Saturday, March 28, 2009

Muni, K Ingleside, Thursday afternoon from Powell Street to Castro Street

Springtime is fun because everything seems a little fresher.

I skipped out of the office a little early to meet a woodworker and burglar alarm installer (don’t ask). I grabbed my bag, went dashing out of our 13th floor office, hopped on the elevator and headed out the office building doors. I tried to speed down the stairs into the Powell Street subway station. It was difficult, as usual, getting down the stairs quickly due to one of those squads of tottering Chinese women, each holding pink plastic shopping bags overflowing with bok choy, broccoli and bittermellon. I slowed my pace as I followed them from the street into the bright fluorescent-lit public space below and then made my move to pass them. I tagged my Translink card and ran down the next flight of stairs to the track where a K Ingleside train was approaching. I hopped on the train, thrilled to get a seat at this pre-rush hour and tapped away at my iPod to listen to the Neko Case album I downloaded.

Commotion begins. As I’m easing into the music, music I’m not sure I really enjoy, I look up to see a very large wheelchair make its way on to the train. It’s one of those deluxe cushy chairs with a beige padded seat and headrest, but it looks old and a bit tattered or unclean. The occupant of the mobility device eases the chair into the doorway of the train and the defiant teens who only seconds ago had taken the space, scatter to the front of train. The man in the wheelchair adjusts his seat to recline, giving him, presumably, a better grip on the enormous cargo is transporting.

Nobody on the train can take their eyes off the cargo. I look around at my fellow passengers and see other expressions of bemusement, like mine, as well as a few of indifference, and a couple of horror. The oversized terrarium he has in his lap (and up on the arms of the chair) has a single mirrored side, which rests on the man’s stomach, reflecting the four mice inside and the many faces of the subway train passengers. As the K Ingleside train pulls out of the Powell Street station, the four mice – two solid black and two with black and white splotches – scurry about in the terrarium, pink noses sniffing the side of their cage and beady eyes peeking at the passengers staring back at them. They fling themselves at the mirrored side and then retreat. Periodically, they dash for cover in a small FiberOne bar box, partly shredded, but providing enough of a hiding place for each mouse to avoid the stares. They leap and they run and they toss aside small scraps of paper and wood shavings. The chips of wood are like those left behind from a number two pencil, one that has been sharpened deliberately by a fifth grade girl seeking to prove to her cohort that her Hello Kitty knockoff plastic sharpener produces the longest peel of pencil wood possible.

As the train departs Van Ness Station, the man in the wheelchair loses his grip on the terrarium. It slides in his lap turning forward quickly before it is maneuvered back into his lap. As the train thrashes and speeds up, the giant glass box twists periodically. I shift my focus from the animation of the mice in the box to the face of a 50-something Filipino woman five rows away. She absorbs the spectacle not with passing interest, but with a terrorized look. Her eyes are open wide, her eyebrows are arched and she struggles to maintain consistent breathing. I think to myself, “that’s my mom if she were on this train.”

With each lurch, the woman looks like she’s ready to throw herself through the train window and onto the rail tracks. But her expression has some defiance, like she’s ready to complain to someone. She’s thinking to herself about how she can get the police to remove these mice and man from the train. And then she fans her face and looks away.

In my head, I am playing out my fantasy with this woman’s expressions. I think she is reading my mind: a sudden stop – known to happen on San Francisco’s Muni trains – wood shreds, glass, a FiberOne box and mice flying through the air. The mice would scamper about the subway train, providing me with a delightful story to tell, but instilling fear in the hearts of my fellow passengers. The doors would open, they would dash onto the platform (probably to be eaten by a subway rat) and the man in the wheelchair would scream and plead for the return of his precious cargo.

As the train approaches Castro Street station, the man shifts his wheelchair forward and the mice dance around in their shreds, waiting for him – and them – to leave the train. Another passenger – a young man with a camera around his neck – snaps a photo of the mice and zips out the train doors. As I walk up the stairs to the concourse level of the station, wishing I too had taken a photo to remember the experience, I remind myself that I am happy the mice are safe in their cage. And that the woman on the train avoided a full panic attack. And that it is all still perfect springtime entertainment.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The consultant's life: Sheila E had it right

I just 'did' West Michigan in 20 hours. Everyone wants to know how I can fly across the country and spend fewer than 24 hours in one place. Well, here’s how it goes….

Hour 1. I arrived in Grand Rapids, grabbed my car from Avis, and cruised over to the Meijer store to buy some water, pomegranate juice, and some apples. But I stole the apples. It was an accident. Really. I was holding the bag of apples in my hand as I passed through the self check-out line where I scanned both of my water bottles and my overpriced pomegranate juice and put them in the bag and walked out of the store. I drove away and that’s when I realized that I had not purchased all of my goods. I had three apples in a bag that I had not paid for. I was mortified. I wanted to drive back to Meijer but didn’t have time so I resolved that I would return to Meijer in one of the next 19 hours before I flew out with a few dollars in hand to repay the fine folks at Meijer.

Hour 2. I sat in the cell phone lot at GRR, otherwise known as General Ford International Airport, in my rental Pontiac Vibe. What makes it international? They may have an occasional flight to Canada. Or maybe they used to. It was warm and I rolled down the window waiting for Paul, my friend and colleague, to call to let me know that his plane – the Northwest Airlines DC-9 that I just saw fly over the highway – had landed and he was in Grand Rapids and waiting for me to pick him up. He called and I swept by the passenger pick-up area and we cruised off to Grand Haven.

Hour 3. We arrived in Grand Haven and decided to explore the town. And the neighboring townships and villages. We drove by the waterfront and then the Meijer – where I thought about running in and giving the manager three dollars for my stolen apples – and we drove by schools and Wal-Mart and a movie theater and the Holiday Inn where we would have to return in another hour. Then we stopped at a pasta joint in downtown Grand Haven and went inside to eat and rehearse our presentation for tomorrow.

Hour 4. I ate walleye, which sort of freaked me out because it tasted a bit like walls with eyes (and fish skin) and said thank you about 15 times to the waiter who seemed to want to leave but was very cheery while he was forced to wait on our table. Paul and I practiced what we would say over and over and then I got really tired.

Hour 5. We drove to Spring Lake to the gloomy Holiday Inn. Walked from the empty parking lot into the gray building and walked up to the night clerk at the front desk. Paul confessed we had a Hotwire reservation for our two rooms, and told the desk clerk we expected cots in the basement. The guy behind the desk had probably heard that one before, but he forced a laugh and said that wouldn’t happen. Instead, we got rooms overlooking the busy highway that was up on a steep hill, which meant that is was essentially right outside my fourth-floor window. The room had purple carpet and weird beige wallpaper. I ironed my clothes with the fancy Proctor-Silex and made phone calls to my friend Joshua who couldn’t talk because his mom was in the car and then Brad, who told me about his exciting day – oh it was so exciting – and I told him it was time for me to go to bed. Then I went on Facebook and befriended the woman I chatted with on my flight from San Francisco to Chicago. I’ll tell you more about her another time. And then I set two alarms and got into bed.

Hour 6. In that comfy Holiday Inn bed, I reviewed the proposal I would be discussing tomorrow and tried to talk to myself. After about 30 minutes I figured I sounded smart enough and decided to pop in my earplugs and turn out the lights. I slept.

Hour 7. I slept.

Hour 8. I slept.

Hour 9. I slept.

Hour 10. I slept.

Hour 11. I slept.

Hour 12. I slept. (I snore, by the way. I don't think it's sleep apnea, but I feel like my throat closes up when I sleep so I can't breathe. I think that's not really good. I think I need to see a doctor and have a sleep study.)

Hour 13. I slept. Just a little more.

Hour 14. I was awake. Both alarms went off at the same time. I showered and dressed and shoved my stuff back in my suitcase. I walked out into the dreary Holiday Inn hallway and Paul was there. Along with my free USA Today.* Does anyone really subscribe to this newspaper? We took the elevator downstairs, snagged the baggies of free muffins and apple juice, and drove to a diner downtown for breakfast.

Hour 15. We ate breakfast and practiced again what we would say if we were asked difficult questions about our skills. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she could serve me a small portion of the whitefish pate, from the lunch menu, in a little container to accompany a bagel. And I wanted a sunshine fruit cup. Unfortunately, the smoked whitefish pate tasted a bit like smoked walleye smashed into a little tin and nearly made me hurl during our rehearsal.

Hour 16. We headed to the interview at the Community Center. We were seated on a stage and were asked a gazillion different questions by a panel of five people. We gave them a brief presentation, and showed them a short video of a groggy coworker talking about her skills (I made the video using Windows movie maker). And then we answered more questions.

Hour 17. We kept talking and answering questions. This is why we’d flown across the country: to answer questions and let these people know that we really did, in fact, actually know what we were talking about and would be the best damn team for this project. Who knows what they thought? They thought our project budget was too high.

Hour 18. We swung by the local transit agency to pick up the surveys they had collected for us. I promised I would take them home and make sure the data was entered. Then Paul and I drove to the Grand Haven beach and cruised around the parking lot (not in a creepy way or a teenager way). We didn’t park in it because we didn’t want to pay the $8 day use fee for a 20-minute parking bonanza , so we drove two blocks back and parked in a free parking space and walked back along the boardwalk until it got really cold and windy, and the water from Lake Michigan started to crash against the pier. We started to get wet and the man with one leg’s daughter continued to drag the puppy on the leash out toward the end of the increasingly wet pier and the puppy scampered and crawled away from the Lake that seemed to want to swallow it up. So we walked back to the car and drove north to Muskegon, to The Lakes Mall.

Hour 19. We stopped at Starbucks at The Lakes Mall because Paul wanted to pee and get a sandwich. But there were no sandwiches in this little Starbucks in front of The Lakes Mall, so while he went to pee I got some tea. And then we continued driving, up to Interstate-96, taking the freeway to Grand Rapids, passing back by the very smelly stretch of highway near Coopersville. The smell may be related to a sewage plant or a cow explosion. We weren’t sure.

Hour 20. Paul and I stopped for gas at the CITGO, a gasoline retailer I like to support because Hugo Chavez sort of owns it and made it illegal for CITGO employees to carry guns. Some Americans got up in arms (not literally, because they would if they could). So that’s why I get gas there. Not that I like Hugo Chavez at all. I just hate Americans who go berserk when people tell them guns should be outlawed. After getting gas, we drove to Gerald Ford Airport, returned the car to Avis, walked inside the airport and checked in. We went to the bathroom to put on jeans and stuff our interview clothes back into suitcases and get on our planes.

So that’s it. That’s the intriguing hour-by-hour of a consultant’s whirlwind trip from California to Michigan. Now you can see that I’m definitely not in the job for the money: it’s all about amazing experiences, exquisite cuisine, balmy beaches, luxurious hotels and those little perks.

I hopped on the plane and flew away, knowing that if I’d had only one more hour, I could have gone back to Meijer and apologize to a cashier and pay for the apples. The good thing is that even if we don’t win this project, I have another one in Michigan, so I will be back, and I will pay for those damn apples. I promise.

*Sure, they say it’s free, but if you ask to ‘refuse’ your paper, you get a 50¢ credit.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Joey's Canned Meat Treats on Facebook

There's nothing like the cheery face on the can of Bullens
Pilsner Korv to keep you coming back for more

Ever since I was forced to join Facebook, a couple of weeks after my 40th birthday, I have become a minor addict of the site, dropping by for a few minutes once or twice each day. It’s become important to me to update my status and let everyone know crap they don’t care about. And it’s also become a place to showcase my canned meat collection.

Canned meat, you ask? But of course. It remains my fastest growing collection, both in terms of the size of the collection and the bacteria which seem to enjoy the Pork Brains in Milk Gravy. And for years, as I have been meticulously building my army of tin cans filled with sausage, luncheon loaf, ground meats, and animal parts, I have been trying to figure out the best way to display it. Currently, it resides on my bookcase at work, with all of the cans stuffed into a small shelf (and some overflow space on top of the bookcase). I had thought – and obsessed a little bit – of buying some acrylic molds and lots of liquid acrylic and making acrylic blocks of my canned meat collection, with each can in the middle of a solid, clear cube. It thought it would be a best strategy to protect the collection from rust and bacterial explosions. And then I would build a wall of them at home. The problem is that would not be attractive.

One explosion. I’ve only had one explosion. The can of Armour Pork Brains in Pork Gravy given to me by my former office manager, Richard Smith, and certainly one of the catalysts for the fast-growing collection – exploded last year, popping the top off the bulging tin of cholesterol-leaden hog thoughts. Astonished and fearful of a botulism-induced paralysis epidemic in my office, I carefully wrapped the deceased can in a pile of twenty plastic bags from Walgreen’s and carried it down the hallway to dispose of it in the kitchen garbage. Then I took the kitchen garbage bag and tied it in a knot.

I threw open all of the windows in my office. As my colleagues walked by and asked what was happening, I sheepishly reported the pork brains had exploded and I was trying to make sure everyone if the office wasn’t going to die.

A better idea. I thought it would be great to make a website dedicated to all of the cans. You know, maybe give each can its own web page and write witty remarks about the shape of the sausages in the can or the weird Chinese letters all over the can or what does “one whole chicken” look like when you take it out of the can. I would allow people to comment and share their experiences with Corn Crib Corned Beef and Prem. I looked for the right web domain, considering and and other absurd things that would be a wonderful way to waste my time and channel my creative energies.

Then Facebook came along. And the opportunity to create an application.

Facebook is all about absurd gifts. Frank sent me Quaker gifts and crappy books. Robin sent me hatching eggs. Andrew sent me a mojito. And I sent them all canned meat.

Introducing Joeys’ Canned Meat Treats. Perhaps not one of the most popular applications yet, but it’s on its way up with nearly 700 cans from my collection “gifted” from one Facebook member to another. I only have seven fans, including myself, which is a bit shameful (so this is a plug to please become a fan of the little photos of the cans!) And then give everyone you a know a gnarly can of pig, sheep, cow, reindeer, chicken, turkey, snail, duck, rabbit, and the many other animals I cannot recall at the moment. Most of them have been chopped up and shaped, so you really don’t have to worry about the poor creatures. I hope I can honor them by not opening the cans and not eating them.

What’s the most popular can to date? Everyone really likes Goblin Meat Pudding. More of those have been given than any other meat. The other “top” gifts, as of this entry, are as follows in this order:

· Armour Pork Brains in Milk Gravy

· Rose Pork Brains in Milk Gravy

· Ye Old Oak Lunch Tongue

· Unpeeled Tongues

· Beverly Bulk Sausage

· Piggy Cocktail Sausage

· One Whole Chicken

· Hill Country Fare Luncheon Loaf

· Baldinger’s Chopped Liver

· And Piggy Wiggly Vienna Sausage

Really, really old SPAM (as displayed in the original collection on the bookshelf)

Some of the cans are special, like an original pre-1937 can of Hormel Spiced Ham, before it was renamed SPAM, which was found by my colleague Kara on a hike. And some of the cans are inconsequential, and I have accidentally purchased duplicates of some of the meat products. I’ve also been given duplicates as gifts. I have two cans of both SPAM with Cheese and SPAM Hawaii.

I will run out of cans eventually for upload to Facebook, but for now I have been uploading 12 cans each month. I still have several months of uploads left. And then I will rely on the kindness of other world travelers to help build the collection.

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