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."
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."
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!