At first, you can't quite believe it.
Ron Divino lifts up one of the rough shoreline rocks at the foot of Polk Street here - each rock weighing from 15 to 40 pounds - and finds a rounded or fairly sharp point.
Slowly, patiently, with strong fingers moving the rock around on top of another rock, and testing positions for several minutes, Mr. Divino finds the rock's exact point of equilibrium. Then he releases the rock. It stays there on a point of perfect, delicate balance on top of the other rock.
In an unbalanced world gone daffy over technology, wallowing in the cult of celebrity, and spawning overnight cyber-millionaires, Divino finds wonder and harmony in balancing ugly, dumb, old rocks.
You can't quite believe it.
Is it a trick? Is it an act of marginal value or a touch of genius?
"Tourists come down here," says Divino, starting in on another rock, "and ask if I'm using bubble gum or super glue, and I tell 'em, I know the rocks, I know the environment." He laughs with enthusiasm for where and what he is doing. Within an hour the energetic Divino has a forest of 15 rocks poised on their toes in a delicate hard-rock ballet.
You are beginning to believe it.
Another great balancing act, the Golden Gate Bridge, can be seen across the Bay from here in its entire splendor.
"When I first started to do this four years ago here," Divino says, "it would take me anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to do one. But now I know what I'm doing. Each time I try to get more precision, to place it just on a hair point." He finds a rock's perfect balance in minutes now.
The tendency is to see too much and too little in Divino's feat. They are just rocks, and there is undeniable skill in the pinpoint balancing of an object usually considered lifeless and forgettable. But the real value comes when the rock star steps out from behind the rocks.
Remarkably, Divino is not a man trained in mechanics or engineering or masonry. He says he is homeless now, an ex-hotel worker and cook who bounced around from job to job after a grim childhood in San Diego and other hard experiences.
At one time he worked for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Where he sleeps each night is a little vague except he says he has a safe place at night where he used to curl up with his green back pack until it was recently stolen. Sincere and friendly, and unlike many homeless men, Divino cultivates friendships. Because of this he is the recipient of vegetables and fruits from generous market owners he knows well.
"I had a bad childhood," he says, pausing between rock balancing and talking eagerly with people who stop and look. "Never met my Dad, but I forgive him and everybody else. What I do now is a gift from God. I'm full of joy, and live day to day. It's so gratifying when people come back and tell me they love what I'm doing."
Ask him to define "balance" and he jumbles cause and effect until it comes out as a way of being. "Balance is a spiritual thing to me," he says, watching one of the rocks tumble down in a gust of wind. "It's being in touch, connecting, not just accepting, but giving back. Something nice happens to me when I do this. I see people's eyes enticed by the light of this, and then I know this is a beautiful thing."
When Peter Maciukas, a Golden Gate Bridge worker, stops to look at the amazing rocks, he says, "I think this is the most wonderful thing I've ever seen. He just balances them, right? I love it. How does he do it?"
To be sure, rock balancing is not easy. I tried to balance a modest size rock for 20 minutes and failed.
"One guy came here and tried for three hours," says Divino, waving to children on their way to school. "He watched me and tried it. He got really angry at one point, but finally did it, after all that time. I told him it was always there, but he had too many things going through his mind; he needed to relax. This is a calm thing. You have to have patience going in."
In San Francisco, he battled with the Maritime National Historical Park for permission to balance rocks on their property behind the old, ship-shaped Maritime Museum. Divino comes nearly every day now, a lanky, garrulous presence among the rocks, always positive and talking to people with humor and a touch of philosophy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society