Apr 24, 2011

Every few months I'm invited downtown to 250 Sutter Street to participate in a focus group. There's always a strange scene or an odd encounter. Last time, during a discussion about potato chips, a woman leaned out of her chair and part way under the conference table to smell her high-heel shoe. She was clever about it but I saw the whole thing.

Tonight, it was a former kindergarten teacher. A very striking woman by the way. She wore hot rod-red lipstick on a chalk-white face. Like a mime or a kabuki dancer. She was about my age. Not Asian. Her hair was grey and wiry like an unshorn sheep. She wore expensive blue-streaked shoes, from Mexico she said. They fit her as though they'd come out of a Tastee Freeze machine and swirled right on to her feet.

At the last minute she and I were not picked to participate in the focus group. We were told to remain for 15 minutes, until it was clear no alternates would be required. Then we would be paid and could leave.

When told she was not chosen this woman, whose name I didn't get, said she was insulted. "Aren't you?" she asked me mockingly.

"I am deeply hurt," I said.

"My husband will be devastated that I'm coming home so early," she went on.

I showed concern.

"We're in therapy," she said. "But it's not going well."

Why not?

"Nothing's working. We've tried everything. Part of the problem is that my husband worked in the district attorney's office for thirty years. Actually, one thing did work, for a while. The therapist told us that we needed to surprise each other more. You know, try to bring back the glow. Don't we all want the glow?"

What did you come up with?

"Lately, mostly new restaurants, weekend trips up the coast. It's all what we were doing before. I'm going to take him to see "No Exit" when that opens next month at A.C.T."

Does he like Sartre?

"He has no idea who Sartre is. But he has a taste for the bizarre."

Clearly, I thought. What's the most memorable surprise he ever gave you?

"He took me to Harbin Hot Springs for a four-day weekend with Neopagans."

How was that?

"A lot of overweight people frankly. A lot of standing around in circles with no clothes on. Surprisingly boring but perverse at the same time. I found that part interesting."

What's the most memorable thing you ever gave him.

"Once, I woke him up at 3 a.m. by playing opera out of a boom box as loud as I could. He hates opera."

She was clearly reliving the thrill.

What opera?

"Boris Gudonov. Mussorgsky's noisiest, if you know it. It was between that and anything sung by Gertrude Grob-Prandl. I think she's considered one of the loudest opera singers of the 20th Century. I literally put right the box right next to his ear."

It occurred to me that despite her wild imagination this might not be the ideal wife.

"But that wasn't the surprise," she went on. "Then I blindfolded him and drove him up to Napa for a balloon ride. But on the way up I almost ran over a dear and when we got there the event was cancelled. It was a bad end but still memorable."

Ten minutes had passed. One of the girls at the front desk told us we could leave. We went up to sign out. Before being given a check we had to show some proof that we had given to a favorite charity — a magnet to put on the frig, a thank you card.

It was at this point that the woman dug into her PBS tote bag and drew out a bloody arm. It was in a shirt sleeve, buttoned at the wrist. From a small man clearly. With stubby fingers and a wedding ring.

"Will this do?" the woman asked. One of the girls behind the desk fell out of her chair.

I had to look at this arm for a long time to realize it was rubber. It even had an odd smell. The blood stains in the shirt where the arm would have been torn from the shoulder were particularly life-like.

"My favorite charity is Doctors Without Borders," said the woman.

We took our checks and got on the elevator.

What do you do for a living, I asked.

"I was a kindergarten teacher for 30 years. Now, I'm just a housewife."

Not just, I said.

"No, not just," she replied, standing in the elevator looking up at the ceiling, the bloody fingers reaching out of her bag.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

You meet some of the most intriguing (?) people ... I thought I was the only one who met such characters :)