Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Intermission #5 - A Stranger Sends Me a T-Shirt in the Mail

Jason Simon, the brains behind Caffeinated Conversations, sent me one of his t-shirts in the mail. I feel like a caffeinated superhero! Check it out:

T-Shirt Front 03

T-Shirt Back

Drinking A Cuppa Joe

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Intermission #4 - Buying Wine from a Stranger, or How I Spend My Saturday Nights When Left to My Own Devices

Picture this. It's Saturday night. I've got the apartment to myself. Nicole's out of town and visiting her parents. Time for some wild shenanigans, right?

Well, if by "wild shenanigans" you mean heading to Safeway to buy some salad mix, goat cheese, and red wine, then you and I should party some time!

So, yeah, I'm ready for some madness. My friendly, neighborhood Safeway is only a few blocks from the apartment, so before you know it I'm inside and quickly finding my goat cheese and salad mix. I'm going to make one hell of a beet salad! Soon all that's left is a stroll down the wine aisle and the choosing of a tasty bottle of red. To be honest, I can't taste the difference between "good" and "mediocre" wine, so I usually make my purchase based on a price tag under $10 and a nifty label. I'm a sucker for a good label. On this particular Saturday night, I land on this guy here:

Hey Mambo
What can I say? I like the clean label, the word Mambo, and the enthusiastic couple dancing in the top right corner. I'm thinking this wine is going to kick my Saturday-night-beet-salad-party up a notch!

Happy with my items, I head to the checkout. I end up in a long line, but a cashier who's been busy flipping through Glamour at the magazine rack waves me over to another register. After some idle chit chat ("Hey." "Hi, how you doing?" "Good. You?" "Good, good.") and the beeping through of my salad mix and goat cheese, the cashier gets to my bottle of red wine. Immediately, he starts cracking up: "Mambo wine? Really? What the hell is this?"

I don't respond. I'm busy trying to slide my uncooperative Safeway membership card into the little machine. The cashier, however, doesn't really seem to be addressing me. Staring at the bottle in his hand, he's more half-shouting his comments above the general din of the store either to himself or maybe to the Hey Mambo label.

Still working with my scratched up savings card and the debit machine, I almost don't notice what happens next. My cashier actually leaves his register. With my bottle of wine.

"Hey, Billy!" he yells at the much busier cashier at the next register over. "Check out this guy's wine - Mambo wine!" Chuckle, chuckle. Guffaw, guffaw. "Can you believe this shit? Mambo wine!" He then displays the bottle, label out like a sommelier, to the other cashier. "Mambo wine!" At this point, I'm finally realizing that not only is this guy really ragging on my bottle of wine, but he and his other cashier buddy are enjoying Hey Mambo so much that both their lines are starting to back up.

After a few more laughs, some more comments I can't quite hear, and my eventual successful swiping of both my membership and debit cards, my cashier comes back and I think we might finally be able to finish this transaction. But no. He's just come back briefly to look at the screen above his register. "And look at this!" he yells over to his buddy. "It's not even that cheap! Can you believe that Mambo wine ain't even cheap?"

What to do now? I'm unsure of how I should react. My cards are swiped. An unhappy teenager has bagged my salad mix and goat cheese. I'm just waiting on my wine. I feel strangely detached from the whole situation, partially because this guy's talking about me and my wine like I'm not even there and partially because I can't believe he's taken this joke this far. I don't feel offended or upset or mad. Just detached. And maybe a little hungry. I'm also curious, considering Hey Mambo's seven-dollar price tag, what this cashier considers to be a fair price for a bottle of wine.

After some more laughter and the repeated shouting of "Mambo wine!", my cashier returns. Still smiling and staring at the label, he shakes his head in disbelief. "Mambo wine," he says again. "Can you believe it? What is this shit? The Mexican Rambo?"

Seriously. "The Mexican Rambo." That's what he says.

"Here you go, my man," he laughs, at long last addressing me and looking me in the eye. He hands me the bottle. "You have a good night."

I take the bottle and leave the store. I think I even say thanks. And you know what? I did end up having a pretty good night.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Coffee + Stranger #12 - Coffee with Negligence

I've been negligent.

After five months of radio silence, I've decided that
Coffee with a Stranger needs a quick update. Here's what's been happening since August 29th:

1) Despite the lack of writing, I've actually still been meeting with a few strangers. Many apologies to everyone I've met but still haven't written about! I promise I'll crack down and get writing soon, but hopefully the free coffee (and good company?) made the meeting worth your while...

Strangers yet to be written about include a friend of my sister's who proved there's still a whole lotta love for Wayne Gretzky in Canada, an awesome couple from Santa Cruz, and a writer and former professor who just happens to be Stranger #10's partner. You may remember Stranger #10, Bob, for his strong opinions and racy photographs.

2) Denise Sims, image consultant, spotter of northern hands, and Stranger #7, recently popped up in my inbox with the following email:

Hi Mike,

Totally different topic . . .

Are you interested in generating ‘residual’ income?

If so, call me.

There’s something I’ve been doing for 4 months. This month I am making $2500 from it, while having done my own business in the meantime! Wow!!!

I’m impressed.

All the best.


I decided to pass, but if you're interested, I can get you in touch with her. I might also be meeting with a friend of Denise's some time next week. Stay tuned!

3) Keeping with the theme of past strangers, remember Stranger #9? He was the talkative fellow who I dubbed as "A Man with a PhD in Projects." Well, he was in an independent movie called "The Bigtop" and the director of the film, Devon Reed, recently sent me a free DVD of the movie and a CD of the soundtrack. Thanks, Devon! Maybe I'll write a review once I get a chance to watch it....

4) A photo I took from my trip to the Albany Bulb was picked up by a blog that loves all things Wizard of Oz. Check it out here.

5) Jason Simon, friend of
Coffee with a Stranger and the brains behind Caffeinated Conversations, is sending me a free t-shirt! (I get excited by mail. And free stuff.) Jason, a much more prolific blogger than I, is working on a cool project in the Seattle area that involves bringing strangers together over cups of coffee. Check out his site and flickr page to see what he's doing. The t-shirt, which I'll be sure to model for you once it shows up on my doorstep, is another of Jason's ideas to connect people face-to-face instead of from behind their computers. You can learn more about his t-shirts and his project here.

6) Jason also recently sent me a link to a guy in Australia (and another ex-pat Canadian!) with a
Coffee-with-a-Stranger-esque project, but his involves tea! Check out One Hundred Cups here.

7) The biggest news of all, however, is that
Coffee with a Stranger is moving to another country! I'm temporarily heading back to the homeland, Canada, to work at an organic farm on Vancouver Island. I'll miss sunny California, but I'm excited about this opportunity. I'll likely be covered in dirt and wearing overalls from early April to late October. I'm hoping to continue Coffee with a Stranger in British Columbia, but maybe with some changes - I'm thinking along the lines of a roadside stand and free coffee, but I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #11 - Coffee with the Lovely Lori, the Despicable Ingrid, and the Adventurous Feathers McGraw

I met Stranger #11 at a Starbucks in North Berkeley near the Berkeley-Albany border. I wandered in more than a few minutes late, worried that she might have come and gone, but found her quietly reading Christopher Moore's You Suck: A Love Story. Although I'm not a fan of perpetuating stereotypes, it made some sense to me that Debi, Stranger #11, was reading a book about vampires. In my simple mind, Goths and vampires often go hand in hand, and Debi had mentioned that she would be easy to find in the coffee shop because "I'll be the one looking most Goth-like."

As simple and reductive as my idea of "Goth" may be, I wouldn't necessarily describe Debi with that label. Sure, Debi may have had some Goth-like elements to her, but that definitely wasn't her be-all, end all. She had dark, straight hair that landed near her shoulders with bangs cut in a straight line above her thin, arching eyebrows. Intricate flower tattoos circled both of her wrists, while a small bat hung from her necklace and skull and crossbones hung from her ears. She laughed at my jokes and at many of her own as well, while she spoke quickly and excitedly no matter what the topic happened to be. She also wore tall boots with an intimidating amount of laces, which she described as her "knee high, black stompy boots." I'd hazard a guess that Debi was in her early-to-mid thirties. Throughout our time together at
Starbucks, she peppered our conversation with science fiction and fantasy references, including the Harry Potter books, Highlander, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jennifer Connelly's bedroom in Labyrinth.

All Goth-ness aside, what immediately struck me about Debi were her strong opinions. She often described things with the words really or frickin' followed by a no-doubter adjective - think along the lines of
really crappy, frickin' stupid, or really amazing. I realize such a description of someone can seem like a negative, but this wasn't the case with Debi. I actually found her strong opinions on everything from the weather to pop culture to job-hunting to be refreshing. Often, and especially when talking to strangers, people tend to warily straddle a middle ground. Debi, contrarily, was someone who spoke her mind and who clearly articulated what she likes and dislikes.

Take, for example, the movie Tank Girl. Debi is, without a doubt, the biggest fan of
Tank Girl that I've ever met. In fact, if you ever need a line-by-line rendition of this comic book inspired, post-apocalyptic road movie starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Malcolm McDowell, and Ice-T (who plays some sort of kangaroo-man hybrid), then you should talk to Debi. She swore that she could recite every line from memory. "I love the scene in the bathroom stall," she told me, hardly able to contain a burst of giggles. "Lori slides under the door and says to Jet Girl, 'I was thinking of leaving this place. It's been swell, but the swelling's gone down. What do you reckon? We go to New York, we see Cats?'" If you're doubting Debi's memory, check out the video below around the 4:04 mark. She nailed it!

Ingrid Newkirk, on the other hand, is on Debi's shit list, possibly with a bold asterisk or a frowny face next to her name. Personally, I had no idea who Debi was talking about when she first mentioned Ingrid (Debi was in the habit of calling celebrities and public figures by their first names - Tom Cruise was Tom, Johnny Depp was Johnny, Tim Burton was Tim, and Ingrid Newkirk was Ingrid), but I have heard about the organization for which she's president - PETA. As someone who was clearly a lover of animals, you'd think that Debi and PETA would have a more harmonious relationship. But no, sir, Debi and Ingrid do not see eye to eye. Looking back, I believe Debi used words such as "hypocrite", "idiot", and "infuriating" to describe the president of PETA. Most of this ill-will seemed to stem from PETA and Ingrid's refusal to protest laws that ban the entire pit bull breed in places like Denver, Colorado and my home province of Ontario, Canada. She was of the opinion that it's ridiculous to ban an entire species of dog, as a dog's temperament is more based on its owner than its nature. Debi also seemed to think that PETA had become too hypocritical. If an animal isn't cute and cuddly, PETA doesn't have much interest. "Cockroaches play an important role," pointed out Debi. "But you don't see PETA backing up their rights or leading an anti-cockroach killing crusade."

To keep track of Debi's strong opinions, I've come up with a rating system based on her love for
Tank Girl and her distaste for Ingrid Newkirk. Consider the following images:

On your left, you will note a picture of Lori Petty. Seen here playing the part of Tank Girl in the movie Tank Girl, she is in a surfer/crouch position atop a moving tank. This image will represent Debi's "likes." On your right is an image of Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA, embracing a rooster. This image will represent Debi's "dislikes." In the following paragraphs, I will highlight some of the topics that Debi and I touched upon during our conversation. The more pictures of Lori Petty you see next to a topic, the higher Debi's opinion of that topic. Conversely, the more Ingrid Newkirk's you see, the lower Debi's opinion. Make sense? I hope so. The Debi-o-Meter (TM), after all, is a fine tuned, super ranking machine.

1) Michael Vick

Debi was definitely not a fan of ex-con, professional NFL footballer, dog fighter, and illegal gambler Michael Vick. "Has Michael Vick ever gone to visit the rehabilitating dogs that he was fighting?" she asked me. Before I could respond, she answered for me: "I don't think so!!!" She also doesn't buy his attempts to improve his image and show contrition. "Michael Vick isn't sorry," she told me. "If Michael Vick was really sorry, he would have donated his entire salary to those rehabilitating dogs."

Coincidentally enough, Debi also pointed out that the rehabilitation center for Michael Vick's dogs is here in Oakland. The organization is called Bad Rap and you can check out their website here.

2) Feathers McGraw

For those of you not in the know, Feathers McGraw is a character in The Wrong Trousers, a British, Academy Award winning, animated film featuring a man named Wallace and a dog named Gromit. Feathers McGraw is the villain in the film. He's a fiendish, thieving, and technically savvy penguin who disguises himself as a chicken by placing a red rubber glove on his head. Debi was endlessly amused by this character, to the point where her everyday purse is actually a backpack in the shape of Feathers McGraw. He goes wherever she goes, including Malaysia, Amsterdam, San Francisco's Pride Parade, and the
Starbucks where Debi and I met. I have to say he was impressively well behaved throughout our conversation - he didn't make a peep, he rarely fidgeted, and he looked quite fetching in a studded collar (pictured above, plus styling shades) that Debi had purchased for him. Debi also mentioned that she'd been hunting for a Hawaiian shirt for him for quite some time. "You know how difficult it is to find a Hawaiian shirt that size?" she said. "Even Build-A-Bear didn't have one! They have a grass skirt and a coconut bra, which I've actually considered getting for him, but no Hawaiian shirt!"

What's more, Debi actually has a Facebook page for her Feathers McGraw purse. It features an entire narrative of the places he's visited, the people he's met, and the alcoholic beverages that he's imbibed. Entitled "The Many Adventures of Feathers McGraw," you can check it out here.

3) Debi's Dogs


Debi has two dogs, who are pictured in the above Debi-0-Meter (TM) rating equation. One is a pit bull/mastiff named Milo and the other is a bassett hound named Tank. Tank, of course, was named in honor of Lori Petty and Tank Girl. Despite being a much older dog than Milo, Tank is the more rambunctious of the two. Apparently he often gets what Debi described as "the zoomies," which involves him running around the house like a maniac and making lots of noise. Milo, for his part, isn't that fond of Tank's "zoomies." He's much too wise and calm for that kind of behavior. Well, that and he's scared of hardwood floors and can't really participate.

4) Retail Work

In addition to working for an insurance company, Debi used to work in retail (and, no, that's not Debi pictured above). She absolutely hated it. "Working retail is one of the reasons I have a deep loathing for all mankind," she told me. "Especially women. We're vile, vile people, especially when we're shopping."

5) Fairies/Faeries

When Debi first reached out to arrange a
Coffee with a Stranger conversation with me, I noticed that she had an unusual email address. I won't give the full address, but the handle did involve the words "fairy smacker." Once we met, then, I had to ask: what's with the fairy smacking?

"My husband and I used to have a roommate who was obsessed with fairies," she explained. Apparently this roommate incessantly talked about them, insisted on spelling the word the old English "faerie" way, and whenever a pen, a lighter, or some other small object went missing, faeries were inevitably to blame. Debi felt that all of this faerie talk was pretty annoying. Besides, when things go missing, Debi told me she prefers to blame the gnomes.

Long story short, things went downhill pretty quickly living with this faerie-on-the-brain roommate. "We're no longer friends," Debi told me. "She turned out to be really nasty." Consequently, when Debi was racking her mind for an email address, she landed on a little something involving "fairy smacker."

"I just have this image of THWACK! and hitting all those faeries with a fly swatter," she laughed. Debi then took a moment to mime "thwacking" a tiny creature flying around somewhere to right of our table.

6) Gay Men

Debi described herself as "a bit of a fag hag." She even referenced a Margaret Cho standup bit
about how ideally a woman should surround herself with beautiful gay men.

"When I was little I turned my Cabbage Patch doll into a girl," she recalled. "I think that was the first sign that I was a fag hag!"

7) Debi's Husband

When Debi mentioned that her husband has a doctorate in Chaos Theory, I was totally impressed. "Yeah, he's a super genius," she said. "He's one step away from being a super villain!" Seeing as everything I know about Chaos Theory I learned from
Jurassic Park, I had to make a Jeff Goldblum crack. As it turned out, however, that was an apt comparison. "He's actually kind of like that character," she said. "He's really sarcastic and he's got that dry sense of humor. And he's also kind of like the Sheldon character from the TV show Big Bang Theory."

Even from our short conversation, I could tell Debi had a lot of love and admiration for her husband. "If we go to a gay bar," she said, mentioning a place called Micky's in Hollywood, "the bartender always gives him stronger drinks. That's okay for me, though, because I'm a girl that doesn't like to taste her alcohol. But he gets the strong stuff because he's soooo attractive!"

When I asked what her husband does for a living, Debi told me that he works for a start-up, tech company here in the Bay Area. That's why he and Debi moved up here this past winter from Los Angeles. He used to work for one of the big social networking companies and he's become well respected in the industry for his blunt honesty. He's also not afraid to speak his mind, even if it's an unpopular opinion. Apparently he was even booed while speaking to an audience at a conference for saying things like "Steve Jobs isn't the second coming of Christ" and that "Apple is like the tobacco industry when it comes to advertising."

I think it's a safe bet, then, that Feathers McGraw didn't set up his Facebook account on a Mac.

8) The Expression "You Will Find Yourself"

When Debi first started telling her friends in L.A. that she and her husband were moving up to the Bay Area, she started to repeatedly hear a certain expression. "Everyone seemed to be saying, 'You'll find yourself up there!'" she said to me in a stage whisper. Then in her normal voice: "But I didn't realize I'd lost myself. I must be behind the couch or something."

Although Debi understood that her friends had good intentions, she didn't feel like this was the best way to express those intentions. She did admit, however, that she's having a hard time figuring out what she'd like to do in the grand scheme of things. When I asked her what she pictures herself doing in an ideal world, she wasn't sure. "That's the thing," she said. "That's my problem. I just don't know! I do know that the older I get, the more weirder I get. I want to be more zany in some aspects and I know I don't want to go back to retail or the insurance world."

9) Photography

Debi does know that she's interested in photography. Her husband bought her a fancy new camera, and she's been playing around with it since she moved up to Berkeley in February.

"I've always liked photography," she told me. "I used to do some modeling for friends. Nothing big, just stuff for their portfolios. But since I didn't exactly fit the Size 2 model, I thought why not just do it myself? I've always had these ideas and images floating around my head."

In addition to the many portraits featured on "The Many Adventures of Feathers McGraw" Facebook page, Debi has a website here (now disbanded) where you can check out her photography. For now, her work mainly involves still life, animals, and shots of nature.

And speaking of the adventurous Feathers McGraw, it turned out my meeting with Debi at that particular
Starbucks in North Berkeley proved to be fortuitous for the little fella's wardrobe. I received an email from Debi the next day saying the long search for a tiny Hawaiian shirt was finally over!

"I found the shirt for him at Solano Kids," she wrote. "It's a shop across the street from the coffee shop where we met. I thought maybe a newborn or 3 month-old outfit might fit him so I popped in and found it! It's a bit long for him, but I can have my mother shorten it when I go back to L.A. for a visit."

Feathers McGraw, you've never looked so good!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Intermission #3 - Facebook!

Coffee with a Stranger
is now on Facebook! Now you can not only spy on your exes while wasting time at work, but you can also get the latest updates on this here blog. So check it out and give it a "like" if you so please. (I'm needy that way.)


Also, just so this post isn't solely about Facebook, check this out:

What? You didn't notice my cameo in Toy Story 3? Obviously you weren't paying attention. But don't worry! Now you can create your very own
Coffee with a Stranger adventures with my Toy Story 3 action figure! Only $29.99. You can mail your checks to my P.O. Box.

And speaking of Woody, Buzz, and his pals, I know a guy who worked on that movie. I'm famous by association! He's got a hilarious blog, which you can check out here. I like lots of his posts, but I think this one is my favourite.

Last but not least, if you or anyone you know lives in the Bay Area and would like to meet for a FREE cup of coffee and some scintillating conversation, please spread the word or send me an email at coffee.stranger@gmail.com. Thanks and a quick note on store policy - that $29.99 sent to my P.O. Box? Non-refundable.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #10 - Coffee with Your Gestalt

Coffee with a Stranger isn't a project with a lot of rules. In fact, I'd say that most of the time there's a whole lot of improvisation going on, with maybe one exception: I always meet people at a coffee shop. Makes sense, right? It's a public space, a safe environment, and there's an abundance of coffee and snacks right at our fingertips.

Although simple and easy-to-follow, I actually broke my one rule to meet with Stranger #10. After several emails, some hemming and hawing on his part, and a series of miscommunications that led to me being stood up at a Starbucks near Lake Merritt, I actually met Bob, Stranger #10, at his home. And why did I break my one rule for Bob? Let's just say I had a hunch that he would be an interesting guy to meet, and he didn't let me down. What actually hooked me was Bob's website, or more specifically, the unusual opening animation featured on his website. You can check it out here.

Be warned, however! If you're at work with a puritanical boss lurking near your cubicle or if you're reading this with young children bouncing on your knees, you may want to hold off on exploring Bob's website. Trust me.

Bob, I might add, will likely not be happy with my giving you such a warning. He's not one for tiptoeing around sensitive issues or playing it safe. "America is so fucking politically correct that's it's ridiculous!" he told me.

Armed, by request, with a medium, non-fat latte, I pulled up to Bob's house one sunny, Friday morning. He lived in one of Oakland's older and wealthier neighborhoods, on one of those hills where as you climb, the houses get increasingly large and extravagant. In his small front yard he had a surprisingly green lawn, an immaculate rose garden, and some vines that crept along a railing and up a drain spout. His house was stucco and much larger than I originally thought. As I rang the doorbell, I noticed a statue, about knee high, of a man in a trench coat exposing himself to me. I gave him a little wave.

When the door opened, I was greeted not by Bob, but by two large dogs and a woman who I believe was related to Bob in some way. She led me to the back patio through several rooms packed with paintings, statues, photographs, trinkets, and figurines, many of which portrayed sex, breasts, and male genitalia. On a windowsill in the kitchen, I spotted a small statue of two pigs humping. The house was quietly buzzing with activity, as Bob's relatives, dogs, partner, and two Spanish-speaking housekeepers all went about their morning routine.

When I first sat down and started talking with Bob, he seemed suspicious and guarded. I got the impression that maybe he regretted inviting some guy with a tape recorder and a notebook into his home. We sat at a table shaded by an umbrella, surrounded by patio furniture, plants, and more art. Standing next to the patio door was a life-size statue of what I took to be a naked aboriginal man with a bowl cut. Placed in his hands was one of those rainbow colored dusters, which he wielded like a weapon.

"I photograph unusual people. That's what I do," Bob told me, as he took a few drags from a half-smoked bidi cigarette that had been sitting in an ashtray. He wore an inside out black t-shirt, peach colored shorts, and reddish-brown glasses that took me a moment to get used to - one lens was a square, while the other was a circle. His hair was short, dyed purple, and he had a red and blue yin and yang symbol tattooed to a bald spot on his head. I'd guess he was somewhere in his mid-to-late fifties.

"It's easy to photograph stuff like the Gehry Building or a beautiful sunset," Bob explained. "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building - wait, do you know who she was?"

"Sure," I replied, somewhat surprised. "I know Helen Keller." These kinds of questions were a common theme throughout my conversation with Bob. He believed that most people under 30 know nothing about culture and history: "This is not a prejudice," he said. "This is what I get from talking to people. Five years prior to their birth it's a blank thing - they have no sense or idea of culture or history beyond color films and video games."

But back to Helen Keller: "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building and it would be beautiful because it's not the photograph, it's the building," said Bob. "Anyone could take a picture of a beautiful sunset because it's not the photographer, it's the sunset."

So no buildings or sunsets for Bob. In fact, he mentioned a trip to Africa where he didn't bother taking pictures of "zebras and elephants and all that safari bullshit stuff." Instead Bob takes pictures of "unusual" people. Even if they look somewhat "normal," he prides himself in digging deeper and finding what truly makes someone tick. "I have a degree in psychology," he said, "and I like to do what I call getting between the psychological legs of my subjects. I really like to get in there. I mean, I'm fascinated by people. And that's one of the reasons why I like your [Coffee with a Stranger] idea, because it's a way of communicating and connecting with people in a way which is really human and that's kind of disappearing because of the internet. I like that."

When I asked Bob to expand on what he meant by "unusual" (and by this point, his initial suspicions of me seemed to have waned), he told me that it was the seemingly "normal" people who actually scare him the most. "Although I photograph unusual people, I understand that people who are unusual looking do that out of a need to be unique," he explained. "So when you see people with Mohawks and tattooed faces and all that, those aren't the scary people. People who are scary are the ones who wear beige or plaid. Those are the ones that people say: 'Oh, he was so quiet. I don't know why he killed his entire family.' The people I take pictures of are basically ordinary people who want to be, and who are desperate to be, unique."

Bob is currently working on a book of photographs that explores feelings of pride. "Pride is like a hydra," he told me, after asking me whether or not I'd ever heard of this mythological beast. "It's one of the seven deadly sins, and people are proud for many different reasons. Pride is really a hydra-esque kind of thing and it runs that entire gamut, from arrogance and egotism to sexual pride, religious pride, and family pride."

Bob showed me the prototype to his book about Pride. Entitled A Puff Piece on the Human Condition of Self-Love, Aggrandizement, Narcissism, and Ego Appreciation, the cover featured a full-frontal pose of a man wearing nothing but a shit-eating grin. He was also, ahem, well-endowed. "When I was living in Palm Springs, this guy came over to my house," Bob explained. "He looked like a gay Ricky Ricardo and he had these giant balls. He's what's called a penis pumper - do you know what that is?" I nodded - I've heard of these penis pumpers before. "Anyway, they use this vacuum machine and I was like, 'Wow. That's quite the set of balls you've got there.' And he's like, 'Well, if you let me, I can come back tomorrow and make them even bigger.' I said, 'No, no, no. That's okay.' So I put him in front of these drapes and took his picture. Ever since, this photo has always affected me as an image of total pride and self-love."

Bob had also been working on a book of photos called Net Men. Basically, this book has lots of photos of men Bob had found on Craigslist, gay chat rooms, and other corners of the World Wide Web. "I was always very direct," said Bob. "I would go into chat rooms, find someone interesting, and write: 'I'm working on a project and I would like to photograph you.' Then they would call me and say something like, 'Are you going to be naked, too?' No. 'Can I jack off in front of your camera?' Yeah, whatever you want. But then I say, 'Who are you. Tell me. What are you? Do you have any interesting fetishes?' I mean, I don't really get off on fetishes, but there's a fetish for everything." Bob picked up the barbecue lighter he'd used to light his cigarette. "I mean, there's even some people in the world who I'm sure get an erection when they see this."

"Net Men is the perfect paradigm for a book," continued Bob, setting the lighter back down on the table. "Because regardless of what they do in front of my camera, that's a portrait of them. If they come over to a stranger's house who found them on a sexual dating site and they only want to wear a suit and tie and sit in front of the camera and do nothing, well, that tells me as much about them as somebody who comes over and does something more interesting."

What's more interesting? "I had one guy come over at 4 in the morning," said Bob. "He came in a pickup truck with three giant suitcases filled with a giant bottle of baby oil, ties, dildos, and all kinds of stuff. He put on a show for me for an hour and a half and made a real mess of my bed because of all that fucking baby oil. That's the same thing, though, as the person who will sit there in a suit and a tie, because it tells me who they are."

Bob spoke most fondly, however, of a series of photographs he'd done of a man named Mark. You can check them out here on his website. "Mark's a friend of mine, probably my best friend, who I met in Palm Springs," Bob told me. "He's bi-polar and he has dementia, so he was on disability and was always available. He was a perfect subject because he's also a photo collector and he's really bright. He's a writer and a psycho, which is to say it was a long time before I would let him walk behind me holding an axe."

The photos of Mark are wide ranging. There are straight up portraits, graphic sex scenes, staged suicides, and the occasional tender moment. Perhaps most memorable and somewhat shocking, however, are the photos of Mark's alter ego, Candy-o. Named after a song by The Cars, Bob described Candy-o as "a really bad gender fuck."

"I'd call up Mark at 4 o'clock in the morning and say, 'Get up, come on over, and we'll go out and take photos of you at the Greyhound bus depot,'" recalled Bob. "One time we were driving through Palm Spring's gay neighborhood where all the hotels are and there was this bad paisley couch, and I mean bad, that someone had thrown out. There were two sections of the couch, one on top of the other, and I had Mark crawl between them as Candy-o. It looked like someone had murdered Candy-o and left him on the street inside this paisley couch. It's called The Death of Candy-o."

Although Bob obviously greatly cared for his friend Mark, I was struck by how much control he seemed to have over his subject. "I always tell Mark he's like a potted plant with a brain," said Bob. "He will do anything I come up with." In fact, Bob was very clear that Mark was not only his ideal subject, but that he seeks men with similar personalities for a lot of his work. For instance, when he posts an ad on Craigslist, he writes that he's seeking "submissive exhibitionists."

"I love photographing submissive men," Bob explained. "You never have to say please. They'll hold a pose forever until you tell them to move, and they get off on that." Here in the East Bay, he's also now working with a friend of Mark's who's manic, bi-polar, and a former alcoholic and drug user.

"Do you ever feel bad working with these guys?" I had to ask. "I mean, if they're manic, bi-polar, former drug users, do you ever feel like you're taking advantage of them?"

Bob was emphatic in his reply: "No. Absolutely not. Because I'm not taking advantage of them. I never take advantage of people. I use people. I believe in using people because everybody uses everybody. Nobody gives anything unless they want something in return. Even Mother Teresa wanted something in return. You just don't go out handing out birth control pills in Calcutta for nothing."

Bob went on to say that his work, and the idea that he could be "taking advantage" of his subjects, was all about perception. "It's the gestalt," he asserted, referring to a school of psychology that led to the coining of the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

"Gestalt is about perception and organization," Bob continued. "Let's say you see a picture of a man and a woman in a bedroom. She's in the process of either putting on or taking off her clothes. Depending on your gestalt, you either see her getting dressed or getting undressed. Or maybe you've seen those pictures that, if you look at them one way, it's a chalice. But if you look at it in another way, it's two profiles. That's all gestalt."

If I'm following Bob's logic correctly, then, if I look at his work and simply see him taking advantage of someone, I'm only perceiving and focusing on a certain part of his work. I'm not stepping back and seeing the whole, or the greater picture behind his work.

"I'm a very selfish person, okay?" Bob said. "But being selfish is not a bad thing. Just like pride isn't a bad thing, but you can take it to the point where you're arrogant. Selfishness is about taking care of yourself. Okay? You can't take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself."

I must have looked skeptical, because Bob continued, bringing me into his analogy. "You're selfish," he said, pointing at me. "I mean, you were determined to come here and get me to talk. In order to do that, with me or anyone else, you're willing to do whatever needs to be done, hopefully in a kind way or whatever, to meet them. You need to get people to show up and meet you so you can get what you need from them, which is what's in their head. But you could also turn it around and be doing this project for really horrible reasons. You could be writing terrible things about people. You could be a real asshole. So being selfish is about getting what I need for me, so I can give it back to them."

Then, as if to punctuate his entire argument, Bob looked me straight in the eye and said: "So I don't take advantage of people. They don't give me anything that they're not willing to give me."

Although I'm not sure I agree with Bob entirely, I do see some of the logic behind his argument. I am meeting people over a cup of coffee for selfish reasons - I want to write about them! There's a part of me, too, who wants the people I meet to be a little whacky and who hopes they say some outlandish things. That makes things more interesting, right? But at the same time, I try to be very careful, sometimes maybe even too careful, with how I portray people in these pieces of writing. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, especially since they took the time to meet with a total stranger. I don't want to be an asshole. Sometimes I might even omit something particularly odd that someone says, just because I don't want them to read my blog and think, "Holy shit! Did I really say that to him?"

Food for thought, I guess.

As for Bob and I, we parted ways on good terms. We even managed to fulfill both of our selfish, creative needs - I got Bob to talk to me, and he got to take my picture:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Intermission #2 - Live from the Albany Bulb!

As I've mentioned before, every now and then the blog will take a break from coffee, caffeine, and strangers for a short intermission. Here today, then, I'd like to introduce you to my recent trip to the Albany Bulb! You can read more about the Albany Bulb here and here, but basically it's a strip of coast along the East Bay known for its past life as a dump, a large itinerant and homeless population, legions of dog walkers, views of San Francisco, and impromptu art installations along its many paths. I also have a feeling the Bulb is a popular place for teenagers to drink a little beer, smoke a little pot, or drop a little acid. So, ladies and gentlemen, why not take a gander with me down the Albany Bulb's yellow brick road? If you'd like, click on the images to enlarge.

Slogans were plentiful at the Albany Bulb. Many of them involved f-bombs and incoherence, but I enjoyed this one, mainly because it's true. Science needs to be done!

Lost somewhere within the Bulb is a concrete structure known as The Castle. I'm pretty sure evil hobbits live inside.

Despite my better judgment and that wary, warning voice in the back of my mind, I stepped inside The Castle. I can't be positive, but I believe this is where nightmares are born.

You know what else was weird? Wherever I walked, I felt like someone was watching me....

I found this little guy trapped in the letter N:

Did I mention it was a windy day?

This guy told me about some treasure in a box along the shore. Even though I found the loot, I left the treasure in the box in case you ever visit the Albany Bulb. Be warned, though: something about this guy's eyes seemed a tad suspicious....

Words to the wise: always carry your resume with you. You never know when opportunity might come a-knocking!

Likely because the Albany Bulb is made of garbage and landfill, this tree was sprouting shoes instead of leaves:

This mammoth burger/sandwich was just lying around for the taking, but I'd just eaten breakfast.

And last but not least, I leave you with who I think should be the Albany Bulb's mascot. I'd call him Bulby, but I'm flexible on the name....