Monday, February 4, 2013


Andy stood at Broadway and Montgomery, smoking a cigarette, staring across the street. Behind him was an SRO hotel. His residence. As far as SROs go, it was ok. It was far from the Tenderloin, so it attracted more drunks than junkies. Sometimes drunks are better than junkies; sometimes not.

Andy was neither. He was poor, working poor, and in transition from a crazy girlfriend, a girlfriend that bought him a weekend in jail for a lie. With a welcoming smile, boots on their third resole and a slew of wool sweaters, he was comfortable in this neighborhood. He fit. North Beach.

Since the 40s, North Beach has attracted writers, musicians and romantics. Everyday, young men walk the streets, looking into windows of bars and bookstores, imaging their heroes: Kerouac, Garcia and Biafra, to name a few. And imagining history. Andy was no different. Fluent in Modest Mouse and Hendrix, Burroughs and Foster Wallace, like so many young people of his generation, he wasn’t pigeon holed by the past or present, only knowing both, without the shackles of age, history and dogma.

Across the street was Centerfolds, a strip club that caters to a more sophisticated crowd – a moneyed sleaze that appreciates girls with less tattoos, bigger boobs and clearer eyes. In contrast, a block to the west was The Lusty Lady, the politically correct strip club. With their jerk-off booths, fleshy dancers and union protection, the discerning scumbag had choices. Regardless of choice, methamphetamine, delusion and bad dads were common denominators of the entertainment.

On the street outside the entrance of Centerfolds, Andy viewed a young, Asian man arguing with the bouncers. By his gesticulation, he could tell he was emphatically making a point. He moved closer to hear the plea:

“I didn’t know, I didn’t know,“ he said, wide eyed and shaking his head, in an effort to sway ignorance. “I didn’t know you couldn’t touch them. Nobody told me; there were no signs,” he continued, scouring the outside wall for a sign that listed the rules.

2 bouncers, crossed-armed and looking a little like Mr. Clean in black suits, stood motionless. Trained not to engage, they let him talk it out, but exhibited enough menace, incase force was needed.

Getting nowhere, he slightly changed his approach:

“My friends are in there. I promise, I swear, if you let me in, I won’t do a thing. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” He said, resorting back to the original point.

Finally, with no response from the bouncers and out of ideas, he blurted: “I spent a lot of money in there, you know.” No response. He touched a stripper. He broke the rules.

Admitting defeat, he lumbered a quarter block down Montgomery and sat on the curb, his head between his knees. Andy watched, knowing he still had fight left in him.

Breather over, he jumped up and marched back to the entrance. Before he got there, second thoughts ruled, and he turned around. Stopping, with his back to the entrance, he appeared contemplative. Fueled with entitlement, injustice and alcohol, he came up with a better plan, walking farther down the block to where his motorcycle was parked.

Slipping his full-face motorcycle helmet over his head, he walked into the street and slinked back to the club, parked cars obscuring early detection from the bouncers. Crouching down behind the last parked car at the corner of Montgomery and Broadway, less than 15 yards from the swinging double doors of the entrance, he prepared himself for the final part of the new plan: regaining entrance into the club by force.

Bent over at a 90-degree angle, both hands on helmet, he gained speed, crashing into the bouncers and piercing the double doors. Both bouncers fell backwards, but quickly regained composure and followed him into the club. As quickly as he entered, he immediately returned with even more thrust. Pissed, the usually laconic bouncers threw him into the street, helmet still on head. With the professional fa├žade gone, they swore and kicked him in the stomach. He curled up into a ball, bracing for the blows. This is how things like this end. And he knew it.

They grabbed him out of the street, throwing him against the outer wall of the club, extra hard, knowing his helmet would brace him from head injury. Before they could properly restrain him, the police arrived and threw him into the back seat of the police car. They’re always nearby in North Beach. As the police determined what happened, Andy could see the young man violently throwing himself around the backseat, eventually breaking out the back left window. He still had fight left in him and still had the helmet on his head. He would need the fight, and the helmet, because a broken window dictates at least one more beating.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Employee Assistance Program

Before therapy, it started with a call to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work, a free service that helps employees with “problems.” And I had a problem. I called and they asked me what was wrong:

“I’m angry and I feel like someone is going to hurt me,” I said, knowing that I was anything but articulate. What I meant was my mouth was gonna get me in trouble. I had no censor on the street, and had the amazing ability of turning the most innocuous incident into a full blown problem.

After a long pause, the counselor said, “Hold Please.” Followed by another long pause, a new person with an empathetic, professional tone popped on the line and blurted, “So you want to hurt yourself?”

Knowing that I could be in some deep shit, and that they might be calling HR at this very moment, I backtracked: “No, no, no!! I meant that my mouth was gonna get me in trouble. I’m not gonna hurt myself, but I feel someone is gonna hurt me.” I fucked it up again!

“Who’s gonna hurt you? Is someone gonna hurt you? At work?”

“Aw Jesus,” I said, my voice showing considerable regret, “no one is gonna hurt me. Listen, my mouth is gonna get me in trouble in the Tenderloin. I’m gonna tell the wrong person to fuck off. I’m burned out.”

“Oh, burned out.” she said with some relief. “Ok, let me transfer you back. Hold please.”

I knew “burned out” would be language they could understand. They referred Ronald and the rest was 14 months of therapy, the first 6 sessions on the EAP.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Mylar Period: Get Well Soon

It seemed like a good idea. That’s how pretty much everything starts with me. I think it’s a good idea and since it’s a good idea, other people will follow suit and play along. It never happens this way.

I saw a picture of a dead raccoon on the side of a road. Tied to the dead raccoon’s leg was a Mylar balloon that said Get Well Soon. It floated 6 feet above the dead animal, framed by a wire fence and rolling hills in the background. The picture had more questions than answers.

What I saw was a different take on the Get Well Soon balloon. Instead of the omnipresent photo of a skier with a broken leg, a Get Well Balloon hovering over the injured in the corner of the room, I saw the balloon in a different light, in a different context. I imagined the Get Well Balloon being given everyday of the year, to anybody that was depressed, having a bad day, hiding dark thoughts and/or the myriad of people with various mental illnesses. Basically everybody! Everybody deserved a Good Luck Balloon…at any time… on any day. It was a big thought for a small picture.

This idea set me off. It was a bit after the shootings in Connecticut, and mental illness was foremost in the collective minds of the nation. To embrace the new idea, I changed my Instagram bio to: Accepting Get Well Balloons every day of the year. I mean, come on, I’m a tad mentally ill (getting worse as I get older), so why don’t I get a balloon?

I came up with a plan.

Before work, I stopped at SF Party Supply to get a Get Well Soon balloon. I’d been in the store before and I knew they could supply my needs – them or possibly Safeway. I’d seen a few Mylar balloons floating near the flower area at Safeway. Safeway would be a backup.

SF Party opened at 9 am; I was their first customer.

A person that looked like he didn’t work there – possibly the owner – asked if I needed help. I told him I wanted a balloon and he summoned help. The help produced a 1 inch thick catalog of various Mylar balloons, in all shapes, sizes and colors. It was awesome and got me really excited. I had no idea the enormity of the Mylar balloon community.

He opened the catalog and found the Get Well Soon section. I looked at about 30 different designs and picked one that was easy to read. He went downstairs for a few minutes and returned with one balloon.

On the short drive to work, I came up with a narrative to go with the balloon:

The Get Well Soon balloon is greater than broken bones. It’s greater than the flu. And it’s now for mental illness too.

I felt the balloon needed a mission statement.

And there would be rules to handling the balloon:

1. The balloon would go with me everywhere for one day: car, work, meetings, bathroom, therapy, Subway (lunch), corner store, etc. Tucked in my pocket, following me like a shadow blimp, I would attempt to act non-chalaunt, like it was a bag or some other accoutrement.

2. Seeing no visible problem, inevitably, someone would ask what was wrong. If they asked about my wellness, I would pull out a small piece of yellow lined paper from my pocket. Written on the paper would be 21 personal problems. The problems would range from personal problems to the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I would ask them to choose a number between 1 and 21. Depending on how well I knew then, how much I wanted to share and a myriad of other on-the-spot criterion, I would truthfully share the info on the number they chose, or I would lie and toss them a soft ball: mild depression.

Given the choice of sharing personal thoughts with friends, family or coworkers, or choosing to keep them to myself, I mostly chose the easy route of keeping the family secrets intact. No brainer. However, the unintended consequence of growing closer to a friend (or changing the relationship rules and freaking them out) through sharing a fear or a hidden ailment was a nice afterthought. It never happened, though.

3. After sharing, I would answer questions. When conversation ceased, the rules of our departure would be explained: “When I leave, I want you to say, ‘Get well soon, Greg.’” This was the best part of the game. Oddly, everybody I encountered played along with game and wished me well.

As I prepared to leave work, exhausted from my day with the balloon, my coworker looked at me and said, “Tell people you’re an artist and your medium is Mylar.”

I thought about it, shook my head and opened the door to my office.

“Hey, Greg,” he continued. I turned and looked: “Get well soon.”

“Thanks, man. I’ll try,” I replied, smiling.