I arrive in SF late afternoon and greet the long-time friend with whom my mother and I will stay for the next few days. Head down, she is working intently. Before I can get a word out and without looking up, she says: “your mother . . . (deep breath) the Queen of Clean . . . is coming and I STILL have so much to do.” There is fear in her voice, her eyes are wide and I detect beads of sweat on her forehead. I approach slowly, so as not to make any sudden movements, and attempt to pry the vacuum from her cold grip. She gives up willingly, then slumps into a chair like a crackhead who has just been confronted.
Truth be told, my mother is known by that title amongst my friends. She maintains a spotless house – “only when visitors are coming,” she says – and will vacuum at any hour of the day or night – “dog hair doesn’t sleep, why should I?” She claims not to hold others to the same impossible standards, but it does sometimes feel as though she will arrive with white glove in hand to dust test counter tops and windowsills. I have come to love her visits to New York, as my apartment is cleaner, and better organized, by the time she leaves.
My high school chum and I spend a few minutes catching up, then head out to feast on Kalbi, Kimchi Pancake and other Korean delights. On the way, we collect her daughter from pre-school; she is a rambunctious, curious four year old who demands attention. It is difficult to refuse her; calling me “uncle,” she has a barrage of questions and statements. Uncle, where have you been? Uncle, will you play with me? Uncle, I want to tell you something. Uncle, you know what? . . .
Later that evening, I gather my mother from SF International. Besides being known as Vacuum Mistress, she is also a self-proclaimed shopping addict. She will spend hours – ‘on the hunt’ as she calls it – in Ross and other discount retailers. Often, she will produce items and list their retail value, sale price, then what she paid for it. A shirt that was originally $75 was marked down to $20 and she got it for $4. Her current drug of choice: DSW Warehouse. She has identified the locations in the Bay Area and lists them, from memory, along with ALL the locations of Ross, Nordstrom Rack and Trader Joe’s.
The next morning, I strap the four year-old, my friend, and mother into the Jeep and head towards the shopping capital of SF: Union Square. Parking is an issue as the car-top carrier means my truck is oversized, street parking in that location during the day is nearly impossible, and garages in the city maintain low clearance. We find one with a seven foot, four inch clearance. I hesitate, then enter. The SportBox on my roof scrapes the garage ceiling at times and I must be careful to avoid water pipes, but I find a spot wedging my Dusty (as she is called) into a “compact” spot. As we exit, the only thing I think of is what it would be like to be in an underground parking garage during an earthquake.
In no time, we are street-level among the major retailers of the world: Macy’s, H&M, DSW. I love malls and shopping areas for their dream-like quality; they seem to scream “you can be anything you want (if you buy what we sell)” from their display windows. As we walk, it feels like a brave new world. I observe one lady: she finds something, looks at it, a smiles crosses her face. She then puts it down and her face returns to the blank stare I see on many of the shoppers in the store. Retail zombies!
After an hour of viewing row upon row of last year’s shoe fashions, which are displayed as carefully as museum exhibits, I step outside for some fresh air and sunshine. On Powell Street I witness the world happening – workers step out to cop Starbucks, tourists dart in and out of stores, people go on with their lives. I notice a half-naked, presumedly homeless man pushing his hat into the crowd on the street. His pants fall just below his waistline and he’s thrown some of this belongings on the street next to him. An officer approaches and asks him to move on. Once the man in blue has turned his back, the vagabond flicks up his middle finger and makes a grotesque face. In a few moments, another dispossessed fills the vacated spot. He carries a sign proclaiming “Hungry. Will you help?” I slip him a dollar, he clearly needs it today more than I.
A few minutes later I get a text: “In the basement,” it reads, “Shoe heaven. Meet me here.” I wander downstairs thirty minutes later and mom has four pairs of shoes in her hands. Her eyes are wide and I can smell bargains in the air. She displays the shoes for me, but I can hardly tell the difference between them. According to her: 1) they are all on sale (“I pay twice as much in Hawaii for these”) and 2) they each have a different variation (“this pair has twisted rope, which looks pretty, doesn’t it?”). By the time she leaves San Francisco, my mother will have nine pairs of shoes in her possession. Emelda Marcos would be proud.
We stop for lunch at the Westfield San Francsico Centre, housed in the original Emporium on Market Street. The food court is upscale. No Burger King, no Panda Express (the other fast-food I secretly indulge). For $15 I get a small bowl of pasta, which gives me gas, and an orange Pellegrino. My friend and mother order more sensibly: kobe beef salad, steak plate. I usually think the grass is greener when it comes to other peoples’ food, but today it’s true. No matter, it gives us time to chat and catch up. After a stop at the gelato stand, where we turn over more than the price of gold per ounce, we make a quick bathroom stop. On the way out of the grazing smorgasbord, it strikes me that that we are in a windowless basement, not all that dissimilar from the garage where we parked the car, with some obvious exceptions. Looking around, I wonder what it would be like to be in an earthquake in the underground food court.