Friday, May 21, 2010

92 days to Bar Mitzvah: an irritable self

Sometimes, living in San Francisco can be confusing. I've always wondered, for example, how people here can simultaneously advocate for the legalization of marijuana and the criminalization of tobacco. Are we talking sprinkle it on your pancakes, a la Bill Lee? Or is it just that there are good kinds of smoke and bad kinds of smoke, and that one type of smoke's qualities are so great that they render it immune from the dangerous qualities of the other?

Whatever the reasoning behind the dichotomy, I don't get it. But then, I am just a caveman.

I work downtown most days, which means that when I leave the office I'm surrounded by San Francisco, which is different than being surrounded by, say, Chicago or Memphis. It's a little bit like being surrounded by Seattle, if Seattle had spent at least one entire decade out of the past ten with the eyes of the entire world upon it, then missed that feeling so badly that it spent the next four decades nostalgically pretending that it was still 1967. Grunge doesn't count.

There are things you learn when you work downtown. Early on, I learned that I had the same hours as Frank Chu, a noted eccentric whose job, it appears, is to carry around a sign with nonsense written on it. Not sort of lucid stuff that I disagree with and thus consider stupid; Chu's message is complete and utter nonsense. "Impeach Clinton/12 Galaxies/Guiltied to a/Zegnatronic Rocket Society" is but one of the mysterious messages written in a shockingly professional and attractive manner on Chu's signs.

In the timeless San Francisco spirit of Emporer Norton, Frank Chu is a local celebrity. He was named "Best Pathological Citizen" in 2007 by The SF Weekly. For a few years there was a bar in the Mission named "12 Galaxies" in his honor. Local businesses buy ad space on his sign -- on the free space left over after his nonsensical messages. Like me, Frank works downtown from 8:30 until 5. Like me, Frank is thought to be harmless. Unlike me, Frank once held his entire family hostage at gunpoint, beating them and shooting at police who came to investigate.

The reason why you don't think this is just another cool aspect of Frank Chu's irreverence is because you're square and we're not.

During the last couple of weeks, I've noticed a new guy showing up on Market Street. He, too, seems to knock off the same time as me, right around five. Unlike Frank, he's not a notable eccentric. He has more in common with the aging hippie couple I see standing next to the Powell Street BART entrance, shilling their personal massage therapy business. Same look: thin gray hair, beatific smile, moustache, REI co-op wardrobe, floppy canvas hat.

His message is simple, or simply complex: "Be yourself," says his sign.

He'd already closed up shop by the time I saw him today. "Be yourself" was hanging down at his side as he dodged the river of TGIF-infused downtown workers. Though he'd worked a full day, he was unbowed. Still wearing a pleasant smile. Why shouldn't he be? After all, how much work can it be to "Be yourself?" Quite a bit, if the daily public carrying of a sign is required to remind us of this simple adage, lest we spend our lives as someone else.

Admittedly, I'm not in the best mood at 5 pm on a weekday, having just spent eight hours at work and facing a BART ride home, where an angry-looking young guy with a beard might push me for jostling him, then stare me down until I turn away. That didn't happen on Wednesday. I'm just saying it could.

And further, my initial feeling about ethereal Baby Boomers carrying signs isn't wholly positive. Still, something about a guy who thinks standing around downtown, holding a sign that says "Be yourself" provides a necessary service struck me as a the expression of the brutally naive at best, the smugly shallow at worst. As a non-hippie, I don't see much difference between carrying a sign saying "be yourself" and soliciting passers-by with the loaded, "Do you have a minute for the environment?" Both are about three degrees from Scientology and/or "Repent! The end is near!"

Of course I'm being too harsh. His intent was probably to gently urge us to stay true to our "real" selves, slipping through the storms of peer pressure and societal norms like a Ford Probe in a windtunnel. I've lived in San Francisco long enough, though, to think that what he really meant was, "None of you are being yourselves. This is bad. You should slip free of the toxic masks you are all wearing and be like me: free."

It this is true, it bothers me on two levels. First, it assumes that, since we're not smiling vacantly and wearing REI gear, we must not be ourselves. We're programmed drones, "yuppie scum." Our messenger bags contain the handcuffs of conformity and ironically, there is only one kind of "real."

But what if being yuppie scum IS "being yourself?" What if being a member of San Francisco's groovy tie-dyed army means nothing more than a uniform of casual attire, a prediliction for mid-tempo, blues-based popular music and adherence to a very strict political code? I tried that uniform on for awhile in college. It was no more "me" than the leather jacket I donned two years later or the Calvin Klein suit I bought for this year's Bar Mitzvah season.

Actually, it was less me. I figured that out at a Grateful Dead show in 1987 when I slammed into a guy and he didn't slam back.

Maybe the VP of Sales where I work, his self is a high-energy, high-anxiety guy who likes to build effective sales strategies. Maybe his self likes to golf, not because it's something he thinks he should do to fit an image of a successful businessman but because he truly enjoys the feel of a chipping from the bunker to within 15 feet of the pin.

The other part that bothers me is all the pressure "be yourself" puts on people who spend time running around worried about EXACTLY THAT. Thanks for the memo, pal. I was starting to convince myself I wasn't a complete sellout. Who annointed you universal conscience, anyway?

My self, obviously, is easily annoyed by people holding signs telling me what to do. This guy probably spent his life not "being yourself." Then, upon retirement or some catalytic moment -- maybe he had a medical scare or he had his first grandchild and realized life was too short -- decided he would dedicate his remaining days to reminding people that their "selves" were too valuable to keep hidden away. Lucky for him he has enough money to spend his days holding a (non-sponsored) sign and still pay the rent.

It's a nice thought. I'd probably believe it, too, if the message wasn't coming from a guy who looks EXACTLY like the kind of guy who would go downtown and hold a sign reading "be yourself," then go home smiling to himself at the number of people whose lives he undoubtedly touched with his simple, serene message.

If one day I left work and saw that the "be yourself" guy had switched signs with Frnak Chu, I'd do a carwheel in honor of the first time in months I'd seen something surprising in my home town.

And yes, I know what Gordon would do.

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