The Courage of their Conniptions
A Look at Yelpers on the Edge
A [fictional] profile, based on the Yelp reviews of Anna N.
I meet Anna N. at Hillstone, a four-star steakhouse in North Beach/Telegraph Hill that used to be called Houston’s. We sit down at the bar, and Anna orders what she describes to me as her usual: grilled artichoke, artichoke dip, and the filet.
Grilled artichoke and artichoke dip? I think to myself. I’m uncertain of the impulse to order two artichoke appetizers, but certain Anna has her reasons. I follow suit. My personal goal for the day is to emulate Anna N. to the letter.
“They do their steak much better than a lot of fancier places out there,” remarks Anna, as she presses her wispy middle finger against the top of a small tin. With a satisfying pop, the top depresses and the sides release. She removes the cover and takes out a pill. She thrusts it into her mouth with the palm of her hand, takes a sip of ice water, and dramatically tosses her head back to swallow.
I knew—or suspected—that Anna N.’s recreational activities could veer into the pharmaceutical, but I was taken aback by her candor.
“In fact, its phenomenol!” says Anna, sensing my misgivings.
She slides a small orange pill across the tablecloth, then, curiously, picks it up before it reaches my water glass, and places it atop my bread plate.
I look at her with not a little bit of uncertainty, but she nods her head and closes her eyes slowly, assuringly. To the letter, I think, and swallow the pill.
Lunch is fine. “Like the nice guy in your life that is always there for you,” says Anna, “The reliable, sweet ‘best friend’ that you don’t want to ‘ruin the friendship,’ with.” And indeed, everything we ate was reliable, if a little sweet.
From Hillstone, we head out to do some shopping. We climb into Anna’s car and head west for the Sanrio Store on Market Street. As we pass through North Beach, however, Anna pulls over in front of a gallery. Without a word, she heads inside.
The store is unremarkable. They mostly sell glass art. Anna emerges after a few minutes with Gary the owner, who is carrying a four-foot-tall blown-glass fiddler crab.
“Anytime I am in north beach, I drop over $500 here,” smiles Anna proudly.
I tell Gary it’s nice to meet him, and we continue on our course to Sanrio.
It’s an unspeakably gorgeous day outside. The bulk of the multitude of cars that usually congests Columbus Ave. has yielded for a moment to foot traffic. Everyone is outside walking dogs, and throwing frisbees, and drinking tiny cups of crunchy espresso and smoking bushels of cigarettes in front of any number of indistinguishable cafés. As we weave down Columbus, I feel a freedom I’ve never felt. It’s a sensation out of step with my life. I work long hours, and worry a lot. I don’t make much money. But right now I feel, sitting next to Anna N., like things could be different.
“I’ve never quite—
“I cook in my hello kitty apron. I drink out of my hello kitty sippy cups. I write on a hello kitty notepad in my meetings with top execs. I eat off my hello kitty plate and use my hello kitty untensils while everyone else uses expensive glass,” offers Anna N., excitedly.
I look over to Anna for the first time since we left the gallery. I don’t know how long she’s been smiling, but she is smiling now—a broad grin of immense satiety. I notice now that she is driving quickly, racing toward Market Street, Hello Kitty, Keroppi, Chococat, and Cinnamoroll.
“…I cut my food on ahello kitty cutting board. I hold my important files on a hello kitty USB. . I still tie my hair in pigtails here and there so I can use myhello kitty hair ties,” she continues, rolling said pigtails idly between her thumb and forefinger.
When we arrive at the Sanrio Store, I ask Anna about the prudence of holding important files on a hello kitty USB, but I don’t get an answer. She’s elsewhere. She is coveting sippy cups. She turns them over and over in her hand, one at a time, until she settles on two—a classic pink and white Hello Kitty model, and a bright green Keroppi cup, with two frog eyes as the handle. One, she explains, is for her. The other, I assume, is for a toddler learning to drink from cups.
Back in the car, Anna gently shifts the glass fiddler crab to the driver’s side of the back seat, and with equal care, places her Sanrio bag on the seat beside it. She tells me she is in the mood for seafood.
Anna N.’s shellfish proclivities are legendary among her followers, so when she suggests we take a quick crustacean tour of the city before lunch, I feel revived and excited.
Our first stop is Red Crawfish, which is out of crawfish today.
“WHAT THE! how can a crawfish restaurant have NO crawfish?” screams Anna N., whose temper is as much part of her legend as her love for shellfish.
Anna apologizes to me, and explains that the last time she was here the crawfish “were all about the length of my can of coke.” This only compounds my disappointment as a lover of mutant foods.
“Yup.. I’m one of those girls,…….. Bigger IS Better!”
“You mean when it comes to cock size, right?” I ask, embracing her frankness.
She’s gone again, adrift. This time, she’s consumed by a wistful look. She stares a thousand yards away, silent. There is only the low hiss of the radio as we drive through a tunnel. Minutes pass.
“I think I’m going to hell for eating so many underaged crawfish, they were babies, very small,” she says at last. She’s remembering another time now, and our shellfish excursion is over.
I meet an entirely different Anna N. as we head to lunch, one wracked by years of discrimination, addiction, and confusion. She talks openly about drugs. Like the time she visited 5A5 Steak Lounge while in recovery and relapsed unexpectedly.
“The mushrooms – there must have been crack in it because I was addicted to it,” she says matter-of-factly. The openness I had mistaken earlier for brashness, I see now as her means of battling the disease.
What makes overcoming addiction difficult is that while you can quit a substance, it’s almost impossible to beat the addictive impulse. Anna acknowledges that her addiction is not gone, but merely changed. While her fellow recovering addicts moved on to lesser vices, she chose a different replacement.
“In high school, as my friends picked up smoking, I picked up cheesesteaks,” she says. “Bacon wrapped hotdogs are like my vicodin.”
* * *
We arrive at the French Laundry just after noon. The day has developed into a scorcher. I’m perspiring before we walk in the door, and by the time we’re seated upstairs, I have to peel my suit jacket from my sweat-drenched back.
But before I can hang my jacket from the back of my seat, a server stops me. He tells me that there is a dress code in the dining room, that I need to keep my coat on during the meal. Anna N. comes to my defense.
“Seriously!, it can be very uncomfy for a guy to sit through a 3 hour meal sweating his butt off. How can he enjoy it and he had a dress shirt underneath, does it really hurt anyone if he took off his coat?” she reasons with the server.
Denied. By now I’m not even aware of my jacket, though. I feel inescapably enveloped in heat, like my body has started a self-propagating series of ignitions. I’m uncomfy. When I hear Anna say that we’re in for a three-hour meal, my heart sinks. I’m a puddle, and I will remain so for the duration of our meal.
I hear Anna’s voice muted and garbled, the way people in movies hear things after a grenade explodes or they get knocked out trying to catch a football. She says something about “an option to get pasta with truffle on it for $150 dollars.” And in my fevered state of heat-induced dementia, I agree to ordering a $150 plate of pasta.
What follows is a blur. I can barely taste my food.
“It was quite pricey and I’m still wondering if a handful of pasta is worth $150,” Anna muses, poking and twisting the last strand of pasta onto her fork. I have no recollection of eating pasta.
As the enormous cheese course arrives, I vomit brown-green vomit into my hands. I excuse myself from the table to wash up. When I return, I only feel strong enough to try a sliver of the lightest looking cheese on the plate. Anna looks on with concern. I chew for a moment, but finally concede to the cheese’s richness, spitting it into my napkin as I look up to meet Anna’s gaze, ashamed.
“It was good but you can barely swallow it because it was so heavy,” she consoles me.
We leave the French Laundry, both ambivalent about our experience. I regain my strength from the AC in the car, as Anna recaps the meal.
“$900 for lunch was over the top,” she scoffs. “Also, spending 3 hours for lunch was too long for me, I wanted to nap half way through. What really sucked was watching my friend suffer through the meal cause he was too hot.”
I’m flattered to hear her call me her friend. I wonder if it’s only an act of courtesy, but still feel heartened. We have but one more meal together ahead of us, and I need to collect myself quickly. My day with Anna N. is coming to an end.
By the time we return to North Beach, I feel whole again. My shirt is crunchy with dried sweat, but I am renewed. We go to Mama’s on Washington Square, a breakfast joint. I haven’t had a proper meal since Hillstone, so I’m famished. I don’t think twice about ordering a frittata and orange juice at 7pm. Anna seems less excited by the prospects of breakfast for dinner.
Our last meal together is uneventful. We don’t speak much. Anna has gone into one of her pensive moods again. I’ve given up on guessing what she might be thinking. She’s had a hard life, and whether she means to or not, she wears it on her sleeve. But what might be consuming her at any given moment is unknowable, and it’s heart-wrenching to consider the possibilities. I’m relieved when she finally reveals what’s on her mind.
“The food was good and it looked great but it was just breakfast at the end of the day.”