San Francisco on Black Friday

I didn’t mean to go shopping on Friday; I had thought that I might go out and get a few fresh vegetables, but my main plans were to write for a few hours and then to do a bunch of cleaning. Between work and writing and the basic rounds of parenting, including Martin’s visits to the psychiatrist and his blood tests for one of his medications, there hasn’t been a ton of time for cleaning.

But then on Thanksgiving, Pete asked me if I could help him meet up with his girlfriend who lives pretty far from here.  He hasn’t asked in quite a while, and seeing her usually involves driving five hours each way, so I was willing to do anything within reason. The plan had started out a little bit complicated. Because our house is both tiny and a mess, he wanted to meet her at my boyfriend’s house, which is bigger and much tidier than our apartment.  He also doesn’t have neighbors like we do at our apartment.  Our apartment has two floors, but the other units in the building are on one floor. So the first floor of the our place is next to a guy who spends part of his time yelling really loudly at his computer and another part having even louder sex with one or more girlfriends. I think most of this noise is directed at his upstairs neighbors, our second floor neighbors, who have two dogs: one big and one small, who spend a lot of the day growling and yelping when people approach the building.  Recently, they had a baby, so now there’s a two month old baby’s crying added to the mix.

None of this bothers Martin and Pete too much most of the time, because there’s a wide hallway between their bedrooms and the neighbor’s apartment. But when they became old enough that I thought that they each needed a room, I moved out onto the landing that extends beyond the staircase. It’s just wide enough that my bed fits with one end on the wall of Martin’s bedroom and the other end on the wall next to the neighbor’s apartment.  This was years before the neighbor had dogs or a baby or even the current girlfriend.

So anyway, Pete didn’t want to take her to our apartment…but after he’d gotten himself thoroughly wound up about the planning and missed a few hours of sleep and before the plan to take her to my boyfriend’s went into effect, he got another text that said they should meet in San Francisco and then he could Uber back. Now Pete is getting close to 18.  Perhaps some boys his age would have taken off on the train, and I would have heard about the adventure later, but Pete is really anxious like me, so he didn’t want to take BART, not even with me.  He wanted me to drive him. My boyfriend’s son and his girlfriend were at the house, and they were trying to tell us that it was crazy to drive in to SF on Black Friday, but I understood Pete’s feeling, so we hopped in the car and took off. Having a lot of extra people around would have made things just too much more intense.  We needed to be alone with this new plan.

“So where are we going?” I asked.

“I’m not quite sure yet,” he said, fidgeting madly with his phone. This is the sort of conversation we always wind up having when the two of them are making a plan. Finally he said, “It’s someplace called Union Square. Do you know where that is?”

“Union Square? I know where that is…I’m driving to frickin’ Union Square on Black Friday?”

“Sorry, Mom. I’ll get you the directions if that’ll help.”

“Oh my God, Pete, this is some sort of nightmare.  She’d better be really, really wonderful.”

“Uh, yeah. Uh huh. You’re going to exit the bridge on the right.”

At least we had a really nice time together, driving across the bridge and then driving in circles through the one way streets to get him to where I needed to drop him off. And then, right after I dropped him off, I saw a parking garage that miraculously was not already full, even though we’d arrived past noon, and the huge lot on Fifth and Mission was full already. I pulled across an entire empty street of the financial district to get to it.

So that’s how I wound up, an hour and some later, walking southwest to the shopping district of San Francisco on Black Friday.  I was looking for a bathroom, and the one in the coffee shop where I had been writing until they kicked me out, saying they were closing, said “Employees Only.” So I started walking down Market Street toward the huge mall at Fifth. I knew they had bathrooms there. The first couple of blocks were pretty empty, inhabited on Black Friday mostly by homeless people and smelling of urine. Starbucks and Bloomingdale’s weren’t going to welcome them in to use the facilities. As I’d come up from the garage, I’d found myself in the Galleria, one of the fancier sets of shops in the financial district, but most of them closed today. As I walked toward the opening on Sutter, I’d started to notice a bad smell, which did and didn’t register as I stopped to use my phone to look up directions. Someone had not only left a gigantic mound of feces right by the front signage, they’d left their underwear as well. Just a mess, or a protest of what this day did to the poorest?  Where would they normally go?

I kept going, and the crowds grew thicker and thicker with more and more stores open, at first just all kinds of drug stores side by side: CVS, then Walgreen’s, then Dollar Store. Then the stores started to run rapidly upscale, and I started to see police lounging around the sidewalks. I could smell the pot in the air, along with the sausages that were being sold by vendors every few feet. There was a band playing loudly at the corner of 4th and Market, and people were crowded around to listen.  Across the street was the intersection where people stood in line for the cable cars.

I had to really push to get into the mall, and I had a few moments of real anxiety, thinking that this was probably not the smartest place to be.  If there was someone who wanted to make a statement about their hatred of consumerist American culture, this would be a pretty perfect place to strike.  Perhaps that was why there were so many police in evidence everywhere.  Even if I hadn’t been nervous about that, I think I would have wanted to get out quickly.  I used to like to shop in malls when I was younger, but it was so loud and flashy in there. I just went upstairs and found a bathroom in the Bloomingdale’s and then I left. I was sort of amazed that I didn’t even want to go into one store, but all I wanted to do was leave.

Pete texted me an hour later, and I managed to drive around in circles, very slowly this time, until I saw him on the curb and honked, and he was able to come over and jump in, and we drove (still very slowly, the police working at each intersection to prevent total gridlock) to a place where we could turn and get out of the shopping district.  His girlfriend’s family had taken him to the Modern Art Museum, which the young people had all hated.  I should have thought to go there too. It was three or four blocks from the coffee shop where I’d been sitting.  I would have liked that a lot better than Bloomingdale’s. Still, it was fun spending time with Pete; we stopped on the way home and had Peruvian food for dinner.

Photo by Andrea Cau on Unsplash





happy holidays

We’re coming up on the holidays now, and I’ve been reading in a number of blogs that people are already feeling some trepidation and making plans not to have the awful times they’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve had really good holidays and really, really bad ones, both due to my own mental health issues and because my son’s illness was in a bad place (almost certainly mixed with where the rest of the family was, mentally-speaking, at the time).

My mother was the sort of person who used to cook her way through to the perfect holiday when I was a kid. There were years when we made ten kinds of cookies plus the fruitcake and then all of the ritual foods for the different days. When she started to drink more and more, and she started to say that she was too tired to cook, at first my younger sister and I just filled in and did the baking. But you can’t pretend forever that the person parked in the La Z Boy with the glass in her hand is the same person who used to take care of all of the holiday cheer.

I’d been dieting on and off since my early teens, since I spent my life reclining and snacking, reading and reading, and even then my metabolism sucked. So I’d periodically take my calorie intake to near zero and deal the system another death blow. When I got to be 18, I decided it was time to get serious and take this not eating thing long term. That’s when my weird eating became clinically disordered. I didn’t last long as an anorexic, but I learned about bulimia, and those behaviors lasted for many years. For many, many holidays after that I was calculating which stores were open (usually only the 7-11 on Christmas at that point, which shows you how old I am) and how I could get away without having to offer endless explanations, so I could buy Ex-Lax. These days it would be so much easier. I could say I was off to Black Friday. I hate Black Friday, but oh well. I was counting on those guys who were working Christmas back in the old days.

More recently, I’ve needed to sideline my issues, because my sons have needed so much of my attention. I see that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m so sorry that they have to suffer with mood disorders, and I’m glad that I can see well enough to drag myself out of focus on self. Martin has graduated from high school now, but one of the big stresses used to be that shift out of the rhythm of school and into the blank time of vacation. He’d always think that he wanted it, and he counted the days toward it, but once he was in that open space with no markers for what to do next, he’d flounder. Then as the beginning of school approached again, he’d get terribly anxious about going back. The anxiety was so intense that it made it hard for him to focus on the celebratory aspects of the holidays themselves. For Christmas, for example, when I would ask him what he wanted, he’d think of something, and then he would be in such a state of anticipation and anxiety about how long it was taking to get whatever it was, that Christmas became a state of pain for him. If I didn’t ask him, though, then invariably I’d get him something he didn’t really want, and he would be disappointed. Now that his younger brother is old enough, I’ve taken to asking him for ideas.

Pete, my younger son, tends already to be a pragmatist and a cynic. He’s got his own extreme anxieties to cope with and then he’s an expert at working with his older brother. When I’ve run out of patience and am ready to start yelling back at Martin (worst thing to do with a person with bipolar, or certainly with my son…it only escalates the situation), Pete steps in and deescalates the situation. Infuriates me when I’m feeling feisty, but it’s just what Martin needs. Fighting with his mother is not. Pete loves Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year, but it needs to be done just so. He has rituals that need to be adhered to to make it feel right. I like that he’s picked a day where nearly all the rituals have to do with food, because food is relatively easy, but then again, this is me, so food is never really easy. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years, so sitting next to an enormous bird is less than great. But I’ll do that for my sons. What’s growing even more problematic is that he wants Thanksgiving with his Mom and Dad. Every year I think, this is it. We separated so many years ago. I am not doing this again, and then there we are, performing Thanksgiving again. I love my sons so much, and this year my partner is going to be overseas, but I’m thinking this ritual seriously needs an overhaul.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt

anxiously conferencing

I’m just back from a few days on the East Coast where I feel like I was posing as someone who knew what they were doing at a large committee meeting. I reassured myself in advance that I didn’t have to do very much besides listen intently, but even that can be really hard in a room full of people you don’t know, who all appear to know what their roles are. Because this was my second year representing my group in California, I was pushing myself to get in there and be more social, and by about the second day I was exhausted.

When I was in graduate school, I had to take a fairly large number of classes before I could get to my oral exam and then start the process of writing my dissertation, which I felt quite confident that I could do. I knew that I’d never been much for talking in my undergraduate courses, but those had generally been fairly large, and I’d always assumed that things would change when I got into smaller discussions. Instead, I wound up starting grad school twice, once in Comparative Literature, thinking that I would be able to learn to read Japanese novels pretty quickly and coming up against my talent for forgetting Japanese characters pretty much as quickly as I learned them, and then in English, already feeling like a failure.

Starting in Comp Lit was hard, because it was right at the height of deconstructionism’s popularity, and my first seminar was with an instructor who adored the dense text: Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger…We spent our semesters digging our way through. I couldn’t say a lot about them, but I could write my way through and around. It was the Japanese that felled me. The woman in the department office listed the requirements for the master’s exam, and I knew that I would not be passing it any time in the near future. So I decided to go to Japan and see whether studying there would speed things up.

Japanese is really hard to read. So after a couple of attempts, I was admitted again to study English.  I had felt fairly comfortable in the department before, really liking the faculty and not paying all that much attention to my fellow students.

Grad school was different. The women around me were determined to show that they were the most brilliant, the most likely to go on to stunning faculty careers at big name schools.  They sat draped over their chairs in expensive clothes and made biting comments about the other students before and during class. The one time I did try to say something, the words literally became stuck coming out of my mouth, and the professor seemed to mock me as I tried to stammer to closure. I never made another attempt after that unless the class was very small or my place was set by some assignment. I’d never heard then of selective mutism, a form of anxiety that makes people unable to speak in certain settings. I’d come into class determined that the gaze of those women wouldn’t keep me from saying what I wanted to say, but then I found myself delaying and delaying, paralyzed by the thought of the sorts of things I’d heard them say about other people.

In Comp Lit I’d felt that I was making myself ridiculous by wearing colors while so many of the others were wearing all black. Here though, the judgements felt even more personal so that all I wanted to do was curl into my chair and become invisible. I’m not sure why I didn’t leave, but somehow I was too stubborn for that, even though the experience felt awful.

Most of the people at my conference this week were much kinder than the women in grad school, and I could talk to them easily over lunch, even if it’s hard to stand up and voice an opinion in front of the whole group. If nothing else, perhaps I am better at choosing what sort of environment is better for me to be in.