I love late night wandering through the Castro. On this particular Friday night my happy hour faded into a barbecue, faded into a stroll home through San Francisco’s the sparkling gay district. In this story, I could have been in a taxi or buying a pack of gum, or at the gas station. I’m buying drunk pizza.
Under purple florescent lights, I crouched down to meet the slices at eye level through the smudged glass. I pointed at the melty green onion and sausage pizza calling my name. I held up a peace sign to the scruffy pizza guy with rough dust-colored skin. “Two please. To go.”
He flings the slices into the oven and we move to the register to pay while I wait. He asks me “Where are you from?” while punching numbers into the machine. I usually enjoy these kinds of conversations, I have lived in this Castro for seven years and I’m proud of it.
“Oh, I live in the ‘hood,” I say with a little grin while digging around my wallet for loose change. I realize in that moment between lipstick and an eyebrow threading punch card I’m also out of cash. I won’t have more than 10 cents to tip the guy. Shit.
“No, where are you really from?” he asks.
We trade folded bills and loose change for the sausage and green onion slices now packed up in cardboard box that matches the color of his burnt skin as my buzz deflates. I know this question and it only comes from other foreigners. He’s asking me Why aren’t you white? and Are you the kind of different I am? Did our moms go to school together? Are we long lost family-friend-cousins? In this moment I feel challenged and more American than ever. I belong here. Aren’t we in the Castro? A neighborhood for others.
I know how this kind of conversation ends because I’ve had it hundreds of times in taxis and 711s. To the cashier, this place isn’t my home and isn’t my identity. We could talk about if I have family in the States, where my parents were born, where my grandparents live, when they immigrated, how often I go back to India, and whether or not I speak the language. The longer we talk the more it would feel like a test on how Indian I am. Ultimately with a self-imposed guilt trip for eating sausage pizza. In any other circumstance, these are not the kinds of questions for any other kind of customer. But I’m the other other kind of customer.
“I grew up in Chicago!” I squeaked as I tightened the grip on my leather crossbody bag while clutching the pizza box in the other. I look up and see tan muscular men with well groomed mustaches and tight sport shorts finding togetherness in their otherness. I squeezed past them in this particular pizza spot and fly past two ladies ladies going in for their first kiss on the sidewalk. I jam my debit card into the ATM to take out some cash that’s going straight to my wallet and not in his tip jar.