It’s dark and I’ve been sitting in this grocery store parking lot in Allied Gardens for half an hour. I continuously scan the lot, looking at cars newly arrived, trying to find the perfect target. I’ve got a certain flavor in mind for tonight, something crappy but not too crappy. A car that says of its owner, “I’m embarrassed to be driving this, but I won’t get a new one until it dies.” When an old, rickety white Ford Ranger pulls into the lot, I know I’ve found the right one. The driver slips from the cab and ambles to the grocery store’s entry. I prefer it if I don’t see the driver until afterward — it’s more fun to be surprised by their identity and their response once the deed is done — but tonight is a slow night and I’ve got plans in an hour, so I can’t be picky. I exit my vehicle and run toward the pickup, denying an urge to whip my head around and make sure I’m not being watched. The thrill is like toilet-papering someplace when I was a kid. In under five minutes, I’m back in my car. Now all I have to do is wait for the owner of the Ford to come out and discover my handiwork. I hope that he’s just going in for a pack of cigarettes and not a full-blown grocery run.
This is something that I do once or twice a month. I call it Operation 20, and I know it’s a stupid name, but it stuck, and now I can’t seem to call it anything else. If you think of something better, please feel free to let me know.
I’ve tried to explain Operation 20 to people, but they always get the wrong idea. Blank faces cloud with concern…it’s as if there’s a secretarial assistant behind their eyes, frantically ripping open drawers in their brains: What can I file this under? Vandalism? No no no, not this nice little white suburban girl…some sort of nonsexual voyeurism? No, that doesn’t fit either… When I finish explaining, people open what they believe is the correct drawer and file it away, breathing a sigh of relief. And the drawer they open is labeled “Charity,” and that pisses me off. Operation 20 is not charity. Damn it, people. Come on.
Let me start at the beginning.…
I despised San Diego from the first moment I saw it in full daylight. I was in my dingy fifth-floor studio apartment, and I looked through a window, smudged but never cleaned by the previous occupant, and hated everything in my view. I hated the scraggly canyon below my window and the concrete wall that only partially obstructed my view of the freeway. I hated the chipped gray sidewalks, the flimsy chain-link fences. It’s easy, once you give your mind license to hate. Even innocent inanimate objects become worthy of the most loathsome thoughts. On my first day in San Diego, “San Diego” became an umbrella under which all manner of common, mainland-America crap lurked. Even worse, for me, was the reverence with which natives held their city. Within a half hour of tuning the radio to a local station, I heard “Beautiful San Diego, the best place to live in the world.” I wanted to punch someone. Repeatedly.
I realized that my mood, and therefore my judgment, was being impaired by an empty stomach. I decided to head out for breakfast, only to realize I’d left my credit card on the counter of a gas station in Price, Utah. I could picture it there, the holographic image winking merrily, waiting for some other and perhaps better-looking gas-station patron to come along and give it a new home. I had been planning to live on that card for two weeks, until I got my first paycheck. Now I had nothing, except for pride, and it was pride that prevented me from calling home and asking Mom to wire me money.
Breakfast plans temporarily ruined, I decided on a breakfast-replacing walk. That was when the hatefest really began. Yes, San Diego and I were on a collision course, and San Diego was going to win, given its superior mass and momentum.
I walked out into the building’s dim hallway and made my way to the elevator. The smell of cheap perfume with an undercurrent of urine hit me before the elevator even arrived. The doors slid away to reveal a face so animated that it could only be Midwestern. Meeting this woman’s eyes was like being struck in the stomach.
“Hiya!” she shrieked as I stepped aboard. “Are you new in the building?”
She gestured expansively, as if to embrace the dingy complex in its entirety. I considered the bleached-blond hair, pink nails, and push-up bra. She was wearing enough make-up to smother a turtle.
“Yeah,” I said. “New to San Diego, actually.”
“Ohh,” she gushed. “You’re just gonna love it here. The people are so friendly, and it’s so relaxed! It’s a beach town, you know…We moved here two years ago, and I’ve never been happier.”
I gave her a dismissive smile and headed out to the sidewalk. Around me, all things San Diegan raised their voices in a silent, hate-inspiring chorus. Across the street, a woman got into her Lexus. I wanted to scream, Why the hell did you buy a Lexus, you bitch, you live in a shit apartment, you’re not fucking rich! You probably never will be, making poor, image-driven purchases that swallow up vast amounts of your piddly resources.
A man with a small dog ambled toward me.
Don’t smile at me, I thought. Why’d you choose that dog anyway? Did you think you’d look masculine beside it? Hon, your pasty-white fluorescent-light-nourished skin wouldn’t look masculine next to a powder puff…What was that? Hey, don’t frown at me, I’m not the one who gave you that haircut.
And so on.…
That’s when I saw it — a $20 bill, centered on the sidewalk square directly ahead of me.