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San Francisco Story


Theresa Allen

Part III

For the past 3 years, I have been the proud mother of a Seal Point Siamese cat, Tyler. This is no ordinary cat. He's a very smart cat. He came into my life as a wounded stray only being, my best guess, 3 months old. I like to think that it was his early traumas in life that have imparted such a wisdom upon him, a wisdom that never ceases to amaze me.

At times, he will be doing ordinary "cat stuff," hunting down his arch enemy, the dust devil, chewing on the stuffed mouse that I gave to him last Christmas, or just gazing supremely out the window, activities that do not set him apart as the extraordinary animal that he is. But, as soon as I actively observe him, by this, I mean, taking out the camera to capture him in his blissfully cat-like activities, he stops being just a cat and turns into Physics and Philosophy Professor. He instinctively knows, no matter how silent I am about holding up the camera to focus on him, that I have centered all of my attention upon him, and responds accordingly. He will stop whatever he is doing and trot up to me. Then, with a speed that can only be described as ferocious, he will thrust his paw into the lens of the camera. For this, I have dozens of photos of a furry, light-gray splotch, vaguely oval in shape, splayed like a sunspot in various locations across the surface of the photo paper that the prints were developed upon. This demonstrates a basic law of Physics and Philosophy, a basic law of nature; that the observer is the observed. And, in the act of observing, the observer forever changes the nature of what is being observed. Tyler is an expert at demonstrating this one immutable law of nature. Tyler is a genius and has a lot to teach his stupid human mother.

The internet is a fascinating place. I spent a summer working with a "dot-com," as they used to be called, in San Francisco some years back. This particular dot-com sold greeting cards from their website. I was put to work updating the website and reclassifying cards. It's great to be on a job where you spend one half of your time exploring someone else's website design and modifying it, and the other half simply playing on the internet. Honestly, my email correspondence activity increased by a good five hundred percent. Every hour, it was time to "stop and smell the flowers," which translates into "check email, read emails from buddies, respond with nothing in particular to say." I was in the habit of writing short stories, gossiping about my co-workers, detailing private issues that I had observed concerning their private lives, very often inserting some of my observations of these co-workers into my short stories, all in a spirit of utter and complete abandon. I felt as free as a lark until the day when I noted the little "lock" icon in the lower right hand corner of my internet email inbox.

After several contacts with the folks who host my internet email service, I was informed that when the lock is locked, my activities are secure, that they are not being observed by anyone other than myself and the person to whom I am sending the message. When the lock is unlocked, I am being observed. I went nearly half the summer using my internet email and the little lock was never, my whole time at this dot-com, locked. After some more investigation into the matter, I discovered that the firewall used by my employer was the observer, in essence, the tech guys in the next room were watching everything that I wrote in my emails. At the time, I was dimly aware that I had no right to be indignant about the matter. After all, hadn't I been "observing" them? They observed me back. Big deal. Right? Wrong.

"You work in a petty and mean place." One friend observed to me one evening on the phone. I replied to her that the scary part wasn't how petty and mean this place was. I explained that what was really frightening was how I imagined dealing with it, by being as petty and mean as "they" were.

My first "response" to this intrusion was targeted at the head tech support guy, a fellow who called himself "Big Dog." Big Dog was tall, maybe 6 feet, and heavy. At the age of 28, he was well on his way to the middle aged spread that doesn't usually hit men until they are in their late 40s. He was continually, when he wasn't reading my emails, at the vending machine and, as I observed, his favorite snacks were the same 3 items in combination, Hostess Hohos, Lays Barbecued Potato chips and a can of Pepsi. I had seen him as many as 8 times in one day visiting the vending machine for the exact 3 items. As a result of his culinary fetish, his levis were giving way at the seems exposing his skin underneath. This fact revealed that Big Dog did not like to wear underwear and along with his gross size, he was as hirsute as a yeti.

"Dear Diana," I began the morning's first email. "You won't believe the knuckle draggers in that tech room. The lead, it's anyone's guess as to what his given name actually is, calls himself Big Dog. Hey, if the shoe fits, right? He is ONE BIG DOG. I'll bet that he can scratch behind his ears with the sole of his foot! I've never seen such a junk food recycling machine. Is there ever a moment in the day when he isn't cramming hohos down into his gullet? And, as if to add insult to injury, his rapidly disintegrating levis indicate that he doesn't wear underwear. That ape is so harry it would take a fleet of John Deeres to depilatate him! Honestly, this fellow is so gross, not even his mother could love him! Yours very truly, Theresa."

I gave the "reverse observation" a couple of hours to get noticed. Then, as a ruse to get a first hand observation of my handiwork, I waltzed into the tech room as innocently as I could manage, announced that I was about to make a fresh pot of coffee, and that there would be some fresh for anyone interested in about 15 minutes. In tandem, every head in the room raised up and stared menacingly at me.

"You know-it-all Bitch!" Big Dog stood up and spattered bits of potato chip into the air with such force that those sitting adjacent to him ducked down to avoid the smoke and salt projectiles. "What makes you think you're so damn smart? What the hell do you know about my mother? You're just a big, fat, know-it-all Bitch!" He repeated the last line several more times before finally slumping back down into his chair, exhausted from the head of steam that he had worked up on my behalf. The room was eerily silent and stayed that way for a good 10 minutes.

"Very well," I said smartly. "I'll take that as a 'no" for any coffee for you guys. I'll only make a half a pot for myself." Then I turned and walked out, out of the building into the parking lot where I laughed myself silly.

My next target was my immediate supervisor, Stephan, who had fallen under my much sharpened gaze some time earlier for failing to renegotiate my contract for more money.

"Dearest Diana," I began that morning's first email. "The meeting is all set. I just need to get out of here without being followed. Stephan might be on to me. Things could get nasty if he finds out. Just let "X" know that I will be at the Vesuvio in North Beach by 5:30 this afternoon. I won't go inside. I'll be waiting out on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Yours as always, Theresa."

At lunch, I went to the local hobby shop and bought a toy cap gun and a bevy of caps.

OK. This is not nice. But, at the time, the way I saw it, I get you once, shame on me. I get you twice, shame on you.

At quitting time that day, I paraded around looking over my shoulder every chance I got. Stephan's eyes were on me until I stepped out of the door. When I got to the bus stop to take the bus to North Beach, there was no sign of Stephan. I waited long enough for two busses to pass me before I went back to the building to find out if Stephan had left or not. When I got there, only the receptionist was left. According to him, Stephan had left quietly only moments after I did. I rushed back to the bus stop to catch a bus just as it was pulling up to the curb.

From the safety of a bus shelter across the street, I could see Stephan gazing into the window of City Lights Bookstore, next door to the Vesuvio Café. Occasionally, he would twist his bird-like neck around to see what he could see. He had his hands casually stuffed into his trouser pockets and was hunched over in faux fascination of the manager's pick-of-the-month book display. At a lull in the traffic, I loaded up my toy cap gun and fired it out into the street several times in a row. I've never seen a reaction so swift as Stephan's. He lunged to the ground and, in what appeared to be a simultaneous movement, wrapped his arms around his head. The next thing that I knew, one of San Francisco's finest was grabbing my arm and wrestling me up against the tinted glass wall of the bus shelter. I dropped the toy cap gun as I tried to get a few words of explanation out of my mouth. The officer, while still restraining me against the wall, picked up the toy with his free hand.

"This is a risky thing to do." He noted as he called in my driver's license number to check for priors. "I'm guessing that this was part of some artsy fartsy film school project thingy. You strike me as the type. You have a clean record so I'll let you go. But if there was any shock value in this little episode, let it keep you from doing the same stupid thing again."

Noted. At this moment, Tyler is wrapped around my ankles, seemingly unaware that he is the topic of this sentence. He purrs when I reach down to scratch the sensitive divet under his chin. OK, so now he must be aware that I am observing him, but he doesn't shove his paw back at me. Is this "selective observation?" Is this a corollary to nature's law that he has mastered but I have not? I wouldn't be surprised.

I worked out the end of my contract at the dot-com and while others were getting invitations to have their contracts renewed, I did not. Nobody likes being made a fool of. This is something that even Tyler knows. A few months later, near Christmas, I was back in graduate school when I got a call from Stephan. He wanted to know if I needed any work. I turned him down, fearing that I would not be able to stop myself from more "revenge observation," although I didn't tell him that. I used school as an excuse. He told me that, after the incident, he quit observing internet mail and only observed email from the business domain. I wondered if this might not be more "observation." I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle one day the next spring and read in the Business Section that this particular dot-com, along with a slew of others in the area just like it, had gone out of business and was filing for Bankruptcy protection. The "observation," or at least the specter of the possibility for such activity, was finally over.

Tyler has it so together. Really, this cat does not sweat the small stuff and is far too aloof to get involved in petty nonsense. His way-cool feline sensibility is a lesson to me. The observer is the observed, right, Tyler? And if you mess with the observed, you get observed, and then you observe, and then again observed, and it all becomes a meaningless cycle that does not end. I'm hoping that my big fat human brain will start affecting some of Tyler's feline finesse and quit directing me to be so ridiculous! Soon!

Part IV

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