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.
I picked it up between two fingers and waved it limply around.
“Hello,” I called, addressing the streets of San Diego. “Did somebody lose this?”
I said it loudly, but not too loudly, because I really needed that $20.
Nobody responded, because the street was vacant. I dangled the bill over my head, tempting heaven to reclaim this manna. I imagined an all-knowing, benevolent being staring down and gently smiling. I’m a tiny ant, a speck of muddled humanity, a girl with tangled hair and cutoff jeans.
The universe, which only a moment before had seemed ugly and threatening, became a lovely place to pass the next 80 years or so. San Diego, my old buddy. I felt as if we’d spent summers together, licking drippy Popsicles and riding our bikes to the community pool. I went to an extraordinarily cheap Mexican café and got a wonderfully filling breakfast burrito for under a dollar. I sat in the café, read the San Diego Reader for the first time, and watched people go by. Through no fault or achievement of their own, they earned kinder judgments this time around.
That’s the moment that inspired Operation 20. Now, I leave $20 on people’s cars and watch what happens when they find it.
It isn’t charity.
Twenty bucks doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference to most people. I’d like to give the money to someone in circumstances similar to the one in which I found myself that first day in San Diego. But it’s too much to ask. And if this were really charity, I’d leave after depositing the $20. But I don’t leave. I sit and watch. It’s better than a movie.
I like how the sight of money provokes an instant response. It’s like a punch in the face, or a really cute baby — you can’t unexpectedly discover money and not respond. Someone’s having a shitty day, but then they find $20 and maybe their whole perspective changes. At the very least, it makes them think. Perhaps it changes the trajectory of their thoughts, pushing them in a slightly more positive direction.
One of my favorites was a frazzled-looking little mama, who, after finding the $20, ran back into the store, emerging with another bag of groceries. It’s satisfying, giving to someone who actually needs it. More satisfying than, say, the time I planted $20 on a white Escalade. The busty blonde woman who emerged from a store and found the $20 tucked it into her bra. She swung her fervid gaze around the parking lot, as if whoever had given her the money would soon take it away.
My mom always said that you love whom you serve. When I’m tempted to judge someone with that same, silent, scathing judgment I passed out like candy my first day in San Diego, I imagine that they’re one of my Operation 20 people. Because I love my Operation 20 people, flawed as they might be. You’re a quirky, funny bunch, people of San Diego, and I hate you no more.
Tonight’s candidate is a good example. He approaches his Ford Ranger with a quick stride. He’s wearing a black baseball cap, and his white hair is in a scraggly ponytail. Black jeans and cowboy boots. He looks like a man who would tell dirty jokes to his grandchildren. Hell, he’d tell dirty jokes to your grandchildren, and they would laugh. He’d wear Wranglers to a black-tie event, and he’s so self-assured that the other guys would question their tuxes.
Watching him approach the truck, I notice details I didn’t see at first. The truck has personalized license plates that say “Dr. R,” and though battered, it has expensive alloy rims, and it’s lifted. This man could be driving a BMW, but he’s opted instead to keep his truck out of nostalgia or stubbornness. I smile, noticing his cowboy boots. That takes courage, cowboy boots in suburban San Diego.
He spots the $20. He licks his lips, pulls the bill off the door handle and sniffs it. A smile that might be a smirk spreads over his face. He darts around the truck, checks the other door handles, the grill, the truck bed. Is he honestly looking for more money? He is! Wasn’t that enough for you, you greedy bastard?
Then the man unlocks the truck door, loads his groceries, and I think he’s going to get in and drive away, but instead he whips around. He is staring right at me. A flint-filled stare, knowing and deliberate. I feel it bore through the windshield and into my forehead. For a long moment, I’m frozen. Then I fumble in the passenger’s seat for my phone. I pretend to talk.
The man boosts himself into the driver’s seat. He flips on his headlights and drives off, my $20 in his pocket. I note that one of his many bumper stickers reads, “I love animals: They taste delicious.” I have to laugh at the irony — I’m a vegetarian.
I usually scribble down a few notes while I sit in parking lots waiting for reactions. What follows is a representative selection.
Operation 20 Field Report
Date: November 4, 4:00 p.m.
Location: Ocean Beach parking lot, near the pier
Vehicle: a beat-up gold Nissan
Reaction: (Don’t let your kids read this, ’cause it gets ugly.)
I only have to wait about 15 minutes before some teenagers approach the car on which I had planted a $20 bill. Glancing sideways, trying to be inconspicuous, I see there are two boys and one girl. They look like the kind of kids who change their clothes after leaving the house because their parents wouldn’t want them to go out dressed like that.
Girl: Hey, I need something out of your car. Would you unlock the doors?
Boy #1 hits a button on his key chain.
Girl, speaking to Boy #2: Hey, can you help me get my stuff out?
Boy #2: Huh? Why?
Girl: Just help me.
Boy #2: Okay.
Girl, climbing into the back seat: Get in.
Boy #2: Why?
Girl: Just get in.
Boy #2: Okay.
I sit in my car, waiting, wondering when they will find the $20 tucked into the handle of the front door.
The Nissan is…rocking.
I spin to face forward. I study the waves, the sand, the beachgoers, the surfers. No, it can’t be. I almost laugh at myself. That car wasn’t rocking, I must have been imagining that. Ha ha.
But in my peripheral vision, the car bucks and bounces.
Not here. Not now. Not in broad daylight, with children scampering around the parking lot. Their windows aren’t even tinted.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about fun and spontaneity. But this…?
Just as I’m starting up my car to leave, the Nissan’s door opens. Girl and Boy #2 emerge, sweaty and breathless. Girl frolics merrily away, joining a group of kids gathered on the sidewalk.
Boy #2, speaking to Boy #1: Dude. I just #!^@*% her.
Boy #1: Nuh-uh. Are you serious?
Boy #2: Yeah. She jumped on me.
Boy #1: For real? You only met her today.
My head swivels to look at the girl. She’s swaying, her pants hitched down so that an inch of teal silk panties is visible.
Boy #1 and Boy #2 are walking away from me now, their voices receding into the wind. I strain to hear, but the last phrase I catch is…
Boy #1: Did you use protection?
Please say yes, please say yes, I think.
I didn’t wait for Boy #1 to return and discover the $20. I considered plucking it off of his car, but in the end I just drove away. Half the fun of Operation 20 is not knowing who is going to show up and collect.
Operation 20 Field Report
Date: October 28, 8:00 p.m.
Location: Trader Joe’s Parking Lot, Hillcrest
Vehicle: Early-’90s sedan, goldish in color.
Reaction: My friend Merav was with me for this one.
A nondescript guy in khakis and a black sweater pulls the $20 off his door and just beams. For more than a week, his smile puts a smile on my face every time I think about it.
Operation 20 Field Report — The Birdman
Date: Dec. 25, 9:00 p.m.
Location: A Hollywood Video parking lot in Lemon Grove.
Vehicle: Make unknown, primer-gray in color, appears to be a late-’70s model.
My friend Trisha comes with me on this one, and we’ve been searching for the perfect car for what seemed like hours. I am determined to give my money to someone poor, someone who actually needs it.
Then it appears, exactly the car we’ve been waiting for. It rattles around the parking lot, crunched and battle-worn, with dings and dents. It’s a cheap, unsightly mess, clearly driven by someone with deep financial needs. The car door opens, and out comes a shifty-eyed man in a gray jacket and black beanie. He squints at our car suspiciously. He’s short and nervous and birdlike.
“He can’t see us, can he?” I ask Trisha. “I mean, your windows are tinted, so he can’t see us, right?”
“I dunno.” Trisha shrugs. “That’s sad though. He’s alone on Christmas night. I wonder why?”
“Ew! Ew! I know why. He’s going into Hollywood Video to get porn, and he’ll spend his Christmas night alone…you know.…”
“Ugh, sick! Gross!” Trisha shrieks. “Don’t give him $20! Wait, does Hollywood Video even carry porn?”
“How should I know?”
“I bet he’s got three children by different mothers,” Trisha says, “and he works under the table, so he doesn’t have to pay child support!”
This is our favorite game, inventing life stories for strangers.
“He lies to his own mother about his job!” I say.
Trish says, “He pulls the filters off his cigarettes before he smokes them. And he’s got a persistent rash on his testicles, a VD that he picked up from a whore in Lubbock, Texas.”
We stare in morbid fascination at this atrocious man, his hunched shoulders, his dingy jacket. He doesn’t appear to be going into the video store after all. He begins to root around in the bushes beside the car. He emerges with something held in his hand.
“What the hell?” I say. “Is he cleaning up litter? Or finding pop cans to recycle for extra money?”
“On Christmas night? Maybe we should give him the $20.”
“I don’t want to just hand it to him. He has to go inside. I like to watch the person find it.”
The man now rummages in his car. He pulls something out.
What is it? It’s a plastic bag. He pours something from the bag onto the thing he pulled out of the bushes. Maybe it’s a plate.
“This is weird,” Trisha says.
“Is he poisoning rabbits?” I ask.
“On Christmas? Weird.”
He’s now slowly walking about, sprinkling a grainy substance around the perimeter of the parking lot. He passes in front of our car.
“Maybe it’s ant poison?” I say.
“Maybe it’s birdseed,” Trisha says.
“Dude, if it’s birdseed, we gotta give him the $20. What kind of a cool old guy would feed birds on Christmas night?”
The man gets back into his car. The engine starts with a roar, and the man is speeding out of the lot. I leap from Trisha’s car and snatch up a grain of whatever it was that he was spreading on the pavement.
“Holy shit!” I scream jubilantly. “It is birdseed!”
I jump back into the car, and suddenly Trisha is speeding as well, careening out of the parking lot after the Birdman’s vehicle.
“He knows we’re following him,” Trisha says, and she’s right. He’s taking evasive action, quick screeching turns and detours. Usually, Trisha’s driving makes me crazy. I’ve never seen her go over the speed limit. But tonight, she’s a rock star. Her brakes groan at stoplights, her tires squeal when she accelerates.
He tries to lose us at an intersection, speeding through a yellow light. Trisha pulls recklessly into a gas station, then pulls back out on the other side of the corner. She snakes across the street and makes a right turn. We spot him ahead and follow at a safe distance. Birdman has pulled into a residential street, then into the driveway of a shady-looking house. It’s in need of a paint job, just like the car. There are several skeletal vehicles out front, crouched and sulking, looking as if they haven’t been moved in a decade. A dilapidated van pulls into the driveway behind Birdman’s car. Trisha and I cruise down the street a bit, then make a U-turn at the corner, killing the headlights and parking several houses down. We watch as three men emerge from the vehicles and congregate in the driveway. One of the men appears to be several hundred pounds overweight. The other has a bandana tied around his head. And then there is Birdman, short and rotund. The one with the bandana wears a wife-beater despite the cold and clear night, his limbs sticking out like twigs. He’s telling a story, waving his hands in the air. Then he begins to thrust his pelvis obscenely. He arcs his hand down in a spanking motion. Our gray little Birdman looks on and laughs appreciatively.
Trisha and I cringe.
“I wonder if his friends know that he feeds stray cats and birds in his free time?” Trisha asks. Then she says, “Maybe we should go.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say. “One of those guys would probably end up hitting us over the head with a shovel if they caught us touching his car.”
When we pass Hollywood Video, Trisha pulls into the parking lot. She pulls out her wallet and hides the $20 under the Birdman’s food dish. Then she drives the speed limit all the way home. A couple of days later, we check under the food dish.
The money is gone.
Long live Operation 20. Long live the Birdman of San Diego.