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This San Francisco street astronomer wants free telescopes on every block

Alejandro “Alex” Roman poses for a portrait next to his telescope in San Francisco on Sunday, April 2, 2023. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

If you’ve ever sauntered into or stumbled out of the Latin American Club on a Saturday night, you may have noticed a man in a fedora and long peacoat staring at the sky through an Orion telescope. 

This sidewalk stargazer is Alejandro “Alex” Roman, a resident of the Mission for nearly 50 years and a self-taught street astronomer. He usually posts up outside the bar or somewhere in the surrounding blocks Thursdays through Sundays, keeping his lens pointed at the sky into the wee hours of the morning—sometimes as late as 5 or 6 a.m. His fascination with the moon, the movement of celestial bodies and the possibility that extraterrestrial life might be out there keeps him returning night after night.     

Alejandro Roman observes the moon through his binoculars in front of Latin American Club. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

“Each one of those dots is hundreds and thousands of miles apart,” Roman said of an alignment between Jupiter and some of its moons. “I just think, ‘Wow!’ It makes you wonder …” he said, his voice drifting off. 

He said that some of his beliefs about life amongst the stars might sound a little crazy. But it just doesn’t make sense to him that the Earth is unique. 

“I don’t think we’re alone in this vast universe,” he said. “If we are, that’s a lot of wasted real estate.” 

Alejandro Roman observes the moon from his sidewalk spot just off the corner of 22nd and Valencia streets in San Francisco on Sunday, April 2, 2023. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

His telescope, decorated with donated stickers from curious passersby, is not merely a tool for exploring the heavens. It also serves as a way to break the ice with old and new neighbors, he says. And it’s been something of a lifeline for the longtime San Franciscan. Roman says he had a tough childhood, which gave way to a life of drugs and crime as a young adult.  

“I was caught up in the life. I was already a gang member,” Roman said, recalling his youth. “I was tattooed [and] was selling drugs. Had my mom worried out of her mind.” 

Alejandro Roman’s Orion telescope is covered in stickers donated by curious passersby. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

After run-ins with the law and multiple stints in prison, Roman said he decided to turn his life around. He says he checked into rehab in 1999, kicked his 20-year heroin habit and went back to school at age 45. In 2015, he started acquiring telescopes, using $1,125 in lottery winnings for his project, which he often thinks of as a community-building initiative. 

“I’ve seen this neighborhood flip at least 10 times,” Roman said of the post-gentrified Mission. “And every time people come, they’re not as open or as friendly.”

Alejandro Roman looks through his telescope at the night sky. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

The telescope is a conversation starter, he continued. “I want to know my neighbors,” he said.

Now, people will leave telescopes on Roman’s front stoop for him to repair or place in a new home. The former bike messenger, barista and day laborer, who now spends most of his days taking care of his 83-year-old mother, dreams of projecting images he’s captured of the night sky onto a wall and one day would like to acquire an acre of land out in the country where he can quietly observe the heavens. He thinks that San Francisco’s city streets should be populated with free telescopes, like the binoculars on Pier 39, for pedestrians to peer through any time—and if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos offered him a ride on a private space flight, he’d probably take them up on it. 

Alejandro Roman looks through his binoculars toward the heavens. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

“If I could have one wish, my wish would be [to] see the Earth as a marble,” Roman said. “In my older age, I really appreciate stillness, quietness. The serenity of just not hearing any noise.”

Until then, he’s found some peace, comfort and community under the starry skies of San Francisco.

“I do my best thinking under the moon,” Roman said.