Saturday, June 26, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #8 - Coffee with GWAGSO, Nico the Dog, and Choosing a Path

Stranger #8, who I met at Cafe Fanny in North Berkeley, specifically asked me not to refer to her as "Tanya: The Girl Who Almost Got Shit On."

So I'm not going to do it. Nope. Referring to someone as "Tanya: The Girl Who Almost Got Shit On" (or GWAGSO for short) would not only be unprofessional and ungentlemanly, but also fit only for the playground of an elementary school or as the working title for a Will Ferrell movie.

Coffee with a Stranger, after all, is a project known first and foremost for its class and integrity.

(Sorry, Tanya, but really, how could I resist?)

And speaking of class and integrity, check out this guy!

Meet Nico. He accompanied Tanya to Cafe Fanny. Although he resisted my attempts to pat him due to an unsolved case of shyness, he garnered quite a bit of attention. Not only did one of Cafe Fanny's employees come outside specifically to meet him, but a woman with what seemed like a German accent approached Tanya to see if it was okay to take some up close and personal glamour shots of him. The lens of her camera, I swear, was the size of my face.

Despite his shyness, Nico took all this attention in stride. He seemed to grin and bear it. According to Tanya, his baby blue eyes and "somewhat unusual appearance" have led to a certain accepted degree of hounding by paparazzi and admirers. Tied to our table while we shared iced tea (Tanya) and coffee (me), Nico (shame on me - I forgot to offer him a drink!) spent most of his time mingling quietly with Tanya's legs. The one exception, however, was the passing by of a tumbleweed of a Pomeranian - Nico almost overturned the table to greet him.

Nico goes everywhere with Tanya - parks, coffee shops, Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles (Tanya's hometown), DC, Pennsylvania, France, Cote D'Ivoire, the list goes on and on. He'll even be heading to Brazil with her in the not so distant future.

Cote D'Ivoire, by the by, is where Tanya almost got pooped on. By primates. Fortunately, Nico stayed home for this one and was spared the near pooping upon experience. In case you were wondering, the situation went down like this:

Early one morning, Tanya and a guide set out to investigate a German NGO that was busy protecting and researching chimpanzees in Cote D'Ivoire's Tai Forest. According to Tanya, monkey poachers are a big problem in Cote D'Ivoire. Why? "Lots of people like monkey," she said. "They've developed a taste for it." Eventually, Tanya and her guide met up with the German NGO researchers. They decided to go check out the chimps in their treetop nests, where they were sleeping. What happened next, I think is best described in Tanya's own words: "When chimps wake up, they're really noisy and they throw leaves and stuff. Or at least I thought it was leaves. There I was, standing closer to the tree than everyone else because I want to see where they are, and the German researcher was saying, 'You better stand back.' And I was like, 'Why? I want to see the chimps.' 'Because you're going to get shit on if you don't move back.' So I was like, 'Okay, I'm moving, I'm moving' and then there's a big rain of pee and all kinds of things."

Gross. I forgot to ask, but I bet that smelled terrible.

Overall, Tanya didn't seem that enamored with chimpanzees. Don't get me wrong - she was impressed with the work that the NGO was doing, but chimpanzees? Maybe not for Tanya. "They're bigger than you think and they're really kind of high strung," she said. "They'll be sitting around picking their nose or something, and then the next minute they're [she paused here to make some crazy, intimidating monkey noises] and I'm like, okay, I'm going to die! They get really rowdy, they start swinging from trees, and they're making all this noise - it's actually kind of scary because you realize they could just come and crack you in half and go along their merry way."

Damn. Hollywood monkeys have totally led me astray when it comes to true chimpanzee nature.

The next logical question, of course, is why Tanya was kicking around in a Cote D'Ivoire forest checking out pooping monkeys. She was, in fact, representing the government of the United States of America. She was sent into the forest to see if this chimp saving NGO was something that the US government would be interested in funding.

From what I could tell, this foray into the forest wasn't a normal part of Tanya's job description, although it appeared to be a fun diversion from the everyday. Tanya's job is being a Foreign Service Officer for the US State Department. Essentially, she's part of the government's diplomatic arm at US embassies overseas. Her specialty is Public Affairs, which I believe involves a lot of talking with people and solving their problems. Cote D'Ivoire was her first official gig with the Foreign Service, although Tanya's been afflicted with the travel bug ever since she took a non-government job in Mongolia in 2002. After a few years in California's wine industry, she decided to blow things up and try her hand as a volunteer coordinator for an organization that was rebuilding a Buddhist temple in Mongolia. "Working in Mongolia was such a good experience," she said. "I thought, shit, if I can do this, I can do anything! I don't need fancy hotels, I don't need room service, and it's amazing how when you strip everything away, how little you really need." Next up she and Nico are headed to Brazil for a three year stint at the US embassy in Rio de Janeiro.

Working as a Foreign Service Officer is essentially Tanya's dream job. "It's a confluence of everything I like, which is travel, meeting new people, and doing something with variety. There's always something that's interesting and you're always learning."

This isn't to say, however, that the job doesn't come without its drawbacks. "The disadvantages are that you miss things," said Tanya. "People's birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries. You miss those things that are important, those rights of passage and traditions. You're not there. Sometimes, too, people forget about you because you're gone."

Although I only had this short conversation with Tanya, I feel like it's this last issue that's understandably a bit of a conflict for her. At times, I felt like she was trying to justify her career path, like she was voicing an argument to me that had been rattling around in her mind for quite some time. "The good thing about the job," she said, "is that you get really used to change, which is what life is all about anyways." When I asked if this was a motto or a creed that she lived by, Tanya responded: "It works for me. It's not for everyone. It's hard because you constantly have to reinvent your life every two or so years. You meet new friends, leave friends, or they leave you, which is awful. And you're constantly starting from zero with people that you meet. After awhile, I think it would get old. So I don't know."

On the flip side, Tanya mentioned that she wasn't sure she could live a more "normal" or sedentary life. "I'm not even sure I could sit and do that [live the comfortable, stay-in-one-place life] anymore," she said. "The problem, too, with the kind of life I'm living now is that you get constant stimulation and you get a little addicted. Your landscape is always changing, the people are always changing, you're constantly trying to adapt to something and it's challenging and it's interesting, and then when you get to a place and you have to sit still, you're kind of like, well, what do I do now?"

I can understand both sides of Tanya's argument here. Both stability and constant adventure can be mighty tempting or an easy rut in which to fall. Perhaps the answer is simply to choose one and not look back? Or is there that happy, elusive medium? Or maybe Tanya puts it best with the following, which were her last words before the tape on my recorder came to an end:

"My life is interesting enough that I don't feel like I'm missing out."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #7 - Coffee with Northern Hands and Consulting Your Image

Have you ever noticed that the word nude sounds a bit like the word new? Personally, I hadn't given it much thought until my conversation with Stranger #7, Denise Sims, at Blue Dot Cafe in Alameda, CA. Within the first five minutes of sitting down with Denise, I mentioned that a lot of the strangers I've met happened to be "new to San Francisco's Bay Area." Denise gave me an odd look, but obliviously I nattered on until suddenly she interrupted me: "Ohhhh, you said new to the Bay Area! Sorry, I thought you said nude."

Wouldn't that be something? I bet Coffee with a Nude Stranger would probably get a few more hits on the old interwebs. It might be difficult, though, to find a coffee shop that would allow such a project within its walls. Unless, of course, I moved to Vassalboro, Maine and hung out at its Grand View Topless Coffee Shop. Not a bad idea, I guess, although I could do without the controversy and, I'm not joking here, ARSON.

Initial miscommunication aside, Denise and I had a lovely chat. I think we ended up talking for more than an hour. Native to the Bay Area and a mother of two teenagers, Denise described herself as someone who's "pretty good at personality profiles and picking up on visual cues that tell me a lot about a person." When I mentioned early in our conversation that I'm originally from Canada, she remarked that that made sense. "Yes," she said. "I would have guessed that direction."

Surprised by this comment, I responded, "Wow. That's almost intimidating, like you're looking into my soul as we speak."

Denise and I had a good laugh about that. My soul, however, remained weary and suspicious. What other deep, dark secrets could Denise be gleaning from my appearance? Curious, I pressed her to tell me more about my northern visual cues. Was it my accent? My unibrow? My ratty brown shoes with tattered laces, which are pictured on the right?

Denise told me that she did pick up on an accent, but it was more my "demeanor and disposition" that hinted at my homeland. Furthermore, my "color, bone structure, body type, and hands are more typically from that area."

My hands? Who knew? Looking at my hands now, they reveal, well, nothing to my untrained eye. All I see are blisters, bony pokers, and some unusual angles around my knuckles. What am I missing?

Denise, for her part, wasn't going to reveal any trade secrets. When I asked her to elaborate some more on what was particularly Canadian or northernly about me, she responded: "That's a hard question. I don't think I can answer it because it deals with this whole body of knowledge I have and it would be, like, an hour and a half answer. It's very detailed in a way that's not very interesting."

Fair enough.

Which brings me to Denise's line of work. Considering how she described herself above, what would you think she does for a living? Gumshoe? Psychic? Therapist? Well, in a weird kind of way, she's kind of all three wrapped into one. When talking about her work and her clients, Denise had the following to say: "People say, you know, God this is the best thing. It's better than my shrink, it's better than astrology, this is so cool, and I get clothes at the end!"

Seeing as your conventional gumshoe, psychic, and psychiatrist won't give you clothes when they're done working with you, we can confidently strike those off the list of possibilities. Denise, in actuality, is an image consultant. In fact, she has over 30 years of experience "working with thousands and thousands of people, very intimately, sitting in closets and fitting rooms while clients are in their underwear, finding a look that will make them feel great about themselves!" Simply put, you hire Denise to change or update your look and your wardrobe. She even has a spiffy, new website for her business, which you can take a look at here.

I was pretty blown away by the idea of Denise's profession. I guess I've always known that such a job existed, but I'd never given much thought to how it might actually work. What, for example, is the state of mind of people who seek an image consultant? Not to pigeonhole or stereotype, but I picture people who just got divorced or broke up with a significant other and now want to get all sexied up. What better way is there to show an ex that you're TOTALLY over them then by hitting the town with a snazzy new look?

Obviously, I'm over-generalizing and over-simplifying here. Denise did, however, have this to say: "The key to many of my client's visits is some sort of life pivot." She does get a lot of men and women who are recently divorced (see? I'm kind of right!), but there's also lots of people who are facing other big, transformational life experiences. Examples include losing a bunch of weight, taking on a new job that requires a more professional or edgy look, shaking things up because you've moved to a new (not nude) town, or simply because you wake up one day and realize, hey, my clothes are looking a little dated.

Personally, I can see myself falling into this last category somewhere down the line. I hate shopping and if it weren't for kindly (or maybe embarrassed?) girlfriends who took me shopping and friends (and occasionally strangers) who mocked me, I'd still be wearing ties for belts, moccasins, and ill-fitting, thrift-store polyester pants that an old man had likely died in.

As you may have guessed, I used to be quite the high-fashion trendsetter. And as my tattered brown shoes pictured above indicate, now more than ever I'm still quite the high-fashion trendsetter. I'm a fashionista!

Since I'm male and clearly not much of a shopper, I was also curious if Denise's clients fell in step with some of those obvious gender stereotypes. Fifteen years ago, the majority of Denise's clients were men and they were mainly looking to be fitted for suits. Fast forward to the present day and everything's turned on its head: now the majority of Denise's clients are women and the men that she does see are less and less interested in suits. Denise blames the era and more casual clothing attitudes for this "major cultural shift". "Now you've got all these renegade people who are really good at what they do," she said. "You've got some surfer dude, roller skating, skate boarding guy who's brilliant at what he does, so employers don't care what he's wearing because he's brilliant." As a result, you've got guys in flip flops and long shorts shuffling around the workplace, instead of guys wearing beautifully pressed, Mad Men-esque suits.

Although Denise really enjoys working with males, this shift from mainly men to mainly women may actually turn out to be good for business. Male clients, it turns out, don't refer their friends and coworkers to Denise. "Men," she said, "are looking for any competitive edge they can get, whether it's work or dating, so they don't tell anyone about me." Women, on the other hand, don't begin to think of image consulting in this way. "Women think it's fun and feel great doing it," said Denise. "So they tell everyone about the services they get from me."

Complicated stuff, right? Denise gets to see first hand some of the prevailing ideas our culture has created about self-image and gender identity, which I think is really interesting. Needless to say, there's a lot more to this image consulting gig than first meets the eye. One thing's for sure: it's definitely not as simple as a 1980's dressing room montage.

The Griswold's are looking sharp!