Monday Night Nonfiction: Warm

Sad man in the streets of San Francisco

On a Friday afternoon in San Francisco, I decided to take a walk. Nimby was working late, and I wanted to pass the time till we could go to dinner together. I walked from his office on Folsom St. to The Embarcadero and proceeded along the water all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was going down, the end of our stay in SF was near, and I really missed my cat. Nothing was wrong, but I felt lonely and homesick.

“What would make this better?” I kept asking myself. I had a little cash in my pocket. I could go shopping or stop for a drink. I could find a place to sit and watch people or stare out at the water. “What do I want right now? What would make me happy?”

Eventually, I came up with an answer: “It would be really nice to have a friend, not to be alone, to be warm.”

As the sun set, the cool wind off the water was gaining strength, driving home both the chill and the loneliness. Sure, I’d be having dinner with my husband soon, but at that moment, I felt totally isolated. Even as I had these thoughts, I was walking into the most blatant tourist trap in town. Dressed in the baggiest jeans I own and several layers of clothing, walking alone and sporting ratty pink hair (my hair had a rough week), I became aware of the suspicious glances I was getting from tourists.

As I entered a section of tightly packed souvenir shops — the kind that look the same in every sea-side town — I heard a man complaining about the tourists who couldn’t spare enough change to get a burger. It’s true that I have a history of giving my pocket change to the first person who asks when I leave my hotel, but I had no intention of giving this man anything. I checked my phone for a status update from the husband and was just reaching to put it back in my pocket when the man saw me, assumed I was reaching for cash, and began to thank me. It was too late. We’d made eye contact. I finished putting my phone away and moved to another pocket to fish out a dollar. Caught up in my own awkwardness, I may have smirked by accident.

“Please don’t laugh at me,” the man said.

I took a second to look at him. He looked in his 50s, tired, weathered. He wore a thin wind breaker.

“I wouldn’t laugh at you,” I said. “You’re a human being.” I gave him a dollar, and he hugged me. He even kissed me on the cheek and exclaimed about how cold my skin was. His face was rough and bristly.

“Your skin is cold, but you have a warm heart,” he said.

Our exchange lasted all of 10 seconds, then I kept walking. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from Nimby and went off to meet him and a friend for dinner in the poshest apartment building I’ve ever seen. We had a nice night. We were warm, and we ate well.

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Metro Conversations

Washington D.C. Metro Tunnel
The other day, I got into an accidental conversation with a stranger in a DC Metro station. This is exactly the sort of thing I usually avoid, but roll with it for a minute.

It’s tourist season, and navigating the metro gets a bit hectic, so I’m standing as far away from other human beings as possible, leaning against the concrete half-wall hoping to cool myself off against it. I notice a young black woman standing about 10 feet away doing the exact same thing as me — leaning against a wall and avoiding eye contact with strangers. She looks about my age, her outfit is cute, and she has blue hair. Us Crayola-haired people aren’t super common in DC. We make eye contact for a split second, say nothing, look away. The next train is 13 minutes away. We continue casting meaningless glances all around the metro station as though it were a very interesting place. Eventually, we make eye-contact again, and I open my mouth to say, “I like your hair,” but she’s already looked away. I feel silly and ask myself, “Why would this stranger in a metro station want to talk to me? What, are we gonna be best friends now because we both have weird hair?” I go back to scrolling through Tumblr on my phone, occasionally looking up in the manner of a small forrest animal that must look out for predators while it eats.

On one of my furtive scans of the station, a man intercepts my gaze and saunters up  to stand beside me, blocking my vision of the young woman I would have made eye contact with to silently plea for help if I needed to be rescued. He’s an older man, black, thin, with spots of grey in his short facial hair, and a sizable gap in his lower front teeth. He wore grey sweatpants and a white v-neck t-shirt, and stood closer than I would have liked.

He sighed in a way I took to mean, “Damn, there’s too many people in here.”

Without making eye contact, I said, “Yup. It’s tourist season.” And quick as that, we were having a conversation about Washington DC, race, class, and how the city has changed in the time he’s lived here — born and raised in the District, he says, but I didn’t ask how old he was. On one hand, it was one of those casual conversations you have where the subtext is simply, “As long as we’re standing here waiting for this train we might as well chew the fat a little.” On the other hand, in the matter of 30 seconds, I went from being afraid of this stranger to exchanging our views on why there’s such poverty in our nation’s capital and what’s been done to improve things lately. He seemed convinced things are slowly getting better in DC, especially as the Marion Barry crowd sifts out.

There’s always a risk when you talk to strangers in metro stations or on air planes — like the time I sat next to a preachy Hare Krishna on a six-hour flight from Philly to SF. Part of me wishes metro guy hadn’t come up and invaded my personal space because I really wasn’t comfortable with it to begin with. Another part of me is glad we had the chance to talk just because it’s good to connect with your fellow human beings now and then.

And I keep wondering about the blue haired woman who seemed so interesting. I felt I had no right or reason to so much as compliment her hair. Maybe talking to her would’ve been fruitless, but so what? Instead, I left this huge gulf between us where a man stepped in because he felt at liberty in a way that I did not. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do think it’s related to the ways that women don’t reach out to each other. It might also be related to race, although I’m not sure. I think it’s related to a lot of issues that I don’t quite have the finesse to pin down.

Humans are an interesting species with our complicated social codes about who speaks to whom and under what circumstances. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we all just said “hello” to anyone we please just for the sake of being nice? I’m adding that to my Ideal World Wishlist.

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the front lines of humanity

journalists at play
The internet is chock full of people dolling out advice about SEO techniques, technology for creative types, and the best ways to sell yourself as an artist or writer.

At the risk of remaining an unknown literary soldier for the rest of my life, I choose to ignore all of that. The truth is, I’m just not interested in that kind of self promotion. I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t feel good. It makes creativity feel like a burden instead of a source of joy.

People would call me naive if they knew who I was enough to have an opinion. But they don’t know me, and they don’t care, and I’m happy with that.

You hear people saying all the time that if you are your authentic self, if you are honest, if you are sincere, your tribe will find you and rally around you and hold up your work in celebration. I would like it very much if that were true. It might be true. Maybe it is. Maybe those of us who follow that advice belong to a very small, very happy tribe.

Yesterday, I went to the Newseum, which was cooler than I expected. It reminded me that I am indeed a journalist in my own way. I no longer write for other people’s newspapers or magazines. I do not take assignments. I refuse to write anything I don’t love. It is completely rad to be able to say that. I am so exceptionally happy with this arrangement.

I am a journalist of the personal, the intimate, the beautiful, the tragic. I live my life as an immersion reporter, soaking in the gorgeousness of humanity on the front lines and reporting back, “Hey, humanity, remember this? This is you.”

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At Fenwick Beach

Sting of a sand bug
smell of ocean
children playing in the distance.
Sun, cool air, early summer,
people turning their bodies on the sand like sundials.

It was worth the drive,
even with a hangover,
even with the car jerking along,
driving past splotchy pink college bros
and a million girls who look like Ke$ha,
wondering if this is a good day
or a bad day for my ass
when I am a million miles from a full length mirror.

A sea gull flying against the wind
remembering our smallness
the seagull’s delayed shadow
the tattooed men
the skin parade
the boats
the ocean the ocean.

Families baptize their young in the surf,
sun worshipers with no concept of ritual
who turn slowly with the hours
texting someone in a city
too far away to matter.

this Italian man.
this Moroccan man.
this Israeli man.

The way the day settles in.
The bare shameless humanity of the beach.

The sudden lack of resistance
leaves you flailing, a fish out of water.

Yes, I’m still working on an essay about Ocean City itself, but in the mean time, here are my notes from the beach at Fenwick State Park in the form of what might be a poem.

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on being an artist

Here’s the thing about being an artist, a writer, a poet, a musician or even a gamer, programmer, hacker or any creative thing that you may be.

You just are. You don’t wait for someone to confirm it for you. It doesn’t matter if you went to school for it or if you’re naturally talented. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes or approves of what you do.

You don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder and proclaim you an artist. You just are. Because you’re human.

Universities have whole departments labeled “humanities,” because they are dedicated to the study and cultivation of our inexplicable creative impulse. The humanities are what makes us human.

So go create your art, whatever it may be, because if you don’t … what the fuck are you doing on this planet?

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