In the old days I would pick up a couple bagels in the morning at the Syrians’ across the street but they refused to take Dustin’s foodstamps one day and so I don’t shop there anymore. Getting them was always something of a hassle because I would have to run back home and cut them in half before heading off to work so picking them up on the way at Katz Bagels was something of a revelation.
Initially it was a rocky exchange because they didn’t believe that I didn’t want them to wrap each bagel in a sheet of wax paper and then have them tucked into a paper bag. I would wave my wrinkled brown sack desperately and they eventually understood that it was acceptable to me for them to hand me the bagels individually, without wrapping, so I could drop them in my own bag. Insofar as these transactions go life was good.
This morning I was running a little late, running a little spaced-out due to the cold and cold-medication, and saw I was about to run into Bernie. He’s a blind guy who sometimes raps his cane across the sidewalk of Haight on his way to wherever he wanders. Once upon a time I helped him out of a situation involving a wall and walked him a block back the direction from which I had come which involved holding hands. He used to teach at Star King which is in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I think he may have even put in some time at Daniel Webster where both my sister and I went before sneaking into the back door of Rooftop. I’m not ashamed of holding the guy’s hand while we walk down the street but I was concerned about getting to work in a timely manner and without keeling over so I held my breath and sped around him as silently as my jangling pockets and rattling backpack would allow.
The normal counter jockey at Katz was on a ladder up front doing something with an aerosol can and the store’s security gate. This was only cause for concern because I knew that he understood my standard operating procedure in regards to my paper bag needs. The woman behind the counter was a stranger who immediately grabbed a bag when I told her what I wanted and I quickly assured her it would be unnecessary. She proceeded to become confused about how I would want my bagels sliced and through a complicated dance of hand gestures and head bobbing we worked out an agreement wherein she would cut the two bagels like anyone in their right mind would and I wouldn’t strangle her. Unlike her coworkers she insisted on my paying before handing the bagels over and another woman appeared behind the counter as I forked the cash over at the register. Suddenly I had two bagels in a new white bag with a sheet of wax paper and I took this offering with the brown paper bag in hand hoping that a point would be made. Maybe I should have made a scene, maybe I should have skipped the tip.
Outside the guy on the ladder recognized me and we exchanged hello’s. I asked if the gate was sticking as was often the case at my own place of employment. No, he said, indicating streaks of blue edging the Katz Bagel sign. They graffiti’d the store. Oh, I sympathized, while he indicated other evidence of vandalism next door and across the street. Yeah, I said, my building too. “The blacks, they walk the street at night and just write on the walls” he told me. Ah. Well.
First of all, I didn’t say, I can’t remember seeing a black kid tag anything since 1994; San Francisco’s graffiti population is comprised almost exclusively of middle-class high school whites or the imported edgy indie-rock State students who have beards and hooded sweatshirts. Secondly, I didn’t add, on any given night the small clusters of people on the street late at night are a hodge-podge of deranged homeless and junkies and I have never seen a single member of this motley tribe do anything remotely close to tagging. The guy at Katz Bagel bid me a good day and went back to cleaning the graffiti off the store. I resumed my walk to work and immediately found myself behind Bernie again. I hadn’t noticed if he passed me while I stood outside learning about the neighborhood’s vandalism problem or the trenchant racial distrust between my black and latino neighbors but I certainly hope he was out of earshot. He may be blind but he’s hardly deaf and Bernie is most certainly black. I held my breath and sped around him as silently as my jangling pockets and rattling backpack would allow.
Photo of Katz by flickr member Jackprize