Shopkeepers: a young girl’s friends

Shopkeepers.

When I was 10, living in the Castro, I didn’t have any friends my own age in the neighborhood. There were other children around, but none of them roamed the neighborhood without their parents and we didn’t have opportunities to meet each other. Not that I had any interest in them to be honest. My memories of the other children are vague and disconnected. I had my friends at school and that was enough – mostly. Some of them weren’t allowed to hang out with me outside of school because my dad was gay. At the time it made me mad, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. So I spent my time wandering the neighborhood and making friends with the shopkeepers.

Bakers of Paris was the rage at the time and we had one in the middle of the block – I think it’s a pharmacy now – on Castro between Market and 18th street. Dad would send me to get a baguette or I’d go in to get myself a croissant (what an amazing discovery that was for me, I looooved croissants). I’d come home and talk about the croissant I’d had and my dad would grimace and correct my pronunciation (he was French-American or had been raised to believe he was or something) and my “cruh-ssahnt” was horrid (haw-rid). It took him a few times before it stuck. So to this day it’s the only word I say with proper French pronunciation until I stop myself so I don’t sound like I’m putting on “airs”.

There was a young man – early 20s I think – who worked at Bakers of Paris and I’d make conversation with him, stepping aside to let him help other customers. He spoke with a thick French accent and was terribly attractive in that way that 10 year old girls find appealing in 20-something young men. I.e. non-threatening and vaguely asexual (or maybe that was just me). I don’t know if he wanted to talk to me, but I was oblivious and so comfortable around adults – much more so than around kids – that I tended to just barrel on.

I was fascinated with the idea that he was from France and would ask him all kinds of questions. He’d answer with flare and made it sound so amazing. “I’m going to go there,” I’d tell him. He’d smile and nod and agree, I probably would.

Whenever I’d mention him to my dads they’d smirk and make an offhand comment that typically went over my head. Finally my dad told me that the kid wasn’t French. The accent was fake. I was indignant. Of course it wasn’t.

But I went in with my dad one day and he ordered in French and I noticed the look of panic flicker across the “kid’s” face. So next time I was in, I confronted the young man and he admitted that he did it to get better tips. Or maybe I caught him talking to a friend without the accent. Or maybe he dropped the accent because I was asking too many questions. Who knows. But he was going to go to France one day. He was saving up so he could go. “Please don’t tell your dad.” “Oh he already knows.” Chagrin.

I don’t think I stopped going as often because of that, I think I’d probably made a new friend at a new store, Double Rainbow maybe, and sort of forgotten about it. (I only just thought of it for the first time in decades today.) Or he stopped working there and the new person didn’t indulge my chatter.

The lasting impression was more about the demands of working retail and how some people hustle more than others. Eventually Bakers of Paris fell out of favor and it was replaced by something else. In honestly compared to some of the boulangerie around these days it pales in comparison. In any case, I had my friends at Double Rainbow and Cala and The Funny Farm and a random clothing store on 18th street. I was a busy kid on my own kind of hustle – for friends, for information, for the variety of lives lived, for recognition, for laughter and unguarded moments in time.

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