Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Mission Boy

Before I tell the story of the Mission Boy, I want to warn you all that my next several posts will probably be about this San Francisco trip. I have taken a bazillion pictures while I've been here, and I want to post things about a lot of them here. Of course, when I packed to come here, I didn't remember to bring the cable I need to download the pictures, so I won't start posting most of what I have to say about this trip until I get back to Seattle. But for now, I can tell you the story of the Mission Boy.

So the other day, I was walking down Mission, which is the main street through one of San Francisco's most bustling neighborhoods. The Mission is home to most of the city's Mexican and El Salvadorean grocery stores and restaurants. It is one of my favorite parts of the city, for SO many reasons. The food, the men, the diversity, the mariachi music, the murals (which I will show photos of later), the middle aged musicians in cowboy hats carrying guitars and accordions down the street... I love it all. So I was walking along, enjoying the warmth of the sun, which had finally decided to break through the San Francisco fog. Then I noticed that a little boy was following close behind me on a razor scooter. I looked back at him, and he grinned at me. He wouldn't pass me. He just kept following behind me. I shrugged and kept walking, forgetting about him, daydreaming about gorgeous, mustached accordion players in silver embroidered cowboy hats. Then the boy started scooting along beside me. We came to a crowded part in the sidewalk, right in front of an open-front produce store, and we both had to stop and wait for some people to move out of the way. It was then that the kid spoke to me. "You dropped that," he said, pointing at a quarter on the ground. "Really?" I asked him. I hadn't heard anything fall. I bent down to pick the coin up, but found it to be super-glued to the sidewalk. The little boy started laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall down. Then I started laughing. "That's pretty awesome, kid. You tricked me good!" He then told me that the produce store belongs to his father, and that gluing quarters to the sidewalk is his way of entertaining himself while his dad works. I looked up and sure enough, there was his dad standing near the front of the store, watching us with a smile on his face. I stood there for another five minutes or so talking with the kid. He was super friendly and playful, and really adorable. I felt happier talking with him than I had felt in a long time, which brings me to a point I want to make about this city. I have met the nicest people in San Francisco. People here have been so warm and friendly, no matter what neighborhood I'm in. I was befriend and hugged by adorable gay men at a drag queen show. An older Russian lady helped me pick out the best kind of food at a Russian deli. A jewelry artist on Haight Street just started walking with Minima and I out of the blue, telling us all about how to find a stone's axis when cutting gems. I find the people here to be more authentic, more spontaneous, and warmer than people in Seattle. Yes, I meet nice people in Seattle, too, but they don't just walk up to me on the street and start saying really nice, interesting, and sincere things to me. In this city, I feel like people aren't afraid, paranoid, distrustful, or cold. I didn't realize that a lot of people in Seattle are those things until spending this week here, and now I want to get to the bottom of it. What's wrong with Seattle? Why do people end up being so cold and isolated in Seattle? Don't blame it on the weather. San Francisco is often covered in cold gray fog for weeks or months on end, so I'm not going to accept rainclouds as a cop-out reason from Seattle.

Oh, and by the way, after I walked away from the Mission Boy, I looked back and saw him telling other passersby that they had dropped quarters. They all fell for it, bent down, tried to pick up the quarters, and then shuffled off quickly, looking embarrassed. The kid just grinned at me proudly when he saw me watching.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Not So Brave Girl

A lot of my friends think I am brave and outgoing, but they are sometimes surprised to find that I also have an introverted, shy, and even cowardly side. I have to deal with on a pretty regular basis. True, I am in many ways an extrovert, but I am also an introvert.

I am spending this week in San Francisco with my friend Minima, and we have been talking a lot about introverts. Not all introverts are hermits, misanthropes, or people who have social phobias. Some introverts are social, active in their communities, and have a large circle of friends, yet also experience days in which they are like cats hiding under a couch. I am definitely one of those types of introverts. I have a lot of friends, and I end up having warm conversations with strangers everywhere I go, but I am also scared of many things. I am terrified of talking on the telephone. I don’t like asking people for help finding something in a store. If I am visiting someone, I fear asking my hosts if I can use something in their house. I am afraid to ask friends for a ride home from somewhere. I am terrified of going to appointments, be it doctor’s appointments or lunch dates with friends. (This fear dissolves within a few minutes, but before the appointment, my hands shake, my intestines twist into knots, and I swear to myself that I would almost rather die than go through with it.) And I am terrified of taking public transportation in a new city, which brings me to my current stay in San Francisco.

Yesterday, Minima had to work, so I was on my own for the day to explore. Minima showed me how to get to the MUNI station and told me how use the turnstiles. As she explained it to me, I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll listen politely to her telling me this, but I’m just going to walk everywhere. No way in HELL am I getting on the bus system here by myself! What if I get lost? What if I look like an idiot because I don’t know where to put my money? What if I can’t figure out how much the fare is? What if I end up in that creepy suburb Colma where there’s nothing but cemeteries and floral shops?” So I vowed to just walk everywhere and to put off learning to use the transit system until my last day here, when I will have to use it to go the airport.

So I set out yesterday morning with an idea of some specific neighborhoods I wanted to visit. First, I wanted to go find the Russian delis in outer Richmond. Then I was going to explore the Mission to look for interesting coffee shops and Mexican grocery stores. I got out my map to plan my walking route. Then I realized that Minima’s neighborhood in the Sunset was pretty far from outer Richmond. I realized it was going to take me half the day to walk way out there, and that I probably wouldn’t have time to explore the Mission if I did it. But I really, really, really wanted to see the Russian neighborhood. So I took a deep breath and thought long and hard about my fear of unfamiliar transit systems. I thought about how when I first moved to Seattle, I chose to ride my bicycle in the rain for an entire year before I finally summoned the courage to learn how to use Seattle’s bus system. I thought of how bad that sucked. (Imagine wearing cold wet underwear and socks pretty much all the time.) I thought about how I stubbornly walked miles and miles in the miserable humid heat last summer in China, because I was too terrified of getting lost on the Chengdu bus system. (Because there is nothing more daunting than an unfamiliar transit system in another country.)

Then I thought about “bravery”. I am not a brave person. I am actually very cowardly. But I am a person whose desires are SO large that they dwarf my cowardice. My desires are so strong that I would probably chew my hands off out of restlessness if my they were denied. Yesterday, my desire was to eat Russian food. I wanted it SO bad that I finally headed toward the MUNI station, pretty much against my will, dragged by my desires. I walked toward the turnstiles, my hands shaking. I looked around to see if there were other people around to see anything idiotic I might do. And there were. (Most of them super hot Asian men.) I inched closer to the turnstiles, trying to act like I knew where I was supposed to put my money. A grandfatherly policeman gave me a curious look, cocking his head as if he were about to ask me if I needed help. Apparently, I looked like a lost blind mole, nosing about pitifully. When I finally did dare to actually step up to the turnstiles, I was for some reason surprised to find that they worked exactly as Minima had said they would. Yup, $2. Put it in the coin slot. That’s ALL you have to do. Transfer slip pops out the other side. No big deal. I felt a great sense of relief and headed over to wait for the train. Then I started feeling anxiety again, because I looked at the transit map and found that I only recognized two of the station names. But then I reminded myself that I had a map, that I wasn’t going to get lost, and that getting lost in a new place is a blessing anyway, because you find all kinds of interesting places you never would have found otherwise. So I got on the crowded train, feeling tense but not panicked. Then some kind of weird alarm started going off (it seemed there was something wrong with the train’s sliding doors), and that made my anxiety spike again. What’s that noise? What does it mean? What’s going on? What if we’re stuck here? What if, what if, what if… And then there was this frazzled looking Vietnam vet standing in front of me, and his arm was uncomfortably close to my face as he held the hand pole. A woman sitting in a seat to my left had really greasy, matted hair, and that made me feel anxious, I’m not sure why. A younger guy to my right was standing way too close to me. I wanted off that train as soon as possible.

Finally the alarm stopped going off and the train began to move. More and more people got on at each stop, and my anxiety increased. Finally, I just got off at the first stop that sounded familiar, even though it was way too early, because I just couldn’t handle being on the train any longer. But even though I didn’t stay on the train for long, something about being on it for just that short ride increased my confidence in my ability to use the transit system all by myself. By the end of the day, I had taken several different buses around the city to all kinds of far-flung places. I found (surprise, surprise) that the buses work exactly like the buses do in Seattle. In fact, they were even more straightforward, because most of them run in straight lines along a grid, unlike the convoluted routes in Seattle. I had no problems at all. I didn’t get lost, and I was able to visit so many places in one day. In short, forcing myself to do what I was scared of was good for me.

This experience reminds me of a childhood memory. My tiny hometown didn’t have much in the way of restaurants or other businesses, so on special days, my mom would drive my brother and I half an hour to a bigger town and we would go to Taco Bell. After eating lunch, we would beg my mom to buy us those Taco Bell cinnamon twists for dessert. She would agree to it, but told us, “You have to order by yourselves if you want them. I’ll give you the money, but you have to go order.” But both my brother and I were terrified of talking to strangers, especially adults. We would whine and beg my mom to order for us, but she wouldn’t. Finally, our desire for cinnamon twists would eventually cause us to drag our feet up to the counter, fighting with each other the whole way up over which of us would talk to the cashier. I think this was one of the best things my mom ever made us do. We thought she was mean at the time, but in the end, it turned out to be good for us. I think it is because of what I learned at Taco Bell that I was able to take the transit system around San Francisco alone.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Apple Pie

I live in a neighborhood that has a lot of South Korean immigrants, which makes sense, since I am married to a South Korean and live with my South Korean in-laws. As I wander my neighborhood, I am fascinated by the cultural differences between the first and second-generation Koreans I see. It is usually pretty easy for me to tell the difference between the two, before I even talk to them. Well, at least when it comes to the men. I can’t tell the difference as quickly with women, though that probably has more to do with the fact that I don’t pay much attention to women. (One difference I have noticed is that first-generation women are a lot more likely to be wearing gigantic Burberry sun visors.) When it comes to men, here are the most striking differences I see in second-generation Koreans: They often walk with a swagger that is much more American than Korean. They sometimes have pierced ears, with gigantic faux diamond studs. Their haircuts are often wilder than first-generation men—mohawks, faux hawks, or LOVELY long, wispy cuts. (Mmmmm mmmm!) Second-generation men are also much more likely to have tattoos. It is rare to see first-generation men with tattoos. When I was first dating my husband, he told me, “Only gangsters have tattoos in Korea.” (The first time I met his mother, he made me agree to wear a long sleeve shirt to cover my tattoo, even though it was during the hottest days of summer.)

I have noticed recently that the tattoos on second-generation men reflect more Korean patriotism than I have ever seen first-generation men exhibit. Some have tattoos of the Korean flag. Others have the flag above the words “대한민국” (which is the formal name of South Korea in Korean, and translates literally to “The Great Korean People’s Nation”). I saw one fellow recently who had gigantic arm muscles, and on one of his upper arms a giant tattoo read “한국” (the shortened form of 대한민국) in gigantic, computer font style script.

I am really fascinated by this patriotism. Most of the second-generation kids I tutor express more patriotic loyalty to Korea than to The United States, even though most of them have spent no more than a couple of weeks or months in Korea. Most of them cannot even write or form grammatically correct sentences in Korean. Most are probably able to navigate American culture with more ease than they could Korean culture. But alas, their loyalties lie with Korea!

I think this is similar to Americans with Scottish ancestors who walk around wearing kilts and bragging about their clan tartans. Except in those cases, many more generations have usually passed. Second-generation Koreans still grow up with a strong connection to their ancestors’ food, spoken language, history, and culture. So I think that a tattoo reading “대한민국” seems much more meaningful on a second-generation Korean’s arm than a kilt does on some guy whose ancestors came from Scotland two hundred years ago.

But who am I to say? My ancestors come from so many different countries that I wouldn’t even know how to begin expressing pride in my heritage. I would feel like an impostor if I did try, because I have such little blood from any one people.

Wait… I think that means…I’m…AMERICAN!

Happy Birthday, Gomonim!

My husband and I just returned from attending his aunt’s 74th birthday party. In Korean culture, the older a person gets, the bigger a deal is made out of their birthday. (And rightfully so, don't you think?) Nineteen people and one very small white dog were in attendance at this party. When my husband and I arrived, his father, uncle, and male cousins had already emptied several green bottles of soju liquor at the dining room table, and the women were laying out Thanksgiving-size quantities of food in the kitchen. This included two rice makers full of rice, several types of spicy cold seafood salads, sliced acorn jelly seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil, a pot of yook gae jang (a spicy beef soup with fiddlehead fern shoots, garlic, green onion, and other delicious stuff), a plate full of brightly colored rice cakes (each one filled with sweet red bean paste), a huge platter of fresh fruit, a bowl of malted rice punch (this stuff is AWESOME. In Korean, it’s called “sheek hae”), and...a bowl containing...the most salad I have EVER seen in my life. At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure of its contents, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I would get to examine it more thoroughly.

One of my husband’s aunts motioned me over to her. She and I have a special bond, probably because she is the only one of my husband’s older relatives who is fluent in English. Well, it’s more than that, actually. We bond over other things, too. We both are obsessed with reading. We both prefer to let our husbands do the cooking. Those kinds of things.

When I walked over to her, she started looking at all of the buttons on my purse (most of which come from two sources: San Francisco’s Tanya Madoff Designs and local Seattle artist, Heidi Estey, whose work is sold at Gargoyles Statuary in Seattle’s University District). One of the buttons (from Tanya Madoff Designs) features one of those classic Catholic Mary images. Now, my husband’s aunt happens to be a pretty strong Presbyterian, and she was curious about why I had a Catholic button on my purse. I told her that such images have become a pop culture thing in America, so lots of non-Christians can be seen sporting Mary accessories. “In Korea, that image is Catholic, not Christian,” she said. “But Catholics ARE Christian,” I said. She took my answer to mean that I was totally ignorant to the history of the Protestant Reformation, so she told me the story. “Yeah, but Catholics are still Christian,” I said when she finished, thinking to myself how funny it was that I, an agnostic, was sitting here defending Catholicism. She didn’t say anything, just stared at me, so I continued. “They believe in Jesus and The Bible, so in English, we call them Christian.”

I think my stubbornness kind of annoyed her. “Whatever!” she said, and started looking at some of my other buttons. The next one she asked me about was one that came from Planned Parenthood. It features a coat hanger inside a red circle with a big red line crossing it out. “What does that mean?” she asked. Oh GOD, I thought. This is NOT going anywhere simple, is it? So I answered her in the only way a person like me knows how. “Well, coat hangers are what women used to give themselves abortions back when abortion was illegal, and a lot of them died because of it.” Her eyes got big, and I thought it was because she was probably opposed to abortion, but then she said, “I had never heard that before. That is really sad.” Then she pointed at a button (from Tanya Madoff Designs) that reads “I love public transportation”. “You take the bus?” she asked. I told her that I do, and she said, “The world needs more people like you.” At that point, my husband walked passed us and said to her with a grin, “No it doesn’t. She’s crazy!” She laughed and kept looking at the buttons. “Why do you have so many with pictures of black animals?” she asked. She was talking about the buttons (from Heidi Estey and Gargoyles) showing winged cat silhouettes, black cats on bicycles, bats, spiders in webs, and crows. “In Korea, we don’t like gamagi,” she said. (Gamagi=crow) Thankfully she didn’t ask me about two other pins (both from Tanya Madoff Designs), one of which reads “Petite Salope”, the other of which reads “I love porn”, with the word “porn” spelled out in sign language alphabet hands! And though I am sad about the recent loss of another Tanya Madoff button that read “Chronic Masturbator” (it got snagged on something and was ripped off my purse), I think that in this moment I was actually thankful! I can just IMAGINE excessively honest me explaining my masturbation habits to my husband’s aunt. (But I will be buying a new one of those buttons from Tanya while I’m visiting San Francisco this week.)

By the time she had finished scrutinizing my buttons, dinner was ready, and one of my husband’s family members (the pastor who officiated our wedding three years ago) said a very, very long Korean prayer. Then we all formed a line and started dishing up our food, buffet style, which is not the usual Korean way. Most Korean meals have all the food in the center of the table, and everyone takes from the food communally with chopsticks. But with so many people, that is not feasible.

At the back of the line, I waited eagerly, half because I was, as always, super hungry, and half because I could not WAIT to find out what was in that fruit salad. When I at last sat down with my loaded plate and gave the fruit salad a proper dissection, here is what I found: perfect half moons of thin-sliced apple (no one can cut fruit and vegetables more beautifully than Koreans), cubes of mango, raisins, chopped cucumber, whole raw chestnuts, pieces of imitation crab meat, and spiral pasta—all held together with a generous coating of mayonnaise.

And you know what? It was one of the best fruit salads I’ve ever eaten!

On the left, art by Heidi Estey, on the right, one of Tanya Madoff's button designs.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Puppy Soup

One of my favorite students is a high school girl from South Korea. When I tutor her, it is more like chatting with a younger sister. She is a bright, outgoing, and funny girl. Each week, I give her a list of vocabulary words, and she uses them to write sentences, which I correct the next time I see her. Her sentences are hilarious, and are usually about her classmates’ antics or her family’s vicious white lapdog, Sweety, whose best talents are vomiting and biting visitors.

The other night, this girl and I were talking about her experiences in her American high school. We got on this topic because we were trying to figure out if the term “fob” is less offensive to Asian immigrants of her generation than it is to those of older generations. This girl has lived in the United States for a few years now, and she told me how she sometimes feels embarrassed by some of her classmates who immigrated more recently from Korea.

“One day this one fob guy told the class about how Koreans eat dogs, and I was SO embarrassed!” she told me.

“Well, I tried dog meat in Korea, and it’s pretty good!” I said, and her eyes got big with surprise. Even she has never tried dog meat.

Then I told her that she doesn’t have to be embarrassed, because every country in the world has food preferences that other countries would call gross or immoral. I gave her some examples, such as how in France, they eat horsemeat, and many Americans think that’s wrong. Or how in America, we eat catfish, which are poop-eating bottom feeders, and in Sudan, eating catfish is considered DISGUSTING. I also told her about the things my Okie father ate when he was growing up. Snakes, frog legs, and god only knows what else. From what I’ve been told, if my dad and his brothers could shoot it, they ate it.

Then I asked her if she had heard of Rocky Mountain Oysters. “Rocky Mountains… that’s in Canada, right?” she asked. I pulled an atlas out of my bag and traced out the Rockies through Canada and the United States. I pointed at the portion in Colorado and told her, “That’s where I’m from. That’s where I watched Rocky Mountain Oysters being made when I was a child. But as you can see, Colorado is very far from the ocean. So can you guess where the oysters come from?” She looked puzzled. “Well, you see, we have a lot of bulls there. You know, boy cows. And we…” “No!!!!!” she exclaimed, realizing where I was going with this. “Ohhhhhhhh yes!” I said. “But don’t worry, I never tried them. I just watched farmers dropping them into buckets after they cut them off.” At first she looked horrified, and then she started laughing.

So now my dear student has a great defense if American kids are judgmental about Korean meat preferences! (Sure, Koreans might eat dog meat, but Rocky Mountain Oysters?!)

Does Trevor Johnson believe this is art, or is he just messing with us?

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Seattle coffee shops display and sell local art. Right now, the works of one Trevor Johnson adorn the walls of Zeitgeist Coffee, located near Seattle’s Pioneer Square and International District. Mr. Johnson apparently works in Styrofoam. His art consists of chunks of it glued together and painted various solid colors, as seen in this image taken with my not-so-great cell phone camera:

The pieces are labeled “Flotsam Red”, “Flotsam Blue”, etc. Price tag on each: $150.

Okay. I have respect for experimental art, writing, photography, music, and cinematography. I think it’s great when people go out on a limb and try something that’s never been tried before. But somehow, I’m not feeling much respect or awe for “Flotsam Green” and “Flotsam White”. Maybe if they were priced at, say, $15 each, and maybe if there were some sort of meaningful explanation posted, saying, “These are beastly chunks of Styrofoam I found floating in the Puget Sound, and I have made art from them to bring awareness to the human effect on the environment. All proceeds go to Puget Sound cleanup efforts!” then maybe I would feel different. But I don’t think this is an environmental statement. The unpainted parts of the Styrofoam look very white and clean. They don’t look to have ever floated alongside kelp and jellyfish in the Puget Sound. On an artistic level, I don’t think it took a lot of skill to glue this Styrofoam together and give it thick coats of acrylic paint. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Mr. Johnson is making fun of Seattle. Maybe he is saying, “Let’s see if some latte-drinking dumbass will actually pay $150 for a bunch of painted Styrofoam chunks. Or maybe there’s some deeper meaning that is just too profound for my mind to grasp. Maybe Mr. Johnson is a genius and I just can’t see it.

Monday, July 19, 2010


When I first started reading Nabokov’s Lolita, I had no idea it would be one of the funniest books I have ever read. I heard a lot about Lolita before reading it, so there were some things I knew already. I knew it would be beautiful. I knew it would twist my sympathies until I was rooting for the very type of criminal I would normally want to string up by the ears. I knew the vocabulary would be difficult. But I had no idea that the book would be HILARIOUS.

Imagine me, exercising like a gerbil on the elliptical machine at the gym, holding my 1977 paperback edition of the book. Its cover is adult-video-store-window black, the word “LOLITA” spelled out in fiery orange and yellow caps on the front. White men in their sixties see me reading it from where they sit on the exercise bikes, and they take it as an invitation to leer at me. An uptight soccer mom does a double take when she sees it and then shakes her head like she is trying to erase Nabokov’s existence from the Etch-A-Sketch in her mind. But I’m not paying much attention to any of these people, because I’m laughing so hard every few lines that I’m choking on my own saliva, nearly losing my balance on the elliptical machine.

The book is so hilarious because of the way the narrator addresses people and objects in his mind. When a convenient accident occurs, he doesn’t just call it “coincidence”. He calls it “the long hairy arm of Coincidence”. He gives fate the nickname “McFate” and talks about it like it’s some chap hanging out in a bar. Since the narrator is entirely uninterested in grown women, when one flirts with him, he tells the reader, “Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare.” When he contemplates drowning Lolita’s mother during an outing to the lake, he makes humorous use of parenthesis, saying, “So there was Charlotte swimming on with dutiful awkwardness (she was a very mediocre mermaid), but not without a certain solemn pleasure (for was not her merman by her side?)…”

And so Lolita joins Samuel Beckett’s Molloy on the list of most unexpectedly hilarious books I have ever read.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Coffee Shop Culture: A Diary

There are four coffee shops I pretty much live at. (Well, five, really, but the fifth one is kind of a duplicate, so I won’t mention it.) They are as follows: Caffe Ladro in Lynnwood (north of Seattle), The Spotted Cow in Mill Creek (also north of Seattle), and two coffee shops in Seattle’s University District: Cafe Solstice and Sureshot Espresso. The differences between the four intrigue me. True, they are all manifestations of typical yuppie Seattle coffee culture, which I am definitely guilty of indulging in. They all serve lattes and organic or fancy loose leaf teas. But each one is shaped by the unique culture of its neighborhood. Here are my impressions:

Caffe Ladro: It is 2PM. I am killing time here while I wait for my pal Arugula to get off work at the bookstore down the street. Ladro’s manager is discussing the day’s trivia question, written on a whiteboard at the register, with the customer in front of me. The trivia topic: “Name a U.S. president who was NOT born a U.S. citizen.” (No, the answer is not Obama.) When it’s my turn to order, I ask for an Earl Grey (in a “for here” cup, of course). As she prepares it, the manager tells me that business is slow during the summer. This is because Edmonds Community College students are their main clientele base, and not many students take summer classes. I manage to not spill my tea as I walk to my seat, thinking of how much I love the manager at Caffe Ladro. We probably have nothing in common, but I love her because she seems to have a sincere sense of honor. This is hard for me to explain, because I have met very few people like this in my life. One of them is my friend Cassiopeia, whose ideas of honor have been influenced by martial arts training since she was a child. Caffe Ladro’s manager reminds me a lot of Cassiopeia. I can FEEL that she tries to always be fair to people. I can see that she tries her best in whatever she does. She is helpful and pleasant with her customers, even when they make outrageous demands. Even when I can tell she’s having a stressful day. I also like her because she doesn’t care what people think of her music taste. She hooks her I-Pod to the Ladro speakers, and customers are treated to Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Pavarotti, Madonna, The Wallflowers, Josh Groban, and that “Waltzing Matilda” song. Some of the music makes me cringe, but I respect this woman so much that I develop a sort of fondness for it, so I stick it out. I sit there until 4:45PM, typing up math homework for my students. Then I pack up my things to go meet Arugula, smacking my head, as always, on one of the the low-hanging light fixtures, which look like gigantic clusters of heavy glass grapes. (Someday I will remember those things are hanging there?)

The Spotted Cow: It is 8AM. I have just finished working out at the gym and am now undoing all my hard work by eating an Affogato (ice cream with a shot of espresso poured on top) for breakfast. This coffee shop is very much a family place, selling both coffee and ice cream (including bubble gum flavor). Generically quaint local artwork is for sale on the walls. Baby pajamas by a local designer can be purchased as well. Cherubic toddlers shriek for their mothers’ attention from behind the gate of the indoor play area. One child is especially shrill, and her mother does nothing about it. The kid screeches like an angry buzzard every time Mommy speaks a sentence to an adult. I sit there scowling, wondering if there is something wrong with me for not finding this kid to be the slightest bit cute. Up at the counter, a little boy has just walked up to place an order. “I’m alone!” he announces to the barista. (Man, don’t let that child near a kidnapper!) At the large table behind me, a college youth group is having a Bible study, and they pray loudly over Shakira singing, “There’s a she-wolf in the closet…” Meanwhile, the obnoxious child in the play area has not stopped shrieking. I finally lose patience and walk up to the mother. “Can you do something about your kid?” I ask. Mommy blinks at me daftly, as if she’s been wearing earplugs this whole time. Then she realizes what I am talking about and does a half-ass job of hushing the little newt. I sit back down, and a man at a nearby table thanks me for saying something to the woman. Apparently I’m not the only one who isn’t charmed by the brat.

Cafe Solstice: I walk in at 10AM. Grad students and professors wearing “Ivy hats” are diligently poring over their scholars’ books. I try to decide if I want a Mate Ole (yerba mate tea mix) or a Whipper Snapper (peppermint and hibiscus mix). I am camping out here all day. I don’t think the staff minds since I buy something every other hour, to my husband’s eternal annoyance. (“Why can’t you just go to a library?” he asks. "It's about the ATMOSPHERE," I say.) This is the coffee shop where my friends and I hold our weekly writing group. Write Club doesn’t start until 6PM, but sometimes I show up hours early and work on typing up tutoring materials for my students. Solstice is a comfort place for me. It is just one block west of UW’s campus, so when I was still in school, I would come here at 6:30AM on exam days to study frantically. Espresso and anxiety gave me the adrenaline rush needed to memorize 100+ Chinese characters in the span of two hours on those wretched mornings. My favorite morning barista from those days happens to be working now. He is a guy that I actually thought hated everyone on the planet when I first started coming here. He impresses me because he manages to complete transactions without uttering so much as a grunt to his customers. He always looks tired and in need of a shave. His hair is kind of shaggy and his eyes are piercingly observant. In his presence, I feel like a worm. So it might seem a little surprising that I’ve had a crush on him for years. But he’s just so bristly with everyone that I have never bothered to talk to him. (The afternoon baristas tell me that he’s just shy.) Above his head, a string of red chili pepper lights hang, contrasting beautifully with the brick-red and olive-green walls. The oh-so-Seattle ambiance is perfected by the current month’s art show on the walls. The photographer is Amy Godfrey, and she has created a wonderful series of photos with captions. Her grandmother is the star of the images. Here is my favorite from the series, with its caption below it.

"Your grandfather might have been good to you but he was a RAT! He was a mama's boy. His mother hated me because I wasn't a Jew!"
(You can see the rest of the series here.)

Music marks the passing of hours at Solstice. By my third Mate Ole, I have heard The Beatles, Quasimoto, Fever Ray, M.I.A., Beirut, St. Vincent, and Neko Case, and the afternoon baristas have arrived. On one barista’s arms, beautifully tattooed silhouettes of crows and tree branches wind enchantingly over wiry muscles. I could stare at him for hours. Another barista is a stout guy with an impressive mustache. (Yes, if you haven’t figured out by now, I am kind of obsessed with mustaches. But only the really amazing ones.) The third barista is a tall and twig-thin girl with hair dyed sangria red. I suspect she has a cold and delicate handshake. The fourth is a pleasant fellow who often wears big stocking caps, and whose photography is also sometimes on display at Solstice. (You can see his website here.) I am pretty sure he thinks we Write Club folks are crazy, but he is nice enough to pretend he likes us!
By 5:30, my Write Club buddies start filing in. This is the high point of my week.

Sureshot Espresso: It is 9AM, cold, and rainy, and I am ordering a warm, creamy white-coffee latte—made from coffee beans that are only partially roasted and taste nothing like regular coffee—from one of the long-haired, black t-shirt wearing baristas. The music shuffles between Sonic Youth, Mazzy Star, Cocorosie, and dark industrial bands I’ve never heard before. Even though Sureshot is just a few blocks north of Solstice, it is a totally different kind of place. While Solstice attracts all the scholar and artist types that hang out on the south part of University Way—known for some reason as “The Ave”—Sureshot’s patrons are chess players and the comic book reading goth and punk kids that hang out on the north part of The Ave. People less naive or more fearful than myself might classify some of Sureshot’s patrons as “Ave Rats”. Many are rough-looking kids in their teens and twenties who congregate year-round in front of nearby Pagliacci’s Pizza with their pittbulls, joints, and cigarettes. I don’t know if it’s Sureshot that sustains the Ave Rats or if it’s the Ave Rats that sustain Sureshot, but they seem to live symbiotically. Personally, I have no problem with the Ave Rats. My pal Augustin avoids them at all costs, but I think they’re probably harmless. A little boisterous, sure, but I’ve never seen them do anything worse than make catcalls at passersby. (However, Wikipedia more or less calls them criminals.) On this particular day, one Ave Rat sits at a public computer checking his email. He is wearing a long black coat and his pittbull sleeps at his feet. The walls behind the computer are painted a dark maroon. On the couch beside the computer, a middle-aged homeless man sips a drip coffee and tries in vain to engage other customers in conversation. Two men in their late thirties play chess at one of the center tables. I set my bags down on a small side table, which has an old arcade game built into it. (The tabletop is a piece of glass placed over the game’s screen.) I walk up to the counter and ask one of the baristas for the restroom key. As I walk through the back room, I see an older man playing one of the pinball machines. I swear, that man lives next to that machine. He is there every time I go to Sureshot, no matter what time of day it is. In the restroom, the walls are black with wild cartoon murals painted across them. I imagine the cartoons are like L.A. graffiti. A big empty cartoon speech bubble on the wall next to the sink has been left blank, and there is a bucket of sidewalk chalk for people to write a message inside. Someone has written: “Two options for BP executives. 1. Life without parole. 2. Skinny-dip in The Gulf.”

Yeah, I support either of those options.

Wicked Game

Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” is the sexiest song I’ve ever heard in my life. I’ve probably listened to it a million times and I still think so. For years, I’ve had this ridiculous “Wicked Game” fantasy. The kind of fantasy that goes nowhere, really. There is a man driving through the desert (The Mojave? The Gobi?), and he is listening to “Wicked Game”. He speeds nonstop through the night because I’ve driven him mad and he can’t sleep. It has been forty-three hours since he’s had a shower, and he smells mmmmm mmmmm manly. He has a mustache that would make Lu Xun and Eugene Hutz sick with envy. He is traversing the desert, looking for me, but I am nowhere he’ll ever find. I am swinging from magic peach trees in the clouds. I am in Kiev, dancing in a circle of boisterous Ukrainian musicians. I am studying tantric Buddhism in the mountains of Tibet.

He’ll have to make space-time leaps if he ever wants to track me down.

(If you’ve never heard “Wicked Game”, go watch this video, which is even more ridiculous than my fantasy, and which might be the one thing that has ever made this song lose sexiness in my mind!)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Last Night Out With Orange Clouds

Orange Clouds is my childhood best friend. She recently moved back to our home state, but before she left, we had a girls’ night out, just the two of us. We ordered the darkest beers on the menu Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood at a bar where couples with perfectly bland lives sat at little candlelit tables, planning their perfectly bland futures. We downed our beers as fast as we could and then headed up Queen Anne hill. I could barely stagger up the hill, I was laughing so hard. Orange Clouds was telling me how she had once been tricked into going on a date with a Polish WWII veteran who lived in her apartment building. “Did he…did he…” I gasped, literally doubled over laughing. “Did he close his eyes when he tried to kiss you?” Orange Clouds looked at me with that mischievous fire in her eyes that I adore so much. “Do you honestly think I was paying attention to his eyes?” she asked. “I mean, when a ninety-three year old man is coming toward you, lips puckered for a kiss, about all you can think of is dodging it!”

It took us a while, but we finally made it to the top of the hill. There was a blues band playing at a bar we decided to go into. We pushed our way through a crowd of melted Barbie doll women in their forties—most of which were trying to sidle up to the black men in the crowd—and then through a group of South American guys who had just attended a Sounders game. Half an hour later we were dancing with an older Vietnamese woman who seemed to be homeless, and who was wearing a floppy denim hat.

And then we encountered the douche bags. The first was this arrogant middle-aged man who was very Italian looking, and who was dancing flamboyantly with his shirt unbuttoned halfway so that everyone had to look at his hairy chest. He was prancing all the way around the room, grinding up against every man and woman he passed. He thought he was hot shit, and all the desperate, bleach blonde middle-aged women loved him, but everyone else in the bar looked really uncomfortable. He got to us, and we jumped behind a table and hid from him. We thought we were safe, but then he went on a second round through the bar. Now by this point we had had enough to drink that I was not feeling shy at all. He had been wearing a strand of silver plastic Mardi Gras beads earlier in the night, and he was now twirling them high in the air on his finger. I jumped up, snatched the beads, and attempted to toss them out into the crowd, hoping that he would go fetch them. But I tossed them too high and they got stuck in a ceiling fan. (For the rest of the night, they just spun around and around on the fan blade.) He got really pissed off and started yelling at Orange Clouds and me, calling us "ugly lesbians". She and I just kept dancing. I gave him a toothy grin and a thumbs-up. Some of the people around us started laughing, but all the desperate middle-aged women glared at me like I had ruined the whole party.

So that was the first memorable guy we encountered. Then later, toward the end of the night, there was a guy from Bellevue (Microsoft Land, east of Seattle) who tried to put the moves on Orange Clouds while I was in the bathroom. I came back and he had just bought her a Bud Light. He was trying to stroke her ass, and she was cornered up against a waist high wall. I came and stood next to her, and he started trying to grab both of our asses! We kept wriggling away, saying really sarcastic and insulting things to him, which just seemed to make him like us more. (Vomit.) I told him I was married and he didn’t even hear it. He was pretty trashed and he leaned in close to me with that groggily serious facial expression only drunk people get. “You know, I just bought a new motorcycle the other day,” he began, and launched into a self-praising story about all the money he makes in Bellevue. I leaned over the half wall, picked up a saltshaker from a table, and started salting my boobs while he was talking. He didn’t miss a beat in his conversation, but he was starting to sound hurt that I wasn’t listening to him. Then I started salting him and Orange Clouds laughed so hard she had to crouch down on the floor to keep from wetting her pants. He gave up on trying to tell his story. Instead, he started telling us we were pretty, so I told him, "Sorry, dude, we only dig yellow cock." Then he started speaking REALLY BAD Chinese, like that was going to get him in the door! He told me he does business in Taiwan (he's in it just to pick up tiny Asian chicks, I could just tell). I told him in Chinese that his Chinese sucks, and he got offended. Then he asked for Orange Cloud's phone number, after kissing her wetly on the cheek, and Orange Clouds gave him our old disconnected phone number from when we lived together six years ago. Then he told us he was going to go get his friend to introduce to us, so as soon as he walked away we went and hid in the bathroom for a while and then snuck out the door and went back to her apartment.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Invisible Girlfriends

Today I took a bus to Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood to meet with two wonderful kids that I tutor. I really like taking that bus because of the fascinating mix of people who ride it: Tiny elderly people in sunhats speaking Vietnamese and Cantonese. Somalian women with long pretty headscarves. Central American and Mexican men carrying heavy suitcases or grocery bags. And a diverse handful of Americans. Today, the bus was especially crowded. I sat in a spot at the very back, in a tiny open space between two men with large bellies. The man on my left wore thick glasses and had an intense, psychopathic stare, which was thankfully aimed at no one in particular. The man on my right had his arm draped across the back of my seat. As soon as I sat down, he looked at me and said (in a strange high-pitched voice), “Well! My girlfriend’s sitting next to me!” Oh dear. I should have just stood in the aisle. “Is your girlfriend invisible?” I asked. “Did I squash her when I sat down?” He chuckled obnoxiously, and I stared at my lap, vowing to ignore him. He looked at my laptop case. “You’ve got a laptop, huh?” he asked. “Yup,” said I. “Is that the best kind?” he asked. “I have no idea,” I said. “My HUSBAND bought it for me.” “Ooooooh,” said the man.

Fortunately, he got off at the next stop. As he left, he said, “Well, Oddy, time to go.” Oddy? Am I Oddy? Then he waved at me, and what he said next seemed to be, “Bye, Naughty!” Naughty? Oddy? This man had a very strange voice. It was hard to tell. When he left, I scooted over, away from the guy with the stare, thinking, “Oh, how I love the public bus system!” And really, I do. My life would be so much less entertaining without it.

Grouchy Chef

(Some of my friends have already read this, but I thought I would post it here anyway.)

Oh, people, do I have a restaurant for you! This place is called Grouchy Chef, and specializes in French cuisine. It is located in an industrial part of Mukilteo, Washington, and is owned and operated by Mr. Takayuki Masumoto, a solemn-faced man with stern dark eyebrows and graying hair. If you didn’t know the restaurant was there, you would probably drive right by it. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be driving in that neighborhood in the first place, unless, like my friend Matt, you work for the engineering firm Electro-Impact, whose buildings can be seen from the Grouchy Chef parking lot. One might in fact mistake the building that Grouchy Chef is located in for another one of Electro-Impact’s ugly warehouse-style buildings if it weren’t for the tiny sign bearing the red faced Grouchy Chef logo on the side. When you walk up to the door, you see typed signs posted that read “Reservations Only” and “No Outside Food, No Outside Beverages, No Muddy Shoes, No Flip Flops”. When you walk in the door, you will see a quaint, dimly lit restaurant interior with little candles on every table. Takayuki Masumoto will growl, “What’s your name?” at you from where he is cooking behind the counter. If you don’t have a reservation, you will be curtly turned away.

You will be seated with menus, but you must go up to the counter to order, and you must prepay, cash only. Takayuki Masumoto will be buzzing around, doing all the cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, telephone answering, and table waiting by himself. While you wait for your meal, you can go over to the wall and read the typed signs and manifestos Takayuki Masumoto has posted there. One advertises the Grouchy Chef t-shirts and baseball caps that are for sale. It asks you to not touch or try on any of the items, and tells you that all money donated for these items goes to cancer research, in memory of Takayuki Masumoto’s sister, who died in ’88 from cancer. Another sign lists the etiquette expectations for the restaurant. The rules include things like: Don’t touch the dishes and silverware on other tables. If you use a napkin to blow your nose, you need to dispose of it in the bathroom wastebasket. You should take advantage of the provided knife and napkin for civilized eating. Prepare to deal with the consequences should you let your children run around and destroy things. Don’t stick chewing gum to the bottom of the plates. (He also advises you that chewing mint gum before a meal can interfere with your ability to enjoy the flavor of the food.)

Another sign reads “No tipping to the chef, please”. Another tells you that you as an American are probably already well educated on the legal rights of an individual, and you should therefore know that you need to respect his by not taking photographs in his restaurant. Another sign states that if you don’t like the food, you had better tell him to his face, and he will refund your money. Then you’d better find someone else to cook your food for you.

Then there are his manifestos, each of which take up two full typed pages. One is on Japanese-US relations, and how they relate to you and him personally. He tells you that he was born after WWII, and he therefore doesn’t want any Americans accosting him about atrocities that were committed against American P.O.W.’s during the war. By that same logic, he also promises to not berate you for the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan. His second manifesto is on American arrogance and the modern American public school system. He talks about his memories of admiring American success and products as a child, which was a time when Japanese products were looked down upon by the rest of the world. Then he talks about how America is now trying to emulate Japanese products, and about how the US public school system is basically crap, and how America needs to make sure it helps its children, so that it doesn’t become the hare that is beaten by the tortoise. My favorite line in this manifesto is the one that says something along the lines of America needing to allow teachers to spank kids in school, so American kids won’t grow up to be ignorant and spoiled.

Oh, Grouchy Chef, how I love you! (And the food’s pretty good, too. A little salty, but good. I liked the duck with cinnamon sauce.)

Here's a picture I found online that someone saw in the restaurant's restroom:

For more restaurant reviews on Grouchy Chef (some of which are pretty hilarious), visit:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Real Men

At the gym, I am vaguely aware that the Pussycat Dolls are singing “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha?” It is 5:45AM, and I’m not even sure why I’m awake. I am sitting on the padded mats, trying to focus my vision and muster the effort to do push ups. (I can do 18 now!) Procrastinating, I take a long slow sip from my water bottle, even though I’ve done absolutely nothing yet. I yawn and stretch, and then look around for the faces of my favorite regulars, all men. They are as follows:

1. A man who looks like the redneck offspring of The Young Frankenstein’s Eyegore and the bulldog from Tom & Jerry. I haven’t seen a mullet like the one this man’s got since 1991, when my hometown fell in love with Billy Ray Cyrus. He is coaching his scrawny pre-teen son on how to bench-press like a man. The kid’s arms are about as brawny as chives.

2. A male stripper with a gaudy scorpion tattoo on his arm. This guy is HILARIOUS to eavesdrop around. He’s always working out next to some pretty girl, telling boisterous tales of the most recent bachelorette party he provided his services at. Inevitably, he whips out his phone and starts showing the girl pictures to illustrate what he’s talking about. Do I peek over his shoulders as he does so? Nope, because I don’t dig guys with scorpion tattoos. (But I did see a Mexican guy on a bus once who was wearing a gold scorpion embroidered cowboy hat, and that was pretty impressive.)

3. A Korean-American guy who would be outrageously hot if he’d stop taking steroids or drinking protein shakes or whatever it is he does to make himself look more like a plow-pulling ox than a human being. It’s too bad, really, because his face is so handsome. But what can I say? I like it when men have an obvious neck somewhere between their chin and shoulders.

4. An older man who has string bean legs, and who flops around wildly on the padded mats doing something that I think he would call abdominal exercises. He wears tube socks that come up to his kneecaps, and his face looks like Mr. Rogers’ would after being drenched in a rainstorm.

5. A middle-aged man who is about a foot shorter than me, and who looks like he is a New York City cabdriver in a parallel universe. He is so VERY tiny, and he compensates for this by setting the weight lifting machines to the heaviest weight possible. He literally has to jump up in the air and fall down against the handles, just to get enough momentum to make the weights move. He brays like a donkey as he hovers in helpless purgatory over the seat, unable to make the weights complete their arc of motion. I can’t even look at him because I’m afraid he’ll notice my mouth gaping open in pitying disbelief.

So I decide its time to start doing those cursed push ups.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Circus

I feel pretty indifferent about sunshine. I would sometimes go so far as to say I dislike it. I'm not a dreary lass by any means, I just like clouds better. But living in Seattle, you feel guilty if you don’t go outside when the sun comes out. You feel worse than guilty. You feel like a criminal. You feel like all your friends have x-ray vision, and they will catch you if you hide out in an air-conditioned library.

So yesterday I went downtown to the waterfront, out of embarrassed guilt over my maggot white legs and shoulders. It was only 10AM, but tourists were already thronging around Pike Place Market. I sat on the grass with Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, which is on a required reading list I’m tackling right now. It took about thirty seconds for my attention to wander. At the edge of the grass, a middle-aged man steered his motorized wheelchair down the sidewalk, past a juggler and tourists wearing fanny packs. (I cannot STAND fanny packs.) Printed on the man’s t-shirt were the words: “Dysfunctional Veteran. Leave Me Alone.” A longhaired South American man strummed his charango nearby. A woman with a voice as large as her body bellowed at those of us sitting on the grass, apparently on behalf of the juggler. “PAY TWO DOLLARS OR CLOSE YOUR FUCKING EYES, ‘CUZ HE’S TRYING TO EARN A LIVING!” No one closed their eyes, and no one paid two dollars.

Off to my right, a homeless man had just taken off his shirt. A few minutes later, he managed to corner a tourist. He needed a captive audience for his rant about greedy bankers and Bill Gates. The tourist smiled politely at first, but by the tenth time Bill’s name was mentioned, the smile had evaporated. At last, the tourist braved escape, and the homeless man turned up the volume, just to make sure the tourist could still hear him over the widening distance between them. “Thank you GOD and thank you Bill!” the homeless man yelled. The tourist feigned deafness, and sat down in the grass next to his wife and children, all wearing fanny packs.

To my left, a vendor was selling kettle corn, and its aroma mingled with that of marijuana smoke in the air. A child begged her father for some kettle corn and got it. She dropped pieces of it near my feet when she walked by, gobbling handfuls. A little finch landed by my shoe and tried to eat what the girl had dropped, but the pieces were almost as big as the finch’s head. It looked up at me with anime-pathetic eyes, like I used to do to my mom when I wanted her to cut my pork chops. I slowly stretched my hand out toward a piece of kettle corn. As I began to crumble it into smaller portions, the finch suddenly decided I was an ax murderer, and it flew off as wildly as if I’d tried to smash it with a club.

Oh, happy summer days!

How would you pass the time?

At a Seattle coffee shop, this barista tells me I can choose the restroom key with the orange block of wood attached or the one with the yellow block. "But I prefer the orange restroom," she says. "Why is that?" I ask. "I guess I have a fondness for it," she tells me. "Because I got locked in there overnight once." At this, all the coffee shop's patrons turn their heads and look at her wide-eyed, ready to hear her tale.

It was after she had closed the coffee shop one night, and she was the only one working. She went to use the restroom, leaving her cell phone and other belongings on one of the tables. The restrooms have those doorknobs with a keyhole on the outer knob, but just a round smooth spherical handle for the inner knob. When she went into the restroom, the outer knob somehow broke off. When she tried to get out of the restroom, the door wouldn't open. She had no way of contacting anyone, so she was stuck there until the opening crew came the next morning and pried the lock open using a credit card.

"What did you do in there for all those hours?" a patron asks. Another barista answers for her. "She cleaned the entire restroom! With hand soap and paper towels!" The girl shrugs. "What else was I supposed to do?"

What an experience, eh? I used to have nightmares about getting stuck in the restroom of a used bookstore I used to work at, but it never happened. Now I've met a girl who has lived my nightmares!