I worked at Fayes Video on 18th Street from the late 90′s into the mid 00′s. The woman who set herself on fire on Dorland Street last weekend, later passing away at a burn center, was a regular customer during that time.
You can read a bit about what happened as well as reflections by members of her family (in the comments) at Mission Local. After the jump, the co-owners of Fayes and I each share a few thoughts about Colleen.
If you’ve worked at a cafe, or bar, or pretty much any direct service job, you can probably relate to that certain kind of way that I got to know so many customers who came in almost every day of the week. I got to know each one of them really well in a very tiny sliver of their life. I knew what they were like for five minutes of every day. Watched their habits, their routines, and took part in them, assisting them. I saw changes both subtle and obvious. Maybe they would come in with a partner, then start coming solo, with a different mood, then gain or lose weight, then appear with another partner, maybe of a different gender, get their weight back or lose the extra pounds. They changed their hair, their styles, quit smoking, drank twice as much coffee, started smoking again, switched to decaf. Finally many would move away or just stop coming in all together.
I would watch all this happen, and I would feel like I knew a part of them, but I also knew how much was missing. We’re all so packed in here, such a dense neighborhood. You can’t know everyone, not all of them. Not enough to really understand what’s happening for them. And it’s frustrating to admit that our proximity can have very little to do with any similarities in our experiences. Externally we see the same things, but we all have our own reactions to them. A hot new restaurant opens and one person thinks it’s a great turning point for the neighborhood, while their neighbor thinks it’s the end of a community. And the image of the rich young techie stepping over the sleeping homeless person is so obvious and is such a cliche that it almost seems pointless to even bring it up. We know these extremes co-exist in this place. We accept it and continue on.
I knew this woman, years ago, for five minutes a day. I can remember just once or twice talking with her outside of Fayes. I think we ran into her at the 500 Club. And I saw a little bit more of who she was, but not really. Because we weren’t drawn together to become close friends. And there were always so many other people around us, each one of them a different story of the neighborhood. I never knew what she was dealing with in the time of the day before and after she got her coffee. There were hints of a dark place inside her, but she was always so sweet and so kind, always little laughs here and there. She always looked down when she laughed. I remember how it felt the few times she came back up to meet my eyes again. When she laughed I felt like she was always agreeing with me. Even at her own expense. Which was a hint at something else. But we all have dark places.
I can’t imagine setting my entire body on fire. I can’t imagine the pain that would drive me to do something like that. I don’t know that kind of pain. For that, I will to remind myself to be grateful every day.
Colleen used to come in all the time. We’d chit chat about neighborhood crushes and Bi-Rite. She’d get a large coffee. She worked downtown as a para legal. She didn’t love it so she decided to go to art school. We’d talk about painting. She slowly became more reclusive. She stopped coming into Faye’s. She often had late fees so I thought maybe she got Netflix. Her hair got longer. She was always wearing dark sun glasses. I saw her last Thursday. I nodded hello, no response. Now I wonder what was so wrong that you would choose that way. Such a public display from someone who seemed to be so private.
I met Colleen back in 1994. We both worked at a paper warehouse her family owned (JC PAPER out on 3rd and Tennessee). With all the heavy lifting and tons of paper day in and day out, you really had to rely on your coworkers in regards to help and safety. That kind of work binds you, for a time. Colleen was a tough cookie to crack. I don’t think she liked the job very much, but needed some work and well . . . the family business and all. After a few months, although suspicious of my sarcasm, her and I got into some really serious discussions about life, gender, politics, etc . . . We both played devil’s advocate for each other. I think we were both surprised when we’d crack each other up. Maybe unlikely friends, but friends.
Years later Colleen moved into her place on Guerrero and became a customer (and neighbor) at my store, Fayes Video on 18th street. It was like “Oh yeah . . . you . . . from the warehouse” and I think we were both relieved to know that neither one of us was throwing around 50 pound boxes of Strathmore Bright White paper anymore. Over the years, Colleen and I would chat, talk about old times at the warehouse, the neighborhood, etc . . . She always had that look in her eye like she was waiting for me to say something silly or sarcastic and I would always wait for her to dry and funny.
A month ago, I was walking down Guerrero and I hear “I would recognize that gait anywhere”, it was Colleen from across the street walking home. I yelled “Heya” and she smiled. It made me laugh that someone would recognize someone’s gait, the way that they walk, but it was a thoughtful comment. And it’s true, you spend a little bit of time (or a lot of bit) and you pick up things. I am sure in our year or so together working in the 10,000 square foot warehouse you’d get to know the sound of anyone’s footsteps.
I know she would think I was being sarcastic by saying this, but I always thought she looked cute wearing the back support with suspenders we had to wear at work.
Rest in peace neighbor.