Issue #8, 1997
I. Sic Kathryn: Monday Morning
Doing my usual Monday morning imitation of Lucifer descending, muttering sullen insurrection, I Kathryn, Archbitch of San Francisco (self-appointed), hurl myself into the abyss and thump perilously down the wet brick stairs into the BART station, mere seconds behind schedule. This particular feat ought to get me canonized, considering how late I rolled out of bed, groaning in despair, after having switched off the alarm and closing my heavyheavy eyelids for just one more minu ....
It was all Author's fault. OK, OK, a tiny bit my fault for letting him talk me into going out for a drink on Sunday night when I didn't really want to. At the Noe Valley Bar & Grill I was so bored and restless I ordered a second drink instead of insisting that Author take me home, and he was determined as usual to stay until closing, since his first class isn't until 9, which means he can get up as late as 8:30 if he doesn't shave, and he never shaves on Monday. I'm supposed to be at work at 8. What sadist thought that up, starting work at 8?
So I rushed around, threw clothes on, fed Catso, gulped a glass of refrigerator-flavored orange juice, gave my puffy gray face a lick and a promise instead of the thick mask of makeup it so desperately cried for, and managed to run out of the house only two minutes behind schedule. I could make up the two minutes in the six blocks to BART if I trotted along a little faster than my usual anaerobic, side-stitch pace, and if the lights were with me. If. But this was Monday morning and everything was against me, the whole physical world, probably the entire cosmos too if I only knew. Each light turned red as I approached, and the traffic surpassed ridiculous (where did all these aggressive assholes come from, is it a population explosion or what?); at the unmarked intersections, cars simply would not stop to let me cross. They could perhaps tell I was cross already. Once again I thought about going down to 15th and Guerrero and seeing if I couldn't get a deal on an automatic weapon. I could probably get my picture in the paper. "Woman Goes Berserk in Mission District Commute. Blames PMS." The six blocks to the 24th Street station had stretched to at least nine. It began to drizzle. No, actually, I hadn't brought my umbrella. Why would I have brought my umbrella, it's fucking June.
Near the bottom of the stairs I easily overtake a man handicapped by an overcoat and a fat briefcase. He's not bad looking, though a little too normal for my tastes, here however only an obstacle to be avoided. He stops to fumble for his ticket. I've got mine in my hand already, slip it into the slot as I bang through the turnstile ahead of him and run toward the escalator. I'm fast, but not quite fast enough to shove rudely in front of the two tubby chums who step together onto the same step, so that I can't get past; looming and glowering above them I descend slowly, no longer Lucifer but a statue (the Wingless Fury) settling oh so gradually into boggy ground. Halfway down I spy the 7:35's doors gliding closed. The dull silver train goes shooting away into the tunnel like... (I have been meditating on this image for the past few months) ...a chromed turd through a robot's intestine. How very passionately do I want to give these two simpering cows a hard push and send them sprawling. ("Moo, Moove!") Instead I say a little prayer: Why, God? Why do I have to dress up in these stupid clothes and mix with crowds? Why didn't I get my period, say, Friday, or even yesterday? I'll bet you my entire estate that it's going to be today, to help ensure that this week will be the worst in my life. Right, I mean the worst so far.
On the platform I commence pacing. It had to be the Concord train I just missed. Isn't it nice of them to have digital display clocks so you always know to the precise second how late your train is? It gives the harried commuter something to watch as the platform fills up and blood pressure soars. At 7:46 the 7:41 five-car Richmond train roars in (somebody's idea of a joke, running half a train at the height of the morning rush) and all 2,000 of us who have arrived in the last 12 minutes shuffle and jostle aboard. By now I am resigned. The die is cast at 7:44-if I haven't boarded a train by this time, no matter how fast I run, how agilely I dodge, how brazenly I jaywalk the six blocks from Montgomery Street station to the Pyramid, even if the elevator awaits me with open doors, I will be walking into the firm's tastefully decorated foyer at 8:03. And today being Monday ("Get Kathryn Day" in this part of the cosmos), I am willing to wager what's left of my estate that Mr. Big will be there in his specially made, voluminous gray suit with a dusting of dandruff on the shoulders, picking up the Wall Street Journal from my 6-foot by 5-foot rosewood desk, ready to give me a deeply reproachful look from his piggy little eyes. He's never ever there when I'm early.
The silver doors slide shut. I don't have the energy to move any further into the car (excuse me excuse me excuse me) which means when the train stops at 16th & Mission, the incoming crowd will crush me. Will crush me more. Deep in my spongy brain a migraine begins to throb; it feels like (I don't have to meditate on this image, it arises fully formed) a spike about the size of a tent peg hammered into the top of my skull until the tip is just behind my right eye. This is the unmistakable work of hormones (pronounced Whore-Moans and they didn't name them that for nothing). I also feel extremely hot. Someone nearby is wearing a lot of perfume, the one that smells just like Raid and always makes me marvel that anybody could put that on and think they smell good. Today, it makes me want to retch. Standing more or less in my armpit is a swarthy little man with the sad eyes of a spaniel, and I wonder how I smell, since I had no time for a morning shower. Well, too bad for him, that's what he gets for being so short.
I suppose it isn't rational that absolutely everything could be hopelessly impossible, but rational or not, so it all is, hopeless and impossible-writ large. I should have called in sick and stayed in bed-it was standing upright that assured the ruination of my day.
At the 16th & Mission station the train jerks to a stop, the doors open, and two people get off, giving me the opportunity to ooze past those clinging to the padded support posts (if they had straps to hang from they'd be strap-hangers; "post-clingers" doesn't, somehow, sing) and inch my way into the middle aisle, where I fight for a handhold on the top of the nearest seat. This is marginally better; I can stand here and loathe all the people seated. I cast my eyes along the rows. If only my misery loved company, then how my heart would rejoice, for everyone is looking bad this morning, and I don't think it's entirely an illusion caused by the color-leaching fluorescent lights. Even the exquisitely groomed, faultlessly turned out Filipinas from Daly City seem kind of peaked. My misery, however, does not love company. Anyway, if they all look almost as bad as I feel, I need only peer darkly into the windows as we enter the tunnel to confirm that I am feeling only as bad as I look: Monday morning, pea soup green. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul, I murmur to myself two or three times.
It doesn 't help.
I try another formula: I wish I were dead. Seriously, I do. That would be better. Dead women don't commute.
Actually, an eternity of this cramped, vibrating misery under these cold lights would make a dandy prototype for hell. All of us damned, bilious and miserable, jammed into a black and gray tube, hurry-hurry-hurrying to what? To boring stupid work to make money to clothe and feed and sustain ourselves so we can keep working. I'm only in for three more months, and I suppose they all need the money to finance their habits, but what I don't understand is how they do it. Some people get up at 5 or 6 in the morning five days a week for years and years (I have even heard rumors of people who get up before 7 on weekends, but I don't believe everything I hear), and they don't go down to 15th & Guerrero and buy AK-16s and run amok, or not very often. What is their secret? Drugs? Positive thinking? I hate them, those lucky bastards. Even when I go to bed early, I can't wake up in the morning. If a doctor were to come and wake me up at 7 a.m. and evaluate my condition, he would grade it halfway between critical and guarded. (He would also remark on my abusive language.) And the worst part is, I'm in perfect health. I have the blood pressure of a child-not just any child but a hateful, disobedient one who won't shape up and face reality. I despise and abhor reality. I'll probably live to be 90, feeling like this.
As we pull into Civic Center, it occurs to me how simple it would be to get out, cross the platform and catch the next train back. I could be home in 15 minutes. Catso would be delighted to see me (not that he'd show it), and I could be back in bed before the clock struck 8:30 .... But no, I only have about three hours of sick leave, and I'm taking next Monday off (an eternity from now). Besides, if wretchedness is my lot (and obviously it is), then I will drink it to the dregs, the bitterer the better. Me and my Unconquerable Soul. Anyway, bed wouldn't save me, there's no escape, it's everything that is awful. I need the damn money.
I must have thought the magic word, for right before my jaundiced eyes transpires a tiny miracle. The woman sitting immediately below me stands up to exit, and I have the next nearest standers blocked with my arm. I slither into the seat and find myself face to face with a young man in a well-cut black suit with a pinstripe. The suit and its pinstripe stink of craftmanship, quality, expense. The young man is as pinky clean as a freshly bathed and powdered baby; his hair is moussed, his nails manicured and buffed, even his mustache is styled and trimmed. I suspect that the soles of his glossy black shoes are clean. I want to kick dust all over him and set his mustache on fire.
My dislike is so vehement that it gives me a perverse delight to sit, staring insolently at him. I know his sort-a positive thinker. If I asked him, he'd boast complacently that he only needs four hours of sleep a night and he loves his job (only he'd refer to it as "my position.") He's second in command somewhere, not Mr. Big, not yet, but Mr. Ambitious Young Man on the Way Up. One of those know-it-all turkeys who practices being aggressive and rude on the phone, while in person he simpers and preens. I deal with them daily. I like to say, "Is he expecting you?" in a fuck-you tone, and then direct them to chairs and watch them slowly deflate until such time as someone comes to fetch them. I've been at the Partnership three months, and I need to stick it out at least three more. It's not a bad job, as jobs go, but I'm fed up with playing my role, and bored with trying to cajole a human response out of those self-important popinjays. The only people who show any good manners are the "sales reps" whose affirmations in the face of constant rejection precede them like a whiff of discreet but still offensive cologne. They aren't supposed to be up hustling sales in the penthouse suites, but if they walk by the guards without hesitating, they can hustle freely until they are reported and escorted out. I turn them all away but only after volunteering to pass along their business cards to the office manager who never does much of anything besides collect business cards and make personal phone calls. The only people I unreservedly like are the delivery people, Fed Ex and UPS, as well as the sweaty bike messengers; they all have the air of nonconformist and outlaw about them.
Mr. Ambitious looks up at me from his WSJ but I don't drop my eyes or react, and he quickly turns his glance away to the window. Ha ha, stared you down, I silently gloat, wishing I'd worn my snake wig. The train barrels into the Powell Street station and slams to a halt, as if the driver just woke from his nap in the nick of time. I am catapulted forward, halfway out of my seat, but brace my feet and plop back again. The woman sitting next to me says, "Geez," and I almost smile, because I was so nearly launched head first into Mr. Ambitious' black gabardine, pin-striped lap, as if diving for treasure. That would have surprised him, I think smugly. Mr. Ambitious, misinterpreting my smirk, smiles back at me. Oh, no you don't-I instantly clear my expression to impassive and turn to examine the people across the aisle.
I look up the car and then down. It's too much for my frayed wiring. In all my years of commuting, I have never seen such a ... Maybe I am going mad. Just like this on a BART train. I've sometimes wondered just how it would announce itself ... how else but with everybody turning into cartoons. I've gotten trapped in the dominion of caricature. Many of my fellow passengers appear to be illustrations of vices, while some could be Brueghel peasants, vacant with imbecility yet cunning and malicious; not a few resemble animals-there are a few sheep, a boar, a weasel, many dogs, even more monkeys, but no cats this morning, no moles. Just across the aisle from me, a woman with duck lips sits next to Elmer Fudd; facing them a knave and a fool, and beyond a receding series of freaks, sociopaths and mutations. Down yonder I spy Einstein, Hitler, Geraldo and Liz. And here am I: Caliban, Thersites and Timon of Athens all rolled into one. A big green, spleeny one.
The world is so lucky that I don't have nuclear weapons on Monday mornings. More than anything I want to stand up and shout, "You loathsome vermin, get off my planet!"
I do stand up, but merely because we are approaching the Montgomery Street station. This day will never end and I will never feel better but I don't care because feeling better is a lie anyway. There's nothing to be done but to get on with it. Geronimo! I am first up at the door that will end up nearest the escalators. Just as we coast to a stop an East Bay train comes to rest across the platform. All the doors open simultaneously: Happy Monday and chaos come again! I dash out in the clear for two seconds, then have to dodge to sidestep a tiny woman mincing along in a tight skirt and spike heels. I want to bellow like a moose, but clench my teeth around "Move it" and keep going. Someday somebody's going to get killed in here and golly, I hope it's me. The escalator is already a bottleneck. No way there. With a color movie of random violence-a comedy-playing in my brain, I sprint for the stairs and take the steps two at a time.
II. Kathryn in Excelsis: Friday Afternoon
I'm waiting for the elevator at 4:30 when Danny comes running out with a bulging manila envelope. "Hold that elevator," he commands in his executive voice. "I've got to deliver these important documents ASAP. Fox, Rat, Badger & Big are counting on me!" We leave together; I can't tell what's making my stomach go like that, the elevator's descent or 21-year-old, green-eyed Danny who in three days has won my heart. He says, "If any of them get in with us, let's stick our tongues out at them." "Good idea," I say, prepared to agree with anything Danny suggests, and when the young couple in suits, carrying briefcases and talking enthusiastically about bonds and securities, gets in at the 24th floor, we both extrude our tongues the merest quarter inch and ride down to the plaza level gazing at the couple like cats. The man, pompously blabbing, doesn't notice, but the woman watches us with a nervous little smile.
See how in a few tomorrows everything has changed: I love the whole damn beautiful world, I do, but I especially love San Francisco and if perhaps not quite all the people in it, most of them. OK, many of them. And even the worst have their, shall we say, perverse charm. Today I'm even rather amused by the Yuppies doing their Yuppie thing, blocking the sidewalk, chatting with fatuous self-assurance, clogging the streets with their BMWs and Volvos, playing their car stereos or yakking on their cellular phones while the air outside fills with sulphurous fumes. I mean I enjoy the spectacle, the bustle. The wind is blowing the fumes over to Oakland anyway. Sorry, Oakland.
Our elevator alights in the lobby of the pyramid, which proves to be thronged with people waiting, I can tell, for their lovers. Not a few of them hold bouquets of flowers in paper or plastic cones, which pleases me as much as if they had all been bought for me. Danny pushes open the door, saying "Allow me" in a comically gallant voice. Outside, the summer afternoon presents revels of sound and light: A brisk breeze snaps the gaudy pennants above the plaza, and the sun chips diamonds off the laughing spray of the fountain. Pigeons dance the pigeon strut beneath redwood benches to the trumpet call of gridlocked traffic echoing from the architectonic canyons of California Street. Danny tells me a long story about some amazing adventure that happened to him and his brother last weekend, lingering a moment at his turn-off and touching my arm before saying goodbye. Light-headed from hyperventilation brought on by an acute outbreak of lust, I begin to waltz down Sacramento Street toward the Embarcadero station, knowing full well what the future holds and not minding that it is sure to end badly; sometimes when you see disaster looming, you have to run to embrace it. I will, yes ... but not today. Today my goals are more modest: I'm going to get a seat for the ride home or spit.
It couldn't be any afternoon but Friday. Half the crowd on the sidewalk strides along purposefully while the other half saunters, yet there are no collisions and all appear pleased with whatever pace they keep. At Sacramento and Front I heel up behind a troop of Japanese businessmen all in identical dark suits and identical striped ties, with identical cameras hanging around their necks, all staring in apparently identical fascination at the more motley Californian office people pouring forth from the high-rises. Perhaps because the tallest of them is just my height, they remind me of a strange bunch of Boy Scouts. They pivot as one to gawk at a Junoesque black woman arrayed in flowing white robes and a feathered turban, sailing down the middle of the sidewalk like a galleon before the wind and parting the crowd with her imposing prow. Two runners in skimpy outfits of crimson and gold nylon cross her wake at right angles, leap in unison and speed away. A rotund, bald man wearing a ring on each finger and-can it be?-a diamond choker stoops to pick up the quivering little terrier that the nimble-jack runners had hopped. "Poopsie, are you all right?" he cries dramatically, and Poopsie, who also wears a diamond choker, licks his face.
Of course Poopsie all right. Everything is all right. Humming the "Ode to Joy:" Freu-de, freu-de, I gather it, every last bit I can reach, as it whirls around me. Festival, procession, pageant. I am so buoyant I rebound from the pavement with each step as if concrete were rubber, pour mieux sauter. Down the road I skip, step-sauté, step-sauté in time to the "Ode." At the corner of Davis Street, waiting for the light to change, I glance around and behold: There he stands in front of the Embarcadero, the god Frey himself incarnate as a black haired youth (about Danny's age), radiant in tennis whites, carrying a squash racket, dancing in the late afternoon sun. He must have a great tape in his Walkman, because he's playing air guitar on his squash racket and working it out like some orgiastic rock & roller, say, Jimmy Page in his heyday. His revel takes place in complete silence, and if anybody wants to stare, my pagan lord is too far gone in pleasure to care. Amazingly, no one passing by so much as turns his head; probably Frey is only visible to the faithful. My mouth opens, and I have to raise my hand to contain the sugary ooze of my smile. How I want to run over and give him a kiss, just one (to start with) ... but the light changes to green, the next thing summons me, and I must go.
I switch my song to a devilish old blues numbah and actually sing out loud (but softly, I'm not crazy yet), and in the ambient enchantment am transformed into a blues ballerina, all hips and breasts, in funky gossamer white chiffon with a shimmy of seed pearls. Wearing Friday's freedom-freuden as my tiara of flame, I do the do the rest of the way to BART, and light as a snowflake and sweeter than jelly roll, float down the stairs into the station, singing deep in my throat. The overhead signs start flashing the approach of my train as I pirouette onto the platform.
K. E. Ellingson
K. E. Ellingson prefers reading to writing and only writes because she secretly believes that if she doesn't, her head will fill up with... read more
Fame and Obscurity (with Appreciation to Gay Talese) and our Search for the Best Creative Nonfiction
In a volume entitled The Best Creative Nonfiction, you are probably expecting work by the literary giants—Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Tom... read more