Friday, January 18, 2008

mystery by the front gate

How long has it been here?

What I mean by it is a cash drawer, in pieces, scattered in among my neighbor’s terraced foliage. In among the half-dead ferns, bamboo, sawgrass, and calla lilies. Plainly visible as you walk down the stairs.

Could it have been there the day I first found the two key rings right inside our gate? Each of the rings held a bounty of keys. I pictured a whole room full of filing cabinets. The first key ring I spotted had a yellow plastic kangaroo hooked to it. It made the keys seem unimportant.

A yellow plastic kangaroo. A toy.

That was perhaps a month ago. The keys were buried under the last leaves of fall, wet and clumpy behind the gate leading out to the sidewalk. I just barely noticed the first key ring when Jon and I were leaving on our walk to Twin Peaks. I found the second key ring when we came back home.

I looked for lost or missing keys on Craiglist for a couple of days right before Christmas. Looked and looked. Every day I did a search and dutifully went through the listings. People do lose their keys in some pretty unlikely places, but usually they’re car keys or house keys, not two rings full of keys that look like they open file cabinets.

How much escapes our notice when we pass by, just inches away?

The pennies were the next thing that caught my eye. They’ve been there for a couple of weeks. Just pennies. Fewer than ten of them, but more than five.

I feel silly picking up pennies, even though deep down I believe them to be lucky. My grandfather would always pick up coins like that. Always. He’d press them into my palm when I was a little kid and say, “Hang onto these. They’re lucky.”

We’d spot them in the parking lot, crossing the street, in the courtyard of the apartment building where my grandparents lived in Torrance. On the courtyard's tiny putting green, marking where a golf ball had been lifted off the close-cropped grass.

I didn’t pick up any of the pennies on my stairs, but I noticed them every time I walked by them, day after day. I hoped I wasn’t accumulating bad luck by NOT picking them up.

“Pennies.” I’d explain if someone was with me. “Pennies. See! Someone somewhere still uses cash. See! See!”

I thought someone had flung the pennies out of their pocket in a kind of adolescent display of bravado. I remember boys doing that to impress girls: they’d get change for our tab at a restaurant. Then, when we were walking out the door, they’d fling the coins onto the hot pavement. Pennies and nickels would hit the ground with small metallic chings and go rolling away.

Not exactly a grand gesture.

But I could imagine someone walking by our front steps and doing just that—hurling the change over the wall and onto the stairs. It wouldn’t be that satisfying though. Any noise the coins made would’ve been muffled by the wet leaves.

I didn’t notice the cash drawer until today. Mark and I were walking down the stairs and I spotted a metal case in the plants.

“People are soooo fucking rude!” I said to Mark, mistaking the change drawer’s metal case for a PC chassis. “I can’t believe they dumped this here.”

Who’d have thought that computers would become such everyday commodities that people’d chuck them out of their cars into someone’s front yard? Who knew? Who knew I’d end up taking them as a personal affront?

I started to flip the thing over to see whether there were any insides to it when I noticed the telltale lock. Most computers don’t have locks. Oh, maybe sometimes they do, but not the computers that people dispose of on the sidewalks of our neighborhood.

The sidewalk in front of our house is, in fact, a dumping ground for all sorts of things that nobody wants: old stained futons (eewww), small appliances (I’m not the only one who gets frustrated with Signature Gourmet coffee makers), hole-y socks (holy socks, Batman!), and countless other items. Items too large to stuff in the brown Sunset Scavenger toters and too useless to give away on Craigslist. People bring this shit to our sidewalk and walk away from it, possibly under cover of the night.

“Oh. That refrigerator? Never seen it before in my life.”

There’s real dog shit too, but that’s another story. I suspect the dogs actually crap there: no-one just brings dog shit to our front yard. At least if they do, it’s still inside the dog at the time.

More investigation reveals that not only is there the shell of the cash drawer in the plants; there’s also the telltale black tray, the one that used to be full of fresh crisp twenties, tens, fives, ones, and coins.

And pennies. Did I say pennies? Lucky pennies.

I didn’t notice anyone running a lemonade stand on the sidewalk in front of our house: Lemonade! Free wireless! Spankings! You’d need a cash register for that, to run a thriving sidewalk business.

The pennies are still there. They've been there for at least two weeks. The two key rings are gone from where I put them on the wall after I didn’t find any ads for them in Craigslist. I feel vaguely clueless.

Has that cash drawer been there for a whole month?

Or has someone been running some kind of crime syndicate from our front stairs? It makes me feel weird to think that this spot—not visible from our windows and hidden from the street—is just the sort of shelter someone would use to disassemble the bits of cash register, to parcel out the loot from a robbery.

There aren’t many businesses on the part of the street where we live. Just a comic book store and Bill’s, the corner store where you can buy milk, newspapers, Anchor Steam, small frozen pizzas, and all the other ordinary things that a corner store carries, only older. Bill is actually Nabil, a large Egyptian man, very nice, very free with information, who I’m certain would have told us if he’d been robbed.

It's a mystery, this discarded cash drawer, a bona fide mystery.

Creepy. I walk up and down these stairs at night, in the dark. With my groceries and without my ladylike handgun.

Yet it’s annoying and banal too. It’s people—once again—throwing stuff they don’t want into Evert’s garden. It’s bad enough that the recent cold spell has eviscerated all of the Gunnera and the winds have toppled his stand of Papyrus.

Are pennies still good luck if they’re stolen?

Monday, January 07, 2008

ask me how

I've always thought that putting a bumper sticker on your car is a little like wearing your heart on your sleeve: it's just too revealing.

Most of the people staring at your bumper hate you anyway. They're behind you on 101 and they just want you to get the hell out of their way, even if you're right smack dab on top of the guy in front of you and they're busy juggling multiple cell phone calls. You know how that is. Better not make these aggressive Silicon Valley achievers any angrier than they are in the first place.

They're busy guys who are easily provoked. No need to goad them further.

My old friend Lennox Sweeney would have disagreed. He was a great fan of bumper stickers. It got so that I'd recognize his faded yellow Reliant from the numerous sentiments plastered all over the back: FREE TIBET. Bill and Bob make me want to Ralph! Food Not Bombs.

When he was a younger man, Len was discreet about his politics–and his politics were of the live-and-let-live neither conservative nor liberal sort. But for the last decade of his life, he was an activist. A real activist, one who followed his slogans into battle. He was the kind of guy you'd want to take up your cause.

Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that would've pleased Lennox. It was on a yellow Hummer parked on Castro Street in front of Cliff's Variety. A Hummer in San Francisco: It's halfway between an over-the-top fashion statement and a vehicular Fuck You. Who would want to drive a Hummer in San Francisco? Even my Honda Civic seems like a whale when I'm negotiating the double-parked obstacle course that's the Mission.

Actually there were two bumper stickers on the Hummer, one on each side of its broad yellow behind. And they weren't literally on the bumper; rather they were affixed to that hard-as-a-beetle yellow paint job. I'm sure the Hummer's owner was none too pleased to see one bumper sticker that said:


and another that said: I SHOULD KNOW BETTER.

Research informs me that these bumper stickers have been around for awhile (long enough so that the original web site that sold them has gone missing). Unfortunately I think they'll eventually be dated. Either the most dire of the predictions will be shown to be correct and we'll all be doing the backstroke to Greenland. And you know that if the predictions are off, another cause célèbre will take global warming's place. Sad, that. The fashion of activism.

Nobody will invite Al Gore to their parties any more.

"Al? Oh, he's such a bore. Don't invite him! Last time he brought those... what were they? Oh! Those charts. Invite someone fun. Vladdie Putin or someone like that."

One of my favorite bumper stickers was the brainchild of another old friend Jim Cser. He made them up around the time that everybody was ♥ing (heart-ing) something.

I ♥ my Labradoodle. I ♥ my Hummer. I ♥ Bees.

You remember.

Jim's bumper sticker said: I ♣ my baby seal. (That's a club for all of you who have something up with your system unicode fonts.) I still have my Jim Cser baby seal bumper sticker. The adhesive did something odd to the message so that it's all blotchy and discolored.

I have days that I'm all blotchy and discolored too.

No matter how much I once admired it, "I ♣ my baby seal" seems oddly dated too. From a different time and place.

But I'M CHANGING THE CLIMATE! ask me how worked for me yesterday on Castro Street. I stood in street behind the Hummer, admiring some stranger's handiwork.

"Let's not stand here too long," Mark suggested. "Someone'll think we did it."

Don't I wish.