I’m getting old. I realized that quite clearly the other day.
Last Sunday, I was hanging out at my vending table on Telegraph Avenue. I sell salvaged books for 25 cents each. That’s what I do for a living, or what passes for one. This isn’t really how I envisioned my life turning out at age 46, selling junk books on a street corner. But life has a way of throwing curveballs at you. Well, at least my life does. Actually, it’s a pretty good gig; I make about $50 to $60 bucks a weekend; and sometimes up to $150 or more if I can scrounge up good books. And it’s low-maintenance. I stroll by the table every 15 minutes or so to collect the dough from the “donation” cup. I don’t even have to deal with the customers, which is a plus for an anti-social type like myself.
Anyway, I’m sitting there at the vending table by myself sucking on an Old English 16-ouncer, when this young chick shows up. She’s been hanging out on the scene for the last couple weeks, and she had immediately caught my eye, as all the young chicks on the scene immediately tend to do. She was tall and gangling but with nice curves, a cute, girlish face and a short, black Napoleon haircut. She wore blue jeans and a short, black halter-top that showed off her bellybutton and her nipples to good effect, and she had a sleeping bag rolled under her arm. The first time I saw her I had her pegged as a junkie/stripper. She really reminded me of the strippers I used to hang out with 20 years ago when I used to work at the Mitchell Bros strip club. It was the way she moved her body, the way she kept striking these sexual poses. She was one of those chicks who WANTED men to look at her in a sexual way. You could just tell. Some chicks are like that.
I had talked with her briefly last weekend; she came staggering out of the bathroom of Cody’s Books, glassy-eyed and wobbly, like she had just shot up a big hit of heroin or something. She just started talking to me, like she was sort of talking out loud to herself: “I need to be loaded before I can talk to my mom,” she explained. Then she talked for a while to someone (her mom I assume) on the payphones behind my table. Then she staggered across the street, sat down on the sidewalk, and fell asleep; her legs spread wide like a stripper, and her head slumped down between her legs, on the nod. I went upstairs to Moe’s book across the street and spied on her from the second story window. I’m kind of a voyeuristic bastard, I guess. But hell, you sit there on a street corner for 12 hours selling junk books for a quarter and you’ll be looking for some way to amuse yourself also.
So anyway, the next week she comes up to my vending table again while I’m sitting there and strikes up another conversation with me. I have an extra folding chair, folded up alongside my table, so she asks if she can sit in it while she waits for her ride to pick her up. “Sure,” I said.
Now, on the streets, you learn to read people very quickly. Because strangers are always suddenly materializing in front of your face and you have to deal with them. You never know who, or what, they are. And first impressions can be very deceiving. I mean, the person in front of you could be a totally whacked out, hardcore street-casualty, running from a broken home, or no home, where she’s been permanently twisted out of shape from being sexually abused by her “uncle” since she was 10 and she’ll steal everything you own the second your back is turned. Or.... maybe she’s a middleclass kid from a good suburban home who’s just playing at being the rebellious bad-girl for the weekend. You don’t know. Just like the other guy who comes up to you could be a kind, hippy, rainbow brother who will turn you on with his smile. Or.... maybe he’s a Charles Manson-wannabe whacko who will slit your throat the second he gets you alone. You don’t know.
So anyways, we sat there for a while at the old vending table, talking. She was polite. Friendly. Soft spoken. Sort of lonely. Seemed like she was looking to connect with the world but not quite sure how to do it. I’m sitting there, hiding behind my cool shades, drinking my beer and smoking her cigarettes. I’m nervous, of course, like I always am with cute young chicks. I kept wishing she was across the street so I could spy on her from a safe distance. Which is kind of weird when I think about it. But then, I’m a kind of a weird fellow.
She was one of those chicks that enjoy talking about themselves: “My Father was in the Israeli army,” she said. “Both my Mother and Father are psychiatrists.”
(So you’ve got to be nuts, I thought.)
“What do you want to do with your life?” I asked.
“I just graduated from high school. Eventually I’d like to be a lawyer so I can get paid to argue. What do you do?”
“Well, I was a pornographer, and a bike messenger, and a phone-salesman, and for 10 years I was a freelance cartoonist.”
“Wow, you’ve really been around,” she said, sort of impressed.
“And I was a homeless bum for the last 5 years. Some of the best years of my life actually.”
“Yes!” she declared happily, giving me the raised-fist salute of victory.
“And I recently had my first book published. ‘SURVIVING ON THE STREETS: How To Go Down Without Going Out.’ Its sort of a how-to book for dealing with the streets.”
“So you, like, show how to keep from getting bitter and stuff.”
“Well...No. It’s a little too late for me to write that kind of stuff.”
“Oh. I guess I better write my book while I’m still young.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You wanna see my new piercing?” she said with a happy smile. Before I could answer she pulled up her black halter-top and flashed me her ripe, pierced, teenage nipple.
I looked at it in word-less amazement. It was sort of a surreal moment. Right there on a crowded street corner on a lazy Sunday afternoon. She pulled her shirt back down proudly, and we resumed chatting.
Then a car pulled up to the curb and she said goodbye and rushed off. But before she left, she folded up the chair she had been sitting on and put it back alongside the table.
Later, when I thought about the whole encounter, that was the thing that really impressed me: That she actually showed the good manners to return the chair the way she found it. That is so rare on the street scene. So many street people are so course and uncouth; all they care about is what they want; they have zero consideration for anybody else’s situation. I realized: I was more impressed by her good show of manners than I was by her flashing her 18-year-old titties in my face.
Man, I really am getting old.###
October 16, 2002