"Pretty nice, huh?" he calls like an old friend. I nod and shamble toward BART.
There's a line for tickets. Strange.
Down below, the platform is teeming with people shifting their feet, conducting loud, anxious conversations. They seem busy. I wonder dimly if they walked through the same morning as we push onto a warm train heading downtown. In the brief ride I try to prepare myself.
I am not prepared.
There are thousands of people, rushing, pushing, shouting, weaving in and out of doorways, swinging bags and purses, following some unseen migratory tide that swallows me in an instant. Street vendors wave and bellow, competing with panhandlers who wield salutations from God; invisible horns blare through steam rising from grates on the street; the smell of hot salted pretzels dissolves over hot idling car engines; music pours from all directions. In the windows, lights are twinkling, tinsel is shimmering, and fake snow abounds. Everything is as it should be.
But not exactly.
I watch an awkward teenager -- pants floating an inch above his spindly ankles, ink-stained backpack hanging too low over his wrinkled T-shirt, stringy hair barely hiding his overlarge ears -- shuffling a few feet behind his stylish and determined mother. As they approach Old Navy, the boy quickens his shuffle and tugs on her leather coat sleeve.
"Uh, Mom, I don't think we should go in there, maybe," he says indicating the horde of shouting protesters blocking the sidewalk with clothesline. The shirts strung along the line spell out "S-W-E-A-T-S-H-O-P B-O-Y-C-O-T-T."
"Really?" she asks as if looking over a mental catalog of necessities.
"Really, Mom. Please." The mother frowns and turns on her heel, pushing back the way the pair had come.
Farther up Powell Street, there's an altercation, not between protesters and police, just between two people caught in each other's way. There's some shoving, and uninvolved bystanders can't get out of the way. Some flower bins are knocked over. And the tide carries on.
Near Union Square, pro-Bush activists line the street facing Macy's, shouting, "Gore is a cheat!" A police van arrives. On another corner, members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wave giant signs that say, "I love anal electrocution." A line of people dressed in eerie sheep masks files into Union Square, bleating, "Bah-bah-bah-uy," with fake money hanging from their downtrodden sheep mouths.
The sheep were asked to leave Niketown, but they seem undaunted. Collecting under the giant Christmas tree, they pass out "Boycott Christmas" stickers and T-shirts that depict sheep saying, "Consume."
The sheep giggle and funnel back onto the sidewalk. "Bah-bah-bah-uy," they bleat, dragging shopping bags through the crowd. Some shoppers laugh and point before they hear the chant: "Black sheep, black sheep have you any stuff? Yes sir, yes sir, but not near enough."
"I don't get it," says a young woman clutching a bag from Saks Fifth Avenue. "Things are weird down here."
The sheep flock is momentarily scattered by another fight, this one between a young gutter punk and a large woman with security-guard backup. Nearing a Starbucks, I am tapped on the shoulder.
"Is that real fur?" asks a young PETA activist with long blond hair and large blue eyes. I touch my hat and nod.
"You are a fucking asshole! A fucking asshole! What, you think that makes you look good or something? It doesn't. Nothing could make you look good. Do you know how those animals die?"
"Do you want to tell me?" I ask. But she doesn't. She tells me I'm stupid, and an asshole. She calls her friends over. PETA follows me, following the sheep. The sheep carry on, quietly bleating their message to passing shoppers. The girl from PETA suggests loudly that she should just punch me in the face and get it over with. Mario Zapp, a young reporter from the Media Alliance, tries to defuse the situation and the girl screams in his face as shoppers push by. One of the sheep suggests leftist infighting is not the answer. The girl storms, "You think you're fucking protesters; you're idiots." Zapp suggests the girl might just be overprivileged and angry at her mom; the girl calls him a queen. The Bush supporters march down the street chanting, "We have the White House!" The anti-Old Navy clothesline lurches past, impeding traffic on all sides. Cops blow their whistles and wave their arms, trying to keep the wallets moving. Somewhere nearby a chorus begins singing "Deck the Halls."
One of the sheep recommends I find a poultice for my first holiday head.
The Mission is still blanketed in holiday hush, the streetlights gleaming over empty streets and the occasional car echoing against blank building faces. I walk down the middle of Valencia, happy to see the bluish glow of 2202, S.F.'s only oxygen bar.
"What do you want?" asks owner Visa Victor in a velvety tone that implies more than the question. I sidle up to the bar and sit down on a silver stool between two aliens, a large-headed green creature with glowing eyes and spinning star finders named Starboy and a Sirian named Zzask with sequined goggles and a silver jumpsuit. I don't feel much like talking, and the aliens, mostly sick of human contact anyway, don't push it. I look over the menu: herbal elixirs, tinctures, and aromatherapy with titles like Relax, Release, Temptation, and Euphoric. A couple talk quietly at the end of the bar with long plastic tubes running from their noses into gurgling beakers on the counter. Neighborhood folks drift in to sit on the plush couches framed by multicolored bubbling lamps, where co-owner Kim Passeneau hooks up the patrons. Stylish music wafts through the cobalt-hued environment; sleek lights cast colored lasers on the walls and wire light sculptures accent the bar. I'm already relaxed.
Jogghkie, a female fighter pilot with a dangerous-looking helmet, barks at me when I ask her place of origin. "That's classified, Earthling!" she says, inhaling a mixture of eucalyptus, juniper berry, grapefruit, clary sage, and ginger.
"Come to Earth for the oxygen, I always say," coos Ultra, a slinky alien in a silver cape and tinfoil conehead.
Victor smiles indulgently at the aliens and places beakers of water in front of them. He offers to hook Jogghkie up to a sound-and-light machine.
"No one ever has anything bad to say about oxygen," says Victor. "Out of 27 bars on this street, this is the only healthy alternative."
Victor brings out a tray of small brown bottles, offering sniffs of various herbal extracts to the aliens.
"Does it smell like childhood trauma or stale pepperoni?" he jokes, mixing up a combination of ylang ylang and patchouli for Grbt, an alien with big green glasses and a blue salad bowl on her head. The alien giggles.
Victor gently places a breathing tube at my nose and hooks it behind my ears. The oxygen is cool and sweet. After eight minutes that feel like 30, my thoughts seem clear and crisp. I feel relaxed, buoyant, as if my blood is filled with air.
I watch Victor and Passeneau mixing drinks from oddly shaped bottles, sniffing the ingredients, carefully eyeing the color and adding more of this or that: kava, pearl, gynostemma, albizzia flower, ginko rhodiola. I'm given a Cosmic Think Drink. It's not on the menu.
"This is a place of balance," assures Victor. "People don't come here to get fucked up. They come here for balance."
"It's really nice," says Argon, taking in lavender, bergamot, and geranium for the first time. "I was in a funk when I came in, but I'm feeling lighter on my feet now. Kind of relaxed and euphoric, but energized." Just herbs and oxygen. Argon thinks this is the answer for the more mature, aging ravers. "You know, people who have never had an interest in alcohol, but who can't dance all night anymore."
Victor smiles. Thanksgiving weekend, and the barstools are full, and no one is going to get into a fight or vomit on the floor.
"What more could I want from the moment?" he asks with a warm smile.
I disconnect from my tube and marvel at the roundness of air, the full-bodied sensation of nitrogen. Victor winds up my hose and tells me to bring it next time. I step back into the night and see the bicyclist with the stocking cap, weaving down the middle of the street.
"Nice night, huh," he says. I nod and take a long breath.