative community here,” she tells me. “A lot of institutions are interested in supporting artists, sometimes they invite me to write for their customers.”
Among others, Afrose has written at Homage, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Financial District, Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, and Rendezvous, a North Beach vintage clothing boutique. It seems like being an on-the-spot poet gives you a fast track to the coolest places.
On the spot poet Afrose Fatima Ahmed in action © Sofia Nahli Allison
I ask what she’d recommend in the area, and she enthuses about San Francisco’s easy access to nature, like Marin County and Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as a Berkeley tapas bar – “La Marcha, it has the best happy hour ever” – and Soul Motion Lab – “I go for… well, it’s called ‘conscious dance’, and it’s a little out there! I find it very liberating being in a space free of judgement and expectations.”
Noticing that most of these places are outside San Francisco proper, I ask if she spends most of her time out of the city. She pauses before replying, choosing her words carefully.
“With the tech boom and the changing demographic of the city, the culture of creativity isn’t as prominent in San Francisco itself. A lot of artists are having to move to the East Bay. I can’t actually afford to live in San Francisco, so I’ve been in Berkeley and Oakland. There are definite challenges to being an artist here, but there’s so much that’s amazing that it’s worth the struggles.”
I change the subject to something a little happier, and ask whether she’s had any particularly memorable requests. She laughs, and asks how rude she can be; I tell her Rough Guides readers are hard to shock.
“Last month at the Ferry Building, a man approached me. He was very polite and unassuming, and introduced me to the woman he was with, and in a roundabout way asked if I’d be willing to write a poem about… well, her vagina. I guess he just really loves it, in this worshipful, genuine way. She was into all this, finding it very amusing, so I said OK, I will happily write you a poem about your girlfriend’s vagina.”
We both break into laughter. “So yeah, I did it, and they liked the poem, and that was kind of it!”
She tells me too about the more painful poems she’s written – for people dealing with grief, loss, heartbreak – and of the personal tragedy which made her realise she had to focus on what she was passionate about.
“I do think that for some people it can be really healing to have a stranger reflect creatively back to you your struggles. Just to experience that process can be a wonderful thing… I love what I do in large part because of that. I get to see the full spectrum of human existence.”
She smiles warmly, telling me, “It’s really, truly been a gift. It’s changed my life, and the way that I interact with the world.”
Of course, I ask her to write a poem for me, and it is beautiful, funny, and well worth what I choose to pay for it. You can ask Afrose for one of your own on Instagram, or wait to stumble serendipitously on her tapping away on a typewriter some sunny San Francisco afternoon.
Sunshine Powers, owner of Love on Haight
On the corner of Haight Street and Masonic Avenue is a large old building, the ground floor covered in intricate patterns, from hot pink to electric blue to vibrant green. In the windows, mannequins lean jauntily in sequinned bodysuits and tie-dye T-shirts. Inside, the ceiling is draped with fabric, and there are even tie-dye baby grows for sale.
This is Love on Haight, and reigning over the whole colourful kingdom is Sunny Powers. The embodiment of good vibes, she’s a captivating jumble of red curls, bright fabrics, a brighter smile, and always something sparkly.
As she explains to me, though, she didn’t always feel so positive about this place.
“This shop is on the corner where I met my first boyfriend, got my first tie-dye, smoked my first bowl, got my first Grateful Dead ticket, and mourned the loss of Jerry Garcia. Eventually I went to college and had a totally different life. After moving back I didn’t want to come to the Haight… it was not what I wanted it to be. But you can’t just complain; you actually have to get in there and do something.”
Sunny Powers in Haight Ashbury with dog Dr. Dave © Jamie Soja
And do something she did. Sunny set up Love on Haight with friends, and as the shop’s success grew she started to reinvest her profits in the area. As she says, “It’s my business model – take care of the community and it will naturally take care of me.”
For Sunny, taking care of the community isn’t just an abstract concept. Ask her what her aim is, and she’ll tell you: “I would like us to fix our homeless problem.”
Putting her money where her mouth is, she’s started a nonprofit called Taking it to the Streets, which works with Haight-Ashbury’s homeless youth to get them housed and invested in the community. “I am a firm believer that housing solves the homeless problem and I hope my city can lead by example and find a solution to the housing crisis.”
On top of this, she works with City Hall to help shape small business policies in San Francisco. She seems to revel in how incongruous she must look, striding down the corridors of power.
“I love that I can wear tie-dye and glitter and be as active in politics as I am. It’s proof of how awesome San Francisco is!”
Between Sunny’s trips to City Hall and work with The Haight’s homeless population, she can take refuge in the bubble of love and happiness she’s created in the shop.
“There can be a lot of crazy stuff going on, but when people come into my shop they can feel the love and the magic. They can take with them the part of San Francisco that I love the most, the part where you can be you, whoever that is.”
The hippies may have left, but on this corner counterculture is still alive, something Sunny feels proud of.
“San Francisco is where change in the nation starts, and more often than not it starts in The Haight. Having the honour of being the caretaker of my corner means that I have to lead by example and be as good to San Francisco as it has been to me.”
As I leave the shop with a bag of sparkles, waft of incense and goofy grin, Sunny’s mantra lingers in my mind: “Never be afraid to sparkle!”
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Rebecca flew to San Francisco via Reykjavík with Icelandair on their inaugural flight; flights from Heathrow have a lead-in price of £447.80, and passengers can to stopover in Iceland for up to seven days for no extra fare price. Rebecca stayed at Hotel Marina Iceland in Reykjavík and Hotel Zeppelin in San Francisco. Find out more on the San Francisco Travel website.
Header image: San Francisco streetcars © canadastock / Shutterstock