It has been a month, now, in San Francisco.
Away from the Bus and that Central American tropical dreamworld we’ve been wondering through for most of the year, the green jungles hiding ancient temples, the volcanoes, the chaotic towns and paradise beaches.
Every day, walking the dog, from the corner of the block you can see the street stretching away, slide-rule straight, down and then up the next hill and on towards the gray towers of downtown. All the red lights come on at the same time.
This city life. Like many Bay Area People, I have taken to staring at my laptop 12 hours a day trying to understand all that website coding stuff. Possibly unlike them, though, it takes me days to work anything out, turning weeks into a month. The tropical memories give way to an urban landscape that stretches from my desk/bed to the corner of the block and occasionally onto the CVS pharmacy to get something for my occasional headaches. This San Fran city life.
I was walking the dog along the side of the Fresh & Sleazy parking lot – Vaga making the most of that funny kind of shrubbery they have there, you know that plastic-like mini-hedge stuff they have in car parks the world over.
A guy with a placard approached. He seemed to be protesting about workers’ rights at the store; the sign said something about picket lines but there was just this one guy that I could see. I suppose he wasn’t allowed on the store property itself and so he had to cover a lot of ground to get around all the parking lot entrances on his own.
“You’re on your own here?” I asked, “What are you protesting about?”
Now it had been quite a few hours since I’d heard another human voice and, of course, my hearing aids haven’t been working for months. On top of that, this guy has got a beard, you know, covering the lips – not quite a ZZ-Top fan but he’s sporting a robust version of that all-american backwoods beard that’s so popular in these parts. So I can’t understand a flippin’ word and it sounds like he’s talking in code, to be honest, something about the web page I was just working on. ” Hey, open bracket, have info, if get info excerpt, close bracket, close widget tag”.
I wanted to ask him whether he had stopped shaving in protest at getting the sack. Instead I just mumbled “Sorry, a bit deaf – what did you say?” I may have motioned this before: Beards, like Islamic veils, like anti-bird-flu face masks, like black-block bandit bandannas, make it difficult for me to lip-read a person. If I can’t see their lips – it’s like someone turned down the volume and the information I receive gets decimated. And, while, the States offers respite for the native English speaker-lip-reader, there are an awful lot of beards here on the West Coast and the phenomena forms an important part of the lesser-known worldwide conspiracy against deaf people.
Anyway, the one-man picket line guy hands me a leaflet, clears his throat, finger-combs the whiskers back from his voice-hole and tries again. ”I was wondering what kind of dog that was”, he says. We both look down at Vaga who, long given up on the easy-maintenance, low-interest landscaping, had been standing frozen, as she does, like an Empire AT-AT Walker that’s run out of fuel.
“She’s a Rajapalayam Indian Pariah mix,” I reply, “A street dog from India.”
“That is so awesome – isn’t it? Having a dog…,” the guy says kind of dreamily, “I love watching all those TV programs about animals and stuff. They are so awesome. Your dog’s well trained and you say from India? – that’s awesome.”
Reading the leaflet, I saw that the store workers got a bad deal; minimum wage, no holiday pay, no overtime, forced to work on Sundays and just a veneer of medical insurance… “Did you use to work there? Did you get the sack?” I asked him.
“Me? No, I’m from Grass Valley. I’m here cuz the minimum’s higher here in the city. Ten dollar twenty four. Why is your dog frozen still?”
“She’s just waiting for the walk to continue” I replied. So, of course the guy was being paid to be hereYou’re paid to be here…” I say; well,of course he flippin’ was, “who pays you?”
“The Union pays me. Ten dollar twenty four an hour, no benefits, no strings attached. Better deal than Wal-Mart if you just wanna few quick bucks.”
“And they’re paying you that to protest outside the Fresh & Easy because Fresh and Easy are paying their workers the same amount?”
The sense of irony, I guess, hadn’t escaped the guy given, I suppose, the long hours he had to ponder his predicament. “Listen bud,” he said, making nicely sure to speak clearly, “it don’t make much sense does it? None of it makes much sense and it makes even less sense back in Grass Valley at the Wal-Mart.”