The Kindness of Strangers

It was Saturday morning and I was kinda in a hurry but I was also hungry which is a bit unusual for me, to be hungry in the morning that is. So I stopped at the bagel place on Market Street and got one a their giant bagels toasted and crammed fulla cream cheese to go and like I said I was in a hurry so I didn’t notice that the girl behind the counter hadn’t included a napkin. That is until I was a block away and as I was stuffin’ half the bagel into my mouth and then wiping away the excess cream cheese and crumbs with the back of my hand, a really tall well dressed woman, who musta witnessed my distress and consequently took pity on me, handed me a napkin from outta her bag.

And ya know I was duly impressed and tried to thank her profusely, but she had immediately turned to cross the street when the light changed leaving me standing there with my bagel in one hand wiping my face with her napkin clutched in the other while busily thinking that maybe this world wasn’t such a bad place after all. That is until I saw the bright red lipstick smear on the very napkin that I had just finished mopping my face with, the very napkin that the woman that I had thought was my savior had slipped me in what was obviously a very susceptible moment on my part.

And you’d think that maybe in this day and age that my first thoughts were that she was tryin’ to pass me a hefty taste of anthrax? Or maybe avian flu? Or maybe one of a million other terrorist type threats? But no, those ridiculous kinds of thoughts never even entered my mind; it just really outraged my sense of what I consider acceptable social sanitary behavior. That is until a block later when I was passing a rather disheveled homeless guy who was sitting on the ground surrounded by the equally disheveled and somewhat soggy bits of his life and something struck me as being odd. What actually grabbed my attention was that he was completely absorbed in applying the bright red lipstick that he held in one hand while staring forlornly into a small compact mirror that was gripped tightly in the other.

Yet the odd part really didn’t hit me until I was two feet past him and then this overwhelming sense of similarity kicked in so I stopped and turned around. “Was that lipstick of his the same shade of red as what had been smeared across my napkin? Nah, it couldn’t be!” But then I thought, “What if someone was going around downtown San Francisco dressed as a woman handing out tainted napkins that were laced with something diabolical like incurable madness and unwittingly I had somehow gotten mixed up in all this?”

I mean that woman was awfully tall and besides how many people, disheveled homeless men or not, use that exact same shade of lipstick? And even so how many of them that do dabble in that same color do you see on the same day? And then all of a sudden there I was totally convinced that I was going to be struck down with some ghastly malady at any moment and perhaps even keel over dead right then and there on the sidewalk. That is until I saw what time it was and realized that I was gonna be late if I didn’t get my ass in gear and walk those last few remaining blocks to the test center.

100 California Street is a pretty nondescript ordinary building and even though the famous SF cable cars pass by all day long; if you didn’t know any better you’d swear that you could be standing in front of a million other common buildings in any given major city that constitute the metropolitan areas of the United States. Sorta that concrete slab and oxidized metal and glass construction that screams the 70’s and as I mounted the graded pebble embedded monoliths that comprise the front steps on my way to the entrance I couldn’t help but think, “What am I doing here? I’d so much rather be in bed reading the newspaper with the blinds closed waiting to take a nap before getting up to go out for lunch with friends.” That is until I remembered that I was here to take my GRE tests for my grad school admissions and then only after giving the guard at the security desk my name was I allowed through the unmarked white doors into the inner sanctum of the testing facility.

Although the irony of the whole situation was that the only grad school that required this test had already denied me so in all actuality I really needn’t have bothered. It’s just that I tend to think of myself as really stupid and so in the spirit of doin’ something different, doin’ something that would take me outta my comfort zone, doin’ something that just might negate that sense that I have of myself I decided to go ahead and take the damn test and at least get it over with! That and the bastards in charge wouldn’t refund the money that it costs to take the test—so it was also sorta the frugal thing to do too.

And yeah I could go on and on about what a whacked out place this test center was and how they wouldn’t let me bring in anything, even made me empty my pockets, which sorta reminded me of a few maximum security facilities that I’ve had the un-pleasure of residing in. Though to tell you the truth the whole time that I was there I kept thinking about what a great story this would make and even during my test I was mentally taking notes around the oddly paranoid atmosphere that prevailed. That is until I had to sign a “confidentiality agreement” that explicitly stated that I couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t divulge any information about the testing site or the protocol involved. Hell, it basically said that I was committing a felony just thinking about exposing any aspect of their testing routine!

Although if that was truly the case then I’d have to end this post right here and believe me if I thought it was the right thing to do I would, and somewhere in the back of my mind it sorta felt like it might. That is until I thought, “What the hell do I care? These people are outta their minds and besides they wouldn’t refund my money!” Of course what’s really interesting about all this quasi-security and forced signing of binding contractual agreements is that obviously people have either snuck in little sophisticated cheating devices or worse, what with the extensive checking and rechecking of ID’s, is that people have actually had someone else take the test for them, and that just amazes me!

Because say you had someone actually take the test for you, now don’t you think that the university that accepted you based on your test scores would sooner or later figure out that you can’t actually multiply fractions because you don’t even know what a numerator is and as far as denominators are concerned, well, you thought that they were leather clad women with whips. But then of course stranger things have happened and why anything these days amazes me is probably because I just don’t get out often enough or worse that I don’t watch the sensationalized news on television where I gather this type of insanity is a daily staple spoon fed to those that are interested.

But believe me sitting in that sterile room with nothing but the clacking of the other people’s keyboards to keep me company as I’m staring at the computer screen, the thought of having someone else endure this ordeal did cross my mind and then the test started and I was compelled to write an essay on the long range effects of art on today’s society. And ya know after that I got a little cocky and started to think that I was actually gonna ace this thing. That is until I got to the math part and then I nose dived into just staring blankly at the monitor and tryin’ real hard to feel that “right answer” vibe. Although I think that I can safely say that I have never had the need to use algebra in my entire life, that is until today and then of course I couldn’t remember shit and those little 3(d + 4) – 11 = equations just didn’t mean a god damn thing.

Anyway somewhere around 2:30 in the afternoon I wandered out into the street in a delirious brain numbed haze and started walking home since there really wasn’t much else to do as the day was pretty much shot. Market Street looked a lot busier now with people everywhere and even though it was cold and threatening to rain there were a lot of folks just out seein’ the sights and shopping. But I gotta admit I was keepin’ an eye out for that tall well dressed woman and her perchance to hand out soiled napkins as it may just be bigger than I thought, like a matter of national security or something.

Making my way through the financial district I turned down Third Street and immediately ran into the artist as he sat there huddled in a doorway shivering from the cold, one hand stretched outta the grimy sleeve of his jacket in a halfhearted attempt at getting some money for his daily allotment of booze. “Man dude I been missin’ you for weeks now brother, ya got somethin’ ta help me out?” And ya know it ain’t nothing for me to give him a dollar or two because it’s not like I got these lofty ideas that he should get his life together or that by me giving him money I’m only perpetuating his hopeless situation. All ya gotta do is look at his tattoos like the teardrops on the side of his eye and know that he’s been institutionalized most of his life and that just maybe being out here on the streets is a slight improvement over being incarcerated.

Only for some inexplicable reason seein’ him sitting there got me thinking about what if I do get accepted to grad school and then I gotta move away from all the familiar and somewhat comfortable aspects of my life these days. Like everyone that I know in my neighborhood and my family and friends and all of a sudden there I was getting’ kinda nostalgic in a weird sorta dysfunctional way. That is until I turned the corner onto my block and saw all the winos sittin’ there under the freeway screamin’ and yellin’ at each other and then I thought, “Am I outta my damned mind?”

2 Responses

  1. lab munkay

    Now I wanna read what you wrote on your test.

  2. Adriana Bliss

    Sorry for being so late getting to my comment – this is a wonderful piece of writing, Patrick. Love the touches of paranoia, love the crazy attachment to decay.

    You brilliant thing you.

    Ack…the GRE. I never took it. I’m like you, the math is horrible. I had an experience where the math was my downfall. Back in the day, I attempted to sign onto the FBI. Their test was all about math. I don’t think I’ve ever been rejected from an organization or school or job SO FAST. I swear I took the test on a Monday and by Thursday I had the rejection. I thought that was so FUNNY.

    It was alright – there’s no way I could have made it through the training.

    “No, no, I can’t climb that wall, exercise interferes with my sense of self…is that a gun? You want me to actually SHOOT it??”