Marcos Alvarez, 55, plays for passers-by at the corner of San Francisco's 24th St. Bart Station

Every day, at a corner of San Francisco’s 24th St. Bart station, a blind man infuses the walkways with tunes of love, hope and nostalgia. With a keyboard, a chair and a cane by his side, Marcos Alvarez, 55 —also known as “the dreamer”—serenades the Mission District hoping to capture any ear willing to listen.

Locals walk by and sing along, some drop money into the small yellow bucket at his side, and once in a while, someone tells him to take his music elsewhere, but he never goes unnoticed.

“The story of my life is engraved in each one of my songs,” said Alvarez.

He is a poet, a composer, a musician and wanderer, who traversed Central and North America from 1969 and 1992 until he finally arrived in the U.S. He hasn’t left since. His scars tell stories of near death encounters inconceivable to most.

When he was a child, he recounts waking up in the middle of the night to someone violently dragging him by the neck. Someone had set his house on fire. A neighbor had braved the flames to save his life.

Years later, he was caught up amid the civil war in El Salvador. Stray bullets from a nearby gunfight hit him in the side and the resulting wounds almost killed him.

One bullet barely missed his heart and hit him in the left side of his chest.

“I laid on the street unconscious while a policeman declared me dead, like the others around me. Then I woke up and with all my strength managed to lift up my arm,” said Alvarez. The policeman saw him and dropped him off at a nearby hospital.

“Who knows why I’m still alive?” he added.

But neither of those incidents, nor a skull-breaking assault in Mexico, a near execution, car accidents, heart attacks, glaucoma or diabetes have stopped him from composing, singing and pursuing his dream. His compositions and perspective on life are rooted in these experiences.

“I dream of my songs being played and sung by talented artists, and if I ever make money I want to use the funds to help blind people in need so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” he explained.

Alvarez was born to a family of farmers in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador.

Marcos Alvarez

At age 9, he ran away from his dysfunctional home and was adopted by his grandmother.

Alvarez wrote his first song at the age of 14 and dedicated it to his mother hoping to win her appreciation. At age 17, he wrote a song to his country (Tierra Bendita y Querida or Blessed and Beloved Land) and to his people (Mi Patria or My Land). By age 26, he had learned to play the guitar, the accordion and the piano.

Alvarez began making a living playing in cafetas—Salvadoran slang for coffee houses—and street corners in El Salvador and then throughout Central America. He sang about the happiness and pain love brought him along the way and shared sorrowful words about the land that saw him grow.

Alvarez was born blind, but he grew older—through a series of his grandmother’s unconventional treatments with water and salt—he was able to see shadows and colors from a close proximity.

Unfortunately, the limited eyesight he had didn’t last. Glaucoma—an eye condition that leads to damage to the optic nerve (the nerve that transmits information from the eye to the brain) and the second leading cause of blindness in the world—would claim the shadows and colors he coveted.

His first cornea transplant—in 1994—left him blind once again. It was then, when Alvarez hit rock bottom and attempted to end his life: an event he recounts as the dumbest move he has ever made.

He went to a restaurant, filled his stomach and drank enough to minimize hesitation. Before leaving, a waiter saw him slip a knife inside his sleeve and called the police. The cop followed him to an alley, where Alvarez pulled out the knife and slit the vein on the left side of his neck. He credits the waiter and cop for having saved his life.

“I was at the brink of death again, but this time, from pure sadness. I didn’t have a family or friends by my side,” Alvarez said.

In 2003, he underwent a second transplant that allowed him to see again for a year: unfortunately, he did not heal properly. One last surgery would follow in 2006, but glaucoma-related complications were—once more—claim his eyesight.

After three unsuccessful cornea transplants and interventions to treat his glaucoma, Alvarez abandoned any hope of ever seeing again. All he sees is white.

Alvarez describes his transition into blindness; “I felt fear when crossing the streets and my entire body would shake. It felt like the cars were coming right at me. I stood on a curb—at a sidewalk corner—and felt as if I was free falling. It was martyrdom and cruel for my nervous system.”

But amid the choas, Alvarez chose to move forward with his life and aspirations.

“I convinced myself that I had to overcome this, because I wasn’t born to be defeated by anything. If God, luck or whoever has punished me—whether just or unjust—it’s not under my control. I am tired of begging to be healed. If even God hasn’t heard me, all I have left is to fight for myself however I can,” he said.

Alvarez, a blind musician, composer, and poet, has spent his life battling blindness and homelessness in San Francisco

Over the years that Alvarez has spent battling blindness and homelessness in San Francisco, one thing never changed—blind or not, derelict or not— his guitar never left his side.

My Guitar—one of his many songs—reads:

“Embracing my guitar, while no one heard my bitter sorrow, the world saw me cry. Embracing my guitar relieved the pain in my soul. Only like this, I found the peace that healed my thousand wounds.”

Along the healing process, Alvarez found help.

Shelter Plus—a program from San Francisco based St. Anthony Foundation that provides over a thousand people with food, clothes, shelter and other basic needs— helped him get a small Tenderloin studio in 2001.

Today, he spends most of his time in Hayward at the care of Sarita Cervantes, a close friend who cooks for him, washes and irons his clothes, and provides the warmth of her humble home and friendship.

“I’m glad to be able to help him with basic needs. We help each other because he also contributes with food costs from the money he makes playing music. He’s great company, a wonderful friend, and a very noble man,” said Cervantes.

He also receives a monthly supply of medications at no cost from Healthy San Francisco, a program that provides affordable and accessible health care services for uninsured residents.

Marcos Alvarez serenades communters at the 24th St. BART Station. Alvarez, a native of El Salvador, once played in coffee houses and on street corners throughout Central America.

“My motivation to get up every morning comes from my need to survive and serve others through my music,” Alvarez said.

His eclectic music taste is reflected through the 600 songs he has composed: 40 of which are written and printed on a book.

In one of his most recent songs, Cabalgando or Galloping, he paints a world free of selfishness and hate:

“Galloping over a fantasy beyond the stars, I went to look for the universe my soul once dreamed: where the lethal poison of selfishness and hate are not accepted; where the air is pure and the water crystal clear; where no one will prepare for war; where no malignant individuals will misuse science for nuclear armament: with no more cynic exploiters contaminating the environment with industrial advance.”

Unfortunately, his message and his audience don’t always agree.

Alvarez tells of an experience with a man who angrily accused him of speaking against capitalism. Alvarez simply responded that he was, indeed, speaking against the greed and ramifications of hyper-capitalism.

On another occasion, a passerby yelled at him, saying that his music was boring and repetitive. Alvarez responded by screaming, “Well how many times have you helped me out? You should be ashamed of barking at me like a dog.”

The man said nothing more and continued his way.

“Sometimes, I just can’t stay quite. I feel like I have to take the heavy load off my back and say something,” he said.

Alvarez also carries an innate romanticism that emerges through his poetic lyrics.

He says that most of his inspiration comes from women.

“I sing to them with great devotion, respect and admiration. They are the best of God’s creation.”

Despite the obstacles he continues to overcome, Alvarez remains anxious to embrace the world.

“I don’t know how much time I have left. I want to get my songs out there so that when I am gone, my message will resound through other artists. This is all I desire,” he explained.

In one of his latest songs, he claims to be a soul with no owner and well aware of how short life really is. For him, life itself is a dream come to life.