Sunday, May 16, 2010

Intermission #1 - Day of Art!

Every now and then, I might interrupt Coffee with a Stranger's regular programming for something decidedly un-coffee and un-stranger. Yesterday, for example, I went to the California College of the Arts' MFA exhibition. Here are some of the things that I saw. All pictures taken by Nicole. Click to enlarge.

Scared silly by Crystal Gonzalez:

Solemnly agreeing with Sean Leake:

Preparing for the conclusion of this "mortal ebb" with Maggie Simpson:

Contemplating the possibility of collapsing boxes with Matthew Waldbillig:

Sometimes with James-David Mericle, a garage door isn't really a garage door:

And last but not least, Eduardo Gomez taps into one of my childhood obsessions: baseball cards!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #6 - Coffee with Winky

Stranger #6 had a common woman's name. Think something along the lines of Sarah or Jenny or Mary. But I'm not going to call her by her real name. Instead I'll refer to her as Winky. Like this:


Why Winky? Well, I'll get to that, but first a little background information: I met Winky at the Blue Dot Cafe in Alameda, the small island city next to Oakland. When we met, she had only lived in Alameda for a couple of weeks, coming by the way of small town Wisconsin, college years at SCAD in Savannah, GA, and a post-Katrina New Orleans. At 26, she was the youngest of the strangers to meet with me so far. She had red hair, pale grey-blue eyes, a patriotic bracelet, and a pretty kick ass leather jacket. She was also someone who liked to keep busy: after a few short weeks in Alameda, she was already going to school for psychology, getting a certification in personal fitness training, trying to finish a movie/musical she'd written and filmed that was stuck in post-production (check out the promo here), writing two serial novels, and had joined a barbershop quartet and a softball league.

By comparison, I spent my day today listening to a baseball game on the radio. I might also have sent some emails and eaten a pretty tasty kiwi. And I took a shower. I'm clean as a whistle!

But what about this nickname? Winky. As with all good nicknames, there's a story behind Winky. My retelling of that story goes something like this:

Winky had moved to New Orleans, post-Katrina, for a job. A really good job. A job that could lead to other jobs in a booming industry. This job involved being a "set dresser" for the movie
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Yes, that Benjamin Button - based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, it's the whimsical tale of a man who ages in reverse.

Wow! Big deal, right? We're talking Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and the director of
Forrest Gump here! And, as expected, this set dresser job led to other, similar jobs in the same industry, as apparently New Orleans is quickly becoming an up and coming city in the motion picture industry. Lots of stuff is being filmed and produced there now. It's like L.A.'s baby sister! In addition to Benjamin Button, Winky had a hand in movies such as In the Electric Mist, The Mortician, and a horror film by the name of The Final Destination. Here's the trailer for that last one, which is the latest installment in a pretty successful series of movies:

Winky, for her part, described
Final Destination as a movie that "I wouldn't go see." What's more, working on that movie not only made her miserable, but it made her realize that the world of talking pictures might not be for her. She didn't like how the industry treated people and eventually even changed them: "In general," she said, "anybody, even the nicest person, is going to become tainted while working in this industry, and they get more selfish and high strung."

When I asked if she felt "tainted", she replied: "Yeah, I did for awhile, until I saw there was a light at the end of the tunnel."

And what was that light at the end of the tunnel? Quitting the movie business and getting the hell out of New Orleans, a town to which Winky was never enamored. But not before she went temporarily blind in one eye. Seriously. While working on
Final Destination, there were a couple of days when things started to get suspiciously blurry in one of Winky's eyes. At first she didn't think much of this fuzziness. She thought, at worst, that maybe she had something stuck in her eyeball - like lint, dust, or a dead gnat. She complained every now and then to her co-workers until, eventually, her boss took notice and forced her to take some time off and see a doctor. A general eye doctor and a retina specialist later, the diagnosis came in: stress related retinal leaking.

Retinal leaking? Gross.

What's more, Winky let it slip that the retinal leaking in her eye might have had something to do with, wait for it,
steroids! She slipped that little nugget into the conversation somewhat casually, almost to the point where I nearly missed it, until suddenly I had to interject:

Steroids? Wait. What?

Was there a point in Winky's life where she was going all Barry Bonds? Did she used to be a crazed, softball-mashing machine with muscles on her muscles, anger management issues, and an ever-expanding hat size?

Turns out that Winky was so stressed, busy, and reluctant to take a day off from working on
Final Destination that she took steroids to squash a pesky flu bug. The steroids killed that flu bug dead in its tracks, but combined with the stress, likely triggered a little retinal leaking.

Holy shit!

Which leads to the inevitable question: what cures retinal leaking? In Winky's case, an eye patch and two to three weeks of making a conscious effort to relax did the trick. Not taking steroids also probably helped. She still plugged away at
Final Destination, but she also forced herself to take her mind off work by going to the beach, playing some volleyball, and joining a pool league.

Pool, however, involves a lot of depth perception, which can be a little tricky when you're pretty much blind in one eye. At the same time, Winky was finding that her eye patch was kind of scratchy and uncomfortable. So while lining up her shots, she would flip up her eye patch and squint and WINK a lot at the balls on the table, much to the amusement of her fellow pool leaguers.

And, voila! Surrounded by blue chalk, green felt, and black balls, Winky was born!

Which brings me to one last point: where did Winky get those steroids? Maybe I'm going to all the wrong doctors, but I've never heard of prescribing steroids for the flu. I've heard of rest, chicken soup, and orange juice, but never steroids. Unfortunately, I failed to ask Winky to clear up this issue, so I'm at a loss.

I like to think that she got them in some shady, back-alley deal. Or maybe some Hollywood star gave them to her. Hollywood stars, after all, are always doing odd, weird, and crazy things. As well as meeting and/or working with stars like Brad Pitt, Peter Sarsgaard, and Mary Steenburgen, Winky did do some work for everyone's favorite Italian Stallion - Sylvester Stallone! If anyone could ever hook you up with muscle juice, I'd think it would be ol' Sly.

How's that for some rampant, potentially libelous speculation on my part? I'll look forward to a letter in the mail from Sly's lawyers. Or maybe, just maybe, Sly himself will come knocking on my door and deliver me a can of fire and brimstone whoop ass.

That will probably look something like this:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #5 - Coffee with Foot Races, No Wandering Signs, and Screwing Up a Wee Bit

Coffee with a Stranger, in case you hadn't noticed, is a work in progress. I'm still not exactly sure where I'm going with this project or what kind of writing will come out of it, but I do know that I'm having a damn good time. Everyone that I've met for coffee has been open, honest, and entirely game for a project that has a somewhat loosely defined structure and purpose. All in all, I'm just enjoying getting out, meeting some interesting people, and seeing what happens. Who needs structure and purpose anyway?

Since I'm taking a flying by the seat of my pants approach, though, there will inevitably be times when I screw up a wee bit. Take, for example, my meeting with Stranger #5. I thought I had it all planned out: we'd meet at SubRosa Coffee near the MacArthur BART station in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood, we'd talk it up, I'd record our conversation, and we'd go our separate, merry ways. Simple, right?

Well, apparently not. I learned, for instance, that I should really do some research before meeting someone at a coffee shop that I've never been to before. Turns out SubRosa, which was my suggestion by the way, isn't open at 6PM on a Tuesday. And even if it was open, there isn't much in the way of indoor seating in a shop the size of postage stamp.

So when Stranger #5, whose name is Gary, strolled up to the dark and increasingly deserted corner of 40th and Webster, I sheepishly asked if he'd mind searching for somewhere else to sit and have a cup of coffee. Gary, for his part, was totally game. After walking and small talking for a couple of blocks, we quickly discovered that this particular part of Temescal isn't exactly a hot spot for evening cups of coffee. Mixed Martial Arts, hair braiding, and hair extensions made from real human hair were all at our fingertips, but a cup of coffee? Not so much. We tried Cafe Portofino, a pizza and calzone joint on the corner of 40th and Telegraph, but the guy behind the counter mainly seemed puzzled when we asked for coffee at his pizzeria.

With things looking bleak and Gary's acupuncture appointment looming in the not so distant future, I threw a hail mary: why not try Lee's Donuts & Croissants? I spotted it out of the corner of my eye - a tiny storefront with a neon OPEN sign nestled in a strip mall across the street from Cafe Portofino. From the outside, it looks like this:

Take a good look at this picture, which I took several weeks after meeting with Gary. Note the "No Prowling!" warning. Try to wrap your head around the need for a "No Wandering!" warning. Keep in mind a dark and damp winter night. Keep in mind, too, that Gary and I are internet strangers and that Gary had been busy, you know, working all day. And no disrespect intended to the proprietors of Lee's Donuts & Croissants, but that unassuming storefront doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

If I were in Gary's shoes, I probably would have bailed. Made some excuse and gotten the hell out. Something along the lines of "dinner with friends", "left the stove on", or "forgot to feed my chinchillas" would have done the trick. But what did Gary do when I suggested good ol' Lee's Donuts & Croissants? He shrugged his shoulders, zipped up his San Francisco Giants jacket, and said, "Let's go for it."

Way to go, Gary!

What can I say about Lee's Donuts & Croissants? It was bright inside. Fluorescent light bright. There were, as the name implies, lots of donuts on display. I don't remember seeing croissants. Their coffee was burnt, but drinkable. When I later looked the place up on Yelp, I discovered it's actually best known for its fried chicken and not its croissants or donuts. Who would have guessed? The folks behind the counter, and there were several of them, seemed somewhat amused by Gary and I. I caught a few stares in our direction and smiles exchanged behind that case of Boston Creams and Apple Fritters. But who can blame them? I'm not sure it's everyday they get two guys who come in, order only two coffees in small styrofoam cups, and who sit in one of their yellow/off-white booths for 40 minutes with a tape recorder between them.

Which brings me to my next wee little screw up. The tape recorder. Turns out I don't really know how to operate a tape recorder. When I later sat down to listen to my conversation with Gary, I discovered that I recorded exactly 13 seconds of our time together before a telling CLICK and silence for the rest of the tape. 13 seconds. Really. I timed it.

Sorry, Gary!

So I'm working off memory alone here. And some illegible notes I scrawled in a spiral notebook. Here are a few things that struck me about Gary and our conversation:

1) Despite being a great sport and game for a venue change, Gary wasn't without his suspicions. He admitted that when we first met outside of a closing SubRosa Coffee, he sized me up - if I turned out to be real crazy, he decided he could "at least" outrun me to the BART station. Also, when everything was said and done and we were finishing up at Lee's Donuts & Croissants, he asked me to "level" with him and tell him "what this project was really about." Was there some "catch" I wasn't telling him about? Was I, for example, "counting the number of times he said coffee or something?" I'm still not sure he believed that all I wanted was to literally meet strangers for a cup of coffee. And not to toot my own horn, but I think that foot race back to the BART would have been closer than Gary anticipated...

2) Gary is into Magic Cards. I don't understand how Magic Cards work or their appeal, so I asked Gary to explain them to me because I don't like not understanding things. Gary did his best, but the whole concept still flew way over my head. I just don't get it.

3) I realize I forgot to ask Gary about the significance of his email address. It involved the words "Standing Warrior", which Google tells me can involve ancient statues or the following yoga move:

Knee Bend Standing Warrior Pose in Hatha Yoga -- powered by
4) His email signature also involved a quote from the TV show Lost. The actor who plays Benjamin Linus apparently said the following:

"I notice more and more that grownups are just later versions of the children they once were."

Yikes! If that's true, I'll always be both obsessed and terrible at Mortal Combat for SEGA, I'll never be able to get through the movie Labyrinth without freaking out, and I'll always blush when I talk to girls.

5) Gary, who worked for the government doing worker pension stuff, was someone who used the internet as a tool rather than a crutch. Instead of hiding behind the easy, stay-at-home anonymity that the internet provides, Gary actually used the world wide web as a means to meet people in the flesh. From social networking sites to Craigslist to online dating services like JDate, Gary had met fellow Magic Card enthusiasts, hiking buddies, friends, romantic partners, and even random dudes who meet him at dark street corners in Temescal for a cup of coffee.

6) I pressed Gary to tell me some juicy, horror stories about the world of online dating. Not that I'm against the idea, but I've heard some hilarious and crazy stuff from friends. He replied that he really didn't have any horror stories, and that he's actually had pretty good luck with the whole thing. I was hoping for tales of 90-year-old women posing as 30-somethings, flatulence at the movies, and weeping at dinner over iPhone pictures of recently deceased cats, but no such luck.

After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Gary left the bright confines of Lee's Donuts & Croissants. I bought a donut, and you know what? It wasn't half bad.