Sunday, December 27, 2009

2010: The hiatus is over

It's been a long, long year. It sucked. And there was not much time to rant and rave about all of the things that sucked.

My apologies for blowing you off the last few months, but I moved into my remodeled house and worked too hard at the same time.

I'm chilling out now and will have plenty more to complain about shortly. Stay tuned. And Happy New Year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We were at 17

I had a relaxing flight from San Francisco to Dallas this afternoon. An open seat to my left in United’s Economy Plus section; I half-watched a movie while I worked; I listened to music for a while and made sure to avoid that Public Works Department Show starring Amy Poehler which they showed after the movie, because it’s annoying and reminds me too much of my real job. Tomorrow I fly back on the cheapest flight possible, which as usual, is on the worst airline possible: US Airways. Hopefully things will go smoothly and the air conditioning will work properly, which it did not on my flight from Charlotte to SFO last week. Hopefully there will actually be air vents on the plane, unlike the junky old US Airways flight I took from Phoenix to Houston a few weeks ago, which was most unpleasant as I fanned myself with my barf bag.

Prior to boarding my flight in San Francisco, I was working in a carrel in the Red Carpet Club – United Airlines’ version of a private waiting room with snacks, magazines, Wi-Fi, TVs and workspace. And as I was working I heard a loud man’s voice approach. “But you’re not listening. We were going at 17%.” And then the voice passed as promptly as it came. I continued clicking on my computer keyboard and then heard the same voice even louder approaching me. “Swell. Scott is an asshole. You need to invest $10 million of your own money in shares to make this work. That’s what I was saying.” I stood up to look at the body from which this voice boomed. It was a 50-year old guy wearing old man’s jeans, with dark hair and some gray, wire frame glasses and, of course, a mobile phone in his hand. He didn’t see me and I sat back down in the Herman Miller chair that’s a twin to the one I have at work.

He was marching around in the Red Carpet Lounge business center talking at top volume – yes, probably a New Yorker – having a private business conversation about getting screwed over by some deal that wasn’t going to go through.

I got pissy at first. Then I was struck with evil gleeful thoughts that I actually heard myself muttering aloud. Every time he’d pass, oblivious to the fact there were other people all around him working in the carrels, I’d hear his agitated pleas into the phone “We need to tell them this is some serious stuff” and I’d whisper, “I hope his business deal fails. What a jerk.” A few minutes later, talking as if he were ordering a team of commandos scattering about on the other end of the phone line to make way for his booming voice: “Tell them they need to make 17 work. That’s what we agreed to.” And I’d grumble: “Ha, ha. Hope you only get 12%.” He passed by over and over again, having one of those conversations on his phone that I’ve only seen on television shows where mass murderers are on the phone yelling at somebody to help them cover their tracks: pacing, emotional and making a racket.

The next time he came by, I stood up, walked into the aisle where he was pacing and stared at him. “Yeah, but that’s 17%! No, there are no showers in this lounge!” he roared and then saw me giving him the evil eye. He gave me a look of disgust and walked to the back of the club. I didn’t see him again.

Silence at last. Though now I overheard a conversation in another carrel that included “delivering 18 airbus planes in the next six months before the two really start to merge.” I figured he was a Continental Airlines executive planning to take over United Airlines. I doubt they could accomplish that in six months anyway. He spoke at a normal volume and wasn’t having a panic attack so I lost interest and typed an email to my coworker. Just then I smelled cigarette smoke. Do you remember the last time you smelled cigarette smoke? Years? In an airport? I stood up and saw smoke coming from the carrel two down from mine and saw a bewildered Japanese man standing behind the carrel looking around. I walked right over the man and only then realized he wasn’t the offender. The carrel in front of him had another Japanese man wearing a baseball cap and jacket puffing away on a cigarette and using one of the styrofoam cereal bowls from the breakfast bar as his ashtray.

I said to the man, “You cannot smoke.”

He looked at me and said, “Oh? Really?”

And I said “You cannot smoke anywhere in the airport.” Then I harrumphed and turned away as he was mashing his fag into the ash-covered, butt-marked bowl.

Do I have to be the safety and good behavior monitor in the United Red Carpet Club? No smoking. No shouting. Who cares about your $10 Million deal? I am getting cranky so I will stop here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blueberries thrill me

See what I picked in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fat people’s supermarket and skinny people’s supermarket

In San Francisco, two supermarkets stand at opposite corners, along Folsom Street at 14th Street. One of these supermarkets has the fattest clientele in San Francisco; the other has the skinniest clientele.

Foods Co. I used to shop at Foods Co from time to time. This is a store owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger, which also operated San Francisco’s depressing Bell Markets and Cala Foods until most of them were shuttered in the last two years. I once ran into someone I knew at Foods Co who said to me, “Wow. You do ghetto shopping too?”

The front parking lot of Foods Co is littered with cola cans, pork rinds bags and broken grocery carts tucked between Cadillacs, small Hyundais, Toyotas and small trucks. The sidewalks around the parking lot are covered with blankets and pigeons and a handful of homeless men with grocery carts, suitcases, bushels, and bags. The sidewalks have never been swept and are only washed by San Francisco’s wintertime rain showers.

What I describe may sound like an upsetting science fiction film, but turn and face the store and you’ll see the newly added aluminum siding and false fa├žade enhancements that make the store appear to be a welcoming, sprawling suburban-style grocery. Walk through the glass doors, past the two security guards talking about their kids in prison or their cousin who was shot and take a whiff of the produce. The remodeled store is characterized by its concrete floors and bag-it-yourself checkouts, just like they had at Cub Foods when I was a child in Atlanta.

Foods Co has an amazing display of produce. Although some bins are filled with remainder plums, squished and oozing, most of the produce department is characterized by bins of red mangos, stacks of key limes, piles of pineapple, tomatillos, jicama, papayas, watermelons, yellow melons, green melons and bittermelon – all of the produce that the average white person doesn’t eat. All of the subsequent aisles are bursting with Kroger brand chips and cereal and frozen potatoes and an otherwise good supermarket selection of brand-name boxed and jarred and bagged products, with their colorful labels competing for space on the warehouse-style supermarket’s shelves. The cheese aisle is filled with 20 kinds of American cheese, Velveeta, cotija and other Mexican cheeses. The chilled drink aisle has the usual orange juice cartons, along with jugs of brightly colored fruit-flavored drinks, horchata, Sunny Delight, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, banana milk, and even more of corn syrup-packed fruit nectars.

I wandered into Foods Co Friday to buy some rum, limes, and ingredients for guacamole. All of the liquor is displayed on shelves behind lock and key up at the front of the store, with signs glued to the screen directing patrons to request alcoholic beverages from the cashier, just to make the check-out process take even longer for the poor souls waiting in line behind the wino redeeming food stamps. Fortunately for me, I found the tequila and rum cabinet had been left unlocked, so I pried open the door and dug through all of the fruit-flavored store brand rums to find a basic bottle of Bacardi. Then I marched over to the produce department to grab limes and tomatoes and onions, before heading to the back of the store for Perrier and chips. And when I returned to the front of the store to go to the checkout, I was hit with a clusterfuck of shoppers waiting to check out, no lane with fewer than 10 patrons, and the express lanes reaching halfway to the back of the store. It was as if the disarray from the front parking lot had been transported inside. I was an American visiting a supermarket in the USSR trying to figure out to which of the day-long lines I would assign myself. I stood in one for a while and looked around all of the people. The enormous woman in the motorized wheelchair buying six plastic three-gallon tubs of Kreem Tastee Neapolitan Ice Cream, potato salad, ground beef and lots and lots of chips. She seemed to know all of the other plus size patrons and was talking about how she loved her ice cream. I did exactly what large people do not like less large people to do when we are in the supermarket: I scanned their grocery carts. Jumbo hunks of cheese, piles of pasta, gallons of gloopy colorful drinks, flats of chicken thighs, packages of ham and bologna, large squeezable jars of mayonnaise, pre-made roasted chicken, and cola. Lots of cola. And dusty Mexican cookies and garbage can-sized bags of fun size candies (which I really consider to be sad size because they are so small, individually). This mass of humanity . And their carts filled and their food stamps ready for their purchases.

I switched to another line which only had three carts in front of me, not realizing that it was an express lane. I finally realized it was an express lane when the checker on my lane made an announcement over the store’s scratchy intercom system that lane 8 was limited to 15 items or less. Here, I would be negligent if I left out some of the ethnicities involves, because it was indeed a Black woman with incredibly long eyelashes and meticulously straightened hair behind the cash register who looked at the Chinese woman whose ramen noodle purchase would have exceeded the express lane’s limitations by a factor of 8. The Chinese woman took out her wallet and handed a $10 bill to each of her children and they went about dividing up the purchases to make them look smaller (maybe 30 items per person?) and each took a separate turn passing by the cash register. I sighed loudly about ten times, but my white man sighs were nothing compared to the look of a Black woman who is angry at a Chinese woman.

I finally made my purchase, put my items in a “green” bag I’d brought along, and walked out of the store. Feeling skinny and rattled and grateful not to be on welfare.

Which logo do you like better?

Across the street. Rainbow Grocery is a large supermarket, and is operated as a worker’s cooperative. The store is open almost every day of the year, excepting a few holidays, including Labor Day and Gay Pride Day. The store has three parking lots, one of which is shaded and partly sheltered, while others surround the store, offering car access from three different streets. Unlike the Foods Co logo, which Brad suggested was designed by the kid of a middle manager in Cincinnati, Rainbow Grocery has a lovingly designed image and hand-painted logo on the exterior of the store. The parking lots are clean and filled Subarus, old Volvos, VWs, Mini Coopers and SMART Cars, along with dozens of bicycles chained to the outside of the store. A security guard stands in the lot and directs people to their parking space, while animal rescue and recycling representatives solicit customers as they enter or exit the store.

Inside, the store feels green: the lights are bit dim, the shelves are made of wood, and the smell is unmistakably health food. A counter for recycling and community announcements, ATMs, and other things I’ve never given much attention to stand at the front of the store. Once you pass through the gate, you’re immediately in the bulk foods section, with a u-shaped aisle of spices and teas, followed by another with nuts, grains and legumes. The shoppers go about scooping small amounts of juniper berries or organic bay leaves into paper sacks and writing the product code on them. Some people fill their own spice sacks or jars they brought from home.

The produce department in the back of the store is preceded by a chilled dried fruit aisle, with beautiful dried blueberries selling for more than all of the ramen noodles at Foods Co. Behind the dried fruit are locally farmed apples, berries, peaches and corn. There are kales and chards of many colors and bundles of organic carrots in red, purple white, and of course, orange hues.
Just past the produce department is a busy little cheese department with samples of raw sheep’s milk cheese from Ecuador and blocks and block of coffee-crusted Edam and olive-infused cheddar. The rest of the store is mostly aisles of packaged health foods and alternative products designed to complete directly with the foods being sold across the street at Foods Co. And of course there are a couple of aisles of vitamins and herbal supplements and shampoos without sodium lauryl sulfate.

Walking into Rainbow a couple of days ago, our goal was to find something for dinner. I headed to the soup aisle and found a can of natural non-pureed split pea soup. I also gathered a few yellow pluots, while Brad picked up a couple of orange tomatoes and a carton of wildberry kefir. I snatched a box of unsweetened almond milk to go with the cereal we had back at home and Brad pulled a box of organic saltines from the shelf.

It was not especially busy at the front of the store, but on certain days of the month, the store is a mob scene, with hippies who steal telephone books from Foods Co scrambling to redeem their “20% off your entire purchase” coupons. I have not experienced that crush load, but Brad found it on a recent expedition and walked out, giving up on some fresh cheese and breads to eat Foods Co garden burgers with me. Tonight, it was mellow, with space between the patchouli-scented beings who worked and shopped at the store. I looked at all of the employees and saw a cast of malnourishment: thin lanky bodies made to look more durable with big heads of curly hair. Women with long multicolored braids, their breasts swaddled in flowing sheer robes, making them appear larger than the stick figures they were. Although the Foods Co shoppers are primarily non-white, the Rainbow shoppers are mostly white, but I honed in on a few skinny ashen Latino children with gay parents and a Black family with dreadlocked children analyzing a wrapped package of Newman’s Own version of Oreos.

Rainbow’s strategy is to sell small lots of expensive high-quality food, so people who shop there will have very little to eat when they get home and will come back to the store tomorrow just as skinny as they were yesterday, withered but flexible from hot tubs and yoga and herbs to keep them tiny. As I took my change back from the double-pierced young cashier, I dropped the few measly pennies into my pocket and strutted out, hungrier than when I had arrived, but with a satchel of greens and healthy crackers and peas in a can that would provide my basic nourishment until I would have to return with my oversized body for more food the next day.

As I walked past a cashier with no visible signs of a butt and a young woman as pale as two day old boiled quinoa, I felt my obese self craving the squalor and brightly packaged foods of Foods Co, where a donut would surely be cooked in Crisco rather than cultured out of wheatless grains. I did not know where I belonged.

To be the skinniest person at Foods Co or the fattest person at Rainbow?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sleeping in other people's beds

Living in California, I have known many people who are surfers. In Southern California, they pull on their swimsuits, jump in the van and launch down to a swath of ocean known for its rideable waves. In Northern California, they ease their bodies into their chilled, damp wetsuits and head to Pacifica or Ocean Beach to lollygag in the fog until they sense a big wave’s coming to carry them to shore.

Many people who are not water surfers are web surfers, taking an occasional peek at You Tube or eBay, or reading those witty random blogs full of other people’s bitter complaints.

My calling appears to have been for neither the wet nor the electronic: instead I am a couch surfer. Since November 2008, I have not lived in my own home. I have lived in friends’ apartments, houses, studios and guest bedrooms. Most of that time was spent in my friend Mike’s place, and Brad and I paid rent to make it happen, sharing a studio – charming, but nevertheless, a studio – to live under three young strapping 20-somethings who entertained themselves with karaoke and barbecues.

When you stay in someone else’s house for so long, you learn some things about them, perhaps things that you already know, but things that nevertheless make an impression on you because it is an indication that their life is different from yours.

Mike’s place is beautiful, with elegant finishes and top designer furnishings. But Mike obviously likes to sleep on a very firm mattress, doesn’t mind having small spaces for storage, and has no issues with reaching under his sink to plug in the garbage disposal when he wants to use it. We loved Mike’s beautiful oven; lush, fruit-filled garden; built in flat screen television, attractive paints and tiles and rugs. But it was not home: we like much softer mattresses, so I ran off to Ross to buy a clearance memory foam pad to soften the surface for us.

Our next couch surfing experience was furnished by Jeanna and Ale. They have a newly remodeled, rebuilt house with a funny dog to take care of.

Being with a dog was a completely foreign thing to me, but my week-and-a-half with Lola was a success. She has many really good qualities. She’s stubborn, sentimental, obedient on a walk, pays no attention to you in the house, can be tricked by the doorbell, sleeps a lot, She also sighs a lot, snores, throws up when she’s upset and will wait for hours to eat her food if no one is there to watch her eat. She seems miserable inside the house and like a lioness when she’s outside. She could care less about most other dogs that run up to sniff her butt, but she’ll stay by your side when she’s off her leash. What I like about her is that she seems a little depressed. Hers is a down in the dumps depression: she goes around with the weight of the world on her shoulders and not getting what she wants out of it. She’s a dog who behaves like a person.

I suppose I’ve gotten sidetracked with Lola, but the house itself is mostly black and steel and plywood inside, with an assortment of rustic Heath tiles in kitchen and bath and an amazing glowy red bathroom coated in water-resistant epoxy. It’s an interesting and beautiful house filled with unusual art and a stellar collection of taxidermy, which intrigues me. But they shower, use the toilet and the bidet everyday in a big glass bathroom showing off their naked bodies and all of their bodily functions to the neighbors. No trip to Ross would allow me to adapt their way of living to our bathroom shyness, so we showered downstairs in the guest bathroom surrounded by snappy white and red Heath tiles.

The next house was Mark’s Bernal Heights Edwardian, a terrific pad with a beautiful garden that he remodeled and re-landscaped himself several years ago. It was also a dog sitting stint.
This dog, Cooper was more dog-like than Lola, but like Lola, I also perceive him to have some issues. Cooper is staunchly loyal to his master, Mark, and will fret if Mark is out of site, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of Mark wherever he may be. He adapted easy to us, but is clearly a one-owner dog: if Cooper is faced with a choice of two directions to travel, he will go wherever Mark goes, even if it’s the less exciting of the two directions. With two of us going in two directions… poor Cooper.

Whereas Lola will avoid making eye contact, Cooper will study your face and offer a host of weird expressions, like he’s trying to become like you. If you’re smiling, Cooper will smile and jump up to hug you. If you look angry or sad, Cooper will tilt his head to the side as if trying to figure out what he can do to improve your mood, waiting for a smile to crack so he can dash over and share the joke with you. He’s fiercely obedient and will gleefully show his skills at high jump, high five, rolling over, and spinning in the air, climbing a tree, and other feats best undertaken by a dog.

Again, walking a dog was a new routine for me, but the house also had a few things to adapt to, mostly related to Cooper. Mark’s home has gorgeous Douglas fir floors and a terrific kitchen with an old oven and a very modern centerpiece sink that’s set forward between his butcher block countertops. His second story is a bewildering array of storage rooms and guest rooms and an office. And everywhere you go, Cooper is there. Again, no Ross purchase could have helped me adapt to Mark’s living experience, with the furry and loving paws of Cooper tugging my blankets every morning at 6:15, indicating he’s ready for food. Or Cooper’s reaction to some of the most basic actions I did, like closing the back door (he would run to the front, excited to go for a walk) or putting on my jacket (he would run to the back deck waiting for a treat and to be locked outside). I confess I am in love with Cooper in a way Lola would not allow me to love her, but having a spunky dog around means your life is not quite your own.

The next couch surf took us to New Hampshire, because there were no local couches with availability. A rustic stay in a 100+ year-old cottage on an island in a lake, all of my routines and comforts were lost. We wrapped the bunk bed mattresses in vinyl protectors to trap the mold inside and added foam covers and mattress pads on top to improve the sleeping experience. The solution to adapt the sleeping solution to my needs was lots of Claritin, Flonase and Benadryl. No Ross for miles.

And now I am on my final couch surf. We temporarily reside at Lou and Neil’s modern, hip SOMA/Mission digs, enjoying views in all directions, Cubba original paintings, great cross breezes, a very comfortable choice of three showers, and a kitchen decked out for gourmet culinary accomplishments, not to mention a Brian Barneclo mural that never quits intriguing me. It is the perfect final couch surf of our journey. We find ourselves lounging on their ultra-lounge comfortable sofa and pondering the purpose of the fireplace tools in front of the gas fireplace. Remarkably they have already made some of the adaptations that we would have made: a hepa air purifier whirs and refreshes while we sleep, bed sheets are light and airy, and the fresh mint in the garden helped us create memorable mojitos. The only thing I would need to do if I lived here would be to lug out the Ross memory foam to better approach my sleep number, but otherwise all is good.

I am a nomad. I don’t know where my bed is. I don’t know what my own house is like. I know what I would need to do to adapt other people’s houses to suit me if I lived there for a long time. And others will need to adapt to mine to satisfy their own living habits. But I offer many thanks and not a speck of criticism to friends who have offered us the couch surfing experience. You have let us live your experience and make only minor shifts to allow us to find a comfortable zone inside.

And now that I’ve nearly finished my couch surfing. I am ready to move on to web surfing or water surfing.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Why won’t people do what I want them to do? I can look at person and think to myself that I would not do that if I were them, and they do it anyway. They talk in ways that I don’t like, do things that are unhealthy or annoying. Some of my peeves:

The old couple with the Texas accents at the Houston airport opening Wendy’s salt packets with their teeth and dumping them on a hamburger for the husband of the pair to eat. He will surely die of a heart attack. Why do they do that?

People who do not know how to manage meetings. They have lots of interesting things to talk about – things that are interesting and pertinent only to them. They waste my time, and sometimes my project budgets, because the meeting schedule was not organized or facilitated to maximize the value of my participation. And so I sit there and squirm and think about how I would be managing the meeting to get a better outcome. I’m good at that stuff, but apparently other people are not. Why do they do that?

People who don’t believe in change. How can you buy the same tube of toothpaste every time you go to the store? Or stay at the same vacation home year after year? Republicans don’t believe in change and, frankly, I can’t understand why they exist. Change is critical, especially for those of use with short attention spans, but some people are so rigid. Why do they do that?

Couples that cover for one another. I know several married couples where one spouse covers for the faults of his or her partner. The husband tells bawdy jokes or talks about inappropriate things and his spouse says nothing and pretends that husband-dearest was just a little tired that evening. Or one person in a couple doesn’t take full responsibility for caring for the child, and the other member of the couple just says that perhaps someday things will change. Why do they do that?

People who stay in jobs forever. A job is fun for a couple of years and then begins to lose its luster, even if it’s a job you basically like. You end up doing them same things over and over again and attend dozens of meet and greets with new employees and they all leave and you’re still there trying to figure out what do to with the rest of your life. Why do they do that?

People who live in dull places and acknowledge it. I think San Francisco is a great place, and I don’t understand when people say negative things about their own cities. I don’t mean that I can’t complain about our insane politics, lousy Muni transit service, or high prices. If you’re going to live in a dull place, own in and be proud of it. If not move to a city you like. Not to pick on any cities in particular, but when I’ve been asked where I’m from by people who live in cities like Atlanta; Houston; Grand Rapids; Phoenix, Bakersfield; Lafayette, Indiana; or Columbus, to name a few, and I get the reply “Oh, wow. You’re so lucky. It’s so nice there,” I think to myself, “Oh wow, then why don’t you move there if you feel like you’re unlucky to live in a place that you feel is not so nice?” I just want to hear everyone say they love the city where they live. A lot. Why do they do that?

People who get overly stressed and panicky. There are plenty of things to make a person freak out. On nearly every corner there’s a car crossing through an intersection or a person running toward you. How can you really drive your car safely without running over small children? What’s up with flying – blasting through the air in a big metal tube? Being in Hawaii surrounded by thousands of miles of oceans in every direction? Being at the top of a very tall building? So many things exist to freak us out, but so few of them actually succeed. But some people are at the mercy of their irrational panic and fear. Why do they do that?

I have buried two of my faults in the list above, just so I don’t sounds too overly negative about everyone else. Anyone who knows me well would be able to guess them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A tale of two cities

Detroit is the city that played a major role in changing the world for the worse. And in the end, the world got back at it, leaving it one of the most troubled – and troubling – cities in the hemisphere. Ann Arbor, I learned today, is the fantasy complement to the hard core reality of Detroit.

I started my day in lively Ann Arbor. It’s a small city, and it would feel too small for me to live there today, but its riverside parks and greenways and plazas around the University of Michigan campus provide a quintessentially college town setting. Before I moved there to go to college, I thought about why they would name this place Ann Arbor. I always pictured two young women sitting under a gazebo (I don’t know why I didn’t think of an arbor), and one of them was named Ann. I didn’t give a name to the other woman, but for purposes of reminiscing about a memory I don’t really remember, we’ll call her darling Deirdre. In my mind, they would meet every day and sit in a swing or on a bench under the gazebo. Ann was very kind and very smart. When Deirdre died suddenly in childbirth, Ann insisted to her father, the farmstead administrator, that he rename the gazebo for Deidre, perhaps calling it Deirdre Arbor. But nobody in the unnamed community liked it – so difficult to pronounce, they worried it would be called Deer Drarber – and they asked the administrator to name it after his daughter, Ann, because it was Ann who was so kind to want to name it for Deirdre. And when Anne died, they went ahead and named the whole town after that gazebo.

I don’t know why I thought of this story but it was one that made some sense to me. And today, my friend Robin and her mother Pam – the famed Guenzels of Ann Arbor for whom the town should later be renamed by Bob, the county administrator, accompanied me on a tour of their fine village. The streets were lined with artists manufacturing merriment, selling their Panera pan and Greek Chili dogs, but also woodcutters and whimsy-makers, fairies and painters, but mostly stern looking women from the Midwest with that look that would be accepted as lesbian anywhere else in the country, but here it’s perfectly normal to walk around without makeup and have your hair chopped into a hairstyle that looks unpleasant to touch. These women, and a host of retired men, toted marketing bags and pocketbook purchases from the Art Fairs of yore. They sought a perfectly executed painting or a colorfully felted bag or a wood block print or a block of wood or a local guitarist’s DVDs to play when one seeks harmony in the afternoon summertime heat. I bought a wood block with an old woman sprayed in black paint onto its pink flowery surface.

I always crave a good street fair and am often left disappointed by the trashy street closures that claim to be street fairs in San Francisco every weekend during the cold summer and balmy fall months. But this Ann Arbor fair was a spectacle with lots and lots of terrible art, some good art, bad [very, very bad] Splenda-covered microwave popcorn that Pam and I sampled, and lots of good looking and smelling food. I should also mention the booths filled with socialists and foreskin reclaimers and bunny rescuers and those freaky sad Jews for Jesus.

In downtown Ann Arbor, I discovered the fairies really do live there, and a few goblins, with many buildings having hidden entrances for fairies or goblins only. It’s a bit inspiring, especially for the children, but it also reminds me a little bit of the crap one would buy at a Mole Hole or Gold Crown Hallmark Store.

After Zingerman’s Road House and art and terrific hospitality at the Guenzel Inn, dining with renowned LEED-certified architect Dave Richardson and child language expert/author Debbie Feit, not to mention low-humidity 75-degree temperatures, it wasn’t easy to sneak away from a town that once was home, but now is a series of strange memory flashes. At one point, we walked along the side of a downtown building, and there I remembered hearing about vaginal discharge from a friend of mine in college. At another corner, I remembered meeting someone for a blind date. As we walked by Cottage Inn Pizza, my salivary glands remembered the flavor of Spicy Mediterranean pizza, and as I looked into storefronts that are not as they once were, I remembered what was there when I was there before. To me, Ann Arbor is a fantasy of what it was, and even when I see new buildings and restaurants, I still am unable to update my mental inventory of buildings and businesses and keep them current. I think they will always slip back to recollections rather than reality, like a person with short-term memory loss or Alzheimer’s.

Ann Arbor progresses; Detroit falls. Detroit is something different. I often read news stories about Detroit; I hear NPR features on Detroit. I remember spending some time in Detroit, being afraid for my life to see so much decay and inept political ruin. Detroit will always be America’s shame, and could fade to ghost status. Or it could become something remarkably different and special if it were undertaken as a special project to create something that matches the memories of how it once was. In every story I hear of Detroit, people talk about what used to be there: the successful hat shop, the glamorous restaurant, the remarkable lobby of a building downtown, a full block of houses. Young people working hard in good jobs. Neighbors who didn’t set the neighborhood on fire every October.

Unlike most American cities that have grown away from what they once were, with new housing developments and new urban communities, Detroit could recreate itself as it was: the classic, successful, robust American City built on manufacturing. Our country still needs to manufacture things: solar panels, computer components, water filtration systems, wind mills, building materials, energy-saving materials, transit rail cars, and buses. Even cars. But Detroit will have to get over itself to return to itself. New technology center? I don’t think so. The tech people will be happier in other cities. Union bosses? Probably not. They are to share some of the blame for what happened to Detroit, and a break from the promises of the Big Three would be needed to manufacture everything else our country needs. What Detroit needs is restoration, not progress. Restoration of good schools, low crime, good transportation, nice neighborhoods. With these in place, Detroit can change. Without them Detroit will wither.

Even if Detroit disappears, it will still have an airport. I ended my Ann Arbor afternoon at the Detroit-Wayne County Airport, major hub of what was once Republic Airlines and then Northwest Orient and then Northwest and now Delta. A center for reinvention if I’ve ever seen one. It was my first time in the airport for a long time, and I had never experienced the immensity and efficiency and cleanliness and self promotion of this marvelous airport. With Northwest’s nearly 40 year-old DC-9s, one of which I just flew, the only thing the airline had going for itself was its hub, and now it’s a Delta hub. Another point for Atlanta business management, another loss of what once was in Detroit. Detroit takes another step toward losing something that signified it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Selling frutas

There is a discussion in our house that one day we’ll recount for our children those rough days during the recession of2009 when people were so poor, they had to sell fresh fruit on the street.
This week I have had the opportunity to experience Houston, San Diego, and of course, my own home town, San Francisco. I’ve given each city an urban planning check-up and decided that San Francisco is the most Latin American of any of them, because of the fruit.

Although I spent the earlier part of this week in Houston – which is not unlike a large Latin American city in that it sprawls, has lots of poor people on the fringes, is incredibly hot and has a collapsing infrastructure of incomplete sidewalks, dangerous intersections without traffic signals, and oddly pieced together parcels of land with lots of gates around them – San Francisco has the fruit sellers. And I spent five hours in North San Diego County, which is just over the border from Tijuana, has popular radio stations broadcasting from Mexico, and has lots of signs in Spanish, but I didn’t see any fruit sellers.

In fact, in San Francisco, it is more than only fruit sellers. It includes a cotton candy man and a couple of churros sellers and paletas hawkers in Dolores Park. But it is the fruit sellers who have made their way into all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, including neighborhoods where the only people typically heard speaking Spanish are the construction crews and landscapers, and perhaps school children being sent to schools outside of the Mission District, the heart of San Francisco’s Latino community.

Growing up in Georgia. There were often some old white southern people who would park their truck on a bridge on Johnson Road and sell watermelons and peaches. Over the years, the old white people were replaced by younger black people who sold the same things in the same location.

I remember being in our bright orange station wagon, my mom driving, as we approached the produce-packed parked truck. My mother would remark, “Oh, there’s a farmer selling fruit. I wonder how their peaches are?” She would drive to the next block and turn around in someone’s driveway and return to the truck, pulling up behind it. She would get out and my sister and I would follow, standing there beside my mom, who was busy picking up peaches, looking at them for worms, and sniffing them. “They’s Georgia peaches ma’am,” the farmer person would say. My sister and I would look at each other, filled with pride that our state produced these little furry fruity gems, but knowing that they often didn’t live up to their reputation. We had learned several years earlier, while driving through Aiken, South Carolina, that South Carolina peaches are supposedly more flavorful than Georgia peaches. A South Carolina farmer had told us that, and we had felt like it was a truth to be reckoned with because those peaches we bought in Aiken from the farmer were better than anything the crappy Winn-Dixie ever sold.

At the truck on Johnson Road, I would gently squeeze a peach and smell it too. My sister would do the same. “Get this one mommy,” my sister said as she handed it to my mother. My mother added it to the pile the farmer was gathering for us.

“Mommy.” I had noticed something. “Look they sell corn, too.”

The farmer would say something like, “Yes ma’am. The corn’s real fresh. Just picked today.”

My sister and I would glance at each other again, knowing that if this corn had been picked earlier in the day, it could not possibly be good. Our family planted about 12 rows of corn in our backyard garden and we only picked it moments before we were prepared to eat it. My mother would insist on getting the water to a rollicking boil. Only then, when the pot was bubbling and the kitchen filled with steam, would she dispatch us to the garden to pick four ears of corn. My sister and I scattered into the towering stalks of corn, moving as fast as we could, to find four perfect ears: our hope was to pull back the husk at the top to reveal a wig of brown covering a glow of bright worm-free kernels. Once we had the booty, we’d dash as fast as we could back into the kitchen to shuck the ears and drop them into the boiling water. We had been taught from a very young age that these hurried hysterics were the only way to ensure the enjoyment of fresh corn and that anything picked earlier in the day would most certainly be a tremendous let down.

Although we didn’t buy corn from the farmer person on Johnson Road, we would gather the peaches and perhaps thump the watermelons, and with the old man’s assistance put the items into paper bags to carry to the car. My mom would pay the few dollars it cost for the produce and we would return to the station wagon for our drive home. When we arrived home, we’d sample the fruit. The peaches from the farmer person’s truck were really juicy and sweet, much better than those South Carolina Peaches any day. My shame of the Georgia peach faded away.

Street corner produce shopping. It’s different in San Francisco. You might expect people to sell fruit from small stands in the Mission District, or perhaps even from the back of their truck in the Excelsior District along busy commercial strips. But today in Cole Valley, Noe Valley, the Castro District – some of San Francisco’s core middle and upper-class neighborhoods – fruit sellers stand at the corner of two residential streets with a dozen flats filled with crimson, glistening California strawberries. Some also have a few large boxes of mangos. And lately, I’ve seen a few with oranges and cherries. On the corner, next to the house owned by a couple of yuppies and across the street from the home rented to two college students and diagonally across the corner where the older woman lives alone, as she has since 1978 in the same house, the man stands there all day and sells fruit to the white people.

Their buyers’ market is not only the scattering of pedestrians found on virtually any residential street in San Francisco, but also the people driving their cars to pick up their kids or go to the orthodontist or on their way home from Whole Foods. These are the people the fruit sellers eye, waving a hand and flagging the driver of a Volvo or Prius or Subaru passing by. And sometimes, the drivers stop and pull into the adjacent driveway, or double park or angle up to the corner, rolling down the window to inquire, “Oh they look lovely. How much are the mangos?”

The fruit seller tells them the entire box is available for ten dollars. Twelve mangos for ten dollars. And then the fruit seller hoists one box of the bright squash-toned Philippine-style mangoes from the small stack on the sidewalk. The driver extends a ten-dollar bill through the window and tells the fruit seller to put them on the back seat. The back window moves down, controlled by a button or small lever next to the driver. The fruit seller holds the box and leans awkwardly through the window. He places the box of mangos on the back seat, next to the empty toddler seat belted into position on the opposite side of the car. The car pulls away with a box of fresh mangoes. The toddler will learn to eat mangos when the parent arrives home.

In the evening, the fruit sellers are no longer on the sidewalk. Perhaps their strawberries sold. Or the mangos became too soft, and their bright skin wrinkled and blemished in the sun. Maybe somebody picked the sellers up and drove them away with their meager earnings. Perhaps the police told them to move on. Or maybe they sold their fresh fruits and returned home, to small flats in the Mission District, packed with other families with children and other fruit sellers and day laborers, leaving Cole Valley, Noe Valley, the Castro District and the other neighborhoods without fruit for sale at night. The seven o’clock streets of San Francisco’s Noe Valley, not unlike those of any city’s pretty midtown or old suburban neighborhoods, remain quiet. The sun begins to set.

Monday, June 29, 2009

My feelings about Phoenix

Updates. It has been a while since I have been on a flight, so there has been a bit of a delay in updating But I am currently on a flight back to San Francisco from Phoenix, where I spent about seven hours today. It’s a 90+ minute flight in each direction, so the whole trip isn’t so unbearable. My dad is actually flying from Atlanta to San Francisco tomorrow for a two hour meeting and then returning home, which sounds much more unpleasant, if you ask me.

But even a short trip to Phoenix is not without its unpleasantries. One of those not-so-nice things is Phoenix itself. At a mild 106 degrees, I made the mistake of parking a couple of blocks away from where I was headed for my meeting and I walked. I thought I would pass out. I was so sweaty and so hot, it was a terrible embarrassment to walk into the meeting, but I made a quick stop in the gentleman’s room and refreshed enough to bury my smell beneath some liquid soap.

So much of Phoenix is about suburban development patterns imposed on a dry, dusty desert, where nothing really should have ever been built. I was trying to think that if the fine designers of the American footprint in Arizona had agreed to build everything in small villages and disallow wide flat straight roads, the state would be an amazing wonderland, but instead looks a bit more like a crumbling suburban parking lot. Wal-Mart has carried out its ever-destructive policy of building and abandoning stores all over the Phoenix region, keeping the notion of a deserted wasteland of dying suburbs.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything about Phoenix is bad: I once went to a wedding on a beautiful golf course in Scottsdale in the middle of July. The grass was remarkably green, even under the baking sun. The guests cheerily waited for delays in getting the wedding started because the anorexic bride’s family didn’t seem to care that the guests were all burning to a crisp on folding chairs on the golf course in the sun in the middle of the day in July. I don’t know that anyone passed out, but everyone looked really sweaty and awful on the golf course in the sun in the middle of the day in July. At least the reception was inside: my sister and I were seated with all of the bride’s friends from her eating disorders support group who collectively ate a radish.

One thing Phoenix has going for it are towns in the metro area with cool names like Surprise and Peoria and Tempe. And then there’s Scottsdale, but I always accidentally call it Scottdale, which was the name of the low-income suburb in DeKalb County, Georgia, where the poor kids at Druid Hills High School lived. There was one classmate of mine who was very, very poor and lived in a broken down house on the side of Scott Boulevard. He had a very heavy southern accent – extremely country, like the father Hillbilly Bear. I wonder what happened to him. I hope he’s living a happy life. But I always think of his shack and his torn clothes and his acne when I think of Scottsdale.

I had about 30 minutes to swing by a Mexican mall on my way to the airport and explore a nightmarish store called La Curacao which sold crappy Mexican things and a bunch of TVs with their volumes turned up so loud that they could hear the Univision broadcast next door in New Mexico. There was one of those dismal 99.99¢ Stores, too, that I walked into. I bought a book that makes fun of George Bush for 99.99¢ and some dental floss for 99.99¢. One day I would like to buy 100 items and see if the last one is actually only 99¢. Anyway, there was a slightly fermenting man standing behind me in line, a black man, which was unusual since everyone else in the place was Latino and he told me he really liked my purse. I thanked him. And then he continued:

“It’s a really nice purse.”

“Yes, it’s a good bag,” I said, with one of my charitable smiles.

“If I had one of those I could fill it up. You got it filled up with money? You need a big bag filled with money.”

I chuckled and said that I wish it were filled with money. “Ha ha ha.” The cashier also joined in with an awkward laugh. I still had not told him my purse was actually a $75 Timbuktu computer bag with a $2500 computer inside, and that I was carrying it around in this 99.99¢ store because I did not want it to melt in my Dollar rent-a-car in the 106-degree climate.

“I wish I had me a bag like that.” He continued as I handed the cashier $4.25, my purchase plus tax, which, I suppose technically should have been $4.249625. “My wife, they took her away and put her in the nursing home.”

“Oh no,” I said with sincere empathy.

He continued. “I’m 90 and my wife is 91 and they took her and put her in a nursing home.”

“I’m so sorry. That can’t be easy.” I collected my change from the cashier and she flashed me a smile showing her appreciation that I was being nice to the man whose purchases she would have to ring up next. “ I wish you the very best,” I said, like that insincere Christian woman who appears in the movie The Lost Boys of Sudan.

I dashed off to Sky Harbor airport, to catch my flight. I spent a bit of time in the dreary United Airlines Red Carpet Room and ate a few too many plastic-wrapped brownies before setting my butt in my seat on the plane. And here I am in seat 2C, next to someone who was irate that there wasn’t an outlet to plug in his computer, and who ordered a ginger ale and burped one of those belches that smells like bologna. Yuck. And then he burped again. And again. Bologna breath. Loud burps. Horrid. I hope he never finds an outlet.

And the woman in front of me talks incessantly – nonstop to the polite woman next to her – about living in Monterey and opening a congregant living facility for older single women because she has a language arts masters degree and another masters degree in gerontology and this is her passion and she’s been engaged three times and was married once but then had an affair and left her husband and her son is 31 and blah blah, talking much louder than the volume of the safety presentation video that was announced by the most excellent flight attendant I’ve encountered in a really long time (John), who keeps bringing me wine and cheese and fruit. It’s a little different than my crappy US Airways flight to Phoenix this morning, where they actually forgot to show a flight safety presentation (neither video nor live action), which may have been the first flight I’ve ever been on without a safety presentation. Given US Airways’ recent track record, they’d better be doing safety demonstrations.

I have relatives in Phoenix. I did not call them because there wasn’t time. If we win this project (I was there for a pre-bid conference) I will give them a call. And the project would be scheduled to take place during the fall, winter and spring months, so I’m hoping the temperature would all be a bit more bearable.

In the meantime, I’m off to Houston next week and then San Diego at the end of the week and then to Michigan the following week, and back to San Diego, so I’m hoping to stay out of the extreme heat for a little while and will be landing in my cool San Francisco in about 15 minutes.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Living in a studio apartment

Woe is me.
The temporary life in a studio apartment -- even a charming one -- is unpleasant for me...

...And for my spouse.

The highlight of our life is carrying out Puttanesca Pizza again from Gialina's

And taking trips to classy joints in Memphis each year.

And, of course, wandering around our house remodel, in progress, waiting for the return to a normal life.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I’ve spent almost week in Atlanta working on my accessibility and mobility skills, which should help further build my qualifications for my work in this area. Rather than attending a conference or a TRB committee, this is about my mother, the woman who raised me and who now broke her ankle somehow while bending over the play with a two-year old at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. She undoubtedly moved hastily, something she does from time to time, and a trait I see in myself when I mindlessly move forward with my day to day actions. Her hasty actions meant multiple fractures and a few floating bone fragments in her ankle. As a result, she was drugged last Friday to have an orthopedic surgeon add screws and plates and release her back to a hospital bed at Emory Orthopaedic and Spine Hospital (yes, with the pretentious spelling of orthopedic, because this is Emory University, an institution that does whatever it desperately can to seem to be better than it really is). And this hospital is in Tucker, not exactly a posh locale.

Her bed was in a suite. A suite is what everyone in the hospital calls the place where your hospital bed is. It is the chamber where you recover and eat jello and watch a computerized TV that doesn’t work unless the facilities guy comes and signs in. A suite is a bland and dreary room that has no right to be called a suite. But once again, this is Emory, and they are all about marketing.

The nurses were very nice, although nobody adjusted the messed up sheets on my mom’s bed and most of them seemed pretty light on work, so they were chatting and chatting. The friendly dining service guy, Ricardo, came in and touted his amazing food options available to the hospital’s patients. I had already tried the soup downstairs and my mother told him that I thought it was awful. A hasty comment. After a night’s rest in the hospital and a day of checkups and physical therapy, I schlepped her home.

“It’s time to go. You’ll be more comfortable at home.”

And we were off, mom to her home for the next eight weeks and me to escape the confines of the hospital and the terrible food.

She’s recovering well. I don’t blame her for being worried about her recovery. I would be disappointed if I couldn’t walk on my right foot for eight weeks. It means she can’t drive, can’t walk out of the house, can’t go down to her mailbox, can’t easily get to work.

I dragged her out of the house on Monday. I told her we were going to the mall and Home Depot. After a few days of me running around and doing things for my mom, it was time to show her she could be confident enough to get out of the house and to do things in public. And she did, borrowing one of the mall wheelchairs at Lenox Square we went cruising all over and even bought a few shirts at Benetton. Then at Home Depot I ran in and got the wheelchair while she chatted with the temp employees out in front who were demonstrating the merits of Windex Outdoor Window Cleaner. Although she couldn’t move any more easily, she was out and about and people talked to her and were courteous. She’ll be able to do it again.

I’m now on my second flight of the day. My first flight was delayed because there were five wheelchairs on board, including one fairly overweight paralyzed man that took a crew of people to load on to the plane. The second flight was delayed due to thunderstorms, and an aircraft malfunction, but mostly due to a medical emergency. It looked like a man had a stroke in the back of the plane. The flight attendant made the man's wife move up to the front of the plane, in the seat in front of mine, and sit there by herself. Just as I was trying to strike up a conversation and let her know I was sorry and did she want a piece of chocolate or to use my cell phone, a friendlier flight attendant told her she could go to the rear of the plane while the doctor and nurse on board and the slew of EMS staff attended to the poor man. His wife told me they lived in San Jose. Instead they are spending the night in a Chicago hospital. And her husband will probably take a long time to recover.

A broken ankle is bad. But it’s not as bad as all of the other brain and kidney and stomach and heart things it could be. It’s not as bad as being completely paralyzed or having a stroke on a plane. I think my mom realizes that, but I know that when it’s your broken bone, it is the worst thing. I hope that she heals fast and walks faster and doesn’t let getting bummed out keep her from moving forward.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Random randomness

A little tipsy is what I am. No regrets. The flight attendant keeps refilling my glass and I keep missing the opportunity to politely say not so I keep saying thank you.

So I can’t write anything coherent, but I’m in the mood to share so this is how it’s done.

Tired of writing for work.
Done with editing for work.
Exhausted from work.

Bummed that I don’t get to spend my four-day weekend at home in San Francisco and an instead Joey Goldman from Atlanta, Georgia who is returning to Atlanta, Georgia for a week. Yay.

At 37,000 feet on a plane with new Somali immigrants being resettled in Atlanta. Makes being tired of work and tired of editing seem minor. No bombs or lack of government. Poor people will have to live in Atlanta. I guess it’s a better climate for them than Minneapolis. Why are there so many Somalis in Minneapolis? With Northwest being consumed by Delta, are the Somalis moving to Atlanta too?

Wine is good. I’m on my third glass. I plan to have my mom drink a lot of it. I’m on this plane to assist her while she convalesces post-ankle surgery. It sounds like she kind of shattered it. Poor thing will need pins stuck in there and won’t be able to walk for two months. So I’m taking the first rotation: the caring son to help around the house. To push her around in a wheelchair. To take her to surgery. To build a ramp in the backyard. To install some handrails outside. To give my mom more wine to go with her Percocet. Then my sister, the former Beth Goldman, now Mason, will swing by to provide her motherly/daughterly touches. Also to help: Aunt Kathi Miller and wonderful cousin Heidi.

Words that are not: Classy

Must shut down the computer now for landing. OK. Bye. Next time: more coherence is promised.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Yelling at terrible drivers

I’ve become very testy about bad drivers lately. One of the joys of driving is being able to cruise around with your windows closed while you scream things at people. Bad drivers. Slow drivers. Ugly cars. People with ugly faces. People with ugly faces who drive ugly cars badly. A car affords you the opportunity to blurt obscenities without others hearing you, avoiding the embarrassing confrontation you might otherwise suffer in a public locale. It’s a wonderful anger management contraption as long as you stay calm and focused on your own driving, channeling your aggression by tongue rather than the gas pedal.

My crabbiness in the car has been coming for a long time. I partly blame my father for this trait. When I was a child, he would drive us around Atlanta in our 1976 spitfire orange Dodge Aspen station wagon, with the CB radio cracking and squealing. He yelled at nearly everyone who drove by. Many of the comments were about women drivers, and my mom would give him a verbal wrist slap for those. He also called a lot of people “turkeys” and “rednecks” and I’m sure there were some “redneck turkeys.”

When you drive around in a spitfire orange Dodge Aspen station wagon, you are also recognized by a lot of people. Some of our friends and neighbors would always honk their car horns to say hi, which made matters worse, because the last thing my grouchy father wanted was people honking at him when he was on the road.

Sometimes, dad’s language was a bit rougher. I remember a bunch of “goddammits” and “shits,” again not warmly welcomed by my mother. However, he was reminded to watch his language not by my mother, but by my sister and me, from the back seat, telling him he should use better language – exactly what a cursing man wants to hear from his kids. My sister, Beth, coined the term “poopycat,” which she and I blurted every time my dad called someone a bad name.

Of course, when the CB radio was active, and it usually was, our language improved and we all spoke with heavy Southern accents. I don’t remember my dad’s handle, but I picked Bugs Bunny, like an idiot kid would, and later switched to Wild Child, enjoying the rhyme and feeling more like Willie Ames or BJ and the Bear. My dad relied on the CB radio to let us know if any smokeys were up ahead of the convoy blockading us on the right side of the interstate. My sister and I would take turns jabbering on the radio about smokeys and talking with truckers and getting that thrill of the open road. It was like the joy we experienced on school field trips, sitting in the last row of the yellow school bus and coaxing the truck driver behind the bus to honk his horn.

The CB was a wonder on the expressway, but not so great in parking structures. Yes, we were the dorks with the extraordinary antenna perched atop the spitfire orange Dodge Aspen station wagon: the antenna that made the loud scraping sound as we drove through the parking structure at Colony Square or Phipps Plaza.

Reliving my childhood. When I ditched the 1990 gray Honda Accord four years ago after 15 years of service and less than 60,000 miles, I was desperate for a station wagon. Fortunately for me, those spitfire orange Dodge Aspen station wagons are no longer made, and I would never opt for a Dodge unless I won it on a game show. I got the next best thing: a bright red Volvo wagon (if you don’t know what spitfire orange looks like, think bright red).

Now I drive around town in my red station wagon, cursing the frigging idiots who don’t know how to drive their Toyota Prius. (Have you noticed that a Toyota Prius is the new Volvo? People who drive them are horrible drivers. Volvo drivers have much improved and the people who would otherwise have bought Volvos have migrated to the Prius. That’s what allowed me to buy the Volvo in the first place, because I didn’t want to be one of those terrible Volvo drivers. I digress…). I yell at the people who don’t know that the car on the right has the right of way (there is a reason it is called “right of way”) in a four-way stop. I snarl at the people looking for a parking space, the people who drive 10 mph down a street signed for 25 mph. I am an asshole in the car. But I make sure my windows are rolled up. And the music is turned up.

It feels so good. It’s perfect anger management.

If only I could have a silencer wrapped around my mouth when I ride the Muni train. I would love to yell at my fellow passengers who block the doors when people are trying to get off or who wear their backpacks on the train, completely clueless that whatever the hell is making their bag stick out two feet behind their back is banging into me through the backpack fabric. I would love to tell the smelly people to get off the train. I would love to curse the terrible train drivers and tell them to do their damn job. But I cannot.

So, I save my comments for my car. In the four years I’ve had it, I’ve driven about 11,000 miles, which means I spend very little time behind the wheel. That doesn’t give me many hours to drive around yelling at people in my screaming box on wheels. I think that’s a good thing.

If I had more time, I’d have to edit myself to avoid becoming a bitter, belligerent driver. I would be stuck with poopycat. I prefer to grouse without those limitations.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ten loosely related actions/observations from the last week

1. Walking in to the bathroom at work Wednesday and heading to the urinal. Standing there and thinking, ”Mmmm, something smells really good in here. I’m hungry.

2. Avoiding the olive oil and salt & pepper ice creams yesterday and opting for bourbon + cornflakes ice cream instead.

3. Thinking about oily hair/hair growth soap, Jabon Cacahuanache’s before and after images. Wishing I had bought more at the drug store in San Miguel de Allende.

before (antes) and after (despues)

4. Shopping in San Francisco Rite Aid stores, now that they will soon be sold to Walgreen’s. Noticing they are visited only by consumers who apparently don’t care about sale merchandise, because not a single item is on sale. Observing the only people in the store seem to be a handful of conventioneers and German tourists who don’t know that the locals don’t shop there anymore. Wondering where the older Chinese women have gone.

5. Watching older Chinese women lining up for matzoh ball soup during lunch hours at Bristol Farms.

6. Wandering through the Virgin Megastore liquidation sale and seeing old men and women leering in the 50% off porn DVD section.

7. Realizing that I am very old: that I absolutely must bend my knees when I sneeze to avoid throwing my back out and that I am appreciative of the cortisone shot that did a nice job on my bursitis.

8. Missing the prune Activia that I had in Mexico. And looking forward to getting it when I’m there later this week.

9. Knowing that the unfortunate acrylic shower pan that was just installed in our bathroom remodel will be ripped out this week and replaced with a much better tiled shower pan. Being relieved that it will look less like a nursing home.

10. Watching my grandmother as she tried to end our conversation about 50 times in 10 minutes. Watching my father continue to engage her. Hoping that if I am turning 99, I will be in good health and very alert and that if I’m not, somebody will push me off a cliff.

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.

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