One morning while commuting to work, I met one woman as we exited the bus, and on the escalator down she began chatting with me. Where do you work? She asked. What do you do? She asked. She was older, shorter than I, and made me think of my old high school English teacher. A loving person with a sweet temperament. She followed me down the escalator and as we walked and chatted, she revealed she worked in the building next to mine and did the same job pretty much. It did strike me as oddly coincidental.
The next morning, she’d gotten off the bus before me and waited. We walked the four or so blocks, masked and chatting, whatever crumbs we had to spare in our memories. She would stop at every corner, traffic or no, and look over at me, her eyes grinning cooly, unable to cross until the light changed. I quoted my father to her: “Damn the light, watch the cars. A light ain’t never ran over nobody.”
About the third day, I purposefully avoided her. For a couple of days I tried taking the earlier bus, getting me to work extra early and allowing me to write at least 40 or so minutes before the office starts filling and people begin mindlessly chatting. My closest neighbor on the other side of the partition will just stand up and start talking at me, mid-thought. I began to feel part of my job was just being present for people who needed to make noise.
And unfortunately, I felt unsettled having to be present before getting to the office. I felt mild resentment feeling responsible for my commuter friend. For having to talk and listen and be aware of another person while negotiating those blocks between the station and the office. The commute itself became part of an extended meditation, a 2nd leg of mindfulness after sitting for 20 minutes. And gradually what I became mindful of was growing agitation over my commuter wife. I felt resentful of what was swelling into a responsibility and habit. She is precious. I wish I had the personality to’ve grabbed her hand and ran us to the office as if we were late to our own wedding. But I began to hide from her. This is what you get, interacting and making contact with an introvert. I preferred the quiet, slow ramp up to my day. Part of the logic behind me getting to the office early, beyond being able to write uninterrupted for a while, is I don’t enjoy rushing and feeling crowded before getting to the office. I prefer to be the frog brought to a slow boil.
Its hard being in the present moment downtown, where every street, every building, ever boarded storefront connects to a memory of some kind. I remember myself like I were a stranger. What happened to me and everything I depended upon? I used to depend upon the delicatessen now shuddered like a haunted house. What happened to the stationery store that used to be here? Where are the friends I escaped to lunch with? At that restaurant we treated ourselves to lunch and some beers, then frantically chewed gum on the elevator as if that made us suddenly innocent. I spent so much money at this vitamin store, where I once snuck out of the office and got caught in a rain shower then had to help the only clerk working the place dust her counters for a few minutes until the rain let up. And what was that place where I’d buy wheatgrass and E-3 shots and what happened to their staff?
I’ve had a lot of awful, miserable days in the city, but there were a ton of laughs and love to be had. Where is any of it now? Pre-dawn downtown is a weird shell of its former self. A ghost town of long shadows and silence. Lunch is equally quiet and there are fewer options, so its salad or a sandwich, a shawarma or taco truck burrito. I have a weekly need for sugar and unfortunately discovered a cookie vendor a solid 15 minute walk from the office. The last time I attempted to go into the storefront, the woman standing just outside the door, I specifically chose not to look at because she was loudly smoking weed and almost appeared crazed out of the corner of my eyes. Was she gonna hit me up for change?. I pushed open the door, hearing her rudely scream to me back, “excuse me… EX-CUSE ME!” as I went inside. But she kept screaming and smoking and I turned and approached her and she said, “I’m on a ten minute break.” Then inhaled. I said nothing. I thought a lot of things. The mask and long walk made me sweat until my shirt pattern resembled a cow’s spots. There was no kindness within her, no consideration anywhere in her eyes. It was a Friday and I sweated and my 15 minute work out was all I got for lunch. She offered no taste of her joint and no sympathy either. I couldn’t wait. I walked straight back to work and sent an email to their corporate office, earning a $15 gift certificate and had cookies brought to me via Fed Ex. I didn’t mind the weed. The attitude, though. Turning down a customer, though. My cookies!! Sh*t!!
This was followed by another lunch where I went to the bank to get at least a roll of quarters. “I’m sorry, Mr Cagney,” she said, pitiful. “We don’t have enough quarters, they didn’t deliver enough change. Come back Friday.” That was Wednesday. When I returned Friday, mid-afternoon and mildly sweaty, she pouted immediately: “I’m sorry, Mr. Cagney…” but I couldn’t take no for an answer. I had to do laundry; I was out of masks, low on shirts.
“our quarters are for change only.” She said.
“So, what if I withdraw $20 from my account and ask for a ten dollar bill and one roll of quarters.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any full rolls of quarters…”
“Well, how about six dollars,” I said. Six would let me do 1 wash, 1 dry. When she hemmed and hawed over that, I said: “How about $3?” And next: “What you’re saying to me, is I should just order new clothes on Amazon and throw my old clothes out, unless I can get to Lake Merritt and wash them by hand with a rock.”
The teller didn’t laugh, just continued looking sad and apologetic and I realized I was begging. Begging to not leave this place until I had some quarters to at least do a half load. Maybe I’d hang clothes in my bathroom to dry them over the weekend. But I had to have something. I felt near a panic attack.
The Puerto Rican woman doing paperwork next to her, finally joined in, opened her cash drawer, and together – after what felt like 10 minutes of me standing there negotiating—they gave me six dollars’ worth of quarters. All taken out of their cash drawer counted four at a time.
I left there feeling hot and angry and a lot of things. That was the first time I ever begged anyone for quarters and I hated myself and I hated the process. I understood the shortage, the pandemic, how things have changed. But seriously: a bank? That I’ve been member of since … since? When they emailed me a customer survey, it would be the only survey I would ever fill out and for my low numbers and embarrassment I got a call from a customer service rep, whom I did not bother calling back. I didn’t want the weed smoking girl at the cookie store to get fired. I just remembered how friendly and loving and kind a lot of cashiers and workers were over the years. Where are they now? I didn’t want the bank teller chastised. I just wanted quarters without feeling like I didn’t deserve them. I came into this bank for years and always got loving service, but no more. While I was in the midst of begging for change, the teller had me fill out a bank credit card form. It felt like having to pay my own ransom. I was supposed to be grateful for my $6 worth of quarters. I left there thinking I was screwed. I would never step foot in that bank again, not even to burn it down.
The following week, I started laundry in my building, only to have washing machine #1 break down in the middle of the cycle. I knocked on the building managers’ door to a noisy then quiet silence, then emailed him and the landlord. I didn’t want to: the previous week, my refrigerator died and he just replaced it. Now I’m emailing him about broken washers (Did I do it?) and excusing myself telling him I could barely get enough quarters from the bank and don’t have enough to finish the load. That was Friday night and my clothes sat dirty, soapy water through Saturday. When he messaged back saying maybe the machine was probably too full and he promised to bring me quarters the next day, I gambled, and split half my load with the second machine using my last fistful of change…
Only to have the second machine break down without finishing the load. The landlord did bring me $3 worth of quarters and by Sunday morning, I took a handtruck and wheeled the sopping wet clothes a few blocks over to the nearest laundromat. I wondered if they too were out of quarters or would issue tokens. But by late Sunday morning my laundry had finished, the machines in my building would remain broken since the pandemic has made spare parts for anything impossible to get. I will probably never again step physical foot in that brick and mortar bank again, and begrudgingly I’ll have to use my laundry as a weekly work-out for a while. I was okay but there still hangs questions. What is going on in the world? Why does everything feel so tender and broken?