Sometimes I have the urge to pretend I'm in Europe, where you can sit in front of a restaurant with a drink and watch people walk by. On those occasions, I head to North Beach. Any of the cafes along Columbus Avenue will do, but I prefer Calzone's. It was obviously designed with the tourist in mind, being neither funky nor sleek, but it has a nice coziness even though it's quite large.
When I go to Calzone's, I bring my sunglasses and sit at an outdoor table. I also usually kick myself for not buying a wide, floppy Audrey Hepburn hat to block out the sun. I instead make do with my flattened hand attached to my forehead, like the skipper looking out to sea at the beginning of Gilligan's Island.
Here's why I like Calzone's so much: The waiters are good but chill. The free bread is yummy. I always manage to sit next to some guy in a beret or a newsboy cap who is writing his memoirs. Tourists are there, too, and I enjoy trying to figure out what language they are speaking. Lots of people walk by, and I can stare at them from behind my dark glasses. And finally, double-decker buses full of out-of-towners trundle by, and when I am having a particularly low-self-esteemy day, I can sit up straight and try to look like a cool San Franciscan so that they can see me. I realize that's strange: How can anyone lack self-confidence while believing that everyone on a bus must be focused in on her (and only her)? Mark Twain talks about how, as a young man standing on the deck of a riverboat, he felt amazing and how he was sure that everyone was jealous and wanted to get to know him — heck, even to be him there, on board and part of the action on the Mississip'. I suppose it's the same feeling an eighth-grader gets when she is asked to sit at the cool kids' table during lunch.
So, in my self-important spells of drowning in my unimportance, I enjoy playing the part of a cool S.F. resident enjoying herself at a North Beach cafe. I was doing just that last week, during our brief dalliance with sunshine before the next wave of rain arrived. I had my puzzle (I have abandoned crosswords and am now doing acrostics), my phone, and an Us Weekly. I had just settled into a spirited treatise on Jesse and Sandra when I noticed a guy walking up to everyone seated outside and asking for money. "Thank God for sunglasses," I thought. Somehow they make it easier to say "Sorry, no."
I have found it harder and harder to say no to people lately, and not because of my bleeding heart. Quite the opposite. I am really finding it harder not to say Get a fucking job. Yes, I am turning into one of those people I have always despised. But it only takes one particular sort of spare-changer to set me off: a youngish, able male with his hand out. Here's what it comes down to: People asking me for money make me uncomfortable. I don't like feeling uncomfortable. Eventually I will switch my focus from my discomfort to resentment. From there I will begin to blame the beggar, and self-righteous anger won't be far behind. I know all this, and still I fester. I also know how hard it would be to be broke, addicted, and rejected by my fellow man all day long. But still I fester.
The guy was getting closer. He was probably in his late 40s. He was well built and reasonably well groomed, but he did have a certain pallor. Diagnosis: alcoholism. I was preparing my, "No, sorry" for him when the token guy-in-a-newsboy-cap-writing-his-memoirs on my right began to raise his voice.
"Get the fuck away from here!" he said, pointing his finger in a rapid staccato motion. Oh lordy, he was about to get all Bernie Goetz on the Dude.
"What you say to me?" the Dude asked, puffing up his chest and coming at the seated Gent.
The Gent stood up, slammed down his book, and stuck up his chin defiantly. "Don't fucking ask me for fucking money!" he said.
They moved closer to each other. At this point, the entire Calzone's audience was terrified that we were about to see a bloody fight of Epic Beard Man proportions. Alas, none of the staff seemed to notice.
A few more F-words were tossed around, and, as I could've predicted, the Gent seized the opportunity to let the Dude have it on behalf of everyone who had ever been panhandled in this city. I was about to move out of the way, because at any moment, fists would be flying.
But then, from way down on the left, a lone German kid, his belly full from the wine he had been drinking, gathered his liquid confidence and sashayed over to the fracas and inserted his frame in between the men.
"Fellows, fellows," he said, summoning his best high school English. "We are calm. We are calm. It is okay."
The Dude stared at the Gent. The Gent stared at the Dude. They both relaxed a little. The German kid tried to joke a bit with the Dude to get him to move on. By this time the waiters were outside, asking the Dude to leave before the police were called. I could tell that both guys were going to back down, but they were going to do it really slowly, so as not to lose face. Eventually, the Dude left and the Gent sat down.
So, as if I had willed it, I witnessed someone standing up to an able-bodied beggar. And you know what? The Gent looked like a real dick. He was being an asshole. There, but for the grace of God, went I.
I could've been that asshole. Well, I don't want to be an asshole. So it is decided. The next time I feel tempted to scream Get a fucking job, I won't do it.
"Tchüss," I said to the German, raising my glass. I have no idea if "Tchüss" is what they say in Deutschland when they are making a toast, but I think they do. He raised his glass back and smiled.
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