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.
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