Sketches from the Rain

I was at a bar in the Mission. I’d been walking around downtown for the entire day, and my feet were killing me. It was a pretty dreary day, unfortunately. A cold rain had covered San Francisco and the entire area for weeks – an unseasonably wet winter even for the temperate climate of Northern California.

I’d been thinking about networking that day. You know, whose palms you have to grease to get ahead in life. This is something I’ve never been very good at. When it comes to selling myself to strangers, I’m a complete amateur.

I had gone to a class about the “Business Side of Cartooning” earlier that day. To me, the guy that taught it was a total celebrity.

When I’d first concieved my comic strip I was living in Charleston, South Carolina. I was broke (exclusive rice and beans diet broke) but suddenly fascinated by comic books and comic strips, and so I devoured them every chance I could.

Mostly this was through the Internet and public libraries, the bargain shelf at Borders, and the quarter bin at a local comic shop. There was also a City Paper that seemed to like to stir up trouble with the Good ol’ Boys. There was a mild controversy while I was living there over a cartoon that indicated those involved in Civil War reenactments had “backwards thinking.”

They also carried another controversial little cartoon called the K Chronicles.

The strip’s creator, Keith Knight, is fond of pointing out that the only newspapers that have ever censored his strips are right in the Bay area. I heard that first in his class on cartooning that rainy day in San Francisco, and I remembered that rebellious editor in Charleston.

I learned that day that I am a terrible salesman for myself. Case in point: I went to a class taught by a man whose work I admire, a class bound to be exclusively populated by local cartoonists with knowledge and resources for an aspiring artist like myself, and I did not bring one scrap of work with me. Not one measly doodle.

Ironically, selling myself, at least my personality and work ethic, is my job. I’m a waiter, and every day I smile, bow, place, run, laugh, joke and charm my way to bigger tips. But I never want them to know anything about me. And nearly any time I’ve let my guard down and let them know a little bit about me, the relationship cools. People don’t want their servers to be people, and they really don’t want to believe they’re smart.

The reason superheroes always have double identities is because most cartoonists have double identities. They are people that spend years in thankless day jobs, slaving over their drawings late at night hoping to someday carve out a living for themselves. But to keep that roof over their head so their paper doesn’t get all soggy, they have to keep showing up at the Daily Planet.

But now in a restaurant or bar setting I don’t want to be myself. As a server or bartender, I remove myself from the action of parties and view it from the outside with the other employees. Now I don’t speak to others at parties unless spoken to first. As an employee, someone must give you permission before you can speak to them.

So at the bar in the Mission, my friend asked me to go get a round of drinks. The bar was packed and steamy, a dance floor raged on nearby as funk music blared throughout the dimly lit rafters, so getting the bartender’s attention would be difficult. Worse, it would be difficult to maneuver the crowded bar with three drinks balanced between two hands. A round of four is impossible without help or a tray, three is doable but difficult. Of course, as a waiter, I have the skills, so I was elected.

“Here. Put them on this,” my friend said, handing me his credit card. Since he was buying, I felt a little better about taking the trip.

I got to the bar, and three orders later, it was my turn. I held up my friend’s credit card. “Can I run a tab?” I asked.

“Sorry dude,” came the reply, “cash only.”

“Shit!” I said out loud. And the bartender walked away. “Shit!” I said to myself, and pulled out a twenty. The bartender was back almost instantly.

“Okay, I’ll have a Bushmills neat, a gin and tonic and a pomegranate lemonade.” Pomegranate lemonade? What the hell was I ordering?

The whisky, mine, was up instantly. Of course it was the easiest to make and the easiest to carry. The pomegranate lemonade looked like a pain to make. He was muddling exotic looking fruit with vodka and brown sugar. This bartender was so busy, how could I have asked him for something like that?

I got back flustered that I had to pay for the drinks, and because I had one two many brushes with disaster. I have a sixth sense for when someone is about to randomly back up, but a place as packed as that bar was is frequently unnavigable. I didn’t even have a chance to give my friend his credit card back, when he asked me, “do you want to meet my friend Raquel?”

“Uh.. sure,” I said, forgetting that Malcolm (my friend) had once told me that I should meet Raquel, as in, try and hit it off with her.

He tapped a thin blond girl on the shoulder who was dancing nearby. She turned around and he told her who I was and I who she was. She took my hand by both of hers, and her hands were soft and warm. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Raquel. I work with Malcolm.”

“Oh. So you’re a teacher?”

“Yeah, I’m a math teacher.”

“Oh. Well it’s nice to meet you.”

“Umm.. yeah. It’s nice to meet you too,” she said, rolling her eyes a little. We stood there awkwardly for a second, and then she walked off to talk to one of her friends closer to the bar. I looked at Malcolm and his girlfriend, and I instantly knew what he was thinking: Why the hell didn’t you talk to her?

And I had no idea what the answer was. I was suddenly very embarrassed that I’d blown off the conversation like that, not asking any follow up questions, not offering any information about myself, nothing. I used to be a journalist, but I can’t think of a question for a math teacher.

I immediately started thinking of excuses, I mean, I did wake up hung over that morning, and I’d been wandering around San Francisco and Oakland for most of the day. I had a toothache, hence the whisky, and it was making it more and more painful to eat.

Still, here I was, and suddenly I was feeling like a fool that let this potentially pleasant conversation end after twenty words. As if a self-fulfilling prophecy, I spent the whole night muttering to myself about how terrible I was at talking to people.

Toward the end of the night I was standing near the exit. People were starting to file out as the band was winding down. One obviously very drunk girl crashed into me saying, “you have a very nice face. You look very innocent.” She then backed up and looked at me, “thank you,” was all I could think of to say. “Keep it up,” she said, and walked out of the club.

I stared ahead for a moment. Maybe she was right, I thought. What would an asshole do?

The bar was closing and we spilled into the street. It had stopped raining, at least for the moment. The streets of San Francisco are always loudest at 2 AM. The clubs empty and everyone is organizing after-parties, chatting on cell phones, and making their last-minute desperate pleas for someone to spend the night with.

Of course how all this plays out depends heavily on the neighborhood you’re in. That particular night in the Mission, the bar we had just left was piping out Louis Armstrong doing a wild rendition of the Saints Go Marching In. A group of passing bar goers had stopped in the street to form a dance circle. They swung their hips and twisted back and forth, and many of them dressed the part: the men wore rumpled suit jackets and feathered fedoras, and the women wore knee-length skirts and black hats, though they traded in the stiletto heels for Converse.

Raquel, the young lady that Malcolm had introduced me to, had heartily joined into the dance circle. She was wearing high heels with blue jeans, an unusual fashion statement that is apparently quite common at the moment in San Francisco. I was surprised by how effectively one could stomp their feet in high heels, as she pounded the pavement jumping back and forth with excellent rhythm.

Another teacher from Malcolm’s school, this one a biology teacher, noticed Raquel’s excellent Charleston and joined her, picking up the beat instantly. They danced so well that before long a circle of onlookers had formed around them, clapping and cheering the dancing couple. The biologist must have felt like he needed to put on a show, so he stuck his arm out and flipped Raquel over 360 degrees. The crowd went wild. One of the Biologist’s friends walked away shaking his head and smiling.

“I can’t believe he flipped her. Right over the pavement!” he exclaimed to no one in particular.

When we finally left, the Biologist was giving instructions in flips, holds and carries while dancing. “Wow,” I thought, “I wish I could do that.”

A few days after that I had a dentist appointment for my toothache. I didn’t have any insurance, so I had to go to a local clinic that offered credit programs for those who couldn’t afford dental insurance. It had been years since I’d seen a dentist, and my diagnosis reflected that. I listened in horror as the doctor rattled off a list of problems with my mouth that began with the most dreaded thing a dentist can say to you:

“Oooh. That cavity on tooth three is very bad. Very, very bad. It will need a root canal.” After he walked away I put my head in my hand.

“That sounds really expensive,” I said.

The nurse chuckled to herself sympathetically. “ Sorry,” she said, “that root canal alone is probably going to be a couple thousand…”

I groaned so loud I think the whole office heard me. It’s a big office.

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