I almost never go downtown during the day. At night there’s the symphony, theaters, occasional fancy, overpriced dinners at restaurants with curious names in which random letters are upside-down or composed entirely of diacritical marks. But these are contained experiences, elaborately structured and isolated from stories. I walk within loose herds of similarly dressed people from klieg-lit parking lots to buildings with immaculate windows and attractive carpeting. There’s nothing wrong with the symphony/theater/restaurant thing; experientially, these are perfectly legitimate. But they’re only one of many overlapping dimensions. In daylight the others are less easily obscured.
One day out of every year I am compelled to go downtown, taking a bus to avoid sixty dollars in parking fees, at an ungodly early hour and to stay there all day. Jury duty. The courts are there. Over the decades in three major cities I have sat through more voir dires than Clarence Darrow and have never been selected for a jury. I never will be. Lawyers are leery of people like me.
This year the letter from the Board of Jury Commissioners demanded my presence two weeks before Christmas, the worst possible time. I had taken Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking to read during the agony of boredom inherent in sitting around for hours waiting to be dismissed yet again from a duty of citizenship when I absolutely had to wrap and mail stuff to friends and family, none of whom live west of the Mississippi.
Captivated by the book, when the two-hour lunch break came I dashed outside to follow the author’s advice instead of shopping for Christmas gifts. I was determined to see something other than what I am programmed to see. For her book, Horowitz enlisted the perspectives of experts in various fields – geology, lettering, medicine, public space utilization – on her treks. I had only my own perspective, basically that of a truffle-pig rummaging for stories. It would have to do.
There were the usual pawn shops, tattoo parlors and check-cashing places punctuated by trendy little lunch restaurants that cater to the courts. The hierarchy of attorneys was instantly visible in the cut and fabric of suits moving on the sidewalks. Apparently there’s a retro 70’s trend among the more colorful, older women lawyers, since so many were wearing long skirts, boots and fringed scarves. They lunched with younger women lawyers wearing pinstripes and Ann Taylor shirts. I didn’t think this is what Horowtiz had in mind when she wrote her book, so I tried harder.
Wandering into an alley, I inspected a caged air-conditioning motor half the size of an ordinary desk, sitting on the ground surrounded by feathers and bird-droppings although no birds. The air-conditioner was on, humming and rattling beneath an eight-story building it couldn’t possibly be servicing; it was way too small. The air-conditioner must be filtering the air below the street, I thought. But what’s down there? There are no subways in San Diego, no underground of any kind, since the city sits on the concretized rubble of ancient mountains, impossible to excavate. But there must be something down there, or why the air-conditioner? I imagined a secret, subterranean lair in which nefarious things were happening, although I couldn’t think what they’d be. Here, nefarious things of necessity happen above ground, out in the desert or off the coast on boats. The air-conditioner provided no story.
The trendy lunch places were all crowded and noisy, so I drifted onto side streets, still trying to be acutely aware of stuff I wouldn’t normally notice. There was an abandoned hotel, its “Hotel” sign striped of neon and fringed in peeling paint. Three levels of dusty windows revealed empty rooms full of stories no one will ever hear. The street level façade was inexplicably covered in fake stone, the door covered in plywood. A small sign over a barred window announced that once a dance studio was there. I felt the trail warming.
Across the street was a minuscule coffee and crepes place in the lobby of a yet-to-be-gentrified office building that still has those little octagon-shaped white tiles on the floor and a narrow staircase with beautiful wooden banisters. A tiny, self-service elevator with a polished brass scissors gate gleamed in the shadows. I went in and ordered lunch. There was nowhere to sit in the narrow lobby, but there were four tables outside. I took my cheese crepe and hazelnut latte to one of them. The rolled-up crepe was a foot long and hung over both ends of its paper hot-dog holder, compelling me to gnaw globs of dripping cheese from alternate ends before they fell onto my jury-duty outfit. The crepe was too big; I’d never be able to eat the whole thing.
The homeless hang out on the side streets downtown, and one of their number, pushing a grocery cart draped in dark blankets and one garish afghan, captured my attention. Dressed in a long black skirt, a wealth of black scarves and a wonderful black hat with a rumpled sort of black velvet ball on top, she might have been Eliza Doolittle or a distant relative of Mary Poppins. She stopped her cart beside my table.
“I’m hungry. Will you feed me?” she said in a generic Midwestern accent. Not pleading, not begging, just a neutral statement and flat question.
“Sure,” I said, cutting my foot-long crepe in half with a plastic knife and gesturing to the further half. “That’s yours.”
She picked it up with one filthy hand, the cuticles so black they might have been painted. Then she sat gracefully in the chair across from me, not looking up, her face lost beneath the shadow of that bobbing hat.
“So what’s your story?” I asked, deliberately eschewing my usual social-worky urgings about staying on meds, pretty sure this was going to be the pay-off, the end of my search.
She looked up then, stunning big eyes in a grimy face. She stood, holding her half-crepe aloft, and executed an elegant, sweeping dance on the sidewalk accompanied by extended consonant-sounds, mostly N’s. “Hnnn, nnn…” An interpretive dance I couldn’t translate to a song I couldn’t hear, but unquestionably a story. Hers.
After her dance she ate her half-crepe and pushed her cart around a corner. I went back to the county court and was eventually rejected as a juror. Maybe some day I’ll walk those streets with an entomologist or a dog as Alexandra Horowitz did. I’ll learn about the lives of local insects or begin to understand that a pile of poop is in actuality a compelling documentary if you have the right nose. Until then I’ll look for stories and be happy when I find them, even the ones I can’t read.