The Streets of San Francisco

We moved to California the summer before I started 8th grade. Our family was down to just three then, since my sister was out of the house and in the Air Force.

The move put us what felt like a world away from New York. Even in the suburbs, you still got the news from the city, and living there was like living in the center of the universe. There was always enough going on that an entire newscast could focus on the latest events in the five boroughs and the rest of the tri state area. If you heard about anyplace else in the country it was only because you stuck around to watch the syndicated news.

Compared to New York, the local news in California seemed like a joke. No murders? No robberies? No footage of Ed Koch ranting? The biggest news here was weather and earthquakes. For a long time, my parents had the New York Times delivered even though it wasn’t the local paper. We noted the differences between there and here. For a long time California didn’t feel like home. There was a lingering feeling that it was merely an extended vacation.

One summer, my aunt ventured out for a visit. She was getting into traveling and in the years since, she made plans and stuck with them. If she told you she was going to visit, it wasn’t lip service, it was a promise. We picked her up from the airport and gave her a tour of the house. This was the only person, besides my sister, who had gotten a glimpse into our past and present lives.

The highlight of the trip was to be our trip to San Francisco. My dad didn’t take time off from work, which meant that would have to wait until the weekend. In the meantime, Aunt Alice hung out with me and my mom in the house, perfectly content to be the pampered houseguest. When Saturday came, she got her camera bag and walking shoes and we all piled into the car.

“I’m going to see the Streets of San Francisco!” she said.

While navigating the city, we drove down a road so steep that required my dad to shift the car into second and then first gear. Every time we got out to walk somewhere, Aunt Alice would pull out her brand new video recorder to capture the sights and scenes. She loved cameras and photographs, but videos were an entirely new frontier. The camera rolled as we looked over the water at Alcatraz and when we marveled over the cars zigzagging down Lombard Street. We walked through the tunnel into Chinatown. We looked up at the TransAmerica building from the sidewalk below. We watched trolleys dropping off tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf and we saw Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

Then we piled back into the car and drove home. My dad plugged Aunt Alice’s camera into the TV. She had gotten some decent footage, but every time we left one attraction to walk to another, she had forgotten to put the video camera on standby. As a result, the footage captured by her swinging arm included blurred sidewalks, moving feet and yes, the Streets of San Francisco.

RIP Aunt Alice!


Lunchbox Shell Game

I’m going back in time for this entry, way back to third grade of Colton Elementary School, which was the first year I didn’t carry a brown paper sack. This was the year when I had a plastic yellow Garfield lunchbox, purchased from Caldor during the back to school shopping spree. Back then my love of Garfield surpassed my feelings for Snoopy. I was also getting better at drawing Garfield, which somehow made him more accessible. Much to her dismay, I would borrow from my sister’s collection of Garfield books, only half understanding the sarcasm and more complicated storylines. Garfield was the It cat back then, which meant I wasn’t the only one in the class with that lunchbox. Michael Bulger had the same exact one. I did my best to memorize the marks and scratches on my lunchbox in case I chose his by mistake. If I opened it up and the lunch looked completely different from my mom’s usual fare, then I would figure it out and make the switch, no harm, no foul, no germ-swapping.

One day we took a break for snacks in the classroom. I went to the shelf above the coat rack, grabbed the yellow lunchbox, checked it briefly and headed towards my desk. The sandwich inside the plastic baggie? Yeah, that was totally something my mom would have made. The banana on the side? And lack of cookies or chips? That was just her style. I unscrewed the top of the matching Thermos bottle and took a sip from the straw. Hm, chocolate milk! I thought, and then, Man, this could use a few more squirts of Hershey’s syrup.

It was then when I looked up and saw Michael approaching, holding my lunchbox.



Just Say No

Recently I saw a former seatmate from one of my previous evening commutes. As soon as I recognized him, I turned my head, careful to avoid any eye contact in case he happened to look up. After we boarded the train, I kept myself occupied with reading my book and toying with my iPod. Thankfully he never looked up. If he had, it would have involved at least a smile, or a wave or some phony exchange, and if you remember the original post about the guy, I have already heard more than enough from him.

Sometimes if you're lucky, you don't have to go to such great lengths to avoid someone who has snagged you in the past. Even if you slip up and make eye contact, sometimes they forget.

One afternoon I managed to escape the house and head over to T.J. Maxx (it’s across the street from my house so obviously I didn’t go very far). It was there where I was accosted.

A smiling woman who looked to be around my age approached me as I browsed the knitwear section.

“Hi.” She said.

Interesting. No one had ever greeted me in T.J. Maxx before. I wasn’t going to flat out ignore her, so I said hello. From there she eased into her Mary Kay sales pitch.

Yes, I know. I should have suspected something when I saw that, while she was dressed down, her face was completely made up. Under the guise that she would be throwing a party that involved a free facial treatment, I gave her my name and number.

Big mistake.

Aisha was relentless. The phone would ring, and there she was chipper as can be—
“I just wanted to see what date would work for the free facial!”

Inside, I was groaning. I used the busy-with-the-new-baby excuse and weaseled out of it. She tried two more times, one of them when my best friend was visiting.

“Don't you know what they do at those parties?” My friend said. “They herd you into a living room and try to sell you shit.”

“I know, I know.” I said, after hanging up the phone. Why was it so hard to say no? Why do we feel compelled to go along with the pitch even if we’re in no way interested in what’s being sold?

A few months later Aisha found me browsing T.J. Maxx again (I'm in there pretty often; it's never the same place twice). The minute I looked up at her face and placed the smile, I stood, frozen, knowing exactly what was going to come next.

“…we do free facial parties and really it’s a lot of fun…”

When pressed for my name and phone number, I thought, are you kidding me? You just ran into me last December. I looked into her eyes and saw there was no flash of recognition behind them. She didn’t remember me at all.

So I did what anyone else would have done--

I told her my name was Keisha*, rattled off a ten digit phone number** and got the hell out of there.

*not my real name
**not my real number


Personal Cheesus

If you look at something long enough, sometimes you can tilt your head, or squint your eyes and see it as something entirely different. Optical illusions are fun. Making something different out of something that is otherwise completely ordinary
can be mesmerizing. How did they do it, you think. What inspired this twist?

Other times the illusion comes about on its own over time and without manipulation. Or sometimes it’s manufactured. Once in awhile one of these things will go up for sale on eBay. Check out the Illinois Corn Flake and the Elvis potato chip.

Then there are the religious sightings. This brings a whole new level of awe. Not only is it something looking like something else (okay, some of these require quite a bit of eye-squinting and head-tilting) but you also have Deeper Meaning. The people who see these things want to convince you: This is no coincidence, my friend!

The last one to make the news was a Cheeto. Now it looked like a T-shaped Cheeto to me, but others insist that no, this was indeed an incarnation of Jesus! On the cross! Wait! Here's another one!

If you don’t see it, you’re just an unbeliever.

Well, that part is true; I have a hard time believing that Jesus would reveal himself to humanity as a salty processed snack food.

Pondering the Inevitable

My aunt died a couple of months ago. I know this is the natural order of things, and while she reached 83 active years of age, had a full life and did everything you’re “supposed” to do before you die, it was still shocking. Why? Because she was relatively healthy and it was completely unexpected. Going out this way might be good for the person who died, but man it’s hard on the ones left behind. I still can’t bring myself to delete her email address from my contact list (yes, she was an older person who willingly used email!). Keeping the address is harmless, but it’s not going to bring her back.

I grasped that things would come to an end at an early age. How did I make this terrifying discovery? When I was about four years old, browsing the pages of a science book--specifically, a Peanuts (yes, by Charles M. Schulz) science book. There was a series of them, and my sister owned the first four. I tried to find them on eBay to prove that I’m not crazy, but my search was unsuccessful; you’ll just have to take my word for it: Peanuts Science Books—hey, it was the ‘70’s. Kids liked popular comic characters delivering their facts. What I read was this: “In Five billion years the sun will be in the red giant phase and come to an end.” Even then, I knew this was not good news. If the sun was gone, then the Earth didn’t have a chance. Therefore, the world was coming to an end!

I bawled over this. FIVE BILLION YEARS! I lost sleep and voiced my worries on long car trips. This was serious business and no one seemed to care!

Eventually (and inexplicably), I moved on.

There is a “Childhood Trauma Checklist” from Matt Groening’s Life In Hell cartoon which includes the death of a parent. This is another thing that can make you preoccupied with death. It’s not always such a terrible thing—you can get some pretty good jokes out of the deal. My senior year in high school, a lot of students lost parents, most of them fathers. This contributed to a group my best friend and I coined, “Dead Dad’s Club.” There was an adult counselor there who ran a group catered specifically to us. My best friend and I attended—not because we really wanted to sort through the issues, but because—hey—you get to get out of class!

So one day, I handed over my Dead Dad Club note to my teacher (while looking appropriately humbled and slightly sad) and skipped out of class. At the meeting I sat next to my friend.

“Close your eyes and think of a flower blowing in the breeze.” The counselor said.

Apparently it was a relaxation technique, but in my case, it was a battle to squelch the inappropriate laughter rising up through my chest. A flower? I controlled my breathing and locked my lips shut. The mistake had been sitting next to my friend. We nudged each other under the table, willing the other one to bust out first. If either of us did have an outburst, the nice thing about laughter is that you can easily make it look like you’re sobbing-- hysterically.

I’ve been to a handful of funerals in my life. It’s funny how different they are. There are so many ways to say goodbye. One funeral involved not a relative, but a former academic dean—a retired one star general. It was a BFD. I got to be there because the family requested to have a cadet contingent at the funeral—specifically from the company that this dean was in way back when he was a cadet. I was in this company, so therefore I got to attend.

This involved a rehearsal to make sure we didn’t screw up the big show. We spent an afternoon marching down the road to the cemetery, taking our places, waiting, and then returning to the barracks when the show was over. There were other players too—a unit of soldiers to play drums and send the guy off with a twenty-one gun salute. I was doing just fine until the soldiers who had the coffin (empty, of course, this was just the rehearsal) maneuvered into position while another soldier played a snare at a rapid pace. The real funeral would have the accompanying brass and frills, but for the rehearsal, all we had was the drumroll. Drumrolls mean anticipation of something to follow, the resulting “ta-da” of a magic act. I looked at the top of that coffin and envisioned it popping open, jack in the box style. If I laughed out loud, everyone would turn and glare at me. If I fell out of formation, I might have been punished. I locked my lips and stayed as still as I could. As soon as the drumming stopped, I took deep breaths and collected myself. In case you’re wondering, no, thankfully this didn’t happen the next day for the real deal.

I get freaked out to think it will all come to an end. Where do we go? What happens? Does someone just shut the door and turn out the lights and that’s it? I don’t bawl in the car anymore, but there are times when my mind spins in circles, thinking about the time I’ve already lived and how much sand is left in the hourglass. There is not much you can do about any of it. It makes no sense to be shocked and surprised. We know it's coming; it’s the natural order of things.

You have to laugh. It’s going to happen to all of us eventually, or, as my boss has said, “Nobody gets out alive.” The joke’s on us, so at the very least, try to have fun along the way.