Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Market Street will never smell so fresh as it does at 5:30 in the morning. It's full dark out, my feet slapping pavement and shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks. On the second floor of the building at 3rd street a woman is running on a treadmill, under bright lights. I'm a block down the street, two blocks, and the woman in the headphones is running in place.

A man stands partway in the street, his eyes focused high on the building with the abandoned deli, his hat to his heart like he's pledging allegiance.

"I thank you," he says. "I thank you..."

My breath comes hard and I think I can't keep running, I'm sure I can't and I almost stop but then feel the spring inside winding up again, it's only at the very bottom that it winds through and I'm running and it's okay.

It's easy to feel virtuous, running early in the morning when most of the city is still asleep. It's easy to find the division between Them and Us, Them and mighty, virtuous Me, but I don't run to for virtue. I do it to be pretty, I do it to not be sick anymore, I do it for all the selfish reasons.

And the dividing line is not so clear. I live here. I'm one of the people in my neighborhood. I've sat in the strip club, watching the woman's eyes grow bored when the big tipper leaves his spot at the front of the stage. She shakes and steps high because it's her job and the act is dropped, but enough of the customers don't see or don't care. Her skin is smooth and I think it must be very soft. When I was younger, I thought I wanted her job. I wanted to be seen.

We all have our drugs.

There are thieves and con-men and assholes here, just like anywhere, the thug in a good suit is still just a thug. The thieves here aren't so successful, or they'd be somewhere else. They're broken down, like the rest of us.

Ginsberg wrote about human seraphim: The security guard who closes his eyes at me like a blessing. The cluster of early shifters waiting for the bus, a man nodding into sleep on his feet, jerking himself awake. The fireman in his gear at the bottom of the stairs, smiling slightly into the rolling light from the truck. The woman leaning in the Ross entryway with her paper cup of coffee. She squints through the glass at temp workers moving slowly, near the end of inventory, reassembling the store one blouse, one dress, one jacket at a time.

I'm almost back to my building, the awning in sight. I want to stop now and walk the rest of the way, but I find the spring again, winding up and pulling me the last few feet to my door.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Not Boston

Today I'm craving cream and meat, so I go to Boston Market for lunch. It's a fast food place that's trying very hard not to be a fast food place. Today, this is good. I have to get back to the office quick-like, but I don't want to look at a screen while I eat.

The cashier is grandmotherly. Would you like to donate $1 to end child hunger and get a free side with your next meal? she twinkles. How can I say no? She gives me a paper to write my name and my favorite side dish, and I write my full name, realizing it was the wrong thing too late. They post these on the wall. It's just an ad.  I write down green beans, although I didn't order them today.

A matron gives me the stinkeye for sitting in a booth. I'm reading The Adderall Diaries, and I can feel her eyes boring through the pages. She has bad hair and a gaudy purse. Her daughters are miffed on her behalf, but a helpful Boston Market employee shows them to another booth.

A homeless guy wanders in. His nappy hair has a layer of dust, like powdered sugar. There's a commotion among the employees. They're trying to make him go away.

He plays with the plant, pulling at the leaves and watching them bounce back, a purse of drool falling from his open mouth. The woman at the next table turns up the volume on her conversation, determined not to notice him. One of the servers hands him a to-go container of food and lifts her arm toward the door. Maybe it's macaroni and cheese, I can't tell.

I need, he says. I need.

The girls in their Boston Market uniforms are moving fast. Napkins and plastic utensils. He's handed things in a flurry, and a tall employee, her chin up, walks toward the door, beckoning him like a child. He follows her outside.

I called Security, but they were too slow, she says, her bones loosening as she walks back to the counter.

It's an interesting bargain. They bribe him with food to leave. He holds them hostage by being there, stinking up the place, making people uncomfortable.

I want to know his story. I feel like I'm getting close to something, but I can't be sure.

How do you know?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trust me, again

Tonight I'm with friends. We're looking for someplace to have a drink, and when a man says Excuse me, in a polite voice, we stop. Without thinking twice, we stop and turn our attention on him.

Can you help me, he says. He gives us his name. He says he's from Alabama. Are you lost, we ask. Lost is the least of it, yes, you could say I'm lost. All of this preamble shifts the tone. Urban suspicions on the alert. He keeps starting and stopping, playing it out. I watch the line of his cheekbone. He is playing the part of Exhausted, annoyed with himself, proud and humiliated by the situation. He says he needs to get to Pittsburg on BART. We give him another chance, ready to tell him how to get there. I know how to get there, he almost yells. I want to clap. We're getting the whole show.

Just tell us what you need, we finally say. He lets out a groan. I don't have the money.

I don't have to look, I can hear the disappointment turning my friends' faces blank. In a flat voice, D asks how much. Six dollars and fifty-five cents, he says. My name is XXX, I'm from Alabama. I can give you my email address and return the money.

His props are better than the other guy's. Bluetooth headset. Smart phone showing a map. Handwritten notes, of course. How much for a cab.

We don't have anything, we start to say, but then I see my friends pulling out their wallets. I give in to peer pressure and dig some laundry quarters out. D finally just gives him six dollars. I can give you my email, he starts to say. He sounds angry. We turn away and start walking.

We're quiet for a few steps. I tell them I know this scam. J tells about someone who tried it on him every day. He'd say You already tried this on me yesterday, and the guy would just say, Oh. Oh, and move on to the next mark.

D says, Why don't I feel better? I gave him six dollars, and I just feel worse.

I know what he means. I don't like being played. And with these specific markers. The implication being that people will help someone who already has money. Someone who is just in a temporary tight spot, through no fault of his own. We can imagine such a thing happening to us.

But we can't imagine ourselves homeless. We can't, or we daren't. I live surrounded by people who have fallen off the edge, and it becomes harder every day to see the sharp lines between them and me. I used to live a thin four miles from here, but it was a different planet. I was insulated from these alien creatures who rub up against me now. I didn't see them. If I thought about them at all, it was in abstract terms.

Abstraction is no longer possible. So I come back to this again and again. What does it mean? What do I do with this? Is there a way to push through, to find the common heart that beats for the guy with the Bluetooth headset and beats for me? Could I fly past my own fear to learn his actual story?

I come back to this again, and again I feel I'm no closer to an answer.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Just this

One day, I'll look back on this time with nostalgia. Do you remember, I'll want to ask.

Do you remember walking by Mr. S. Leather when the handwritten sign is out front, announcing Fetish Photo Shoot Today? The afternoon sun wraps around the bare skin of a man standing just inside the door, chain looping down from the collar around his neck to the slim hand of the man beside him, who has turned to talk to someone just out of sight.

The Asian woman who bursts into open-mouthed sobs. She's helped to the sidewalk by her husband/boyfriend/brother/friend. They sit down on the curb and tears are shocked from her eyes, making a cartoon arc before dropping.

The sweetly ugly tranny at the taco truck. She is businesslike and earnest in her white platforms and uncombed wig. Getting a taco before heading back to work.

The desperately beautiful tranny on the corner of 6th, her mind unlooping into the street. Her skin is darkly polished and her hot pink thong shows a perfect ass while she harangues nobody, everybody, crossing Market and turning around to cross again, her angry voice riding above bus brakes, cabs, the F Market singing in its track.

The suited man outside Market Street Cinema, slipping me free passes as I come home from work. Store owners and hired brawn watching the street from their shops. One waves and asks why I haven't called.

Do you remember, I'll ask. When I could walk into the gallery space and people would say hello like family.

When the whole world seemed to turn around the axis of Market Street, and all I had to do was hold out my hand to catch a piece of the Everything.