Wednesday, September 28, 2005

San Francisco

Would Herb Caen have been as good a journalist if he was assigned to write about say, Sacramento or Duluth or Knoxville? There is a spirit to "The City" that inspires one to observe, reflect and report in a way that no other city I have ever been in can. It does take patience and time. Certainly thousands of people, residents and visitors alike, simply pass through or go about their daily business without pausing to absorb the goings on in San Francisco. It is a nice city to drive around, but to really see it, you have to be on foot. Being stationary is even better.

I had the chance on Monday to sit in one of the weirdest spots in SF for a good 30 minutes, and just being there inspires me to make one of my infrequent blog entries. I was leaving the SF Countrywide branch at Van Ness and McAllister, and I decided it was time for a long overdue haircut. Things are picking up for me in my new career, but right now, I am on a rather austere budget. I remembered a hair cut I had back when I was in a similarly tight financial circumstance while living in SF in the late 90's. There was this little Chinese lady who had a barber shop on Market Street who charged a remarkably frugal $5 for a trim. The problem was I couldn't remember where on Market it was. I trudged down to Van Ness and Market to pull $20 out of the ATM I knew was there. Standing there idly "guarding" the B of A was one of SF's Finest.

"Excuse me," I asked the beat cop, "Do you know Market Street pretty well?"

He looked at me mildly scornfully which seemed to communicate something like I was stupid for asking such a question, and grunted a "yeah..."

I related the story of the Chinese lady barber. I refrained from adding the details about how I asked her to give me a haircut like George Clooney (it was the late 90's), and she looked at me in bewilderment and answered "Gaj Crooney? Who he?". The cop had no recollection of a cheap Chinese barber on Market.

He pointed to the east and said, "Now, if you go down to Sixth Street, there's this place..." he paused and looked me up and down. I was wearing my usual worn-out-from-too-many-years-working-in-a-department-store business attire and continued, "...but you don't want to go down Sixth Street." Apparently, the cop had judged my streetwiseness on the conservative side and decided 6th was too dangerous for me. I know the SoMa area can be little rough, but I lived for two years in the Tenderloin. I know how to handle the streets of San Francisco just as well as Michael Douglas. I found it a little amusing that there were areas of Downtown that even the cops won't send people. I think the 6th Street merchants might be a little peeved by that. "There is this Fillipino lady on 7th Street," the cop continued, "right there next to the check cashing place, she's got a little shop. That might be what you were thinking of." I thanked him and wandered the four blocks down market to 7th.

Check cashing places, which also offer things like Payday loans and money orders, thirve in the ghetto. Naturally, folks in and around such places are folks who aren't likely to have a bank account. I weaved my way through the small crowd of inner city dwellers surrounding the check cashing establishment and entered the barber shop. It was 5:30. Thousands of guys in a half mile radius were getting off work. I thought for sure I'd have to wait, but no, I was the only guy in the place other than the little Filipino grandma who looked like she could have cut hair at Corregidor in 1942. It was much like any other barber shop on the inside. Magazines, cyllindrical containers of blue liquid with combs inside, and the faint smell of hair clipper oil. On one wall, an apparently hand made collage of magazine pictures of hairstyles like I had seen many times before in other barber shops. How they could all be handmade and still be so similar is beyond me. All of the hair styles in the pictures would have been all the mode in 1983. Deciding I didn't want to look like Ralph Macchio, I flopped down in the barber chair, and said, "I need a haircut."

I felt so sorry for the ancient barber lady as she kept having to lift her arms to a level even with her head as she cut my hair. Couldn't she have lowered the chair or something like that? Another thing that was weird is that it was the first "dry" haricut I had had in 10 years at least. She didn't do the spraying of the hair with water that seems to be the standard operating procedure of all other barbers. Instead, she cut my hair dry, with what to me seemed like rather dull scissors.

Oddest of all were all the strange people walking by, some even sticking their heads in the otherwise empty barber shop. The traffic noise was loud, so it makes sense that people talking on the street would need to speak up to be heard. The majority of people who were talking loudly as they passed by the 7th Street barbers were not talking to someone else, but to themselves. If you're talking to yourself, is it really that hard to hear even on the busiest of streets? I surmised that although most of the individuals were not talking to anyone else, they still wanted to be heard.

7th and Market has quite a bit of irregular commerce going on. One guy walked into the shop with a plastic bag and asked if anyone (I guess he meant me or the barber lady) wanted to buy a set of computer speakers. Another lady politely asked if the proprietor or myself would be willing to exchange her five dollars in quarters for a single bill (as I write this, I am in dire need of quarters to do my laundry, so I wish now I'd taken her up on her offer). A big argument broke out in front of the barber shop between a guy selling packs of Marlboros loose out of a sack and another man with a peculiar accent. The latter simply would not accept the idea that although he could buy two packs for $5, that one pack would cost him $3, not $2.50. He seemed mildly enraged that this street hawk would be seemingly cheating people that way. Last I checked, I think a pack of Marlboro's will run $4.50 or so in a regular store.

If I seem derisive of the economically challenged San Franciscans, I don't mean to be harsh. I could spend another blog entry making sarcastic observations about the lawyers, executives and other professionals found in the Financial District just a few blocks away. Before I got this current job and was late for a meeting, I never understood why the majority of these folks would always briskly climb an upward moving escalator. I mean, the point of an escalaltor is to save labor, not time.

I suppose if you take the time to notice, we all seem foolish in one way or another; San Francisco inspires me to notice.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

McKenna's Horsey

Check out this blog. I wandered into it because I saw it was written by someone named "McKenna" my family name (2 generations ago).

I thought it was wonderfully kitschy. Goofy. Ironic. It features a whole series of silly photos of a stuffed animal telling a tragic, yet classic story. I liked it a lot. It reminded me of BatGirl's blog, a Minnesota Twins fans who uses children's action figures to depict stories from the world of baseball.

Then I checked the profile of the author...

When an adult uses kid's toys to tell a story, it's kitschy. That's what I assumed the blog was. Actually, the author is an 11 year old kid. McKenna is now a popular girl's first name, so I was likely misunderstanding any surname connection as well. It puts a different spin on the blog from my perspective, but it is still highly creative in and of itself.

Music Time

I cry in my car. That may make me sound like one of these super-sensitive post-modern men who strives to take ownership of his emotions. Think what you like, but perhaps because I'm oftentimes not all that at one with my feelings that with the right stimulus, my emotions overcome me. I mean, even a particularly touching TV commercial can make me misty-eyed. I've always been that way, but it's always required some external media influence to let me feel what I do.

In the car, it's my music. Right now, System of a Down Toxicity is in my CD player. Track 7, Chop Suey! played really really loudly causes the tears to flow. If you don't recall the title, you might remember the lyrics Why did you leave the keys up on the table? 'Cause you wanted to..." or " in my self-righteous suicide...". System of a Down is an amazing band out of Fresno that mixes the hard core metal rhythms and guitars I've always loved with a melodic sophistication and poignant, often politcal lyrics. They're Metallica meets Linkin Park meets left-wing protest band. My wife bought me their new CD. I like it, but Toxicity remains my favorite.

Listening to really loud music is my favorite thing about my new car. It's got a kick ass stereo sytem, and cars really have incredible accoustics. I can sing along as loud as I want (if I'm alone) and no one minds. I'll often gesticulate wildly while singing, which gets me strange looks from pedestrians or other drivers. It's truly a time to unwind and be at one with an art form. Again, getting in touch with the art helps me get in touch with myself and my emotions, and hence the occasional tear.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Jo-Jo Lapa

The Quik Stop market a block away from my home has changed ownership four times in the five years I've lived in this neighborhood. Usually, with each new owner, family members are installed behind the counter. I see the evening clerks several times a week, as I stop in to buy milk, beer or whatever. Sometimes, I'll learn their names, or if not, a little bit about where they're from.

About a month ago, the Quik Stop changed hands again, and a new family took over running the place. The evening clerk is a goofy character. Skinny and tall, he looks about 22 years old. Buck teeth, a big adam's apple, a Nepalese accent and somewhat of a naive "FOB" demeanor distinguishes him from other clerks who've held his position. He hasn't really endeared himself to our neighborhood like some of the other clerks have. I don't think he's mastered the basics of cashiering at an urban convenience store. For example, I've come up with half a dozen items, paid for them, and then have him look at me and ask, "do you want a bag?" Of course I want a bag! I've heard him ask people who've come up to the counter with a six pack of beer, "back already?" I may be projecting, but if I buy alcohol, and then drunkenly need more, the last thing I want to hear the clerk say is "back so soon?". Still, I like being friendly with my merchants, so I looked something on Google last night.

I stood in line about 9PM, with my (first and only) beer purchase of the night. In front of me in line was a guy in a Peacoat (sic) buying imported beer and American Spirit cigarettes. He looked a like typical Berkeley 2nd generation preppy-alternative Indian. My friend behind the counter asked to see his ID, and after he looked at it, started asking the guy what part of India he was from. The guy answered in a perfect Bay Area tone that his parents were from Trinidad, which is in the Caribbean. The Nepalese clerk made some sad "oooohhhs", and then said "so you never been to India?" After the guy answered no, I think I heard the clerk say, "too bad." Again, this guy isn't an expert at making his patrons feel good. The clerk looked genuinely sad that he wasn't able to connect with this American who looked a lot like he did, setting up what I had prepared perfectly.

"How are you?" he asked as I put my beer on the counter.

"JO-JO LAPA!!" I exclaimed, and the guy's face immmediately burst into a beaming smile.

"Jo-Jo Lapa!?! How do you know 'Jo-Jo Lapa?!!?"

Before venturing down the block, having recently learned the latest QuikStop night clerk was Nepalese, I typed "How do you say Hello in Nepalese?" into Google. Several results were returned, "Jo-jo lapa" being the most memorable. I repeated Jo-Jo Lapa to myself over and over as I walked down to the store, making sure I wouldn't forget it by the time I got there.

"So what does jo-jo lapa actually mean?" I asked the clerk as he took my cash.

"It's a greeting, like 'hello,'" he replied and continued, "Who told you to say jo-jo lapa?" still smiling ear to ear. I explained how I looked it up on Google having learned the other day that he was Nepalese. I think I made guy's evening by giving him what the guy in line in front of me wasn't able to: a little familiar homeland connection in this often intimidating and impersonal urban California culture.

Every time I walk in there from now on, I know I'm going to hear "Jo-Jo Lapa!" Fine by me.