Sunday, August 17, 2014

Waiting for the rainy season

The other night I was taking my walk earlier than usual, not long after midnight, and a CEO type, a tall man with forgettable WASPy features and recently coiffed brown hair, approached me.  He was perhaps 40 and dressed too formally for a late-night stroll around the block.

He said, "I know you've got chalk in your hand. I want you to stop writing on the sidewalk." He was so angry his voice quavered.

He was right. I had chalk in my hand. I wasn't about to write though. I was inspecting a hunk of wire on the street, a remnant from a sloppy construction jobsite. This is a place on my route where I frequently pick up nails. I do it in memory of Uwe Dobers ("Fine European Construction"). When Mr. Dobers's crew was working on the place next door to us, our Hondas suffered an abnormal number of flat tires. There'd always be stray nails on our driveway, fallout from lax oversight. Twice nails punctured the sidewalls, and we had to buy new tires. Since then I've been compulsive about picking up nails and sharp things from the street.

I had taken the piece of chalk out of my pocket, lest it would fall out while I was picking up the wire. But I dropped the wire when I saw him, startled by a big guy walking toward me fast so late at night. I should add, I'm small and feral-looking. I don't pose much of a physical threat.

But he was right. I have written on the sidewalk, here and there, always something small—a LOTSL (a podcast I think many of you would enjoy) or a FAP! (a homage to Major Hoople, a long-running comic about the gouty Major Hoople, a fat man with a bulbous nose who can often be found wearing a Shriner's cap). More occasionally, I'll draw a small muted post horn, in the hope of thrilling a Pynchon fan.

I don't know why I do it. It's a compulsion. I don't do it often, and the marks aren't particularly noticeable. They come off with the scuff of a tasseled loafer.

It would've been disingenuous of me to deny his rage-fueled accusations. Instead I said, "Okay. I'll stop now. But I think you'll find I'm not the only one who writes on the sidewalks around here."

He seemed too angry, given the nature and scope of the crime. I also thought he was way too optimistic that he'd singlehandedly brought down a major graffiti ring by hunting me down.

Lots of other chalk marks besmirch his lovely white sidewalks, including huge dense scribbles made by the young spawn of our neighbors. Their drawings are far cuter than mine (some are even lovely and show artistic promise). But often these children—despite the hovering ministrations of their parents—don't color inside the lines. They won't get into Harvard if they can't learn to color neatly.

And not to nitpick, but my usual marks despoil an area about 3" by 8" or 24 square inches. The kids cover vast swaths of sidewalk with their hopscotch games, desultory drawings of happy families and marching elephants, and messages to daddy. An average drawing fills an area of about 3' by 8', or 3456 square inches, 144 times my chalk footprint.

Nor am I the only grown person with the temerity to write in chalk. There are occasional messages. I don't know who writes them, but I love it when I find one. I spent hours following a trail of arrows a couple of years ago. At the end, whether by design or coincidence, I found a half-eaten container of mixed nuts.

Mr. Angry CEO said the whole thing again as we parted, word for word. This time I said, "Okay. Fine. I hear you." I was polite and conciliatory.

To be honest, I was more than a little embarrassed. I thought, "Aw, I should just knock it off. This guy is genuinely upset." In retrospect, it seems clueless on my part to think people who park their new Jaguars and high-end German luxury cars—cars with finish as hard and shiny as a rhinoceros beetle—on the street, wheels carefully turned in to the curb, would have a sense of humor about sidewalk chalk. I was treating the sidewalks of my neighborhood as if they were public.

"I'll stop," I added.

Then, much to my relief, we parted. He said something else as he was walking away from me, but I'd returned to my MP3 player, my constant companion when I go on walks. I listen to podcasts. As I said, the LOTSL I had written was an advertisement for a podcast. You can search for LOTSL on the web, and you'll easily find the podcast so you can download it and give it a listen too.

It's much more dangerous to chalk up a "Big Fatty" on the sidewalk, and to expect the search to go well.

I should mention, this was a gay neighborhood, and these are gay podcasts. I really did think some of my neighbors would enjoy listening to LOTSL. But I probably should have attended to the steady rise in property values and noticed the changes afoot in the neighborhood; it's just not the neighborhood I moved into at the tail end of the 1990s.

You don't see "Keep the Castro Queer" bumperstickers anymore. I miss them.

The confrontation unnerved me. But I walked on. My walk is often the best part of my day. It's reduced my tendency to insomnia; it calms me down; and it makes me feel good, exuberant, alive. I'd even love to go back to running, but I'm old, and I'm certain my knees (which click and lock with every step) wouldn't allow it.

But something was making my Spidey-sense tingle. I turned around quickly. Although we’d originally been walking in opposite directions, now Mr. Angry CEO was following me, about a half a block behind me.

It was creepy.

I haven't had a stalker in many years. But I do remember that feeling, that creepy, creepy feeling that someone might be right behind you.

When he saw me look back, he turned the corner and disappeared down another street. Weird. I continued on my way, stopping only to check for a Duncan yoyo, the kind that lights up. It had been left atop a retaining wall. I was planning to stop and give it a few yos as I walked by, then return it to its nest when I was done.

For the first time in a couple of weeks, it wasn't there. It occurred to me that I was sufficiently rattled that I wasn't listening very carefully to the podcasts. I usually have out-loud conversations with them.

Sure enough, at the next corner, Mr. Angry CEO stepped out of the shadows, primed for another confrontation. Apparently I was supposed to leave his neighborhood immediately after our first conversation, so he had walked around the block in the opposite direction to intercept me. Did he think I was going to just ignore his fury and blithely keep walking and chalking?

I was about a block from home.

He delivered his speech AGAIN, verbatim. He'd been rehearsing it. This time he followed it up by saying, "Where do you live?" He said this in a way that I found wholly provocative.

I said, "None of your business, mister." It was late at night. Was he planning to follow me home?

He said, "Well, I'm a homeowner around here. You write ALL OVER this hill."

What had he seen when our paths diverged? I don't usually walk the route he'd just taken. Last time I'd gone that way, there was nothing, save some spray paint symbols that the utility company used to mark something they'd installed underground. Had he mistaken me for PG&E?

I said, simply, "I don't know what you're talking about." This couldn't be truer. His rage seemed to be turning psychotic.

He said, "Your writing is all over the walls, all over the sidewalks. Everywhere!"

This is a surprise to me. I've never written on a wall, nor haven't I seen writing on walls around our neighborhood. The last wall chalk I'd seen had been painted over with dark gray anti-graffiti paint in 2012 in a dramatic flourish that left the wall blotchy. Water would have done the trick.

I said, "Please tell me which wall you mean. I've NEVER written on a wall." Now I was invigorated by anger too. Any sympathy I'd felt for him vanished.

He drew himself up to his full 6'3" CEO-ness and said (and this thoroughly shocked me): "I want you to stop walking in this neighborhood. Go walk your dog somewhere else."

Now I was confused and offended. I don't have a dog. Was he telling me that I'm ugly? There was a tinge of racist hate and entitlement to his voice. The last time someone told me to get out of my own neighborhood, I was a child. That time, the speaker was worried about an influx of Jews, and he thought a couple of 12 year old girls were a threat. Mr. Angry CEO was just worried about rubbing elbows with the poor: if I wasn't a homeowner, I should get lost. And I clearly didn't own a home in HIS neighborhood.

I walked away quickly, shaken, taking an alternate route home lest he follow me further. I stuck to the shadows and turned left, then right, then right, then right again.

There hasn't been much graffiti in this part of town, not in the last 25 years or so. And... we live in a city. It's one of the reasons I moved here. You used to see cool sidewalk stencils. You'd see chalk drawings and cartoons. You'd see all kinds of stuff on the sidewalk (besides gum, phlegm, and urine). But not anymore. There are lots more angry men like this angry man. Entitled guys used to imposing their own will on everything they see.

At this point, I wish I had a punchline for you. I wish I'd gone back the next night and... and... and... what? Written on the sidewalk? Spray-painted on the wall? Defecated on his doorstep? Or just gone for my walk and confronted him, if just to say, “I live here too, Buster.”

In my mind's eye, I walk my normal route, see him again and say to him (as I walk through swirls of fog and darkness like Humphrey Bogart), "You know sweetheart, you're beautiful when you're angry."

Don't succumb to the temptation to reverse it in your mind's eye. I'm saying this to him. He needs a quick burst of role-reversal. He needs to spend some time as a small woman, when his rage would be empty, impotent, perceived as ridiculous, the stuff of YouTube videos. 

Then I start to wonder: Was he the same man who had yelled at me several years ago for refusing to cross the street in front of his car at night. That man—maybe the same guy—had stopped at a stop sign near his hill. I was standing on the corner; I couldn't tell whether he saw me or not. So I stayed on the sidewalk, waiting. And he rolled down the window—no, that's wrong—he pressed a button and the window silently slid down. And he yelled at me with conviction (and not even a hint of humor) "Cross. Cross! Don't you trust me? Cross already!" I stood on my corner and didn't budge. After a few more seconds, he drove by, furious.

If he said any more, I didn't hear it. When his car had gone through the intersection, I crossed the street.

Of course, I do live in this neighborhood; I own a house too. I've lived here a long time. I've paid my fair share of property taxes. It's true that I could no longer afford to live in this neighborhood if I hadn't bought my house many years ago. But it's too late, Mister: I already live here. On your hill, in your neighborhood.

And what about that sidewalk graffiti, missy? I step outside of myself, turn 180 degrees, face myself with a stern expression, and ask myself that. What's the deal with sidewalk? Can't you leave it alone?

It's a tic. I'm always doing something while I'm on my walk, some kind of strange project. It might involve counting things, planting things, weaving things, or—as now—periodically making a small mark on the sidewalk. During the rainy season, the marks on the sidewalk disappear almost as quickly as they are made. I don't expect them to stick around. My marks, the marks of the hashers, the kids' hopscotch games, a drawing of a macaw: they all swirl down the storm drain to the sea. But they've stuck around recently. It's been a drought year.

A stick of pink sidewalk chalk taunts me from my desk. But I've parked it there for now, waiting for the rainy season.

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5 Comments:

Blogger David Newman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:00 PM  
Blogger David Newman said...

I think you need one of these: Chalkbot

8:01 PM  
Blogger Jaina Bee said...

So glad to read your posts again— I missed your deft turns of phrases and piquant humor. This post offers such a clear glimpse at our changing city— the raging influx of entitlement blindly smashing at anything which does not meet its immediate desires. Some role reversal would be revolutionary (but of course, I imagined you in the Bogie role the first time). Please keep sharing your insights and anecdotes!!! And please Keep the Castro Queer with more chalk decorations!

11:38 AM  
Blogger jmarshall said...

I think that once the rich white vigilantes move in, there goes the neighborhood. Or perhaps privilege now includes threatening your neighbors. That is a whole new level of creepiness, though. Stay safe.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Thanks, you guys! Happily, the angry guy has retreated back to his house. You'd think he'd be grateful to live in such a nice house with a beautiful view. But he won't be truly content until the pesky furry little people--with their free-wheeling ways, their chalk, their dogs, and their suspected poverty--leave his pristine white sidewalks alone.

6:07 PM  

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