The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Friday, January 9, 2009

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Yesterday, we participated in a little tradition commonly known as family time. We headed west to one of my favorite San Diego neighborhoods: Ocean Beach.

Ocean Beach is one of the last true Southern California beach towns. It is dirty, eclectic, full of characters from the aging hippie (who is probably a secret millionaire) to the dreadlocks-wearing teen, pierced and tattooed from here to eternity. It is a preserved piece of not only my Southern California childhood but also my mother's. I love it.

Ocean Beach provides ample opportunity for people watching within an actual community. This isn't sterile airport watching; to go to OB is to engage with a community of folks who think nothing of commenting to you, out of the blue, on politics or the latest in vegan cooking. Here, slummy apartments share gardens that overflow with fruits and vegetables. The tiny neighborhood library has the best line-up of educational children's venues from bugs and bug eaters to endangered animals. Here, an old lady may be helped across the street by a chains-and-leather-clad biker, and their conversation will consist of how they went shot for shot together at PacShores the previous evening.

Whenever I go to OB, I am guaranteed an experience out of the ordinary hustle of SoCal life, and today didn't disappoint.

We had just finished up our lunch and were walking back to the car (in OB, I'm ashamed that I even own a car but do console myself that it is an 11-year-old economy car). On our way, we passed a pierced, plaid-wearing couple who were sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that read: on our way home to Canada/$$$ for munchies would be appreciated.

Not having any cash at that moment, I asked them if they would like the sandwich I had taken to go for next day's lunch. As I handed them the sandwich, a rat--emboldened by the food, perhaps--emerged from the boy's sleeve.

[of note: I actually like rats. Unlike other vermin, they are intelligent and fairly clean (the pet kind, not the sewer kind). I do find the size ratio of testicles to rat body to be a bit unnerving, but I'm not about to hold big balls against a fellow.]

I'm currently reading The Tale of Despereaux to my son, so he is very interested in things of a rodent nature. I knew he'd be beyond thrilled to see a real live rat.

"Look, Tiny, that guy has a pet rat."

"Oh, lemme see."

To which the rat's owner (and I use this in the loosest sense of the word) offered, "He's friendly. Do you want to pet him?"

Of course, my son literally leapt at this offer, and before I could say or do anything, he began handling the diminutive creature. A bit unnerved because "friendly" is the last thing I cared about a rat whose owner hasn't apparently bathed in several days, I still played it off as cool. After all, I'm the mom who lets my kid crawl under the table at a pub; I let him play in public water fountains; he swims in the Pacific Ocean for goodness sake; a rat is no big deal.

"Look at how smooth his tail is," I offered for the sake of comment.

Rat owner: "Oh, yeah, it's clean now. When we first got him, he had a bunch of brown stuff on his tail. I had to scrape it off."



It was then I realized that this wasn't a pet rat my son was handling; it was a sewer rat.

I'm not squeamish. I don't have many lines that get crossed. But that day I discovered apparently I have one called sewer rat.

I nonchalantly grabbed my son by his wrists. "Say thank you to the gentleman for sharing." And marched his ass through the nearest open door that promised a bathroom (hissing, "Don't touch anything!").

After a thourough handwashing, we again regained our treck to the car. To home and a hot, detoxifying shower.

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