Friday, August 10, 2007

On the street

It's a weekday afternoon in downtown San Francisco, on and around Market Street. It's been a while since I moved to the suburbs, and I have forgotten what it's like to be part of a racially and culturally diverse city.

I spy a laundromat clothes basket, a wire basket on wheels, like a grocery-store cart, with a rod overhead for hanging clothes. It's parked on the sidewalk, no laundromat nearby, and it's filled with bright red fire extinguishers. No one else seems to notice it; no one appears to claim it.

A middle-aged Asian woman passes me on the sidewalk, neatly dressed in a bright printed T-shirt and baseball cap. She is carrying an empty plastic bag and holding up a large pair of kitchen tongs. This mystery, at least, is partially explained when she pauses and uses the tongs to root through a trash can.

Someone is calling out, at intervals, "BAAH-dy oil!" Body oil? I think it's one of the street vendors set up at tables and tents in the plaza, but then I trace the voice to a man in black T-shirt and jeans, striding down the sidewalk ahead of me. He has no table or suitcase, nothing in his hands.

A group of young people, all in black and denim and metal and leather, cross the street. In the lead is a tall guy with long dreadlocks gathered at the back of his neck, topped by a black three-cornered hat, like a pirate.

My destination is the Market Street Gallery, currently showing "Reinventing Barbie - The 5th Annual Altered Barbie" show. Seventy-five artists are exhibiting photography, quilts, video and 3-D art described as "their reworking of the American toy staple." My original target was the Matisse exhibit at SFMOMA, but who could resist Altered Barbie? Not this girl.

The gallery is closed, with a note on the door, "Back in 30 minutes." Does that mean 5 minutes from now, or 30? I'm approached by a distressingly young woman who just wants 30 cents for a soda. I don't want to linger.

I pass a store selling sporting goods and Army surplus. A sign in the window reads, "Burning Man supplies - goggles - camo/desert netting - parachutes."

A few blocks away, the glitzy shopping malls begin, luring tourists. I pass a man who appears at first to be a maintenance worker, wearing a faded cap, a blue work shirt and jeans. He holds a long copper pipe, taller than himself, loosely under one arm, resting one end on the ground. In one hand, he clutches a used paper plate flat against his stomach. The other hand is outstretched, to no one in particular, to everyone.

Later in the afternoon, I see the lady with the tongs again, on the same block. Now she's lugging two stuffed plastic bags, still brandishing the tongs.

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