22 Fillmore

On my way to the maildrop, without even expecting it, I found myself walking past a convenience store where one angry afternoon a few years ago, I'd shouted at the owner.

There was only me and one other customer in the store, and I don't ever remember what I was buying that day, only that I didn't buy it, because the jerk wouldn't get off the phone despite me and the aforementioned one other customer standing at the register three from from him, while he talked on the phone. 

I yelled at the guy, who must've been the owner — Indian-American, about 50 — "Hang up the damn phone and run your store." So of course, he hung up the phone, but told me to leave, and we yelled at each other for a few minutes. The last thing I screamed as I walked away was, "Remember me when you're bankrupt!"

Well, now the store is all boarded up, with a sign on the door that says, "For rent." I laughed when I saw the sign, and laughed again typing it. 

I have some complaints about capitalism, but sometimes it does what it's supposed to do. Treat your customers crappy, and eventually you run out of customers.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Now I'm at home, going through the mail, and treating my customers crappy, by generally forgoing the expected personal note when people send three bucks. When I send for other people's zines, almost always there's at least a post-it note inside that says "Thanks," and sometimes there's even a few sentences, handwritten. Douggie don't do that. 

But I do get the issues into the mail soon as your cash is in my wallet.

♦ ♦ ♦  

No reply from Corina, the woman I'd asked for a date via the mail…

♦ ♦ ♦  

Paid next week's rent entirely with one-dollar bills that came in the mail, three dollars per envelope. Guess I'm a professional writer — it literally pays the rent.

Mr Patel looked bemused as he counted all the ones, and through his Indian accent he asked, "You have a paper route?"

I smiled and said, "No, man, I don't have a paper route," but said nothing more, because it always takes five minutes to explain the concept of zines. Factor in the language barrier and it would take even longer, and anyway, I don't want Mr Patel reading Pathetic Life.

Four dollar bills remain in my wallet, to last until payday for the fish work, which is Saturday. So, no movies tonight, that's for sure.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Worked on the zine for a few hours, editing out some of the many, many boring bits, and writing up some yesterdays that had been just scribbled notes.

When I looked at what I'd written, though, jeez it stank. This isn't my day for writing, my writing told me, so an hour past sunset I jiggled and bounced my belly down four flights of stairs, maybe to buy a newspaper or something, but really with no particular purpose at all, like my life.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Around the corner, in the shadows between street lights, a mildewed old man sat on a milk crate, playing a guitar. His "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" was invigorating and on-key, so I listened, pretending to be transfixed by something in a shop window. He finished with a flourish, then shot a smile at me, knowing I'd liked it even if I couldn't afford to clink into his can.

I semi-smiled back, and he started his next number. It was something lyricless, maybe his own composition, and it was beautiful, the kind of melody you hear once but carry in your head for hours afterwards. When he finished and smiled at me again, I waved and walked off into the night, whistling the tune he'd just played.

♦ ♦ ♦  

A block away, an idea popped into my head, and I stopped, leaned on a darkened storefront, and wrote it into my notebook. (Always carry a notebook, kids.) Then came a second idea and a third, and I stood there scribbling furiously.

A giant electric bus swerved toward me, startling me, and I dropped my pen on the sidewalk. The bus's door opened, and in slow motion I realized I'd been standing at a bus stop, taking notes.

22 Fillmore, eh? The door was open, and I have a pre-paid transit pass, so I bent over and picked up my pen, climbed three steps, flashed the pass at the driver, and stood in the aisle alongside dozens of other cranky humanoids on a chilly evening, as the trolley shook its way westward on 16th.

My part of the Mission is ground zero slumland — ugly hookers, cheap and toxic drugs, stolen bus transfers for sale at the corner, etc. But as the bus shook rattled and rolled along, the neighborhood gentrified itself, with more sports bars and middle-class housing, fewer bodegas and laundromats and tennis shoes dangling from high wires. By the time we'd turned onto Church Street, Aardvark Books was the only oasis in a desert of dullness.

Creaking and wobbling, the bus turned onto Fillmore Street, and at every stop, it seemed like one or two people stepped off but three or four stepped on. With me hanging onto the rail above my head, some unfortunate woman had her face basically in my arm pit. Slowly we climbed up and over Nowhere Hill, herky-jerky all the way.

Eventually, the bus began emptying, and I was able to sit down and look out the window. We rolled past a few movie theaters, too many upscale eateries and boutiques, and several extravagant churches where Jesus could've lost his temper and tossed people out all over again.

In Pacific Heights, even the Walgreens looks swanky and unwelcoming to the likes of me. Then left, right, right, left, onto Chestnut Street and the Marina.

It's sort of a snooty area, and I rarely get the chance to snoot, so I stepped off the bus. A panhandler was waiting, hand literally out, but he got nada from me. Closer to the water, there was a chilly breeze, and me and the bum were the only ones not wearing stylish sweaters. Everyone else had the look of bank managers, sons and daughters of the uppercrust — people of undeniable importance, at least to each other. 

Walking past busy sidewalk cafes and small crowds of people talking, all the overheard conversations were of fine intellectual timbre, of politics and business and literary matters, and of someone's daughter's unexpected pregnancy and discreet abortion. I loitered near several men who spoke knowledgeably about stick options, wishing I knew how to belch on command, but settled for a loud, theatrical yawn.

And yet, I write this not to scorn, but to marvel, and remember. Fifteen years ago, I was sort of a slight success, by Chestnut Street standards. If I'd stuck with that life, I could've been one of these sweater-clad people, talking as pretentiously as any of them, twirling the ice cubes in my elegant drink.

Instead, I took a job that demanded less of me. Gave away my neckties, my briefcase, and look at me now — I'm living in a slum, eating cat food sandwiches, wearing thrift store clothes and the same underwear I wore on Tuesday.

Reflecting on all this, I leaned on a darkened doorway and chuckled, so much more contented than I ever could've been if I'd stayed on the "upward trajectory." 

♦ ♦ ♦  

On the #22 back to the slums, turning from Church to 16th Street, the trolley found a dead spot in the overhead wires, and we lurched to a sudden stop in the intersection.

Most of the passengers had experienced this before; I sure had. Trolley technology is very 1945.

"It'll be ten or twenty minutes," the driver said, "until a maintenance truck comes to nudge us a few inches to the live wires." Looking out the window, there were cars cars going nowhere, everywhere, because a huge bus was diagonally bisecting two busy streets. It was beautiful.

"Or," the driver continued, "a few of you big guys could get out and give us a push."

He opened the bus doors, and four Good San Franciscans got off and walked to the back fender, and yeah, I was one of them. When the driver said "big guys" it sounded like a personal invitation. 

One, two, three, push! The bus rolled forward an inch, then rolled back.

One, two, three, push! Again forward, but again back. 

Someone counted to three a third time and again we pushed, again the bus pulsed forward just a bit, just a bit, and just when I was wondering whether all this pushing might hurt my back tomorrow morning, we heard a spark above us, and the power surged and the bus came to life.

The other men got back on board, but we were only a few blocks from my hotel, so I walked the rest of the way, past Dolores, Guerrero, Valencia, Mission, 17th, 18th.

♦ ♦ ♦  

And there was the old man with his guitar, still strumming and singing, still sitting on his milk crate. I kinda knew he'd be there. It was kismet you could count on.

He was playing a song I didn't know but wished I did, and I listened like I had an hour earlier, pretending not to, gazing into a store closed for the night but not really seeing it.

Next he played "Yesterday," the most clichéd, overplayed, lounge-lizarded song ever written, but with only a guitar and a gentle singing voice, he made it mean something, made my eyes moisten. Very softly, I joined in on the last chorus, and he kindly pretended not to hear.

After that, I pretty much had to give him a dollar, so now I'm down to three until the weekend.

From Pathetic Life #23
Thursday, April 25, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. Damn nice piece of writing, Doug.


    1. Yeah? Thanks. Honestly, I can't tell any more, what's good and what's drivel after I've written it...

    2. Dougles, you write very little drivel. Your writing is both compelling and original. I don't say that every day because I think it's pretty obvious. I save my comments for when you produce a piece of original and outstanding writing that's blazing a new trail, like today. I know the amount of work that goes into a dozen paragraphs to make them sound effortless. That's when I speak up unless two or three people have already noticed and commented.


    3. I blush and flush, but it is appreciated. I think I'm a reliable 25% drivel, sometimes more...

    4. I second Jon's comment. This entry is so San Francisco I can see it and smell the pee.

    5. My new motto for the website: Stop by and smell the pee.

    6. . . . and join the conversation: make the puddle larger.


  2. >Mr Patel looked bemused as he counted all the ones, and through his Indian accent he asked, "You have a paper route?" I smiled and said, "No, man, I don't have a paper route."

    Disappointed you didn't say you were a stripper.

  3. The best lines always come 27 years too late.

    1. I don't see why you can't do both. I had a paper route for five years and I would have stripped for any girl who asked. None did, but I usually wore clean underwear just in case.


    2. When I wore a younger man's underwear, 'clean' was optional, but older me gets itchy and scratchy if I wear the same boxers two days in a row.

      It's very tedious, changing from one pair of underwear into another every dang day.

    3. Nice glancing blow off of Billy Joel's only real hit song. It was a pretty good song the first thirty or forty times they played it on the radio. I'll bet he hates it more than I do. Nonetheless, nice transposition.

      It's nice to know after all these years and the loss of four inches off of everything but my belly that I'm still taller than him, although it's likely a photo finish, but not one you'd want to develop.



    4. His only real hit? Billy Joel was the soundtrack of my 20s and 30s. Pop music, yeah, but with some serious heart.

    5. Of course Billy Joel had other hits. But I was in my 20s and 30s when he did, and I wasn't listening to AM radio and it never occurred to me to purchase, borrow or lease a Billy Joel album. I was listening to goddamn it, I just can't write during the day. interrupted again. Fuck. I'll come back for the knicht shift. Sorry.

      johnny interruptus

    6. Laughed for fifteen seconds, man. I *totally* know that feeling. When it hits, I walk away and come back in a few hours, but it's funnier to do it your way.


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