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August 2008

Where I'm At

I'm in Nashville. It's the first time I've been back since I left. And it's so very strange.

The air conditioning is odd to me now, and the overwhelming number of white people jumps out at me. I'm confused as to why everything is so spread out, why we drove 25 miles from one shopping center to another that looked exactly--and I do mean exactly--like the first one. With almost all the same stores. All the neighborhoods pretty much look the same; I haven't seen red brick homes with columns in front for a while.

People seem to move a little slower than I remember them moving. And the number of baseball caps here in Tennessee, worn by women and men alike, is astonishing. People are kinder, at least outwardly. The syrupy Southern drawls are as plodding and charming as always.

I've noticed I've become much more direct in my conversations with people, especially family. The way Southern people, especially ladies, tip toe around what they want with their words has become an annoying attribute I now mostly eschew. My frank comments to my mother and sister about various things has left them each slack-jawed at least once.

The rolling hills and buttermilk biscuits and late afternoon showers are all like warm hugs from long unseen old friends. The lack of diversity, however, is striking. Moving to California has been 9 months of constant blur, and being back has been just about the same. Everything old is new again, and I'm relearning Tennessee's curves like I've returned to a former lover. It's been exhilerating and a little unnerving, but I'm glad for the experience.

Have to admit, though, despite that it happened while listening to crickets, when I saw photos of San Francisco on my Flickr stream just now, my heart whispered "home."

Best Cabbie Ever

This week I went for drinks with Ian and Peder during happy hour at Kennedy's Irish Pub and Curry House, a strange amalgamation of bar and restaurant with some seriously sketchy decor. But they have $2 Guinness pints, when they remember to chill the keg, plus two-for-one drafts til 7 or so, makes the trek all the way up Columbus worth it. Following several beers and some deep fried foods, we hailed a subsidized cab, paid for by one of two of my companions, Peder.

We asked him to take us to Bernal Heights, and off he went. Peder asked our driver, who had a super thick Caribbean Islander-type accent, if he had any paper receipts. The man said that he did, then laughed a hearty laugh. He asked if Peder's company was paying, and when he learned that he did he began talking at a break neck pace about his experiences behind the wheel.

"That reminds me of this man I used to drive, who would call me up regularly. His company paid for everything. He would let me fill in whatever I wanted for the amount. This was back during the dot-com time, when they had all the money and no sense. That is why they are no longer in business. He would call me and I would pick up him and his girlfriend. I would drive her to her office. He would get out of the car, all nice in his suit, and kiss her before she left. Then he'd get back in the cab, change his clothes, and ask me to drive him to the Castro where he would meet up with different guys. He did this all the time. I never could quite believe it."

What came next was an assortment of tales so terrific, so hilarious, that I'm sorry I couldn't better understand the man through his accent. He regaled us with stories of drug dealers, who asked him to drive them to Stockton, the town not the street, and how they arrived with 2 briefcases, and after they left the house "after talking to some guys," they'd return to the vehicle with a single, different briefcase. He said he never asked any questions.

"You can't be arrested for something like that, can you?," I asked the driver, who was moving toward our destination quickly, but not as fast as he was talking.

"Oh, yes. Oh, yes. There was once a cab driver who had a man ask him to take him to the bank. He did, and the guy went in then came right out saying they wouldn't cash his check. He then asked him to take him to a Bank of America. He did, and the customer came out with the same story. So, he drove him to a Washingston Mutual. While he was waiting for the man to come out of there, the police pulled up on him, gun drawn, telling him to, 'Put his hands on the wheel!' The driver had no idea what was going on. It turns out the man was robbing each bank, then taking the cab to the next one."

We all sat dumbfounded. Some guy hailed a cab then proceeded to rob banks and use it as his getaway car? This was not your average taxi driver chit chat.

He told us also about a very rich patron who spent the entire day in his cab, going from Golden Gate Park to the Haight to North Beach and then out to the ocean. He spent hours in the car taking a driven tour of the city. At the beach our driver stopped, meter running, so his guest and his friends could dine at The Cliffhouse.

"You hungry?," asked Mr. Money Bags. "You want to eat?"

"If you are paying I want to eat," replied our cabbie, and with that he was whisked away for a fabulous meal on his patron. But not before locking the door, making sure the meter was still ticking away.

He finished out our ride by answering my, "Does anyone ever do drugs in your car?" question with, "Oh yes. Rock and weed, whatever. People who smoke rock are the best tippers."

He dropped us at the top of Bernal Heights, just feet from the doorstep. Peder got his receipt, no doubt cabbie got a great tip, and with that he drove away from us, off down the hill.

"What is your name?!," I called after him. "Will I ever see you again?" But it was too late. Best cabbie ever had gone, off on another adventure.

Ways in Which This Place Is Not Like the Other, Part One

Comments on Continuing Culture Shock

I moved to California nine months ago from Nashville, where I lived (well, in and around) from birth until the age of 30. I moved to take a job in San Francisco, arguably one of the most liberal cities in the country, if not the world. Despite working in the Financial District, I moved into a city that just might win the afore mentioned argument: Berkeley, the city that manages to take San Francisco's liberalism and ratchet it up a notch. Or two. Life here for me is faster and foreign but beautiful. The past three-quarters of a year has been one immense blur. I can barely keep up.

I am often stopped where I walk. I am struck still by a brand new experience almost every day, some as tiny as a speck of glitter. But, oh my, do they shine. They are made up of elements I've seen before, but each behaves in a way that I am completely unfamiliar with. It's kind of been like being on vacation for a long time (and just as expensive!), save for all the working and chores and washing your own towels stuff.

It feels cliche, I have to say, to write about my fish-out-of-water experiences in this transient city, where surely every one else sings the same song. But I should get them down for me, for later, because this has been an exhilarating ride so different from just about everything I have ever known. I'm also afraid it lends itself to stereotype, which I want to try desperately to avoid. Kind of. Hyperbole is funny, and I'm a cheap whore for laughs, so we'll see what happens.  Also: These are not judgments, these are merely personal observations. (Okay, there might be a little judgment, but I'm gonna try to dish it out to both sides of the coast.)

It's going to be a series of posts, as this shit is way too long to be trying to write at 11:30 on a Tuesaday night:

Ways in Which This Place Is Not Like the Other, Part One:

  • When people told me they were the outdoorsy type in Nashville, which were relatively few, I always presumed they meant hunting, fishing, boating or hiking. I never really knew many campers, especially the type of camping where you had to shit in a hole you dug yourself in the woods, then bury the pile. People around here? They love to shit in a hole in the woods. They've got their North Face (Social Climbing)* gear all ready to go, complete with Nalgene water bottle and compression packs and headlamps. The number of people who own kayaks skews very high. It's insane. When people in Nashville talk about their gear they are talking about their guitar and their amp. Around here when people talk about gear they are talking about their rock climbing gear. Because they are going to scale some cliffs this weekend, brah. It will be really extreme. Also, if you don't ride a bike around these parts you ain't shit. And there better not be any brakes on that motherfucker.

  • The panhandlers, they are experts in their field. One of my favorites is a guy who sits at Battery and California. He's always on time for his shift. He doesn't sleep on the street, at least not there, because if I'm there beyond 10 p.m. he's gone. I've never seen him so much as nod off. I don't think this guy drinks or does drugs. His cheeks are full, and his demeanor is friendly and relaxed. He has a little boombox that he listens to, but I can never hear it. The other day a couple were walking along, a to-go box inside a bag in hand. The bag must have read Tadich Grill because Mr. Battery & California yelled out, "I love Tadich Grill!" It took all I had to not laugh when the man got his wish: tasty high-quality restaurant food that cost probably $20 or more per plate. It's a whole different scene than panhandlers in Nashville, who I always found to be a slightly scary. They were persistent, would follow me, then call me names if I declined. Here, there is "no," and that is the end of the conversation.

  • Sorry, Nashville, but it's true: Y'all did not condition me for same sex kissing in public. Still surprises the shit out of me. Then I love it. I wanna be all, "Kiss some more!" But that would be seen as pervy, and not an outburst brought on by the awesomeness that in the Bay Area lovers of all kinds get to express affection without risk of violence or scorn. Still, when an adoption agency rents out all the ad space on BART with large posters of gay couples with their young kids, everyone all smiles, and there isn't a single letter to the editor I have to wonder, "What the fuck kind of place is this? Some kind of magical tolerant Disneyland where gay love is not only accepted, but downright celebrated?" I'll take it.

Stay tuned for upcoming installments that include such unique and astute observations as People Here are Really into the Environment and Summer in San Francisco is Cold.

*Stolen joke.