Love is but the song we sing, 
And fear’s the way we die 
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry  

“Get Together”—The Youngbloods

We left Vegas early in the morning. It’s a short, scenic flight from the desert into San Francisco. If you are lucky, the plane flies over Hoover Dam and Lake Tahoe. San Francisco international is not one of those mega-airports in Chicago, Miami, or Zurich: you don’t need a bicycle, tram, taxi, or a Sherpa to find your way around. You just walk out; it is as easy as that. Everything is laid back. After fifteen minutes of waiting, our luggage came out of the big-merry-go-round; no hurry, no one jockeying for position, trying to get a head start toward the imaginary finish line. Things were different in San Francisco: I didn’t feel the violent intensity of Chicago and New York, you know, that “I have a shotgun under the counter” look that the guy at the mini mart gives you. There aren’t any terrorist alerts, no “beware of gypsy cabs” signs, and the travelers don’t have the killer instinct. San Francisco is an oasis, an anomaly, a microcosm that didn’t correspond to any place at all. I almost thought we were in Montreal. The prevailing attitude was one of “the future would be there when you arrive,” so what’s the fuss? It is one of the most liberal minded places on the planet, but it’s different from the rest of the state. California was the place that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the state that made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. No wonder Republicans fear San Francisco.

We collected our bags and headed out to catch a cab. Within seconds, we witnessed a two-car collision at the airport. A van sideswiped a taxi as it pulled into traffic. Even though the driver was distraught, I never got the idea that shots were going to be fired. San Francisco was cool. Not “cool” as in hip, but “cool” as in “we were freezing our asses off. When we left Las Vegas the temperature was around 105º; in late summer, the weather in San Francisco was around fifty degrees cooler. We expected snow.

Like most taxi drivers in the world, ours could barely speak English. He was an Italian, who had been in San Francisco for over 35 years. He knew the city like the back of his hand, but he didn’t care to make conversation. The shocks in his van were gone, and we bounced our way down the freeway from San Bruno to downtown San Francisco. When we hit the city, I noticed that there are specific lanes marked out for city bus traffic. The lane, however, is full of taxis, bicycles, and other cars. An old friend described the rules as the following: “The bus lane means that anyone can and will use this lane, but if you’re not a bus you might get a ticket, and at any time, you could be unceremoniously mowed down by a larger vehicle.” I liked the place already: road rage is one of my favorite indulgences.

As we headed toward SOMA, the South Market district in downtown, a radio announcement came on for a new medication that treated sleep disorders. It was being pitched to those who worked late hours and just couldn’t adjust to their schedules. Since I used to work the grave yard shift at a restaurant, I took special interest. Unbeknownst to the general public, waiters, waitresses, cooks, bartenders, and kitchen workers, sleep when they work and play when they sleep. Their world is up-side-down. Grave yarders are true creatures of the night; they wander from place to place, trying to wind down after a day of king-hell stress, returning to their lairs at the crack of dawn. When the rest of the world is vacation, they hunker down and get ready for the busiest day of the year. For them, there is no Christmas vacation, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or New Year’s Eve. So, after a long night of work, nobody can sleep. The stress and pressure of a full-tilt kitchen is like having a thousand volts of electricity being shot through your ass. By the time you clock out, you’re so wired that the only thing that will take the edge off is a few beers, some weed, and no-holds -barred sex. So, I was interested in what this new treatment had to offer.

The description sounded great: “Reclaim your life; rediscover the day; re-experience a rebirth of what it means to have a normal life,” then came the mind-numbing list of possible side effects. The announcer said, “Don’t take this treatment if you have a history of cirrhosis of the liver or kidney diseases, angina or any other kind of heart problem. You should also avoid this drug if you have a history of drug addiction or high blood pressure. This drug affects the central nervous system; it impairs thinking and reaction time. If you operate heavy machinery, you should not use this treatment. Further, the treatment could also cause life-threatening skin rashes, severe enough to require hospitalization. The rash is typically accompanied by high fever, sore throat, migraine headaches, vomiting and severe blistering, peeling and flaking off of the skin. This treatment is also known to be harmful to unborn and nursing babies, and can make certain types of birth-control less effective. The most-common side effects may include: agonizing headache; stomach cramps; nasal and anal bleeding, blood in stool, urine and vomit; irregular heartbeat; bloating; swelling of the face, lips and tongue; blurred vision; kidney stones; severe nausea; psoriasis; dizziness; slobbering; stupor; forgetfulness; depression; slurred and lethargic speech, and trouble sleeping. Suicidal depression, anxiety, seizures, thoughts of impending doom, hallucinations, psychosis, mania, aggressive and violent behavior, and other yet undetermined mental problems are not uncommon.”

There was a deep silence in the car as my brain locked up: fear, denial, and then rationalization. At first, I assumed it was one of those jokes in which the radio announcers advertised a fake product for a few laughs. What kind of company would sell a product that would turn normal stressed out humans into lobotomized speed freaks? But this stuff was real: the commercial was as serious as a heart attack. How much different was it from Crystal Meth and Ecstasy? Was it any better than the synthetic weed, the stuff that’s so strong that it will send a first time smoker in search for any sharp instrument just to make it stop. It took me a while to process it, but I knew this treatment was worthless. Cooks worked with too many sharp knives over blazing stoves. The heart problems and high blood pressure issues excluded the managerial staff. The history of drug addiction and cirrhosis of the liver eliminates most of the dishwashers.  The “skin rash” thing crosses off the wait staff. I am not going to order a meal from a girl who looks like she has a case of leprosy? And, finally the cruncher was the chemically-induced possible psychosis: restaurant workers en masse are on the edge to begin with, we’re capable of burning the place down just for kicks.

To be continued…

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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