These kinds of misunderstandings are common between pragmatists and idealists. The pragmatists just think, “something went wrong... who can we blame?” The idealists are already trying to figure out how to prevent that thing from going wrong ever again.
Ashton got into San Francisco in the afternoon. He took a SuperShuttle to Fisherman’s Wharf and, famished, went into a restaurant and ordered a big stack of pancakes.
That’s when the implications of abandoning his former life in Michigan really started to sink in. He had no job, no place to sleep, his car was gone, he owed $40,000 in student loans, and had exactly $173 in his wallet.
But goll-ee, they sure do have pretty waitresses in San Francisco, he thought, admiring the strawberry curls of the Molly Ringwald-lookalike standing by the front cash register. A little over five feet tall, maybe. Crazy freckles.
While Ashton stared at her from across the deserted restaurant, a couple of well dressed boys came in and started talking to her. Tourists, maybe, or students? Were there any schools around here? There must be schools in San Francisco. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed a little bit more complicated than “can we have a table and buy some pancakes please.”
“Molly” got out her purse and rummaged around. She gave the kids some money. The conversation continued. She tried to make a phone call; nobody answers. Eventually she opened the cash register and counted out rather a lot of money, which she gave to them.
“That’s weird,” Ashton thought, but he paid the check, and went across the street to an Internet cafe to look for an apartment on Craigslist.
The first thing that hit him was that the prices for apartments were insane. Back in Michigan, he was paying $475 for a really nice one bedroom, but in San Francisco, things seemed to be triple that. Without a job, he wasn’t even sure if anyone would rent to him. While he was pondering this problem, he noticed the waitress from the pancake place come out, clearly distraught. She sat down at a bus stop and started crying.
Now, the old Ashton would never, never just go up to a random girl on the street, least of all one who was crying, but the magical spell of San Francisco somehow made him lose his inhibitions, so he bought two cups of peppermint tea, went to the bus stop, sat down next to her, and said, “I seem to have an extra cup of peppermint tea. Would you like it?”
The girl looked at him, perplexed, and then laughed a little bit.
“I’m sorry,” Ashton said. “I don’t usually do this. I saw you working in the IHOP, and then when I saw you out here.... Oh. I’m Ashton, by the way. With an N.”
“I’m Becca,” she said. “With an M.”
Ashton said, “The M is silent, I assume?” They laugh a little bit. Becca sniffs. Ashton finds a handkerchief in his coat pocket, a vestige of living in a really cold climate.
They start talking. It turns out Becca just got fired.
“That stupid old man. He wouldn’t listen to me! I took some money out of the register to bail out his own son, but he didn’t want to hear about it. He just assumed I stole it.”
“Well, these kids came into the restaurant, they were schoolmates of Daryl, Mr. Dimitrious’s son.”
“That’s the owner?”
“Right. Anyway these kids seemed nice, they said that some drug dealers got pissed off at Daryl for some reason and they needed $200 to rescue him.”
“Rescue him from what? I don’t get it. How does that work?” Ashton asked. It didn’t sound like a real story. But maybe this was how things worked in California.
“I gave them $40 of my own, but they were very insistent that if they didn’t come up with $200, Daryl would be hurt. I couldn’t reach Mr. Dimitrious by phone, and I was scared, so I took $160 out of the register and gave it to them. But when I tried to explain that to him, he just flipped out and wouldn’t listen to me. I was trying to tell him that Daryl was in trouble, and all he wanted to talk about was that I was stealing from him. How could he fire me for trying to help his own son? What is wrong with that man?”
Ashton was pretty sure Becca had just gotten scammed, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to break it to her. And even though she was visibly upset, he was really enjoying talking to her, so he dragged the conversation on. He started blabbing about how, when he was working at the furniture company in Michigan, everyone had to take a course called “Five Whys.” The idea was that every time something went wrong, you had to ask why to get the immediate cause. Then you asked why again, to figure out what caused that, and you kept doing that, about five times, until you found the root problem.
“So, for example, you got fired. Why? Because money was missing from the cash register. Why? Because you gave it to some kids. Why? Because they told you Daryl was in trouble. Why?”
“Wait, why what?” Becca asked.
“Why did they tell you Daryl was in trouble?”
Becca thought for a minute.
“I got scammed, didn’t I.”
“I think maybe you did.”
Becca was silent for a really, really long time. Then she started laughing, and it infected Ashton, and they were both laughing like crazy, and it felt great, after a stressful day.
“You’re a total nerd,” she said. “Five whys.” He had to concur.
They were having a good time. They walked all over the North End, and they talked for hours.
He told her about being a programmer, and the furniture company, and how, in two years, not a single thing he did at work mattered, and he was sick of it, and starting a new life, and here he was, without a place to stay, on a winter night in San Francisco.
“Oh gosh,” Becca said, “I know just the place. I’m living in a big shared house in Russian Hill. There’s an empty room now.”
“Where’s Russian Hill?” Ashton asked.
“It’s not far. I’ll take you. But wait... would you mind waiting so I can go try one more time to get my job back?”
Ashton was happier than he had been all day. Things really do have a way of working out.
“Sure!” he said, almost giddy. “Just a sec.” And he took out $160 from his wallet, leaving exactly three dollars, and he gave it to Becca, and said, “Take this, it might help you get your job back.”
“Oh I couldn’t!” she said, but Ashton insisted, and they agreed to meet in half an hour at the Steps of Rome on Columbus Ave., where Ashton went to sit and nursed a single cup of espresso while Becca walked back towards the restaurant.
And it got kind of late.
And an hour passed, then another, and the Italian waiter obviously had a crush on Ashton, so he didn’t bother him about just ordering one coffee and sitting at the table for hours, and it’s midnight, then it’s one a.m., then it’s two a.m., and the waiter finally says, “Look, I’m sorry guy, we’re closing, you have to leave.”