By the time you finish reading this essay, you will think I am a depraved, cold-hearted, unfeeling subhuman. Someone on the level of Monty Burns, J.R. Ewing or Dick Cheney. In other words, some of the things I am about to reveal will possibly offend you.
But I want to be honest. When I take a walk in my San Francisco neighborhood, sometimes I like to sidestep certain annoying people or things. And I do have a certain guilty pleasure in artfully avoiding that which is detrimental to me having a decent walk.
You see, my family has one car. So we daily negotiate which adult will drive the Honda, depending on the whims of scheduling and public transportation. On the days when my husband takes the car, my daughter and I tend to get creative. Sometimes we take the train to various parks or child-friendly destinations, or mooch rides from friends. But most days we run errands on foot with my kiddo cruising in her stroller or on her tricycle.
Our jaunts up to the main commercial corridor of my neighborhood usually take an hour or more, roundtrip. These walks offer opportunities for fitness, fresh air, and a sense of community.
But there are also weird people. And sometimes I am simply not in a state of mind to deal with a weird person every ten feet. Especially when my kid is wailing, my feet are tired, my throat is parched and I just want to buy my dang stamps and toilet paper and get home. So when these days occur, I eschew all moral responsibility as a good member of this society and I take a circuitous route that allows me to avoid interacting with all manner of bothersome folks.
When we leave the house for our walk, we first head up a street that is loaded with pedestrians, cars, and trains. On days when I don’t want to haggle with confrontation, I am careful to stay on the west side of this street to avoid the Dog People hanging out around the pet store.
Offensive item number one: Sometimes I am very annoyed at the Dog People.
In a city where “I have a dog and I vote” bumper stickers outnumber “Baby on Board” window tags by ten to one, such a statement could indeed cause rabid throngs of “Dog is my co-pilot” citizens to toss me into the Bay faster than you can throw a tennis ball at a Yorkshire Terrier.
So let me just say that I really do love dogs. I grew up in a house full of dogs. I love the well-cared-for dogs of my friends, my family, and my neighbors. I know from experience that they are wonderful, precious companions. It’s just that, since I have lived in San Francisco, some of their owners have created a bad name for the Dog People.
It’s not just the feces in front of my house every morning or the clean fresh smell of urine on my stoop. It’s the giant unleashed Rottweilers that run up and thrust their snouts into my two-year-old’s face. The doggy owners usually laugh and go, “Isn’t that cute? Killer just lo-oves babies!” Meanwhile, my kid furiously lashes her arms and head about in terror.
After successfully maneuvering around the piles of fresh dog poo and avoiding free-roaming slobbering Pit Bulls, we arrive at the main drag ready to run our errands. The first group to steer clear of on this street is the cluster of homeless people who lurk around the parking lot of the grocery store.
Offensive item number two: Sometimes I go out of my way evade sketchy panhandlers.
It is impossible to avoid homeless people in San Francisco. It is a tragic, heart-wrenching problem, argued by many as the biggest political issue in this City. Should we give them cash? Better social programs? I don’t know. I am not an expert in public policy nor am I planning to run for mayor. I do know that some of the regulars in our neighborhood are friendly and superficially harmless—like the guy in front of the taqueria with whom we regularly exchange pleasantries. But there are others who seem far less stable. It’s just a mother’s gut instinct.
Once we pass the grocery store on the opposite side of its parking lot, we must quickly cross the street, sometimes jaywalking, so that we can avoid going past the Starbucks at peak hours. This is the time that all of the solicitors for various non-profits hang out and harass passers-by.
Offensive item number three: I loathe being put on the spot by street fund-raisers, no matter how good the cause.
During times of busy foot-traffic, college kids are paid minimum wage to jump in the path of pedestrians. They yell, “Excuse me! Do care about defeating the Republicans in the next election?” Or “Do you have a minute for the future of California’s environment?” If you say no, you are a jerk. If you say yes you have to sit down with them on a bench for thirty minutes of spiel while your child goes berserk. As a former fundraiser, I want to yell, “Get to the pitch already!”
Once I sneak by the college-kid solicitors, I can stay on the north side of the street for quite a while. This ensures I circumvent the political petition people who park in front of the post office or, on Saturdays, the Farmers’ Market.
Offensive item number four: I don’t like filling out a thousand petitions on the street to support political actions that remind me of my total ignorance on the Governator’s latest crusade to end the free intake of oxygen in the state of California.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Are you registered to vote in California?”
The first time I heard this I thought it was a voting drive and I immediately piped up that of course I am. “Good, then can you please sign these twelve petitions to introduce propositions numbers 68 through 79 on the November ballot? We’ll need your full address, phone number, email, date of birth and signature on each form. Thank you!”
They neglect to say, “While you are distracted with scribbling down your college thesis in triplicate, we’ll repay the favor by allowing your toddler to climb off her tricycle and run into the street.”
So now I sometimes take the long way when I see the petition people lined up with their clipboards.
All of this avoidance is refreshing. My walk goes well, my kid is happy, and I don’t have to keep saying “NO” to every person I pass by.
However, there is a small caveat that I must contend with when trying to weasel out of directly saying “NO” to so many people. I must walk past the storefront window of a kooky old person who insists on displaying, for the entire world to view every racist, xenophobic, homophobic, hate-spewing idea that most people move to San Francisco to escape.
One of my favorites, a direct “screw you” to the City’s strong multi-ethic populations, is a simple hand-lettered sign taped in the window that shouts, “ENGLISH spoken here!!!”
It is a creepy display, sometimes nasty and often entertaining, but it is not something that I want to explain to my child just yet. As soon as she learns to read I am going to have to explain concepts like “foreigners go home” and “looney (sic) liberals” to her.
However, as bizarre as this window may be, and as little as I like to patronize its 1950s rhetoric with my eyeballs, some days I prefer to stroll past it rather than fend off the advances of yet another person on the street who wants something.
This fascinating window also tends to push me back into the arms of humanity. After an afternoon of avoiding people and situations that aren’t my cup of tea, I am always struck by the militant storefront messenger. He must be so terrified of encountering anyone even slightly different from himself that he can only respond by posting angry tirades in the front of his shop. Do I want to end up like him?
At end of my socially irresponsible stroll, I finally get home. My weary feet throb from pounding miles of concrete in ill-fitting shoes. Grace demands that I carry her (and the diaper bag and the bag of groceries and her toy baby) up the flight of stairs to our front door.
As I crash into the living room, I realize that, instead of feeling guilty for saying no, no, no to every person who crosses my path, I feel guilty for hiding from these people in the first place.
But my refusal to deal with confrontation does shorten my walk by a good forty-five minutes. My child has not had a public meltdown in front of the flower shop and I artfully dodged being scared by German Shepherds of unknown obedience school pedigree.
Some days it’s better to just choose the guilty pleasure and risk feeling like Monty Burns.
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