July 10, 2002

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Daysleeper

By Amanda Nowinski

I SPEND THE Fourth of July by myself, half fearing, half hoping that something will happen. I walk all the way up Polk Street to Aquatic Park, where frantic boys with clear plastic cups run along the rocks leading to the water, collecting crabs and bugs and merrily pulling their legs apart. Two teenagers with pants hanging below their butts smoke cigarettes and, like the little boys, search for sea creatures to mutilate. Disembodied claws fly across the rocks as their girlfriends scream coyly, their hands covering their gooey full lips.

A stocky white woman with fake blond dreads wraps an American flag around her waist like a sarong and shouts, "Frankie – you won't get no hot dog if you don't get your ass over here now! I said now!" Red helicopters dip low enough to graze the gray, oily water. Cops prowl the cement promenade, eyeing big-titted girls in tank tops while stiff-looking agents in pressed black pants and sheer rubber earpieces ineffectively try to blend in. A newscaster whose face is smeared with beige pancake makeup carries a "KRON"-emblazoned mic and wanders aimlessly with his camera operator, looking for something forgettably cute for the six o'clock news. Tattooed and pierced hipsters my age stroll around wearing American flag T-shirts – even the Teva-wearing crusties smoking hand-rolled tobacco look like poster children for the NRA.

Normally I come here every evening at six to join the rest of the daysleepers: chunky old women with thick round glasses, perched on the benches overlooking the water, nibbling homemade sandwiches and nuts they pull from dusty plastic bags; Russian- and Chinese-speaking mothers lowering crab nets into the water, pulling up toxic dinners as their children watch; junkies lost, searching for nothing along the pier that stretches far into the bay.

Daysleepers come here to lose themselves at dusk. They never say hello to one another, but sometimes they'll share a detached, absent-minded nod, one that says, "All right, I've seen you here a million times before, but let's not say a word." The daytime, like on this uneventful Fourth, is hardly beautiful. The sand is thick and gray, weighed down with gas and exhaust, and the water is a muggy, miserable green. The only kids splashing in the water are those whose parents aren't anywhere in sight. Pot-smoking hippies used to play bongos on the steps in the '70s and '80s, but aside from the daysleepers, the only people who come here now are giddy tourists. At night the red sunset reflects in the bay, which turns a perfect neon pink. Enormous, prehistoric seagulls lunge inches from people's heads as they swoop around, scoping the pier for stray fish guts.

"Check this shit out!" shouts one of the teenagers, dangling a half dollar-size crab in the sun. Its legs reach frantically toward the sky. One of the girls begins to scream and runs away but falls and scrapes her knee. The boy slowly, methodically rips off each claw and tosses them at the fallen girl, who laughs and pats her bleeding leg with a piece of tissue. The boy holds the tiny, dismembered body and tosses it toward the steps, stomps on it, and smears its body into the cement.

I recognize an ancient daysleeper sitting on a bench not far from the rocks. She shakes her head and chucks a peanut shell into the bay.

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