(this is annie)

Life lessons

While walking north on Valencia just now, I saw a well-dressed woman talking to a tree. This in itself is not noteworthy, because people talk to inanimate objects more often than you might expect.

As I got closer, I saw that she was talking to a boy, maybe five years old, who had climbed the tree and wedged himself into a crook of the tree. He was wearing brown corduroys, a striped t-shirt, a devilish smile, and a light blue bicycle helmet. (No bicycle nearby.) He had a bad case of the giggles.

"Now _______," his mother said as I approached. "What do we always say is the most important thing to remember?"

The boy paused to think for a moment. Then, in all earnestness: "DON'T POOP IN YOUR PANTS."

I burst out laughing, the mother sighed, the boy looked vaguely confused, and we all carried on with our afternoons.

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From beneath you it devours

Tonight, down in the bowels of Powell Street station, a very skinny woman with wild hair and wilder eyes was talking with a man. Talking at him, more accurately, because he had that polite but uncomfortable "mm-hmm" face. The thought bubble above his head read "Please, god, get me out of here."

She wanted money and, as you might guess, he did not want to give any to her. "Give me a dollar and I'll go away," she bellowed. She had a voice like a dying bullhorn. He tried to reason with her. "Gimme a dollar!" she continued. His train arrived and he darted away.

The woman slowly spun around on her bird-legs, her glazed eyes scanning the crowd of people. The trains were running late (thanks, MUNI) so the platform was more crowded than usual. As she made her way toward the bench where I was sitting, I stood up real casual-like and quietly walked about 10 feet away. It felt like backing off from a puma while wearing a coat made of filet mignon.

The woman accosted two more people before coming my way. She almost didn't; she walked past me, then turned back to begin her pitch. She stood maybe 18 inches away from me, a little closer than I like most people to be. Up close, her face was even sadder. It was gaunt, deeply wrinkled, and pained. There was an inch-wide gap where four of her bottom teeth should have been. Even covered with a layer of glassiness, the bright blue of her eyes hinted at past beauty.

Here we go, I thought.

"Hey, miss! You can help me," she said. "I need money."

"I'm sorry, but I can't help you," I replied.

"You know what your problem is? You can help me but you don't want to give me your money," she yelled. (She had a point.)

She started sticking her index finger in my face. "I'll tell you what's wrong with you," she ranted. "You won't help me and you're dirty inside, sick soul, sick sick soul! You don't listen to me but I can see where you're going, I see the darkness in you. You can help me and you won't, you black heart."

A smarter person would have just let that ride, but having witnessed her badger that man, I realized that being polite would get me nowhere. So I decided to pull the alpha female card and hope that there wasn't a shiv hiding in her sweatshirt.

"I'm sorry that I can't help you, and I'm sorry that you've got me all wrong," I said in a loudish and firm voice. "Please leave me alone now."

She glared at me. "I see where you're going and it's a bad place," she hissed. "You have no idea what you're in for." Then she wandered off to approach the next person.

A pretty woman a few feet away gave me a sympathetic look. "Cheese on Aeron," she said, shaking her head.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Cheese on Aeron."

I still couldn't understand, and I began to wonder if I was actually having a nutty dream about gouda and Herman Miller. So I asked her to repeat herself again.

"She's. On. Air-o-in." The woman tapped her arm.

Ohhhhh. Right. "Sad," I said.

"I know," said the pretty woman.

I didn't regret not giving the scrawny woman money, because, well, it was clear she needed a fix. I did feel sorry for her, though. My train came soon after she disappeared into another part of the station. On the way home I wondered how she wound up being who she is. She was a little girl once, I thought, and this cannot be how she imagined her life. How does a person go from one point to another to this?

Then I thought about the heroin-kicking taxi driver, as I often do when a cab blows by. Is he staying clean? Is he struggling? Does he imagine that a stranger is quietly wishing that he'll make it? The answers will never reveal themselves, but tonight I hoped that he sees where he's going, and it's a good place.

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Languor rises, reaching

After work, I decided to take the train to 16th Street. It was a bit of a roundabout way to get home, but when the sun stays out later than it used to, you might as well enjoy it. My little limp comes out if it's rained recently, but the important thing is to keep walking despite the ache, and so I did.

I have taken thousands of steps on Valencia Street, but no matter what happens there, it always reminds me of the afternoon I arrived in San Francisco. I'd been driving for days and was excited and scared to be somewhere new. Dad was in the passenger seat, taking in the details of a neighborhood he'd never seen. "I think you're going to be happy here," he said.

"I hope so," I replied.

Before sunset, we drove up and down the steepest parts of Russian Hill. The experience filled both of us with glee, and Dad's delighted laughter revealed a glimpse of the little boy he'd once been. Even then I knew it was a moment I'd always remember. I was freshly 29, he was 76, and while pushing our way up those inclines, we were young together.

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Tea for two. Or one. One.

Ritual is notorious for being a Missed Connections hotspot. At any given moment, half of the people here are probably scanning the room for someone they are too scared to talk to. I can't help but think that it's weird that so many of us are too timid to say hello or merely smile. So far, I have never been a Ritual missed connection. If I were, it might go something like this:

You were the bespectacled vixen in too-tight shoes. Maybe if you hadn't tried to squeeze into a 7.5, you wouldn't look like Oliver Twist's anemic ladyfriend. Wish I'd said hello.

I like coming here because I'm too lazy to walk farther, the music is usually good (not tonight, though) and the people-watching is spectacular. My favorite moments involve first dates. I love reading the couples, gauging their newness, and witnessing the connection or lack thereof. Ritual is actually not a great place to have a first date (or so I'd imagine) because it's often loud, and there's that space during which your drink isn't ready, so you wind up hovering awkwardly as the baristas whip it up.

A while ago, one of the baristas and I talked about Jawbreaker, and from then on, I was a regular! I even got the "Hi Annie" treatment, which is the sort of tiny detail that makes SF start to feel like home after almost three years. Then he quit, and so did the girl who always flirted with me, and so did Nick with his chest tattoo, and now there is only the bearded boy with the French tattoo — and I am never sure if he recognizes me anyway. Right now, it is time to close the coffee shop, to close the computer, and to close the night.


What holds us apart

After work yesterday, I scurried to BART it to the north end of the Mission. I was walking quickly on 16th Street, keenly aware of the six minutes that remained before I'd be late — and I hate being late — when I heard a man call out to a woman. "Excuse me! Miss?" he said. I kept walking. He kept calling. Then I turned and realized he was talking to me.

I am ashamed to admit that when a strange man approaches me in the city, my first instinct is to wonder if he wants money or to sexually harass me. Because of this response, I am always a little guarded. I looked at the man slowly.

He was a small, slight man with one of those faces that could be 40 or could be 55. It's not that his skin was completely rough and leathery, but it had spent some time in the tannery. Like kidskin. He had bright eyes, dark short hair, and wrinkles that suggested a painful past made livable by trying to smile through it. He was pretty well put together in the way I always imagine Ethan Allen Hawley to be: wearing inexpensive shoes, but wearing them with a shine.

"Hi!" he said. Very nervous.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi," he repeated. "You're a fast walker." This is true. Even with a still-not-quite-right foot that ached, I was marching toward Valencia quickly. I smiled politely and said that it was just a habit.

"Hard to keep up with ya," he said. He was nervous, not slick. "But I saw you and I thought, 'I gotta say hello to her,' and you heard me!"

"Well, hello," I said. "Are you from San Francisco?"

"I was born here, but then I lived down in San Jose, and now I'm back. You're real pretty."

I smiled, this time genuinely. Truthfully, I had been tired all week, and my face showed the kind of exhaustion that makeup cannot conceal. If you are a stranger, especially when I look like the female version of Dorian Gray's decades-old portrait, flattery will get you everywhere!

"You have a pretty smile," he said, all dazzle-eyed. "Amazing smile. Beautiful."

I laughed. "Thanks," I said. "I've had braces three times."

He chuckled and then we were at Valencia. "Well, this is my stop," I said. "Going to meet someone for a drink."

"Oh," the man said. "Maybe I'll see you again?"

"It's a small city," I said.

"Goodnight," he said. And then, his sweet, heartbreaking coda: "Thank you for for being nice to me."

As I watched him cross the street, I wondered how often he talked with women, and how often they were or weren't nice to him. Later that night, I thought about how frequently people (myself included) are too scared to speak. We worry about what someone might think of us, or we talk ourselves out of going after what we want because we don't believe we deserve it. And then we wonder why we're dissatisfied with the situations we've created for ourselves.

Vulnerability is often seen as a sign of weakness, but paradoxically, the more you embrace it, the more courageous you become. I'm glad that man approached me because he inspired me, as corny as that is to say. In a quiet, subtle way, he was the strongest man I'd encountered all week.

I hope someone out there enjoys the Chain of Strength allusion because that band continues to crack me up.

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En train de...

It was the commute from hell: nearly an hour to travel three piddly miles from work to home. I knew I was in for it when I saw the train platform stuffed with people, most of whom had a half-hopeless, half-annoyed screen over their eyes. When the trains finally began coming into the station, they were already crowded. But we boarded, and some people even got seats. We tried to make the best of it.

The train crawled about 25 feet, then stopped. We waited. As the train stood still, the air became warm and stuffy. I was wedged into a corner, with only a few inches of space between me and the people around me. The stale air, lack of movement, and sensation of being trapped were highly unpleasant. Nobody looked happy.

Ten years ago, I might have turned to a fellow commuter and shared some sort of sympathetic small talk about the delay. I wanted to do that tonight, but the man next to me was listening to his iPod. The woman in front of me was listening to her iPhone. The long-haired goatee man was playing games on iPhone, the teenage girl was texting on her Sidekick, and over on the other end of the train, a woman had turned up her iPod loud enough that I heard jolene! joLEEN, joLEEN, jo! LEE-EE-EEEEN! through the earphones.

The train eventually shuddered forward, then stopped again, then started up, and so forth. Aside from the two coworkers talking about a new relationship ("She's great, but I'm waiting to see how she fights") the train was essentially void of conversation. It was typical of urban life, it was nothing unusual, and it was sad.

I recently got an iPhone through the boss man. Earlier today, I mentioned this, and someone made a comment that stuck: "You get one and it's like you create a little relationship with it." That is the problem, isn't it? We look at phones, not into people.

And yeah, I enjoy all of the things the iPhone can do (Angry Birds and Hipstamatic are so much fun) but I can't help but feel that we're losing a lot. Tonight I kept my phone in my bag during the hour-long commute and wondered what might have been.

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Lust for old age

In Chicago, if I didn't know people in bands, I knew who they were by sight. Within pockets of the city, it's nearly impossible to walk a block without seeing So-and-so from Such-and-such band. That's probably the case in San Francisco, too, but I can't rattle off SF bands like I can Chicago bands.

Do you know why? Because I am old and out of the loop. Some evidence:

  • Generally, I like going to shows now only if I know I love the band. No more of this "Sure, let's see what this random band is like" stuff.
  • Not-infrequent grumbling about shows starting later than they're supposed to. (In my defense, this is not new.)
  • People in buzzed-about bands are usually in their 20s. Guess who, despite her deceptively youthful looks, isn't.
  • Have thought, "Fifteen dollars for a show! I remember when shows cost only TEN dollars!" This is only made worse by memories of $5 punk shows.
  • Sabrina and I went to a Jens Lekman show last year and, when the band started twirling in circles on stage and the people in the audience were smiling blissfully at the connectedness of it all, we groaned and got the hell out of Dodge.
  • Am crabby if the venue has nowhere to sit. Especially now with a foot that is prone to soreness, standing for hours is not my idea of a good time. Danny and I went to a show at Bimbo's a few months ago, and I greatly enjoyed sitting at a little table with him.
But the biggest sign that I am old is symbolized by this: When I watch videos by Girls, who are from San Francisco and filmed videos in my neighborhood, I observe the dilated-pupils antics of the band and their friends. And I think, "Those kids are ON DRUGS!" (Which they are, obviously.) That is a grizzled enough perspective, but — and oh, it is embarrassing to admit this — then I think, "Why do they sit around getting wasted all day? Don't they have jobs?" Worst of all, I realize that this makes me sound like an old fogy, so I watch the videos again with an open mind. Then I rationally understand that youth is often about hedonistic pursuits and that I am a fun-hating old fart, but ultimately I settle back into thinking that the singer needs a haircut and wondering why the rest of his friends can't just put some clothes on.

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One of my goals is to be a kinder and more thoughtful person. Most people think I'm nice enough, but in my mind I'm not always so friendly. I genuinely want to like strangers, but they frequently make it difficult by (non)virtue of being rude and selfish. A reluctant misanthrope. So if I can't automatically like people by default, maybe doing nice things will help.

Last night I got on a mostly packed train. Two stops into the ride, a woman hobbled on while carrying grocery bags, calendars, a broom, and some other stuff. Basically, she was overloaded in an overcrowded train. Because she was carrying so many things, she couldn't hold on, which left her teetering like W.C. Fields. I tapped her on the arm and offered her my seat. She politely refused, but I insisted.

I stood up from the seat and did the "no, really, you sit" thing to Broom Hilda — but as soon as my ass had left the seat, some girl greedily darted in there as fast as though she'd been playing musical chairs. Broom Hilda's face fell and she tried to regain balance. Calendars fell. It was awkward. Now, see, this is where I'm only partly nice. If I were really kind, I would not have thrown my mother's disapproving stare at the oblivious seat-ganking girl. Did she really think that I was just ditching my seat so I could stand next to it in a sardine tin of a train? Ugh!

At the next stop, someone else alighted, and the other passengers politely pretended to not want the empty seat. "You could sit right there if you like," I said to Broom Hilda, who hadn't noticed the seat. She smiled, and as she shuffled over, the younger woman's face had a look of ashamed realization. She stood up and insisted that Broom Hilda take her seat. The older woman did, and for the rest of the train ride, she and the guy next to her chatted happily.

So you see what I mean? My initial instinct is to be considerate, but I have this weird impulse to judge. And then I wind up feeling like a bigger jerk than I would have if I'd just stayed in the seat.

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From Cancun to D.O.A.

One of the highlights of each week is the commute to my therapy session. The bus I take winds through Chinatown at a snail's pace, which allows me to observe scenes unfold among the hustle and bustle. Unfortunately, my therapist moved to a new location that requires a comparatively boring train ride.

So, equipped with spy camera, Eric and I spent the day walking around Chinatown. We've been friends for at least 12 years now, and I think it's pretty much impossible to have anything less than a fun time with him, unless you count that time I broke my foot — but that happened after we parted ways, which further supports my theory that Ericless time is inferior to Eric-filled time.

We watched a live chicken get stuffed into a paper bag, three strangers karaoke "Amazing Grace" in front of a store, and a toddler cross Columbus in Power Wheels. We concocted a foolproof life-improvement plan that involves me going on a date with the crazy guy in the park, giving birth to someone's baby so I can work from home, and moving to Los Angeles. (What can possibly go wrong?) It was a good day, we agreed.


Gouge away

After spending the afternoon walking around — and, by the way, rain does make the foot ache in a strange way — I decided to rest at a cafe. It was nice to write and watch people pass by, with the exception of an assclown who made a lewd comment. And then, while packing up to go home, I spotted him: Overly serious-looking guy about my age, closely clipped hair, thick Kissinger spectacles, coffee in his cup, reading Friedrich Nietzsche. Repeat, reading Friedrich Nietzsche. It was a living and breathing coffee-shop dude archetype, and it filled me with delight. I love it so much when clichés pop up in real life. In college you get to see (and be) them more often, but it doesn't happen often enough these days. A fun start to the new year.


Beer boors

When Barbara and I go out for a drink, we go to one of two places. Most recently, it was the Lone Palm, a bar that should be subdued because of its name. You can tell that it wants to be; something about the long wooden bar and small tables with white candleclothes feels vaguely noir-ish, like you might go there for an illicit rendezvous. But the music is always just a little bit off, and the presence of a television ruins the ambiance as televisions always do. The Lone Palm is good enough to give glimpses of how great it could be with just a little tweaking.

We purposely went early to avoid the late-night crowd, but as it turns out, inebriated hooligans had beaten us there. As soon as I began ordering my drink, a blotto Brit stumbled up and began ranting about the flahtness of the be-ahhh to the bartender. Wait your turn, I wanted to tell him. Decided to let it go. (Serenity now!) Then things went from bad to worse. This group of men had clearly been drinking for a while, and they were doing that boorish yelling-in-unison thing that dudes sometimes do while watching sports. Except there were no sports, and we couldn't figure out what had them so riled. Then one of them wiggled his pelvis up to the stool he'd been sitting on, and he began violating the innocent furniture with clumsily violent thrusts.

Our suitably frigid glares were for nought, and I thought about slinking over to them and giving them a falsely flirtatious smile and asking them if they wouldn't mind keeping it down. Then I realized it would be better to mind my own business, particularly because these guys were rip-roaring drunk. See, getting smarter all the time, even if my ears may have suffered permanent damage.



Decembers in California are pleasant, but they don't feel right. You can hang lights and decorate trees here — which we've done chez T — but this time of year feels odd without a chill to the air. My Decembers have historically been filled with snow, sleet, and hail. Of those three meteorological phenomena, only the third has hit San Francisco this month, and just for a brief and magic-seeming moment that left me frantically trying to inspect the tiny ice chunks before they melted on my hand.

Anyway. Tonight, Chris and I walked past boring buildings on Kearny, not even needing to wear gloves in the mild evening air, and then we came across this tree. I'd never seen a tree decorated like it, so we inspected (LED lights!) and smelled the pine needles. The scent made things seem a little more like Decembers I have known.

Since we were so enamored by the tree, we decided to change our destination. We went inside the cold office building next to it and took the express elevator to the top floor, home to the Carnelian Room. Then, after I considered shriveling up and dying because my doctor's-orders sneakers were so inappropriate for the environment, we settled in for a Kir and a Guinness.

It was stodgy and all old-boy network inside, but I would have sat next to that troll Joe Lieberman if it meant I'd get to enjoy that view. The Golden Gate Bridge yawned over the dark water of the Bay, and the Transamerica Pyramid seemed within arm's reach. All of the taxis and neon strip-club lights of North Beach looked like tiny glinting jewels from that height. Just beautiful.

When I went home, I looked up the Carnelian Room to see if I'd violated its dress code. (Pretty much, yes.) Sadly, it is closing in two weeks. So even if December doesn't feel like December here, at least I grabbed this experience in its last days of possibility.


My Muni hero

After this past weekend's transit cutbacks, I should have known better than to count on a normal commute. In fact, I had an odd impulse telling me to take the more roundabout way to work. Instead, I took my usual route and paid for it in a couple of ways.

I waited for the train for about half an hour, which made my foot ache, which put me in a mildly crabby mood. (Also, when Muni makes me late, especially after I've made an effort to leave early, I worry that my boss is going to deem it a dog-ate-my-homework excuse.) Anyway, the train finally came. Boarding the train is embarrassing because I kinda have to pull myself aboard; the steps are too high for me to crawl aboard normally. Most of the time, people either politely pretend not to notice my graspy struggle, or they immediately offer assistance. Either is fine by me.

Because this morning's train was late, it was packed, and there were no seats. Nobody offered his or hers to me, so I thought, "Well, A, you're going to have to stand." A middle-aged man dressed in pricey wools and silks (Brooks Brothers?) and sporting a boring but expensive haircut sat in the seat directly in front of me. He looked like a wealthy businessman, and because of my irrational distrust of tweed, I imagined him to be the kind of person who donates to anti-choice political candidates. I was hoping to make eye contact and whip out some Guilt Face, but he was engrossed in The Economist. Oh well.

Next to me, standing: Youngish guy reading Martin Amis. About a minute into the ride, he crouched down to be closer to Mr. Economist.

"Excuse me, sir," he said politely.

Mr. Economist looked up at him slowly, without expression.

"I was wondering if you might give your seat to this woman," Martin Amis continued.

Slight eye movement toward me. Back to Amis with a blank stare.

"...because, see, she's in a cast..."

Cold glare at Amis, lips pressed together.

"...and perhaps it might be easier for her to sit?"

Mr. Economist simply gave an icy stare to Martin Amis and didn't say a word. The entire car was watching this tension unfold until a woman stood up. "Hon," she called to me. "You sit down." She insisted. So I sat and thanked her profusely, and I thanked Martin Amis for being so kind.

At that point, Mr. Economist's steely glare was reflected on him tenfold. "Aren't there any more gentlemen in the world?" one woman asked pointedly.

"Well, there's at least one on this train," I said. (MY HERO! Seriously, that dude could have picked up so many phone numbers on that train.)

During the rest of the ride, Mr. Economist stared at his magazine while the rest of us had a whole commuter-solidarity thing going on. The woman who'd given up her seat later regained it, and we had a pleasant conversation. Everyone smiled at Martin Amis, and you could tell he felt rewarded by his show of gallantry. Shortly before my stop, a different woman sat down and spilled her coffee. I held the half-empty cup and her purse while she cleaned herself off, and then we talked about broken bones. (She'd broken her collarbone last year.)

It was train camaraderie, us against the jackass. Ultimately, I felt sorry for that bitter little man. Because while he sat in his seat, he had to hear other passengers create connections. In the end, it all turned out well, even if I wound up late for work.

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Fairy tale in the supermarket

In Chicago, the Rainbo is for carousing and Rainbow is for buying inexpensive and highly flammable polyester-blend clothing. Here, Rainbow is for grocery shopping. It's one of my favorite places to buy food in the city because — as silly as this sounds — there's no meat department, and the cheese selection is choice. Plus, unlike the cashiers at Safeway, the Rainbow workers do not call me Aldona Uburtis — which must be the fake name I gave when signing up for the corporate discount-club membership years ago.

Today I made the mistake of heading to the Rainbow Grocery on a mostly empty stomach. Fueled by that vacancy, any food that seemed even mildly appealing went into the cart. Gianduja bar! Apple cider! Sparkling apple cider! Hard apple cider! Cheese! Honeycrisps! Fake buffalo wings! All of it and so much more went into the cart with very little concern for cost. Unfortunately, my cavalier attitude and lack of food selectivity means that I hauled home $180 worth of snacks — by far the most I've ever spent on groceries in one trip. Our pantry is now overflowing with impulse buys of little nutritional value. If armed robbers burst through the door and demanded a sandwich, I could only feebly shake a box of ginger-caramel sesame popcorn at them. (And a variety of apple ciders from which to choose.)

After dropping off the car, I had a peculiar walk home. I crutched past a mostly toothless homeless guy whose leathery, suntanned skin was more or less the same color as his shirt. He took a break from digging in a trash bin to say, "Oh, what happened to you, baby?" He didn't say it in a sleazy way at all; the "baby" was tender, not leering. "I broke my foot," I said. He gave me a sympathetic smile and said, "You've got to be more careful." I smiled, thanked him, went on my way.

In the next block, a gaggle of lesbians were congregating at the beginning my street. "Ladies, ladies," I drawled. "I'm flattered, but you can't all walk me home." (I didn't really say that.) Honestly, it was intimidating to approach them. I got a lot of standoffish gay gazes, just like I did when walking around Portland with Megan in July. Back then, I had thought that the girls mistakenly assumed I was Megan's special ladyfriend, and perhaps they were giving me jealous dagger-eyes because of that. (Can you blame them? Megan's a catch.) But as I excuse me-d through the gaggle of glaring gay girls today, I wondered if maybe I give off some sort of weird vibe that rubs people the wrong way. Something to think about. On that note, the post title is not meant to be some slur-ish thing. I was just listening to the Raincoats earlier.

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Earthquakes happen all the time here, but most are so small that nobody feels them. And in general, Californians don't feel earthquakes unless they're strong enough to rattle dishes. I say this because there have been a few earthquakes that I felt immediately, only to look around my office and see the native Californians typing away as though our desks weren't shaking. Meanwhile, we transplants look at each other with do-you-feel-this surprise, mixing excitement with fear as we wait to see how shaky things will be.

Before moving to California, I'd never experienced an earthquake. Midwesterners worry about floods and tornadoes, but not earthquakes. The New Madrid fault gave off a shudder in 2008, and my parents felt it all the way in Michigan, but its quakes are infrequent. It is a largely impotent seismic villain, so nobody thinks much about it. Here in San Francisco, though, I frequently imagine potential disaster scenarios.

For instance, when I go to the dentist, I am barely in the chair before mild anxiety sets in. Initially, this is because I feel awkward having the handsome dental hygienist scrape tartar from my molars. But as he goes off to look at my x-rays, the paranoid earthquake fantasy strikes, and I imagine all the ways things could go terribly wrong. The office is in an older building, so maybe it hasn't been retrofitted, and what if the quake happens when the dentist is drilling? It would take only one twitch of the fault to make that tiny drill punch a hole through my left cheek. I'm not into body piercing.

Or! I could be at the ob/gyn for the yearly exam. Feet in stirrups, paper cloth over my legs, pap smear in progress. The doctor turns to pick up a swab, and then — get ready to rumble! The lights start swinging, the plastic-uterus visual aid falls off the table, and as my body tenses in panic, it forces the speculum to fly through the air before hitting the poor doctor in the eye. Meanwhile, the ceiling collapses, covering me with dust and debris. Soon, the local action-news reporter is live on the scene. As she describes the valiant rescue efforts going on behind her, a firefighter hears my muffled cries. "Bill, I think they've found another survivor," the reporter will shout as the rescue crew begins digging toward my weak cry for help. CNN picks up the feed, because if there's one thing cable news loves more than disaster, it's a human-interest disaster story. "We've almost got 'er," a rescue guy yells. Cheers all around! The camera zooms in just in time for viewers to watch the rescue team remove the last of the rubble, revealing my spread-eagle pose in high definition for the whole world to see. Later, I am fined by the FCC for indecent exposure.

What? It could happen.

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Between light and nowhere

"The city feels strange tonight," I said to Sabrina and Randall after we left the party. We were waiting to cross the street, and neon lights reflected in the wet pavement. Sabrina agreed that something indeed felt weird, but we couldn't put our collective finger on it. Maybe it's just that the early darkness doesn't feel routine yet, or the chill in the air isn't quite welcome. Either way, the air had a mildly unsettling low electric buzz. It seemed like one of those nights that I'll remember not for the events, but for the way it felt.

San Francisco is an appropriate setting for this year. I am used to the topography of New York and Chicago, where flat streets are laid out on orderly grids. This is a city of steep hills and low valleys, of curved streets and cliffs and unsteady earth. Here, the fingers of fog reach around buildings, enveloping entire neighborhoods and fighting with the sun to see who'll dominate the day. It is the most beautiful city I've lived in, but it is also the farthest from home. I was thinking of moving next year, and who knows, maybe I will, but right now, I cannot imagine a city that could provide a better metaphorical backdrop.

(In completely unrelated and shallow news, I have finally achieved this year's sartorial goal of looking like Shane McCutcheon's shoegazer sister — a full month ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, this is not because of wardrobe changes as much as weight loss. The clothes really do hang differently. Still: win!)


Dining reviews

For lunch, the Fabella gang invited me to join them at a newish resto called Burger Bar. I hadn't heard of it, but some fancy chef who Sabs likes is behind the endeavor. When I found out that it was at Macy's, I was skeptical, but then again, Macy's is home to Rick Bayless's tasty Frontera place, too. Stop being a snob, I told myself. Keep an open mind. Live a little.

I tried, I really did. But I was raised to believe that souvenir thongs do not belong in a fine dining establishment. Plus, there were neon beer signs and a TV playing six smaller screens of athletic events at each booth. We couldn't turn it off; I felt like I was in a sporty Steak & Shake. Again, though, I hoped the food might be fantastic. It was certainly priced in a way that suggested we were on the fast train to Delicioustown. Milkshakes began at $7 and went to $10.75. A Coke was $3.25. Veggie burger, $8 plus toppings. Crazy gourmet burger, $60. (I was grossed out by this last indulgent exercise in excess to no end. Sixty dollars is more than a day's wages for many American workers.)

Long story short, the veggie burger and sweet potato fries were both mushy and not as flavorful as one would hope for. I called them geriatric burgers due to their oatmealy texture. Omnivores reported that the beef burgers were good, though, and I believe them. They should be for $12. The company and the novelty made the outing a success, but still.

Tonight, after being driven home by a remarkably bitter taxi driver, we headed to Revolution Cafe for a snack. They weren't serving food, though, so we had drinks while a man plonked around on the piano. On the way home, I picked up a hot cocoa to help my bones heal; the barista asked where I'd been lately, because he hadn't seen me around in a while. It was a little gesture that, as silly as this sounds, made me happy. It's like thinking you've been walking around unnoticed for months, only to discover that you aren't as invisible as you might think. It is so easy and kind to make someone's day like that — and it's appreciated, especially if your establishment does not offer souvenir thongs.


Easy, driver

This morning I woke to the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. It was 5:30 am, and I hadn't fallen asleep until nearly two. I started the day off with the Times, rolled my eyes at David Brooks as usual, watched the sun rise, and hobbled down to the car-sharing pod to go to the doctor. ('Cause that is my new thing, you know. Hanging out at hospitals. Can't get enough!)

Whether my poor focus was due to lack of sleep, numb fingers, or general mental fog, I cannot say. All I know is that I felt like I was dreaming, which is a terrible state to be in if you're behind the wheel of a car. I don't know what was wrong with me, but I could barely focus. This is embarrassing to admit, but I went to turn left into a one-way street and had to do an oh-shit maneuver to get out of it. Later, fter doing the blood draw (didn't faint!) I carefully looked to see if I could turn left out of the hospital. The coast seemed clear, but then a Subaru almost collided into my car. In both instances, it was as though I looked and didn't see something that was there.

As the Subaru and I pulled up to the next red light, I lowered my window to apologize. The man, a NPR-listening type, screamed at me about how I was a stupid woman driver who didn't belong on the road, on and on and on. All I could say was, "I'm sorry. It was my mistake and I'm really very sorry." I repeated this calmly and sincerely. Then, without really knowing why, I blurted, "I'm doing the best that I can." He kept exploding, so up went my window.

When the light turned green, I took a deep breath and pushed the car up to the crest of the next hill. It provided a sweeping view, and since nobody was behind me, I stayed at the stop sign a few seconds longer. The city was still yawning its way awake. It was beautiful.

A dozen years ago, I'd had problems discerning dreamed events from real ones. Dreams and reality bled into each other. I sometimes couldn't remember which conversations I'd had, and which I'd dreamed. It all happened shortly after a traumatic emotional overload, which sounds overly dramatic, but it isn't. Just trust me, okay? I've not had this problem since, but my mind is fuzzy and unfocused in a similar way. Maybe the conscious brain has some stack-overflow defense mechanism that forces it to escape into vivid dreams, or if the brain circuitry becomes so taxed that it can't handle everything at once and goes on the fritz. I'm not sure, but it is an interesting phenomenon to observe. One thing is certain: I plan to consider its meaning from taxi cabs and public transit from here on out.

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Noche de los muertos

It's barely dark and already it's a weird night. While waiting to flag a taxi — which is one of my least favorite yet most frequent SF activities — I stood near three people. A man, maybe my age or maybe younger, silently balanced on one leg and wildly slashed the air in some sort of bizarre tai chi/thrash mashup. Four feet away, a woman (wife? girlfriend? One of the two.) sat in a baby stroller with her legs splayed. A toddler squirmed on her lap and clapped at the spectacle. Nobody said a word, but they were visibly delighted.

The full moon does odd things to people. My cab driver has almost had a violent collision three times so far. Like I said, it's shaping up to be a weird night. (Just missed a fourth car. If I don't make it, play "atmosphere" at my wake.)

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A day bookended by song

This morning, I looked left and turned right. Going uphill seemed potentially daunting, especially after a weekend of luxuriously slinking into taxis, so I decided to take a different way to work. At the train station, I turned a corner and nearly collided into a man in crutches. We gave each other the sympathetic once-over and started laughing at our sad predicaments. He'd ripped a ligament and was due to de-crutch next week; we compared crutch tips. (zing!) When we hobbled out of the elevator to the lower level, we walked toward a bespectacled white boy who was about to sing to commuters. Funny sight, but he had the last laugh when he began singing the hell out of the Temptations. I caught his eye and he returned my smile while crooning on: "I know you wanna leave me..." That swirl of life, of strangers' lives intersecting for a few flawless moments, made the day begin so beautifully.

The day might have ended even better if my devious love-connection plan had been implemented. Danny and I went to see Dead Man's Bones, who were fantastically weird and theatrical. All of the singers made me feel a mixture of admiration and inadequacy; their voices were like butter whereas mine is like expired VeganRella. The set was peculiar — Danny said the only word for the night was "queer," not meaning it in the gay way — but kinda inspiring in its odd beauty. Anyway, I'd hoped that Ryan Gosling was a secret broken-bones admirer, and that if only he were to see the crutches, he'd want to sign my cast, if you know what I mean. But at the end of the show, it seemed better to leave during the encore (all the better to catch a cab) and pretend that our love did not blossom simply because I had to jet early.

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At 11:14 today, I remembered that I had a doctor's appointment at 11:30. That sort of time crunch would normally send me into a frenzy, but it's almost as though my mind has no room for that, and I simply shift into quiet, purposeful action mode. You just do what needs to be done, and in this situation, I needed to zip across town quickly. Hence the flagging of a cab, my third of the week.

The driver was young, maybe a couple of years younger than me, but then again, maybe not. He had soft eyes, a baby face disguised by whiskers, and a hint of sadness in his smile. I thought he looked like someone who might patch the elbows of his wool sweaters. Like everybody, he asked how I landed in the cast. I told him and we exchanged stories of bicycle danger and inattentive drivers. He had a good disposition.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and I watched the city go by. I was a little bit unfocused because I'd been thinking that the sky looked like it did when my father died. The driver took a phone call, telling someone that he'd pick her (him?) up after he dropped off his passenger, and what should we have for supper tonight? (He decided on burgers on the grill, which seemed to please him. He seemed happy to have a simple dinner to plan.)

He hung up the phone, we crossed the street where I had my accident, and out of the silence, he said, "I'm a junkie." Just like that, I'm a junkie.

I didn't know what to say. "I'm a heroin addict," he continued. No drama in his voice, just a matter-of-fact admission. "I was off it but my girlfriend dumped me. And I relapsed, and now I'm on methadone."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't imagine how difficult that must be." Because, well, I can't. I am the squarest quadrilateral; almost everything I know about heroin comes from books, documentaries, and Lou Reed. So I told him about a childhood friend who'd developed a heroin addiction.

"His family tried to help him for years," I said. He didn't kick it the first time he tried, or the second, or the third.

"I'm lucky to have good people in my life," the driver said. "But nobody can help someone who doesn't want to help himself."

The taxi chugged up a hill, and then we were almost to the hospital. "I don't know why I'm telling you this," he said quietly. I didn't either, but it felt OK. I told him that I hoped he was able to stay clean. "I hope so, too," he said.

I smiled. "I get to hope that you do it," I said. "But you have to know that you can do it." He smiled, laughed.

The fare came to $10.30; I gave him $14. "You know," I said as I reached for my crutches, "That friend I mentioned? He's been off heroin for about seven years now. And he's married, and he has a job he loves, and he's happy and healthy."


"Yeah. And I'm really sorry about having your heart broken, but I think that you will find someone who's better for you. Eventually."

He raised an eyebrow. "You think so, huh?"

"Well, you have to think so," I said. "Either that, or you can always get a cat." He laughed again.

"Good luck," I said.

"You too," he said. I shut the door and watched the cab slink down to Duboce and Scott. After my appointment, I took in some sunshine in the park and thought about our unusually naked conversation. Sometimes it's easier to tell secrets to strangers than to the people closest to you. Sometimes you have to reach out because you need to be held, if only for a few moments. Tonight I am thinking of the fragility of stability, the strength to be spun from the tiniest thread of hope, and how we propel ourselves forward simply because we must.

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Cabin fever gripped me this afternoon, making me vow that come hell or high water, I was going to leave the house today. (Hell would be easier than a flood; that leg condom is difficult to maneuver, and the cast is not allowed to get wet.) So after finishing work, I peeled the bathrobe off and donned a dress. A side note: Wearing a cast means that the only pants you can reasonably wear are JNCOs. As I am unwilling to seek out the fashion castaways of '90s skater boys, this means it's all dresses, all the time.

In my dress and one moccasin, I successfully descended the stairs. Twenty minutes later, I'd walked the two and a half blocks to the video store. I was winded, so I took a break at Ritual. My podiatrist said I need to drink milk, a disgusting practice I've refused to do since leaving home, so I figured hot cocoa counts. I wrote, I finished my drink, and took five minutes to reach the overpriced grocery place across the street. There, I realized that, duh, I can't crutch and carry a basket at the same time. So I wound up shuffling along, using my right crutch to advance the basket a foot at a time. Two people helped me, which was nice. And then I took another 15 minutes to walk home.

My whole point in all of this is that if ever there were a chance to be a missed connection, this is it. I'd certainly leave one for a cute-enough girl in a dress on crutches. People like people who are a bit broken, like taking care of a baby bird who's fallen from its nest. But when I fired up ol' Craigslist, there was nary a note. There's one for some other girl who crashed her bike on Sunday, but nothing for me — yet. But it's gonna happen! I can feel it. "You were limping along in a stained dress," it'll read. "The way your asthmatic lungs heaved as you attempted the most rudimentary tasks was so alluring." Will keep you posted on inevitable developments.

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Mission: possible

Moving to the new neighborhood has changed my experience of the city immeasurably. Generally speaking, I always lived just outside of the happening neighborhoods, exchanging activity for lower rent. It was fine as long as I had two-wheeled transportation and, more importantly, motivation to make the trek to whatever activity was going on. But my homebody tendencies are strong, and more often than not, I'd wind up lollygagging at home instead of socializing. (Exceptions were made for shows at the Empty Bottle, a three-block walk from my house.)

Now I live a block off the main drag, on what is probably the prettiest street in the Mission. I'm surprised by how much happier I am in general now that there are things to do where I live. If I want hot cocoa, there are three decent places within a two-minute walk. Late-night Coke? A block away. (Probably late-night coke, too, but obviously I have no interest in that.) Poori, pupusas, pizza, croissants, ice cream, everything so close.

These are some of my favorite neighborhood characters:

Beardy bookstore boy was sympathetic when Minou went missing, and he allowed me to post my handmade sign in the bookstore's window. Whenever I buy a book, he is friendly in the way that makes me think he'll be labeled "jolly" when he's someday a roly-poly septuagenarian.

The Commuter has freckles and bright eyes. I noticed her shortly after moving to the neighborhood, observing that riding MUNI with cute lesbians on the J rather than angry teenage thugs on the 31 was an upgrade. We wound up randomly meeting each other at a bar on St. Patrick's Day — I knew she looked familiar but couldn't place it —  and now we catch up with each other whenever our commutes collide. Sometimes I feel embarrassed because she works to help homeless people find jobs and assistance, whereas my job is not nearly as socially important.

Speaking of lesbians, gruff video store guy and I argue about whether Bound deserves to be called a neo-noir. (I say yes; he says no.) I love my local video store because the workers leave little notes on the cases, and they clearly love cinema. It costs more to rent from them than it does to load up Netflix, but I think I am going to let my red-envelope habit fade away.

Mr. Pretentious lives up to his nickname, always dropping philosophers' names to see if I'm stumped or impressed. He is tedious and yet I enjoy disliking him, which is why he's on the list.

I don't drink too often, but sometimes Barbara is a bad influence, and we will have a post-work glass of wine or two. The last time we did this, I later teetered into the coffee shop for hot cocoa, where HFT Barista flirted with me. It was all very confusing, because somehow she knows my name, and she said I was, quote, striking. Of course I was tipsy and flustered by this, because somehow it is more flattering to have a lady flatter you than a dude. It is more likely that she is not HFT at all, that in my blotto state I started making things up in my mind, but it's nicer to imagine that someone has a crush on you than not.

Sad married guy sometimes gets on the train at the same time I do. He looks like the kind of guy who is stuck in a loveless marriage. I don't know why I think this, but the guy just has this look of quiet defeat, and I manufacture domestic dramas for him in my mind. Other times, Fake Paul Krugman gets on the train.


My new neighbors

I moved to a new neighborhood about six weeks ago, and everything is grand, just grand, as Lucille Austero would say. I always told myself I'd leave the house more often if there were more to do where I lived, and so far I am doing just that. I loiter at coffee shops, walk through the park in the evening, pick up hot croissants (!) on the way to work, and buy books at the store around the corner. And my roommate is the best.

However: There is a situation with the middle-aged downstairs neighbors, one of whom must be hard of hearing, because what else would explain THE WAY THEY USE THEIR OUTDOOR VOICES TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER AT ALL TIMES? EVERYTHING IS YELLED. I'll be sitting on the couch, enjoying a Buffy marathon, when I'll hear the couple bicker about the stale bread or the radiator. I pick up snippets of conversation: "...AND HE'S A TOTAL ZIONIST..." and "...CHEAP WINE AND CHOPPED-UP FRUIT!" Last night, one of them snored so loudly ("ZZZZZ!") that I could not sleep, and the situation was so ridiculous that I started laughing. Upstairs, our neighbor is probably writing something about her crazy downstairs neighbor who bursts out laughing at 3am. You know, the same neighbor who is constantly asking rhetorical questions such as "Who has short legs?" and answering with "MILO has short legs!" I bet she thinks I have chopped off someone's limbs below the patella, and that there is some serious Misery shit going on below her studio apartment.


I always feel like a supreme fool when writing in cafes. I go to the cafe with good intentions ("Off to write the great American novel," I told my roommate) but I get there and worry that some lurking person will read over my shoulder and laugh at my writing. So instead, I wind up downing my cocoa while writing e-mails or giggling while reading Sadly, No. The novel remains unwritten.

Yesterday, Sabs and Adam (who is called Chuckles, and I don't know why) and I walked up and down hills until we reached the Seward Street slides. They're a pair of twisty concrete slides carved into a fairly steep hill; the idea is to slide down them on a flat piece of cardboard. Going down them is a lot like I imagine luge to be. The ride is terrifyingly fast, and because the chutes are so narrow, it's impossible to go down without sacrificing slices of skin to the rough sides.

There were children playing on the slides, and we shoved them aside to do things grownup style. I kid, but when one of them went down on a skateboard, I couldn't help but wonder why his dad didn't seem to see the broken limb that would inevitably ensure. As for me, I braved those concrete death traps only once, and I just about shit my pants with fear. Getting air on a concrete slide is not my idea of a good time. "Oh god, I'm going to break my tailbone," I thought. "And what if I somehow knock out my teeth?" (The latter remains one of my great fears, even after all these years.)

Sabs and Chuckles are more fun than I am, so they went down a few more times while I played photographer. Sabs posted one of her pictures, but you can't see how scraped up we are. This is the problem with being an oldster: You get damaged more easily and the scars take longer to heal. (Sounds like some corny veiled emotional metaphor, but it's not.)

Photo via someone else's Flickr


The Best Thing About Yesterday

...actually, wait, this wasn't the best thing about yesterday. Finding out that Minou, who'd gone missing (but was found thanks to my expert lost-cat flyering), hadn't broken any bones in his 12-foot dive to freedom, was the best thing. Or wildly guessing on trivia questions with Gabriel at the Edinburgh Castle (which I always want to call the Gothic Castle, as a nod to Arrested Development. But this is definitely the thing that put me in a good mood:

I always loved it when, after listing their "Thanks to..." in liner notes, bands had a "No thanks" list, too. I have one of those lists in my mind.


Rat and lady

If you pay attention in the Tenderloin, you'll observe the kinds of quotidian patterns that happen anywhere else. There's order to the neighborhood; it just doesn't manifest itself in the way that it does in more pleasant pockets of the city. I ride the bus through the Tenderloin every morning, and I know which characters to expect depending on the time I get on.

I have random bus crushes and bus nemeses, but I also look on the street for certain faces. There's a woman who always stays with me. It's hard to pinpoint her age; she could be 30, she could be 50, but she looks hardened either way. Her brassy brown hair is always tangled, her face is ruddy and puffy, her clothes are stained and ragged. She is living a hard life. Sometimes I see her sitting on Eddy Street, or occasionally panhandling by the BART station at Montgomery. She almost always is caressing a small, twitching rat that seems tame and as affectionate as a rodent can be. It's by far the most poignant scene I see in this city.


Public transit

Now that I have a Blackberry for work, the particulars of my daily commute have changed. Sometimes I'll write in my notebook, and on Thursdays I like to read my fresh-from-the-mailbox New Yorker in a haphazard manner. (First, the letters; next, the back page; finally, Talk of the Town.)

But on most mornings, I like to fire up the puny browser and read the New York Times editorial page. I don't know when doing so became part of my morning routine, but it makes me feel a little better and more informed when I get off the bus. Part of me still believes that newspapers can give you excellent fodder for conversation, and although I very rarely encounter anybody who wants to discuss that morning's paper, I like to be prepared.

The commute home is another story. At that point, I've read almost everything I want to read online. My eyes are tired. I just want to be home already. If things go well, I get a seat near the back of the bus. And because I have a Blackberry, I can send (unfortunately true) messages like this:

Ugh! On bus and cannot escape creeps! Just fled from furious masturbator only to find bearded tooth picker!

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Lately I've been thinking about redwoods, and how in northern California you zig-zag through hundreds of them on narrow nighttime roads. When we were a couple of hours north of San Francisco, Phil drove our rented beige sedan through the unlighted capillaries of Highway 1. I couldn't do it. The thick fog seemed inpenatrable to my Midwestern eyes, and my nerves conspired with my imagination to concoct all sorts of plausible disasters. I worried that we would hit an adorable and endangered animal that hopped into the roadway, or that one of the oncoming cars would nudge us a little too far towards the shoulder and therefore to a deadly collision. When I watched the dips and angles of the road, my stomach would lurch, and I'd occasionally have to talk my digestive system out of making an uninvited outburst.

(I feel like I would make a very good mother someday, because I am proficient at identifying and worrying about implausible accidents. I am also becoming good at desperately clutching the car door handle whenever the automobile takes on anything more than a ten-degree curve.)

During these drives, Phil's face was focused but calm. I suspect he had his own white-knuckled moments, but he concealed them well. It made me feel like a little girl in the best ways, safe and taken care of. I'd gaze through the passenger-side window, staring at the stars peeking through the tree canopy. When your eyes are accustomed to the dull glow of city sky, the speckled blanket of night feels like a gift.

Sometimes I think about those drives, and how their combination of fear and beauty made me intensely aware of the temporality of time and existence. It's like remembering the present as it happens, writing down all five senses in slow and detailed motion.


a few small california pictures

We had a good time:

We bookended our trip in San Francisco, opting to drive up the coast for a sojourn. While out of the city, we stayed near Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. I kept hoping to see some touristy schlock that would point out where all the Birds-y places were, but instead we saw lots of boats. This was the view from our cottage.

The day before we took this photo, my sweet and athletic* boyfriend wanted to watch the sunset at Point Reyes. Because I was recovering from a mild yet painful asthma attack earlier in the day, and being purple-fingered cold from our outdoor adventures, I wanted nothing more than to get to the warmth of our rental car. What can I say? I am totally out of shape, and climbing hills is hard work. The sunset was taking forever, and so we didn't stick around for all of it. The next day, back in the city, we caught this one instead. I think it was just as pretty.

Kittens in the Macy's window.

We went to Japantown and watched a Taiko group. I was fascinated by the woman on the left. She wasn't just happy to be playing her drum; she was visibly filled with joy. Just watching her made me happy.

* I feel like I need to say here that he is not athletic in the no-neck, jockular way, but in the does-flips-on-the-beach way. He has a very pretty and defined neck.

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