Daily Prompt: The Not-So Good Old Days

Hey, folks. Tonight’s Daily Prompt is all about “salad days.” It’s a saying that refers to a great or memorable time in your life, usually seen through the lens of nostalgia. This one’s kind of tricky for me, because I’ve realized that some of my “good old days” weren’t so good in retrospect. My knee-jerk answer is to say my university years, specifically the time leading up to my graduation. Getting my bachelor’s degree was, from an achievement standpoint, the crowning moment of my life. I strode across that stage in a black cap and gown, practically drowning in the sweat of a 110-degree June morning. Reaching that moment wasn’t quite so easy; paying for my entire college education out of my own pocket taught me the value of discipline, patience, and motivation. I still cherish those long commutes on BART, dosing off involuntarily every morning, and desperately trying to do as much work as possible on the way back. Those insane 2 AM essay writing sessions, staying awake just long enough to perfect every last sentence. Working part time jobs, scraping by with every last penny, learning to appreciate the taste of canned peas…It was physically and mentally exhausting, but it was so satisfying. Doing something for myself – be it working towards a goal, building something with my hands, climbing a mountain, whatever – makes me feel more alive. Something was forged in that academic crucible, and I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

Looking back, however, I now realize it came with a cost. I was so focused on academics and not wasting time, I sacrificed everything else. Most folks associate college with partying, beer, romance, and the development of one’s identity. I had none of that; I never went out for the sake of going out, never developed any relationships, nothing. You ever try talking about astrophysics or Renaissance Literature in a social setting? Not fun. I often had the same classmates in different lectures, but I only regarded them as familiar faces, not actual individuals with lives of their own. That was a huge mistake on my part; I may have been at the top of my classes, but I was an absolute dunce as social and interpersonal relations. Reading and learning are much more fun when you can share the experience. I’m still really introverted and shy around people, but even I recognize the importance and necessity of interacting with others. It’s not about being the life of the party or center of attention; it’s about finding common ground and helping each other grow. There’s an old saying that “no man is an island.” I’m 30, and I’m just now starting to turn my proverbial island into a peninsula.

If I have any legitimate “good old days,” they were probably in the summer of 2013. For the first time in my life, I had free time to indulge in more things I truly enjoy: traveling and exploration. I usually travel abroad once or twice a year (including a certain last-minute winter surprise that’ll be revealed soon!), but circumstances put me in downtown San Francisco twice a week. I had hours to fill in a city that I’d never really seen before. So, I walked. And walked. And walked. I’d intentionally get myself lost by taking random turns, navigating by my sense of direction and knowledge of certain landmark locations. I’ve mapped out about a third of the city on foot, wandering through neighborhoods, exploring foreign markets, climbing all the hills I could find…Those adventures made me realize how much I enjoy photography; before that, I was firmly entrenched in the written medium. Judging by the photo gallery here, my adventures paid off in spades. Most folks in the city are so focused on their phones, they don’t notice the marvels around them…The happiest moment of that summer was looking down at the curved city landscape from the top of Lombard Street, with the sun shining on my back, and a steady breeze blowing through my hair.

I hope the coming days will be even better.

Happy Belated Free Comic Book Day!

Hey, folks. Yesterday, North American comic fans celebrated the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you could go to a participating comic book store and receive a bag of free samplers (or a selection of stuff on display) while enjoying whatever other promotions or sales going on. Since I live within reasonable traveling distance – the BART subway system has proven immensely useful – I decided to take the plunge for the first time. I don’t like being in huge crowds, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Besides, the weather was perfect for a little urban exploration.

I got to Fantastic Comics in Berkeley around 11:15, and the line was out the door and almost to the street corner.  It was a drastic change compared to my previous visit; last year I ducked in there for the Graphic Canon, and bought it seconds later. The wait this time was made bearable by the swift pace of the foot traffic, as well as all the awkward, sleepy kids in their little super hero costumes. There were also some cosplayers:

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Things were a little more hectic inside. The setup was simple: the incoming line hugged the wall, browsing the shelves until reaching the counter at the back. Everyone was given a plastic bag filled with comics, then a choice of four other assorted comics on display. Once that was done, people could split off from the line and explore the store for more stuff. And man, did they have a lot:

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^That’s only about half the store. The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, Marvel Compendiums, Game of Thrones, Batman, Ghostbusters, My Little Pony, Gundam, Dexter’s Lab, Usagi Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar…pretty much every graphic novel you could possibly think of. A shame they didn’t have any of the Street Fighter art books, though. I ended up settling on Battle Royale; I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a while, and I’d like to see how it influenced The Hunger Games.

From there, I browsed a couple more stores on the block, particularly Half Price Books and Games of Berkeley. One of the local sandwich shops apparently broke bad for the occasion:

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I got back on BART and headed to Collector’s Haven in downtown Oakland. Due to its location, most people would probably miss it. I certainly did; I had to double check the address just to make sure. It’s sandwiched within the vicinity of a tattoo parlor and a psychic, and at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. It was much smaller and quieter – there were maybe 4 people, including the staff – but they had a good selection of figurines and had an X-Men cartoon playing. I got a few free volumes that I missed at the previous store, then got back on the train. My next destination: San Francisco. Today was supposedly California Book Store Day, but the Alexander Book Company didn’t seem to have anything special going on…I left without getting anything, then ducked into the Cartoon Art Museum. The selection certainly changed since last year; they had Studio Ghibli art books for some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films! I ended up getting the Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, then promptly left before temptation could overwhelm me. I wandered around the city for a couple more hours, then finally made the trip home.

So, final count for Free Comic Book Day:

Battle Royale

Art of Howl’s Moving Castle
Mega Man Archie Comics #36: The Trial of Doctor Wily (including what has to be a Phoenix Wright knockoff at the beginning!)
A promotional pamphlet for The Clear Case by Stephanie Edd

Free comics/previews/samplers for:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Rocket Raccoon
  • Mega Man X/Sonic The Hedgehog (Snatched this up the second I saw it)
  • Street Fighter (I’m a huge SF fan, so this was a very nice surprise!)
  • New 52: Futures End
  • Teen Titans Go
  • Far From Wonder: Volume 1
  • Uncle $crooge and Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity
  • Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan
  • Les Miserables: The Fall of Fantine (Art by SunNeko Lee. Dunno how I feel about Les Mis manga-style…)
  • Entropy
  • Courtney Crumrin

That’s aside from walking four or five miles, getting 28 tags on my 3DS StreetPass, and having a much-needed day out in the city. Now that I’m back home, I know I’m going to regret all this activity in the morning. But at least I’ll have plenty to read…

Walking Home In The Dark: Part 2

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

So there I am, standing at the bottom of the hill in the dark. I can’t be more than 200 feet away from the cars, but the drivers haven’t noticed me yet. Good. That’s very good. The cruddy streetlamp is a mixed blessing; as long as I stay out of its dull glow, I should be able to stay hidden. But I can’t stay out here forever. It’s too cold. There’s no way to get in besides the front, either. I have to head into the light…What about a distraction? Maybe I can call the house and have someone turn on the porch lights. The dealers might take it as a sign that someone’s coming out and leave. It’s worth a shot, right? I quietly take out my phone and begin dialing…

Only to discover that the battery is dead. Damn it.

Okay, so much for Plan B. I don’t have any weapons aside from my fists, feet, and teeth. Confrontation is out. What could possibly go wrong if I just walk up there? It’s a small-time neighborhood drug deal, so it’s not like they’re going to shoot me right out front. It’d be too loud and messy. They’d have to dispose the body, the bullet casings…unless they simply abduct me at gunpoint, take me to a warehouse somewhere and do things more methodically. Or maybe they just don’t care and have no qualms about leaving a body count. I’m not afraid of death – I’ve faced it enough before – but there are worse things. What about living through torture and mutilation? The human body is capable of surviving phenomenal punishment…

I’m over-thinking this.

Fine, then. Let’s just keep this nice and simple. I start walking up the hill at a steady pace. I face forward, but keep the dealers in my sight. Fifty feet. Thirty. Ten. I’m crossing in front of the driveway, and I spare a glance at the truck. A crusty blue Dodge, a few dents in the fender. Can’t make out the plate. The stench of cigarette smoke. As I pass the passenger side door, both men stop talking and look directly at me. I don’t even skip a beat; I turn my back to them and wearily trudge up the steps to house’s front walk. I’m moving on autopliot. I’ve done this hundreds of times, after all. I live here, unlike these people. I get inside the house and slam the door shut, then promptly turn on every light I can reach. A few seconds later, the truck rumbles to life and vanishes into the darkness.

And then I start breathing again.

Walking Home In The Dark

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

I’m late. It’s already dark. I didn’t mean stay out for so long. Trips to San Francisco are the highlight of my week, but they’re measured by the daylight. The city itself is fine – it’s got the splendor and filth of any major city – but it’s the commute back home that’s the problem. An hour on the BART train system, getting off almost at the end of the line. Waiting for the next bus to arrive for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic, delays, or if it even shows up at all. It’s ridiculously hit-or-miss, especially on the weekends. Getting off at the closest remaining bus stop to my house (the city shut down the one just down the street, of course), and walking nearly two miles from the outskirts of town. One marshland/construction zone to pass, two hills to climb, three stoplights to cross. Dozens of minutes, thousands of steps, all while keeping an eye on the setting sun and silently praying I make it back before the light disappears. Those minutes add up fast, and I can’t afford waste a single one.

It’s not safe here at night.

The thing is, it’s actually better than riding all the way into town. Most of the buildings on the old main street are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. Only the seedy lounge, an adult novelty shop, and a grimy convenience store on the corner are active at this hour. The rest know better than to keep their doors unlocked for too long. Most businesses packed up and left when the city declared bankruptcy years ago, opting instead to seek fortunes on the other, still-developing side of town. Drunks and drug dealers reign supreme over the remnants. A man was murdered in broad daylight not a year ago, his body splayed and bleeding in the street about four houses up from mine. Thievery is practically a given. The police only show up in extreme circumstances; their budget has been recently slashed. They don’t have the resources to stem the flow of daily crime. In the deepest, darkest hours before dawn, you can hear sirens and alarms on the wind. Sometimes gunshots.

And rarely, a scream.

So, I take the slightly less dangerous route. It’s longer, but there’s less of a chance of me running into someone or something unpleasant. But now that the sun’s gone, all bets are off. It’s okay, just have to focus and keep a low profile. I get off the bus, shove my hands in my pockets, and start walking. There’s a homeless man reclining in one of the construction site tubes, and I hope he won’t try anything as I pass. The street running alongside the former marshland is lined with lights, but there’s a narrow sidewalk on only one side. I have to walk against speeding traffic, shielding my eyes from the glaring headlights of passing cars. It’s too dark for them to notice me. Good, that means less chance of catcalls and muggings.

I reach the first light, punch the signal button, and wait. It’s freezing out here. I can just make out the vapors of my breath in the pale light. But I’m burning up; I can feel the sweat coming off arms, and the blood pulsing in my ears. A guy pushing a shopping cart full of odds and ends passes the other side of the intersection and vanishes into the shadows. The signal beckons me forth, and I practically leap into the crosswalk. I stride briskly to the other side, feeling the eyes of the drivers on my back. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it’s okay, just keep going. I make it to the second intersection and do it all over again. I turn right and start climbing the hill.

Now that I’m off the main drag, it’s much quieter. But somehow, it makes things even worse. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in the entire city. The pavement is uneven, cracked, and weedy. Its houses are grand, rotting relics…and so are its streetlamps. There’s a sickly yellow glow coming from each lamp, but they’re way too far apart. There are long stretches of dark in between, abysses that seem to devour everything that gets too close. There could be anyone – anything – in those pockets of nothing.

And there’s no way around them.

I take a few deep breaths and sprint up the hill. I spare a glance at the old, hollowed furniture shop as I pass by – someone cracked its front window recently – and hope there’s no one lurking inside. None of the houses on this street have their lights on. Not a single sign of life. The other side of the hill is much more inviting. Brighter streetlights! Cars! One last intersection! And…Mexican music playing somewhere up the street? Fine, I’ll take anything over the silence.

I shuffle down the slope and make it past the final crosswalk. I stride past the rumbling vehicles without a second glance. I pass by a house with a fenced yard, and a little white dog yaps at me from the shadows. Someone left a couch on the corner; it’s laying on its side, stuffing bulging out and cushions faded with dirt. It’ll be gone by morning. It’s okay, doesn’t matter. I’m too close to care. I turn left and start making the final climb up the hill. My house is only a few hundred feet away. I look up the street in eager anticipation…

And freeze.

There is only one old streetlamp on my block. It’s halfway up the hill, right in front of my house. And in its splash of muted light, I can see two cars parked with their engines running. A blue pickup truck and a brown, rusty sedan. Neither of them belong to anyone in this neighborhood. There’s a guy sitting in the pickup, and he’s talking with the guy leaning against his window. Most likely a drug exchange.

And they’re parked right in front of my house.

To Be Continued

Daily Prompt: Close Call, Or: The Sleepy Commute

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about close calls. Seeing as I already mentioned a near-fatal one not too long ago, it’s probably best if I go with something a bit lighter. When I transferred to the university for my junior/senior college years, I had to deal with the longest daily commute I’d ever experienced. Imagine this: You leave the house sometime around sunrise, if not earlier. You walk nearly three miles to the BART train station, and wait for a train that runs to San Francisco. But you don’t go to the city; halfway down the line, you have to get off and wait for a Fremont train to roll in, which then takes you down to the furthest southern reaches of the system. After many stops and delays, you stumble onto the platform, go down the stairs, and wait for the university shuttle to show up, which will whisk you away to the campus nearly 20 more minutes away. Then you will climb at least a couple of hills’ worth of staircases, open a door, and somehow find a seat before the lecture begins.

For two years, that’s how my morning commutes worked. In theory.

The problem was with the university shuttle. The last one left at 9:00 AM sharp, so there was a lot of competition to get a seat on it. The stampedes down those train platform steps were epic, glorious races; half a step, a hesitation, anything could cost you everything. Okay, not everything. But you had to wait for the city bus, shell out additional fare (a bane for any student), and endure a trip that was ten minutes longer. When you’re trying to get to your morning classes – especially when you’re coming from several cities away – every millisecond counts. So all of us fought in these unspoken wars every morning, all for the sake of scheduling. I’ve always been pretty quick on my feet and have a good sense of balance, so practically sprinting down those stairs was rarely an issue for me.

Falling asleep on the train, on the other hand…

So this one time the train rolled into my stop. But I was asleep; heated train car + early winter morning + general lack of rest = one slouching, potentially drooling student. I didn’t feel the train stop, nor did I hear the doors open. But by some instinct, I snapped awake just as the doors were starting to close. Luckily, my backpack didn’t get stuck. I groggily dragged myself over to the stairs and went down. I thought other students would be on my heels and rushing me to get down, but there were none. My heart sank when I made it down to the bus stop. Three dozen or more people in front of me. Even if the shuttle driver would let me stand, there still wouldn’t be enough room. I stood there, silently hoping that I was wrong…but I wasn’t. The last shuttle left with a small group of us standing there. I wearily sat down at the city bus stop and waited. I was going to be late. There was no avoiding it. I begrudgingly paid my extra fare – thankfully I planned for just such emergencies – found the nearest chair, and sulked.

I didn’t sleep on the bus ride up to the campus. I was too wired, too angry at myself for failing. I knew I’d have to sprint up the hills to get to class on time. Maybe the professor wouldn’t notice me. Yeah, sure. He wouldn’t notice a dude with long hair, a trench coat, and a scarf sneak into the room. Ugh, so embarrassing! I practically leaped off the bus when we finally got to campus. Up the first flight of stairs, weaving through the groups of others going to class-

“Hey!”

Someone called out. I didn’t think it was to me; no one ever talked to me. I kept going. One more flight, making a left, going up the wooded path, there’s the door to science building-

“Hey, wait up!”

It was the same voice as before. I opened the door and dared a glance back. A middle aged man in a jacket and scarf came huffing and puffing towards me, and I could see his breath in the cold morning air.

“Hey, you’re one of the students in my 9:30 lecture, aren’t you? I was on the same bus you were, but I don’t think you noticed!”

Whoops.

“…Uh, heh. No, professor.”

“Thought so. Well, don’t bother rushing. I’m pretty sure class can’t start without me.”

“Right.”

We leisurely made our way up to the lecture hall, and I tried to hide my blushing face under my scarf. I’ve had way more serious close calls than this, but I’ve never forgotten that tedious yet funny commute.