Sheddding a Second Skin

The cicadas in the Midwest are getting ready to hatch. There are two things I miss about growing up in Illinois: thunderstorms and cicadas. They whir at dusk, and until I grew up and moved away I thought that was just the sound the sun made when it went down for the night. They also shed their skin, for lack of a better word, leaving otherworldly suits of bug armor behind, stuck to trees like terra-cotta insect warriors.

"Ugh," was my friend Sharon's response, offering that she liked fireflies instead. "We actually have fireflies out here," she told me. "They just don't light up."

Yeah, so what's the point?

The North American cicada "broods" are about to end their 17-year cycle of incubation and hatching. The grubs, called "nymphs" (how cute!) have been living burrowed in the ground this whole time, and soon they will crawl up and out of the earth like bug-eyed vampires, and if they are not immediately ingested by a birdie, they attach to a tree and molt. The whirring sound they make is to woo hotties, but they also have an "oh shit!" sound they make when they are in danger. Apparently their "singing" can be so loud that if it's done next to the human eardrum it can cause deafness.

In S.F., if we want a "whir" we can listen to the BART trains. I like the energy around the Powell Street BART station at dusk; the guy painted silver like a robot has packed up his stuff and can usually be seen heading uphill towards, I assume, home. Lines of tourists are weary but ready to wait another 40 minutes to board a cable car. The breakdancers split their daily takes.

The bar situation over there is crap though. Thank god I love hotel bars, because Level III above the JW Marriott is right there to compete with the awful Union Square Sports Bar and the Cable Car City Pub. It's on the third level (get it?). It made me think of cicadas because of the way it describes itself on its website, like it patterns itself after the movement of the sun: "Light and airy and more subdued in the morning and afternoon... In the evening... the lights go down, the music turns up-tempo... the lounge is magically transformed into a vibrant and energetic gathering place." The bar molts, people. It fairly whirs as evening approaches.

Bars are also where I go to start a day over. I attach to a stool and slowly peel away my top layer.

"Fire" is the theme the designers had in mind, according to the website, and once I actually set foot in it I guess I could see what they were talking about, if by "fire" they meant '90s earth tones and muted mustard yellows and lime greens. It also wouldn't be a hotel bar without the world's busiest carpet, and this one looked like rows of orange fjords running wild with radioactive leaves.

A woman was beaming at me as I approached the bar, and it wasn't an employee. It was the kind of smile that makes you look behind you to see if the person is not in fact looking at someone else. "Hiya," I of course said to her, not wanting to disappoint.

"Hi!" she shot back, and I do mean shot. Girlfriend was giddy.

"Yer livin' free and easy," I said, as I situated myself. She didn't quite get what I meant, but no one ever does. The bartender came over and he was a nice fella who took my order immediately, made it, then took my money. So far, so good.

"I know you don't know me but I just had to tell someone!" the girl continued. She had brown hair and ... well damn, she was pretty nondescript, save for an aura of Middle Earth; you know the type, folks who were in drama club in high school.

"I just did comedy open mic at Brainwash!" I immediately made a note to myself to hit that bad boy: The Bouncer material would be plentiful! Strangely, she was the second person I had run into who had their lives transformed by appearing at Brainwash. I once overheard a girl on BART going on and on about how she had just gotten "signed," or something, from her comedy bit there.

"I feel incredible!" this woman continued. I smiled and nodded, genuinely happy for her because anyone with the balls to do stand-up is a hero of mine. She walked me through her whole process, how she practiced, how nervous she was, how the crowd seemed to love her. I tried to figure out what kind of shtick she had; she wasn't overweight, short, a minority, or filthy-mouthed. In all honesty she seemed ridiculously naïve. (Seriously, I have to go to these Brainwash shows.)

She finished her revelry and I did my best to be as excited for her as a close relative would be, since I felt that was what she needed. She took a deep breath and stretched, filled to the brim I suppose with victory. Things were going to change for her now. Her life was going to be taking an entirely new path. Whir, baby, whir.

She then made the cursory inquiry into what I did for a living, but I didn't want to talk about myself and also doubted that she really cared. Her brain was going a mile a minute. She would be the next female Louie. There was something soothing about her patter; she droned on and on, and I slowly relaxed more and more. "So," I said, "tell me a joke."

Whir, baby. Whir.

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