Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trust me

The man is on a cell phone, clearly upset. Almost - theatrically upset. I'm walking down Market Street and he is half a stride behind me. It's Friday night, and the street is crowded.

Shit! he says, clapping the phone shut.

He's caught up to me, and catches my eye. I'm sorry about that, he says. I didn't mean's just...

He throws his arms in the air. I got carjacked today, he says. My family was carjacked. At the point of a gun.

I stop. I'm sorry to hear that, I tell him. Is everyone okay?

From the moment I hear him on the cell phone, I'm wary. No reason in particular, nothing I can point to - I keep looking for the director, the script girl. He wears a long herringbone coat, leather gloves. A suit. It looks like a costume.

He tells me a long, disjointed story. Pulls out a paper with notes taken on it. He says he has the police report. Details to make it real. The place: just south of here on 101. Their destination: Eureka. They planned to make Eureka tonight. The car was recovered. He's not a transient. You gotta trust me, he says. His wife and kids are waiting by the side of the road. He needs to buy a gas can, gas.

That's when it clicks into place. Gas can. An old friend of mine ran a variation of this very scam some twenty plus years ago. It was a strange and short period for him. He wore a suit and carried a gas can. A story about breaking down just outside of town. Wife and kids waiting.

The carjacking is a thrilling new twist. Violence! Drama!

I stop him there. I don't have anything for him, I say. I'm sorry.

What I really want to say is: how's this working out for you? What I want to say is: I'm sorry you're going to have to go through the whole show again for someone else. It's easier to just ask for cash up front.

What I want to know is: am I getting harder? Am I losing my ability to simply trust?

I'm out with a friend and a woman appears behind us. Help out a woman with a dollar, will you? she asks. We don't have a thing, we say.

Oh, come on, she says. Like we're not playing the game right. Like we didn't just step out of a cab. Like we owe her something, and if we can't just own up say No, without the excuse, we have to pay up.

And I want to know how long I can hold onto my trusting self in this place and this time. If I can look past the scams, the sense of entitlement.

If I can be brave enough to see into a person on the street, if I can learn to not look away, but look in. Look all the way in. And find the person inside who is worth the chance.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The sun shines down

On a day like today, you have to be out in the sun. You have to steal time, walk outside, look at all the women and girls in their sundresses, flesh shining and hungry; white girls already pinking on shoulders, cheeks.

I start in my neighborhood, where the guy selling Street Sheets sings as I pass. We all love you, he calls after me, gold tooth catching sunlight.

As I walk uphill, the street people thin out, drop away; at the top of the hill, a tall young woman rises from the back seat of a limo at the Fairmont. High-heeled sandal, white draped calf, thigh, and now dark hair caught up in a jeweled clasp, bare shoulders, waist: she stands on the walkway in a long white evening gown. Just beyond her, in the doorway of the hotel, an older woman waits for her car, aggressively ugly in clothes chosen to announce wealth: shapeless, heavy, baldly ornamented.

Across from Grace Cathedral is a small park. Bronze fountain supported by naked young men, bronze eyes blank. A woman lies on a bench, head on her purse, eyes closed - almost closed - she tries to sleep but her consciousness keeps her tuned in.

Every bench is occupied and much of the grass, skirts lifted and sleeves rolled to expose skin to sun. At one bench is a man who would look at home in my part of town, down in the flats: dirty beard, dreadlocked hair. He's spinning.

I stop to look closer. I had thought it was a bicycle wheel, but now I see the thread winding from a spindle in his hand to the shining wheel. The wheel spins and the spindle dips and wool or cotton or gold from straw is spun.

The spindle dips and releases me, long running strides down the hill. Soon I'll be home, the mirror in my loft spinning the last drops of sunshine into a jar on the shelf by the bed.

At night, when the back door to the strip club slams and I hear voices spiraling up the walls to my window, I'll open the jar. I'll hear the beginnings of a fight, the Don't you dare, the I'm not the one, and I'll scatter stored sunlight down and over their shoulders.

They'll stop, look up, breathe in, and remember a day when bare toes dug into dirt and grass roots. When sun cooked into shoulders and back. When they dreamed of a spring that never ends.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dianetics changed my life

Sometimes it seems I've moved to a whole new country. A planet of lost souls, people hanging on to the edge of the city with blackened fingernails.

A woman toddles toward me with a terrifying goggle-smile. Her hair is blond and curly. She was cute, once. She might have been pretty. The smile now is pulled painfully over the front of her face. "Helloooo!" she says as I pass. "Helloooo!" exactly the same overbright tone to the person behind me. "Helloooo!"

Inside a restaurant, in a nearly empty dining room, a woman and her children raise their arms above their heads and spin. The woman pauses, and her eyes meet mine. She shrugs, raising her arms again.

A man in a wheelchair speaks a language that doesn't exist on earth.

On the bus, I'm taken in by the Dianetics ad. Indisputably the most read book on the human mind ever written, it says. Indisputably? I think. It seems an outlandish claim. A young man is sitting next to me. He looks like any of a thousand young men in the city. Skinny jeans, expensive backpack. Just before his stop he stands and reaches over the head of the woman across the aisle. He pulls at the ad, diligently. Sorry, he mumbles, as it doesn't give as easily as he expected. Finally he tears it down the middle, crumpling half in his fist before hopping off the bus.

Guess he doesn't like Scientology, a man at the back of the bus says.

The erupting volcano remains.

At night I dream of the blond woman's rictus, her teeth showing in a Joker grin. Helloooo? she asks my sleeping self. Hello, I want to say. Hello. I see you.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Alarm will sound as a whooping horn.

This morning, as I walk to work, I see a man in the middle of the street. In the middle of a lane. I hear a siren coming this way. He plants his feet wide, bending his knees like he's going to go into a crouch. I watch him, curious.

At work there's a plate by the elevator with instructions in case of a fire. It tells me:

Alarm will sound as a whooping horn.

A sign inside the elevator informs me that the alarm will be tested tomorrow morning at 7 am. It will be very loud, it says.

The alarm is very loud. Last week it rattled me at my desk. We filed outside like schoolkids, down the metal and cement stairway and into the parking lot. We stood around and looked at each other while the building screamed.

In my new sixth floor loft, I can't hear much noise from the street. I do hear sirens; after a while they become a sort of backdrop. Tonight I hear protesters moving down Market toward City Hall. I step out on to the fire escape to watch them go by, escorted by police cars and vans and their flashing lights.

I can also hear church bells from my window.

The man in the middle of the street emerges from his crouch as the siren approaches. He's young and beautiful. He stretches one long arm out front of his body, palm up. He's pulling the ambulance toward him. Scooping out into the air with both arms now, and now his mouth opens, the siren is inside me and inside him; I see but don't hear his laugh as it rocks by, tossing his hair back in its wake, his eyes are open and both arms are in the air and he's laughing like he's found the secret of joy.