the city; the 90s


I was 18, 19, 20, 21, and then 22.  When I remember San Francisco during the day, it was always sunny -- memories are often wrong like that.  When I remember San Francisco at night, it was always wet and smelled like piss -- because just as often, memories are right like that.

We were all so smart -- books in our back pockets, in our shoulder bags, heavy and ruining our posture on sunny afternoons spent meandering through garage sales in The Castro or ThriftTown and record stores in The Mission.  It was different than smart, though...really, it was wordy?  Wordy before the internet, which was a time so different it seems impossible to explain. (I remember the first email I ever sent, from SFSU's Volunteer Center to my then-almost-boyfriend 500 feet away in the dorms.  Addressed "dear you" signed "love, me" no capitals, e.e. cummings-style.)  No matter where we were - in cars, on the late-night 91 Owl bus, in our cinder block dorm rooms or industrial-carpeted damp apartments, we talked.  We filled the space with words.  Words we spoke, words we read, words we listened to out of our friends' mouths.  Even the songs we listened to had too many words, and we bounced around in our cars to them, speeding across the Golden Gate Bridge or stopped in traffic and fidgety with earthquake fear on the Bay Bridge.  We talked and talked and talked and drank good coffee and ate cheap burritos and walked past random detritus that other people left on street corners.  Not just refrigerators or shoes, but bowling balls, three-legged chairs, water-stained coffee tables, boxes (of more) books, stacks of nudie magazines.

For all the things we could find on street corners for free, I still used to steal things from parties.  Little things that might not be missed, that could probably be easily replaced.  A pair of scissors, a postcard, a grocery list, some soap, a barrette, a pretty spoon.

All the parties were the same.

There was always a too low and too long and too rough sofa forced into a too small room.  There was always a boy on the sofa holding court: perched on the edge, his knees almost to his shoulders, his feet in Converse One-Stars or Pumas, his red cup beer on the street-corner coffee table.  He talked.  So did the other boys.  Sometimes they nodded.  Sometimes they argued.  Sometimes girls sat nearby, waiting to see what would happen next, in thrift store dresses with buttons and heavy black shoes and red lipstick.  If all the boys had the same shoes, all the girls had the same lipstick.

I used to find a space between the sofa and the bookshelf (there was also always a bookshelf), and I would sit on the floor, half-hidden, where my eyes could peek over the arm of the sofa and I could tuck my black-shoed feet in, so no one would trip over me.

I was there on the floor the night a boy with a kind face and a vintage Polaroid and muscular legs and forearms (Was he an athlete?  Probably just a drummer.) glared at me from across the room.  "He's awful," he said, pointing to the Tom Robbins book in my hands.

I looked at him over the top of the pages for maybe too long and then reached over to the bookshelf and stuck my finger in a gap between books.  "It's not mine," I said.

He looked amused.

"These people have really bad books and really good hair products," I said.  "Do you know them?"

He raised an eyebrow and laughed out loud and came over and squeezed his calves and forearms and the rest of him into the small space with me.  He had a tattoo on his leg; this was back when we all only had one tattoo.  We spent the night pulling books off the shelf and making fun of our party hosts (he did know them) and accidentally spilling our beers on the carpet.

Much later, he kissed me on the wet porch, and I walked home with my hand stuffed in my jean jacket pocket, clutching a half-empty plastic container of Kiehl's Silk Groom Serum.

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