Part of my daily exercise ritual, aside from watching TV and spying on the neighbors, is to hurl myself up and down a steep hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. The majority of my days are spent alone inside; for an hour a day I can be alone outside. Sometimes it makes all the difference.
I wasn’t always so fond of my little hill. In fact, the relationship began in bitterness. You see, a mere two blocks away is a magical incline of well-spaced steps and manicured bushes and often loud with green parrots feeding on red berries. That was the route I fell in love with. But then, inexplicably, the stairs (my stairs) became more popular. People began appearing at all hours, running and walking and, even worse, speaking loudly into cell phones. Peaceful by nature, I found myself planning elaborate machine gun attacks on women speaking into Blackberries while pushing strollers. Next appeared legions of personal trainers wearing Olivia Newton John-style headbands, and with cases of rubber balls and dumbbells and elastic bands to stretch and coddle their earnest clients. Paradise was ruined, and I was forced to seek richer more primitive pastures: a hill uncut with steps, steeper, not lushly landscaped with roses and designer shrubbery. I was scornful, hurt, wary of falling in love, but soon enough we were a couple, the hill and I. It was our little secret, unsullied by cell phones or Baby Bootcamp aerobics classes or Romanian tourists picnicking on crab legs and Napa’s finest Rat Piss Riesling.
For many months it was beautiful, just my solitary hill and me. There was an abandoned yard with lemon trees, and the green parrots came down to peck at the yellow fruit. I felt vindicated. But then one evening a dark figure appeared at the base of my constitution: a uniformed security guard, a vulture, a vampire, a harbinger of doom. The guard wore all black, black boots, black bombardier jacket, black glasses, and a black baseball cap emblazoned with “SECURITY.” I assumed his presence involved one of the nearby consulates, and steered clear: I didn’t want to make small talk or unwittingly give a piece of evidence that would come back to haunt me in court once Interpol discovered where I’ve been hiding. For his part, the guard (being a guard) watched me closely during our first few encounters, the way a cheetah notices a lion, or a hooker at the Republican National Convention notices the guy in the pinstriped suit and GOD LOVES AMERICA button has been ordering three highballs at a time. But he saw that my only criminal intentions were of a sartorial nature: neon-yellow windbreaker, neon orange gloves, knee high wool socks that were once both sludge-grey, but over time one sock turned the color of fermenting mule urine while the other became the bright disturbing pink of fresh entrails, the kind one occasionally finds on the pillowcase after a festive Saturday night at the Lodge.
Being naturally paranoid and prone to elaborate conspiracy fantasies, I began watching the watcher, as it were. How did I know he wasn’t a plant? Over the next several weeks I realized he came on duty between five and six. Sometimes I saw him putting on his uniform near the opened trunk of his car. He spoke on a cell phone a lot. His area of responsibility was limited to one block: he’d stroll up one sidewalk, make a call, pet a dog, stare at any passing cars, waving at those he recognized, then cross the street and begin again.
After a few months the security guard and I took to discreet nods from across the four-way stop. Still, I keep with my credo of never speaking to strangers, which was sworn to after my brother Ben and cousin Robert were as children chased by a large man in a dress through a Ukiah Park (which is why they occasionally still hold hands in public). And then it happens. I am lost in Donny Osmond singing “Go Away, Little Girl,” gathering myself for another charge up the hill, when I notice the guard beside me. His smile says, “Hi neighbor, let’s talk!” I take out my earbuds and stick out a mitten. Once the aviator sunglasses are removed, he is less menacing. The guard, let’s call him Joseph, asks if I’ve noticed any suspicious characters or evidence of subversive activity. Overcome with a rare sense of civic duty, I volunteer that car windows are smashed on my block almost nightly. Joseph nods gravely. “That’s why I was hired: to stop the criminals from breaking into cars.” He points behind him. “See that station wagon there? Its windows were smashed three nights in a row. A lot of cars were getting broken into. Ten of the houses here chipped in to pay me…” His brow darkens. “But the others get free security even though they don’t give any money.”
I ask what other assaults on reason and property have been committed. “Graffiti, kids smoking dope, drinking beer.” (For a moment I panic: is he talking about when I had to babysit Robert’s children?) Joseph points at a large house. “The guy in that place lives in New York most of the time, so the kids were drinking beer on his steps and vandalizing his walls. They’ve stopped now.” It occurs to me that maybe Joseph shouldn’t tell me, an almost total stranger, which houses are empty. But I also feel a twinge of satisfaction: I still look honest! Joseph goes on to say that he stopped a suspect/criminal/axe murderer/pony rapist from casing a joint, and another pair of “black guys” were parked suspiciously close to an open garage.
Over the next several weeks I learn more. One house is being sold because the owner, a travel agent with franchises from San Jose to Walnut Creek, has been moved to a senior home. The neighbor of the house whose owner lives in Manhattan would like to buy the New Yorker out, but has so far been rebuffed. The consulate on the corner has its own security detail for special events and visits, which is why sometimes you will see a man in a suit eating Big Macs in his car.
Once Joseph surprises me by saying, “I’m only getting fifteen bucks an hour. No benefits, no overtime, no free swine flu shot. You know what Senator Diane Feinstein’s guard is paid only a few blocks away? Thirty dollars an hour. Thirty! Twice what I get. And he has his own private restroom built right into the house. That’s class.” He points at two porta-potties at nearby construction sites: “When those jobs are finished and the toilets are gone, I’ll have to drive to Walgreens to use the bathroom. Sorry, what am I supposed to do? Maybe they should have thought of that. And they’re going to have to pay for my toilet breaks.”
“You deserve that,” and I realize it’s the first time today I haven’t spoken a lie.
Joseph shrugs, resigned to life’s inequities. “Feinstein’s guard is part of the police union. Very strong. Me, I’m just a freelancer, already retired.” Joseph worked for twenty-five years at a high tech firm in Mountain View. He has saved enough to buy two houses in the Philippines, where he was born and where he says he will die. “You should tell your friends to buy property in Manila. Very good. Very safe. Do you scuba dive? The water is clear, like Hawaii, but better than Hawaii. You know what I pay in taxes? Sixty-eight dollars for the whole year. The other house, eleven dollars. Here, what do you pay? Thousands and thousands. And for what? Dirty San Francisco streets, getting your cars robbed, homeless alcoholics defecating in the streets, punks urinating in the bushes, ruining a life that should be beautiful. Where does that money go? Where are the police?”
As the fog dances in one evening, Joseph shows me pictures of his two homes in Manila. One is a two-storey McMansion that looks straight out of Disneyland Estates. The other is a quite lovely “rancho” with fruit trees and several outbuildings. “How much would this cost in San Francisco?” “A million?” I venture. “Millions and millions” he says, “Do the math!” (But I thought that’s what I was doing.)
There is also a disturbing photo of several dozen pigs crammed into steel cages. “I have a piggeria. Twenty-five dollars for a baby. You kill it yourself. Some I grow to full size, then butcher and sell the meat.” He grins. “You should buy property in Manila. We know how to handle crooks there. Very American. English speaking. You heard of Marcos?” “Ferdinand? The president?” Joseph nods. “He knew how to keep the crime out. Rapist? Whipped on camera, for everyone with a TV to watch. Thieves? Cut off their hands. Murderers? Shoot them.” I half expect him to say: “Jaywalkers? Cut their nuts off with dull nail clippers on Cinco de Mayo!”
Joseph motions at a nearby car. “If I catch the break-in people, here we have to take them to police, file some papers, they’re back out on the street in hours. if I catch them in Manila, we’ll take them out back and teach them a lesson.” He looks me directly in the eyes. “They won’t do it again.”
When I see Joseph again he waves me over to look at a catalog turned to odd-looking guns. “I have applied for a permit to carry and use a taser. The new SF police chief is a good man, and knows what it takes.” Next he shows me a page of night vision goggles. “They’ve extended my hours until five in the morning.” His shift had previously ended at midnight, which seemed to me just when most real crooks are rolling out of bed. But because of a rash of new car break-ins, he’d been given the greenlight to stay until dawn. Joseph is on the case.
He points out the least expensive night vision binoculars. “These are all I can afford right now, since I’m paying for them myself. But another house has also joined the coalition. They understand.” Joseph watches a man walking a labrador. “What news from your end?” I tell him that there’s been nothing but the usual broken car windows. He grits his teeth. “Yeah. They won’t stop until we catch them. The economy’s getting worse. People are desperate. The regular police don’t do enough. You should really think about moving to Manila.”