It’s finals time. Not for me, of course. I dropped out of college ages ago. I watch my brother and his girlfriend study for their respective exams: he, finance and she, political science. I sit on the couch and contemplate the whole system, and whether my desire to reenter academia to finish is foolish. Tests, stress, coffee for function and not fun. School. And so they study and make treks to campus and I am left to my own devices, at least for the midday.
I walk down 25th Street to Clement, where I will then make the 36 minute trek that Google told me it would take to get to a used bookstore I want to check out. The rows of homes recede into a decidedly unofficial China Town has sprung up; all of the shops catering to people not of my ethnic background.
My brother lives in a part of San Francisco where Asian women smoke cigarettes and stare contemplatively into the breezy distance, coming as disturbingly close to the movie version of Joy Luck Club that I have ever seen. I pass by window displays of honey dipped duck bodies strung up from their feet and what I think to be Cornish game hens with all that remains of their little nubby limbs tied together. $1.49 it says. One of the many removable silver trays is filled with whole bodied dead chickens. Pale and featherless, heads still attached to necks, necks still attached to bodies in a submissive and sickly turn. Beaks drained of color. I then realize how quickly I would become full-blown vegetarian if Trader Joe’s offered a similar presentation of meat. Western grocery stores sugarcoat the slaughter of animals, separating body parts and selling them off separately to be dipped in various bottled sauces and sautéed in butter and olive oil, unrecognizable as anything beyond a product. Similar to a bar of soap or a box of crackers.
Might it be noted that I am a terrible traveling dresser. Without the full range of options from my closet at home, I am rendered useless. Even when packing I know that putting together a decent looking ensemble is futile. No matter what, I am doomed to forget some integral piece of my wardrobe, destroying an entire suitcase of possibilities. This time, it is shirts. I didn’t bring any. This was not intentional, but entirely stupid. Being rather lazy, I don’t even bother to ask my brother for a clean shirt and instead wear the black shirt I wore to bed. The cold also brings with it other problems, such as layering. None of my layers match. My orange sweater clashes with my gigantic lumberjack plaid coat which contrasts hideously with the sea-green plaid of my scarf. My pants hang unflatteringly off of my bum and my shoes have begun to look a little worse for the wear. I feel, and look, like a hobo.
Although San Francisco is known for their granola munching, anti-establishment ways, I still feel the need to shriek out when someone glances my way that I am a capable and fashionable human, with a hideous amount of beautiful clothing at home, and if they could only see my Margiela boots or my fantastic leather bomber jacket…You see! You see! And then I quickly turn into one of the also common San Francisco treats: rambling schizophrenics. I imagine the scenario unfolding and keep my mouth tightly shut.
By the time I make it to my destination it is noon and I am relatively famished. I find the first restaurant heavily populated with white people and I scan the menu. I hear Conor Oberst playing inside and I know I am doubly safe here. My decision-making process is interrupted by a voice from behind.
I turn to a ruddy nosed woman in navy sweat pants and a fanny pack. I am immediately sceptical of any kindness from strangers. The 21st century Good Samaritan scares the shit out of me. She briefs me on the restaurant and tells me that there is smaller version of this one down the block and she would like to show me. She is well spoken, betraying an outfit that looks quite similar to my own. Reluctantly agreeing, I follow a few steps behind; I am weary after having fallen for a similar trick like this before. Staircase to nowhere, that sort of thing. The last staircase led me to a strange Australian man claiming to have been robbed by a taxi driver and me $60 poorer.
I try to pick up on clues that this woman might be insane and I can’t for the life of me decide. I err on the side of caution when we get down the block and we still haven’t arrived to this supposed sister restaurant and I lie, saying that I am supposed to meet my brother down the street right now. I turn on my heel, thanking her as she continues to point down the road saying, “It should just be right over there!” I walk back to the original spot and notice that there is a sign next to the front door instructing me to go down 1/2 a block to their smaller cafe. She wasn’t insane. I’m just neurotic.
The food is delicious and with each bite of the cafe’s Tea Leaf Salad I feel terribly for not trusting a woman in her fifties wearing sweatpants. A forkful of peanuts and roasted garlic. What could she have possibly done to me? A nibble of chopped tomato and sunflower seeds. I hope she doesn’t catch me here, brotherless and alone. Crunching down on romaine and green peppers. Where has all the trust gone in this world?
The bill comes. They run my credit card and I leave $2 in tip, which always makes me feel chintzy just because it seems like a useless sum. I peruse a hipster nick knack store and get ideas for the day when I will want to spend $100 a piece on all of my friends. I leave and quickly stumble into a Salvation Army. Eureka! Garbage.
I am a thrift store hound. The hunt for the diamond in the rough is strangely addictive. I peruse the racks, finding a Christmas plate and a glass cup with delicate leafless trees and a disintegrating gold leaf unicorn. I wish they had more than one. I don’t end up buying either item. I travel upstairs to the “Designer” and “Collectors” section. Everyone in the building is certainly a collector. I imagine them all to live in homes with mounds of used sweaters and stacks of Time Magazine from the last four decades lining their hallway walls. There is a Russian couple asking to see the “Doolchay ‘n Gibahnah” item in the protected case. Two women debate the authenticity of an overpriced Coach purse. One man who seems to be of sound mind stares at a piece of jewelry.
The San Francisco bin divers are much crazier than the average thrift store customer in Los Angeles. These people are whack jobs and give off strange, erratic energy that makes my skin crawl. As I look around, I begin to wonder if I am insane as well – if I am no better than any of these people. I don’t see anyone under fifty in here digging through someone else’s crap.
A woman with wiry black hair verbally accosts me, asking me how old I am while holding up a ratty gray coat.
“Would you wear this to work?”
I politely ramble about how I like the coat for a more casual affair, like weekends at the park, but I think that the material is not formal enough for a proper job. I make a comment about liking the design and realize I am being irritatingly verbose. Her blonde friend chimes in with a, “See. I told you. It’s not that great.” The wiry woman stuffs the coat back into the crowded rack and says thanks without looking at me. I am afraid I have offended her greatly with my useless opinions.
But apparently this woman needs me, because she walks up to me a few minutes later and inquires as to how tall I am. Her daughter is apparently six feet tall and she says this is a problem for her. What is also a problem is that while she and her daughter have wardrobes fit for Burning Man, her daughter apparently has no proper clothes for a new professional job where people are “really watching you.” I politely extend the offer to help her with her coat selections if need be. She asks me if shoulder pads are in fashion again. I answer yes. She holds up a jacket. I tell her it’s too short waisted for someone her daughter’s height. I leave just as she’s pulled out a coat she claims costs $500 at Nordstrom. The store is spoken of with a mythical quality that I remember being familiar with when I was younger and our family didn’t have tons of money.
I leave with some used books and brass mice that need spiffing up. The cashier had chatted me up about his mother loves Anne Rice, too. He makes a joke about not putting the mice in with the same bag as the books so they won’t eat the paper. I catch my reflection in the window of a store: plaid coat, two salvation army bags, baggy pants. I am horrified. And exceptionally glad no one here knows who I am.