Sunday, October 14, 2007

midnight rambler

Most nights—very late—I invent an errand for myself.

A short list of items must be procured before tomorrow morning, lest I wake and there’s no cinnamon for Mark’s toast, or no milk for my coffee. Or the dental floss shreds way too easily and must be replaced before I can begin my nightly flirtation with insomnia. Or Lumpy has deemed every remaining can of Fancy Feast inedible and I have to go looking for a new brand, one he’s never rejected before. One with sauce rich in kitty MSG to tickle his jaded taste buds.

At the bottom of the steep hill behind our house is a 24 hour grocery store, an IGA, small and overpriced, but friendly. At that time of night, it's frequented by bears in plaid shirts and big boots looking for pancake ingredients for tomorrow’s big breakfast and well-muscled boys after a steak and salad greens for a midnight dinner.

Alternatively I can go to the 24-hour Walgreens. The Sudafed and Wal-tussin DM have been locked away to discourage any late-night urges to cook up a fresh batch of methamphetamine or to go robo-tripping 'til dawn, but no-one cares if I contemplate an intimidating selection of dental hygiene products.

Will it be floss or tape? Teflon or waxed? Flavored or unflavored? Mint or cinnamon? The combinatorics of the selection are overwhelming. The thing is, I could stand there for hours researching just the right kind of floss to evict the small bits of Walgreen’s-brand chocolate covered raisin from between my molars.

Fabricated desires for Fancy Feast and floss aside, what I really like is the walk.

Abstractly I like the idea that there are two 24-hour stores so close by. Need a replacement Signature Gourmet Coffee Maker at 2am? Fine. It’s there. Need a small jar of Gerber ham baby food for a certain fussy gray cat? It’s there too. Need a sappy greeting card to assuage some fit of conscience that strikes at 4am. No problem-o. Sure, you could wait for Does Your Mother Know to open at 8am to get that belated birthday card—the one that’s already 3 months overdue—but sometimes you just can’t sleep until you’ve struck some items from your to-do list.

Urgency is good. I like to think that some things just can’t wait ‘til morning.

There are plenty of bars down there that are open too, the fellows spilling out the doors onto the street. Pulsing techno, strobing lights, and an emcee naming the finalists in the Mr. San Francisco Leather contest. They make the street seem festive and my minor errand a glimpse into a carnival.

San Francisco is at its best late at night. Really, it is. It can seem unbearably cold and windy in the late afternoon, but by nighttime the wind has died down and it is invariably warmer than you’d expect. Some nights it’s even balmy. There’s enough activity that it never seems sinister like the ‘burbs, either—no gangs of heat-seeking adolescents are cruising around looking for something to trash or steal or some lone pedestrian to pelt with eggs.

Missed me! You missed me!

My memories of the ‘burbs are sufficiently vivid to make my late night peregrinations even sweeter.

Regardless of the destination, the walk from our house is steep: in places, sidewalks devolve into stairs and front yards into terraces. It’s not a sidewalk edged by lawns, but rather by ghostly perfect gardens, luminous in the dark. The gardens are small enough to afford absolute heterogeneity. One dahlia, one asparagus fern, one clump of Italian parsley.

Sometimes I shine my little blue LED cigarette lighter (a freebie from Sam’s Smoke Shop in the Lower Haight) and admire my neighbor’s miniature rectangle of plants. He’s mixed fruits and vegetables with the flowers and evergreen tree. One bright red strawberry peeks out from under some leaves. An onion has flowered in a spherical explosion of white. Lacy frills of parsley frame purple wallflowers.

I used to glance into parked cars as I walked down the hill. I don’t know why—just to see what kinds of stuff people leave in their cars, I suppose, what CDs they listen to while they make their long commutes and what sorts of sunglasses they wear. I learned my lesson though. Oops. I forgot. People have SEX in parked cars on quiet streets late at night.

That Jetta might be the proving ground for an uncertain courtship or a venue for the successful Craigslist tryst. You’d think “Need that ass spanked?” or “Bottom Daddy Seeks Top Son” would want more privacy.

But they don’t.

I stopped glancing in car windows.

Instead I check out the gnomic graffiti that always reappears on a certain street sign with a double-headed arrow. It almost looks like it says SAME. Behind it, the Bay Bridge winks in the distance. In the daytime, none of this is particularly beautiful or mysterious. At night, it is both.

There are other people out and about too. Some are taking their pooches out for a last late-night stroll, plastic poop bags tucked in the doggie’s collar. Others are walking fast, with a sense of purpose—home from a late day at the office or an early night at the bars. Small groups and couples make their ways to parties, giddy with relief that they’ve been able to park within walking distance to their destination.

One time, in the place where the street is so steep that the sidewalk becomes one long flight of stairs, it looked like a woman jogger was going to run right into me. That’s an optical illusion. The stairs are narrow and bushes overgrow portions of them; people always look to be heading straight for you. She was humping it—running fast up the stairs. She’d left her sweatshirt by the stop sign at the corner as if she were planning to take a few laps up the stairs on one side of the street and down on the other.

I felt momentarily guilty I’d let my Gold’s membership lapse.

I also felt obliged to say something clever, something that’d put me on level ground with this athletic creature so obviously attuned to her own health.

Why? Why does the sight of someone really exerting him or herself make you feel like you’ve just got to say something? And why do you think the thing you say has to be so witty? It’s like seeing some guy washing his car: you’ve just got to say, “Nice job. I have one you can do when you’re finished with that one.” Who doesn’t say that?

We approach each other. Me at a clip that you could only describe as an amble, her in full sprint.

I stepped off the steps, over the curb, and into the street, smiled at her, and said something I’m pretty sure was extremely funny and winning.

She said nothing. Didn’t even look at me. And kept thudding up the steps.

I was sure she saw me. There’s a streetlight there to keep you from breaking your neck on the steps.

“Snob,” I muttered and decided that nothing changed after high school: the jocks are still the jocks and they don’t like smartasses like me.

It wasn’t until she’d finished the uphill portion of her lap and started downhill that I realized she must’ve been wearing an iPod. Oh yeah. She didn’t hear me say a thing.

Once I followed a much slower jogger up this same hill. She was wearing her iPod. I was in a car. She never heard me. I drove behind her at 3 miles an hour. She didn’t turn around. And I didn’t have the heart to use the horn.

Halloween decorations have been proceeding apace in the neighborhood. Needless to say, one house led the charge, the house that has the Xmas lights at Xmas, the heart lights on St. Valentine’s Day, the shamrock lights on St. Patrick’s day, the bunny lights at Easter, the firecracker lights on the 4th of July—oh, wait! Am I forgetting anything? Did these guys have groundhog lights or solstice lights or MLK lights or Lincoln lights?

Each time I think there’s a holiday they haven’t got covered, they prove me wrong: Around the 20th of February, an LED cherry tree appears with an animatronic Geo. Washington chopping it down, for example.

I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they celebrated Elvis’s Death Day with twinkling TCB lights.

This time, at first I thought these were generic autumn lights. All I saw was an aluminum Xmas tree that’d been duded-up to look various shades of red, orange, and yellow. I know that evergreens aren’t deciduous and that aluminum trees seldom drop their leaves (needles, okay?), but these guys are really trying and I thought I should give them the benefit of the doubt.

But it turned out that the very next day, a rhythmically grinning jack-o-lantern went up, along with bats who flapped their wings. I don’t think Ted Koppel was part of it; that must’ve just been what they were watching on TV.

In any case, it’s one of the highlights of my walk. Sometimes I think I’d like to hang out and see who lives there, but I know I’d be disappointed.

The tennis courts and playground are empty when I walk by except some furtive movements in the dark. I don’t know if this playground is a good venue for gay cruising—I sometimes think it must be—but on this night I’m more convinced that the crashing around that I’m hearing is someone who has had more than enough to drink and is looking for a discreet spot to empty his bladder.

You go, girl!

But mind the pedestrians’ shoes, okay?

The AA meeting is on break when I walk by the community center. Recovering alcoholics are standing on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and talking trash about the people who didn’t make the meeting. The guys who thought it’d be more fun to see what was up at Daddy’s than it would be to collect their 30-day chips and eat lard-and-cardboard birthday cake from the IGA. Who wouldn’t talk trash about them?

I approach the IGA through the underground parking. I figure it makes me look like I drove to the store in my, uh, Range Rover (the only car in the tiny parking lot at this time of night). Somehow it doesn’t seem as embarrassing to drive to the store on a made-up errand as it does to walk, even if it’s a horrible waste of fossil fuel. It seems desperate—peculiar even—to use a small overpriced grocery store as a destination for a walk.

Inside the IGA, the guard who is watching himself on the overhead video camera doesn’t break his concentration to check me out when I emerge from the underground parking lot. He doesn’t care about me. I don’t look like I’ve got a gun. I don’t even look like I’m gonna try to cut into the express line with 11 items or bust open that package of Three Musketeers Minis before I’ve paid for them.

I whip out my alphabetized shopping list.
cat food?

It’s the same shopping list I’ve had in my pocket for almost a week; I’ve shopped with it 3 times already.

The thing is, I always need a toothbrush; it’s a safe bet to just leave it on the list.

Toothbrushes are so cool these days anyway, like running shoes with all the nubbly rubber and swoosh stripes and magenta and turquoise bits. But they don’t last more than one or two uses: I mush the bristles almost immediately. No kidding. I don’t know if it’s the way I brush my teeth or what, but in no time at all, the bristles are splayed and flattened. It looks like I’ve been cleaning the shower grout with my toothbrush.

In fact, it looks so much like I’ve been cleaning the grout with my toothbrush that I try not to consider the option that someone else has been using my toothbrush to clean the grout.

Note to self: check visitors’ expressions when they return from b. room. If they look guilty and/or smug, confront them. Directly. Don’t pussyfoot. Toothbrush. Grout. Be direct.

What I wonder is, what with all this toothbrush buying and nightly shopping trips, what do the checkers at the IGA think of me? They seem like nice people. Cheery even. But I can tell that they’re not fooled; they know I didn’t drive and probably need neither the cinnamon nor the toothbrush nor the single can of Friskies Shredded Turkey and Cheese. But they’re friendly all the same.

What I decide is that when you’re a checkout clerk at a local grocery store—a store that’s so small and narrow-aisled that no-one uses a shopping cart there and every order is 10 items or less—in a neighborhood that’s almost a caricature of itself, you’re probably pretty accepting.

After all, this isn’t Safeway; people who frequent this store frequent it, um, frequently and in varying states of consciousness and dress. Still in restraints from the Folsom Street Fair? IGA welcomes you. On your way to a costume party all dressed up like Dorothy or an enema nurse? IGA welcomes you.

Look. All this talk has made my teeth feel furry.

I think I’ll go on down to the IGA.

And is that a slight catarrh? My throat constricts.

I’ll stop at Walgreen’s for some Wal-Tussin along the way.