Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Gathering of Ghosts

It is a crisp San Francisco afternoon, with the sun and the wind balancing each other so that those who love the heat never get too cold and those who prefer the cold never get too hot. The wind from a passing white bus whips a long piece of hair from my loose bun and I feel the buzzing energy of the city streets. I am standing at a busy intersection, the long store laden Powell St. is behind me, and in front of me, across the busy Market Street, is the lavish Westfield Mall. Powell St never physically meets Market St. Between the two streets is a large island of cement which funnels into the two wide sidewalks that run from east to west on Market St. At the end of Powell St, right before the large cement island, is the main boarding station for the famous San Francisco trolley cars. There is a continuous long line of people standing around the curving roped poles that are there to keep them in order. Men with cameras around their necks board the blond wooden cars and hold on to the golden poles. I watch them lean out of the trolley as they make their way up Powell St.
Sharing the same cement space are a handful of street vendors. Their small wooden carts, which line the green metal fence on the periphery, are covered in metal jewelry made from forks bent into dozens of shapes, beaded necklaces and friendship bracelets. There are screeching buses and cars that zoom along Market St. An endless crowd flows down Powell street, laden with shopping bags. Here, in this land of consumer frenzy, is also the boundary between the world of opulence and the land of the destitute. Less than a block away, the street turns into an urban hell, where the red lights of old and dirty porn shops glare over the homeless drunks who sleep in the forgotten corners of broken buildings. The rag covered men and the shrunken faced women spill over into this clean, well ordered financial zone. On the strip of pedestrian concrete, an aging black man, with gray in his beard, holds a neon pink picket sign which says "Jesus loves You." People walk by him as if he was just inanimate feature of the landscape.
Next to me is a small card table with voter registration forms and Obama T-shirts and buttons. The table is staffed by a tough looking black man who is probably about 30 years old. His eyes are hidden by his black lens sunglasses and the image of Obama’s face on his shirt is outlined in gold. I watch him for a while, standing erect and proud, with his hands in his pockets. For most of the afternoon he folds and re-folds his pile of political T-shirts and constantly rearranges the contents of the table…moving buttons and making it all look more clean and organized. Next to him is a muscular black busker wearing sunglasses. He is topless and wears loose maroon basketball shorts, tap shoes and white socks. He has set up a small square of wood for his tap platform. There is a small amplifier right beside him, on top of which is a laptop, which he occasionally fumbles with to change his playlist. Every now and then, he tap dances, drawing a big crowd. When I first show up, he is dancing with an older blond woman, a woman who clings to her fading youth through gestures of fashion and makeup. He holds her tightly, dancing to an old tune and moving like an unlikely pair in an old Sinatra movie.
I am wearing an oversized T-shirt, which I have tied in a knot along the small of my back. It’s an eggshell white color and in the center is a colorful picture of an idyllic farm. The image is set inside a large oval frame, over which is the name of the company: Cascadian Farm My hair is tied back and I have a matching baseball hat on my head. I glance at my unrecognizable image in a storefront window. My job is to introduce the public to the company’s new product: dark chocolate granola. There are two pallets full of mini sample boxes. It is my job to give them all away.
The set up is fragile. There are two pieces of wood, creating a three sided base which forms the bottom of the table, and a long white plank of wood which forms the countertop of the table. But today, the screw has fallen off the bottom, and our three-sided table base only has two sides. It works, but a little extra pressure will cause it to fall. The table is high, about four feet tall and about 6 feet in length. On top of the long flat surface there are two dark brown woven baskets. To keep up the appearance of abundance, as soon as supplies run short, I keep refilling the baskets with the smaller boxes of free cereal samples. In between the baskets are a high stack of coupons, worth $1 off the price of a large box of cereal. I have put a box of cereal on top of the coupons, to keep them from blowing away, but every so often, someone takes the sample box/paper weight and the little fliers blow away in the wind, scattering like colorful leaves over the wide gray sidewalk.
My job partner, Kelly, gives me a five minute training and the disappears. I am left to distribute the samples alone. There are a group of people in front of me. They all want samples. The more people want them, the more other people want to know what it is that people want and the small group multiplies geometrically. The crowd grows larger by the second, as more and more pedestrians stop to see the cause of so much interest. There are little old Asian women, college kids, city workers in their brown and orange vests, middle aged homeless men in smelly rags, all of then unified in their quest for a "free" something. The baskets on the table soon are empty, I can not fill them fast enough. People are grabbing five and six packets at a time.
I am holding onto a large cardboard box, full of 50 small sample boxes. I put two directly into the outstretched hands in front of me, their palms open in a gesture of obvious demand. I cannot hand them out fast enough. In the commotion, the old little Asian women that barely reach my elbow are taking boxes of cereal out of the larger shipping packages on my right side and filling their shopping bags with the free samples. The mob is pushing and pulsing, trying to reach me, the benefactor of free cereal. All I see are outstretched hands all around me. They have surrounded me like a hungry third world mob. They are not satisfied with two boxes, they do not go away after I fill their hands with another package. They open their other hand, asking for more.
In their push towards me, the crowd puts too much weight on the unsteady table top, and the long board falls over; the baskets and the coupons fall with the board to the ground. As I bend down to try and pick up the coupons, the crowd realizes the source of free cereal has moved, and they push closer to try and reach me. I am kneeling on the ground, trying to stand, but there are people on all sides of me, all of them with outstretched hands. I yell for the crowd to back up and they move away slightly. I dump an entire large carton of samples into the small woven baskets. The crowd makes an "ohhhhh" sound as the basket is quickly filled and the rest of the samples fall to the ground. I buy a couple seconds as people scramble for the small boxes on the street and others reach into the basket. The people are preoccupied for the moment, and I fix the table top and quickly put out more boxes of cereal.
The people still want more. Once they realize they can have one little box of cereal, they ask for two. When I give them two, they want four. Some people want entire cases. One man in a green floral shirt comes back every 10 minutes, taking three boxes away with him each time. I notice myself getting possessive, wanting to teach the people good manners. Somehow, for some unexplained reason, I don’t want to indulge their greed. I start to be more firm with my offerings. I only give each one two boxes, no matter how much they want. When someone asks for more, I say no, a polite but strong voice with the deep sound of finality. An older man, much shorter than me, stands by my side, unwilling to go away, unwilling to accept just two. He keeps on asking, he keeps saying: "just one more… that’s all I want."
A little more is never enough. We seek to fill what cannot be filled, with cereal, with clothes, with sex, with money, with love, with pleasure. This voracious form is never satisfied. It can swallow the world and still look towards other stars with naked desire. I see this in the open demanding hands and the eager bulging eyes. I see it in the discarded cereal packets and the arms cradling many shopping bags. I see it in myself when the day is over and, as I slowly walk to the subway, my body shivers with the waves of endless hunger that demand to be immediately satisfied.

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