Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Work in Progress...

This is a piece of what it is that I'm currently working on. Just to give you something to read while you either wait for someone to post something interesting, or something interesting happens at your work.

11am, the alarm shouts at me for the third time. Vance is already showering and his things are all packed up and ready for departure. I take note of this, admire him for being so prepared, and fall back asleep.

Fifteen minutes later, he is shaking me awake, somewhat violently.

“Come on. Get up. I already called around to find us another place to stay. It’s close. Like, ten blocks tops.”

“Sweet. Anything with a better view would rock.” I fully intended to keep on sleeping after firing off my support.

“No man. Get your ass up. Check-in is at noon, and I told them we’d just go there instead of reserving anything over the phone. First come, first serve. So get the fuck up.” He was not messing around, so I did as was requested.

Ten minutes later, we were wandering through Chinatown with our luggage in tow. Showers are overrated. The scene was vibrating with activity. The streets were as I would imagine the streets of Beijing: narrow strips of pavement with shops crammed on top of one another, knick-knacks and touristy crap spilling out over the sidewalks. The Jenga-like designs of their porcelain Buddha displays seemed intentional, as if to beg some clumsy Clevelander with a fanny pack to topple them to the pavement. “Ahhhhh, you buy all now!” Bustling bodies were everywhere, the smell of business was thicker than egg-drop soup. We made our way through the gauntlet to our next set of beds at Grant Plaza, Chinatown. Fourth floor, corner room with a bay window that overlooked the intersection of Grant and Pine.

The view was absolutely amazing. To our right it was the pretension of a modern downtown city, high rise apartments and skyscrapers. Straight forward was the almost Guang Zhou provincial look of Chinatown. To the left was a hint of coastline, giving me the feeling that we might be staying at Mouth’s house, somewhere in the Goondocks.

Our bags properly stowed, and deuces properly deposited, we hit Grant to explore the city.

We made our way east, through the edge of Chinatown and toward the bay. It was a perfect day, with scattered clouds and the temperature threatening to break seventy. With mild winds kicking up off the ocean, over the city to the bay, we wore jackets to fend off the chill. I learned that in San Francisco, it is always necessary to have a jacket or sweater handy. Much like the desert, regardless of the temperature during the daytime, it gets brisk, if not downright cold come evening. Best to be prepared for anything whenever you plan nothing. We had no real schedule for the day. “Wandering around” was the only thing we penciled in.

There was a stumpy tower off in the distance, not too far ahead of us that caught our fancy. Coit Tower to be specific. But much to Vance’s irritation, my memory would not allow me to remember the name. I could remember the letters, somehow, but could never quite get them in the right order. So with every mention of “Cito Tower”(that’s “sea-toe” instead of the proper “coy-tuh” spelling and pronunciation), I could feel the heat coming off of Vance’s head, as his ultra-rational mind struggled to figure out how many times, in an hour, he would have to correct me before he would be forced to adopt my letter-scrambled spelling. Just to avoid a meltdown. This was not, by far, Vance’s first run-in with my inability to remember such details, but it is the most memorable for me because we actually had to stop walking at one point for him to give me a stern talking to. It was the only kind-of-argument we had on the entire trip. It was special like that.

“So, how old is this Cito Tower, anyway?”

“The Coit Tower?”

“Right, Coit. Whatever. How old is it?”

These types of questions, by me, were interspersed with other conversations we had as we strolled through the narrow streets. He had actually read the travel manual, so I was depending on him as a source of information. Simply repeat the above three lines of dialogue, with a different question attached, every ten minutes. It always started with “so, ______ (how tall is, who built, etc..) this Cito Tower, anyway?” After about the tenth repetition, Vance, understandably, lost his cool. His teeth were clenched, as were his pumping fists, as I (as best I can) remember.

“Dude. It’s not Cito, it’s COIT. COIT, COIT, Coit. Four letters. It isn’t that hard to remember.”

“Sorry man, jeez. I just can’t seem to get that to settle in, you know?”

“No. No, I don’t know.” Vance is the kind of guy who if he told you he remembered the name of the nurse who delivered him as a baby, by her nametag, you would not be surprised. So it stood to reason that he would consider my memory slippage dubious at best. He continued his pro-memory crusade. “I think you’re doing it on purpose. Either that or you’re just not trying.”

Me, with slight indignance, tempered with consideration, “not trying? Well what the hell am I supposed to do? Make a flashcard for the fucking thing?”

As an aside: Later on in life, my inability to remember insignificant details blossomed gloriously into full-blown forgetfulness. Vance has been steadfast in his opinion that I am either intentionally forgetting things, or just not trying hard enough to remember them. I am far too close to the problem to say for sure whether or not his diagnosis is correct, but he has not been wrong about much in the fifteen years I have known him. Take that for what it is worth,

We made it to Coit Tower, climbed up the thing, and peered out onto the beautiful city of San Francisco. There are no proper words to describe such a visually explosive city. Splendid, fantastic, scenic, a gift from the Gods, whatever. Nothing fits right. The architecture is fantastically mixed in age, with ultra-seventies high rises peaking out next to sleek pieces of high-design, high-tech contemporary buildings, which are surrounded by stone buildings which appear to be about a century in age. And the best part is that the city seems to sit on the peak of a mild land-ridge which separates the bay from the open ocean. So everything is tiered downward. From the bay, you literally look UP at the city. Impossible to describe how much there is to see and take in. Especially since both of us grew up in Houston, where the entire incline of the (rather expansive) city is probably one foot, north to south. It makes a city as topographically interesting as San Francisco that much more fascinating.

Pictures were taken, artistic shots were attempted (got lots of thumb close-ups), and then it was time to return to the streets for more wandering. It was decided that we should check out Fisherman’s Warf, which is on the bay. If I had known what a tourist disaster that place was, I probably would not have gone. But it was there, so we had to check it out.

On our way to the wharf, we zig-zagged through private courtyards, between and amongst the squeezed and stacked architecture of the area. Multi-million dollar town homes with rooftop decks. We scrambled up stairs and on to private patios, just to see how the other side lived. As expected, they live quite well. We were not pretending to BE them by invading their spaces. That would be psycho. We were more… criminal, I suppose (but not literally). More like, casing their cribs, but in a really lazy way. We just walked right up and sat on their patio furniture, taking inventory of their outdoor wealth. Lots of thickly-painted wicker atrocities, pastels, rustic wind chimes, and all the other Home and Garden bullshit one would expect to find littered on the patio of a wealthy person’s second home.

We continued this type of invasive tourism until we hit the bay and found the fabled Fisherman’s Wharf, the big-ass pier.

Standard fare for any city that understands their tourist market. It is indeed a pier. A long, well-developed pier that looks more like an amusement park than it does a place where longshoremen would crank out crabs and unload barges from faraway lands. Clowns wandering around making balloon animals, some dude doing parlor tricks, cotton candy and lots of trinket shops. A big, wooden cash vacuum. The most notable part of that experience was us coming upon the largest dog I had ever seen. It was a Saint Bernard, and it was living with horse-like proportions. I would estimate it to have been somewhere near one hundred fifty pounds, with feet the size of mine and a panting mouth, capable of swallowing whole watermelons. While moving through the crowd, trying to leave the pier, we stumbled upon the laying creature as it was being assaulted by three slobbering toddlers. The kids were hanging on the thing like baby possums, shrieking and yanking. The dog just sat there, panting rhythmically and staring up at its owner without any sign of emotion. I almost expected it to start digging as if trying to remove fleas, to shed the diaper-wrapped irritations climbing on it. But no. It just sat there, with amazing patience. My only guess is that when you are that large of an animal, nothing really threatens you, so there is no need to be defensive. You could put a yoke on that thing and plow fields, or pit it up against bears in a cage match and sell tickets, but it was someone’s loving pet. Perfectly content to kick it in harmony with strangers’ babies. A gentle, hairy giant.

Seriously, the dog was the only cool thing about that stupid pier. I would try to wax philosophic about the place, but it has no soul or depth. Well, unless you consider the exchange of four dollars for a spun-ball of wispy, blue-colored sugar to be deep and somehow meaningful. I have since heard that a favorite activity of many visitors to the pier is to go out to the tip, where the seals are basking on rocks and wooden floats, to give the creatures names. I have no idea why this is so entertaining for people. The seals have no interest in being named, and if they could speak, they would probably tell all the gawkers to fuck off. Maybe I am all alone in that opinion. It matters not.

By the time we left the pier, the sun was setting and it was threatening to rain. We walked straight back to the hotel and suited up for a night of heavy drinking. The previous night had allowed for limited results in that regard, and we intended to tip the scale back to our favor.

I was in no mood to take it easy on the booze. “Let’s just start in the first bar we hit. That way, we won’t feel like we left out any options.” Vance was down with the plan. “Yes. Let’s not waste any time trying to figure out the nightlife around here, and just make it ourselves.” With our brotherhood-in-booze renewed, we entered the first bar we came to, as agreed. Good thing too, as it was starting to rain.

It was a small place off Grant, not but two to three blocks from our hotel. The signage was mostly Chinese, but the neon out front read “Li-Po” with “cocktails” underneath. Perfect. The interior was well-worn and reeked of stale liquor. I could almost feel the history of the place, the faint smell of dragon chasers and Shanghai attempts. There was a Trent Reznor look-alike standing at the bar, hunched over and chatting with a mid-thirties Cantonese bartender. Her hair was long and her rougher facial features were softened by the soft-red, cave-like lighting of the interior. They were both somewhat startled at our entrance, and the fellow immediately made his way past us to the door to watch the rain fall.

We sat down and ordered some Seven and Sevens to start things out right. After a couple of those, amongst some minor banter with the bartender about how no one really drinks Seven and Sevens anymore, Vance and I noticed a set of strange looking liquor bottles on a shelf above the bar. The bottles that were labeled, were done in Chinese. Some bottles were completely blank, with just sealing wax over the caps. They appeared to be there more for show than anything else, but still, always a curious drinker, I was intrigued.

“Pardon me, but what the hell is in those bottles?”

She was genuinely interested in the question, “oh, those are the real deal. Chinese liquor and wines.”

“Oh really? So, are they for sale?”

She obviously anticipated this question, and intended to head me off at the pass. “They’re an acquired taste. You probably won’t like anything you try.”

“I’ll try anything twice, if it doesn’t kill me the first time.” I thought I was being witty. But really, I was just playing into her hands.

“Alright. I won’t bore you with the wines, and just go straight to the good stuff.”

“Good stuff?” Oh, I was extremely pleased to hear those words.

She brought down a Chinese-character-tattooed clay bottle with a bunch of twine wrapped around the neck. “This, gentlemen, is Ng Ka Pi.” She pronounced it “Nung Kah Pee”, and claimed it was a traditional Cantonese liquor, distilled from something abnormal, which I neglected to register because I was so fascinated with how ancient it looked. The cork did not “pop” when she pulled it off.

“Yes! Let’s drink THAT, whatever it is!” Vance and I were both excited to taste this exotic, potentially illegal-to-serve elixir. She poured three shots and left the jug on the bar. It was bourbon brown, but had no odor. We clinked glasses and downed them like cough syrup.

The taste was absolutely horrid. A strange mixture of dirt and sugar, with just a hint of pepperminty nastiness. It had a most ruthless demeanor, abusive, as it felt like someone was ice-picking my gums while pouring battery acid down my esophagus. Mine almost came back up, but my teeth stopped the flow, and I re-swallowed, giving myself a double-whammy. After I shook my head and let out a “whoooooo!” I noticed she was already setting up three more. I stared with dreamlike concentration as she poured, feeling like I was developing tunnel vision. I could feel massive sets of brain cells perishing as the shot ran roughshod through my bloodstream and my liver let go of a single tear.

But there was no turning back. The second set was topped off and ready to bring pain. Suddenly, I felt like we were in a really shitty drinking contest, where the chosen liquid was vomit juice and the prize would be mental retardation. Unfortunately for me, it became a game of pride. And even though those games are lost once they begin, I was incapable of resisting the challenge. I could see the guy at the door grinning as we touched glasses and pounded the second round down. It went down with more ease, since the first shot had prepared my throat for the ill-flavored shock. No regurgitation.

But my sight was threatening to go out. I looked up to my left to see Vance, in a shadowy haze, wincing and wiping his mouth. He, too, had resigned himself to see the thing through. Regardless of the inevitable and immediate damage to vital organs. My right leg was twitching uncontrollably, probably to combat a sudden onset of shivers.

She was laughing while setting up the third round. Specifically, she was laughing at my reaction to the first two. “You alright there? I told you it is an acquired taste.”

My response was delayed, as I was trying to regain clear eyesight by way of frantic rubbing of my sockets with my sweaty palms. “Oh, I remember what you said about the taste. This is what it looks like when acquiring it. I mean, fuck, this stuff is… my god it’s nasty.”

Again, she must have expected my reply. “You get used to it! Cheers!”

With the third round down, I wanted to get the hell out of there. With each shot I was losing functionality and she was obviously going to continue this punishment until we either walked out, or got carried out. I wanted my night to last a little longer, and I wanted my drinks to taste significantly better. But really, my failing eyesight and freaked-out right leg were starting to make me feel mortal. And feeling mortal went against the whole point of drinking in the first place. We had to invent a gentleman’s exit. Some way to save our livers from immediate and acute failure, yet maintain some face even though it was obvious that she was handing us our own asses in shot glasses. One of us needed to pretend to get an urgent phone call that would pull us out of there. That, or one of us needed to prod the other and say something like “dude, we’re already thirty minutes late to meet those chicks from the strip club at that place. We seriously gotta go now. It’s been fun! Thanks crazy lady!”

But before any shoot-from-the-hip plan could get rolling, yet again, she anticipated my next move. “So, is that it guys?” She was not pouring a fourth round. In fact, she was putting the cork back on that bottle of wet death. She just pulled that rug right from beneath us. No chance to save face at that point. “Uh, yeah. We uh, need to meet some… yeah. I guess we’re done here.”

Damn. Punked out. Oh well. Sometimes, it is much better to take an experience for what it is: a losing proposition. And then abandon it like a ripped condom.