Street Warfare

  • Barbarella

Live for yourself -- there's no one else more worth living for. Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more.

-- Neil Peart (of the band Rush)

We emerged from the underground station to the bright Babel that is San Francisco's Union Square. To our left, pedestrians shifted from foot to foot as they waited for city employees to yank the steel rope of the cable car for a manual u-turn. To our right, an Asian man played Beethoven's Ode to Joy on a wooden flute as passersby tossed bills in the instrument case at his feet. Vendors were sensed before seen -- the air was redolent of incense and hot dogs.The suitcase gave us away. We were on our third stride from the escalator that carried us to daylight when we were approached.

"Can I help you find your way?" His clothes were clean, his face was scruffy with gray stubble, and his wavy hair was partially covered with a baseball cap.

I was shaking my head no when David said, "Sure. We're looking for the Hotel Palomar." After taking a few minutes to explain to us the history of the building (and of the general area, beginning with the Great Earthquake of 1906), the "helpful" man pointed to the hotel's sign half a block away, clearly visible from where we stood.

We thanked him and took our fourth step, but the man stopped us before we made it to five. "Do you have any change?" We did. David reached in his pocket, and the man kept speaking, explaining his situation, how he made a living, etcetera, etcetera; I really didn't care -- he'd offered to help us, we'd allowed him to, and the quarters in David's pocket were readily accessible. David listened politely for another few minutes while I took in the scene and chanted, shut up, shut up, shut up! in my head. After dumping a pile of quarters into the man's hand, David turned with me in the direction of the hotel. The sidewalk was a gauntlet of extended hands. Half a block never seemed so far.

Two steps later, I glanced at a woman leaning against the thick trunk of a tree and dwarfed by a large sheet of cardboard. Her shaggy haircut was current with the latest trends and colored black. She was young, pretty, and perfectly punk in a black miniskirt and red fishnet stockings that were torn in so many places it seemed the few remaining shreds were stuck to thigh and calf by sheer will. Intent on getting to our destination, I wouldn't have paused if it weren't for David, who had fallen behind me to approach the girl.

"Gotta have Versace," he said, digging into his pocket once again. It was then that I noticed the writing in black and red marker on the large cardboard sign: "I LOVE CHANGE! Need $ for Versace glasses."

David had an extraordinary amount of change in his pocket -- at the airport, I had overpaid for our train tickets by almost ten dollars and the machine had spit back the difference in coins. "Anyway," he said as we continued our half-a-block trek, "she amused me, and I don't mind paying for entertainment."

I was overwhelmed by the number of people working the area, each person trying to top the last with innovative ways to suck the change from David's pocket. On one hand, I couldn't blame them. On the other, I wanted to get to our hotel room, set down our bags, and pee. Someone popped out of the crowd and asked me for money -- someone clean and well dressed. When I said I didn't have any, he spit, "In that big purse? Come on, you've got to have change in that bag." I turned my gaze away and ignored the epithets muttered under the man's breath as we walked on. David, preoccupied with declining an offer to purchase jewelry from a mobile street vendor, missed my little exchange. When he looked back at me, he could see I was livid.

"Whoa, why are you so angry?" David asked.

"Can you fucking believe that? Even if I had change in my purse, which I don't , why should I give it to some random guy on the street just because he asks for it? I don't owe him shit! Why can't we just walk down the fucking sidewalk without being pestered?" Noting my misdirected vitriol, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sorry, it's just that I'm annoyed. For once, I'd just like to get from A to B without all these forced obstacles. I should talk to Zim about designing a video game, like street warfare, based on evading all the people who want something from you, and you'd score more points on how quickly you can get rid of them without giving up your pocket change."

David chuckled at me. "We're almost there," he said. "We just have to cross this intersection."

I spotted a clean-cut teenager with a clipboard stomping her way through the crowd, eyes on the prize, which was us, the two smiling (and therefore inviting) faces of obvious tourists dragging a suitcase through Union Square. I groaned to call David's attention to our next nemesis. Gifting change to the creative, helpful, or needy is one thing; it's quick, it's easy, and it can make you feel good. Giving precious minutes to a person determined to win you over to whichever cause they've chosen to champion is another; it's long, boring, uncomfortable, and downright irritating.

When exiting the grocery store a few weeks ago, a young blonde set upon us with a similar clipboard in her hands. "Do you have a minute for the environment?" A loaded question, best left unanswered. Before I had the chance to ignore her, David cheerily answered, "I'm sorry, but we're raping the planet this week!" As David (who has contributed many thousands via donations of his artwork to auctions for environmental groups) and I continued to the car, the girl we'd just left in our wake stared at us, dumbfounded. I kicked myself all the way home for not thinking of the response myself.

My sister Jane is great at this sort of thing. "No matter what they say, don't engage, that's the worst," she advises. "If you say anything , they've got you, then you're having a conversation. You've got to shut them down immediately." Whenever I complain about the nuisance of people with a cause, Jane recalls the Mormon Incident. Half of my family worships and admires Jane's gumption in doing a thing we have only dreamed of, and the other half admonishes her for her impertinence.

Jane was on the phone with Mom, standing in the foyer of her home. The wooden door was open; the screen door was not. "I was standing by the door, and I heard a little tap. I knew they could hear me and see me. I walked up to the screen and they said, 'Hi, we're with the Church of Latter Day --' and I just shut the door! I didn't miss a beat in the conversation with Mom. When I turned around, Simon was sitting on the couch with his mouth open in shock." Jane's husband, like all of the men my sisters and I are with, is the patient half of the pair. "My time is valuable -- why take the time to explain why I'm not interested? The common decency of being nice takes time, and I don't have time for it," she says.

I fall into the half of my family who worships and admires Jane's behavior in this situation. I wish I had the balls to nip irritating interactions in their obnoxious little buds.

The clipboard came closer, and I began to speak loudly at David, creating the illusion that we were in the middle of a conversation so passionate, so heated, that anyone who dared to interrupt would suffer great and humiliating scorn. Secretly, though, my shoulders hunched in defensive tension, bladder on the verge of explosion, I wanted her to try. I wanted an excuse to fly off the handle and attack a pushy, zealous-about-her-first-job-for-a-cause teenager.

If only I wasn't such a great actress. She backed away at the tone of my voice, buying my act. Or perhaps she had actually heard what I was saying to David -- my suggestions of equally annoying scenarios to present to anyone who interrupted me: "How about I storm into the restaurant where you're having lunch with a good friend and I say, 'Hey! HEY! Excuse me! Are you aware of the plight of the boll weevil? Now give me your name, address, and any money you've got on you!" I managed to keep up the rant for the remaining 30 or so steps to the hotel's entrance, where the smiling doorman was deftly denied the opportunity to earn a tip when we insisted on carrying our own bags.

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