Friday, September 7, 2012

So Not in Kansas Anymore

Or Ohio, for that matter.

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Peter held open the door to the apartment building and let his two friends exit before him: first the woman and then the man. As the three of them stepped from the foyer out onto California Street the woman paused and looked back.

"Thanks, Hop Sing," she said over her shoulder.

Okay so it was not the most socially correct of comments, but as he rolled his eyes a brief smile lit up his face. San Francisco! he thought again, I can't believe I'm in San Francisco! Peter had recently relocated, you see, and was not two weeks off the plane from Cleveland, Ohio, staying with the couple and shacking out on their couch while he looked for an apartment in the City by the Bay, the city he would now call home. That whole apartment hunting endeavor would ultimately take a month - his friends insist it was three months - so he was paying off his debt to them by cleaning and doing laundry and running various errands. Or maybe not. Maybe that's what he was supposed to be doing, as without a job he was paying almost nothing in rent. Either way the inappropriate nickname was born, and stuck.

It was February, and Peter was about to celebrate his 28th birthday. The sky was blue and the air crisp, the sidewalks of lower Nob Hill buzzed with pedestrians, and the clang of a Cable Car slowly rumbled past toward Van Ness Avenue.

As the threesome started walking toward Hyde Street a taxi cab careened around the corner like a bat outta hell, and Peter, noticing the unsafe speed, remarked to his friends: "Holy shit! If I get killed in this city it's gonna be from a taxi going 60 mph or a Cable Car going 5 mph." The cabbie barely slowed to avoid an older woman shuffling across the street with her tiny lapdog, but as it did Peter looked into the cab, and lo and behold he recognized the driver from just the day before, when he had hailed one and chatted with the man. I'll be a son of a gun, he thought, it's the same driver!

Taxi cabs in Ohio are a rare sight, and Peter was still new to the whole concept. Good old-fashioned midwestern friendliness, however, is not. So he waved.

"What the fuck you doing?" his friend blurted. The taxi was already slowing down and pulling to the curb.

"Huh?...I was...he was the guy...the same...yesterday...What?" Suddenly realizing his faux-pas he again waved, this time with a gesture that meant a taxi service was not needed.

To this day Peter can't recall, but as the cab screeched away the driver may or may not have yelled "Asshole!" as he flipped them all the bird.

*   *  *  *   *


Peter unlocked the side door of the restaurant, the one on the alleyway, and let himself in through the kitchen. As he closed it behind him he smelled the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee and heard his friend yell out from the bar: "Hey, Palmer! In here!"

It was early Sunday morning, and the two had worked the previous night: a very late one of slinging Cosmopolitans and shots of tequila and Rolling Rocks until they finally kicked everyone out at 2:00 a.m. After a thorough clean up and quick restock, and after a few drinks of their own to wind down, neither probably made it home to bed until the very wee hours. Thus it was with weary eyes and a slight hangover that they arrived so early. The bar was not usually open during the day save once a year, but today was the day: the Folsom Street Fair.

For those of you not in the know, the Folsom Street Fair is one of several that pop up in San Francisco throughout the summer months. There's the North Beach Fair, which celebrates the historic Italian neighborhood surrounding Washington Square Park; the upscale Union Street Fair, with its arty-schvartsy booths hawking designer goods and services to hoards of well-toned yuppies; the Haight Street fair, where crystals abound and thick clouds of marijuana smoke compete with the aroma from the food stalls; swanky Jazz on Fillmore; and the Castro Street Fair, where men and women walk hand-in-hand (men with men and women with women). But every 3rd Sunday in September, before the Castro welcomes the City with the final fair of the summer, the action heads South of Market, and the stretch of Folsom between 7th Street and 11th breaks out the leather chaps. The Folsom Street Fair, to put it plainly, celebrates alternative sexual freedom. Gay sexual freedom. And fetishism. Alternative gay sexual fetish freedom...How's that? Sure there's some heterosexual devotees, and these days many straight people attend, but be forewarned: during the fair the streets are chock full of...well, of some recreational proclivities that'll make select individuals of any persuasion do a double-take. Sights you or your children or your grandparents might not want to see.

Thousands do, though, which was why Peter and his coworker were back at it: cutting fruit for garnishes, wiping off the bar top and lighting candles. Putting the finishing touches on the place before they opened the front doors, before the crush of half-naked men and women, plus a few totally naked ones, drank themselves into a frenzy and tore the joint apart again.

By 11:00 a.m. the drink-slinging dynamic duo was ready for action, so they settled into the bar stools by the window to enjoy another cup of coffee and a bagel. Soon the cocktail servers and the bouncer would arrive. Soon the booths hawking free hugs and $5 whippings and $20 spiked dog collars would open for business, and the streets would fill with an artery-clogging mass of sweaty, leather-clad humanity: with sadists and masochists, with participants and gawkers, with the odd dominatrix in eight-inch, shiny black stilettos. And soon many of them would want a drink. For Peter and his friend it was the last opportunity for some peace and quiet until 7:00 p.m. when they could once again kick everyone out and batten down the hatches.

That respite was still several hundred margaritas away; now, however, was the time to let the sunshine in and embrace the madness, so Peter reached up and drew open the vintage venetian blinds. As he sat back down and lifted the bagel to his mouth his jaw dropped open, not in anticipation of a bite but because of the image that presented itself. With breakfast.

"Oh my god," he heard his friend chuckle.

Across the street, in front of the trendy laundromat-cum-café that was luckily closed for the day, a small crowd had gathered. In various states of dress they formed a quiet, respectful tableau. Respectful because the focus of their attention was the time honored creative process, and quiet except for the buzz of a chain saw. Art was being created, all right, and the artist was a strapping, bare-chested Michelangelo wielding said chain saw, carving an enormous pink ice sculpture: a pagan homage as old as mankind but as modern as the Levis and sturdy work boots he was wearing.

It was a five-foot tall penis, testicles included. Fully erect, and on a pedestal. The Folsom Street Fair was about to begin.

*   *  *  *   * 


Peter let the door of the hotel close softly behind him and stepped outside onto Post Street. Ah...fresh air, he thought.

Opening a restaurant, especially a big fancy restaurant, is intense work, and the previous two weeks of 15-hour days were starting to take their toll as the fateful day approached. Luckily Union Square, and a bit of sunshine, was a short walk from the daily grind, so throughout the day Peter would oftentimes take a few minutes to enjoy some decompression.

He had learned early on, much to his dismay, that Union Square was ground zero for panhandlers. Lots of 'em.

Now several years ago, after having moved from Cleveland to San Francisco, Peter had vowed, once the onslaught of homeless people and panhandlers and vagrant youths had reared their omnipresent and sometimes ugly head, that even if he had no money he would never just ignore them. He would always respond, even if it was to say, as it usually was, that he could not help out right now.

"Spare change?" Peter would smile politely and shake his head no.

With this acknowledgment some of the solicitors would set their sights on the next pedestrian, but many, an irksome amount of them, would persist. "Please, man, I need some help." Sorry, I can't right now. "Yo, sir...Wait a sec!" Not today. "C'mon buddy, gimme something!" And once they finally had moved on there was always another waiting in the wings. It was relentless.

One afternoon, as Peter was attempting to find some peace amid the nonstop request for money, the sob-story du jour, he tried a new approach, a new response. With it he apparently hit the jackpot, because, every time he uttered the words, the magic phrase would immediately send the intruder away.

"I'm sorry, but I'm just having some quiet time."

It was amazing! A stroke of genius! So much so that some of the people would actually apologize as they retreated. Quiet Time...Who knew it would be such an instant success? Until it wasn't.

Peter hadn't even made it to Union Square that day. He was sitting in a chair at the small sidewalk café a few doors down from the restaurant and was taking his first sips of coffee as the man walked (lurched) closer. With the request for money Peter broke out the miracle phrase: "I'm sorry, but I'm just having some quiet time."

The man went apeshit. Bonkers.

"QUIET TIME!" he suddenly screamed. Peter leapt to his feet as crazy closed in and continued. Spittle flew from the corners of his mouth as he bared his gnarly yellow teeth. "I've been having QUIET TIME for four-hundered years since you done stole me from Africa!"

The force of the verbal outcry hit him like a punch to the gut, and Peter stumbled backward. "I didn't steal you from anywhere," was all he could muster before he scurried back inside.

A few weeks later Peter was walking past Union Square on his way back to work, proudly sporting a new blazer he had recently purchased from The Gap. The journey from where the #30 Stockton bus let him off to the restaurant was less then four blocks, but in that four blocks a person could easily be solicited, sometimes harassed, several times. Sure enough, as he rounded the corner and entered the home stretch he saw what looked like the same homeless man - he of the Africa outburst - sitting on a milk crate, asking for handouts. Great, Peter thought, he we go again. The miracle phrase had been retired, so at the request for spare change he simply smiled and politely shook his head. Luckily the man let it go at that and pressed no further, but as Peter walked on he heard from behind him the following piece of mumbled advice: "You know that jacket's too big for you."

Fashion tips from the homeless. Who'd a thunk it?

*   *  *  *   *

So not in Ohio anymore.

Peace out, cyberhood.
Peter J. Palmer