Center of the Universe (1–59)
True tales of life, love & lasagna in a small, strange town
If any fool wants to read all these in row, here they are, as far is I’ve gotten. I’ll add more as I go. Not sure where it will end. I’m just writing until the stories run out, which — considering that it’s Fairfax and Sorellas — may take a while.
PART I: PARTY OF THE FIRST PART
1. Medieval Times
Six thousand miles from our town of 7,000, Gleb Lisichkin packs a small bag. He doesn’t need much, beyond the occasional change of rock t-shirts, and is only traveling for a month. Gleb, who lives in Moscow, is going to California. And our son, who is his friend and co-worker in Moscow, emailed to ask if we could offer Gleb a little hospitality.
My wife and I live 23 miles outside San Francisco in a small town she refuses to call a suburb, and for good reason. “Suburb” evokes the 1950s, the Age of Conformity, master-planned Levittowns, trimmed grass and broad, spongy streets that meander — but strictly according to the architect’s Bézier curves and developer’s density requirements. Compared to the stereotypical suburb, our town is practically medieval, with bumpy, crumbling streets that zig-zag up 30-degree hills and are narrow enough that visiting drivers never imagine they’re two-way, a town with not a swatch of residential grass — unless you count what’s growing in countless sheds, back bedrooms and barely freestanding one-truck garages — nor a whit of planning, master or otherwise.
Much like a medieval village, our town was built willy-nilly — homes, shops and infrastructure — proudly jerry-rigged atop hiking trails, bootlegger roads, deer paths and Miwok burial grounds through a redwood forest on the lee of Mount Tamalpais, by the residents themselves, amateur contractors all. No matter how accurate it may be, demo-geographically, to designate this town of 7,000–7,441, to be demo-geographically precise — as suburban, Fairfax, to Roni’s point, evokes nothing of the kind. In the only US town with a Green Party majority on its council, the 2000s remain the 1960s, when Fairfax was host to a storied softball contest between the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and the Sleeping Lady club swirled in the psychedelic post-game jam, a wrinkle-in-time Valhalla where — militantly, defiantly, wistfully — it is still and forever the Age of Non-Conformity.
Fairfax first shot to public notice as the site of California’s last political duel (assemblyman Showalter over assemblyman Piercy) in 1861, but didn’t bother to incorporate until 1931. Which may have had something to do with Prohibition when, in search of pliable government and a convenient staging area for Bay Area booze distribution, the Mob muscled in. Roni and I stumbled onto this west-coast micro-Chicago in 1984, by which time it was better known as the home to Wildwood Foods and distribution hub for Bay Area tofu.
Driven out of New York City by the ludicrous economics of a freelance rock critic married to a painter, an existence made all the more risible by the arrival of pretty-precious, I had snagged a bottom-rung copywriting job at Bank of America in San Francisco. When I flew out early to try find an apartment in the City, I discovered that a scruffy New Yorker lacking local references, with a rental history no less murky than his resumé, spooked city landlords. In a panic, I found a friend of a friend who knew a guy who managed a complex in Marin County. But even with that pseudo-inside track, I was forced to ask my pathologically honest father-in-law to pretend to be my former employer, which he did badly enough that it almost cost us the deal. Still, from the git, the Marin apartment was too pricey. And weekends, with a six-month-old in the backseat of a new, well-used Saab, we set about exploring our exile’s environs — its extraordinary displays of nature and exasperating housing stock — looking for escape. It was opening day of the Fairfax Festival when we found it.
The scuffed, brown Swede was stuck in traffic behind the cutest parade ever seen, outside of Main Street, Disneyland. But it was not a pretty scene. Dad was starving and baby was screaming and mom was getting a migraine and the trippy processional was neverending: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Little Leaguers, Dance Theater Seven ballerinas, Tae Kwan Do warriors, wave after human wave of Deer Park Daycare and Manor School tykes on trikes, the fleshy femmes and bony boys, undulating together in harem garb, of the belly-dancing academy, Freefall the Clown in whiteface and blond dreadlocks juggling bowling pins, a pirate on a twelve-foot bike weaving through stilt-walkers, the mayor, on the back of a red Camaro convertible, a pair of state legislators (safe from intra-legislative gunplay) in a suicide-doors Lincoln, and Nave’s Italian Patrola (sponsored by Nave’s bar): nine old bar-flies with big, fake mustaches, fake rifles and real beer bellies, in boots, army drab and World War I helmets, who would periodically erupt into a comedic drill routine culminating in a catastrophic crash and nine fatsos flat on the pavement. As lunchtime loomed, a merciful constable took pity and let us slip into a parking spot on the side street opposite Spanky’s.
Though the swirly Fillmore-poster typography of its sign might suggest (to a New Yorker) unhealthy hygiene and inedibly healthy recipes, Spanky’s turned out to be perfectly tidy and the food — familiar greasy-spoon fare with grains on the side — tasty as any all-American breakfast. Best of all, it had a model train that, at irregular intervals, or when a frazzled parent pleaded, did a few urgent laps around the room on a track near the ceiling. After we realized that — because it was a jerry-rigged hippie town, an hour in rush from the city — Fairfax was as cheap as anywhere in the Bay Area, we connived to buy a jerry-rigged house and went to Spanky’s a lot.
It became our place.
Spanky’s was one of a half-dozen restaurants in town. There was a deli, a hole-in-the-wall burger joint, a mom-and-pop diner that featured silhouetted Polaroids of Fairfax residents (including, eventually, us) in a dollhouse diorama in its front window. There was an old-school Cantonese that lasted a decade, even though I never saw anyone inside, and an old-school Italian called Pucci’s. We tried them all in the early days — except for the Chinese, partly because it seemed so sketchy, partly because it was two blocks further. But it wasn’t so much distance that became the problem with Spanky’s. It was crossing Sir Francis Drake, the main east-west thoroughfare in mid-Marin, while cradling pretty-precious, who had gobbled up our lives and dreams and was not only the focal point, but the Marshall amplifier of all our fears — the cars were too fast, crosswalk too poorly marked and the downside, well, that could never be.
So we switched places.
I always have to have a place. Actually, two places: a bar place (and, owing to its boozy heritage, Fairfax offered a half-dozen of those, too). And a restaurant place. And Pucci’s was now the latter.
First of all, we could get there without crossing any major traffic arteries. Sidewalk all the way. And once she started eating solid food, you could never go wrong with spizghetty. So Fridays, when I got home from copywriting for Bank of America, the three of us would stroll down to Pucci’s. When there was a special occasion or an out-of-town visitor, we’d stroll down other evenings, too. Twice we dined next to Don Novello, the comedian who played Vatican gossip columnist Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live. It was his neighborhood Italian, too. One time he filmed a Father Guido piece at the big round table, which he pretended was a big, round tavola in his fake-native Italia.
After he painted out Mario’s name on the awning (I want to say “angrily,” but can’t, definitively, since I wasn’t there), Pucci’s restaurant was solely owned and operated by Enrico Pucci. Mr. Pucci was an Italian emigré of late middle-age who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield. (Or, if you’re Roni, Ernest Borgnine.) As a guy who stereotypes Italians as emotionally warm, I can confess — now that it’s no longer my place, now that it’s changed hands and my spizghetty-eaters are grown and the padrone has gone to his reward — that Mr. Pucci was a letdown. A place isn’t your place unless the place’s owner knows your name. And in all the years — eight? ten? — I went weekly, he never indicated he did. I think he recognized my face and, after a few years, figured out my favorite table. A couple of times he may have tried to smile. But he never said my name. Or Roni’s. And on birthdays or anniversaries, never sent over a complimentary glass of Chianti. Instead, ol’ raccoon-eyes hunched over a two-top in the corner swigging his and, occasionally, by way of hospitality management techniques ported from the old country, making agitated gestures at one of his servers.
But for a while, Pucci’s was the only game in town, spizghetty-wise. And if the joint wasn’t the warmest and fuzziest, it was close by. And ours. So we stayed put. No doubt we were ripe for the picking when a competitor landed, two full blocks closer.
That location had been a gas station in the Forties. Not sure when it permanently ran out of gas, but in the Seventies, some enterprising visionary covered it in canvas and offered the town’s first fine-dining experience. It was doomed from conception, but spent five years limping to the grave. Whereupon another local visionary hallucinated a more casual place, half-Chinese, half-Japanese, Szechuan in the front, sushi in the back. But even as lovers of both halves, we found the effort surprisingly half-hearted. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Over the dank decades, little Fairfax — where rent is cheap, weed plentiful and the metal detector store closed last week, to no audible lamentations, after less than a year — has regularly hosted some of the most woebegone experiments in retail ever undercapitalized. And after Chez Half-and-Half got a tad too stinky, the hippie helicopter-parents’ hotline alerted us that some unspecified patron — a friend of a friend of a friend — had come down with food poisoning (a common, arguably racist rumor in those early days of eeewww-raw-fish!), and that was that. And gets me to the point: we have a new place.
So does Gleb Lisichkin.
2. The Back Room
In the last days of the Korean War, when he was 19, Mr. Kang was conscripted, along with a friend, into the North Korean army and sent south, to the front, without a gun. That’s because, he explains, there were no guns left. The fight that he didn’t believe in, for the cause he despised, was already lost. And now he was going to die for it. He and his homey peered down from the citadel of Pyongyang at a forest of turrets, US and UN tanks, pointing back up. There and then they decided — quite sensibly — to go AWOL. The results were disastrous, mysterious, miraculous and led directly to here and now.
This is my new place. But that, I’m afraid, fails to do the affiliation — or the place — justice.
It’s been 13 years since we first put our names in the big book on the front counter and about 10 years since anyone asked us to. We’re family now. We get the next available table, even if they have to sneak us past waiting crowds via the back door. And that’s saying something. Because in the jerry-rigged time-traveling planet Fairfax, Sorellas Caffé is surely the sun.
Soyara is the slightly older of the two forever-young sisters — sorellas, in Italiano, one language neither sister (both of whom are fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and, with a slightly exotic cast it’s impossible to place, English) speaks. Soy works the front-of-house, lifting her glasses slightly to check the big book and then escorting the next set of diners to their table, while baby sister Sonia works the tiny kitchen, sweating, in cowgirl-kerchief, over the gas stove in the former gas station’s office, as head chef. Their father is Mr. Kang — Reverend Kang, to be precise — who, with the ascension of Kim Jong Un, the improbable third generation of deranged dictators, seems to have finally given up yearning to return. Their mother is Maria Kang, born and raised in Brazil. Somewhere not far back in Maria’s heritage (everyone calls her by her first name, reflecting her beatific simpatico) are Italians. But the half-Korean, half-Brazilian sisters learned their Italian trade over many pizza-pie moons at a red-sauce bistro in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, and that’s really why their menu is exclusively, and exquisitely, South Boot.
Unless, of course, you’re family. In which case you can share some of the decidedly off-menu kimchi, feijoada and rice that Sonia prepares for her parents.
I’m not sure we thought about what an apt place Sorella’s is to bring a foreigner when we picked up our son’s Russian friend Gleb and his girlfriend Maroussia at SFO. While it’s not surprising that Brazilian expats stop by the restaurant a lot, as do, less frequently and less boisterously, immigrant Koreans, there are also real Russians here all the time, sometimes more than one table. Near as I can figure, they’re part of the post-Soviet diaspora, especially drawn to the Russki history of Northern California, where fur traders out of Vladivostok and Yakutsk proudly dubbed their coastal Amerikanski citadel Fort Ross (as in Rus) and an important nearby waterway, the Russian River. So it was perfect. But, like most perfect things, pure accident. The reason we delivered a pair of exhausted young Russians straight to Sorella’s on their first night in California was that night happened to be Saturday.
Maybe, once upon a time, there were Saturdays like this everywhere in America — and imagining it as a visit from black-and-white pics and noir flicks and memoirs of postwar subcultures, a Fairfax wrinkle-in-time with an extra wrinkle (but never imagined to be anything of the sort, never imagined at all), is surely, when you get back to Moscow and try to tell it, part of the charm. But here, in the back room of Sorella’s (formerly, the sushi half of the Half-and-Half), it was just Saturday. And there aren’t likely to be a lot more. A comet burns across the sky. Or a cigarette across the parking lot — as the band takes five and the horn player hits the emergency exit for a smoke.
I’m not even sure it’s about music. Or a band, these Saturdays in the back.
The name on the bill is Wendy Fitz. Except there is no bill — regulars just know that, on Saturdays, seven to 10, she shows. And there really is no band. Sometimes she calls herself Wendy and Co. and, lately, Wendy and the Company She Keeps. Steve, the standup bass player, shows up consistently — but then he’s Wendy’s boo. Frequently, John joins on a mini drum kit — snare, cymbal and adorable half-size kick-drum — designed to fit in a mini corner of a small rear dining room of a not-very-big-to-begin-with restaurant. But then he’s Soy’s husband.
Which is not to charge nepotism. John Molloy is an extraordinary drummer, a onetime heavy-rock atomic clock (I’ve seen the video), a white boy trained in the R&B clubs of Newburgh, New York, gifted enough to know, long ago, that he must head for the musical horizon. Early in our relationship with Sorella’s, John’s wife, discovering I was a fallen-away critic, slipped me a homemade CD of his jazz combo — always a terrifying thing. And while it took a few months for me to be not scared enough and/or drunk enough to listen, it took a minute to be blown away. For a few months more, it took up residence in my CD player.
Speaking of nepotism, the thing about Wendy’s bassist and beau — all due respect to his physical magnificence — is it’s clear she picks her men based on musical mastery. And you don’t have to know anything about bass. You can feel the deep, swinging lyricism, whether he’s plucking or bowing or, for that matter, discreetly conducting the Company She Keeps. But what I’m trying to explain is that Wendy’s rhythm section can stand up to any, even when music is almost beside the point.
Wendy, you peg as the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” all growed up. Slim, with sandy, center-parted hair, So-Cal pretty, the beach bunny who, like the Beach Boys, transitioned to beach hippie, Nor-Cal pretty. Light drugs, heavy camping. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Chased by every sandaled beardo, Santa Cruz to Big Sur to Mendocino. Lives now, for decades, in Fairfax, with or without bass players or beardos. Little house in the woods by a creek. Suffragette self-sufficient. No less self-sufficient musically: a soul-wailing, torch-singing, country-rocking, ragtime barrelhouse bossa-nova folkie and Great American Songbook singer, pianist. And that’s not including her other band, Todos Santos, a three-part harmonizing, high-country trio named for the Mexican coastal town where she’s been vacationing for 30 years (long before it got hip or a gringo music festival), to which, in addition to mezzo-soprano with a slight husk, she contributes tasty licks on mandolin and concertina. And while Wendy’s mostly an interpreter, she can write — engaging melancholics that surface occasionally in her sets, clicking along over rocks and keys, translucent as San Anselmo creek — but doesn’t do it enough.
Just don’t call her jazz.
It’s what I did when I was trying to put together some music for a birthday bash. Asked Wendy to come by Sorella’s front room and play some jazz. She was adamant — “I don’t play jazz” may have been the verbatim. And since there’s nothing more embarrassing than saying something uncool to a musician — especially when you don’t know what it was — I let it drop, like a steaming Sorella’s meatball.
But, other than that beating (and the one she’s going to administer for this), Wendy’s been good to me. Because if there’s steel, there’s also velvet. And it’s never more evident than in her dealings with Dave.
Despite what it seems, Dave Bergman is not part of her band. Dave just shows up. And not in the way Wendy shows up — the sisters pay Wendy to play; they just don’t make a big deal of it. Dave’s jamming. And he’s not alone. Carol shows up to jam on flute. That tall guy from around the corner, Chuck, to jam with his blues harp on blues numbers. That short guy, of unknown name and provenance, with the hot chromatic harp, to jam on anything Wendy throws at him. There have been guitarists, saxophonists, jews-harpists, percussionists, singers and too many others — amid the Sicilian wine and Fairfax bonhomie — to recall. The jam — the friendly, unbooked, post-gig playing together of musicians strictly for fun — is alive in the back room of Sorella’s. And the jammers — only some of whom are famous, at least in California music circles — are all pretty great. Suggesting that before you just fucking show up, you have to pass muster with the steely side of Wendy. But no one else shows up every time, barring illness or vacation, for the last two hours of the three-hour set and always gets the first solo.
Dave works graveyard at the burglar alarm company. When your house is being looted, rest assured that an 85-year-old hepcat is fast asleep at the other end of the hotline. Or used to be. Last year, Dave retired from the job he’d taken 20 years earlier, when gigs got sparse and Social Security wasn’t enough, even in affordable Fairfax. Even when you marry your landlord.
The life of a working musician.
Dave is a fixture in Fairfax jazz. With his partner Dori, a singer and keyboardist, Dave played the side deck at 19 Broadway, about three blocks from Sorella’s, for what I’m tempted to say was decades of Sunday afternoons. I’m not sure why it ended, half-a-decade back, but it may simply have been that Dori was 80-something, a little frail and a lot weary. I thought originally she had passed away. But then I saw her nestled in a banquette at 19 Broadway, drinking and, yes, frail, but far from deceased. Or maybe it was Peri’s, one of the other six bars in tiny Fairfax. I don’t remember. But Dori you don’t forget. The Blanche Dubois of West Marin. Or Joan Didion. Edith Piaf? A savor of rue about Dave’s petite, perennially frail partner, candle burned.
And now there’s new trouble.
Someone observed in one or another forum that Dori was slipping. Her daughter answered from Colorado, insisting otherwise, reproving those who enable her, even if it’s pity. But all of it — Dori’s frailness, the late-life controversy, the hanging out, small as a child, in a booth at 19 Broadway, her daughter’s therapeutic huff, makes me all the more regretful I never did more than pause by that side deck. But if it was Sunday afternoon in downtown Fairfax, that means I had the kids, and the kids were little, and the little kids would have wanted to continue to the park or ice cream store, vehemently.
But the kids are grown. And if Dori and Dave are no more, musically, Dave, musically, endures. And, in the back room at Sorella’s Caffe, I pause for hours.
I have a rich fantasy life, I’ll admit, especially when it comes to Dave Bergman. Sometimes I think I should do proper research. But whenever I start asking around, someone says, Well, it’s not quite like that. So, instead, I contentedly believe rumors, half-truths and hunches. I do know, from the man himself, that he spent the largest portion of his career in LA, era of Chet Baker and Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. West Coast Jazz, cool jazz, Central Avenue. The Fifties, after the big-band bubble burst, when the music settled into small combos smoky boites could afford, and jazz cats turned their backs on audiences — figuratively and, in Miles’s case, literally — before audiences turned their backs, once and for all, on them.
That’s Dave, to me. Birth of the cool. And here in the back room of Sorella’s, still smoking, still drinking, still with the goatee, white suit and gassed-backed hair, newly hitched to a younger chick, he is the last brass gunslinger. Death of the cool.
When he reads this, if he reads this (which I doubt, because he’s too cool to be prowling the internet), Dave will say:
What is this crap, Gary?
Because Dave can’t suss the angle. Also, because he thinks I’m a different husky, bald Sorella’s regular — the computer nerd with the webcam cockatiel — even after I’ve given him and the chick a lift home to the house where he used to be her tenant. But mostly Dave will say it because he’s too cool. Which I applaud, whether he cares or not.
Joan is Dave’s chick. And former landlord. Joan is nowhere near 85. Which confirms that Dave is one more cool thing: a devil. Joan used to live in North Beach, in the city. Not when the Kang sisters were there learning the red-sauce trade. Back when hepcats hunted mad noise and arty strippers and cheap eats — spaghetti with red sauce — and, at City Lights, paperbacks with the words fuck and asshole. Which is perfect. Joan likes my red button-down shirt with the black patch pocket. So I always save it for Saturdays. It’s easy to see why Dave married Joan — even beyond the free rent.
Pocket trumpet is Dave’s axe. It’s a shorter span of metal that requires less of the breath that Dave can’t always spare these days. But Dave’s melodies are pocket melodies anyway — staccato Kind of Blue-ish telegrams that will abruptly squirt across keys, jets of be-bop lava from the LA cool. And there’s something about those fugitive squibs, those contrasting blasts of pocket-trumpet burglar alarm, that betray a deeper poignance.
What’s more, Dave sings like the bastard spawn of Satchmo and Robert Goulet.
Sometimes Dave sings serious. Sad songs that may not have even started out sad in the sheet music. And when he sings them in harmony with Wendy, they will melt the mozzarella right off your chicken parmagiana.
But Dave can turn it on, too. Show biz. Shtick. Buck-and-wing for the squares.
His signature is a Fairfax version of “The Lady is a Tramp” — though in a further revision designed to reflect not only the geography, but the times, Dave sings “That’s why the lady is a champ.” As a guy who came up in the chicky-babe era, when Sinatra was swingin’ the Sands — not to mention the chicky-babes — he’s careful not to lapse. Not that he’s not a naturally nice, kitten-respecting cat, just that he’s from then and that.
Anyway, this is shtick. Which Dave brings with rare joy. And Wendy and the band abet with rare magnanimity.
“She eats at Sorella’s” is another of Dave’s site-specific rewrites. But his localized lyrics encompass the lady in question going to Dominican (the college a few miles down the road in San Rafael) and to Branson (the la-di-da prep school next door in San Anselmo), among other Marin sops. And if you’re local, it’s pretty damn clever. But even if you’re not. And while he stays seated for most of the set in the straight chair tucked against the side of Wendy’s piano, when the house is full and it’s “Lady is a Champ” time, no matter how many of the kinks of four-score-and-five may beset him, Dave rises with the song and sallies forth to work the tables, grinning, growling, crinkling eyes, pointing, gazing deep and show-biz delivering.
And it’s probably at this point that everyone in the back room who’s never seen Wendy and the Company She Keeps — featuring, on a consistent ad hoc basis, Dave Bergman — starts to look amazed, just before they look delighted.
What have we stumbled into?
But then, as a t-shirted traveler from the Russian capital would corroborate, this isn’t just any Saturday night. This, chicky-babe, is the back room at the center of the universe.
4. Table 10
Gleb said the first night — the Saturday with Wendy, Dave and the band and the drop-ins and Sonia’s diabolically delectable lasagna in Sorella’s back room — was the best of his trip.
More importantly, he said it a month later, at the end of the trip, after he and Maroussia had rolled across the Golden Gate to North Beach (where Dave’s chick Joan used to hang) for American whiskey down the alley at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum and America’s finest hot-and-sour soup across Columbus at Brandy “Medium is hot” Ho’s. Said it after he’d tripped the light fantastic of Highway 1 and overnighted in view of the Morro Bay rock. Said it after tarrying among the supernova smiles of the City of Angels — where the warm California sun really does live and you can finally put on those cargo shorts you packed for freezing San Francisco.
Moscow Gleb, smart guy, cool guy, music guy, multilingual guy, guy with all the creds to know what-what in the world, said Sorella’s was the shit. Which I, not multilingual (never mind the eight freakin’ years of French), not young and inoperably white, would translate as:
Sorella’s is my jam, yo.
It’s fun to look at it through Gleb’s eyes. I wasn’t sure he’d like it — certainly not as much as he did. I thought he might like glowsticks and EDM, Eurotrash-style. But in his attempted sideburns and washed-out rock and art tees, Gleb is not near as shallow as a provincial’s dashed-off cartoon. Skinny, scruffy, shy, loose-limbed, intense, goofy and brilliant at the same time, through thick glasses he quietly goggled it all down, the whole funky dreamscape, highly magnified pupils registering unaffected, unsung, unlikely, unassailably small-time, unexpectedly out-of-the-way and unabashedly mom-and-pop (even if it is two sisters). Russki peepers peeping that behind the export-Amerika of McDonald’s, KFC and Fast and Furious 5 — cartoons from the reverse angle — is a palpably 3D thing made of twice-bent brass and Italian dough strips in red, white or green sauce.
America the Beautiful, “just like I pictured it,” nary a supernova incisor in sight.
Any one night in Sorella’s Caffe (save Mondays, when, like any authentic Italian, they’re chiuso), front room to back, it’s old-school Americana — honest, hardworking, optimistic, do-it-yourself and a little loud — all wrapped up in new: a polytonal, polyrhythmic, polynominal loop, socio-cultural EDM — a postmodern mashup of Italian and Korean, Brazilian and Polish, French/Russian/African/Indian/Born-in-the-USA; Christian with Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and/or Jew; Presbyterian pastor plus shineheaded ex-Mackerel Snapper; rich, poor, townie, commuter, hiker, biker, jazz, rock, salsa, soul, Airplane, Dead; Dave, Wendy; weed (in the parking lot), whiskey (under the table) and beer, wine and Clausthaler on the laminated menu; old, young, man, woman, straight, gay, L, B and T; brown, yellow, red and, yes, inoperably white — that invites the imagination to vogue.
George is the grinning fireplug of a merchant seaman, recently retired, longtime Fairfax — but straight outta Bensonhurst — a gringo with a gray rope of ponytail down the back of his unironically tie-dyed top. When he is drinking (which, as a single fellow, he scrupulously constrains to those times he decides to be drinking), George has been known to abruptly bounce from the table and gambol about the restaurant, summoning — in exuberantly unreconstructed, and, by all evidence, wildly persuasive, Brooklynese — solo diners, of all tints, ranks and genders, to join him under the bust of Augustus Caesar at Table 10, the big booth in the corner, front, that the Kang sisters call “the family table.”
If this all gets yurtish and utopioid, it is Fairfax, after all. And, after all, there it is. Right there. Table 10.
We’ve found each other.
5. Valentine’s Day
The mysterious, miraculous, disastrous path to Table 10 begins just south of the Soviet border, nine-thousand clicks from Fairfax, California.
Drafted into the final month of the Korean War and dispatched by the People’s Army to defend Pyongyang, Kang and his friend took a good look and — like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, a movie not yet made — pretended to piss in a field and ran for home, a tiny village hundreds of miles away that had long since fallen to the Communists and was ruled by fierce young Koreans, True Believers indoctrinated just north of the border and sent back to maintain the Marxist-Leninist utopia in its most pure — that is, most inhuman — form.
Kang and his friend ran for the only home the boys had known — even though they knew. Having lived under a brutal Japanese occupation in World War II and then been “liberated” by Communists, they knew. Still, they ran, for days, on instinct, without maps or the guns the People’s Army could no longer issue, pursued as foe by every army in the fight: as deserters by the North and its allies, China and Russia, and by the South and its allies — the US, UK, Canada, Australia — as enemy combatants. They hid in fields and ditches and forests and one time, when one of the seven or eight hostile armies was marching by, they prayed, trembling, in the closet of a house they thought was empty. But the resident did not betray them and the soldiers decided not to search.
Maybe that was the miracle.
They ran on roads — because what else are you going to do, if you ever want to make it home? And on one of those roads they ran out of luck. Although that would not be the way Reverend Kang would describe it. He would describe it as God’s plan. However, in the context of the dire hospitalization of another friend and Sorella regular, I recently heard him wonder aloud, in his near-silent way, what in the heck that plan could be.
But that’s always the mystery. Then came the disaster.
How I know about the disaster is because I read it in Reverend Kang’s book. It wasn’t a book at the time. It was a manuscript. And after his daughters told their father I was a writer, he asked if I would read it. Actually, I’m not sure he asked. He just showed up at Sorella’s, the restaurant his daughters own, carrying the manuscript, and sat at our table. Kang is quiet, when he’s not dead quiet, and always makes me think about scheduling a hearing exam. But I got the message. I asked if this was the memoir his daughters said he’d been writing for as long as they could remember and did he want me — here I injected all sorts of humble disclaimers to mask my arrogant apprehension — to read it. Without a word, he pushed the inch-and-a-half stack of immaculately typed pages across the table.
The sound of silence, swaying.
By now we’d become quite fond of slipping down the hill to Sorella’s on Friday or Saturday, cozy with the charming sisters who ran it, and habituated to the soul-coddling cucina — for me, the lasagna that was the only thing I bothered to order anymore; for Roni, the eggplant parmagiana. The wine wasn’t bad either — we’d settled into a tart, medium-bodied Nero D’Avola, the red of Sicily. And no one ever told me my loud mouth ruined their dinner, like they did, in so many words — one time in those exact words — in the city. After a few years of religious attendance, Sorella’s was definitely our place. And in a more profound way than previous places. It was our other hearth — if not, once the kids had decamped, our main hearth — a seamless extension of home and, with no blood on the Coast, closest we had to family.
I knew we’d gone too far — or past the point-of-no-return — on Valentine’s Day.
There is a custom at Sorella’s that, after you’ve been coming awhile, Soy, the front-of-house sister, will start to matchmake. The first time for us was when she asked if we’d like to sit with her parents, whose English is less than perfect and, as noted, often less than audible and who were almost old enough to be our parents.
But how’re you going to say no?
And if it was weird and awkward, it was also weird and awkward. And, sure, a little bit sweet. And a little bit interesting — asking Kang about Korea. And it felt like a nice thing. Above all, it signaled we were now part of the family.
The second time, speaking of family, Soy asked if we’d mind sitting with her husband. Which was less awkward — although John does have a few strong opinions the average Fairfax hippie might not agree with. But he’s our age. And a drummer. At least you could talk music.
But the third time we had our old friend Sandy, and Soy asked if we minded if she put Gary with us, which seemed the undiluted essence of utterly random. Gary’s a computer security guy, ten years younger, who lives on the other side of town with a 21-year-old white parrot. But when we introduced ourselves, Gary said to Sandy: You’re not Sandy Pearlman of the Blue Öyster Cult?!? And a friendship was hatched. And Gary whipped out his Android and showed us Doobie via webcam.
Some time after came George, the irrepressible merchant marine, and Flor, the curly-headed Filipina (I think) who shares our love for Dave and Wendy, and the round-the-corner neighbor from Russia, because, OK, our son lived there for seven years. And it’s how we first met Joan, Dave’s chicky-babe, and how — when Giovanni the Friday-night accordionist was out for knee surgery and Gail Muldrow stepped in — we met the wife of Gail’s piano player, who waited 20 years for her gentle, bespectacled husband to get out of San Quentin.
And so on, in a mandala-shaped seating chart parsed only by Soy.
And, today, when we’re not sitting with Gary or John or George or Flor or the Russian or John’s buoyantly blind mother or one or another member of Bernal Beat, the Latin band where John’s the sole guero — plus, more often than not, Sandy — we’re sitting with the parents. But mostly we’re sitting with Gary as well as the parents (+ Sandy), because Gary — single, like George, but less peripatetic — eats at Sorella’s five or six nights a week. And face it, when you’re sitting with Gary, you can pretty much count on sitting with the dentist, who comes in three nights, even when she’s living (temporarily) in Sonoma, 40 minutes away, and may or may not be sweet on someone. By the end of the night, the eight places at the family table, under the stone of Augustus, have frequently expanded to a dozen or more.
I learned not to fight it — except the time Soy tried to berth the bros from the brewpub, and then only by means of a facial twitch that might have looked to a less discerning maitresse-d’ like a tic. I’ve finally come to understand — with gratitude and humility and the kind of wonder for which these thousands of words still feels inadequate — there’s no choice. If we want to be alone, we better go elsewhere. Even on Valentine’s Day.
I know it was before Gary, because Gary wasn’t there. And it was certainly before I understood. We were sitting at a two-top in the front room, over a candle and Nero, when Kang rolled in, solo, and pulled up a seat. He didn’t say anything — at his imperceptible volume, the same as him saying a lot. And I decided then and there I was perfectly, ignorantly, arrogantly entitled to ignore him. Once and for all, I had to get control of this thing with the strange dinner partners — on Valentine’s Day! — and teach the good, kind, intrusive reverend a lesson.
And, once again, it was Kang who taught me. By being unconcerned if we spoke or not. By simply enjoying our company, basking in our all-too-human glow. Enjoying life. Enjoying the very idea of life and company and love and the devotions of St. Valentine. By demonstrating definitively that, just when I thought I’d outgrown all that (at 50-something), just when I thought I was no longer the loudmouth who ruined dinners with a firehose of superfluous profanity, gleefully perverse opinions and brimming-with-ego smugness, I was still, in the words of a hated old math teacher, “a consummate asshole.”
The sound of silence, deafening.
So Valentine’s may have been the turning point, the moment when it became possible for us to say nothing together, to achieve the kind of Zen ego-loss not normally associated with Reverend Kang’s fervent Presbyterianism. In other words, to be family, in the best sense of that fraught word.
But in light of all that light, the arrival of Kang’s non-pro memoir was more of an occasion for distress than an ordinary typescript-attack might have been.
Sure, right off the bat, I knew it was no good. I was a seasoned pro. I’d written a book about Kiss. What I did not know, what it took me a year of skulking about town — guilty, afraid, small, turning away when I drove past the restaurant or when, on the not-rare-enough occasion, I saw Kang on the street, even sneaking off to lesser restaurants, in lesser towns — what I was still too fucking stupid to fathom was how deeply good it was.
It was almost Thanksgiving, almost a year since Kang had entrusted me with his manuscript, when I read the second paragraph. Reverend Kang once told me he speaks five languages, including Korean, Portuguese, Japanese and English. Which is four more than I do, so I’m not trying to say anything, in any language. But if his spoken English is functional, his written English is a conundrum, a puzzle made of smoke.
If you read the sentences and paragraphs over and over, like it was a litany — or Proust — you could mostly get it, eventually. I decided the only way to escape the guilt of not helping Kang, hiding from him even, was to help him. I wouldn’t just read the book, but fix it. Anyway, I never liked Thanksgiving. So I returned to Sorellas from self-imposed exile and asked Kang for permission to proceed and the Word file. I would have four days free.
Plenty of time.
The language was sometimes stilted and murky, but the story, decoded, was devastating. And, ultimately — if you believe in such things (and I’d like to) — uplifting. And, under the surface mud, there was an Old Testament rhythm (speaking of litanies) to the chapters and a Shaker simplicity to the sentences (speaking of ego-loss). In any case, once I’d begun the journey, Kang’s journey, tens of thousands of miles and seven or eight decades from a beleaguered North Korean village, I wasn’t about to turn back (though I had my own moments of doubt in my own garden). The history deserved it. Reverend Kang, who’d endured the history, only to wind up in Fairfax, California, at the family table, next to Gary and George and a clown like me, deserved it. And I told Roni — by way of telling myself — that I was the hero uniquely equipped to undertake it, Kang’s journey, having been raised in faith (Catholic, not Presbyterian, but still) with a lot of experience writing books (rock ’n’ roll, not historical memoir, but still). So if it was an act of love, junior-grade agape — which it certainly became, as a four-day weekend of work stretched into four intensive months — it was hardly free of grasping egoism.
The story starts with the disaster that followed Kang’s conscription into, and desertion from, the North Korean army, in the futile final days of the Korean war, the disaster that started the larger, more astonishing journey — his Pilgrimage, as the new title would call it — to peace, love, faith and an Italian restaurant. I wanted to paraphrase the author here, from the terrible climax of chapter one, to confirm that life and Fairfax and Sorellas Caffe are more random than you — that is, me, a middle-class, middle-brow, mid-century white American — could ever imagine, stranger than fiction, at least, if not stranger than Watson the Supercomputer generating the world’s most improbable plot. And I wanted to paraphrase to prove I’m not being lazy. Then I remembered I already had.
And with all due reverence, I quote:
Continuing down the deserted country road, we were suddenly confronted by six men. They were in civilian clothing, but with guns, and when I moved closer, one of them pointed a rifle at my chest and shouted, “Raise your hands! Who are you?” I answered honestly that we had deserted the North Korean Army and were on our way home. Then one of the others punched me in the face. Blood started running from my nose onto the ground. When I saw it, a strange thing happened: my fear actually began to recede. The blood seemed to awaken my inner spirit and help me overcome the terror which had come to dominate my consciousness. I could control my mind better and face them firmly.
The men in the road were passionate anti-Communists, they told us, who had organized a self-defense force to maintain order after the retreat of the Communist army. They were armed with guns left by the Northern army and full of hate. I explained with utmost sincerity how we, too, had suffered from Communist persecution and learned to hate Communism, and how we were conscripted into the army only a month ago. It was easy to understand their feelings, having lived in the North under the oppressive Communist regime. I told them that our family’s life was especially hellish, as my father was a Christian minister. One of the men asked suspiciously in which year my father had graduated from the Pyongyang Seminary, the only Presbyterian seminary in Korea under the Japanese Domination. Fortunately, he seemed satisfied with my answer.
Even if my fear was under control, it was a most miserable situation — to be encircled by six armed, angry men with their guns pointed at us. Our lives might be over in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t even look them in the face. At that moment, a boy came onto the scene, accompanied by a soldier. The soldier’s uniform and gun were new to me. But when I realized he must be a South Korean soldier, all my strength drained away. He was a Southern soldier, with profound hatred on his face. We were like tiny mice facing a huge, fierce cat. The fear returned.
“Are these the Communists?” he shouted.
Under the Communist regime, we were branded anti-Communists and suffered severe discrimination for five years. Now we were condemned as Communists and threatened with death. It ripped my heart out. This soldier may have risked his life fighting, and maybe killing, North Koreans. For him, any North Korean soldier was a mortal enemy. He was not a man likely to understand nuances, to recognize that not everyone in North Korea, or even in the North Korean army, believed in the cause. We were his enemy, and he, ours. All compassion had long ago been bled from him by this inhumane war.
The soldier paid no attention to our explanations and began to force us back down the road at bayonet point. We knew he was chasing us to a suitable place to shoot, but there was nothing we could do. And when we realized that death was close, that we had to abandon all hope, strangely enough, the fear disappeared again. In the face of certain death, we found a degree of serenity. A few meters down the road, the man who had inquired about my father stepped close to the soldier and whispered for a short time. I could not hear, but the soldier seemed entirely indifferent to what was said and continued to push us.
Soon the road split, one fork going up the mountain and the other toward a rice paddy. The soldier ordered us to walk toward the rice paddy. I began, and my friend followed a moment later. But as my friend started walking, I heard the noise of a gun being loaded, and I turned around. I could see the soldier pointing his rifle at my friend. It felt as if the gun was pointed at me, too. We were so deeply attached that a threat against his life felt like a threat against mine. We had endured many dangers together, in the war and before, and together on several occasions had risked our lives. And together we were struggling to return to our hometown and realize our dreams of starting a new life. Our lives and hopes were the same.
The gun was loaded and cocked, and my friend was begging for his life, holding out his hands. His face was so pale that his soul seemed to have left him already, and the soldier was like a savage animal attacking his pitiful prey without a trace of regret. In utter desperation, I screamed for my friend’s life: “He’s not your enemy!” But any human tenderness in the soldier had been replaced by barbarous hate.
“Get away right now!” he shouted. “Or I will shoot you, too!”
It was not an empty threat. This soldier was so wild and full of loathing he could turn his weapon on me in an instant.
And then I heard the gun fire. And saw my friend fall.
Stunned, I fell into a kind of unconsciousness, almost as if I had been shot, a dark reverie disconnected from the present.
My friend had been very unhappy under the Communist regime and anxious to see the country unified and democratic. Then he was conscripted. During our month together in the army, we thought many times about escaping. We didn’t, because we were afraid it would cause our families more persecution. But, finally, with the war nearing an end, we did escape. And we were on our way home, and we had hopes and dreams again. And the first South Korean soldier we met had killed him. My sadness turned into an explosive anger that I had to keep inside. I continued walking, as if sleeping, toward the rice paddy.
My friend was dead, and I was alive. But there was no joy in surviving. All I could do was ask myself why I was spared. We were both anti-Communists. We had both been conscripted by the North Korean government. We both escaped the army at the same time. And we both encountered that same South Korean soldier at the same place and time. What made our fates different?
The man who had inquired about my father came to my mind. Maybe the man told the soldier I was Christian and that my father was a Christian minister. And maybe he even asked for my life. It was well-known in South Korea that Christians suffered especially badly under the Communists. And maybe this wild beast of a soldier knew this about the Christians, and on hearing from the man in the road, found just enough mercy to spare one life. And while I did not mention my Christian faith in order to save my life, even today I believe it was the name of Christ that saved me. And I resolved to re-dedicate myself to the Christian cause.
But, first, let it be recorded that this murderous tragedy occurred on October 25, 1950, in a small village, two days walk from Pyongyang, when I was 22 years old.
7. Onwards Toward the Final Victory
You can learn a surprising amount about the world from the center of the universe.
In 2013 the news from Pyongyang was not good. A hopeful start — with the death of the Great Leader Kim Jung Il and ascension of his Swiss-schooled, Michael Jordan-worshipping 29-year-old son Kim Jung Un — turned out to be just more wishful thinking. Lil’ Kim — who was not so lil’, circumferentially — was also not a reformer, and he put an exclamation mark on it by threatening to nuke California and, even more evocatively, ordering his uncle executed by machine gun, before executing much of the uncle’s family — that is to say, his own. Worst of all, some bedraggled conservatory-trained apparatchik had to convert his inaugural address into a kind of Lil’ Kim hymn, “Onwards Toward the Final Victory,” and then hear it played incessantly on state-run TV.
Corrupt, merciless, murderous, bizarre, totalitarian and tone-deaf rule, it was clear, would continue to be the rule in the Hermit Kingdom. How that would directly affect our hippie haven in the California redwoods — other than the proposed thermonuclear annihilation — was not. It became clear when Reverend Kang quietly announced he was suspending publication of his memoir.
The book is less about North Korea than it is about Kang’s travails and travels — his Pilgrimage, per the title — through the rest of this ignorant, cruel and occasionally kind world. Beyond the first four chapters, it’s hardly about North Korea at all — there’s too much else to tell. Nonetheless, it is unequivocal.
“We imagined the end of the Communists and of reuniting with our families in a country not ruled by fear…” he writes. “The Communist dictatorship was arbitrary and merciless.” And when the armies began to march, he notes, “We were thrilled… believing that only war could uproot the Communist regime and reunify our country.”
Measured as they might be, such critical comments, Kang argued to his daughters (who’d already paid, secretly, to print the books), were more than enough pretext, in a newly inflamed North Korean context, to put all but the most dilute family DNA under the machine gun. Was there even any Kang family left in the north? Maybe not. But, to the Reverend, not worth the risk.
Hard to argue, I said to Soy and Sonia.
Kang had already trained our attention to news of the North. Now Kim had seized the attention of the world, proclaiming that, as far as Pyongyang was concerned, Pyongyang wasn’t concerned at all: nothing was beyond the pale. If I was disappointed about the muzzling of Kang’s book, it wasn’t so much personal, as historical. This was a story history should hear.
It was a beautiful little volume, in its printed, perfect-bound form, with a handsome, serious cover and sophisticated typography, crafted with style and sensitivity by my friends, co-workers and preferred designers Amy and Moe, who afterwards came by the restaurant to meet the author and (before Moe gave up gluten) share thank-you spaghetti. But I’ll never forget when, prompted by Amy, I asked Reverend Kang if he had any pictures.
A little background.
Soon after staggering away from the shooting of his friend, Kang was captured by other South Korean soldiers and packed in a train to a POW camp in the South near Pusan, where he would spend five years. This was no Hogan’s Heroes romp. No matter that it was run by the “good guys” of the conflict, the vast prison camp turned out to be much more prison than camp, a cramped, brutal Hades of hunger, disease, harsh weather, frequent suicide and systematic murder — murder by anti-Communist prisoners, who reviled the True Believers who’d led them into this inferno, and by the Believers themselves, the young Korean Communists who killed to purify, to vanquish every last shred of capitalist running-dog doubt. When Kang chose not to be repatriated north, to accept the late-breaking compromise option of being sent to a neutral country, he knew he was marked for death, twice over.
“When one of my friends submitted his application,” he writes, “another POW yelled out, for all the camp to hear, ‘Switzerland! Switzerland!’ At which point, a large group started to throw stones… I knew that these fanatics could attack at any minute. In fact, lynchings, even among the anti-Communist group, were frequent. I could stay no longer. There was a special tent beyond the perimeters of our camp where they were taking applications and gathering those applying to go to a neutral country. I decided with two friends that we must sneak out of our camp and take sanctuary there…When we got past the gate, stones began falling like rain. But an Indian captain in a Jeep rushed to our rescue and drove us to the tent.”
Under the circumstances, having already come close to expiring from cold, illness and malnutrition, stalked by the rabid of both sides, marked-for-death wasn’t really a change in status.
When Kang, along with only 87 other prisoners — out of more than 100,000 — chose not to be repatriated, it meant a year-and-a-half more of confinement at a complex in the DMZ, guarded by 5,000 soldiers from India, which had itself remained neutral and out of the war.
“And though we were moving to another POW camp,” Kang writes, “near the North Korean border and tantalizingly close to our families, it was the beginning of a trip to freedom.”
That trip would take him — “temporarily” — to India, where he got to attend seminary in New Delhi, while awaiting offers from other UN-member countries of permanent citizenship. And when the offers came, a year or so later, they turned out to be a not-bad choice between Argentina and Brazil. Knowing little or nothing about either, he took Brazil. And there, after months confined to a government immigration island — a distinctly more benign version of the prison he’d escaped, but prison still — he was approved to enter the country, where he enrolled in seminary and continued his preparations for the missionary life he would pursue for 40 years. At a school social, he met a demure local lovely named Maria. And, after they’d married and served in the Brazilian interior for many years, Kang decided it was time to further his theological studies. A local Presbyterian aristo offered a scholarship to a seminary in San Anselmo, California, one town over from Fairfax, unimaginably far from Brazil, India and North Korea.
And that’s how they got to Marin County. And why, when eventually they retired, they returned here from Brazil. It’s where Sonia was born. And where Soy, born in Sao Paolo, joined her to attend high school. And where, many more years later, Kang and Maria could be seen sitting in a booth in a restaurant in downtown Fairfax, next to Gary and George and Joan and Roni and me, a clown.
But I’ll never forget that when I asked him for the photos for Amy, Kang, not for the first time, looked at me blankly. Before he could respond — that I didn’t understand, that those were different and desperate times (a self-righteous explanation he was never likely to venture) — it dawned on me, an over-documented, contemporary clown, that there were no smartphones in Pyongyang or Pusan, no selfie-sticks in the old wars. Kang’s horrors — no less the vivid for it, perhaps more so — were bound to remain invisible. And, without the memoir he had struggled to share, smoke.
Later, Soy said there were a few pictures from before and after the war — Kang and siblings as kids; Kang steaming to India; Kang’s first seminary in New Delhi. There was even one from the camp itself, an official photo, western propaganda, of the prison’s morally presentable Christian congregation — including the pastor who’d successfully lied and cheated to save a rapidly wasting Kang from certain death. While spare visuals, invisibility, are surely part of Kang’s story, I asked Soy if she might supply one more shot: of the whole family in the wholly improbable here and now.
8. The Corrections
Don’t shit where you eat. I think that would be the operable aphorism. And it’s a good one. Except writers are compulsive. And, as Joan Didion pointed out, “always selling somebody out.” That is, pooping where they provision. Dumping where they devour.
So I’m not wide-eyed. I know you can’t write something like this, with real people, places and names, and not take some heat. But even as I expect it, I dread it. I don’t want to be cast into the redwood wilderness. I don’t want to be forced to find another place. I just want to capture this one. After all, it’s my living room, music conservatory, shrink’s office, confessional and, of course, dining room. Literally, where I eat.
Is it too corny to add that the owners, staff and patrons (and, often as not, their families) are my family? My other one?
In any event, I’ve been unambiguous with all concerned — the sisters, no less than the bride: the day they shutter that damn restaurant is the day I move away.
To the ice floe.
So I’m taking a risk writing this true-life thingamajig. But it occurred to me that, since it’s ongoing, a work-in-progress, I might mitigate that risk — and the risk that nobody at Sorellas will ever talk or sit with me again, thus drying up my social life, along with my material — by offering newspaper-style corrections from time to time. And inviting those who feel they’ve been wronged, to swing by the family table, under the bust of Augustus, and tell me about it.
Anyway, here’s the first tranche of mea culpas:
• Wendy Fitz says it’s not a concertina, as I called it in post two, it’s just an accordion. A small one, a student-sized model, more suited to Wendy’s size. A concertina is one of those smaller, octagonalish things. Wendy also says she couldn’t possibly play a mandolin, as I reported, not with her afflicted fingers. So I’m going to guess that I mistook a ukelele or a smaller guitar for a mandolin — or simply wished it into existence — and wait for Wendy to correct me again. Which, needs be, she will.
• Gary, not overly talkative himself, has informed me that his talking bird is not a cockatiel, as I asserted, but a cockatoo. And proud of it. (Moral of the story: know your parrots!)
• Dory of Dory and Dave is spelled DORI, you moron. With an “i” at the end. All apologies to Dori and her protectors. Revisions duly made.
• There are way more than nine fatsos in Nave’s Patrola. Way. And the uniforms are not olive drab, but khaki.
• The harmonica guy is not that short, and he actually has a name: Peter.
• The saxophone guy is Joe.
• Soy’s full name is Soyara, a neologism fabricated by Kang.
• Kang was actually 22 when he was drafted, but, for unspecified, but not uncommon, refugee reasons, had a whole other ID that said, among other things, he was 19.
• Dave’s chicky-babe and former landlady Joan sent me an email about the Dave stuff — an event in and of itself, the email. To my relief, she said the portrayal delighted her former tenant and current husband “no end.” Accidentally (I think), she also sent me the email where — like any well-bred helpmeet — she nudged Dave to write, too. A thank-you note. Which he did — an even bigger event that delighted me no end. And freaked me out. Getting a lovely, mom-made-me note from Dave Bergman, an email from the King of the Daddios, undisputed Mr. Cool of 1959, was like stepping into one of those sci-fi stories, an episode of Twilight Zone or Unexplained Mysteries, where modern-day explorers discover ancient Egyptians had a spaceship.
9. The Front Room
It’s not always Saturday night at Sorellas, you know. And that’s just the kind of crap that ticks him off.
Gio plays Fridays, front room, corner, and has been faithfully banging 30 pounds of squeezebox in that jampacked bistro for a dozen years of Fridays, and no one’s writing any blog posts about him!
To be clear, he didn’t say it. But he could have. And when he did, you might notice, under the loud, frequent laughter and jolly, jiggling middle, the glint of an edge.
Gio is what his friends call him, and I’m proud to be one. It’s short for Giovanni — which is also not his real name. His real name is John, but try performing as the authentic Italian accordionist at an authentic Italian restaurant (never mind that it’s owned and operated by Brazilian-Koreans) with that gringo handle. Who in their right mind would ever tip a suonatore di fisarmonica with a single-syllable name?
But Gio’s no one-trick, or even one-two, pony. In addition to the requisite Italiano squeezit, he serves up Polish, German and Russian polka (if that’s even a thing), and, having grown up in Europe, spawn of a German fraulein and US GI, does it in the native tongues. And when it gets past nine and the crowd gets loose, Giovanni gets them looser with some sweet-ass, bellows-based rock ’n’ roll.
Among my favorites of his accordion transcriptions are “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Iron Butterfly’s proto-metal epic becomes even more paleolithically ludicrous when enacted on squeezebox. And when Gio busts into the Van Morrison chestnut, I always pop up from the family table to supply high harmony. Not only do I love the tune, I love singing harmony. And — if I say so my own pneumatic self — do it pretty good. Good enough that Giovanni asked me if I’d like to put together a duo (and, believe me, I thought about it, conjuring the glories of sharing the front-room corner as Gio’s Garfunkel, aka Roberto).
The man knows a million songs and the words and changes are penciled onto well-thumbed index cards clipped to the top of the accordion in a kind of built-in music stand. Occasionally, between numbers, he’ll pull out the whole stack and shuffle through, in search of a tune that might be particularly apt for the table just arrived.
Giovanni is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser.
Our friend Sandy is a famous producer, manager and songwriter, best known as the inventor of the Blue Öyster Cult (and the true-life guy behind “More cowbell”), and we bring him to Sorellas every Friday night we’re all in town. But Gio has never heard of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” let alone transcribed it, so, for our distinguished classic-rock guest, he offers up a different rock classic from the cards.
Now let it be said that, before our black-clad German opera buff amigo invented “thinking man’s metal,” as one reviewer dubbed BÖC, Sandy was a rock critic, one of the first. And as a fellow former critic, one of the later, I can tell you it’s part of the game to hold and express, in no uncertain terms, the most acid opinions, no matter how uncertainly rooted.
In short, it helps to be mean. A crowd-hater.
Sandy despises “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Which only makes sense — no less a derisive duo than John and George openly despised Paul’s song, even as they were scribing it to magnetic tape at Abbey Road. Now, I go a little soft when it comes to the Fab Four, who were where I began, not just in music, but in pretty much everything else I cherish culturally. So I actually like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” And I’ve noticed that when Gio taps out that opening telegram of notes, Sorellas patrons, young and old, promptly start to sing along. And that may be the source of the confusion. One night — I guess Sandy was there — Giovanni was having trouble rousing the post-nine-pm crowd, and I mentioned that “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” always seemed to get them going. Somehow Gio mistook my offhand observation — which was immediately followed by Sandy saying, No, no, no — as a request.
So now, after he does “Brown-Eyed Girl,” for me. He cranks up “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” for Sandy. Every time. And, every time, the Magus of Mental Metal snorts snidely, gathers his leather and canvas darkness about him and says, “Well, dudes, gotta go.”
I’ve tried to clarify the phenomenon to Giovanni. But once he locks in an idée fixe, there’s simply no arguing. So I don’t and, as I watch Sandy backing his battered Z3 (an in-lieu-of payment for long-ago production services) out of the Fairfax French Cleaners across the street, I join Gio in flawless, two-part harmony.
“Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace…”
I’m all about Gio. Whenever there’s an opportunity to have him perform outside of Sorellas, whether for our company anniversary (thrice), my daughter’s housewarming or a Russian friend’s impending marriage to a Pole, I give my man a call (sending an email is not a technological option). And one day, after years of duetting on “Brown-Eyed Girl,” I picked up a couple copies — one electronic, one paper — of the first biography of the song’s composer Bert Berns and presented it to the maestro in the corner.
Here Comes the Night by Joel Selvin.
I don’t think it was the book so much that made him mad. I think it was that I kept asking him if he’d got around to reading it. I, who generally enjoy pop bios, had really enjoyed this one, ploughing through in a weekend. I was excited. I assumed he’d be.
To be fair, he never told me he wasn’t. But a half-dozen Friday nights later, Gio said he had a gift for me, pushing into my doubtful paws a DVD of a Rodney Dangerfield movie called “Back by Midnight,” co-starring Randy Quaid and Gilbert Gottfried, featuring Kirstie Alley.
Watch it, he commanded.
His tone was genial, if a tad intense. But I detected no irony or sarcasm. Still, every Friday thereafter Gio would start to bugging and poking and hectoring:
Did you watch it? Did you watch? Huh? Huh? Huh?
And eventually I got the point. I think. And now I’m worried because I’ve lost the DVD that I did not (and could not — no player) watch, and that, to add to the anxiety, he also said he wanted back.
(Sorry, Gio.) (Ha-ha-ha-ha!)
My brother Lance, who came within one credit of graduating from music conservatory — which makes him practically a music conservatory grad — says Giovanni’s a damn fine accordionist. And, for some reason, that makes me feel good. I like it when experts certify my friends. But much as I groove on his grooves, what most attracts me to Gio is his character, his stoicism. Gio gets pissed, but — per the Bert Berns controversy — keeps it to himself. Kinda. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with his military training. Because before he was the accordionist at Sorellas, he was a quartermaster in the US Army for either nine or 13 years, depending on who you believe, me or Roni. I think he also played in the army band, but I’m not sure how the accordion worked into his quartermaster duties, not to mention the band.
Strangely, I’ve been fascinated by the role of quartermaster for a long time, especially the role in movies, where I first learned of such a thing. There was a savvy quartermaster in Apocalypse Now and a rapacious one in the POW melodrama King Rat, and I think there was a devoted elderly one — Pappy, or some such, with scraggly gray whiskers — in a John Wayne western (and I’m pretty sure he was the first to take an arrow, expiring in Duke’s arms). But my curiosity was permanently piqued by Catch-22, the WW II satire where the man behind the curtain — of everything — turns out not to be the four-star general or C.O., but a quartermaster, an unctuously fishy figure named Milo Minderbinder (played by, of all people, Jon Voight). And how he exerts his power, from a relatively underpowered rank, is by controlling the booze, chocolates and fungible silk stockings. So just as I imagine Saturday night trumpeter Dave Bergman as the unsung King of Cool Jazz, I imagine Giovanni, beneath the paisano Kris-Kringle shtick, as Milo.
Whether he is or not. (After all, this is my true-life fantasy, not his.)
(Kidding, kidding, kidding!)
There’s a rumor that one time Giovanni did not keep his feelings to himself. I first heard the rumor from none other than Giovanni, when he was still drinking — before he quit the first time and would only order rum and coke, before he quit the second time. He told me that they wouldn’t let him into Peri’s, the venerable Fairfax drinkery. Said that a few years prior, he was in the pool room, and some drunken jag-off kept needling him, clapping his back harder and harder, and, well, Bob, a fella finally reaches his limit. Gio hauled off and gave the guy what-for.
And that’s how he got banned, my button-strumming bro-tello explained.
First, I thought it was just sitting-around-the-storehouse quartermaster shit, the kind of studiedly slack braggadocio soldiers might share on a slow watch. Then one day, after the last wheezed note of Gio’s set, on a Friday when I was avowedly drinking and he avowedly wasn’t, and, nevertheless, there we were, three or four rum-and-cokes to the wind, both of us, I cajoled him into coming to Peri’s to see a friend’s band. My treat. Though he protested that he had been 86'd — banned — I assured him that was all a long time ago and we’d work it out with the bouncer. But when we got to the door — me, Gio and the indecently sportsmanlike Roni — the bouncer pointed and said, He can’t come in. And when I wheedled and whined, the bouncer assured me:
Oh, you guys can come in, but he can’t.
And that’s how I found the rumor might be true. And found a new level of respect for the rank of quartermaster.
And now I gotta find that DVD.
In a weathered old stable in the redwood shadows at the far end of Wood Lane in the small Northern California town residents call Mayberry on Acid stand a dozen horses of various colors, patterns and states of vigor who are waiting — still — for the next apprehensive moppet to hold forth an apple.
When the kids were little — when they weren’t both in their thirties, or almost (cheeky bastards!) — and deeply into dinosaurs and trying out parent-melting multisyllabic words like “stegosaurus” and “triceratops,” the horses were one of their favorite destinations. Ours, too. The horses were six blocks away, when we lived on the flats — almost directly behind where Sorellas is today — but going there was a gallop back in time. Not just a hundred-and-fifty years back, to forty-niner and giddyup days, but back in evolutionary time, to when great beasts, bigger even than mommy and daddy, bestrode the Earth. And, lo, here they were: four-legged, short-haired dinosaurs, with merciless, black-globe, dinosaur eyes, loud, startling nostrils and floppy rubber lips that could nonetheless pluck a Granny Smith from a child’s fingers-together hand with the delicacy of a safecracker.
Beyond the stable was a paddock, where the horses could exercise, and an alarmingly cobwebbed arena, where their puny overlords could entertain a delusion of mastery by exercising atop them. And just beyond was an enchanted tunnel of redwoods and oaks, a horse trail that led, up, down, in and around, the 200 miles of paths, trails and dirt roads that serve as both firewall and vascular system for this sylvan shangrila masquerading as the Marin Municipal Water District’s watershed operation.
It’s not hard to see why Van Morrison chose it for the cover of Tupelo Honey. Or why, more to the point, when the photographer, who lived in nearby San Anselmo, suggested it to Van, who lived then in Fairfax, the persnickety Belfast Cowboy — straining to smile and looking less cowboy, more country gentleman, in the portraits with his hippie goddess Janet Planet — agreed.
Everyone, young, old or cranky Northern Irish, loves the Fairfax horses.
I’d like to suggest that everyone in Fairfax loves Van Morrison, at least as an artistic genius. Maybe the guys who worked on his house found him a little persnickety, as a person. But if you don’t love him as an artist, I’d have to question your judgment, if not your capacity to love. Van the Man is a god, and not just a hippie one, an enduring light in the firmament alongside a fingers-together handful of others, such as the aforementioned Fabs (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” aside). And he looms large in the mythology of Fairfax, too. Among the many musicians of note who’ve called this freaky and formerly affordable little town home — from members of the Dead and Big Brother to John Doe of X to Irving Berlin of “God Bless America”(!) — there are none more radiant.
For the two or three years he lived in town — until about 1974, when he and the goddess-bride broke up — Morrison also came to Earth. Not that he ventured onstage in the Sleeping Lady or Peri’s or 19 Broadway or any of the other Fairfax venues, but he did set up his parents in their own music store, Caledonia Records, on Bolinas Avenue — line-of-sight to Sorellas Caffe — a western-style storefront that would become (of course) a real estate office, the very same where Roni and I, abetted by real estate agent chicanery, would buy the cheap Dominga Avenue crib we still didn’t qualify for. And he did write most of Saint Dominic’s Preview in a house up the hill (whereas Tupelo Honey, recorded in the Bay, was mostly written in Woodstock). And it was right next door in San Anselmo, just out of sight of Fairfax, that he tried to work through his metastasizing stage fright by surrounding himself with a horn band that was too big for the tiny Lion’s Share and spilled from the club’s stage — along with the tiny sweat-soaked singer — into a fully awed audience in an explosive performance only hinted at on the live record It’s Too Late to Stop Now. And for one of my first freelance assignments for Creem magazine, I was ten feet away.
It was like those soldiers they sent into the New Mexico desert with sunglasses to witness the A-bomb tests. I still have the burn marks.
But I wanted to tell you about the house.
Keep in mind I’m the guy who always pops up to sing harmony with Giovanni on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And the guy who a few paragraphs back called Van Morrison a god. So when I opened the Marin Independent Journal one Sunday, when we were still living down in the flats, to discover that his house was for sale, it’s not surprising I grabbed the missus and headed for the hills.
I can’t find the original listing anywhere in the Googleverse, but I remember it took lots of hairy Fairfax turns to get up there. And in the decade or two since Van had decamped, it had gotten shabby. As if to symbolize it — post-rock star shabbiness, but also the past tense of seventies pastoral — there was a single, unshorn, dirty, clumpy sheep staring out from under an unshorn oak in the denuded front yard. The house was more modern than you wanted — a split-level someone had tried to turn artsy and eco by slapping on the natural redwood siding typical of seventies-era homes and stores hereabouts, while the interior was decked out — still — in the purples, velvets and gold of seventies rock royalty. Nestled before the bay window in the master bathroom, looking over oaks and redwoods and a once lush lawn, was a custom oval bathtub tiled in earnest, homemade mosaic. And while the tub might have been a tad tight for a couple of standard-sized adults, I imagined the compact ginger cannonball would have found some way to scrooch in with his soaped-up organic Venus.
Van Morrison’s naked, freckled ass, I thought, staring into the irregular grout, rubbed up against this tub’s tiles, and his red pubes gathered at its golden drain.
They were thoughts I didn’t know what to make of.
After we pleaded with the agent not to leave anything out, she unlocked an outside door to a room she clearly considered irrelevant and, with a dismissive wave, dubbed “storage.” It was an odd room that was hard to get a bead on, musty and stuffed with racks and racks of winter coats and out-of-style couture from long after Van and Janet’s sojoun. It was only when I hacked through the fashion jungle, rolling racks of dresses to a corner, that I noticed the built-in desk with the big hole for a 72-channel mixer and the control room glass that looked over another smaller room and, standing still now — breath stopped — registered the signature acoustic deadness.
Before every wannabe rock star had a studio in his home, if not a few years later, in his laptop, Van the Man — the shy man, the suspicious man, the man with the famous stage fright — had built himself a musical place to hide. This overgrown closet wasn’t storage. For a distrustful 25-year-old genius, it was the wide-open spaces, the true Wild West. Standing before the Lost City of Van Morrison, I scanned up and down and over and behind and wondered — breath stopped — what tones and syllables and grunts, squeaks and groans had been squeezed and teased and turned and stuttered and spat and twisted and stretched into life here on this Fairfax peak (en route, doubtless, to new peaks of human achievement). I wondered if within these padded walls and floors in this airless chamber high on a California hill could still be found the atomic traces of the first inkling of a rough demo of a song that wasn’t yet called “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile).”
And with that my heart went boom-boom-boom.
11. Extreme Unction
When a man in San Francisco leapt from 22 stories and almost landed on me, ending his misery instead on the stones ten yards away, I scrambled to the family table.
Actually, I went to work, where I’d been headed in the first place.
But more than force of habit, resuming my morning routine was a wobbly lunge for the ancient quotidian of 45 minutes ago, an abject simulacrum of normalcy. Especially since my primary normalcy-generator of three or four decades, was at the moment across the Bay, teaching, phone off.
I was drowning. And after I arrived at work, didn’t do a lick. And when a co-worker asked the pro-forma social question, I replied, all stoic aspirations aside: Not so good. And my chin began to quiver. And I realized I was worse.
It goes deep — unexpected violence, oceanic despair. Which sounds unsurprising. But how deep was comprehensively surprising to me — as hearing hissed, vision crackled, senses redlined, and in an instant the world turned strange and pitiably fragile, all fundamental questions summoned. And though I’m not the religious person I was raised to be, the first friend I thought of was Reverend Kang, who, before he helped his daughters start Sorellas — after he spent five years in war, flight from war and war’s prisons — had devoted his life to matters of the spirit. Maybe, through all his travails, he’d come up with something more than Jesus.
I didn’t want Jesus. A bunch of folks with matters of the flesh on their mind — coveting, hating, killing — had long ago sunk His rep, for Me. And I didn’t want to be marked as a sucker by a sect with a credo to sell, no matter how holy the salesman. Not to mention, I was proud. After a lifetime of railing and recovering, I wasn’t about to go crawling — like all those other vehement Catholic school alums who cave when it comes to their kids, signing up precious for baptism and, soon, Catholic kindergarten. When the going gets dark, surrender to weakness, laziness, cowardice?
So I hesitated about the Rev.
Anyway, the greater comfort may have been in just imagining he had it sussed, fantasizing there was someone on this clamorous coil who’d achieved inner peace — rather than discovering, by actually examining it with him, that the peace was strictly off-the-rack, straight from the Book of Common Prayer or, for that matter, the SF Theological Seminary, down the lane in San Anselmo, a failure of imagination, a betrayal of the creativity with which the Creator (their notion, not mine) had endowed us.
The more certain refuge was the casserole of wide, flat noodles with layers of ricotta and prosciutto di parma, in meat sauce, beneath melted mozzarella, carbonized at the corners.
That evening, or the next — memory gets discombobulated in the dark — we headed to Sorellas.
It must have been a Wednesday, which the sisters take turns taking off. Which means the incident was a Tuesday. Which means I went carousing with the young men from our company’s oldest client, then preparing to fire us, on a Monday. Ended at Spec’s, a mouse-hole off Columbus, where the homeless man in the alley sketched our collective caricature and the head client haggled the purchase price down from five bucks to one. I wanted to protest, but it seemed to mean a lot to the client: icon — before a blearily indifferent congregation of co-workers — of his primacy. For me, easier just to look away. I was weak, after all. But even the crazy homeless guy, backing down the alley with a dollar in change — not even a bill — was less mad at the shitty deal than agape at the dismal state of agape.
It had been a late night, in other words. That’s why I was going to work late. And the whole thing was like that Eastern religious thing some holy people — and hippies and John Lennon, the first hippie saint, and most of the town of Fairfax — believe in.
Soy was off, and Sonia, the chef sister, was working front-of-house. Maybe I was still in shock. Likely I was pale. Definitely I was exhausted, as anything like sleep had become worse than impossible — startling, horrifying, dreadful, beyond exhausting. I can’t conceive how the combat soldier — Reverend Kang, for instance — ever comes home.
You OK? asked his youngest daughter.
Sonia slid into the corner booth, the family table, under the bust of Augustus, with me and Roni. Once more, the answer was unmistakable. And I confessed. And there was the laying-on-of-the-hands on my forearm, the exclamations of sympathy and absolution, and then, per liturgical protocol, the dispensing of the sacraments.
Nero d’Avola, the red wine of Sicily.
Marinated greek olives, black and green, from her olive-importing Greek boyfriend in Hayward.
Calamari fritti, with spicy red sauce, from who cares, because it’s fritti. Deep-fried.
And, finally, the body and blood of Italian-Korean-Brazilian comfort cuisine: Sonia Kang’s magisterial lasagna bolognese.
I’d like to say that fixed it, then and there. But if it took another year or so — and many more cubic kilometers of Kang lasagna, not to mention 400 pages of soul-searching and, above all, the love and mercy of the bride — to restore that remarkable state of grace known as normalcy, it started one Wednesday evening, at Sorellas Caffe, in a little hippie town, in a big redwood forest, other side of a stout, green mountain from limitless Pacific blue.
On earth as it is in heaven.
12. In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer
The kids wanted Dad in costume, and I hadn’t had a minute to think about it.
My five-year-old was a fierce pterodactyl, in an outfit of pool-table-green felt, painstakingly hand-sewn, by her mother, to save money and to ensure no nasty store-bought mask would impede our first-born’s cross-eyed vision and imperil her safety. Her brother, not quite two, was our black-and-white cat Ivy, with construction-paper ears, eyebrow-pencil whiskers and a black dime-sized spot of a nose. And if the costumes were less than convincing as impersonations, they were all the more appallingly cute for it.
The kids loved them.
More accurately, the kids thought these weren’t costumes at all, but magical transformations. Arriving at a neighbor’s doorstep, the kids believed they looked exactly like what they obviously were: a dinosaur and a housecat. (And, after, when they wanted to go back to being just kids, inviolably protected from things like pterodactyls, they abruptly snapped off that belief, didn’t want to hear a thing more about it, at dire risk of tears.)
And though one parent after another that night would greet our green-felt pterodactyl with the exclamation, “Oooh, a leprechaun!”, Josey — ferociously stubborn to this day — was never dissuaded.
I was always late for family stuff. Somehow I’d gotten a gig with a big ad agency in San Francisco, trying to climb out of the hole we’d dug working for ourselves in New York. In those days, a big agency in San Francisco didn’t give a shit about Halloween. What they gave a shit about was that their big client needed shit, asap. Needed to get it to their VPs, who’d get it to their SVPS, who’d get it to their lawyers. Who’d shit all over it. Again.
Can you hang just a few more minutes, till we get the lawyers’ final comments?
Twenty-three miles from Fairfax, on the sweetest kid night of the year, I could feel my sweet ones waiting. And knew there was not a chance in corporate hell the comments would be final.
Our client, the phone company, had sustained a judgment of, like, half-a-billion dollars, due to predatory sales practices that targeted new immigrants. And the vast TV, print and junk mail effort to notify the preyed-upon about a settlement — in Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, Korean and whatever passes in advertising for English — had turned into the legal hamster-wheel of all time.
A month in, feeling a bit preyed-upon myself, I had idly asked the second-in-command — an older, winningly cynical Brooklynite — what bonus I might get for my ceaseless servitude.
You get to keep your job, said Jerry.
I finally made it home (promising to be back by dawn). And though it was late-night by kiddie time — which meant cranky in the morning, especially me — the kiddies had been thoroughly distracted by a nonstop parade of fantastical visitors.
Which on Dominga Ave., of a Hallows’ Eve, might run to 300 or more.
Over the 13 years we lived in the Fairfax flats — one avenue away from where an Italian bistro run by Brazilian-Koreans would take over from a flailing Japanese-Chinese joint — we watched as our abbreviated rue developed into the Halloween capital of western Marin, eventually attracting monsters and their doting attendants from as far away as Petaluma.
But even in the earliest days, Halloween on Dominga was impressive. As Roni liked to boast, there were 62 kids on those three teeming blocks. The neighborhood was flat, unlike much of vertical Fairfax, and the sidewalks wide enough for dinosaurs going in both directions. And if the whole town was fundamentally surreal — “Mayberry on Acid,” by nickname — Dominga was the winged heart of it (take that, Bothin Road!), with an unrivaled demographic of painters, dancers, musicians, kindergarten teachers, writers, whiteface jugglers and other artsy-crafty types, none snooty rich.
Ideal, in other words, for a gremlin get-down.
Roni was already resplendent in peaked black hat and warty nose, a perfectly acceptable wicked witch, to our juvenile jury. And, no matter how late it was, the little fantasists were not about to let their father out of the house in buzz-killing civvies. I stalled by putting on the family Halloween soundtrack — the soundtrack to “Sweeney Todd,” with its shrieking factory whistle and “demon barber” spitting gory vengeance. But while searching for it in the muck of misfiled CDs, it struck me that a simple, yet fully satisfactory, way to get in the costumed spirit in a hurry was to become a costumed spirit.
White sheet, cut a pair of eyeholes, done.
So I went rummaging.
It turns out, among the vast array of hand-me-down sheets from Roni’s richer, older sister, none, to my dismay, were Casper-colored. We had stripes, polka dots, floral prints, animal and ABC prints galore. And one other.
It took a couple of attempts to cut the eyeholes big enough, and then I had trouble lining them up with my eyes. Finally, I threw on the sheet, centered the openings, and knotted it all in place with the pumpkin-print necktie I’d picked up at the Spirit Halloween store — not for Halloween, but for making fun of tie-wearing. Stomping from the bedroom (admittedly, more Frankenstein, than hovering ghost), I spread my arms, along with my saffron sheet, and proclaimed:
“I am the Pee Ghost!”
The two-year-old was frightened, at first, while the five-year-old was amused — but skeptical. So I explained — proclaimed — that I was the ghost who wet his bed, and that’s why my sheet was yellow.
Thus was born a family tradition, one that sustained from the kids’ adorably credulous phase through their annoyingly sarcastic phase, all the way to that horrifying moment when our contractor friend, replacing the busted water heater while we were away, confessed to using — and tossing — an “old, ripped sheet.”
Our beloved Halloween wraith discarded as a construction rag.
Which made me sadder than it should have. But what can you say about a golden ghost who’s gone?
13. The Bride
“I got a rich guy carrying my stuff!”
Gail Muldrow has a fantasy about me. But that’s only fair, because I have a fantasy about her. Which is why I can’t just sit back and finish my decadent quaff of Nero d’Avola, as she passes lugging a microphone, stand, music stand, music, Stratocaster and ridiculously heavy amp all by her petite lonesome out to the sub-compact that, judging by the scuffs and dimples, she’s been driving for a decade or two and that’s poised by the fire door with the hatch open in the harrowingly narrow parking lot behind the Fairfax trattoria called Sorellas.
Gail is a star.
More than that, she’s a genius.
More than that, she’s a wiseacre, cracking wise about a middle-class guy trying to do the right thing, cracking wise because that’s her, on the topic of anything, including herself, cracking wise because Gail Muldrow, who’s been up, down and all around in her (let’s say) late-fiftyish years, tiny Gail, with the tiny nose and giant smile — that generates dimples of its own — is pound for pound as bad a badass as you could bring to the knife fight and needs no help from no one.
Which is a word Gail fancies and can encompass a helpful fan or a heavy amp, good shit or bad.
“Reminds me of when I was in the Brides,” she riffs, as I attempt to sidearm the leaden amplifier into the hatchback.
“Roadies!” she adds, growling the R, in just one of the many flourishes with which she punctuates her allegro patter. “Setting up, breaking down, tuning the guitars — I didn’t have to do nothing but play!”
And for a brief, shining demi-year of Fridays, Gail is the star at the center of the universe.
Gail was a star in the George Clinton universe in the P-Funk spinoff called the Brides of Funkenstein. Played Strat and sang, as she does now. Before that, like a lot of folks in the George Clinton universe, she played and sang with Sly and the Family Stone, starting at 16. And since the Sly universe begat the George universe (begat the Prince universe, who Gail toured with in 2011), that means she was present at the Creation. When soul turned to funk.
Sometime in there, Gail played with slap-bass inventor and Sly alum Larry Graham in the top-ten hitmakers Graham Central Station. And after, in the last incarnation of the Johnny Otis Show. And even if you’ve never heard “Willie and the Hand Jive” or don’t recognize the artists Johnny Otis discovered (Etta James?) or the one he spawned (Shuggie) or haven’t paid a speck of attention to the unbelievable tale of the bandleading Greek who passed for black, that means Gail was present at the Creation, twice.
Oh, and her hero is Rosetta Tharpe, if the “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll” means anything to you.
There’s more (Gail’s also the prize-winning bass drummer in a Celtic marching band). More (singer, guitarist in the longtime Latin outfit Bernal Beat). And more (something called the Gunpowder Rebellion with scowly guys in black kilts that could be Celtic death metal).
But trust me, she’s heavy — for a flyweight. And here she is, in all her glory, all jammed up in the corner of the back room, three tables away. Her band’s pretty heavy, too: a bluesy piano pounder who did 20 years in San Quentin, a backup singer and Sam Cooke ringer who spent 20 years painting the Golden Gate Bridge, and John Molloy, skin-thumper extraordinaire, Soy’s man and, in Fairfax, the musical connective tissue of tutti. She can be a tough band member, he allows. She won’t hesitate to call you out. And seeing as how John’s not one to turn the other cheek, it says more than the rhapsodic words that follow for him to be playing with her, not in one, but three, bands.
Here at the ristorante, Gail sticks to Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Minnie Riperton, “Dock of the Bay” and, for her other singer, “Cupid” — mellow classics that in less gifted hands might be moldy. But it’s not to suck up (Gail don’t play that). It’s strictly because, a bit hippie herself, she likes them. So there’s no roof-tearing in the back room. No funk, except in a masterfully silent way — twinkly, trebly Fender pulsing behind vocals that rumble and rise, thicken and thin, with all the flourishes of her conversation, plus the occasional Al Green-ish backwards squeak.
Still, unspecified customers are whining to the sisters that it’s loud. I just figure it’s a couple of old cranks, so fuck ’em. But Soy’s too nice not to listen.
What brings Gail to the back room is Giovanni. Through a series of troubling turns in his family life, our favorite accordionist found himself in urgent need of lodging. And because underneath Gail’s biscotti exterior is zabaglione, she offered the extra bedroom at her place in the Valley, other side of White’s Hill. And if there was conflict, as always with roommates (especially when one of them doesn’t clean up after his nasty self, motherfucker!), there was also care. And at no time was it more manifest than the afternoon of the big December rainstorm when Gail told Gio, juggling a 30-pound squeezebox and suitcase of song cards, to take it easy on that wet, slimy porch.
Gio arrived at Marin General just a few hours after our friend Sandy. I kept thinking I ought to hunt down my duet partner, but he had a tore-up knee — badly tore-up, but still — while Sandy, unresponsive, after a cerebral hemorrhage, was touch-and-go. So as Gio mended, first at the hospital and then, with a surfeit of moaning and groaning (well-placed sources say), at home, Gail’s home, his roomie kept his seat warm Fridays at Sorellas. While Gio — less 20 pounds — came back to the back in June, we were still so wrapped up in Sandy, who was still so broken, with no one else to look out, that we hadn’t seen either in months.
Then came the photo. That one, up there.
When some nostalgic superfan or promoter is willing to pay the freight — which is surely never as substantial as it should be, or was — and it’s convenient to the lives they’ve carved out beyond major-label show biz, the Brides do one-offs. Like the Long Beach Funk Fest. And one day someone posted a picture of my fave, the little one on guitar. And I realized, with a face like that, who needs my thousand words.
14. Lucky 13. Or 14.
The sisters aren’t sure. And that uncertainty, along with their essential modesty, even shyness — and maybe something more — was reflected in the night’s celebration.
Yes, they wrapped the building in the silver tinsel skirt that signifies a special occasion at Sorellas. And they put up a thirteenth anniversary poster. But there was no performance by the Bernal Beat, the rousing grupo Latino for which John plays traps and Gail guitar and which, with its eight or nine members — plus jamming friends, plus instruments, amps and stands — reduces seating capacity by 40%, while increasing hippie shimmying by 100.
Instead, Wendy was at the spinet in the back, like any other Saturday, but, for the first time I can remember, working solo. The Company She Keeps, as she calls her ensemble, was keeping company elsewhere. Steve the bassist, her beau, in his Book of Mormon white shirt, black suit and skinny black tie, was playing a wedding with another band. The ubiquitous John — Soy’s guy and, in these parts, the drumslinger to beat — had been dragooned into helping out in the restaurant, which was extra busy and down a staffer.
Eventually, Dave and his pocket trumpet showed up to soothe Wendy’s sonic solitude. And soon after, Peter the harmonica dude materialized, blowing licks that, in their limpid joy, seemed the perfect homage to the joyful man of clean, clear music, Toots Thielemans, who invented jazz harmonica and had passed the day before. Then here comes Carol, Sorella’s first lady of flute, rolling suitcase of music and toys in tow.
Soy squeezed a chair in the corner between Wendy on the bench and Peter on the window sill. Carol was holding out for a table, the better to unfurl her flute-things. But on a jammed night in that jammed back room, there were no two-tops left. So Soy checked with us and then Carol, silently indicating the chair, double-checked:
Could she take the seat at the end of our table for seven?
Carol is part of the family, of course. The problem wasn’t familial, but logistical. We’d picked up one bonus diner in Flor, who’d been regaling us at the door with the story of her recent arrest at the Fairfax Roastery. Well, it wasn’t quite an arrest, but it did involve two of Fairfax’s finest, summoned when the proprietor decided 20 minutes was way past legit for a visitor in her bathroom — never mind that the visitor was a regular patron, way past 70. Turned out Flor was locked in — first embarrassed, then afraid. And though the impish lady from Shanghai (not the Philippines, as reported, by me, earlier) chuckled when I said I was going to write the PD a letter of commendation, she certainly didn’t when the constabulary burst in. And Roni was quick to assure her we were absolutely done with the Roastery. Done.
So when Soy came to shepherd us to our table, how could we leave her behind?
Which meant, when the big sister stopped back to ask about Carol, we were already sitting with Flor. And waiting for Kang and Maria. And expecting Gary, who shares a birthday with the bistro and, as part of the joint celebration, was coming in for a delicious Sonia dinner — much as he does six or seven other nights of the week. Since Gary’s a beer freak and a Blue Öyster Cult fan, we came bearing the gifts of a 22-ounce bottle of craftiness that cost as much as three uncrafty six-packs and a collectible backstage pass to BÖC (because our bud Sandy was their svengali).
Plus, by the way, matching bottles of Champagne — capital-C — for the sisters.
Needless to say, we always leave space on Saturdays for Dave’s Joan, who comes halfway through the last set to escort her hepcat home. And what about George? Soy said the boisterous ex-Merchant Mariner was boisterously committed (she’d canvassed the guest list via text this afternoon). So we also had to save a seat for George.
In short, for a mostly empty table, we were mostly full.
But family’s family, and I immediately said sure to Carol. We’ll figure it out. More the merrier. But it wasn’t long before the table was actually full. And here comes twinkly-eyed Joan.
It was Reverend Kang, the restaurant patriarch, who slipped a chivalrous chair into the table’s last dubious slot, next to the flautist — right next to the flautist — and gestured for Joan to take a load off.
Even as Joan did, Carol couldn’t. It wouldn’t work. Just as it wouldn’t when well-meaning Heather, the tall waitress, tried to stow Carol’s wheeled treasure chest around the corner — out of the perilous pathways between tables, feet and runaway rugrats that Sorella’s servers must continuously navigate, but also out of mama’s protective sight. Sweet, California-grown Heather didn’t know that in New York, where we both come from, where we all three come from (Roni, too), where they’ll steal anything that isn’t surgically stapled, three ways, to the thickest part of your body, you don’t leave your treasure chest around the corner.
But the point is, after our noted local aerophonist sets herself up — with teleprompting iPad, flute stand and giant flute-cleaning Q-tip — and definitively ascertains, within the challenging interstices of the back room, a viable arc of motion for her axe (so no yo-yo will accidentally jam it in her teeth), she’s not going to be overly interested in moving. Or having anyone else move in — for reasons not everyone may bother to understand. Maybe because not everyone has tried to play the freakin’ flute — pro bono, out of the love of music and goodness of her heart — in a cheek-by-jowl Korean-Brazilian Italian. To be fair, she doesn’t usually verbalize her discontent — Carol’s sure, but demure. It’s more a defensive puff, a stiffening of the shoulders, and sometimes an illustrative horizontal swipe of the old Jethro Tull stick.
And, as a guy who’s particular about his personal space, about elbow-room for his craft, the guy who vehemently hung on to his office when the whole damn company went open-plan, I get it.
Still, family’s family, and seeing Joan lower herself to the chair and then pop back up — not knowing from the force-field of flutes — I felt compelled to rush over and say:
Here, take my seat.
Which left me, at the end of this music-related musical chairs, chair-less — out of the family, logistically speaking — with a fast-cooling plate of pasta. And that’s when Wendy, chatting with our table on break, gestured at a miraculously unoccupied chair one table away and said to me:
Why don’t you sit with Patti and Steve?
With no other obvious choice and a generously enabling snootful of vino, I gathered my spaghetti bolognese — topped, per custom, one meatball, one sausage — and my teeming goblet of Nero and, to their surprise, plopped myself down with the neighbors.
Black-suited Steve had made it to the last set, but just to pick up Wendy. Patti, it turned out, was Peter the harmonicat’s squeeze and had lived in Fairfax since 1962.
I remember this place, she said, when it was a gas station.
The living link! I exclaimed. And the stories took off from there, not always in the direction I expected.
If the sisters weren’t sure before the busy evening about their celebratory mood — let alone the years they were celebrating — after, they were too beat. But by relentlessly emphasizing that it was Gary’s day, too — and offering to drive the folks home beforehand — I was finally able to lure/guilt them into joining Gary, George, Heather, Roni and me for a nightcap, a block away, at Nave’s.
Nave’s is a whole other trip — Volume II-V of the Fairfaxiad, at least — that I won’t fully engage now. Let’s just say it’s a hundred-year-old dive that was a dive a hundred years ago and opens daily at six a.m.
I’m pretty certain the sisters were a smidge subdued due to jonesing for Jack, Soy’s oldest and a real charmer, who’d just left for college in Santa Barbara. And since Sonia is much more than an aunt, more a co-mom, she was feeling it no less than big sis. But we got a couple of their favorite vodka drinks in them, and Eddie, the bar’s current owner (for 40 years), greeted them fondly — not as unforeseen lovelies in a late-night saloon, but as esteemed fellow Fairfax entrepreneurs — and eventually dropped a slightly slurry anecdote about how the big, loud guy with the cravat and blazer, but never a shirt, the longtime local character who has something to do with Hollywood and drives a sick 1963 Avanti, likes to come in Sunday mornings, command the barkeep to dial up channel 193 and perch on a stool into the p.m. watching, not football or basketball, but old movies.
Eventually the sorellas lightened up, and we chatted about the history of their restaurant and their history in restaurants. And then Roni and I started into some grilling of our own:
Wasn’t last year the thirteenth anniversary?!?
Chef Sonia has an endearing little-sisterish way of looking up from under her eyelashes when flummoxed, while Maitresse d’Hotel Soyara maintains a crisp, big-sisterish demeanor all the way till the moment she puts the back of her hand to her mouth and busts out laughing.
Which she did now, as her sister — and business partner of 13 or 14 years — leaned lovingly on her shoulder.
15. Knowledge of Nurgeon
Sandy wants to know — again — if the salmon is wild.
I think he’s happier when it isn’t, because then he can perform his aquaculture lecture, which is based on something he picked up in Michael Pollan’s books or from NPR or from a friend who’s chair of the marine biology department at Santa Cruz or McGill or some such, or from another friend, Michael Horowitz (he always says both of Michael’s names, to reinforce the gravitas), dean at the U. of Tonga (yes, that Tonga, the tiny island-nation that puts out the collectible postage stamps you coveted during a pre-pubescent stamp-collecting phase).
Anyway, one or more of them warned Sandy about the perils of farmed, and now he’d like to warn you — if you happen to wait tables at the Center of the Universe.
So, sometimes he delivers the lecture to Heather, who we were surprised to learn he knew before Sorellas, who once scooped Capuccino Chocolate Crunch at Double Rainbow in San Rafael, where Sandy likes to hang — for the ice cream, free wi-fi, late hours and, perhaps, in the day, the tall, lissome, exceedingly patient Heather. And sometimes he says it to Carlos, who stands by the table, amicably impassive, pen poised over pad, to signify he’s ready for the dinner orders that, farmed or no, will follow — eventually — when the blah-blah-quack-quack is over.
And sometimes Sandy lectures Soy.
Soy, the hostest with the mostest, crinkles her face as if awaiting the punchline of a joke — though, having heard this lecture a half-dozen times, she definitely knows it isn’t. With 25 years in the industry, face-to-whining-face, nightly, with the retail public, Soy has surely seen it all — though Sandy may qualify, even in the restaurant biz (much as in the music biz), as sui generis.
In a sense, the lecture — which elucidates some of the less appetizing circumstances of salmon farming — is a joke. Like every Sandy lecture, it verges on tongue-in-cheek, with a soupçon of self-parody. Long before he became a college prof (of music, technology and copyright law, if I’m understanding that lecture correctly), Sandy’s discourse was already stuffed to the piscatorial pharynx with big professorial words, as well as smaller words he’d augment with Greek prefixes like “crypto-,” “proto-,” “psycho-,” “meta-,” and “trans-” and that served, indeed, as a kind of punchline to his pseudo-pedagogy. Even as a word guy, I often find Sandy’s words — not to mention his socio-cultural, historio-scientific references — sailing over my head (trans-cranial?), especially when I’m trying to duck it under the table during the seafood specials recitative.
It took Roni, raised in Brooklyn when it meant something — pugilistically speaking — to get him to stifle.
“You know it’s not wild, Sandy,” she’d say the next time we dined. “So please!”
An exasperating combo platter of compulsion and defiance, he would invariably continue. Which is when the girl from Brooklyn would tell her friend from Queens, the rock and aquaculture eminence, to shut the fuck up. In so many words. None of them, no matter the hippie Fairfax environs, peace or love.
Eventually Sandy tried a new tack, prefacing his interrogations with disclaimer.
“I know Roni doesn’t want me to ask this,” he’d begin, with exaggerated diction, small, precise gestures and a non-confrontational tilt of the hatted head, as if to suggest Roni’s the crazy one. “But might I inquire if the salmon is…”
Whereupon Roni would flash him the baby-blues and let out a growl. An actual growl.
Sometimes on Friday, our traditional Sandy night out, I’d say we should give him a ring, and she’d say: “Gah! I don’t know if I can go through all that salmon shit.”
Other times, when we did call, or he called us, Roni would stride through the restaurant door and preemptively ask if there are any wild fish on the night’s menu. And turn to Sandy and say: “There!”
Just between us, Sandy can be a pain. But I wonder if that isn’t some of the pleasure. And some of the reason why, for 40 years, he’s been hanging around my life and writing. And I wonder if I like to write about Sandy because it’s my only chance to get a word in edgewise. Or just because I find him fascinating — if not always for the reasons he imagines. His erudition, accomplishments and cult (and Cult) celebrity may, in fact, be the least of his attraction — though I always recite his CV to new folks, if only to give Sandy a lift.
I tried to recite his CV when I introduced him to our friend and fellow regular Gary. But I could barely get the name Sandy out when Gary said:
“You’re not Sandy Pearlman?!? Blue Öyster Cult Sandy?”
Turned out Gary (as previously noted) is a big fan, reaching into his Hawaiian shirt to prove it with a BÖC Kronos-symbol necklace. Next day the four of us watched the Super Bowl together.
It may be easier to love the mushy mensch behind the machine. The tenderhearted humanoid — to drop a Sandy-ism — behind the tartmouthed blowhard. The Sandy who called us in Paris, worried sick, night of the November massacre. Who loves us back. The Sandy who might make the other Sandy queasy.
But there could never be one without the other.
And a dozen years ago, I found both standing in the door of my office, hung up on a whole other fish.
Joining a discussion with Parker, my partner in ad crime, about the intimidating sea-creature a Fairfax neighbor had extracted from the Bay the night before, Sandy commenced pontification. After unspooling the most extraordinary, extemporaneous, unexpurgated encyclopedia on the topic, he paused, grinning, with a triumphal tilt of the hat — sui generis in the best way.
“You probably didn’t know,” the well-known polymath crowed, in a rare moment of naked, needy hubris, “that I possessed such a vast and comprehensive knowledge of…”
And then the engine seized.
He gathered himself.
“Nurgeon…,” he said. “Knowledge of…” — awkward beat — “nurgeon.”
He tried slowing it down:
“Knowledge. Of. Nurgeon.”
And it went on like that for a while, a long while, until Parker slung him a life-preserver:
And in deference to Sandy — every one of him — every one of us made sure not to laugh.
16. My Wife, the Maniac
“HOFFMAN JACKED ON PCP! CALL FAIRFAX PD! BE THERE AT 8.”
Roni is worried because I’m texting Soy, the front-of-house sister, for a table.
Unable to resist even the most minor opportunity to clown, I like to couch my reservation requests in exclamation-ridden, all-caps updates on the missus. But then, you wouldn’t want to be bringing in some raging crackhead, tweaker, duster, or whatever else my messages accuse Roni of, without a heads-up. What if she’s on bath salts?!? Shudder to think of the liability if one Sorellas guest eats another’s face — instead of her eggplant parmagian!
So I text.
“APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE FOR UGLY SCENE UPCOMING AT RESTAURANT (4 of us, 8 pm, please). HOFFMAN OUT OF CONTROL!”
What Roni is worried about is that Soy believes the texts. When I’m cackling on the couch, she’ll ask what’s so funny, and, as soon as it’s sent, I’ll read the latest to her:
“HELP!!! HOFF ON DRUNKEN RAMPAGE. HEADED DOWN AT 8. RUN!”
At which, Roni will shake her head and sputter a string of non-verbal vocalizations that seem to signify displeasure.
But the best part — to a clown just looking for a reaction — is she means it.
Over the 13 or 14 years, my messages to Soy (cc’d to sister Sonia, to optimize reach-and-frequency, as we say in the ad biz) have frequently made reference to Roni being drunk and bothering customers, bellowing Van Morrison in the middle of the restaurant and being, in general, a fat clown, among other characterizations that more accurately apply to me (I’ve even written a book called Loudmouth). A headshrinker would call that “projection.” I call it comedy.
If you’re wondering how Soy takes the wacky texts, Sorellas’ unflappable maitresse-d’ always offers a perfectly grownup, Soy-style reply:
“OK, Bob. See you then.”
On the rare occasion in recent years, having finally become accustomed to the game, she will play along, adding:
“Sorry about Roni.”
Which worries Roni even more.
“What did Soyara say?” she’ll ask after I’ve read her a text that begins simply:
And when I say Soy said, “Sorry about Roni,” Hoffman will say: “See!”
I assure my nice, sweet (well, in an old-school Brooklyn candystore-cum-bookie-shop way), completely un-jacked wife that there is no way Soy and Sonia —
And she interrupts. “You send those to Sonia, too?!?”
I sputter my own non-verbal signifier.
There is no way, I resume — loudly — that the sisters think you’re high on PCP.
And have you ever sung in the restaurant? Or been crazy drunk in the back room? For that matter, have you ever been high on angel dust, bath salts, crank or, let’s see — I think back on my texts — flakka, spice, Special K or Purple Drank? No one would believe it if you had.
But Hoffman’s not convinced. Not for a second.
You know when a thing that drives you crazy about your partner is also a thing you love?
Yeah, well, that’s me with Roni. My wonderful wife of a million wonderful years is the queen of the skeptics. And if for sure it’s a New York thing — New York and Brooklyn, from a more predatory era — it’s also a Hoffman thing.
I’ll never forget when we moved from New York to Fairfax 30-some years ago, and Roni came home scowling about the local residents.
“What’s with all the smiling?” she wanted to know. “What do these people want?”
And, once more, she meant it.
She doesn’t like to talk about herself — coming from a more predatory era when you never tipped your cards — but she will talk about that. It was that shocking to her. And while all these decades later she’s still not big on smiling — “fake-smiling,” she’ll clarify — she remains the most gentle, helpingest friend a little old lady trying to cross the street ever had.
One time she even helped a confused little granny cross who, it turned out, didn’t want to. Whereupon she dabbed the old bat’s eyes and cheerfully hustled her back.
Sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes it drives me nuts. And more than once it has saved me — a clownish optimist who evidently spent too many of his wonder years (through third grade) on the credulous plains of Minnesota.
No, I trust this guy! I’ll argue to Roni. I think he’s OK, underneath all the asshole shit.
She’ll emit more of those discontented non-verbal sounds and say we don’t have the time, money, knowledge or whatever practical excuse she can muster to forestall further engagement with the fake-smiling dude I’ve enthusiastically dragged in. And later, when the dude proves a lowdown snake, she’ll say — 100% truthfully (thankfully) — “I never trusted him.”
So it’s not just a habit. She has a faculty I’m missing. Or never chose to develop.
Or maybe it’s a Jewish thing.
You’d be amazed how frequently people make cracks about Jews. When you marry a woman who’s Jewish — after a Catholic childhood in the homogeneic land of credulity — and your kids are Tribe, by Hebraic law (and, in the case of my kids, proud self-identification), not to mention your in-laws and nieces and nephews, it opens your ears. (Especially if, once upon a goyische time, you made cracks of your own.)
Suddenly, it’s not so hard to see how some people become skeptical.
Not long after we’d arrived in Fairfax, we even experienced a little wisecracking in the bosom of a local beanery. Climbing the ladder of customerhood, we’d reached that rung where the server no longer just flashes a fake-smile and scribbles the order. But as this chatty young waitress was shmoozing us tableside, she paused to note the arrival of another middle-aged couple.
“Darn!” she exclaimed. “My least favorite customers.” Then she theatrically screened her mouth with one hand (the one with the carpal tunnel brace), leaned down and, never surrendering her fake-smile, fake-confided:
“Pushy Jews, from New York.”
Neither of us said anything. You’re looking for dinner, not a fight. And you tell yourself it’s not the worst crack. In fact, it’s pathetically tired — almost too worn-out to pack a sting.
But the bride didn’t appreciate it. And I felt bad. All the more because I hadn’t risen chivalrously to the occasion and demanded an apology, or some such melodrama. Later, at home, I tried to tell her the waitress didn’t mean it. Not like that. But my wife’s a skeptic and wasn’t buying. And sometimes even the optimist has to admit the skeptic’s right.
To which the clown can only add:
17. A Thing that Plays a Central or Essential Role in an Activity, Event, or Situation
I once ran into Huey Lewis jogging in Ross. He’s the guy who wrote and sang “I Want a New Drug” and the theme song to Back to the Future, a history I feel I have to append here because a wonderful young co-worker just confessed she’d never heard the word “fulcrum.”
No telling what kids today don’t know.
Unless they live in Marin, I wouldn’t expect them to know Ross is two towns over from Fairfax, a 12-minute bike ride. Which is exactly what I was doing when I passed hair-dyed Huey, huffing and puffing the uphill in the opposite direction. Ross is one of the richest towns in the country — big oaks, towering hedges, tasteful mansions and not a single bar (unlike Fairfax, with five or six). Robert Cray was a resident for the three-album span he was sitting on top of the world. Sean Penn, too — though he’s not technically a rock star. Meanwhile, Jerry Garcia lived up a hill in San Rafael, one town east, as do James Hetfield of Metallica and Carlos Santana. Janis Joplin’s last crib was on West Baltimore in Larkspur. Todd Rundgren called Sausalito home-planet before he split for Hawaii. Tupac Shakur lived in Marin City, before he died, only to live again as the posthumous, holographic Tupac, Inc.
But with the glorious exceptions of Van Morrison (noted earlier), Dave Getz of Big Brother and the Holding Company (more later) and now, from the “younger” generation, John Doe of X, the rock stars of Marin don’t live in Fairfax.
Fairfax is for roadies. And that seems about right.
There were at least two on our block when we moved in, and we met the first one the first day. The first few minutes. As I threw open the gate on the Penske 18-footer, and we commenced a weary load-in — not 30 minutes after we’d completed our weary load-out from the temporary apartment one-flight up in unincorporated Tiburon — an ultra-mellow baritone floated from the ether:
Where are you guys coming from?
I swiveled in six directions before finally looking up and discovering the FM-radio voice-of-god was emanating from, not free-form, album-oriented heaven, but top of the stairs across the street. A tall, slender, black man, twenty-something, probably handsome, with a beard and a wry, teasing smile that was at the same time warmly welcoming, that seemed to be assuring us (accurately, I’d say, but on the basis of what instantly recognizable semaphore I will never know): You’re in. Pre-approved.
Oh, hey, I said. And told him, with my own wry smile: New York by way of the Tiburon peninsula.
I’m Merl Saunders, he said. Junior.
Yeah, well, I thought, you’re in, too.
Merl Senior was a minor god around these parts — but a god nonetheless — mostly owing to his collaborations with the Grateful Dead and their lead guitarist, the Bay Area Zeus, Jerry. Saunders père, who died in 2008, played the amazingly evocative Hammond B3 organ, a humping, pumping, gurgling beast in its low registers, with that rotating Leslie speaker-cone, and a swooping, soaring banshee up top. Even an old bluegrass guy like Garcia couldn’t resist that funk. So he and Junior’s dad put together the Saunders/Garcia Band and then, adding sax, the Legion of Mary, even as Senior became, for a time, full-time keyboardist in the Dead, as well as go-to B3 guy for a dozen or more other music luminaries, from the Bay (Bonnie Raitt, Sheila E., Mike Bloomfield) and beyond (Miles Davis, BB King, Phish).
Merl Junior was a musician himself — guitar, for sure, probably more. And I’d guess, based on his long fingers and paternal DNA, really good. But I never heard him play, not in any serious way, and he never offered. Wasn’t interested. Saved his musical and guitar expertise for his nocturnal day job. As a roadie. And Merl Junior wasn’t working for punk bands, not in any sense of the word. Not long after we showed up across Dominga Avenue (about 60 yards, by the way, from the future Sorellas), he hit the road as guitar tech for Michael Jackson.
No schlepper he, Merl was the guy with the fold-up professional guitar shop, stage left, who made sure the band’s thirty or so precious axes — the options and backups, with different tones, tunings, looks and moods— were always freshly strung, properly tuned, tautly screwed, highly buffed and in impeccable working order, even after they’d been bent and battered through a “Beat It” solo and slung into Merl’s long digits in the dark by a sweaty shredder, switching the modded Strat for a down-tuned Flying V.
As a roadie, in other words, Merl Junior was a rock star. Was to me (still is). But as a neighbor, he was even more.
Now Fairfax is a friendly place, and Dominga Ave., with its (at the time) 62 children, hopelessly intermingled play groups and attached overseeing moms, its homespun block parties, joint garage sales, impromptu BBQs and wide, flat sidewalks, perfect for spirited Big-Wheels-riding, its fundamental peace-and-love orientation and economic modesty and, of course, its massive Halloweens (see post 12, starring the mythic Pee Ghost), is — along with Sorella Caffe — one of the friendliest places in Fairfax. But it was never friendlier than when our across-the-street neighbor returned from his big-time tour of Asia, like our rock ’n’ roll Odysseus, back from provinces more faraway and foreign than his friends on Dominga could begin to fathom, and called out from our open front door:
And, without ceremony or show biz, as if it was our due as across-the-street neighbors, said: I’ve got a few presents for Josey.
We summoned our thickly bespectacled, curly blond toddler, and big, tall Merl, not yet a father himself and, to us, not yet much more than an acquaintance, got down on his knees in the middle of our toy-choked living room and juice-stained carpet and handed the solemn, crosseyed girl — exceptionally patient for a two-year-old, but watching the long fingers like a well-trained retriever focused on the tennis ball — the impossibly exotic goods he had spirited away, on her behalf, from impossibly exotic lands.
But when I say the real gift was the milk of human kindness and Merl’s friendship, it’s in part because, 30 years later, none of us can remember what the real gift was.
Roni recalls a tiny tin of Cinderella candies from Disneyland Tokyo. I remember two gifts, one of which was a tiny handmade folk doll.
Actually, three gifts: the heartwarming story of how Michael took the tour bus by himself back to Tokyo from the suburban stadium and left Merl and the crew — in the middle of the night! — to fend for themselves. Fucker.
In any case, little four-eyes, now two-eyes, and all-grows-up, offers, via email, her own fond recollection. And I quote:
“Weirdly, when I was at Matt and Leah’s wedding with Jon, we were talking to their old Malibu neighbor, who is an actor, and he was like, Oh, Marin. I have a musician friend there — Merle [sic] Sanders [sic]. And I was like, I think I know that guy.”
18. A Well-Respected Man about Town
The stages of adulthood for a guy constitutionally unsuited to it begin, of course, with fraud.
As might be expected of a painter and a freelance rock critic, Roni and I were broke. The money for the Kiss book I’d written strictly for the money was, mysteriously, yet to roll in, and, between reviews that paid $25, columns that paid $75, and the occasional $100-$150 feature on Southside Johnny or Blue Öyster Cult, it was getting harder to bridge the gaps — even when the rent on the fifth-floor walkup was $150 (and the mice and roaches free), and we didn’t yet have babies, those nettlesome proto-peeps who tend to demand costly food of their own and disposable pants in which to poop it. So when the credit card offer arrived, it was impossible to resist.
From past rejections, I knew if I put down my true income or admitted I was employed not by a respectably corrupt multinational or tax-chiseling mom-and-pop, but by “Self,” I’d be dead. So I called the card company and inquired about minimum incomes. And then I called Harry.
Harry was my former co-worker at Creem. Not just older and wiser, but a hustler, ardent and joyous. I remember him regaling us with tales of how in high school he and his brother would buy VW Beetles that had been mangled in fatal accidents, cars that were too nasty, too much trouble, for professional used-car dealers. First, they’d clean out the blood and, at least once, bits of skull — I can see Harry’s gleefully gruesome hand motions as he describes how he scooped caked hair and bone from a rear windshield. Then, if the car was, say, a ’69, the bros would scour the manuals and figure out what bits and pieces, automotively speaking, distinguished it from a ’70, and swap out the parts.
With Bugs, there was never a big difference between model years, Harry explained. And a newer year was worth more. Since we were already picking up those bloody messes for practically nothing, margins were fantastic.
Harry went on to a career in advertising, too. Naturally. But, when it came to fooling a big-time financial company, back in the day, who better to call?
He promptly dispatched some purloined official paperwork — adapted by me with Wite-Out and a copier set to low-contrast — and stood by the phone as my employment reference. And not only did I get the plastic, I got the gold, with a substantially elevated limit. It never fails to bring a smile when they send me the renewal letter — which they always do — and it commends my loyalty and responsibility as their BFF since 1980.
Because I remember 1980.
Anyway, getting that card and, against all odds, keeping it, not fucking up — well, not with that one — is where I took my first step to certified, simulated grownuphood.
If the boneshaking second step was having a first kid — a cosmic kind of fraud and a book of its own — surely the next was when, with the scrupulously oblique guidance of a pair of, let’s call them, practical-minded real estate agents, I committed my first mortgage scam.
Jim was a guy you might cast as a redneck sheriff. Sixtyish and simian, in his too-tight short-sleeve shirts, he was visibly impatient with customer bullshit — hell, he was visibly impatient with customer service. Shut up and do what I say, was Jim’s unsaid way of being solicitous, always with an up-tipped chin, a squint and a sneer.
His wife Ginny was there to smooth the ruffled feathers of pretty much every single customer who ever wandered in the arched doorway of their mock-Tudor storefront. I can’t remember if, halfway through, it was Jim who wouldn’t work with us anymore or us who wouldn’t work with Jim, but it took Ginny, with her generic affection for a young clueless couple with an itty-bitty baby — and touching, if mystifying, affection for her hothead hubby — to keep us, me, from stomping out.
As with the golden plastic, six years earlier, there was not a chance that the real financial us would pass muster for a $112,000 bungalow. Between my pitiful paycheck at Bank of America and Roni’s piddling permalance rates for laying out the new-age newspaper — an ad vehicle for Reiki massage, Vedic astrology and colon-cleansing — as well as her mail-order business decorating baby bottles with bunnies and pandas, we were at least twenty grand short of being remotely credible. Creditable. Not to forget, that, after the first card, I’d gotten cocky and, building on our fake credit and library of bogus documents, acquired two or three more, one of which, inevitably, had gone unpaid.
When was it? asked Ginny, who was not only the nice one, but the smart one.
Whereupon the savvy, veteran realtor — in the blessed days before your whole sordid history, back to poopy diapers, was available at the tap of a finger — cleaned up our credit report without lifiting a finger.
Too far back to show up, Ginny assured us. Don’t put it on the application.
Some generous padding of my income was required. And we bumped up Roni’s take from the baby bottles. And having finally cleared the credit screen, we officially climbed the third step: home ownership — not just adult, but lower-freaking-middle-class.
And then, three years later, through no fault of our own, we went one step too far.
A stones-throw from where Sonia and Soy would eventually set up shop in the center of the universe, I’m chilling outside the dubious crib. Since there’s a garage sale on Dominga every summer weekend, our daughter, who runs things, has decided to have one of her own. While Roni was inside tending to the new infant, I was overseeing our determined little girl in glasses and her meticulously arranged folding-table of broken, ripped, stained, crappy and abjectly unwanted — and unwantable — stuff she’d weeded from among the vast store of credit-financed treasures in her room.
And maybe I was on vacation, because I hadn’t shaved for days (and those were the days, at places like BofA, you had to). And I was wearing my darkest aviators and Smirnoff hat and the denim shirt with the cut-off sleeves — the better to showcase the new tattoo (a flying heart, inscribed on my shoulder by the eminent rock ’n’ roll tattooist Lyle Tuttle) that had been my curious gift to Roni on our anniversary. And I was trying my best to look badass, or at least offputting, partly because the duties of adulthood were weighing heavy and partly because I’m constitutionally unsuited. And up walked three Fairfax ladies.
Can we talk to you?
In that moment I supposed I had succeeded beyond all my dreams — looking so badass, so undesirable, so unfriendly on this friendly avenue and so entirely, let’s call it, inappropriate, as a responsible minder of the bespectacled cutie-pie at the folding-table. And I’ll confess I was conflicted. I wanted to doff the shades and say, Hey, not really a creep. Kidding.
At the same time, having grown up a skinny, buck-toothed wuss, it was kind of a thrill. Inspiring fear and contempt.
But the three ladies didn’t want to run me off the block. They wanted to run me for school board. No, they implored me to run, to defend sweet, gentle Fairfax on our joint board against the injustices of those San Anselmo brutes. And after I got over my astonishment, having grown up a wuss fascinated by politics, I shaved my face, put on my best BofA suit and said yes.
Yes to the next stage of adulthood. Yes to the honor and glory of Fairfax. Yes, my fellow Americans, to politics at its most up-close and windshield-chunk personal.
19. A Well-Respected Man about Town, Pt. II
’Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
— The Kinks, “A Well-Respected Man”
Decade as a writer in New York City (when it was still a city — not a high-end mall), unaffiliated, rising at the crack of noon, commuting in PJs to a table in the corner of the bedroom, hooping and hollering all night with rockers, writers, drunks, druggies, demons, bartenders and Femi Omole, the Nigerian wee-hours sandwich man. The glamorous life. Sorta.
And now this.
Suit, tie, rush hour, early to bed, cranky to rise, and two bouncing ‘binos to feed. Workadaddy weekdays. And, on weekends, trying to recapture cool, in tattoo and shades, at kiddie soccer or Josey’s fake garage sale.
Not the same.
Anyway, weekends end. And Mondays, there I’d be. Ordinary. Regular. Lumpen again. Another fading facelessness in the white, 21–34 crowd.
That is, until three earnest ladies — the three Magi of my would-be redemption — thought global, shopped local and, in scuffed sandals and naturally dyed cotton, tapped me to defend the honor of hippie Fairfax against yuppie San Anselmo, to stand for election to the Ross Valley School Board.
To run for rock star.
I embraced wholesomeness as wholeheartedly as I’d earlier — a day earlier — embraced sleaze. I knocked on doors. Huddled with ex-board members and local pols. Conferred with a Sacramento campaign consultant and a state assembly member, a friend of a friend who invited me to play with the electric train set that filled the garage of his East Bay tract home. Read books about K-8 and trending theories of education and drank in the buzzwords. Made the compelling case for me at teas in voters’ homes and parried thrusts on candidates nights in gyms. And got gently grilled by the editorial board of the county paper. I raised money, mostly by hitting up rich friends in NYC — sinister out-of-town cash, which I worried someone would bust me on. And if the money was less than what a big-time candidate spends on a haircut and blow-dry — couple grand, max — it was more than anyone else raised in our small-potatoes contest and enough to buy phone lists and mailing lists and, in the pre-digital gloaming, produce junk mail and lawn signs.
My junk mail took advantage of all the dark arts I’d acquired in advertising and included a folksy snapshot of me — in tie and shirtsleeves — frolicking with my photogenic little boy. And the signs that soon sprouted everywhere in Fairfax and San Anselmo — stuck in an unkempt merkin of lawn, propped in a store window, stapled to fences and telephone polls and taped to lampposts — were awesome:
A stop sign in reverse, red on white, featuring spazzy, childlike line-art of a smiling balloon-headed me, drawn by an actual child — my five-year-old daughter — spazziness dialed to maximum schmaltz by my creative director, Jerry, a dedicated advertising cynic.
Inauthentic? Manipulative? Gross? Whatever. On election night we smoked ’em all.
It was fun to watch the totals mount on the cable-access TV crawl. Surrounded in our tiny living room by friends and weird supporters, I cheered along, with solemn restraint, as my name ran up a 2,000 vote margin, out of 10,000, and was soon crowned with an asterisk, signifying one of the three winners.
To be honest, something in me resented the other two — one a nice, older corporate attorney, John, who lived in San Anselmo; the other, Mitch, a Fairfaxite around my age, with a bushy black beard, constant hiking boots and a big belly covered in lumberjack plaid. They didn’t work near as hard or spend near as much or win near as many votes. Why should they have the same position and privilege on the board?
I was corrupt before I started.
But most shameful was the rumor-mongering about Mitch. The guy had a dire mien and impatiently precise speech that put him somewhere between Woods Hole environmentalist and Harpers Ferry abolitionist. And when the three Magi of my candidacy confided he was under suspicion as a fundamentalist — the leading edge perhaps of a fundy wedge trying to take over local politics nationwide — I didn’t have a lot of trouble believing it. And it fed into the increasingly messianic nature of my own quest. But I didn’t pass along the innuendo, believing it was just that, unproven and unfair. Never passed it along — except once.
With all else failing in my efforts to persuade a popular former board member to back me, I finally reached for a bombshell. Nothing explicit. Just an oblique little smear: Hey, you know what I heard about Mitch?
So I got the prize that would surely have been mine even without betraying Mitch. And I deserved it.
Up on the dais with four fellow board members and the schools superintendent, tucked importantly behind my RVSD nametag for my triumphant first meeting, I did my damnedest not to act superior. First among the night’s supplicants was head of the new Substitute Teachers Union, who told a heartrending tale of dedication rewarded with deprivation, of parttime teachers unable to make rent, unable to make groceries. He was an eloquent gray-haired gent in tie and tweed jacket who looked and sounded more like a college professor than any stereotype of a clueless, feckless grade-school sub. Several of his colleagues — admittedly, more on the clueless/feckless end of the spectrum — followed with details of a sub’s woeful lot. But their union head had already won the day. How could a board member, how could a caring human being, resist? These essential people who constantly bail out the District when the flu hits were getting screwed. And all they were asking was a few measly bucks.
Later, in private session, when a majority was perfectly ready to vote the subs their hearts’ desire, our veteran superintendent, Frank Elliott, explained that these guys show up for the first meeting of every new school board, hoping to blow a fast one by.
But, oh, the humanity… I argued.
Whereupon Frank whipped out the spreadsheet and asked matter-of-factly: Who do you want to cut? If you vote to give these folks a raise, someone or something else has to go.
So it seems that my next step toward the full flower of adulthood was a lesson in political salesmanship and zero-sum budgeting.
Months later I saw the the subs’ union chief in the same tweed jacket, shitfaced, in the dive down the block from Sorellas (where later we would take the sisters to celebrate their 13th or 14th). And I got the distinct impression — starting with his Rudolph nose — that it wasn’t the first or last time.
But a raise for substitutes was only item #1 on that night’s agenda. And it turned out that every item, even the most anodyne, had a fervent constituency — often two, in fervent opposition — and every constituent arrived asshopping mad. And it was exacerbated by an ineradicable baseline antipathy between a mismatched pair of towns that had nonetheless decided, years ago, to save money by merging their districts.
Just before the halftime break — of a meeting that started at 7:30 and wouldn’t end until after midnight (on a school night!) — we voted to fund some worthy special project in a San Anselmo school. But sending slightly more money to San Anselmo immediately sent Fairfax into riot mode. And then when I stepped over to the snack table at break, one of my enthusiastic supporters, a leading Fairfax t-shirt entrepreneur, blocked my way and began spewing invective and spit.
“I VOTED FOR YOU!” his red face shouted into mine. “I VOTED FOR YOU! YOU BETRAYED ME! YOU BETRAYED US!”
And on and on. He was so agitated I actually worried — and desperately hoped — he would have a heart attack. Finally, our diplomatic superintendent guided him away and announced the meeting was resuming anyway. By which time, I was fully ready to renounce public life, and all other legitimate routes to fame, forever.
But there were two more hours, and four more years, to go.
We hadn’t yet heard from the actual religious nuts (it turned out Mitch wasn’t), the fire-and-brimstome contractor with the Sam Elliott moustache holding hands with his beatifically smilling bride who attended every meeting to ensure we didn’t put more sex or secularism into the curriculum. And we hadn’t heard from the anti-tax freaks, who regularly interrupted meetings, no matter the item, to divert discussion to the District’s deficit, no matter how modest, but mostly to rail against their arch-nemesis, the superintendent, aka Satan.
A few years later, to my astonishment, they flipped out when we ran a surplus: “More of Superintendent Elliott’s criminal mismanagement!”
Eventually, that first night, the Sherriff was called to usher the filibustering tax crazies off the premises. And I started to get afraid there might be a Ford’s Theater. And the role of Lincoln might be played by me.
It was nonstop that.
At home, I slumped on the couch, wondering what in the hell I’d gotten into. Forget lone gunmen, four years of meetings was enough to kill anyone. Would it really be so chickenshit to resign? I could say it was for health reasons, and it wouldn’t even be a lie. But as I pined for the easy sleazy days of yore, I noticed Roni was crying.
Turns out one of the tax crazies — the head crazy, the locally notorious and aptly named Sarah Nome — had called my home and assured my wife she would be suing us, brokeass Roni and me, for one million dollars. For “malfeasance” and “misappropriation of public funds.”
But you can get used to anything.
And in many ways those interminable first years on the school board — which conveniently overlapped the interminable first years of our advertising startup — not only shaped me, arguably for the better, but defined my relationship to the town and its people. And though, decades later, they may not remember me, I often see them — the parents and supporters and activists and assholes, more wrinkled and less agitated — as I make my way to the back room at the little joint in Fairfax where eventually you see everybody.
Sonia made lasagna. And all night people holding plates kept touching my ulna (or was it my radius?), people who’d never been to Sorellas and didn’t know from the chef sister, saying: Oh, man, that lasagna is delicious.
And certainly crowd-pleasing flavor was some of what we were after.
Sonia and her front-of-house sister Soy didn’t come because they can’t leave the restaurant. They could, but they’d be nervous, even after 13 or 14 strong years, and that’s undoubtedly why the restaurant is so good. They teased, as always, until the last minute — well, Sonia did, unable ever to say never. Offering up, instead, her non-demurral demurral, complete with tiny-ray-of-hope question mark: That sounds nice; that sounds cool; maybe?
But she didn’t and couldn’t. And through lasagna, did anyway.
Wendy came with the Company She Keeps — John on drums, Steve on standup, and Dave on that whole thing he does, which transcends the pocket trumpet he honks heroically and his swinging singing. In part, the thing in the city was built around Dave. But it’s a long way when you’re packing 86 years and been smoking 76 of them. I said as much to his wife Joan. Wendy later said it to me. So we decided to send a limo. Picked up Sonia’s lasagna on the way. Got Gary and Val to ride along to make sure there were no spills, of pasta or peeps.
Dave dug the whip, Joan reported.
Maria and Reverend Kang were supposed to come. That’s why we got a prom limo, for six to eight — the Kangs, Dave, Joan, Gary, Val, Sonia and one to grow on. But the day before, Soy texted that Daddy, the other 86-year-old, was sick. I told her to keep him home. It would have been a long way for Daddy. For Mommy, too. Fairfax to SF. Twenty-three miles, by my count, when I used to be able to pedal it.
I was disappointed — I’d made a point of putting Kang in the things I planned to say. But there are limits, I know. Once it mystified me that my Daddy, who loved being out and about as much as I do, could in his final years go to bed so early, so often. Lately, things have come clearer.
The night couldn’t have been clearer. It was October, San Francisco’s artisanal slice of summer. (Actually, it’s still October, only a couple weeks — and six-thousand miles — since.) And even for an unseasonable season, it was unseasonably warm, with darkness descending at seven amid a no less unseasonable sprinkling of celestial light.
“Astronomy,” as Blue Öyster Cult intoned. “A star.”
Albert came to the thing and, with those words and some raggedy plucking on my old Yamaha six-string, brought down the house — the raggedyness as much the ka-pow as the tune itself. Or the poignant history: Albert, who used to be in the Blue Öyster Cult, wrote “Astronomy” with Sandy, who used to be the band’s svengali.
I should say Albert brought the house down further. Or again. Because the house went down, for the first time, after Patti and Lenny covered “Eight Miles High,” in their Patti-and-Lenny way. Funereal, breathless. So it was about heaven, not drugs or airplanes. And you didn’t think the house had any place left to go after that.
When earlier I’d been putting together a mixtape for between Wendy and Patti and folks like Albert who wanted to sing or speak, I put “Eight Miles High” — the original — at the top. And that evening, in the opening minutes of the thing, Sandy’s college protegé Howie — ordinarily, a more phlegmatic sort — found himself thunderstruck. And urgently sought my ulna.
That was such an important song to Sandy, he said.
Which was more gratifying than it might otherwise have been, because it’s about as sentimental as Howie gets. But “Eight Miles High” was — so to speak — in the air, and everyone was feeling it.
I should clarify that Sandy didn’t take drugs. Not at all. Never. Didn’t drink either, except for the rare quaff of Nero when he was staying at our place and not driving. Though the only definitive example I can recall is 2011 New Year’s Eve. That’s when Sandy, Roni and I were jammed into the front room at Sorellas, burning by the wood-burning heater, and an ex Olympian and her girlfriend — the new assistant principal of Ross Valley’s middle school, it turned out — jumped up from a nearby table to ask if they could join us. We seemed to be having so much fun, they said. Sandy drank deep of the Nero then, flirting with the comely downhill racer — who’d drank pretty deep herself and kissed him at midnight — before retiring to our basement, solo. And though he was straight-edge before straight-edge, his morbid discretion about driving under the influence was, thanks to an overzealous Sausalito PD, not at all unfounded:
Because Sandy Pearlman was the only person you or anyone else has ever heard of who was locked up overnight for two cups of espresso.
Driving under the influence — of caffeine — was the charge. For real. And later, like a hot cup of drive-thru joe, it was dropped, all apologies, by an embarrassed Marin County DA. But the damage was done. Afterwards, not only did he rarely partake of the Nero, he rarely partook of the elaborate cappuccinos that Sonia liked to surprise him with for dessert, that he loved.
If he wasn’t fond of drinking, he was less fond of drinking establishments. But Sandy did like the Tip. So it only made sense to have the thing there. The Tip is our private bar, the surplus, 800-square-foot chamber, one flight up, that came with our agency’s lease on the floor below. Once some dismal company’s dismal call center, the room became, after an overzealous renovation, our many-windowed penthouse with a tufted leather bar, flocked wallpaper and a vintage upright that, according to the piano tuner, had come around the Horn. We have all sorts of things, drunken and otherwise, at the Tip. Sometime we have guest speakers — not to talk about business or, heaven forfend, advertising. Tip pundits tend toward the less practical.
Like our special guest from spring 2009, Sandy Pearlman: producer, manager, lyricist, label owner, critic, polymath professor and behind-the-scenes rock star in a permanent black hat.
No drugs for Sandy, no drink, but also, to be honest, no lasagna. He didn’t dislike it. Just wasn’t his thing. As discussed, Sandy — an expert in everything, including fish — preferred the salmon. But only when wild. When not, he’d pivot to seafood risotto, extra crab.
But the point of this thing, the thing two weeks ago, the thing a long way from Fairfax — and longer from where we are now, hiding — wasn’t the lasagna or anything so banal as the beloved’s fave food.
Lasagna — the tiers of contrasting flavors, the crispy corners, the rubbery shroud of cheese — wasn’t even the point of the lasagna.
It was just that, for Wendy, Dave, Joan, John, Steve, Gary and Val, for Albert, Patti, Lenny, Scott, Andy, Eric and Gregg, for Marc, Natasha, Roni and Myshel, for Jimmy and Jeff and Jim and the other Bob, for Dean Don and “Buck” Don and Susan, Helen, Howie and Richard, for all the orphaned, absent and present, in this fraught moment and odd thing, nothing else would do.
Sonia made lasagna.
We’ve been holed up here a week. Superannuated gangsters of something or other, gone to the mattresses. Not sure who we’re hiding from — wait, yes, I am.
Last time Roni and I were here together was one million BC, with Sandy and the band on tour. It was his wedding present to us, a honeymon across Europe with Blue Öyster Cult. Which was pretty decent of him, seeing as he was in love with my wife. But, by that time — after he’d said he’d pay whatever it took when I was in the charity ward with the appendectomy and steered us work when the rent was overdue and picked up the tab on scores of late-night dinners, back in the day of Sandy riding high, in nighttime shades and the black 911 — we’d actually become friends.
And I knew him well enough to know he didn’t so much laugh, as turn his head and try not to. But it was still laughing. And that first night in Amsterdam, strolling the Red Light district, Sandy was trying not to a lot, mostly over a funny Dutch word. Another one.
What’s this thing broodje? we asked the waiter.
And with just enough accent to allow for misunderstanding, the guy said sandwich and then, looking down at where we were pointing on the menu, amended it: ham sandwich. But in my persistent silliness, in my exuberance at being on honeymoon with Hoffman and on tour, I heard what I wanted to hear — not ham, but hand. So we kidded, I did, incessantly, about the word for sandwich meaning hand job. Dropped it into every conversation — across Holland, Europe and home in NYC — especially when Sandy was surrounded by admirers, trying to keep his cool. Thought about it today, looking at a chalkboard outside an Amsterdam lunch shop.
“Broodje!” the board said, with an exclamation mark. Once again, it seemed extreme for a sandwich.
Thought about the band, too, when, after the modern museum, the Stedelijk, Hoffman and I found ourselves facing the Concert Gebouw. Who could forget the heavy metal thunder there? So glorious — and so alarming — when they doused the house lights, cranked the loomingest section of Gotterdammerung (the loomingest opera by Der Führer’s favorite composer) and a disembodied voice, belonging to a thick, hairy fist of a fellow named E, boomed over the PA:
“On your feet…or on your knees…”
Whereupon great flashpots flashed and long banners, in black and red, unfurled, proclaiming the cruciform-sickle sign of the Blue Öyster Cult — a logo some American critics had the gall to revile as fascist.
At least with these guys, the thing was tongue-in-cheek.
The Europeans were nuts for them. Big crowds, big coverage and Europe’s rock intelligentsia — Oxbridge longhairs with Lennon specs and hash packed in the tip of their Gitanes — crowding into dressing rooms, limos and afterparties for the answers to big questions. From a rock manager, who in this case was also a lyricist.
In Europe, Sandy became the major poet he imagined himself to be. In the States, Lester Bangs made fun of him for living with his mommy.
Anyway, it was all a long time ago — so long that Roni prefers I don’t say. I don’t want to. But I don’t have to — just look at me.
That’s another thing we’re hiding from.
After the honeymoon, I didn’t go back until three years ago, when our agency blew the pitch for Booking.com, which is based in Amsterdam. Which only made it more disappointing. Still I got another trip here. And it’s always fun to do business overseas. Or try to. Makes a small business guy feel large.
When people ask today what I’m here for, I tell them work. But the work I’m doing is writing things like this. The work I’m supposed to be doing is writing something else. And what I’m really doing, 10:00 to 18:00, is zooming around in my cranium, looking for a cure — like that movie Fantastic Voyage, where the scientists and their submarine get small, really small, and are injected into a colleague to zap a clot in his brain, along the way fending off a giant pathogen-munching macrophage and an arteriovenous fistula.
It’s an adventure in here. But does it have anything to do with Amsterdam? Hunkered in the hideout, I’m staring at a blank wall that could be any blank wall anywhere. Because when that scrivening sub of mine is all-engines, full-speed, voyage underway, I’m blind even to the considerable charms of Oud A’dam: the canal, with its antique arc of brick bridge and scrim of crooked houses, just beyond the leaded-glass of an Airbnb — with all the modern conveniences — carved from a 400-year-old house a few roundtopped doors from Rembrandt’s. And while we’ve had an unexpected string of sunny climate-change days, I find myself, against type, rooting for rain.
(And getting the distinct impression my inner micronauts are on the verge of smuggling something out.)
But, face it. The blank walls weren’t working at home. The demons onto us. The scrivening sub becalmed in the Sea of Sorrow. It’s why we’re on the lam.
At Oudeschans, 39.
Which reminds me — in the unforeseen ways of the fantastic voyage — of another old flick:
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
I assume we saw it with Sandy, because it was the kind of movie — subtitled — that he always wanted to see and that I — mired in my college dropout pose — always resisted. One time I made the mistake of persuading him to go to the opening of Caddyshack, instead of where he wanted to go: Celine and Julie Go Boating.
But I love the run-on title, especially this part: 23, quai du Commerce.
Not the language, the comma. It instantly says elsewhere.
A land of misplaced commas was where we wanted to be, bad. Bad enough that we’d already booked the Amsterdam trip in March, not long after being appointed conservators, when Sandy was still just very, very sick from the clots in his brain.
With no wife, kids, parents or siblings, distant, East Coast cousins — fifty years distant — who we’d never heard of, and a couple other close friends who were too far, we were all Sandy had. But having been European tour-mates and fellow broodje jokers, Sorellas regulars together and Wendy and Dave groupies, next-town neighbors, old-town homies and sometimes, in a pinch, housemates, we were more than enough, we thought. And in February a court made it official.
We figured, by October, we’d have assembled enough volunteers to cover a four-week absence. Make it five. Six. Six weeks of daily visits and periodic emergencies and regular checking in with the nurses and docs and therapists and keeping on top of the bills and legal bullshit and reeling in farflung funds and raising more and, at the end of the week, grinding out a report to friends that was also a way for a writer to put it in a box. Pretend it was manageable, tidy, instead of, in every way — practically and philosophically — untidy. Infinite. And if we couldn’t find reliable volunteers, we’d have to raise even more money and hire.
Aching in March, the urge to escape, by October, would be inescapable. We told ourselves not to feel guilty. We’d done more than enough.
A few years ago, when I crossed some gerontological threshold and our son was living in Russia with a girlfriend who couldn’t get a US visa, we decided we should all meet in Barcelona, because the EU isn’t so dicky about those things. Didn’t used to be. That started a routine, where we’d save up vacation days and go to Europe in the fall to celebrate my thresholds. Last November we went to Paris. So did ISIS. You may have gotten a Google alert. I got a frantic call from Sandy asking if we were OK. But in the end, there were tears on both sides of that conversation. A rare declaration, before — six weeks later — it was suddenly too late.
The night his blood pressure blew his brains out, hours before, we were on the phone again, in California, the call where Sandy persuaded me and Roni to go to the big, bad city, on New Year’s Eve, instead of cozy, close-by Sorellas, to see his old friend, muse and protegé Patti at the Fillmore. That’s when, said Patti, she and Lenny were planning to premiere their cover of the Byrds, for Sandy.
Patti and Lenny premiered it instead for us. Because the imponderable spiral of physiological failures that are the fate of the obscenely damaged didn’t permit Sandy to make it till October. There were no micronaut miracles. Now there are no worries about volunteers.
Back to our own burdens. The fifth of November, to start with.
So here we are, on the canal, by the bridge, opposite the crooked houses, staring at the blank wall, escaped from a friend — too soon, not soon enough — hiding out by the Amstel from the OG they call Time.
22. Merl, Meet Merl: A Brief History of Happenstance in Holland
Eventually, in Amsterdam, you get up from the blank wall.
And where you go, before or after Indonesian or Thai or French or Surinamese or, for that matter, cockles (which, I now know, are like little clams and, soaked in garlic, inordinately tasty) is a bar. And there are equally as many excellent selections in the bar category, as in the restaurant, in this seagoing capital that for centuries has been satisfying sailors in search of, among other dubious delights, strong drinke. From a booming, bro-tastic dive — with a woot-wooting dude clambering onto the bar, Coyote Ugly-style (just as we enter — and immediately 180) to a cavernous disco with a long line of short skirts outside (and me, never, ever inside — even if they’d let me) to a cozy, unpretentious, comfortably wood-paneled neighborhood pub a few doors down from where we’d scarfed rijstafel until we ached.
I’m talking about Café Onder de Ooievaar, corner Utrechtsestraat and Prinsengracht. Where we wound up last midnight. Utterly at random.
To answer your first question, yes, they offer broodjes. But, no, sandwiches have nothing to do with sex (see previous post), and by the time we got there, the kitchen was closed anyway. As one does at midnight, we got to chatting with the bartender. Our first question was: What the hell does Onder de Ooievaar mean? (Except we could only point at the name on the menu, because who could ever say it?) Like everyone in this generally open-minded and well-traveled swamp-nation, the barkeep spoke English exceedingly well — that is, like a twangy Yank. And offered up the biographical tidbit that he’d spent five years in the Bay Area, at the College of San Mateo. Which is random, too.
But it got randomer.
It means Under the Stork, he said.
At slightly more than a century old, the Stork is one of the new kids on the block in Amsterdam, where most of the buildings — the one that holds our Airbnb, for instance — are three or four-hundred years old. The bar’s building used to be the headquarters of a big insurance company, whose symbol was a stork, with a stork flag on the roof. Plus, the bird has significance in the history or mythology of the Netherlands or Amsterdam. But I don’t exactly remember which or what, and he wasn’t sure why. Anyway, those were just a few of the explanations this chat-meister had heard in his seven or twelve years at the pub.
We learned further that, while our new friend was born in the Netherlands, he grew up in Goa, southwest coast of India, where his Dutch mom was part of the early seventies tsunami of European hippies. All in all, good stuff, fun stuff, exactly the kind of stuff you’re looking for when prowling foreign dens of iniquity at midnight — including our pal’s take on the state of this city, which, I’m happy to report, was free of the standard laments about A’dam overrun by unrelenting tourist hordes, undeterred even by the chill of November.
But worried that, in a half-full saloon, we’d taken more than a full measure of a bartender’s time, I reached out a hand, by way of wrapping up, to introduce us. He introduced back.
Merl, he said.
Without the E, he replied. Like Saunders. Merl Saunders.
But, he added, nobody knows Merl Saunders.
For those who’ve been aboard for the complete journey, you know I’m not only aware of the late, great Merl Saunders, who played organ with those gods of the hippie tsunami, Jerry Garcia and the Dead and was intimately connected to Fairfax — the hippie town where we live and where, at a lovely little Italian joint run by lovely Brazilian-Koreans, we dine — I actually know, personally, his son, Merl Saunders, Jr.
Merl Saunders, fils, in fact, was our across-the-street neighbor on Dominga Avenue, and I wrote about him here in this very blog, episode 17, a month ago. Merl, without the E!
I tried to explain to this Merl about Fairfax and Sorellas and this blog and my post, four posts ago, about the other Merl, but it was coming out a little messy — not so much due to drunkenness as to mind-blown-ness, to the sheer shroomery of six-thousand-miles-away serendipity.
Of all the jenever joints in all the towns in all the world, as Bogie more or less said.
Once again, the dice-throwing deity confirms the operating principle of the universe — and all praise to the untidy axioms, to chance and randomness, for repeatedly rescuing us from the forces of planning, prediction, preparation, from algorithm and actuarial table and arduous routine.
This rando hippie mom had named her baby Merl, but never gotten around to explaining. And, in the smoky, freewheeling atmosphere of the coast of India, in the day, he hadn’t gotten around to asking. And hadn’t caught the reference. And never encountered another Merl without the E till that fateful night he was deep in his couch watching the credits of the movie The Twilight Zone.
There it goes, he says to us, finger following imaginary titles flying upwards on a TV:
Music by Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia.
Oh, right, his mom clarified.
Soon Merl and I had exchanged Facebook digits. And I’d showed him how the other Merl was one of the contacts in my phone — See? See? I said, doddering after him down the bar. And I promised to send the post about the other Merl. And now I have to send this one about him. Which means I have to sort through the napkin scraps and bar coasters collecting in the back pocket of my drinking jeans and find his address. Which I’d have to guess, in the only possible ending to a story like this, will be:
23. End of Empire
First text this morning — early this morning, Amsterdam time — came as I was fitfully dozing between acts of a strange CNN dream-play about the apocalypse. The message was from my Sorellas co-religionist Gary and said:
“The sisters and I are moving in with you.”
Before we’d left town, I’d assured Gary that if the Great Pumpkin was elected, we were going to remain in Amsterdam. Call the kids to ship over fresh undies. And now, in the hour or so I’d been snoozing, there was red all over the map, red all over everything — state results, electoral results, Wolf Blitzer. The dream-play turned out not to be a dream at all.
Wave of not-metaphorical nausea and not-hyperbolic panic as I opened my eyes to the TV. I wanted to jump out of my skin. I wanted to nudge Roni, but she’s been sick. No need to make her sicker. She will be soon enough.
Don’t know what the sisters think about President-elect Trump. Don’t care. We don’t talk politics (unless it’s the politics of Kim Jong Un — whose state newscast offered warm words for candidate Trump — with Rev. Kang). Sorellas is the center of the universe, not the Washington Press Club. And it’s fake family, constructed and voluntary, always more polite than the real thing. Sure, from time to time, Soy’s hubby John lights into the universal corruption of politicians, implacable obstructionism of bureaucracy and wasteful government blah-blah-blah. But that’s just John, a gifted drummer, doing a verbal paradiddle, trying to kick a song into gear. At Table 10, we know better than to follow the cue. Anyway, politics is not a topic a deft hostess like Soy would ever encourage.
And maybe it’s time for China to rule the world after all.
The US has had a good run — since WWII, when we bailed the Brits. Who, in turn, had an even longer run before us. Who succeeded the Dutch — whose Golden Age lasted about as long as ours has — and who had earlier taken back control from the imperial Spanish. Somewhere in there were the Portuguese, who conquered Goa, among other peoples and places, where the mother of Merl, my new Dutch bartender friend (chapter 22), would join an invading armada of hippies centuries later.
But it seems like, when not picking on Africa or India, the Great Nations of Europe were picking on the Chinese, or picking on them with extra cruelty — encouraging them to get hooked on opium, for instance, to drive greater opium sales. Which is what Britain’s East India Company actually did.
So it seems only fair. Righteous payback, when the Chinese take over. And we slip into the ranks of supplicant nations, blind to the bigger currents, engulfed by a literally rising tide, beset by endless civil wars over gods and colors and the varieties of human love, getting smaller as our flags get bigger. All glory to the Narcissus of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Who — just look in the pond, America — is us.
So as the Chinese swoop into Africa, conquering with money and materiél and expertise, kitting out an empire of influence and resources way gentler than anything from the Age of Discovery or the British heyday, but no less powerful or, within the velvet glove, direly authoritarian, we sail into the sunset on a flaming hoverboard made in Shenzhen.
Fin de siècle. End of empire.
It sure feels like it. With Trump’s ascension as only the first flight of the down-staircase to disengagement and decay. And if we can’t help but feel apprehension and even nostalgia, the only sadness I’ll allow myself is that we didn’t do this on purpose. By the immutable law of unintended consequence, it did us. Our greedy and god-filled, who, in pursuit of treasure and holy truth, of the most gilded empire of all — on heaven, as it is on Earth — lost it all, for all of us.
No doubt the history of empire is not good, a crime against humanity, filled with death, disease, suffering and servitude. But as much as foreigners like to dislike our empire, sometimes they still want us around, our strength, our resolve, our cheer. And it was fascinating to experience it, up close and personal, here in the Netherlands: their fear, that, under President The Donald, we might not be there for them anymore or for Europe or, for that matter, for the parboiling planet. The Dutch we encountered were as teary as we were. There’s no other nation does what America does, for worse and other times for better. In important ways, we were a different kind of empire. Exceptional.
But we’re not going to do it anymore. Instead, we’re going back inside to light the curtains on fire. Leave the world outside our glorious new great wall — along with justice, compassion and the nuclear and environmental fate of this sweet blue spot in the black — to a nation which learned eight centuries ago that a Great Wall can never keep out the troubles of the world or a world-conqueror named Khan.
24. Jimmy Hoffa found!
I talk a big game when it comes to lasagna. But, if you want to know the unbaked truth, I think I eat more of Sonia’s spaghetti bolognese these days.
Which is nothing against her luscious lasagna.
It may just represent a tactical retreat to comfort, at a time of strain. Or maybe it’s that hideous hatuna-matata of life, circling me back, as I become an old dude, to when I was a food baby and spaghetti bolognese was all I’d eat — as long as there was no chopped celery in it or recognizable chunks of tomato or green pepper or — what’s that…?
Don’t even mention mushrooms.
Food for me was about warring poles of emotion, about fear vs. familiarity. And with its many hidden tiers, some concealing a schmear of what looked like the dreaded cottage cheese, lasagna was even a stretch. Eventually I consumed so much of it, loved it so hard, that I burned out. Sorta. Because, as any half-sober Sorellas regular could testify, I still eat enough to make that sound like a joke.
But when I started interposing spaghetti orders with lasagnas, Soy found it so pitifully bor-ing that she asked, You want a meatball with that? Which I did, definitely did. After all, it was the meatball hero from Angelo’s Deli (10th and Waverly in Greenwich Village and long gone) that had salved many a post-college hangover and, in tag-team with a procession of Angelo’s salami heroes, slathered in his homemade Italian dressing (not before he took an unapologetic pull on his homemade wine), finally made me fat.
Being so ridiculously concerned about what I was eating, the irony was entirely lost on me that there’s no better hiding place for secret ingredients than a meatball. Not only mushrooms, onions and other scary vegetation, but funky meat (NOT Sonia’s) — whether actually funky, or just, to a food baby, unfamiliar. Psychologically funky.
No better hiding place. Unless it’s a sausage (NEVER Sonia’s). Which is what Soy, on her noble quest to expand my gustatory repertoire, suggested next.
Again, I’m a food baby. Or used to be. But, somehow, in my inconsistency and hypocrisy, I’m ga-ga for sausage. As a drug-sucking New York teen, an Italian sausage hero at the Feast of San Gennaro was my idea of a Schedule I narcotic. It’s an appeal I trace to childhood summers, far from the Italian feast, at my Scotch-Irish grandparents in Memphis, and a daily breakfast of grits and biscuits, with a scoop of the deconstructed sausage they call scrapple.
Still, deep in the pitch-dark vault of my denial, in the thicket of my food-baby illogic, I’m fully aware that a sausage, fundamentally, is a culinary gross-out contest, engineered to be made of beaks and rectums and other dire scrapings of the charnel house, all tied off in the poop-tube of a pig. And in the late seventies, at the Feast, amid the private social clubs of Little Italy’s mafia zone, one of those particularly scrumptious sausage sandwiches might well have harbored Jimmy Hoffa’s weiner.
But, oh, what a sandwich.
After oscillating for months between Sonia’s spaghetti bolognese with sausage and Sonia’s spaghetti bolognese with meatball, I split the difference, Solomon-style, ordering it with both: one meatball, one sausage. And that’s where — when not ordering lasagna — I’m quite contentedly stuck:
But it’s lasagna I’ve come to address here. Because, even though we have two more weeks in Amsterdam, I’m trying desperately to remind myself not to leave behind the present I bought for Soy and Sonia. That’s another happy rut I’m stuck in: buying presents for the sisters when we travel. Often it’s a recipe book from some noted local restaurant. This time it’s a volume, in Dutch, about lasagna.
Or lasagne, as these crazy swamp-dwellers misspell it.
We happened upon it in the shiny, white, deli-cum-fashion-boutique down the block that calls itself “The Italian Conceptstore” and in addition to post-modern pizza and broodjes, paisan-style, features post-modern clothing, art and books — a place that would make Angelo, in his dim, musty bodega, reach for another pull of bootleg vino.
It’s not that the sisters need new recipes. Heaven forfend. The gift signals we miss them and, by being in Dutch and about lasagna, delivers an indigenous souvenir with a personal wink. A hug, even.
Because like the stylish Koningstraat deli, the lasagne book is not only about the recipes. And like the homey Fairfax restaurant, the lasagna’s not only about the food. And I don’t want to forget it.
He’s Dave Bergman. And you — to your eternal chagrin — are not. Simple as that.
You may remember this sharp-dressed octogenarian as Wendy’s pocket-trumpet player, last of the LA hepcats, contemporary and pal(?) of Chet Baker (who, by the way, jumped to his death, or was pushed, five blocks from here, opposite our friend Jan’s bar)(we saw the plaque). And, like Baker, Dave’s a singer, too. These days, in the back room, his eloquent, roughed-up vocals — “the bastard spawn of Satchmo and Robert Goulet,” is how one critic, possibly me, characterized his singing — are at least the equal of his horn-playing. Still, a Dave without a horn is a Dave without sunshine. And this Dave, I was disheartened to learn, has lately been unhorned.
Worse, it happened on my watch.
I was the one who hired him for the celebration of life for Sandy Pearlman, a rock era cool-cat who nonetheless couldn’t get enough of a hornblower from the cool-jazz years.
Is Dave gonna be there? Sandy would ask when we’d invite him to Sorellas.
And the Tip, the private bar where the celebration took place, is mine. And it was me who ordered up the limo for Dave and his beloved former landlady Joan, figuring that the more populist forms of transportation might be a tad tough on an 86-year-old with a case full of personal dents and dings. And because, for Sandy’s sake, I wanted to make doubly sure Dave was there.
And because Dave deserves it.
The first distress signal arrived around midnight, local beer time in Amsterdam (that is, one or two or maybe four), an email from his bride, prefaced by an embarrassingly unnecessary, and typically Joan, “Sorry to bother you.” The rest of the note, its slightly stilted, hostagey tone, made clear that Dave was nearby pointing a pocket blunderbuss:
“Dave thinks he might have brought along another another trumpet (regular, not pocket) on October 5th, and is so concerned that he would like to check out a Lost and Found at the Tip — if indeed there is one…”
There isn’t, but I could see where Dave — via Joan — was going, the note conjuring images of the golden age of department stores. Bullock’s on Wilshire, 1956. A proper Lost and Found. A Dutch door, framing a fresh Iowa emigré in tomato-red lips and corn-colored curls looking for a Hollywood producer — instead of a goat-bearded bandstand Casanova in the habit of misplacing his fedora and then hanging around bugging her to go for joe.
The second distress signal came a few hours later from the Casanova himself. And while a hepcat on the interwebs is always a cause for excitement, I was more fired-up to hear that he’d found the missing axe, never mind, all clear. But not so fast. Dave’s message was polite, curt and mostly stoic:
“I checked everything you suggested in your e-mail and to no avail. Thanks for all your help. I will just write it off as an experience in taking better care of my equipment.”
The idea of this man, weathered and worldly wise, learning a life-lesson was both hopeful — Dave looking forward to getting it right over the next eight or nine decades — and heartbreaking. Who the fuck is life to be teaching Dave Bergman lessons?
I felt awful.
To be fair to my overdeveloped sense of guilt, I’ve never seen Dave play a full-sized trumpet. In the back room, I’ve only seen him play the pocket edition. And I think of his honey-I-shrunk-the-horn horn as a signature — certainly it’s the first thing an audience wants to know about. And I assumed it was all about saving his breath for nicotine fixes in the parking lot out back of the back. But it’s dawned on me that it might be about saving the hearing of diners in that dense, little room. Same reason John the Drummer uses brushes. Maybe, in the wide-open spaces of the 19 Broadway porch, a decade ago, side-by-side with his Keely Smith, he was blowing big-boy brass, full volume. I don’t know. I had a little boy and a little girl, too. Couldn’t stop to watch. Anyway, didn’t.
In other words, I told myself it was Dave. Then I felt more awful. And awfuler that I was far away.
I asked the one sober, responsible person in the company for a favor. And Kaycee the Konscientious rummaged through the Tip, the vault, my ultra-mess of a would-be office (containing both my music equipment and, oddly, Gary Wilson’s), as well as the creepy basement storage dungeon. And, via email, she asked around, everyone. The result was as I expected:
No dice. No brass.
I told Roni it was Dave. And Dave’s problem — especially when we’re ten-thousand kilometers away, recuperating from the Year of Death, just starting to mourn the election and the death of compassion, probity, reason. Not to mention the American republic.
“Sorry to bother you,” she had written, acknowledging that this was a pain-in-the-ass and not really mine.
I felt awkward and righteous and frustrated and guilty and mean and flummoxed (and maybe just a little hungover). And then I felt like a dick. But none of that helped either. And when I regained control of myself, of my compassion, probity and reason, I realized there was only one thing that would help. I replied to the man with the brass:
“I’ll take another run through the office when I get back. If the trumpet doesn’t turn up, we’ll track down a replacement. Can’t have Dave Bergman without a regular-sized horn!”
26. Home and away
It may be where the heart is, but it’s also where the history, judgment, anxiety, dependents, to-do lists, lawyers, deadly routines and distant cousins of the decedent are — I could feel them circling above, waiting their turn in the blackening sky, as the carbon-fiber widebody stepped through the last layer of rainy swirls, skimming the bay, skirting the Embassy Suites shores of Burlingame, to bounce precisely onto runway one. SFO. Home, if you want to call it that. Hoffman and me. Down from eight miles high and six weeks in the Low Countries.
Away, we managed to miss my birthday and Thanksgiving and Halloween and Election Day(!) and that moment when, rummaging through the back room of the Dominga Avenue house passed down from Joan’s grandma, Dave called out he couldn’t find his damn trumpet (“regular, not pocket,” per his dictated query to me).
Missed all that mishigas. And, yes, missed the comfort of knowing the rooms in the dark and the brands in the supermarket and the vulgate on the tongue. And, above all, missed Sorellas.
Which is the closest thing we have to home — since the aughts, when, after years of travel, home and away underwent in my mind some kind of merger, a hostile takeover that meant no place ever again felt fully exotic.
But home was always a portable thing. Moved around a lot when I was a kid. Sheboygan, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York. Summers in Memphis. Christmas in Tucson. Sent “away” to high school, Lakeville 06039. Moved around again — and back — when I grew. San Francisco, Detroit, New York, North Bennington, New York, West Palm, unincorporated Tiburon and, 20 minutes northwest, unreconstructed hippie Fairfax. Moved once more five years ago — to a studio near work in San Francisco, Monday-Friday — when I grew cranky and could no longer take the 23-mile morning slog from our beloved burb-that’s-not-a-burb. And, of course, think about moving again (and again and again) when I watch House Hunters International. Which I do far too often to be satisfied with staying put.
Home was always a fraught thing, too. The troubles at home — which began by mirroring the troubles in the streets of that earlier era of socio-politico-cultural dismay and then went beyond — are surely part of the reason I want to slip away when it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas. And why I call bah-humbug on all those cozy Facebook snaps of decked halls and tinseled trees. I hate the claustrophobia of cozy, the smugness of togetherness, the hypocrisy of oh-holy-night. I hate festive. For that matter, I hate family — when there’s no choice in the matter.
Not surprisingly, I’m a total hypocrite myself — I don’t hate my family, at least the nuclear one: bride, bambini, cat, Corgi, hermit crab. You might even say I love them. And once upon a time, when they were young and dumb, we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah together. But in light of all the forced affection of the fourth quarter — the vaunted holiday spirit, as temporary as an underpaid seasonal worker in the Amazon warehouse gulag — you’ll never hear any of it from me. I hate that shit. Hate the Pilgrims. And hate the fucking elves. But I don’t doubt what the real problem is.
Because turkey-and-tinsel time — those last six weeks of the year I’ll always remember as indoor hunting season — were exactly when I wanted to be nowhere near home.
Sorellas is not that kind of home. For me, for starters, it’s voluntary. Not so, I’ll admit, for the sisters. And sometimes I laugh and wonder what they must think. Crazy shinehead stumbles in 13 or 14 years ago and imagines he’s part of the family. Then asks if he can write a story and cranks out thirty-thousand crazy words (so far). What’s next? Sometimes I tell the Korean-Brazilian sisters their Italian restaurant is the only thing keeping us Scotch-Irish Jews there — here — in a funkytown that’s fascinated us from the random day, four-thousand days back, when we got stuck on Drake behind the Fairfax Festival parade. And maybe it’s a pressure tactic, but it’s not a lie. I really think, love of Fairfax aside, if they went away — like the kids, Corgi, cat and crab did (but to very different destinations) — we would, too.
To San Francisco. To Amsterdam. To whatever’s on House Hunters tonight.
Which brings up all sorts of navigational questions. Like, what is home? And what is away?
We landed at SFO on Saturday afternoon to discover we hadn’t skipped Thanksgiving as much as we thought we had. Message bee-booped in from baby bro informing us he and his nuclear were in town from Boston to visit his med-student daughter, and what are we doing tonight?
Well, after six weeks away, we were going home. To Sorellas. And as much as I love my brother, that was non-negotiable.
I texted Soy to see if she had room for eight in the back room. I didn’t have to ask if she had room for ten or eleven, because I knew, after she called her parents and Gary, she’d do the math herself. And, sure enough, here comes Maria and here comes Kang. And Dave takes a seat to the left of Wendy and works the mouthpiece into his pocket trumpet. And John trundles in the back door — three trips — with the drums, which are stored in the shed in the parking lot with the dry goods. And Steve does a few warmup thumps on his bass. And Wendy strikes up the band. And Carol joins in on flute. And that amazing tenor sax dude joins in on tenor sax.
Heather pops the first few bottles of Nero, before delivering a platter of antipasto and another of spicy calamari. Soy stops by for hugs all around — while Sonia’s stuck in the kitchen and saves her hugs till later. And Gary’s stuck in Nevada City. And the spaghetti and seafood risotto and lasagna, the salmon with mango salsa, the eggplant parmesan and chicken Milanese, flow from Sonia’s artful hands and tiny hardworking kitchen. And the laughs flow. And conversation. And Charlotte’s boyfriend Ross, whose grandfather was a big macher of a rabbi, goes deep on world religions with Rev. Kang. And Maria wants to know from Roni all about Amsterdam. And Roni gives her a ceramic shoe pin that our Dutch friend Jan gave us. And between songs, Wendy sneaks over for a hug and says she missed us. And, between songs, I sneak over to Dave and say he’s sounding great. And Dave says: Hey, we gotta get on that project of the missing horn. And baby brother Lance yells to me across the crowded table, You know who’d really love being here? Sandy!
And somebody raises a glass and says: Saúde! Which we know from the Kangs is cheers in Portuguese. And nobody, I’m happy to report, says, Happy Thanksgiving or Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or, for that matter, happy birthday. But it was, all of it, anyway.
27. Joy to the world
Got a woebegone PM from Wendy Fitz about Chelsea and Travis a few hours after the Oakland fire. And after rousing myself from wherever you sink to when it’s this bad, I wrote back.
Talking helps, I told myself.
I started by explaining a bit of our history with Chelsea. Chelsea Faith Dolan, as she was christened. Velvet Chang, as she pretended to be in the band. Cherushi, as she was becoming internationally known these last few years as an electronic composer and DJ.
Fairfax girl, Manor School girl, sometime Sorella diner, sweet, smart, funny, a wildly musical soul — a natural who could pick up and play any instrument, who, in every sense, heard what others didn’t. Chelsea was our daughter’s best friend since second grade. Her younger sister Sabrina, our younger son’s best friend. There were lots of silly sleepovers.
There were more silly sleepovers when her family moved to the Marin coast and Chelsea stayed with us to be closer to school. Sometimes the girls would bug me to drag a keyboard up from the basement, so they could present an impromptu house concert — always with “Memories” from Cats (which they’d learned for a school talent show) as the finale. But, with Chelsea earnestly working the keys and buttons, captivated by music already, already surprisingly competent, it was never as bad as it sounds.
And Chelsea was family — at the office, no less than in our living room. When Duncan Channon moved to SF and started with the crazy parties, Chelsea, now a budding DJ, was up front in the 747 desk (when she wasn’t in the Tip), with a blinking tangle of pedals and boxes — her blue hair, sparkly makeup and glittery dress the first thing partygoers would see, her sparkly, thumping disco, improvised on the spot (“Live PA,” the kids call it), sweeping them in. Chelsea — dedicated to music, not to partying — was nonetheless a party all by herself.
I told this to Wendy, in as abbreviated a version as I could manage within the bubbles of Messenger (which is how Wendy always writes me), within the bubbles of Chelsea’s determinedly outside-the-bubbles life.
I had to leave out the story of a young Chelsea saving up, for years, to visit her pen pals — all 78 of them (by her mother’s calculation) — in Japan, where she was first dubbed Cherushi and got to promenade with the dress-up dolls of Harajuku. Or when she first picked up the accordion — not every 10-year-old’s choice — and composed a fight song for her sister’s soccer team, promptly marching over to sing and play it from the sidelines. That was Chelsea — gifted, fearless, offbeat, overflowing with fantasies and ambitious plans, simultaneously dreamy and independent as a mule.
It was enough to buckle the knees when we heard she was missing.
“Unbelievable,” it says on the banner behind them. Chelsea and a couple of co-conspirators are onstage, electrifying the crowd at DC’s twentieth anniversary. The banner is about the unlikelihood of our goofy company lasting two decades. Watching the video now, it feels like it’s about this. About them. Chelsea and Travis.
In the band, pretending to be from Berlin — a cartoon, “Sprockets” Berlin — Travis Hough, from Benicia, California, called himself Michael Blitzen. Chelsea, in the band, called herself Velvet Chang, the amazing name she’d spotted on an Alameda lawyer’s office. And together with Donnie Service (aka Eric Bateman) on custom light-show, they were Easy Street.
Travis was such an assured, athletic, astonishing front man, such a strong, expressive singer, and the songs they composed (music by Chelsea, words by Travis) so catchy — even if, as a straight white fart, I wasn’t any kind of neo-disco fan — I had to reach into my pocket, which wasn’t deep, to pay to finish their first album and then, with the indulgence of business partners, invent Tip Records to release it. When friends at One Union gave us a deal, along with engineer Matt Zipkin, to mix the record, I could even claim I introduced Chelsea to a longtime boyfriend. But take a peek at Easy Street holding forth at DC’s first SF party.
What I’m saying.
But I couldn’t fit all that in the bubbles to Wendy. I couldn’t fit it in my head. And as the world’s most implacable foe of euphemism, I was helpless. Straightforward words were way too certain, too contained, for a thing that was both irretrievably uncertain and contained everything. I could not acknowledge to Wendy, to anyone, that these kids — and to me that’s exactly what they were, full of kid life and kid daring — had died. All I could manage was euphemism.
But I needed to say more, if not for Wendy, for us, bring it all together in a hope-laced balm. I didn’t want to backslide to the cockamamie hodgepodge of superstition and tall tales I’d struggled to replace with something that might actually hold up in an age of reason — having taken solemn responsibility for my own metaphysics (if not my hubris) after Catholic school — but Jesus H. Christ, I needed a way forward.
Right after I got up, early Saturday, right after I read about a fire at an art-and-music space — a story that left me apprehensive (Wasn’t our friend Dasha, Josey’s friend, I said to Roni, going to Oakland Friday night?) — right after a V of pelicans skimmed the bay outside (Look! I said, hoping to interrupt the gathering cloud), the cloud rang. Too early.
Are you watching the news? Are you watching? Josey implored. There was a big fire, and Chelsea’s missing!
I invited our daughter to come to us, offered to go to her. Anything, anywhere. But she was headed to the sheriff’s station, a few blocks from the scene, to offer comfort to the family and maybe absorb by osmosis what could never be absorbed by frontal lobe. Maybe to be close enough and soon enough in space and time to snatch them back. Pull it all out of the fire.
Impossible for any child of mine to accept how one minute it’s all this and the next not at all.
Roni and I spent the rest of the day watching TV, eyes full, throats closed, until finally we’d watched too much, until finally we went wandering the neighborhood looking for a bar where nobody knew our names. Landed in an old-school joint in North Beach. On the TV at the far end — but not far enough — I could still see the Breaking News loop, flames in the dark, chopper in the day, flames, chopper, flames. When the bartender switched to the Crimson Tide, I was never so relieved to see football.
But before we went out, I wrote Wendy back with the only hopeful conclusion I could muster, for either of us: Focus on the love and joy.
Which sounded right. Or was it just platitude? Or pandering? Or euphemism?
And what is joy? I said to Roni.
We never quite figured it out, not sitting at the bar of Tony’s, not later. It’s like being drunk, I think. But more. And there’s love that bleeds into it. And maybe some blood, too — because, amid the day-to-day of adulthood, no matter how childlike, joy doesn’t grow on trees. It’s like you’re lost, but not missing. And all the bubbles burst and and the love flows — from fingers, toes, voice, heart, brain and mirror ball. From cosmos, co-conspirators, crowd. Looping. Not like the flames and choppers of Breaking News. Like a JamMan at 140 beats-per-minute — Velvet at the con, Michael at the mic. Like when love fills the eyes and opens the throats. And clears the smoke.
So lend an ear to Chelsea in twinkling glitter and blinking pedals. And get a load of leaping Travis in feathers and glittering hot pants. And feel the world surge around them.
Love and joy, Wendy Fitz. Love and joy. Focus, focus, focus, focus!
You can tell normalcy is making a comeback when the talk of the town turns to coyotes.
It was Hardie, back from eight years in Russia and bivouacked downstairs till his next adventure (currently underway in Asheville, NC), who first noticed. We got home from an evening jaunt to the city, and our son told us he’d heard what sounded like a woman’s scream in the woods behind — above — our house. And when he went out and swept the hill with the flashlight, he could see the glowing eyes.
Pretty sure, it’s coyotes, he said. And baby coyotes.
Pretty soon, we were sure he was right. Every other night we were hearing the woman’s scream — really a girl’s scream, an ingenue’s, an elongated horror-movie shriek that trailed off insinuatingly, a battery of them. And sure enough, shine a light — and horror-movie eyes.
We kinda liked them. The novelty. The cinematic drama. The reminder that, amid our tree-hugging civilization of 7,000, nature was still out there. Not just the deer, who were out there a-plenty, right on the other side of the chicken-wire, trying to figure how to get in, but nature from the badass end of the spectrum. And we figured we didn’t have much to fear. We no longer had a runty black-and-white cat named Ivy or a sawed-off Corgi called Pepper running around the yard — both gone to their richly deserved rewards. But we did wonder what would happen, with no predators in the neighborhood, as the critters multiplied.
Well, they multiplied, and much faster than a guy who flunked biology might imagine. Within months, it had gone from five or six pairs of eyes, to a dozen, eighteen. And from scattered screams to a high-soprano chorus that drove the dogs of Wreden Avenue nuts.
And then one warm September afternoon I’m at the table on the deck — my favorite place to write — working on another thousand overcooked words about Sorella Caffe — my favorite place to eat — when my peripheral vision (homo sapiens’ most underrated faculty) signaled movement. It took my regular vision awhile to find it, but there, poking around the wooden retaining wall was a sniffing snout, then scanning eyes, then — having judged an aging, out-of-shape scrivener to be no threat whatsoever — the entire teenage coyote, which strutted down the slanting wall into our yard and turned to walk up the path toward me.
Now I’m not brave. But I am stupid. And my wife says I’m a teenaged girl when it comes to social media (a stereotype, my dearest, that fails to take into account the reality that Facebook today is 100% the aged and out-of-shape). So the first thing I thought about was not survival, but content: how might this encounter enliven my Facebook feed? I slowly turned the phone on the table horizontal, set it to video and aimed at the advancing beast. I hoped, vaguely, the creature wasn’t rabid. Other than that, no time for existential worry. And I figured that what I lacked in ferocity of aspect I more than made up for in bulk. What’s this guy gonna do with 240 pounds?
Turns out, I was right, this time. I wasn’t killed and, in the process, got some killer clickbait.
Two months later, times have changed.
One friend passed, and we went to Amsterdam for six weeks to collect ourselves, having taken care of him for close to a year. And while we were there, a tragic flaw in the US electoral system deposited an aged, out-of-shape white man of distinctly amoral tendencies atop the government’s executive branch. And after we came back, a week after, a bigger, deeper, more stupefying tragedy.
It was ten days more before we limped into Sorellas for our first Saturday in the back room since the loss of two beautiful young friends — and so many of their beautiful friends — in what has come to be TV-logo-ized as the Oakland Warehouse Fire. There were non-perfunctory hugs all around, and no one had to say why. Once more, going to Sorellas offered much of what you look for in a family — but without the family. Or the bad ones (you know who you are).
The sisters were there, of course, and Sonia made sure to immediately come out from the kitchen for hug-time, which on a busy Saturday she can’t always do. Then, back in the kitchen, she sent over appetizers (deep-fried calamari with spicy sauce!) and Italian salads and other bonus delectables to hug us all over again. Hugs from Soy and Heather and Wendy. And, most touchingly, from the newest busser Giraldo, brother of longtime busser Rafael, who lay a sympathetic arm on my shoulder. Hugs from every direction. From Val, our friend from the kids’ playgroup a million years ago, who always adds a kiss. A smile, a kiss and a squeeze of both hands from Maria. And when Rev. Kang, the old-school Asian, went in for a handshake, I grabbed him for a hug, too. Later, after he asked about the lost kids, he did that thing Kang does when his eyes start to fill — the tsk of solace, that quiet, eccentric clucking with the sideways swipe of the head.
Which always makes me think of the things he’s seen.
In the way back corner of the back, a young woman was waving. I waved a halfhearted reply, until, as she pushed back her chair and approached, I recognized an angel. Jamie, the wondrous single mother of four who’d found and tended to our friend Sandy when he was felled in the Citibank parking lot. Jamie, whose love and courage had been the entire point of my eulogy of Sandy. Jamie, who now offered a hug that was about our bond from a prior tragedy and didn’t know the latest, the worst. And even as the embrace offered comfort and spoke of the enduring affection that can germinate in sadness, it emphasized how that sadness has so quickly and cruelly compounded.
For the first time anyone could remember, Wendy was alone at the spinet. Dave had the sniffles, she told me, which is always worrisome. Steve the bassist was playing a holiday party. John the drummer, too. No harmonica player showed. No tenor sax. But at the last minute, thankfully, here comes Carol with her rolly bag of flute things, so Wendy wouldn’t have to play alone.
And then, together, we went forward — with stories, jokes, news, opinions, teasing and unabashed chitchat — to restore, amid clinking cutlery and tinkling piano, the unheartbreaking flow of the everyday.
For one thing, we sang Carol happy birthday. For another, we heard Soy say she thinks the blog is selling lasagna. For still another, Flo.
At her regular spot, the two-top nearest the piano and right behind us, fangirl Flo was grooving on Wendy and Carol and finishing her Saturday supper. (And, by the way, she’s not Flor, as someone told me and I wrote earlier. It’s Flo — no R.) Turning around to introduce Flo-no-R to Val, Roni requested a command performance of the Coffee Roastery story: how the manager had called the cops — assuming drugs or other nefariousness — when Flo, their devoted, 70-plus-year-old customer had got stuck, and then frozen, terrified even, in the bathroom for twenty minutes. And while Flo delights in telling her tale of injustice, what she really wanted to talk about tonight was the local wildlife.
Did you hear about the coyotes? she said with that impish grin, on the edge of laughter, beneath her no less impish white halo of Orphan Annie curls.
Up on Berry Trail, they ate half a dog’s ass, she continued. And not just a little yappy dog. A medium dog!
She measured the dog with her hands: Sixty pounds!
Which pushed me and Roni over the edge of laughter, even though Berry Trail is the footpath that crosses the steep hill just above the retaining wall that keeps that hill out of our backyard — the wall the coyote peeked around.
After ensuring her story had landed with maximum effect, Flo amended that they’d been able to, in her words, sew it back on. It wasn’t, she clarified, the whole ass.
And so I pulled out my phone to show the coyote video to Val. And said to Heather that, in light of the emerging fame of the lasagna, I could think of ordering nothing else. And Kang wanted to hear more about the Netherlands. And Roni and Maria and Val discussed how Maria’s maiden name, Valerio, was the same as Val’s first name, Valerie. And Kang brought forth a surprise gift, a big bag of kale from their garden. And Wendy, finishing her set, slipped into the kitchen for off-menu chicken wings with spicy red sauce (same as the calamari) and plopped a full basket in front of me — after I’d gorged on lasagna. You gotta try these, she insisted. And Gary, at the head of the table beside his stylishly black-clad 20-something daughter, reminded me: Save the bones for Doobie. Because his sick cannibal of a cockatoo loves nothing more than chicken bones. And John swung by after his holiday gig sporting his new David Letterman beard.
And normalcy settled on us like a warm blanket.
29. The After Party
Guy called Noize sent his new record. A long-time Kiss fan, he’d sought me out on Facebook after the Three Sides of the Coin podcast, a talk show about Kiss. I don’t remember how the podcasters found me, but, despite my many apprehensions, the 90 minutes breezed by — we laughed a lot, even as for the first time my Kiss tie, which is a joke, wasn’t — and they seem to have a gazillion followers. Lots of Kiss fans have been hitting me up.
I may have confessed this previously, but no amount absolves it. I’ll say again: I wrote a book about Kiss. It happened when I was young, broke and dumb, but not-at-all naive. So, that doesn’t excuse it. And while I tell myself and others it was tongue-in-cheek — which it was, it really was — that smacks of revisionism.
Go ahead and judge me.
Noize doesn’t judge me. Immediately after the show, he messaged to say he was a big fan. And then the Three Sides guys explained that, as the first Kiss bio, the book is a collector’s item for the Kiss Army — the worldwide fan-force apparently undiminished since the heyday, despite the diminishments of its footsoldiers: the receding hairlines, encroaching waistlines and grandpa reading glasses that, I’ll admit, came as a surprise when I first logged on for the podcast. Kiss fans aren’t ten anymore, whaddya know. And when, tongue in cheek, I replied to Noize with another riff about being ashamed, he was quick to buck me up. Nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of! Nothing, Mr. Duncan.
Noize, it turns out, is a noice guy.
Anyway, I told him where to mail the disc — our PO Box, not our home — just in case Noize was a nut. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I might never get around to listening to it.
Just as I’m a lasagna guy who eats more spaghettimeatballsausage these days, I seem to have become a music guy who favors silence. The last album I listened to in full was my brother’s. Forget that he’s a great songwriter, great player (guitar, keyboard, drums, vocals) and, judging by the words, an alarmingly bummed-out man, he’s my brother. I gotta listen.
Noize is only my brother-in-Kiss-arms.
But bro aside, I really have gone hardcore hush. It’s my jam, as the kids say. And in one of those exquisite ironies that are actually just boring, everyday life, not exquisite at all, I’m driving Roni crazy. She listens to classical when she’s drawing and painting. But when we’re working cheek-by-jowl in the tiny studio, I can’t. I have to listen to the rhythms of the words, I mansplain. And while she never seethes outwardly, I suspect that, beyond the accommodating exterior, a lack of Bach is flooding her with Lorena Bobbitt rage. Anyway, as the auteur of a hagiography of Kiss — arguably, the barbarians at the gates of pop culture and the American Way long before the Big Tangelo — I’ve already got enough to feel guilty about. So, I’ve been testing out coffee shops, throwing my own diminished self into the contest for tables and plugs with that justly maligned — and remarkably nimble — generation known as millennial.
This conundrum bubbled into consciousness because for the last two nights I’ve been submerged in noise. Friday was the DC holiday party — the one for us, not the one we call Tipmas that’s for the rest of San Francisco — which started with roller disco at the Church of Eight Wheels, rolled round the corner to a sports bar plastered with jocky collector crap — including a dubious pair of autographed Ali trunks from the first Liston fight — stopped at Festa Karaoke in Japantown long enough to get thrown out (it really was a private party, like the big sign at the door said, like the apoplectic man was now yelling in our faces), and thence, shedding celebrants as onward we flew, fading comet-tail of a party, hellbent, via Uber and Lyft, into the mixological Friday darkness and closing time.
But Friday was the easy part.
Saturday afternoon, yesterday, was the Chelsea memorial, a perfect mashup of spirit and flesh I never want to experience again. Long hugs, epilepsies of tears, a staggering parade of dear, awkward kid pictures on the wall. Heartrending remembrances that were really just hearts, rended from ribcages, shoved through the mic. A solemn-spinning, blue-lit ball of mirrors and the anxious-electrocardiogram thump and deep-space desolation of house, Chelsea’s home beat. Assuming I knew it was impossible to breathe, let alone talk, a friend and member of the grieving family croaked a single word in greeting: Ativan. Meantime, we were self-medicating with megadoses of Peroni (it’s what they had), before finally OD’ing on a liter or two of Rhone red. Even Roni, in her sauvignon blanc way, was day-drinking. Eleven hours, and we still didn’t make it to the after-party.
Or, as Homer (the blind Greek poet) said: Alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
I think it’s not even so much the noise as the overwhelmingness. So when I’m reveling in the silence, as I am today, I think I’m really reveling in the stillness. Silence + inertia. Amniotic floating + no one ever again drowns.
Especially because later this week we’re going to see my sainted mére in Florida (speaking of amniotic), a prospect I have been angst-fully examining and re-examining in forums, public and private, at least since Christmastime of my thirteenth year. My rock star bro will be there, en famille. And our son’s heading down the hill from Asheville, NC, if the 20-year-old pinkish-copperish Lexus he bought all by himself, at 16, with his Fairfax Theater earnings can hack it.
And if under the Stasi-like attentions of our nonagenarian matriarch (who, for reasons I’d rather not, disabled the locks on her bathrooms, but can no longer hear when you’re taking a dump, shouting: Ma, don’t come in!), there is silence and inertia (it is Florida, after all), there is certainly no stillness. More like plugging a latte-dampened finger into a socket at Starbucks — if you can get to one.
Half-a-week of that can take a month of stillness to salve.
But for New Year’s, we’re going home. To our real family — that is, our fake one. Dinner at Sorellas amid the usual suspects — possibly with the addition of Alex and Lisa and definitely with the addition of who knows who — followed by tunes at Nave’s, the town’s premiere dive, which I generally prefer over the town’s other three dives because it has no live music and you can talk, but which, one night of the year, the last, pushes aside the pool table and caroms musical. And this year’s festivities will feature that new R&B sensation of a combo from drum virtuoso and sister Soy hubby John Molloy, another brother.
I gotta listen.
In the meantime, it’s been a deafening 2016 — for all of us, I know — and all I want for Hanukkah, if not Solstice, Juneteenth and Arbor Day, is a little peace and quiet. I’m going to start by shutting up myself. Maybe take a week off from this, if I can stand the solitude. After that, maybe I’ll get around to listening to Noize, bless his heart.
30. Epistle to Kang
Dear Rev. Kang,
I should’ve sent a postcard from Amsterdam, I know. Six weeks was a long time. But my handwriting is terrible and too slow after 30 years typing on the computer and being able to cut, paste, delete, replace, insert and move at will, in an instant. Without a computer, as the kids say, I can’t even. And that whole finding a stamp in a foreign country, finding a mailbox (which don’t look like ours) and sending that physical scrap through their little crazy system and our vast crazy system until it lands in a post office 23 miles from downtown San Francisco, and a ponytailed beardo in half a regulation uniform golf-carts it to your mailbox, three blocks from mine, in Fairfax. I mean, that seems crazy, in the digital age. But I feel the guilt when we get home and you stare at me. Which I know is your resting face, but is so non-judgmental as to be the worst judgment of all.
I mention it because I know you were concerned about us going to Florida — I think to you it feels like we’ve been away a lot, partly because we have been and partly because some of the times you perceive we’re away, we’re only away the other side of the bay. That, combined with the randomized terrorist attacks and all the friends dying prematurely (never mind the famous people — but that might be part of it, too), creates an uneasy vibe. Makes leaving home — which is something you did to the max, but involuntarily — seem all the more fraught. And though we’ve only been in the Sinkhole State five days, it occurred to me I should’ve sent a postcard from here, too. Or at least an email with a photo. Or posted a pic on your Facebook wall. But that wouldn’t work. Even though me and your blank profile picture have been friends for years, you’ve never been the most avid social media user. Anyway, my mother doesn’t like us to take pictures — afraid they really do steal your soul, or at least make you look almost as old as you are, which is pretty damn — and the Stonecutters-style club she makes us go for Christmas din, or really any photogenic occasion, strenuously does not permit them.
Of course, I could call you, as sometimes you call me. But what you don’t know is that phone calls freak me out. Too often these days, they mean someone died. Other times, they’re just disruptive — and not how a Silicon Valley bloviator would use that word, not disruptive in the supposedly good way. So, even when I see it’s you on Caller ID, sometimes, sorry to say, I click off. Sometimes it’s because I’m in a meeting or running out of the house or in the middle of a thought, a paragraph, a project or even a party, a work one. Sometimes it’s just not the right time. I click, and I feel bad.
But it struck me that I could use this thing to communicate, the blog or book or whatever we’re into here, which is already about your family and your family’s business and, in a large sense, you. And, yes, it’s a public forum, and not very intimate, but there are only about 100 people who even claim they read it regularly and, of those, I’d wager only 20 or 25 actually do. In other words, it only seems public.
You do read the blog, Rev. Kang?
Anyway, when I have a thought these days that might merit dilation, I always like to save it for the blog, which at 1,200/words a week is a hungry beast, as much as I enjoy feeding it. So, here goes:
How’m I doing in Florida? How are we doing?
Well, Rev. Kang, the trip’s made me think a lot — more than usual — about blood and wine. The blood being the complicated relationships among DNA-sharers — as well as the wounds, psychological and occasionally physical, they inflict on each other. The wine being what you drink when you’re in the presence of such blood, to wash it down, kill the taste. Or maybe the wine is what the blood turns into — if you’d prefer an allusion to the devout Catholicism of my youth, the long-fled faith upon which I base my claim, as your amanuensis, to a modicum of understanding of the devout Presbyterianism of your lifetime. Talking about family, Rev. Kang. And not the fake one I’ve extolled in prior posts. Not yours. The other one. The one I’m loathe to discuss further, for fear of abusing the hospitality of a tiny, but patient, readership.
Not to say family isn’t a fine topic (I believe Mr. Tolstoy had something to say about that — at least as far as I read). And, for me, an arrested-development type raised on turbulence, probably essential, the key to it all. And there has been something about this trip in particular that made me feel I was finally getting somewhere in understanding our family — not far, but somewhere. And made me wonder, quite clinically, no self-pity about it, how a child ever learns to put one foot in front of the other living under that. Someday, Rev. Kang, you’ll read all about it in that novel we sometimes talk about. You know, with the surprising title.
Loudmouth? you said when I told you. Is that a good thing?
Hardie’s here. You always ask about him. He drove down from Asheville. Had to rent a car, as the 22-year-old Lexus he bought in high school could no longer be trusted. Another seven to twelve hundred bucks of parts and repairs, the mechanic said, till he could feel relatively confident — relatively — on an eleven-hour road trip. Hardie and I agree the great pinkish-copperish Lexus is officially on its last, if I may, lex. I’m sure he says hello, Rev. Kang, if he says much of anything. You know Hardie. Not much for chitchat, in contrast to his loudmouth father. My brother Lance is here. You always ask about Lance — “Musician!” you say, proud of remembering. You’d be amazed how much he and Hardie look alike these days.
And Jean, Lance’s beloved bride of 30-something years, is here, too. You met her at my birthday party. Did you know her brother Ned and I introduced Jeannie and my baby bro when they were 15? Laura and Charlotte, their grown kids, stopped by, but for various reasons, true and false, unclassified and classified, couldn’t stay long. Charlotte was en route home to Boston from a trip to Peru for a friend’s wedding. Did the whole Machu Picchu hike, but also three days of eco-camping (that’s what they call it) in the Amazon jungle. The other one, Laura, she’s the med student, the double-degree MD/PhD student — which always makes you cluck and say: “Smart…” My daughter Josey may have demonstrated her own smarts by staying home on Russian Hill. Not up to the challenge, after a punishing early December. And my big sister, who you also met at the birthday, is hanging with her burgeoning brood of kids and grandkids, while attending to her husband, who’s having a few problems, as I think we discussed, up in the record-lows of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
My mother — Lance’s mother, I call her, to be funny, in a rueful way — is fine, thank you. You always ask. She’s here, of course — on Earth, for close to a century, and in Florida for half that. Still walking and talking and scheming and squawking. Still insists on being the center of our universe, even as she insists on sabotaging it. But she told a story at Christmas dinner that was almost worth the trip, about the first dead man she saw. She was eight. It was Memphis, where she was raised and longs to return (and where, as a kid, in the dawn of a new racial consciousness, I spent many a confusing day with the old). The dead guy was a Confederate general and father of the headmistress at mother’s school. In full rebel regalia, the gentleman-soldier lay in state at his ancestral home, while grade-school girls trooped by to glimpse the last of the great men from their region’s great losing history.
I went with my black chauffeur, Lance’s mother made a point of adding.
We haven’t really talked about the South, Rev. Kang — South Korea, yes, but not that still-smoldering battlefield below the Mason-Dixon that’s figured prominently in my family dynamic. Well, we must.
In the meantime, please tell your daughters we’ll be there on New Year’s. And while I know it’s not the quietest night for talk, we’ll chat telepathically (which is how we have our best conversations anyway), even as we all come together, the whole sick crew, in the blue light of Wendy and Co. to sweep out an indigo year. So, a most happy Christmas to you and the lovely Maria and the entire Kang-Molloy clan (and, while I’m at it, to the 20 or 25 or three loyal readers of this blog — that is, Nick and Gary and the friendly fella from Ricoh), a merry Hanukkah, and a Nero d’Avola new year to all.
The Duncan-Hoffman clan
cc: Tip Records’ superstar Donnie Finnell
31. New Year’s Eve Eve in the Parallel Universe
We hadn’t been on the mountain for years — so long that we took a wrong turn and wound up on the road to Muir Beach. Which is when the walls starting closing in. The Big C.
Funny it’s not limited to window seats on airplanes or family dinners in Florida — funnier still that it never shows up in elevators, even stuck ones, even stuck ones from 1930, like the clackety wooden crate that travels one floor, 14 to the Tip, in which I once spent 45 minutes with three clients. Still, zero claustrophobia. In fact, I was able to occupy the time quite fruitfully — comedically and, if you ask me, heroically — dispelling my guests’ anxiety.
But I knew the road to Muir was also the road back from Muir — no shortcuts, not many turnarounds, maybe none — and I knew it was 20 minutes each way and I was already hungry. We both were. And it was New Year’s Eve afternoon, and we had to get to Fairfax and festoon ourselves before the rendezvous with Alex and Lisa, and the usual familial suspects, at Sorellas, for New Year’s Eve eve. And I could see the whole thing quickly getting out of hand — emotionally, I mean.
Then I spotted the Pelican.
We’d never been to the Pelican Inn, which looks like something out of the Bard. Low eaves, rough white stucco, exposed beams — Tudor-style. I think they serve food. I think Steve — Wendy’s Steve, the bassist — I say to Hoffman, used to be manager. And I also think, judging by the fit-looking bicyclists sipping beer on the lawn, they’re open New Year’s Eve afternoon. And, look, there’s a parking spot, right near the door — a most auspicious augury, speaking of the paranormal.
The Pelican sustains the theme on the interior, with small Shakespearean rooms, short ceilings and a few, stingy windows — none of which, by the way, induces claustrophobia, though the main room looks as crowded as an Elizabethan drug jail.
Two for lunch? I venture.
Not in the restaurant, the zenned-out gent behind the podium answers, gesturing with his pen, adding with more hope than may have been merited. But you can get food in the pub.
It’s New Year’s Eve day, I think, so anything’s possible. Maybe people on New Year’s Eve day are saving themselves for New Year’s Eve eve? Maybe the pub’ll be empty.
Not empty, we discover, as we round the corner. But promising. Full, but still with standing room at the bar. Surprised, I belly up and, one more time, am forced to recognize that things too good to be true always are. Just to the left of where I take my willfully blind stand is a dense and dour line of bicyclists, hikers and daytripping families clutching laminated Pelican pub menus, a queue that leads all the way from the sole barman meticulously inscribing orders in an undersized pad to the Pacific horizon, or at least the bar’s back wall.
I said to Hoffman: We can eat in Stinson.
But I hated to give up that parking spot.
Before you hit the triumphal downhill into Stinson Beach, you have to spend five minutes going up, higher. It’s a disconcerting bit of topography, a discouraging patch of navigation, if you’re starving and stressed, especially if your claustrophobia is triggered, not primarily by tight spaces, but by futility and paradox.
We passed the Tamalpais Hiking Club (if that’s what it’s called) where our old pal Joe Oh married the lovely Missy M. in a fascinating Korean ceremony.
(Didn’t she have to catch money? I said to Hoffman. Holding out her skirt?
Dates! said Roni. Signifies how many kids she’ll have.
And didn’t Joe have to carry her on his back? I continued.
To prove he can take care of her, replied Hoffman, who is not your typical Korean.)
Come to think of it, that may have been the last time we were on the mountain. Which means it’s been six or seven years, because they’ve got a couple kids, and the oldest, Henry (or is it Dante?), is at least five. And not 50 yards further along the ridge, just before Panoramic Highway (which, at one lane each direction, is not a highway at all) starts the plunge to Stinson and the tried-and-true delights of the Parkside Cafe, we passed the Mountain Home Inn.
You can see from Panoramic through the windows and across the parking deck that, on a forever-clear day like this, the Mountain Home, where we’ve also never been, has spectacular panoramic views — Tiburon, Angel Island, a slice of downtown SF and both the Richmond and Bay bridges. And you know it’s a hotel, but think they must have a restaurant and wonder if it’s open — there’s one parked car. And, after pondering for a few milliseconds too long, after you’ve actually passed the place — but just after, officer — you bootleg the Prius across the oncoming lane, executing a miraculous 240-degree U-ey into the lot across the street, and don’t actually get arrested and no one gets killed.
Not believing our luck, I say to Hoffman, Let me double-check. And run across the road.
The preggo barmaid says, Sure, we’re open, and I run back to retrieve the bride.
It does not escape me that a beautiful spot between two curves on Panoramic, high above the Mill Valley treetops, two months shy of our extraordinary round-number anniversary, at the absolute butt-end of an absolutely murderous, butt-awful annum, would be the perfect time and place for the pair of us to be summoned yonder. Which — considering the company from this year — might not be all bad. But still.
We hold hands extra tight as we step into peril.
The vista was even more spectacular — wider and more forever — inside. And when we said it was too cold for the deck, the bulging barmaid cheerfully offered a two-top one in from the view, both of the window tables being occupied. For a big slob who doesn’t mind a mess, prefers it, wallows in it for inspiration, I have a strangely sensitive smeller. And at this moment it was informing me that the Mountain Home had mildew problems and maybe, considering the small, greasy dust-bunnies that clustered at the base of the empty table opposite, a tidiness issue.
More than that, I detected a disturbance in the space-time continuum.
I didn’t mention any of this to my longtime companion, who seemed jazzed, in her diminuendo way, that we were finally about to eat and that, beyond the sun-soaked dining room, as far as her painterly eye could see, was a painterly vision of paradise. And while you might never suspect it from some of the stories here, I’m a guy who prefers to accentuate the positive. When I make a suggestion — which is, after all, what a dangerous U-turn is, symbolically — I try not to undermine it. I want to preserve its full value in the marital ledger — zero depreciation — and continue to build my cred.
But down the bench from Hoffman at one of the two window tables was a homicidal maniac.
At the other window table, next to where grease bunnies gamboled, was a Mad Hatter Tea Party.
And all that told me the barmaid had to be carrying Rosemary’s baby.
The tea party featured three sturdy, conservatively dressed middle-aged ladies, one twice as big as me (who is not little), celebrating a birthday with an infinite loop of desserts. What should we have next? they’d ask each other in near-perfect American, only a trailing curlicue of pronunciation marking them, if you paid attention, as originating from Germany or Austria. Or maybe Remulak, via France. It was trippy. But I was pretty sure they’d be gentle with the anal probe.
Not so much the homicidal maniac.
Leaning against the window, he stretched one leg out on the bench, not six feet from Hoffman, double-thumbing his phone, chuckling into texts. He was young, as young as teenage, young as a person you don’t expect to see, alone, in a romantic, mid-priced mountaintop restaurant. He was long, tall and clean-shaven, shiny, lanky, close-cropped — skinhead-style — wearing a Berkeley hoodie. But not a university sweatshirt, a city of Berkeley souvenir, if you paid attention. Tourist crap. Odd tourist crap.
Several beats too long after preggo suggested the deck and then seated us inside, the skinhead turned to us and, with a smile, urged us to reconsider: It’s nice out there.
I took it to mean he was waiting to push us off the 30-foot drop. Or drifting, stoned. In any case, entirely relaxed and at the same time alarmingly coiled, he was clearly a minute or two from something. I thought it would be a mistake to respond, beyond grunted acknowledgment.
He received a call. It was a happy call.
Overdose, he said. Yeah, overdose.
And then he said overdose several more times, with a smile, same smile — as if it was silly that this dummy was in the hospital or some mofo had gotten exactly what he deserved.
It didn’t seem like he was showing off.
Even as the Deutsche desserters scanned the sweets menu, talking among themselves, the killer explained to the waiter in detail what he wanted for dessert. And when the two scoops of vanilla with caramel, nuts and coconut flakes arrived, he told preggo that the waiter, after all that, had got his order wrong. He was pissed, but abruptly backed off, saying please a lot and thank you, m’am and sir. Overpolite, like psychokillers. And when the waiter came back with lemon cake, he followed him to the kitchen.
Sorry, sir, for getting you in trouble on your job. Sorry, sir! Sir?
Then, following preggo: I didn’t mean to get him in trouble on his job, m’am. Sorry about that. Sorry to get him in trouble.
Definitely stoned. But so much more.
My bratwurst arrived, to my delight, on a bun, fully loaded with sauerkraut and Euro mustard. Hoffman had a burger — no cheese, never cheese — and fries. If the brat had puckered from too long under the warming bulb, it was still a brat, and, as reported here last year, I’m a sucker for sausage. Roni said her burger, piled high with sliced onions, tomatoes and no cheese, was fine, too. Which is almost her highest praise.
As a last meal, I thought, this will more than suffice.
But right when I thought the kid was going to apologize profusely and draw the glock from the fake Berkeley hoodie and apologize some more with hollow-point, a silver-gray saucer-shaped craft descended from the big blue painting outside to the sacred mountain — what the Miwoks called Tamalpais, or Sleeping Lady — and Overdose was out and up and gone. Or, anyway, gone. And there were no bodies in his wake — except the happily burgeoning bodies of the birthday girls — and Hoffman and I, sealed into the white hybrid, with nary a claustrophobic thought in our heads, headed down and around the mountain to Stinson, Fairfax and the Center of the Universe.
And it just goes to show.
32. My Grip
Enough with the Monster Storms.
They seem to show up every other month and almost never live up to the hype. I’ve gotten so jaded about Monster Storms I consider them a perfectly safe target for satire, even as they happen. Made fun last Friday as I posted the prior chapter of this thing — something to read, I teased, “while you’re waiting to die from the Monster Storm.”
Local tube loves Monster Storms. And over the last 24 they’ve been cutting in with Special Bulletins and Special Coverage specials on the impending cats-and-dogs apocalypse, its waterlogged horsemen approaching on a meteorological steed called Pineapple Express. It’s a name that seems to have surrendered potency (ironically) since the Franco-Rogen pot comedy of the same name — enough that I notice TV’s twinkly-toothed wolf-criers shifting to a generic description: Atmospheric River.
Which is nowhere near as urgent, or catchy, as a runaway train full of tropical fruit.
Still, even as this Monster Storm comes up short in the telegenic kablooey department, the action-hairspray team at TV-666 is warning viewers that if they think the beast is dying, don’t be fooled! Keep it tuned to KDOH! Get the app!
But I had a weird day yesterday.
Woke up queasy, headache-y, listless. Logy, Parker likes to say. And though it was Saturday morning, the traditional Hangover Holiday, I wasn’t. Hoffman and I had stayed out of trouble Friday — just a romantic din per due at Perbacco and then, despite my best efforts, home. (Yes, in the five years we’ve rented a studio in San Francisco, we occasionally eat at Italian restaurants other than Sorellas.)
I’d harbored ambitious plans for Saturday. Mostly, to play with my new USB microphone, recording 30 chapters of this blog as a podcast and streaming the latest as a Facebook Live experiment. Instead, I moped and frittered — when I wasn’t piddling.
After reading through every saved browser tab and following every link, to The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs and New York Review, I thought might help me understand what had just happened in this country, after downloading several erudite history books that I hoped would make me erudite by osmosis, along with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which I hoped would make me a better writer (and which, trying to sneak up on my sloth, I dove into right away), after downing a beer with lunch (in case I was actually hungover) and thinking about totally trashing the afternoon by firing up a joint for the first time in years — all this profligacy taking place in front of a TV locked on Monster Storm — I decided, before it got too dark, to check the webcam at our house.
Since the novelty had expired, my interactions with our Nest Cam were mostly limited to emails from Nest with the subject line: “Your camera is offline.” And since there are no burglars in Fairfax to rip it out of the wall, but dozens of inexplicable power outages every year, this never worried me. But with a Monster on the loose, what the hell.
The amazing thing was the power had not gone off — as it loves to, in sunshower and gentle breeze alike — and the camera was still online, showing living room and dining nook in the distance and kitchen and deck up front. Through the camera’s rudimentary mic, I could hear water — there’s a stream on the hill and rain was coming down (this Monster was not a total bust). But I saw no water on the kitchen floor. And the two lamps we’d left on were still that way. And the windows in my daughter’s old room, seen across the deck, weren’t broken, nor were any — that I could see — in the kitchen. It was dim, getting dimmer, but I studied the picture, zooming in and out, panning left and right, peering and pondering, maybe a tad too long.
A storm-blown carpet of leaves on the deck soon started to look like something more. Twice in the last decade we’d had trees topple into our yard from the undeveloped property uphill. One giant crushed the grill and furniture on our deck. One pierced the roof of our daughter’s room — three big holes. Fortunately, she was away at college. And afterwards, we’d made sure, with an anthropomorphic vengeance, to clear-cut all the photosynthetic bastards — no matter whose they were — within a wide perimeter.
And that sound of running water, come to think of it, was louder than I’d have expected, if the windows were closed. And the darker it got, and the more smeared the wide-angle image, the more the granite pattern of the kitchen countertop started to look like leaves, too.
Or was that mud?
The hill had collapsed, I thought, and a river of mud was creeping into the house.
No, a tree had fallen on us.
Just out of frame, I posited, with a new kind of sick feeling, an old oak had penetrated the north-facing kitchen window (coming from where, I couldn’t fathom). Maybe it happened just minutes ago — that’s why the house’s power hadn’t yet shorted. But the rain was surely pouring in. And would be pouring in more, as the Monster gained ferocity. And I thought about my music setup in the basement — guitars, amps, mixer, years of notebooks. And about the coyotes from the hill, who’d soon be vaulting through the jagged opening, seeking shelter. I thought about the water sloshing from the kitchen, across the living room and, one step down, into our bedroom. And about the arc of electricity. And the fire. And a Monster Storm swirled through the logy caverns of my brain.
Oh, god, I said to Hoffman, and I meant it, feeling heat in my face and a hole in my stomach. There’s trouble at the house.
While Roni threw together a bag of cleaning supplies, garbage bags and a change of clothes, I texted our daughter, who lives now in the city.
Emergency in Fairfax, I wrote. Need help.
Except for Hoffman’s deep breaths, the car was silent, as we navigated — too fast — the 23 miles northwest to our home of 17 years. There were four of us, counting Josey’s boyfriend Jon, summoned from napping and a little logy himself. The rain, for now, had muted to a drizzle. The Monster’s nap, before the deluge.
The outside lights were on, but there was nothing to see from the front of the house. I fumbled the key into the lock and, throwing a hip into it, shoved open the balky door. Emergency crew trailing, I hurried across the dry living room — as the gas heater, set to 64F, kicked on in thermal salute — past the dry dining room and into our kitchen.
If before it was difficult to see because of the dark, now it was difficult because of the dissonance. It wasn’t the sensor, it was the CPU.
My logic gates flapped open, shut, open, shut, like a saloon door. I stood by the kitchen window staring out at a storm-blown pattern of leaves carpeting the deck. But it was just a storm-blown pattern of leaves.
I looked down at the counter. Creeping mud? Crashing tree? High on the wall, the webcam power-light glowed a contented blue and, beneath it, the north-facing window remained intact. Snug. I scanned the scene two, three, four times, trying to change the channel from Mythmongers of the Monster Storm to reality TV.
Maybe I’d smoked that joint after all?
I was simultaneously relieved and disturbed.
We fanned out to make sure nothing else, real or imagined, was amiss. Jon and I moved the outdoor furniture and new grill further from the windows and folded all the chairs. And after we’d determined — they’d determined — our jerry-rigged homestead had fended off another winter assault, I grabbed a music stand I’d rescued from Sandy’s studio (Told the kids the whole excursion had been a scam to fetch it for the podcast). Josey grabbed a couple of yearbooks with pictures of Chelsea she wanted to scan (Not a total loss, she said of the surprise trip). And we all went back to our apartment, Roni’s and mine, for a feast of the most fantastic cheeses, bread, salami and olives from the Ferry Building. And my daughter teased me about trees and being high, but I didn’t mind. And we put on the second half of the Packers-Lions playoff for Jon, who coaches football. Then we watched the new Homeland and had a better Saturday night huddling against nature than anyone in our family would ever have hallucinated.
And I wondered if you even know when you’re losing your grip, when the Monster Storm has come for real.
I used to call him Julius, the stone-faced dude who presides over Table 10. Later, for reasons now obscure, I decided he was Augustus — Caesar’s adopted son and successor, according to my distracted, two-minute scan of Wikipedia — and immediately I started to draft a post titled Pax Romana. Which I thought would be quite the worldly move for a folksy little blog about a mom-and-pop restaurant in Fairfax — a reference to the first Roman emperor, 2,000 years ago. Positively erudite.
Of course, the statue is neither. And the blog really isn’t either. And I’m certainly not. And Augustus’s Pax Romana was the dawn of fascism, which we’re fixing to learn more about in this country, end of week.
It’s David, said Sonia.
Soy and Sonia started their careers at a red-sauce joint in North Beach called Michelangelo’s. And part of what made that place more than another crass — and un-erudite — grab for the coattails of history’s most famous Italian was the padrone’s obsession with Michelangelo’s art. Even today, a decade after the original owner sold out, a Google search for Michelangelo’s Cafe in San Francisco returns this:
“Copies of Renaissance art decorate this family-owned eatery that turns out classic Italian dishes.”
And when I say obsession, I don’t mean that, for a limited time, he really liked the stuff. I mean, as Sonia recounts, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, over several decades, recreating it. Sonia’s old boss got on a plane to Europe, found a starving young sculptor and paid him to copy, sometimes at actual size, the statues of David, Bacchus, Cupid, the Pieta and many others. And then he shipped the finished pieces to the States, each time flying the kid over to properly install them. And when the guy finally cashed in his little goldmine (and quarry) on Columbus Avenue and bought a retirement retreat in Brazil, he put the kid to work filling up that pleasuredome with simulated Michelangelo, some of it in actual Carrara.
Which begs the freakin’ question: how much can you make from a tourist trap? Much of the answer, I suspect, boils down to two simple words: cash only.
Anyway, their old boss had so many Michelangeloid pieces that when his longtime servers, those sweet Korean-Brazilian sisters, left to open their own ristorante in Marin, he not only gave them a ton of sage counsel — the free, post-prandial gummy bears and animal crackers come from his playbook, as does the wheel of parmagian your server enticingly chunks onto your butter plate, free of charge, at the start of every Sorellas meal — he tossed in a giant marble head of David.
Oh, and, what the hell, the near-lifesize bathing maiden by the front door.
And the handsome head on the piano that Wendy puts her hat on? I asked.
No, Sonia says, that’s a weird one.
I knew there was a story behind the other statuary, David and the maiden — in fact, Sonia had told it to me. But the bottomless bottle of Nero d’Avola the sisters always “forget” to charge me for seems to have gummed up that memory slot. Still, I swear on the head of Fake Bacchus I had never heard the tale of Agrippa.
We’re in the middle of dinner service on a crowded night, a rainy night, says Sonia, as her sister watches with a bemused smile, and an older woman double-parks by the front door, flashers on, and runs in. I ate dinner here last week, she says, and noticed you had a bust in the corner. How would you like another? My husband recently passed, and it was his. If you send someone out to carry it from my car, you can have it right now.
A bust? Sonia says to the woman. I’m sorry — I just don’t… What’s a bust?
After the woman explains it’s a sculpture, a head, like David, Sonia tries, gently, as is her way, to get the lady to come back when they’re not so busy, and it’s not raining. But the widow’s dead set. She really, really wants to get rid of her husband’s head. Finally, desperate, she confides in a kindly stranger, telling Sonia the sculpture so much resembles her late mate that every time she looks around she sees him. And with that, busy or no, rain or no, baby sister Kang mercy-missions a busser to retrieve from a trunk a bust.
And that — says Sonia, indicating with her do-ragged head the scowling noggin atop the piano — is Agrippa.
But who is Agrippa? I ask, not actually being erudite.
The sisters, as one, shrug.
And Hoffman — who pivots now to more closely examine this overlooked artwork overlooking the back room and who once named her pet labrador after the esteemed actor — volunteers that he looks exactly like Spencer Tracy.
Later, being fully erudite about Mr. Tracy — his movies, as well as his long affair with Katherine Hepburn — I turn again to the trusty internet to learn, in an absent, multitasking fashion, the crowd-sourced truth about Agrippa. But, as far as I was concerned, the greater mystery had already been solved.
34. American Feijoada
Half the time the Kangs go off-menu and order directly from one of their daughters, as only a restaurant’s matriarch and patriarch can freely do, frequently opting for the traditional Brazilian dish of rice, beans and meat (in their case, they prefer ground beef over the customary pork) known as feijoada.
Make no mistake, they enthusiastically consume what’s on-menu at Sorellas, too. Maria, whose appetite is dainty, is partial to the soup of the day, especially when it’s white bean, and often adds a slice of chicken milanese to round it out. Sometimes she has a meatball on the side instead. Other times she goes along with me and has classic spaghetti bolognese with her meatball — half-order, no sausage. Kang goes for cioppino or spaghetti with clams or, lately, pasta puttanesca — or he did. I could see him reconsidering after I told him “putta” is Italian for prostitute.
I mention it because, although this is a blog about a little restaurant in a little town, I’m itching to go off-menu myself.
Because on the eve of the presidential inauguration, I am baffled, disappointed, and afraid, maybe like you. Baffled by how it could have happened, especially with post-election polls showing his approval far south of 50% (or is that pollsters messing with our heads again?). Disappointed that We-the-Peeps, my fellow citizens, friends and family, or just enough, in the electorally right places, would fall for that bullshit when the other bullshit had at least a 20% chance of being kinda true. Afraid that a guy more inattentive than W. will push the wrong button, blowing up the treaties, alliances and good will that have, for a century, ensured our VIP seat at the major events of civilization, not to mention the planet that, with its water, air and frolicsome squirrels, has turned out to be surprisingly useful to human existence.
But enough about that narcissistic hairball. More than enough’s been written, spoken and tweeted, with unimaginably mo’ to come when all the long-form pontificating starts rolling off presses next fall. And I know I’m preaching to the rational-humanist choir — except for that bilious buttplug who urged me to go back to Russia, where my son used to live (and I used to visit) and where I would no doubt run into the Great effin Pumpkin. Still, I couldn’t sit here and say nothing. Felt too much like consent, if not complicity. And I’m a loudmouth, like my thinly veiled novel says.
What I really wanted to do here, 12 hours before D (for Donnie) Day, was make a record of what we had, before maybe we don’t. Then I realized that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last eight months and 33-and-1/3 chapters: sketch the American feijoada. The stew of leftovers, spices and unpretentious cuts thrown together, almost willy-nilly, to nourish body and soul and enliven the plain white rice of daily life. A rambling tale of ramblers — an Italian restaurant run by Korean-Brazilians in the Left Coast state of Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan and Cesar Chavez, in the good ol’ US of A. So let me just say that, as a grandson of the South, a native son of Wisconsin, a former resident of Michigan, a frequent visitor to Pennsylvania and a passionate admirer of Ohio’s Guided By Voices, I still love you, you cracker bastards (even if, technically, you’re not all crackers) — but not the racism and hate some of you embrace, sometimes accidentally, sometimes just the tip, let alone the fraidy-cat crap behind it (really? in the Home of the Brave?) — and I look forward, when you wake up, to kicking some billionaire ass together.
35. Fringe Festival
We had a wonderful night, delightfully unexpected, and it happened at the sisters’, and Kang was there, and Wendy was playing, and I wanted to write about it with all the joy it summoned. But reflections on joy and wonder have a way these days of turning into reflections on oh-yeah-now-I-remember and the unbearable reality of stacking bricks around the Least of These to keep out hope and love.
No, joy and wonder didn’t have a prayer. My world — the things I treasure, that make me warm, make me smile, mist me up, that are beautiful to me and transcendent, that are sacred, in a strictly secular way (but inarguably close to what parochial school drilled us about JC), that are all the fundaments (to me) of a peaceable kingdom, the things that are good and right and just and free, multilayered (like Sonia’s lasagna), spicy (like Sonia’s calamari sauce), intoxicating (like Sonia’s Sicilian wine) and fun fun fun, and just what this writing had intended to extoll, by way of enjoying it immensely in the remembering and sharing — is, and always will be, the exact opposite of his.
But fuck it. And him. The world doesn’t end. Nor do stories. And with stories — a counter-tide of stories, full-spectrum facts alternative to gangrenous goldplated “alternative facts,” true stories (even the fiction), our stories — maybe we resist. So, as I was saying before I was interrupted by my own dire thoughts, here’s another from outside the Big Brother Beltway:
Sandy’s cousins came to collect. And I don’t begrudge them. They seem like decent folk, and Sandy, a devout metaphysician, had made minus-infinity effort to organize his post-physical affairs. And why should he? No wife, no kids. Only cousins, far away, terrestrially and metaphorically, who he hadn’t cared to talk to in a demi-century. But the cousins from the east came west and, in addition to scooping the loot — after they complete the untangling of the gordian knot of Sandy’s assets and pay off the lawyers and god knows who else — wanted to meet everyone. Not just us. I guess they’d heard about everyone from the lawyer, who’d heard about everyone from us and was trying to suggest he was inner-circle. And two of the people they wanted to meet were the Wilbees, and that doesn’t hurt my feelings at all.
I love the Wilbees.
Bob and Jimmy, middle-aged brothers, 16 months apart, were Sandy’s neighbors. The business their dad started 60 years ago and they inherited — which sells chutes for tall buildings (laundry or trash) and, probably to a different audience, medical sensors — was next to Alpha and Omega, the recording studio, sometime domicile, musical, literary and pedagogical archive and Sandy world HQ. And though they’d been small-talk neighbors for three decades, in the last six years of his life, they’d kept an eye out, even hung.
Some days, Bob would go with him to Equator in Tam Junction. Sandy loved coffee. As it turned out, Bob didn’t even drink the stuff, never — not until he was trying to be good company to a neighbor. It was Bob who’d tracked me down when Sandy was stricken — which is a Sorellas saga in and of itself.
Bob looks like a Bob — solid, clear-eyed, aw-shucks and all-American, hair lightly slicked, wisely gray, a Robert Young type (if you remember Dr. Welby), a guy who could make a fortune selling old people reverse mortgages on TV, but wouldn’t.
Jimmy, his Irish twin, is actually the actor. Or was, back in the day. Back in the day when he grew his hair — now snowy white — past his nips and first cultivated the fu manchu that decorates a narrow face below twinkly eyes, between dangling, shiny earrings. Bob often says of his bro you’d never know we’re from the same parents. But he always says it with love and pride. Jimmy and his partner Jeff, who wears his hair in an arresting Mohawk-mullet, were the parents of Max, the world’s oldest dachshund, who was 22 when we met him a few months before he died. Sandy loved Max. I’m sure he loved the Wilbees, too.
After the lawyer, we escorted the cousins to the storage locker in the industrial part of San Rafael and then, just around the corner, to the Wilbees. After a few Sandy stories and a look through the tinted windows at his old jammed studio space, now (amazingly) bare, and at his brokedown fleet of cars, still parked out back, I said to Bob and Jimmy, how about this Saturday?
We’d had dinner in the fall. We’d planned to have dinner again. We’d planned to have dinner from time to time, ongoing, because, more than just friends of Sandy’s in extremis, we’d become friends. And that’s how Bob and Jimmy (sans Jeff, who was home sick) came to join Rev. Kang (sans Maria, who was home sick) and us at the restaurant.
I’d reminded them that when we eat at the sisters’, we are accompanied by Rev. Kang, their father. But I forgot they already knew that, that when we’d eaten together in the fall, Kang had been there.
We love Kang, said Jimmy.
And then I forgot another thing.
Before North Korea was ruled by the Communists and Kims, it was part of South Korea — or just Korea — and ruled, starting in 1910, by Japan. I learned about the Japanese Occupation in Kang’s book about his odyssey from a North Korean village, population 200, through POW camp and India and Brazil to California, between San Rafael and Fairfax, and hanging out with me and Roni (who got there from a whole other direction). But I forgot that, among the four or five languages this man from remotest Asia speaks (three or four more than cosmopolitan me) is Japanese. The occupiers insisted.
I also forgot he’d struggled with the edicts of Scripture over homosexuality and the gay rights movement. But by the time of his autobiography, the good reverend — who’d once understood otherwise, who’d been meticulously taught otherwise — could write that “my understanding of this movement has changed very much. And I no longer believe it is justifiable to condemn it as immoral or abnormal.”
Bob, like a Bob, is there when we arrive, with his lovely ex-wife and current girlfriend Diane. A few minutes later, Jimmy, like Jimmy, makes an entrance.
The white hair is down. The silver and turquoise jewelry is out — on fingers, wrists, forearms and dangling from ears. Jimmy’s laughing eyes are in full Saturday night twinkle. And blending with the long, bright hair, flying in formation with it, as he rounds the corner to the back to deliver waves and hugs, are the David Crosby-style eighteen-inch fringes — along the arms, across the chest, from the hem — of Jimmy’s magnificent suede coat.
He greets Kang in Japanese. And they’re off.
I forgot that, too. Forgot that, quite the Zen metaphysician himself, the younger Jimmy had spent three years in Japan working and seeking wider horizons.
Kang is clucking and chortling at some Japanese in-joke (the way you don’t often see him), sitting sideways, lounging in his chair (the way you don’t often see him), basking in the privileged conversation, carried back to the phonemes of his youth — even if those phonemes were forced on him by invaders — back to village and family, before the unimaginable journey that brought him to a table on a fringe that used to be the center.
36. Stop Breaking Down
This has nothing to do with the unfunny topic of peace, love and understanding that Nick Lowe, via Elvis Costello, so aptly limned lo these many years and in which the citizenry has been so heatedly engaged of late. It’s not about hugging a foreigner or non-Christian or even one of those nasty Republican types. Not about multiculturalism — American feijoada — or who’s fringe and who’s center. None of the hippie Fairfax nonsense that has colored so much of this blather.
It’s about some other hippie Fairfax nonsense.
A long time ago when George Lucas was still getting his haircuts at Bev’s on Broadway in downtown Fairfax, my wife Roni — who’d sometimes be seated next to him getting hers — confronted her fears. Around the corner from Broadway, on Bolinas, the other main street in town, just up the block from where Sorellas would soon rule the cosmos, a kid had been hit by a car. Not killed, but hurt. Not hurt badly, but could’ve been. When I say they were Roni’s fears, I’m being funny (speaking of unfunny). They were mine, too, and the fears of every mom and pop in town.
Roni, an artist given to impractically enchanting flights of imagination, in gouache, watercolor and pencil, is also an eminently practical sort. And seeing as how our kids crossed Bolinas at the intersection of Park Road, between the 7–11 and police station, every school day, twice, Roni got practical. And the most practical thing she did was not involve me, which, with all the waiting and cajoling and bickering, would have only meant prolonging the danger. (And I’m not saying that because it makes me look cool.) Anyway, she thought she wouldn’t really need help.
It was a slam-dunk.
Whether you’re an expert or amateur, with a problem large, small or gnarly, when you imagine the solution’s a slam-dunk — which is how, for instance, the CIA director, speaking to the second worst president ever, described the proposed invasion of Iraq — you can be sure it won’t be. But this intersection, Bolinas and Park, a block west of Dominga and the 62 children living there, had been a source of concern forever. Some parents made sure to escort their kids across in the morning, before turning them loose for the rest of the relatively placid back-roads route (and, for various reasons, the journey home). And a few years earlier, their concern had led, first, to the installation of a diamond-shaped yellow sign, warning of children afoot, and later to the painting of an official crosswalk.
Which is exactly where the fourth-grader was when the car struck him.
Bolinas, the main east-west artery in Fairfax, offers a variety of seductions. You can cruise a traffic-free 45 minutes — through gorgeous watershed forests, past pristine reservoirs and up and over the spectacular ocean-view ridge (where they shoot car commercials), all the way to Highway 1, just short of the town of Bolinas (Fairfax’s even hippier cousin) — before you encounter a stop sign, never mind a signal or cop. On the way back, you will be sorely tempted — especially when the winding road finally straightens out, up by the Meadow Club — to gun it.
The perils of Bolinas Road have long been well-known. Mitigating those should have been, to invoke another uncharacteristic sports cliché, a gimme.
Our friend and neighbor Cynthia — one of the local activists who’d helped sucker me into running for school board — had ascended to the Fairfax mayoralty and was happy to coach Roni in the basics of making the legislative case for a stop sign and then, night of the meeting, keep her case on track.
More or less.
My school board experience had taught me that, in the tandoori oven of town politics — where it’s pretty much all personal, no policy — meetings are dominated by four types: lonelyhearts, whiners, blowhards, and nutjobs, some who are simultaneously drunk and/or stoned. On occasion, in a turnabout for this free-speechifying peace-and-lovenik, we had to call the sheriff to eject a murkily motivated detractor who wouldn’t shut up. And one time the local anti-tax group — two implacably spiteful blowhards, the original trolls — freaked out even more ferociously when the school district announced a surplus, after years of freaking out when we announced a deficit.
Roni came home from the town council meeting past midnight, shaking her head as she reported. There were speakers who’d argued the sign would jam traffic throughout the town. Speakers who’d argued it would jam traffic on Dominga, where the cars would detour to avoid stopping. Speakers who’d argued it would deny local kids the priceless opportunity to practice crossing the street. There were speakers — loud, breathless ones, with grizzled faces, gray ponytails, bloody eyes — who’d argued it was infringing on their liberties as taxpaying, law-abiding, god-fearing registered voters — even if most (all?) were militantly none of the above. And there were speakers who’d proclaimed it wouldn’t protect the kids anyway, not one bit — so why are you infringing our precious liberties, denying our inalienable right to drive fast and lying in our faces?!?
A whiff of violence, like a tofu fart, permeated the chamber.
There were citizens who shouted dark insinuations about how the item had reached the agenda in the first place. There were calls to impeach the mayor and/or recall the council, as well as calls to run the gentrifying, capitalist exploiter, Roni, from the room — even though my sweet, earnest wife and I had lived in the town for a decade and were barely scraping by. And there were several enactments, delivered by one or another local Wiccan, of a patchouli-oiled nostalgia for a Fairfax of yore — even though the difference between the town’s undefined then and unappealing now went unexplained in the speaker’s misty rhetoric.
A kid was almost killed in the crosswalk and, after fours hours of public comment as twisted as Bolinas-Fairfax Road (but nowhere near as scenic), the mayor moved that they table the motion to gather additional “facts.” If the kid had survived his encounter with the speeding car, I wasn’t sure Roni was going to survive hers with the council.
But a week later, with attention spans drifted on to more pressing issues — like whether or not to have mosaics on the recycling dumpsters or the true definition of a chain store — Her Honor slid the motion through, smooth as a hot buck knife in organic tempeh, and Bolinas Road got its red octagon: the stop sign that, in our house, we proudly call mom’s.
And as I thought about this political landmark in our family history, it occurred to me that Fairfax may not be so different as I like to fantasize, that the lonelyhearts, whiners, blowhards and nutjobs in our determinedly deep-blue burg are not so far removed from the chronic red-state malcontents and their blue-state partners-in-pique who voted to Make America Great Again by nuking the whole damn thing. And that, for these neglected folks — in Fairfax, no less than Fargo — broke, hopeless, addled and, to the more fortunate rest of us, terribly annoying, it’s not so much about the Stop, as the Look and Listen.
37. 23 Miles
I think I’m losing my soul. And I don’t need to tell you what that looks like. Soon my heart will shrink, along with my hands, and my head will sprout a terrifying tumbleweed-cum-loofah.
Maybe not that bad.
What happened? you ask. What happened is 23 miles. It’s a trifle, as the crow flies. But that crow don’t fly — not these days, not between seven and nine a.m., from western Marin to 101 South. And as our own fledglings flew the coop and those morning migration minutes mounted and the long-promised personal gyrocopter did not drop into our driveway, I cast about for something better than a bleary-eyed, wake-up routine of an hour-and-fifteen bumper-to-bumper in the Prius.
Yes, I used to ride my bike — three sedentary decades and 50 adipose pounds ago. Used to ride the enchanting trans-bay catamaran, too — but it’s now a 30 minute slog just to get to the ferry terminal, with a schedule that’s limited and firm. And the bus, well, it’s lumbering and smelly and, if you try to read, nauseating, and not any faster than the car. With a schedule that’s limited and firm.
At first, I didn’t tell Hoffman. One of the bad things I do, one of the ways I repeatedly sully this soul I’m losing anyway, is not tell my sainted wife. But then I don’t tell anybody, not family, friends, co-workers. Not when I’m scheming. Not before the nefarious plan is fully baked and ready to serve. And it’s the serving I’m focused on. The presentation. The sell. The con. Because, by and large, whatever I’m secretly planning is either imprudent, improvident, impractical, or all three.
So I skulked. Sneaking a scan of Craigslist, including rooms to share (though the two female flight attendants looking for a male to share their “lower Nob” 3BR might’ve been a tad too porny for Hoffman). Mapping addresses to calculate the distance to Bush and Sansome. Pondering — as much as an innumerate can — the economics of selling the crazy, hippie-built cliff-house in Fairfax and moving to San Francisco vs. not selling. Not selling, and instead piling another residential obligation — rent — onto our mortgages, the variable-rate second of which had funded our children’s higher ed (emphasis on the higher) (cheap shot) and had since ballooned, as everyone had warned, alarmingly. Mind you, we had no savings to speak of. No investments or reserves. 401k cashed early — incurring all major penalties everyone had also warned — the last time I’d had a big idea: getting rich in Putin’s Russia. There was food, including healthy groceries (Hoffman insisted) and four or five meals a month at beloved Sorellas (discounted, but not free). And, for Tipmas and the other high holies, a silly suit — zoot-cut red satin? or bedazzled black velvet? — from Siegel’s in the Mission. We were hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding, semi-superannuated, sober-ish citizens and many furlongs from bad-off, but strictly paycheck-to-paycheck — said paycheck, it might be noted, emanating from an independent, uninsulated small business in a volatile industry in the roiling backwash of a Great Recession.
It was a no-brainer not to take on another monthly bill. And I was just the no-brain to do it.
What the hell, it had been a good year. Best in 20 (which meant, karmically and otherwise, we were surely headed for a fall) (we were). And the checks were fattening. And then I found this totally dope crib. Ten minutes walk from the office, a tiny studio, with balcony on the bay and the inescapably lucky designation as Apt. 1313. Calling it the perfect pied-a-terre makes the idea sound as la-di-da and ludicrous as it was — 1st-world to the Nth. But that view — the enchanting catamaran skimming by on its firm, limited way, the Hong Kong freighter, piled high with colorful containers like a cargo of giant Rubik’s Cubes, the swooning sailboats of Saturday and Sunday, Coit Tower, standing phallic sentinel over all at eleven o’clock, and all utterly mesmerizing, in sun no less than frothy cumulus or foghorned gray.
This was something I could sell.
Hoffman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, fending me off with increasingly irritated arguments about income and expenses that, frankly, left me distracted. Fending me off, fending me off, and then — knowing it was never about arguments, or sense, let alone the numbers I could only marvel at, ignorantly, fearfully, like a Kubrick ape before the monolith — fading to black. I’ve never seen this quiet woman fall quite so quiet — scary silent, 23 million miles away, rethinking existence, definitely her marriage — as on the flip to Fairfax after we’d put down a San Francisco deposit. Turned out that was her best argument of all.
OK, if you don’t want it, I said, with true remorse, I don’t have to. We’ve got 24 hours to cancel.
Turned out that was my best argument of all.
I thought it was nothing, no biggie. About traffic and convenience, about walking to work. I thought it was a lark, a change of scene, a celebration of renewed independence, turning tables on the empty-nest doldrums. And I thought the anxiety — hers — was solely about numbers, scratch, the burn, about not saving, being unprepared, un-cushioned, vulnerable, about sliding back to broke. I thought it was surface (surface!). Left-brain poppycock. Five-and-a-half years later, I find out what Hoffman always knew, that, even in a digital world, a virtual world, a world of instant communications and cheap flights, it goes deep, where you are. Where you actually are. The meat world. IRL.
And as I think about the gang at Sorellas on the lee of Mt. Tam and who did or said or ate what this week or six weeks ago or six years, who sat in with Wendy or sang, or if they ever found Dave’s other trumpet, about the specials of the day (salmon or trout, with mango salsa or white wine and garlic), and the week’s sick report and the kale crop at the Kangs and those sweet, sunny sisters and Gary’s sad, busted Subaru and what to write next, I think about it. We haven’t been to Fairfax in three weeks and that’s a long time, longest since the trip to Holland. But last time it was cold — cold for Cali, where we’ve gone soft — and damp and I’d come down with a cough and sniffles and stood in front of the roaring living room heater and nothing could make me warm. And finally I said to Hoffman, Fuck this. Can’t take it. Not coming back till spring. And now I’m better and not sure I meant it. But I have found a new quiet spot to write in the city, when I’m not writing at the little round table in 1313 overlooking SF Bay, and a few new city friends — acquaintances really, nothing at all like the folks in Fairfax — and a few new city grooves, new bars and restaurants. And it occurred to me yesterday I might be losing touch.
And that’s not all.
PART II: COMEBACK
Sorry. Had to put the blog on standby while I revised the damn novel — formerly called Loudmouth, now Dive — I’ve been working on for five years. And between that and the new novel I started — tentatively titled Fifty-Nine Burst — it took longer than I thought. It always does. Anyway, six months away gave me time to build up a powerful hankering to get back and tell more true-life tales of the Sisters and Kangs and Wendy, Dave, Gary, Flo, Gio, Gail and George, stories of our leafy little burg on the far side of Mount Tam and of the universe beyond, as seen through the lens of a mom-and-pop trattoria filled with exceptional warmth and wonderful weirdos.
I can hear middle C on the piano, coming through the jungle. C, C, C, C. Repeated. And then the octave. Then two notes simultaneously — C and what I’m pretty sure is a fifth above. A chord, of sorts. In second grade, the Sister with the circular pitch-pipe up her floppy black abyss of a sleeve (distinct from the Sisters with the rectangular lasagna up their sleeves) told my mother I had perfect pitch. But even after singing in bands and making up songs for decades, I never much believed it. Now, suddenly — with the kind of exuberant certitude you get when you’re head-over-heels in the shade on a sunny day — I’m convinced I know exactly what the note is, that fifty years later I’ve come into full possession of my remarkable power. Perfect pitch after all.
C, C, C, C. Over and over. But it’s not a budding Mozart banging out the first sonata or a brat trying to hijack mommy’s attention. Too steady. And then it dawns on me. The house down the trail sold last week. The new owner is getting the piano tuned. And even as C, C, C, C sounds again through the ungroomed trees, vines, blackberries and underbrush that crowd our hillside plot and hide the trail behind, St. Rita’s down the hill rings the three o’clock bells.
A chord, of sorts.
In case anyone’s forgotten, or didn’t notice, we live in the town of Fairfax, out past San Anselmo — not the city of Fairfield, out past Vallejo — at the overgrown intersection of Wreden Avenue and Berry Trail, 23 miles northwest of San Francisco, three vertical blocks from the small, but exceptionally lively, frequently inebriated, music-filled downtown and the world’s friendliest Korean-Brazilian Italian restaurant — Sorella’s, by name — that I think of as the center of the universe.
Berry Trail has to be one of the oddest public thoroughfares anywhere in the universe, outside of West Virginia or the Cinque Terre. At our end, it starts in my neighbor Ed’s dirt driveway, just beyond the brokedown 1982 Dodge Dart, between the falling-down fence and the discarded hot water heater, and travels abruptly up hill for the first 10 to 15 yards on less than a single-track, with a tree root for one foothold and a rock outcropping for another. It flattens out as it emerges from behind the untameable bamboo that knocked down the fence in the first place and looks down, from the height of a high-dive, onto our own dusty, brokedown fleet, a ’91 Lexus and ’96 Saab. The track doesn’t widen more than a couple of inches at that point and at night the light doesn’t reach it, so passage can be particularly perilous. One morning we found a big dent on the hood of the Lexus and a baseball cap, and Ed told us he’d seen a young inebriate fall off the hill. (And like all God’s blotto protégés, he popped up and staggered off, albeit bareheaded.) Berry Trail continues, a few feet above the window of my son’s childhood room, then above the deck where I’m writing this on a tablet resting on a music stand (my DIY standing desk) into the jungle beyond, widening a skosh more and eventually becoming, after a fashion, paved — with lumpy, rutted, disintegrating tar and gravel — all the way to Mountain View Road.
Perhaps I have not been clear. This is not an unsanctioned shortcut, a crowd-sourced, folk-art footpath through the trees. This is an official, town-maintained street, with a green, government street sign at either end and, out in the jungliest part, a towering Town of Fairfax streetlamp and Marin Municipal Water District manhole. And there are eight houses along Berry Trail — not lean-tos or cabins, but plumbed and electrified primary residences — one of which, clearly, has a piano.
Berry Trail is so odd there’s got to be a reason. There is.
I think I’ve mentioned that Fairfax has long had a roguish bent and raffish background, that in Prohibition (and, for that matter, before and after) it was not only the place to party in this neck of the woods, weekend destination of city mice in pursuit of nature (fermented, distilled and otherwise), it was the place where the bootleggers warehoused their booze, and there’s a secret tunnel for that under Mono Avenue. You can imagine there was much well-greased looking away by the local constabulary and that the licentious environment encouraged the gangsters to look around. And in search of further opportunities, they developed Berry Trail. The houses on Berry Trail were built as bawdy houses, boutique brothels. It was a perfect set-up. The forest-green buildings were discreet in the dense forest — so local authorities could pretend not to see them. And no access by car meant no easy access by the Feds — Elliott Ness would have to slog through the woods. But then — because you don’t want to make paying customers slog through the woods — came the masterstroke: a funicular, a vertical railroad that would help the wise guys control entrance, while whooshing patrons up the vertiginous 1,500-foot incline in three entertaining/terrifying minutes. At the top, the Mountain View end of the trail, just past the houses, they built a tavern, which was both the excuse for the funicular and where the love connection could be made.
When we moved the half-dozen blocks from Dominga Avenue to this house in Y2K, we found an old bottle of French perfume in the dirt at the edge of the property, still corked, ambergris bobbing in the clear liquid.
Odd streets, odd peeps, ingenuity in the service of iniquity, the jungle plunking middle C. That’s Fairfax. And after five years splitting our time between here and a studio in the city, I’ve been getting back into it — the town, the community and, following the six-month break, the blog. Searching for my soul — even as I try to show the endocrinologist I can drop a few pounds — I’ve been slogging through the forests and clomping up and down the zig-zag, roller-coaster streets of our Mayberry on Acid, including Berry Trail, and falling in love again, renewing my Fairfax vows, arguing with my son, who came home after eight years to opine that things have changed, that they haven’t, not fundamentally, that the distance from San Francisco helps keep the forces of speculation at bay — helps — that there are still plenty of funky hippie houses with big wooden peace signs on the porch and prayer flags in the trees and brokedown cars and water heaters in the drive. And, best of all, a joint downtown called Sorellas.
C, C, C, C, the piano tuner plays. Roni steps out on the deck into the sunny day from the studio where she paints glimpses of forlorn plants, leaving the door ajar and music on, and, with perfect pitch and exuberant certitude, I can hear it was Philip Glass all the time.
39. Summer of George
All that walking up and down the hills of Fairfax is part of a plan to get off drugs. Except for weed. I have a parallel plan to get on weed. While I’ve had a medical card for three years, mostly for impish reasons, I haven’t smoked in two. Probably because I don’t much like it. I’m a juicehead, always have been. But recently I read a study by some eminent Israeli poindexters that said weed is good for you, if you’re like me. Makes some things 16% better, some 17. And that ain’t bupkis. So, I’ll bite. Especially since one of the drugs I’m getting off, for now, is juice — by which I mean alcohol, not steroids — and it would be nice to have a way to get high.
Had a weird episode last month, a week or so after I started a new diabetes drug. Crazy heartburn. I’ve had heartburn , but this was next-level. And being of a certain vintage, I immediately start thinking The Big One. Left arm numb? No doubt I’m more susceptible to palpitations about myocardial infarction since my old roomie Pete — modest of appetite and impressively fit — has been impressively recovering from one. But engine-check concludes it is indeed my old nemesis heartburn — just more, a lot more. And even when the pain abates, it leaves a neurological echo, a knot below the esophagus, along with a feeling of, well, bloat. WebMD offers a name: gastroparesis. Failure of the stomach to pass the food onward, downward, when the pyloric valve won’t open. Then it hits me this is precisely the “valve” that had obsessed another bloated slob in Confederacy of Dunces. To my horror, I’d turned into “one of the most mercilessly disgusting, crude protagonists in literature,” as one critic described him: Ignatius Reilly.
Finally go back to the doctor, and she says there’s a drug for that. And so begins the rebellion.
I tell her I don’t want to chase drug reactions with other drugs. Then I go really nuts. I’m going to get off drugs entirely, I say. Lose weight and leave all this behind — the pills, the “pens” and the Type II that has dogged me for a decade-and-a half. She is almost mocking in her skepticism: “That could take months, doing even more damage.” But I’d climbed this hill once before, when first diagnosed. Dropped 50 pounds in six weeks. And if I’m meaningfully older, I’m not a dram less overconfident.
All this presents a problem when your blog is about an Italian restaurant, with lasagna and a Sicilian vino called Nero d’Avola in featured roles. All this presents a problem when your life, or the socializing part, is about an Italian restaurant. Because there’s nothing worse for the old valve than red sauce and red wine. And it’s not much good for the old circumference either. But I’ve got another problem. Weeks before #valvefail, I’d made a date with an oral surgeon to yank my two remaining wisdom teeth. Dentist said it was why the gums were sore and swollen and other stuff I won’t go into here and that the time had come today. Going to dentists and doctors was part of the plan to clean up my act, even before I cleaned it up further by getting clean and sober. My wife, a Seinfeld scholar, calls this my “Summer of George.” Which is what Costanza labeled his disastrous season of semi-self-improvement. But, of course, trying to improve means first establishing how much improvement is necessary, finding out, in other words, how bad it’s gotten. And that’s the old greasy chute. Going to one doctor or dentist inevitably leads to going to others — if not drugs chasing drugs. When the heartburn set in, Roni told me to put off the double extraction. Too many variables. But I was resolute. So here I am, two teeth down, sore of palate, knotted of valve, distended of belly, and the Vikings have landed.
I know a bunch of foreigners. It comes from when our independent ad agency belonged to an international association of independent ad agencies and once a year would travel to some magical spot and get shitfaced. Magnus, a towering blond Swedish jock, is one of those foreigners. And Eli, a towering blonde Norwegian jock, is his new wife, whom we first met in Talinn, Estonia. But I’ve hung with Magnus in Shanghai, Lisbon, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Paris, New York and, of course, Talinn, going back a decade. Lovely Viking, lovely Viking bride. Busted valve or no, how could I not meet up, with them in my own backyard? Besides, I love foreigners. They make me feel so cosmopolitan. The other thing is, Reverend Kang loves them.
It’s Friday. Which means Giovanni, the squeezebox maestro, is on musical duty. And because it isn’t Wendy and Dave in the back room, Soy installs us in the front, at the big round Family Table, the booth, Table 10, nearest Gio. Me, Roni, Magnus, Eli, Maria and Kang. (Gary, who’s a Deadhead for the Fixx, is up in Tahoe freaking to “One Thing Leads to Another.”) I try not to give Soy a heart attack when I say nyet to the Nero and, when Sonia slips out of the kitchen, I have to tell her lasagna is likewise a no-no. Toofs and tummy, I try to explain with a minimum of nauseating words. She produces a plate of gnocchi with butter and sage, a specialty. “That’s soft,” she says. I am unable to tempt the foreigners into helping me live vicariously by ordering lasagna — they remind us that Scandinavians are fish people (but I think it’s more that these are jocks in perpetual training) and request the salmon with mango salsa. Roni, true to form, has the eggplant paramagian. Kang, spaghetti con vongole. And Maria confirms a detail from an earlier post by asking the ever accomodating chef, her daughter, for butternut squash soup with a meatball on the side.
The Vikings are impressed with the meals and equally with the greenery and scenery of their drive to the lee side of Tam and full of their adventures motoring up Route 1 from LA. Magnus is possessed of a resonant Viking baritone and likes to use it. But seeing as the accordion is right behind my head, I can barely hear a thing, and when it hits those reedy highs, I resign myself, after decades of full-tilt arena rock, to going deaf from Italian restaurant accordion. At first, I think Giovanni is excited we’re there, his old friends, fans and benefactors, after an absence on Fridays of several months. Then I remember that, after some douchebag whined, the Sisters instructed him to keep it mellow until 9 pm — after which he was free to deafen at will. On an ordinary wine-soaked Friday, I wouldn’t much notice, especially as I stood at his shoulder delivering a deafening vocal on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But tonight I can’t open my yap wide enough for even the most modest “sha-la-la.” And at five past nine, find myself struck by new sympathy for douchebags.
Nevertheless, the valve holds. The gnocchi — while not exactly a diet dish — proves easy on the tooth-holes. And I can see Rev. Kang is entranced by the Vikes and now volunteers a comment. With Kang low-talking over Gio’s bellowing box, I think the good reverend is saying that Sweden and Switzerland are such similar names it could be confusing to a new speaker of English. But I’m not at all sure. When Gio gets off his perch behind me to lead “Happy Birthday” at a table by the door, I ask Kang to say again.
At the POW camp after the Armistice, with North Korean officers standing close by, mean-mugging at him, Kang had officially disavowed the Motherland and repatriation to the Communist utopia. It was the kind of thing that, as his autobiography explains, was likely to get you murdered at the hands of the camp’s true believers. And after he also turned down re-settlement in the South, the UN officials, per the terms of the treaty, offered him a choice of four other destinations, two in the western sphere and two in the Soviet.
“Poland, Czechoslovakia in Soviet realm,” he ticks off, “and in West, Switzerland and Sweden.” He’s looking at the big buff blonds, thinking how it might have turned out had he said Sweden.
“But you turned them all down?” I said, trying to help the visitors catch up. “Even after four years in captivity, you held out for better. Or just something else.” And I am reminded of what he went through, in the war and after, and what an astonishing thing it is. Holding out, for another year. And what a miracle for him to be here at Table 10 with friends and family and foreigners in Fairfax, where it’s never really been about the red sauce or red wine.
And Reverend Kang, after a telepathic pause, offers a terse, unsmiling nod.
40. blackberry season
i saw a man fall on the path today. berry trail, back of the house, a mere high-dive distance above the deck where, even in weather that’s not this heavenly, i like to work more than anywhere in the world. universe.
he was an old man, older even than me, by 10, 15 years. a white man, pinkish actually, with neat white hair, neat khaki shorts and a red checked shortsleeve shirt, ironed or permapress. he carried hedge clippers and a red metallic gift bag. i don’t know if he was trying to climb a few steps off the path, up the hill, to clip some blackberries where yesterday morning i’d seen a deer rapturously munching. or maybe, after clipping blackberries elsewhere, he was on his way to further fairfax galaxies. or headed home, via the berry trail shortcut, and hit the dirt part, a rough, narrowed track of roots, rocks and dust — no country for older men — and a rut wrenched him to the ground. but i’ll bet that a minute earlier he’d been around the wreden side of the house, scrutinizing the extravagantly overgrown fraction of a lot that straddles our semi-underground stream. if you can reach without falling into the crevasse — what we call the pit — there’s a ton of blackberries to be had. but in a bumper year like this, ripe fruit hanging over the guardrail into the street, it’s a snap, and wreden turns into a berry picker jamboree.
sometimes, i’m ashamed to say, it makes me resentful — especially when i look out the living room window and some gray-bald ponytailer in indian-patterned pants, is turning his gray goatee purple, conspicuously sampling the bounty and then unabashedly hauling away a big bucket. the world is his collective farm. but unlikely as it may seem, that funky pit actually belongs to us, private property, thrown in when we purchased the house and adjoining lot because it’s not only unusable, but generally unreachable — worthless from a capitalist perspective.
still, i never have harvested the blackberries and never would. for starters, i’m afraid of what might be mixed in. a dozen years ago, overcome by new homeowner ambition, i took my own hedge clippers to the jungle surging over our wall — the one that retains berry trail from sliding down on us — and got a crazy dose of poison oak, with blistered forearms oozing through three layers of bandage and a terminal itch-mania tamed only by multiple steroid injections.
so that’s one thing.
other thing is, i’m grouchy. And — though i reside, proudly, happily and, herein, volubly, in a hippie town — grouchy-plus when it comes to hippies. the show-offy ones, some of them (because i certainly don’t object to george, in tie-dye and waist-length silver locks). the sanctimonious ones. that’s it: it’s not the hippies, it’s the sanctimony. almost worse than the national know-nothingism that has of late been its equal and opposite reaction.
i can see a bunch of ripe blackberries hanging over the retaining wall right now, trying to tempt me. i used to enjoy blackberries — in season, did so almost every morning. but as i got older, before i got my wisdom teeth out, i found the little seeds liked to get painfully lodged. And it meant much unseemly fussing with my fingernail in the way-back of my mouth because i hate to floss and don’t really understand it. i also fear there might be something wrong with berries that don’t come from a store. i know that’s irrational. but so is blackberry season. all god’s critters going cuckoo. deer who can barely be bothered to look up at the approach of predators. humans springing from screeching cars, leaving motors running, doors open, to grab suddenly spied roadside handfuls. it’s the rutting season of fruit. or fruit-eaters.
i wouldn’t even put it past reverend kang to be out picking blackberries in blackberry season, but that’s a different story.
roni drifts out from painting pictures of other plants in her studio, and i tell her i saw a blackberry hunter fall. she reminds me that when we lived across dominga from caitlin, sare and terence — pale, slightly spooky kids, roughly our kids’ age, who nonetheless joined in all the dominga ave rituals, from open-house birthdays to all-hands halloween — their english dad floated plans to take them back to the uk mid-july for a month, and sare, sarah, oldest and spookiest, calculated the blackberries would ripen while they were away, which upset her, in a spooky, half-english way.
i debated whether i should ask the old man if he was ok, but decided that, if he’d seen me on the deck, reading knaussgaard, the norwegian mega-memoirist, and pausing periodically — unduly influenced, no doubt — to write some more, that it would compound the embarrassment, turn it from secret shame to public, forgotten misstep to searing humiliation. so i didn’t. but then, as he struggled to get up, fighting to balance the angles of the hill, the inconsistency of the path’s surface and his fading muscle-tone, which required the leverage of gravity to overcome a situation like this, i thought again. he had that animal fear in his face, skin stretched, eyes stretched, pupils fixed, panic beyond exclamation (is this it?), mixed with resignation (c’est la vie…). But eventually (all this took maybe 20 seconds) he slid on his khaki ass a few inches down the hill, pushed up off the ground with the help of momentum, regained his footing — never relinquishing the clippers (or, as i’d worried, stabbing himself), nor overturning the gift bag (full of berries, I guessed) — and continued down the path in a half-crablike half-crouch that at first I assumed was him still unfolding from the fall, but after watching the last hunchy steps before he disappeared into the jungle i wasn’t sure. i told myself he was ok — ok enough — ambulatory, after a fashion, and headed into the flat, semi-paved, safe section of the trail, en route home with a wild-caught prize, gift-bagged already, for his white-haired wife or the daughter he’d come to live with since his white-haired wife had passed. and what was i supposed to do anyway?
forget it, jake. it’s blackberry season.
41. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
No doubt about it, the Sorellas parking lot is cute. A funky folk-art replica of an Outback or Friday’s lot at 5/8 scale — big enough to fill the tight corner parcel, small enough to be barely usable, and authentically gnarly.
Especially when your car is new.
The main area features perpendicular slots where, with a couple inches clearance, you can hardly avoid opening your door directly into someone else’s, after which you wriggle from the driver’s seat, shirt buttons and belt buckle scraping paint, and eventually make it inside to fatten up further. These are parking spaces designed to challenge a birthday patron happy on a half-carafe of Sangiovese. Or a loudmouth on a bottle of Nero. And that’s saying something because I’m a champion of tight-space driving, a lapsed NY cabbie with an advanced degree in brakeless, side-street threading-the-needle (to gasps and whimpers from the back seat). And, sure, on the east of the L-shaped lot, between the dumpster and Sherman, there are three parallel spaces. But if you manage to wedge your car into one of those, your shotgun is likely to open his or her door into the stockade-style fence and drought-resistant scratchy plants of the Taoist temple next door, inflicting dings and scrapes you will never forget, even if only you will ever see them.
There are a million ways to die in the universe.
My car is new. My soul, bare. I just can’t park in the Sorellas lot. So I wait till after seven when the dry cleaner across the street closes and stow my ride there. The unmarked pavement allows to me park irrationally far from other vehicles protecting themselves over there. It also allows me, from any of our usual tables, front or back, to watch. See whose bad driving is getting alarmingly close, who to chase, who to key, who, if necessary, to kill.
I remember when Roni was first knocked-up, I said that to have a kid was to make yourself hopelessly vulnerable. Same thing. A new car is like a kid, only with three months free Sirius.
I forgot in the ten years since I bought the Prius how complicated car buying is. And I’m not talking about the loan paperwork that eventually lands you in a small back room of the dealership — or even a small back room across the street from the three-story brushed aluminum spaceship of a dealership in a 1948-era quonset hut with 1948 interrogation rooms — where some green-eyeshade relentlessly flogs his version of the undercoat: tire insurance, paint insurance, one-year full-replacement-value insurance, five-year prepaid maintenance option, did I go over the tire insurance? — until it’s darker than you ever thought it could be in July. Hours, days, years after the salesdude has split for craft cocktails, you find yourself still stuck in finance, weary enough, soul-dead enough, rolled-over enough by a day of dreams that turns out to be pulling a trailer full of nightmares — about the cost of dreams, nature of time, end of days, persistence of decay, larceny of men, perfidy of parking lots, and, mostly, the fearsome impetus of the focused sales-mind — to either buy the undercoat or bludgeon the loan guy. Swirling in exhaustion, apprehension, remorse — even, in a Stockholm Syndrome way, misty-eyed gratitude that this bland demon with the gold-framed family should defer the succor of their embrace to proffer the full succor of his generosity to you, a rank stranger — you take the prepaid maintenance.
Can we go now, Mr. Liu?
I’m not talking about any of that, as scarring as it may be. I’m talking deeper: the road through life and consciousness. Sublimation of ego, satiation of id. Love, sex, god, grace, status, money, gas. I’m talking about answering the big questions in the little interrogation room of your mind.
Sure, BMW is a wonderful vehicle, the best. Great reviews. Fast, nimble, well-built. Elegant, inside and out. By some measures, cool. And entirely out of the question. Even thinking about it, test-driving it, is out of the question. I remember when Jerry Garcia was busted smoking crack in his five-series in Golden Gate Park — that selfsame greensward where, clutching a dual-cutaway six-string in nine-and-half chubby fingers, he’d become the avatar of a generation, a non-materialist generation — and I thought: BMW?!? How the righteous have fallen.
That kind of complication.
Where to begin? I’m not a car freak. But I know one, and, in past transactions, have tried to tap his knowledge. That’s how I wound up with a seven-passenger SUV that was verboten in most city garages — except where it was twice the price to park — and drove me to the brink of bankruptcy with gas expenses, back when gas still cost money. So I decided I could read Car & Driver as well as he could and determined to keep an open mind. I considered electric cars and muscle cars and sub-compact cars and big, bourgie sedans. I did my patriotic duty, as a former resident of the Motor City, and considered American cars. And as a guy who loves driving, I did my patriotic duty to consider performance cars (but not BMW).
I discovered my motoring needs had changed in the ten years since the Prius. For one thing, no brats to bundle along. So I considered convertibles and cramped two-seaters and cheap, unbeefy cars. I set aside a youthful bias against Italians, developed when my friend Jeremy owned a Fiat he never got to drive — I was biased in favor of a ride that was not always in the shop — and thought about Alfa-Romeo, where my father worked as part of the Marshall Plan after the war. I thought about the poetry of that and then the price, and my thoughts drove on. I thought about the Chevy Volt — or is it the Bolt? — the electric one, because I was gullible to hype and Car & Driversaid it was pretty damn good, and, while I wasn’t exactly a tree-hugger, I liked all the whiz-bang. On a whim at the mall, I even test-drove a Tesla, the Model S. Which may have been a mistake. From the moment that stealthy beast threw me back in my seat — electric like you’d never thought possible, three or four Gs of the most authoritative get-up-and-go — I was hooked. Ready to stick up a liquor store for the price.
And then they sent me to finance.
No matter how this Elon Musketeer in his green eyeshade sliced it, that price was way beyond the cash drawer of any liquor store I knew. It would have to be a bank. Which is how I avoided prison: by keeping to the plan to keep the Prius — dependable, if a tad shy on the onramp — until self-driving car-bots were a thing, for real.
Then my son called to report the death of the Lexus. His 1991 dust-covered, champagne-colored (I guess) Lexus. I think I mentioned. He’d bought it at 16 with the vast sums he’d saved — like a miser — from working almost full-time, since 14, at the Fairfax Theater, first behind the candy and popcorn, then, at 15, behind the projector. After college, where he majored in Russian, he exported himself to Moscow for eight years, providentially leaving the Lexus to crowd our driveway and soften the landing of the drunk who would one day tumble from Berry Trail. I think I mentioned. And when he returned from Mother Rus, only to leave again for Asheville, he put a couple grand into making the old jalopy run again, rather than pop for a new one. And it duly rewarded his faith by breaking down twice going cross-country. The mechanic in Asheville told him, don’t bother with another couple grand. So he learned the bus system, making friends with a Russian-speaking driver from Ukraine.
When he flew back for his cousin’s wedding a year later, I was beset by empathy for a budding writer and told him we’d give him the Prius. And thus did his journey begin. And mine — through car websites and website aggregators and showrooms, as well as my budget and conscience.
Roni drives, but not really. Doesn’t like to. And definitely doesn’t want to shop for cars. Born and raised in Brooklyn before the rent went up, Roni’s idea of going somewhere is hopping the D — often to the end of the line in Coney Island, where she lived. That’s why she’s so attached to our city crib — no car necessary. And why, now that we’re back in Fairfax, she’s feeling a little constrained. What was the word she used when we drove home from the Sisters last night? Dependent? Cars, shmars — all she wants is something not too big, powerful or gimmicky, just in case.
An odd point of pride for me has always been my car-owning history, which ought to inform my search, but doesn’t, and in chrono order goes something like this:
• Checker Marathon
• Datsun Bluebird
• Yamaha DT1 (motorcycle)
• Dodge something-or-other (65 bucks, no reverse)(h/t to Carol Swanson)
• Saab (metallic brown — not quite as badass as its inspiration, Sandy’s black 900)
• VW Golf (our first new car)
• Volvo wagon
• Saab (not metallic brown)(Roni’s car)
• Toyota Sequoia
• Toyota Prius
As you see, I don’t stick to one brand or category. And some cars I’ve bought used, a few, in recent years, new. And I keep them for wildly varying durations, depending on, well, nothing you could figure. I assume my car-buying behavior is erratic enough — in a 360º, 3D-chess, PCP-user way — to confound all predictive algorithms and leave database marketers scratching their propeller-hats. There’s no way they could predict what’s next. I couldn’t.
Which adds to the complications.
As those marketers know, or think they know, a car is who you are, aesthetically, financially, socially, politically, even chronologically — e.g., owning a Lexus, with my son the sole exception, means you’re old. But what’s a car for a guy like me? Someone who knows brand from the inside — and deliberately eschews it. Who lives in a place known as Mayberry on Acid. Who’s a singer, turned writer, turned writer with kids, mortgage and day job. Who’s not rich, but no longer poor. Not old, but not by any stretch young. Who’s looking for a little more zip when he punches in to the freeway. Digs all the new safety systems — but more on a gadgetry than a self-preservation level. And who wants a sunroof so he can accidentally burn his shinehead.
In short, who — automotively — am I?
Context makes a difference. So maybe the first thing to ask — especially because it’s the fundamental question of this blog — is who or what is Fairfax?
When we first moved here and my snobby mother made a trip to meet the grandkids, I tried to explain it.
“It’s the kind of place where the driveways are full of trucks,” I said.
“It sure is,” she replied, icily.
And it was true, most of the driveways on Dominga enclosed pickup trucks, middle-aged, working ones, not pinstriped restorations. That’s because Fairfax was home to the tradespeople of Marin, as well as a ragtag army of odd-job hippies — the servants quarters, in a sense, to Mill Valley, Tiburon and the county’s closer-in, weller-off districts. But even the music folk drove trucks — players and roadies alike need to transport equipment. A Fairfax car, in those days, was a truck. Indisputably.
There are still a lot of pickups in Fairfax, serving a lot of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, gardeners, hippie handymen. But maybe, to my son’s point about the changing face of his hometown, not as many. My hillside constitutionals have shown me that a Fairfax car today is a Prius. Or a Corolla. It’s a van — Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. It’s a Bolt, Volt or homemade electric spaceship thingy.
It’s a Subaru wagon or SUV. Sonia just got a new 4Runner. And after the trip down to see her son Jack at college in Santa Barbara, Soy had to get a new minivan, a Ford, to replace her old minivan, after, for just a few seconds too long, she ignored a dashboard warning. But first she had to find a rental to drive home. John, Soy’s hubby, a drummer and painting contractor, with double the motivation for driving a van, does exactly that. Giovanni, the front-room accordionist, recently got a new Acura via Uber, where he’s moonlighting. And this weekend I discovered that, at nearly 87, Rev. Kang still climbs behind the wheel of an ancient Jeep Cherokee, donated to him — over her brother-in-law’s objections — by Sonia.
Next door to me, in the drive with the discarded water heater, is a brand I remember only vaguely — Chevy Aveo — from a decade I remember only vaguely. But judging by the subcompact’s dirt, dents and awkward styling, it must have been a long time ago. There are plenty of junkers in Fairfax — ones that run, barely, odiferously, ones that are full of junk — like the Aveo — ones that are planters, overgrown with weeds in the yard. And there are more art cars per capita than any other quadrant of the Milky Way, and they all show off in the Fairfax Festival parade (the selfsame that, 32 years ago, mired us in impenetrable traffic and ensured we’d discover Mayberry on Acid and, decades later, start this account). And, for many locals, a Fairfax car is a bicycle — after all, this is where mountain biking was invented.
As you get higher in the hills, the cars, like the houses, get more elevated. I even saw one exceptional deck with two late-model Mercedes parked beside a late-model Volvo. And, yes, there are Beemers — old ones, with “Only in Fairfax” and “Mayberry on Acid” stickers, down on the flats — and, further up, sleek, scary new ones transporting what I imagine to be sleek, scary owners. But then I re-imagine: even if you’re a Master of the Universe, a tech wizard, a financial bro or sis, if you’re living out in Fairfax, an hour-and-ten from the FiDi, there’s got to be something wrong. Maybe you have a recording studio in the basement. A painting studio out back. A novel-in-progress in the standing desk, medical marijuana card in the hand-stitched hemp wallet.
So what’s a Fairfax car? By strict arithmetic, there are probably more Toyotas here than anything, but there’s so much more of everything else, everything imaginable — including all variants of Toyota — that it becomes impossible to say. And that may be the real answer. It’s a hodgepodge, crazy-quilt, mixed bag. A lot like Fairfax drivers. Or the crowd at Sorellas. And if the town is changing, it’s not changed yet. The irony, of course, is that it’s cars pushing the change. It was cars that drove us to move, part-time, to the city, refugees from a commute that had ballooned from 45 minutes to an hour-ten. And it’s cars that’re driving others, commuting now from Santa Rosa or Stockton, to reckon that an hour-ten doesn’t look so bad, and put down for a crackerbox on Dominga or Meerna or Bothin. In the meantime, having once extricated ourselves from daily commuting, we’re back. And I’m looking for a car.
Check that. I found one.
Roni figured out that if we stop contributing to our 401k, we can afford the payments. Sometimes I think my family banker has absorbed a little too much of my cavalier financial outlook. But if she says OK, I don’t ask. And with the encouragement of Car and Driver, who gave the car thumbs-up, we sign our lives away in a cell in a 1948-era quonset hut to the quietly merciless Mr. Liu, and drive off, close to midnight, in a brand new Audi.
I couldn’t have predicted it either. And it does seem to be pushing it, brand-wise, in a town like this. And maybe that’s part of what my ego was looking for, to be a cut above — not a world above, like a Beemer, but just one baby step up. And if so, I chide myself for it. But I will point out it’s a surprisingly small car, no bigger than the Prius, perhaps an inch or two shorter, with a practical-minded hatch on the back — really a tarted-up VW Golf — and only pretends to be badass in black on black. A3 is the model. But an A3 that’s a tree-hugging, three-way combo of gas, hybrid and plug-in electric. A new model for the US: the A3 e-tron. And compared to the bashful Prius, it is badass — sprinting up Gough, leaping onto 101, juking the potholes of Fairfax. And inside it’s got all the airbags and whistles — nagging, for instance, when you’re too close in front, side or back — all of them programmable, if you’ve got the patience (which no one does, I suspect, least of all me). There’s the sunroof I needed — except these days it’s called a moonroof. Plus, the three-months free Sirius I didn’t know I needed, but now can’t live without.
And, yes, it’s made me wonder about myself, how I ever arrived at this brand to which I’d never expended a thought, why this color, this style, this price, this car, at this time, this place. And when I peek through the curtains at the driveway to make sure it’s still there, I think: is this who I am now? This?
But the creepy part is how infernally well it sums me up.
42. Little Sister
My shirt smells like smoke. Bradley stopped by for dinner Monday en route to the airport. He’d spent the last three days in the city freezing at Outside Lands, commuting north each night to defrost in Sonoma. His flight to New York was scheduled for 11 pm, and he wanted to see us — Bradley and I are friends from sharing insult-humor at the agency — but was worried about making it on time from Fairfax to SFO. So we’d have to chop-chop. Which we did, ensuring his plane didn’t actually leave until 2 am and Bradley spent as much time as possible in the terminal’s most terminal zone, that bleak interregnum when the restaurants are shut and there’s nowhere for a JFK-bound IT guy or, for that matter, a JFK-bound captain to grab a pick-me-up.
We decided to barbecue steaks because it was Monday, the night — darkest of the week — that Sorellas is not open. After a head-down weekend, working on the next book, immersed in the art and aerospace of Los Angeles, 1956–63, I finally took a shower, brushed my teeth, shaved and, for my own sense of renewal, as much as to spare Bradley’s sensibilities, put on a fresh shirt. Having not barbecued for a long time, I think I overstoked the chimney — the canister you load with charcoal and paper to get the fire going in a chemical-free way (versus the flammable toxics I used to dementedly spritz over everything). But the chimney quickly turned the mesquite white and, when I tipped it into the bottom of the grill, immediately ignited the rest of the coals.
“Why’s it so smoky?” Roni asked.
I didn’t know. But neither did Bradley, whose last name is Burns.
The nearly inch-thick steaks took less time than it takes to microwave my tea — which is the other thing I know how to cook. And while I stood sentinel at the Q, swathed in mesquite smoke, wondering how the meat got so burnt, Roni asked Bradley how he liked it done.
I said, “If the answer’s not well, you’re in trouble.” And then, by way of preemptive apology, added: “Don’t you know I’m the world’s worst chef?”
The next morning I figured I’d only worn last night’s fresh shirt for three hours and, miraculously, suffered no visible stains. But when I plucked it from the pile and gave a sniff, there was a distinct fragrance of fiery Weber. I thought, can I shadow Sonia smelling of smoke? I flapped the shirt around — airwashed it — and sniffed again. What the hell. (For a guy who’s been married a million years, I retain some troubling bachelorish habits.)
Sonia Valerie Kang is the opposite of me. She’s an extraordinary chef and doesn’t seem to smell of smoke at all. Amid all the blather I’ve generated about the idyllic Italian eatery and international house of peace, love and pasta she owns with her big sister, it occurred to me it might be time for some old-fashioned reporting — getting to the explosive truth behind the placid Brazilian-Korean exterior — and I emailed Sonia. After what I took to be a bashful 24-hour pause, the demure younger spawn of Maria and Reverend Kang consented to me hanging around and suggested we meet Tuesday at 10 am when her idyll workweek begins. Then she wrote again and said, on second thought Tuesday’s boring, because it’s ordering day. Just a lot of talking on the phone to vendors. And I replied, when it comes to Sorellas, there is no boredom. Later she had her big sister Soy text and ask, could Sonia make it 10:30 because they had breakfast plans with Sonia’s beloved nephew Jack, who would be heading back that morning to Santa Barbara to be a sophomore. And seeing as I do my hillside rambles in the morning and could use the time to recoup, 10:30 was fine. But I could sense a certain reticence. It wasn’t only hers.
That I was concerned about my smoky shirt, and that Sonia was concerned about boring me, that there was an unaccustomed apprehension and formality on both sides, would seem to confirm the quantum mechanics notion that the observer affects the observed, and vice-versa. It also confirms my notion that writing about friends tends to make them a little less a friend — even if it helps make them friends of your readers (all 38) — that journalism (such as it is) commoditizes.
“That is one last thing to remember,” I wanted to say to Sonia, “writers are always selling somebody out.” But, lord knows, I’m not Joan Didion. And sometimes it’s worth it.
Soy was still sealed in the front of her old 4x4 in the parking lot with Jack, trying to say the one last thing that would ensure her bright, handsome first-born becomes a big success in life, when Sonia, squeezing off a toothy smile, invited me to enter through the screen door. Tucked away on the side of the restaurant, just a mad dash to the freezer in the storage shed, the screen door is the entrance to the kitchen and opens onto the dishwasher’s station — which is pretty much on top of the cooking station where, during business hours, the chef sister can mostly be found. Often, when passing, I will compulsively toss a jokey salute through the door (simultaneously fearing — but not enough — that, in a burning, boiling, slicing and dicing environment, it might be enough distraction to precipitate an accident). But to actually enter Sorella Caffe via the kitchen seemed, in the moment, to a diehard fan, a surpassing privilege.
Backstage pass to the lasagna show. All access to Spaghettipalooza.
Two stout Latino men were already at work inside, stirring and slicing, and we had to turn sideways to pass through. I thought to introduce myself — especially since our bellies had already met — but when Sonia didn’t, I didn’t. Protocol? Language? Thinks I wouldn’t be interested? Later, after we’d installed ourselves in the corner at the Family Table, Sonia, who speaks fluent Spanish, volunteered, “I have a Yucatan kitchen. But they all speak Mayan, too. Ronaldo and Eduardo. When I first heard it, I said, What is that you’re speaking?!? Then I tried to pick up a little. They’re just as happy I didn’t — then they wouldn’t be able to talk about me.”
Recently Sonia and I had chatted about a Times story describing how kitchen workers are becoming scarce. “That article was accurate,” Sonia says now. “Mexicans just aren’t coming in any more. When it changed around here was when ICE started coming into the Canal” — the Latino neighborhood of nearby San Rafael. “But I’ll tell you what,” she adds, with a Sonia-style eye-roll — more a head fake followed by a deadpan stare — “those two guys are roosters.” By which she means, there are challenges to being a hen atop a hot, tiny coop full of roosters.
Sonia puts her clipboard, wireless landline, cellphone and nubby pencil on the Family Table, table 10, her ad hoc desk. She’s quiet — quieter, I should say, because Sonia’s always some sort of quiet — pondering her next move. I suspect it has to do with not disappointing the visitor typing notes in front of her. That’s because Sonia is also exceedingly nice. “Let’s check the supplies,” she says, standing, deciding nothing to do but soldier on. Because this restaurant opens — and is remarkably busy — at 5.
Past the restrooms, which are through the back room, behind a red velvet curtain, around a corner, and which newbies can never find — brazenly interrupting Giovanni and his accordion mid-“Amore” to ask directions — there is a beige burlap curtain. Behind this, in a closet scaled to the tininess of the entire endeavor — from the cozy intimacy of the dining room to the awkward intimacy of the kitchen to the terrifying intimacy of the parking lot — are canned and paper goods. Sonia surveys the two sets of shelves, which are mostly full, makes pencil marks on her clipboard, and we move on.
“This is my system,” she says, with a mildly defensive note. “Other people do it differently. This is the way I started doing it, and so this is the way I do it.” I suppose other people have smartphones with inventory apps or laptops running custom spreadsheets that constantly beam updates to suppliers. Some of them may have young assistants. But nothing strikes me as inefficient about the way Sonia’s doing it. Clipboard and nub seem about perfect for Sorellas.
That’s part of what makes Sonia so extraordinary, beyond the cooking. She made it up as she went along — the systems, no less than the cooking — based on what she’d observed in 14 years serving at Michelangelo’s in North Beach, where her sister served 17. “Michelangelo’s was the model,” she said. When the owner, their friend, retired, he gave them a lot of advice and even some of his statuary. The bust of Agrippa is from Carlo, and so was the idea to give out chunks of parmagiano reggiano before meals, gummy bears and animal crackers after. So’s the menu in between, mostly. And so are the “systems.” For that matter, so’s the cooking. Sonia, who had limited professional cooking experience before Sorellas, would hang around the Michelangelo’s kitchen, before and after shift, to see how it was done. Before Michelangelo’s, she’d flipped burgers in a deli and at Phyllis’s on Miracle Mile. “But I’d never worked the line,” she says.
And that was never actually the plan.
The night before they opened, 14 or 15 years ago (the Sisters are not sure), two things happened: Carlo’s estranged wife said she was going to sue, because Michelangelo’s was too much the model (Carlo, of course, said, Fugeddaboutit); and the guy who was supposed to be chef, at least temporarily, and show how it’s done, did a no-show. So Sonia got in front of the stove, and never left. And never, in 14 or 15 years, found anyone she trusted to take her place. Today, with the market as tight as it is, she’s even more likely to stay.
She takes me out the emergency exit by the bathrooms, across the parking lot to the storage shed, which stores more than you’d imagine a little shed could. Just inside the padlocked door is a freezer that holds pasta, sauce and other items prepared earlier. To the left of the freezer are stacks of soda and a large stash of wine — the “cheap stuff,” says the chef, with a toothy smile that’s also cheeky. Opposite end of the shed is the good stuff, viticulturally speaking. “There’s your Nero d’Avola,” she says, pointing. And surrounding the wine, more canned and paper goods, cleaning supplies, vacuum cleaner. “And that’s my office,” Sonia says, indicating a cluttered desk I hadn’t even noticed. Above the desk is a large bulletin board that may have once been part of a “system,” but is now papered over with pictures of Jack, Jack’s younger brother Conor, John’s grown-up daughter Lauren, and Lauren’s toddler Trent. No room for to-do lists or invoices that need reconciling. Barely room for more kids. With each quarter-turn in the shed, Sonia inscribes another scratch on the clipboard, and then we head back across the parking lot, through the screen door to the Family Table to start the calling.
“The vendors, most of them, come from Carlo, too” she says, dialing the landline. There are seven sales reps to phone today — meat, fish, veggies, pasta, gluten-free pasta (“It’s actually a different supplier”), Italian specialties (porcini mushrooms, anchovies, grated parm, blood oranges), and coffee. Days when she needs wine, there are six more calls. “We’re picky about the wine,” she says, “so we can’t get it all from one distributor.” During today’s phoneathon, one rep has to call her back, which he does promptly. Another rep has to be reminded he didn’t get the last order right — delivering double the sugar. Otherwise, the calls are casual and quick.
“For me,” says Sonia, “it’s really about the drivers. The drivers are looking out for me. The sales guys just want to sell me something” As we sit by the window, the California Seafood truck rolls into the lot, followed by Lace House Linens (“est. 1915, Petaluma, California”), supplier of the restaurant’s burgundy napkins. Sonia’s particularly fond of this driver. “He’s sweet,” she says. “He recently had a baby and took three weeks parental leave.” She seems proud of him.
Soy shows up unexpectedly with a shopping bag full of cherry tomatoes. A customer with a bumper crop in San Rafael had invited the Sisters to come pick what they liked.
“Make a nice sauce…” she says to her sister.
“Awful lot of skin and seeds,” replies Sonia, straight-faced: “But thanks for the extracurricular activity.” She grabs a bowl and begins to pick stems.
Soy reminds her to make an extra jar of sauce for the customer, and then, popping a tomato in her mouth, says to me, “Want one?”
I’m not a tomato lover. I love them mixed with herbs and spices in the sauce I used to eat, before my stomach brought me low. But this little gem, a unique shade of red tinged with gold, is sugary sweet — more cherry that tomato. Mind-blowing as a tomato can be. I find myself hoping Sonia makes sauce and hoping, too, that I eat it. And I am reminded of when another customer brought the Sisters fresh-caught trout. I was not ordinarily a trout eater, but Sonia insisted. Turned out to be the most tender, flavorful fish — sprinkled with garlic and beautifully grilled in oil — I’d ever encountered. And I find myself newly on the lookout for guests bearing gifts.
Out the window, I hear shouting, intense shouting, a woman. Two cars are parked at odd angles in the dry cleaners’ lot, a subcompact and an SUV. I figure it’s a fender-bender — though the damage is not obvious — and the woman, red-faced with wet cheeks, is overwrought. A man finally gets out of the small car and walks back to the big one, where the woman now rests her head on the steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably. The man begins to rub her shoulder. I look over at Sonia to make sure she’s seeing the drama. But she’s not looking and doesn’t look at me, staying focused on the tomatoes. “He left her on Valentine’s Day,” she says into her hands, softly, flatly, as if channeling. Eventually the woman, still shouting over her shoulder, pulls onto Bolinas in slow-motion, blocking traffic in both directions, before gunning it, for a shaky, squealing U-ey onto Sherman. It takes me a few bewildered seconds to understand that, here at the center of the universe, Soy and Sonia know all.
But who better to keep a small town’s secrets?
Sonia finishes the stemming. Seated opposite, I type this: “Sonia finishes the stemming.” Having prepared official questions, I read the one I’m most curious about: “What’s the top seller?”
“Chicken parm,” she answers, to my surprise. “In the summer, it sometime switches to chicken piccata.”
“And what are second and third?”
“Lasagna. Definitely, that’s second. Your lasagna. And after that maybe butternut squash or eggplant parm.”
In a place that, in the early hours of evening, is known to be exceedingly kid-friendly (which is why I usually wait till 8, now that my precious-pretties are grown), I’m surprised spaghetti and meatballs is not top three.
“Fourth,” she reassures. “Solid fourth — oh, it’s big.”
Though I know the story, roughly, I feel like a good reporter would get it for the record, how and why Sonia and her sis decided to open a restaurant. “I’d saved up a little money, my father had saved up a little money, and Soy and I wanted a career change,” says the beauty college-grad who, after cutting hair at Northgate Mall, discovered she wasn’t so keen on the beauty biz and went to work as a waitress. “We thought owning our own restaurant would be a good thing. And when we found out about this property from a friend, before it was on the market, we went for it.”
I’m not sure exactly what the odds are against a successful eating establishment in America, but they’re long — Google says one in ten, but that might be conservative. “The restaurant,” says Sonia, with the barest blush of pride, “took off, pretty much from day one.” And I’m here to say, I was there. And it’s true.
No doubt Sorellas is a good thing. Certainly, for me. Certainly, for Fairfax — if not the universe rotating around it. For Sonia, whatever else it is, however satisfying and rewarding, however good, it’s never less than exhausting. And at 2 every day, the head chef, who’s on her feet at the fire for five hours six evenings, drives the three-and-a-half blocks home for two hours of rest. I pack the laptop into my overstuffed backpack and leave, too, fast-walking in the opposite direction to ascend Wreden Avenue — K2 of local streets — loaded down, panting, pained, en route not just to home, but health.
I return with the bride at 8 for dinner, and Soy steers us to a deuce. Roni orders the salmon with mango salsa, and I tell her I saw them dicing the mango today by hand. “By hand?” she says, impressed. And then the Kangs show up, and we move from the deuce to a four-top, with an extra chair on the end. And then Gary shows up. And by the time we’re done waiting for everybody to finish eating, while weighing in on the latest horrors out of Washington and Pyonyang, Soy has flipped the Open sign to Closed and Sonia slipped out the screen door like smoke.
Sometimes you hit a wormhole, one of those space/time tunnels that lets astronauts leap ahead weeks, months, light-years. I haven’t a clue if they’re real or sci-fi or just Einsteinian blue-sky. Astrophysics was something I walled off a long time ago — I mean, how do you stay motivated if you’re just a subatomic flyspeck blasted through infinity? These days I keep my universe within the town lines of Fairfax, Sorellas at the center. But even if wormholes don’t exist, I’m pretty sure I just went through one.
It starts with the new friend I made last week. She lives in Fairfax, too. And I used to pass her house when Roni and I would walk the kids to feed the horses, at those stables where Van Morrison posed for Tupelo Honey. And lately I’ve been passing by again as I hike out to the hills that are making me healthy. I know it’s her house because she lives with Charlie Cunningham, another of those Fairfax mountain bike pioneers who went on to become a custom bike maker and inventor. Through the half-open garage door, we used to see Charlie in his medievally dark, low-ceilinged workshop quietly transforming ordinary metals into what reviewers said were extraordinary bikes, one at a time. Ah, that’s Charlie’s house, I figured out one day. Which meant it was Jacquie’s, too.
Charlie was famous in certain circles, but Jacquie Phelan was famous. I would read about her all the time in the mountain biking magazines, back when I was avid about the sport. She was the first champion of women’s mountain bike racing — and the second and third, too — riding the first aluminum frame — a Charlie innovation she nicknamed Otto — ever used in competition, outfitted with the dropped handlebars of a road bike. In her most notorious early victory, she doffed her jersey, swirling it above her head like a captured flag, as she crossed the finish, top of the heap and topless (top that, Brandi Chastain). A local hero turned international star of the burgeoning mountain bike world, she remained the same echt-Fairfax character — comic, roguish, post-hippie, post-feminist, post-skinny-tire. Alice B. Toeclips, they called her.
Early one Thanksgiving, in the full grip of biking fever, I headed over to Pine Mountain with my blonde, curly-headed toddler in the bike seat behind, as part of the Appetite Run, a local turkey-day tradition open to all. The 20-mile distance doesn’t sound bad, if you leave out the 4,000 feet of climbing. Clearly not the biker of my overweening fantasy, I was grinding miserably skyward at barely a walking pace, Josey nodding against my back, when a rider whose helmet was adorned in plastic fruit overtook me. There was no one else on the trails in plastic fruit. And no one else on the trails — in those days — toting a baby (sometimes, when a track turned abruptly gnarly, my paternal recklessness alarmed even me). And the passing biker laughed, offering gleeful encouragement, before powering past, as if the 30-degree up-slope were Dominga Avenue in the Fairfax flats. She didn’t know I knew, but I did, and was eager to tell Roni when we got home. Because Jacquie Phelan, with her racing dominance and antic and relentless efforts to break women into another boys-club sport — particularly through the WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society, she founded — was the undisputed queen of mountain biking.
If she faded from wider consciousness as her competitive hegemony waned and mountain biking surrendered its quirk, I’d never forgotten her. We even had a mutual friend, JoAnn from Detroit, who always used to say we should meet, what with bikes and Fairfax and all. I was enthusiastic. But JoAnn was living down the coast by then and didn’t spend much time in Marin and somehow it never happened. And then, 25 years later, Jacquie hove back into consciousness, my consciousness, because of what happened to Charlie.
When I started this series I’m calling, for the sake of convenience, a blog, I thought about Fairfaxites who not only personify our little Mayberry on Acid, but represent what’s best about it. By bringing ferocity and endurance — along with a heaping helping of the part some hippies leave out, humor — to her countercultural quixoticism, by turning whimsy into substance, riding around all day on your bike, like a kid, into spiritual practice, no one fits that profile better than Jacquie. Maybe I’d just go knock on the door on my way to or from the trails. Maybe I’d hit up JoAnn again — I owed her a shout anyway. For all my everyday bluster, I was surprisingly bashful. Still, I would find a way.
What happened to Charlie had everything to do, of course, with bikes. Specifically, two years ago, he was thrown by another one. A couple broken bones, nasty bruises. Hit his head, too. Not for the first time. So, off to the ER, no biggie. But Charlie wasn’t a kid anymore. And six weeks later, just when you’d expect the healing to be done, a gasket blew. A gusher in the head — a subdural hematoma, in ICU-speak — that had probably been leaking in there since the accident. Suddenly, Charlie, the deft, fearless mountain biking pioneer and genius inventor, couldn’t walk or talk or swallow. When some mutual Facebook friend posted a GoFundMe plea, I couldn’t help but pony up. And pony up again when they raised the goal, realizing that, though he was now walking again, he was a long way from independent. And that second donation — another hundred bucks, the least a gainfully employed local admirer could do — earned me a personal note of thanks from Jacquie. And then another personal note of: Why does your name sound so familiar?
And that was my opening.
I wrote back. Told her my name might be familiar from the dead San Francisco poet, if she was a literature fan. Told her that, as a onetime mountain biker, I was a longtime Phelan fan. Told her about Thanksgiving day with Josey on the mountain. And about our mutual friend JoAnn. Even told her about another friend Sandy, a genius of heavier metals, who’d had a cerebral hemorrhage. And, in keeping with her wildly enthusiastic persona, Jacquie said let’s get together — soon. What about tomorrow? And so it was that, not twelve hours after the random email exchange, the queen of mountain biking, shouting out mine and the poet’s name as she pushed her dropbar mountain bike through the front door, became my brand new pal.
There was no fruit on her helmet. “That was a long time ago,” she said, crinkling eyes through oversized red and white specs. “The Eighties?”
She asked what I was doing. Which was this, as it usually is, weeks I’m working on the blog. And I told her about my plans for three books. And told her how much I admired her GoFundMe posts about Charlie and hoped she’d turn them into a book. In fact, I said, the posts, which blend details of Charlie’s current condition and the couple’s outdoorsy healing regimen with observations of nature and reminiscences from mountain bike and Fairfax history, are already chapters, just waiting for someone to bind. We drank tea — San Rafael’s own Mighty Leaf brand. And, between her over-enthusiasm and mine, we talked on the deck below Berry Trail for almost two hours. Deep stuff about writing. Poetry (Kay Ryan, the two-time US poet laureate lives in Fairfax and is Jacquie’s friend). Politics. Airplanes (Charlie’s father was a fighter pilot). Friends. Fairfax. The fate of the Earth. Family — Charlie’s, hers, mine. Jacquie wanted to know it all and tell it all, and, though I initially reacted with some of the shyness I was born with, along with some of the detachment I’d acquired after too many years of corporate chit-chat, it was exactly the kind of conversation I crave. I like nothing more than hearing people’s stories, the raggedy, real ones. And then the mountain queen saddled up for the nine-block ride home, because Charlie’s nap would be over shortly. But she wanted to know when we’d get together again.
“Do you ever go to Sorellas?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, as if it was a foreign concept.
“You know, Sorellas,” I said. “The Italian place downtown?”
“No, never been,” said Jacquie, who’s lived in Fairfax at least as long as I have. “Charlie and I don’t go to restaurants,” she clarified. “Can’t afford it. We get our food from the trees in the yard and the dumpsters behind Good Earth. ‘Guaranteed sanitary,’” she added with a grin, quoting the dumpster’s sign.
Her mien was never less than cheery, and, much as she calls their funky homestead Offhand Manor, she now offered a wry, Jacquie-esque name for her dumpster-dived ingredients, but I didn’t catch it because I was spiraling through a wormhole.
When I landed, it was on a whole new point of view.
Here I am writing a blog about a restaurant — OK, it’s not really about a restaurant — ostensibly about a restaurant, about seeing the world through the lens of a restaurant, and there are people — not in Mississippi or India — for whom a restaurant, even the center of the universe, is not a part of their universe. And suddenly I find myself looking back from the other end of a space/time tunnel, disoriented and then ashamed. Ashamed of my assumptions. Ashamed of my abundance. Ashamed even at my shame — there are people who dive dumpsters for environmental and philosophical and political reasons, and maybe I’m just a bourgeois square. Then again, she had said “can’t afford it.” Not “it’s what we believe in.” But here I am writing a blog about a restaurant I consider inexpensive, and there are people — in Fairfax, in Marin, in the booming tech-bubble Bay — for whom it’s not remotely inexpensive enough.
Some of those people are the kids at Skyline our friend coaches, who can’t apply themselves in practice because they didn’t get breakfast, after maybe not getting dinner, and who he has to feed before he can coach. And some of those people are the ones under the blue tarps on Division Street — or everywhere — the homeless, hurt and understandably confused. And one of those people is the mentally ill lady who used to wander in to Sorellas and whom Soy and Sonia, without a moment’s fuss, would serve heartily. Another was Sandy, who in his last years had a job that wasn’t enough and always accepted the leftovers and extra portions we pressed into his hands at the end of a Sorellas meal. But don’t kid yourself, he was multitude, one of millions, tens of millions, kids and grownups alike. And some are loud, naked, hard to miss. Some are secret, like spies or ghosts. And some are local heroes. And the one thing they have in common is they all deserve better.
But that’s not a thought to end on.
• Jacquie & Charlie’s GoFundMe page is here: https://www.gofundme.com/w85tn3dg
• Our friends at WhyHunger are here: https://whyhunger.org/donate-1
• Fairfax Food Pantry is at Fairfax Community Church, 2398 Sir Francis Drake (at Oak Manor). 415–755–3775.
44. Hot Hot
When the temperature soars in Fairfax — which it does for a week or ten days every summer — Roni and I have been known to ditch the vaunted camaraderie of the town nicknamed Mayberry on Acid and escape to the studio we rent in the city, surrounded by San Francisco weather — which, if you haven’t heard the Twain chestnut, tends to the chilly when everywhere else is not. Folks who live in the town nicknamed Fog City nonetheless complain that, with sea-level clouds blocking the sun as diabolically as Mr. Burns’s giant mechanized umbrella, they never get a real summer. Well, on Friday — even as President Orange (Mr. Burns, with none of the charm) was trial-ballooning new torments for the children of brown people, and South Texas and South Asia were drowning — the top story on Maddow was San Francisco hits 106. San Francisco!
Meantime, Fairfax was 104. Ha-ha on us.
On Saturday, we slinked back for a dinner date in Fairfax, a followup — in real life — to last week’s online fable in which Jacquie Phelan said she’d never been to Sorellas because she and her injured hubby, fellow bike pioneer Charlie Cunningham, now the beneficiary of a GoFundMe campaign, couldn’t afford restaurants.
“We’ll have to take you,” I said, chastened. And just a few days later — partly in an effort to reassure a person who’s relentlessly real that I am, too — we did.
I texted Soy to call the riot squad because Roni, escorted by me and one other, was coming in — an ongoing gag I may already have explained. Soy texted back, and, in a nice bit of phrasemaking, said it was “hot hot” in the restaurant and was I “cool” with that. I countered that it’s “always hot hot at the Sisters!” But I’ll admit here, with Fairfax at 100-plus, two days in a row (SF, too), I was a little worried. Because when it’s hot, Soy and Sonia’s glorious restaurant — with windows all around, no AC, no shade, a kitchen pumping heat, zero insulation and a skimpy ceiling that used to be canvas (under prior owners, the place was called Ragtop) — is hotter. The funk of the architecture — a 1930s gas station turned into a 1970s redwood yurt — is part of the Fairfaxian charm. So I’d never want them to change it. But when Soy’s husband John was squinting up at a window by the roof, pointing out, with a troublemaking grin, that a single modest unit could cool the whole place, I assured him his plan would have the full support of this blog’s editorial board.
It was not only too hot to go any place without air-conditioning, it was Labor Day weekend, and Fairfaxites who weren’t out at Samuel P. Taylor State Park were in Black Rock Desert, if you can imagine, at Burning Man. Burning Man’s even bigger in Fairfax than in SF — where the week of the festival makes it possible to get reservations at trendy restaurants and traffic eases by a good 30 percent. And Sorellas was practically empty — on a Saturday. It was also quiet. Wendy and Steve had a fat Labor Day gig elsewhere, Dave was home with Joan (who was home with a hurting hip), and Robert Ellis, the classically trained, wickedly unrestrained keyboardist — who with white mane flying is a cross between Beethoven and Jerry Lee Lewis and who now sits, stands and kneels every other Thursday at the spinet in Sorellas, while on the rare occasion subbing for Wendy — had been sent home.
“Too hot, too empty,” Big Sister said.
Soy put us at the semi-circular booth in the corner, the famous Family Table, and while we awaited Jacquie, John joined us, trolling the table about health insurance, having recently had the chance to use his to the max, following a heart scare that required an ambulance and a battery of outrageously priced tests. A self-employed contractor and musician, he’s been paying for a Cadillac plan from Kaiser for 25 years. Never let the premiums lapse. And now, he’s almost happy to say, it has paid off.
“Cost me nothing,” he says proudly, pulling down the neck of his t-shirt to show the heart monitoring disk on his chest. “You wanna know the real problem with healthcare in this country? People don’t wanna pay for it.”
While his politics have a Republican/libertarian flavor, with a pinch of progressive anarchism in a thick roux of post-Watergate cynicism (fundamental faith of irate lefties and righties alike), John’s main ideology is troublemaking. Soy’s parents were in, but at a table in the middle, where they were in the middle of dinner with an old friend. When they joined us later, Rev. Kang told me he’d met this friend, who went on to be a photographer, when they both attended theological seminary in San Anselmo. Fellow had been a soldier in the Korean War and, on leave with two buddies in Tokyo, had come up short on a restaurant check. Restaurant lady said, Don’t worry. But he promised to come back and pay. Sixteen months later, he did. And a few months after that — Kang laughs, pitch and volume rising, finger pointing the punchline at my solar plexus — he and the restaurant lady were married! Still are. And, 40 years ago, circled back to San Anselmo, Butterfield Road, a mile-and-a-half from the Family Table where we have now convened. It’s a story he tells every time his scrupulous pal is in the restaurant, but it’s OK because I forget stuff. Anyway, I enjoy when Kang starts pointing.
The drummer from Bruce Hornsby’s band came by to say hey to John — tall, skinny shavehead in horn-rims, a regular who sometimes sits in on skins when John drifts off to grab another Peroni from the kitchen fridge or schmooze with other visiting music types. Lives in Fairfax, plays in an all-star band funded by a guitarist who was an early Valley billionaire — “Pays ’em to be on call,” said John, in a nice-work-if-you-can-get-it aside. The conversation, as all conversations this day, turned quickly to the heat, and Shavehead said something about playing a gig in this weather. “Yeah, but you’re just a drummer,” I said. “Don’t have to do much.” And the tall drumstick goggled me through horn-rims for a second, unsure if I was serious, unsure exactly who I was in the scheme, and very slowly smiled. Ah, a wise guy, he thought. Told us there was a guy once said something like that to him for real.
I guess I believe in troublemaking, too.
The sliding windows behind us were open, could go no wider — Roni and I each double-checked. But with not a breath of breeze all weekend anywhere, the front room remained, as advertised, hot hot.
When Jacquie arrived, John started in on her, challenging like a tough kid from Newburgh challenges any stranger. Newburgh is the tough town a couple hours north of Manhattan that in 2011 New York magazine labeled the “Murder Capital of New York.” Like that, tough.
“Whaddya mean you’ve never been here before?” he said.
She said something dinner-party euphemistic, whimsically arch, about restaurants not being on her agenda. And John wanted to know what does that mean. But what he really meant was: baloney.
Jacquie looked him straight and clarified: “We can’t afford it.”
And finally John said, with what passes for a welcoming smile, “Oh, you’re the chick from the blog! Now I get it.”
Our waiter was the new kid on the block at Sorellas. Except he wasn’t a kid. Appeared to have some mild hearing loss, uncorrected. And actually had emigrated as a young man from the Old Country — the token Italian among this Italian restaurant’s ethnic mish-mash. In general, I have found over the three or four months of his tenure, the Italiano autentico, in keeping perhaps with Old World custom, prefers to skip the recitation of the daily specials. And tonight when I asked for a chunk of the Grana Padano for our newly arrived guest, he brought her a glass of white wine. And when I pressed again for the specials — which don’t change much, but sometimes — he eventually reeled off the list with all the expression of text-to-voice: pork chops, gigli pasta with crab, salmon with mango salsa or white wine sauce. “And then,” he said, pausing. “And then we have the, you know…” And he held his hands about 8 inches apart to suggest the longitudinal dimension of the special. “The, ah, you know…with the eye…” And he re-emphasized the dimension, staring intently into his measuring hands. And I think it must have been John who finally bailed him — and us — by calling out “Branzino.”
And when he retreated to the kitchen, John confided, “I love this guy! He’s a curmudgeon like me. Takes no shit from no one.”
That’s around the time that Gary, who tends to show up after everyone else has already ordered — maybe because he’s looking for ideas, maybe because he’s bashful — sat on the banquette alongside the guest of honor. Soon, they were all wrapped up in a big ball of chat. Gary, who was laid off from his software job and on a tight budget himself and who might be excused for being a tiny bit downcast, had yet another problem, needing help — preferably cheap — for a young person who hates the world. And Jacquie, with her messianic streak, likes to help, especially when it’s demonstrating possibilities outside the mainstream — whether that’s free discards from the health-food store or free counseling from whom or what I couldn’t hear over the thrice-told tale of a Tokyo check-skipper. And from all those years of cheering herself to another racing victory or just to the finish of an unimaginable double-century, Jacquie’s a cheerleader. I even had first-hand experience of Jacquie cheerleading, one long-ago Thanksgiving, when I was pedaling my toddler up Pine Mountain. Recently I experienced more, when she took it upon herself to read the whole damn blog — which is why she said she ordered lasagna. And even if she’d never said anything nice afterwards, reading the whole damn blog is a compliment in and of itself.
But it was a weird Saturday. Truly the dog days. No Wendy and band and guest stars and groupies. No Kangs, not till later. No George or Flo or Melinda or Carol. No Heather. Or Carlos. At first, no Gary either. And no customers, not compared to a normal Saturday. Just Roni, John, me — and an authentic Italian — swimming in the sweltering soupy air. And I felt weird about it. It was me who invited Jacquie, and I felt responsible. But I always feel responsible when it comes to dinners, parties, nights-out or wherever and whenever people gather, even if the party isn’t mine. Somehow, long before such unholy creatures were even named, I had been born an event-planner — or maybe a herding dog, like our old Corgi Pepper. I can’t help it. I’m sure it points to deeper character flaws — probably that I’m a control freak. But I like to put people together. Foment fun. Real fun. And often that seems to involve real music, real food, real drink and real interesting people, especially those who might not otherwise meet. I like worlds colliding. And when this event headed for the ditch — or never got out of the ditch in the first place — I wanted to tell Jacquie that, you have to understand, what I write in the blog is the idyllic version. On occasion, the rare occasion, it does fall flat, IRL. And when I say “True Tales of Spaghetti and Meatballs,” I mean — and I’ve confessed it before — more or less true. I wanted to tell her to give us all a second chance.
I calmed down eventually. Or maybe the heat subsided. And scanning the table, I could see it had happened in spite of me, in spite of it all. Gemütlikeit. Bonhomie. Fellowship. Even fun. Between heartfelt soliloquies of advice to Gary — who was getting happy on both the encouragement and pitchers of sangria Soy kept sliding onto the table — Jacquie tried out some Middlebury College Japanese on Kang, all the while, to Maria’s astonishment, sampling with gusto everyone else’s food. Gnawing like an Elizabethan on John’s pork chop bone, scooping up Gary’s pasta, spearing a chunk of my trout and barely denting her own lasagna. Which, admittedly, is big enough it can be hard to tell. Big enough it moved John to tell me that when we first started coming in he used to point out to Soy how “that guy” — and I’m sure he called me that fat guy or that bald guy — could put away a whole order of lasagna! That became his thing about me, he said, with a chuckle. The Lasagna Guy.
“Yeah,” I replied, only a little peeved at the historical slight, “no wonder I got fat.”
But the Family Table was percolating. Roni regaling Maria (and vice-versa, in her chaste way). Kang regaling me. John trolling everyone (and then, getting not enough resistance, drifting off to schmooze with visiting music types). Jacquie and Gary solving the problems of the world — or at least of one drooping post-adolescent. And Sonia, newly liberated from the front of the stove, dispensing Portuguese to her parents, more sangria to Gary. There was heat, but now there was also noise. Light. Life.
45. Little Brother
There are a lot of birthdays at Sorellas. They clog the tables by the windows in the back and sometimes, simultaneously, the tables by the windows in the front. They strain the kitchen and servers. And the guests all stay too long, reducing turnover for the Sisters, while increasing waiting time for me — if I’m holding out for just the right table. Sure, I’m happy for those who put a bright face on their countdown to the Big Dark — even when I’m irritated by the raucousness of their desperation — but the part I really care about is the harmony on the birthday song, which I like to sing and do well enough that customers turn around to check. When I sing harmony with Gio on “Brown-Eyed Girl,” they often applaud. Harmony has been my thing since Phil Leone taught me how it works, 40 years ago, when I was honored to be in a band with him. Phil had been the drummer in Randy & the Rainbows, a one-hit-wonder out of Canarsie that went Top 10 with the late-breaking doo-wop number “Denise.”
Ooh, Denise, shooby-do,
I’m in love with you…
The words were Fifties dopeyness (even if it was already 1963), the sentiment Fifties gloopyness, but the harmonies timeless. And at 16, Phil got to drum-sync on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which was the ginchiest. I think often of Phil, who I haven’t seen in 39 years, but Google regularly. He went on to an early version of Hall & Oates and most recently was in a band specializing in children’s music. He had a cute, funny wife named Paula, who went on to work at IRS Records or another of the indie labels that invented indie. And if he ever reads this, I hope he gets in touch.
But all of this is to say my brother and I are getting old.
You might be surprised how old. Although when a guy can not only reminisce about a tune from 1963, but sing it from memory, you might not. My brother’s a few years younger. And Rev. Kang, who is 87, was surprised. “Looks much younger,” he said to me, with a devilish chuckle. “Is keeping more hair.” Then he asked me how old Lance’s wife is. “She must be much, much younger.” I didn’t pass that on to Jean, which I should have, because it’s a compliment. But Kang talking “much younger” — when the objective correlative was me — surfaced troubling issues of my own countdown clock and my vanity. While the kids always tell me I look young, they’re my kids (and, in their thirties, no longer kids, if you want to do some carbon-dating on me). And it’s true I’ve misplaced more hair than Lance, and that, generally, he does look younger. Skinnier, too. But that’s only because he’s an anorexic food baby! And though I had to concur with the Rev that Jean didn’t look too decrepit either, I also had to inform him, out of lowdown pettiness, that actually she’s almost a year older than bro.
Take that, ye golden youth!
Anyway, I’m not going to tell you how old I am — I’m going to force the yentas to click a link to Wikipedia. And not going to tell you that, on Saturday, my baby bro clocked 62. Which is why the four of us were having an intimate family celebration — accompanied by Kang and Gary and, literally, by Wendy and, eventually, Steve. I didn’t think birthdays meant much to Lance — though he was overjoyed we put together a drunken extravaganza for his 60th — but he kept shouting out: Do you think Wendy knows Happy Birthday? And that’s not like him. That’s like me. But I wrote it off to our psychoactive present — a fifth of Larceny, his fave bourbon — and the pot gummy bear — gift of a cannabis patient back in Beantown, where they live — that he’d suddenly plucked from his shirt pocket and tossed down after the hooch.
“It’s my birthday!” he offered, by way of justification.
He was the quiet brother when we were kids, but that barely skims the placid surface. When I’d wander into his bedroom and, from boredom and lowdown pettiness, start kicking over green plastic soldiers and wooden building-block forts, he would unleash his super-siren — a caterwaul more penetrating than my harmonies and totally out of scale to the glancing attack. “You booger!” I’d snarl, knowing full well what was coming next. Because my quiet brother’s loud siren would summon our father, who would bound up the stairs, pulling off his belt to lay a lash or two on each of us. That was my father’s no-fault justice: any trouble = everybody gets it. Mother said it was because the relationship with his big brother had gone so bad, and he wanted to make sure the two of us were friends. I didn’t grok the logic. And lashes or no, hated my little brother.
It probably started when he went in for the surgery to uncross his eyes. He was five, and it was a new procedure and all the more fraught with peril. For better or worse, he survived. But would I? Came home with half his head wrapped in gauze for a week. Never complained. Just went back to quietly rolling his little cars around on the carpet and marching his little soldiers — which a sighted grownup, or even a seething brother, would have to place into his hand — and sleeping at night in our parents’ bed. Across the hall, tossing and turning in the bedroom we normally shared, I found it the most despicable ploy for attention — from parents, babysitters and total strangers — I’d encountered in all my eight years.
I hated him all over again when he fell out of the Eldorado. Mother was trying to make the left-turn light into the shopping center, and no one was wearing the seatbelts that every Fifties car owner immediately stuffed down the cracks, and we were in the back with the sitter, and the unlocked door next to Lance flew open. And the little bugger slipped sideways and out. I’ll never forget the astonishment in his once crooked eyes, as he looked up at us in the back seat of the moving car — Mother behind the wheel, oblivious — dangling like a trapeze artist from the hands of the quick-thinking babysitter. He was fully out, centimeters above asphalt, snatched from the busy intersection and serious injury, or worse, but barely. And when Mother stopped the car and understood what had happened — before she became ashamed and didn’t want to know about it (or Father to know about it) — she unleashed on him a fresh gusher of attention, even as the sitter stroked the little butterball’s curls and said, There, there. Meanwhile, I fumed over the lengths a quiet brother would go to get noticed — even by me.
But I hated him most when he fell through the glass table at grandma’s in Tucson. Which was a bloodbath. And while it turned out the red was from his chin, not his jugular, five stitches worth splashed onto the menacing fragments and over grandma’s wall-to-wall, leaving a stain that didn’t go away until she died and they sold the house to the city to be torn down for the widening of Speedway. It was pretty clear the stain was my shame — some in the family were convinced Lance had been pushed. I hadn’t. Had I? And in the 90-degrees of Yuletide in the desert, I felt a chill all the way to Christmas Eve. Mostly I fretted it would cut into my presents.
In short, it was a nightmare, childhood with that guy.
But did you catch that? The Mr. Bones of today was a butterball as a boy. Chubby enough that sometimes, despite the hate, I’d find myself defending him on the schoolbus. But when puberty hit, the butter magically melted. Suddenly — just in time — the girls thought he was attractive. Sometimes more than me. Me with the A-grade wisecracking, him never saying a thing.
I guess the hate was melting, too. And I remember the night I noticed. He was in seventh grade, and I’d finished my first year in high school. It was August in New York City, and all my friends were gone, and there was a new Beatles movie at the Guild in Rockefeller Center — a feature-length cartoon called Yellow Submarine, after the song, and anything that had anything to do with the Beatles simply could not wait. But going to the movies alone was weird. Out of the question. And then I turned around and there was Lance. I thought of it as charity. Taking pity, because his friends — his few — were gone, too. So I invited him, loftily explaining that on the way I had to make a grownup pit stop in the park.
It was a balmy early evening in late summer in Central Park, and we settled atop the big rock with a view, through branches and leaves, of Wollman Rink, where they had concerts in early summer, where I’d seen the Who and Hendrix and Big Brother. I didn’t usually smoke by myself. And never in the open. Pot was illegal — wildly so, if the cop had a hard-on for you. But even if he didn’t. And I sweated the extra-legal complications, the familial catastrophe of getting busted with my innocent angel of a brother in tow. I was an outlaw in the Sixties, but often a reluctant one. Still, there was no way to watch this trippy movie without being high. I took a deep toke, figuring I’d get this over in two or three hits and get the hell out. And then the innocent angel asked if he could have one.
“Oh, man, I don’t know,” I said, thinking this could turn possession into corrupting a minor, or some such. Besides, I really didn’t want to corrupt my little brother. “Have you ever even smoked pot?”
It turned out, of course, he’d smoked more than I had. Done a lot of other things, too. In seventh grade! So we got stoned together and strolled down Fifth Avenue, where the stores were closed, but windows still blindingly bright, into the looming Art Deco canyons of Rockefeller Center, where the businessmen were gone. And we scrooched down in our seats in the middle of the Guild — strangely empty for the first run of a Beatles movie — and, after an onscreen introduction by the live-action Beatles, Yellow Submarine came on. At first, the images were all bright and Colorform flat, then the “camera” rose and rotated to reveal London in 3D. The pot was the right call.
I soon discovered that, where I talked tough, my quiet brother was the true outlaw — enough so that a few years later he was disinvited from returning to his high school for senior year. Which is the passive-aggressive thing boarding schools did to kids they knew were up to no good, but couldn’t catch redhanded. This happened to coincide with our folks moving to Florida. But I talked them into not making him go along — to me, a fate worse than overdose — instead letting him enroll in school in Manhattan and live with me in my college apartment in the Village.
Talk about fraught with peril.
More and more, we were brothers. But never got the hang of being roommates. One problem was that the freezer wasn’t big enough for all our stuff — his baggies of mushrooms, my cartons of poppers. Another problem was that one post-beer night when I was yelling about something he had or hadn’t done in the apartment, and he kept watching Star Trek instead of listening, I punched out the power button on the TV. Killed the whole thing. Which before the bottomless distractions of Instagram and YouTube, when TV was all a slacker had, surely qualified as a Federal disaster. I lugged the four-ton monster to the repair shop. But later, short of the hundred bucks to retrieve it, had to leave the TV there. Temporarily. And before I could ever get that hundred extra bucks by writing a million reviews for Creem and Circus, TV repair shops passed from this Earth. When he finished high school — somehow — and I dropped out of college, we went our several ways. Which is when a dicey entrepreneurial episode helped convince my little brother to get serious about something else.
It seemed quixotic, not serious at all, to be getting serious about music when you’re nigh 20. But it seemed quixotic even when I did it, half-a-decade earlier, getting serious about being Mick Jagger. But where I reached the pinnacle of my stardom playing the Cafe Bizarre, my little brother wound up at Berklee, the conservatory in Boston. And when he came down to New York to play me his first songwriting efforts, I assumed — reflexively, as a big brother — they’d suck. They didn’t. They were so good I passed them on to our friend Sandy Pearlman — yes, black-hat, black-leather knowledge-of-nurgeon Sandy — who was a manager and producer and popped the cassette in the dash of his black-on-black Saab and said to me — matter-of-factly, in the way Sandy preferred to deliver his pronouncements — Lance and his band were the Next Big Thing. And he shopped the tape to record labels. And the biggest music honcho in Canada said he’d sign my brother on the spot. Exclusive deal. But Sandy thought there was more out there — “bidding war” was just one of the beguiling phrases he tossed around. There never was. And soon even the Canuck had flaked. And after a few months, we figured out that — as music biz promises will — this one had fizzled.
It surprised me that when they re-released Yellow Submarine they first had to restore it, like a moldy Keystone Kops reel found in grandma’s attic. But it’s been that long. Father’s been gone a baker’s dozen of summers, but even Sandy’s more than a year. And I remember at his celebration, where we served Sonia’s lasagna and Patti Smith sang “Eight Miles High,” it was little brother who brought me back to tears when he said, “You know who’d really love this? Sandy.” So the bitter falling-out, lashes or no, never fell. And whatever sibling rivalry goes on is swamped by sibling cooperation — Lance playing on my records, and both of us producing our lounge singer pal Donnie Finnell, ooh-ing and ahh-ing background vocals in fraternal harmony. And on Saturday night, his big brother made sure Lance got all he’d wished for. Sonia fired up a fancy candle and stuck it in a tall slice of tiramisu. Wendy struck up the anthem of temps perdu — aka “Happy Birthday.” And Jean, Roni, Wendy, Steve, Kang, Gary, Soy and Sonia, along with a couple dozen well-watered Sorellas patrons, sang it to him, with me a third above.
46. Breaking News from the Cul-de-sac
That ether-mixed-with-garbage-smell is drifting through again. After a minute or two, I have to duck inside, where Roni says, “I feel dizzy.” I don’t say it, won’t say it — because I’m loathe to give in to hypochondria or reinforce even the most sensible worries of others — but I do, too. Second day this week. Doesn’t seem to take much to send you spinning — did it just make me stumble? (And will I get cancer later?) Don’t be neurotic. Couple minutes of ether-trash cloud two or three times a week should be nothing to a guy who used to regularly huff to the edge of pass-out.
But these sweet-and-sour poppers are truly nauseating.
It’s Saturday, and I’m on the deck, per usual. And, per usual, the hammers are banging and power tools buzzing, along with the Spanish conversation, at the construction site catercorner to us. Guy’s been working on his house, a perilously ramshackle two-story piece of shit, for more than a year. And it doesn’t take long to guess, doing so without a permit. That’s why the work and the noise — and now the ether — ramp up Saturdays and Sundays. And why the sheetrock and plywood are delivered late Fridays. Less time to get peeped by an inspector. And when I say he’s working on his house, I mean a dedicated cadre of Latino construction workers is doing it, and he’s nowhere to be seen. Another neighbor told me he’s an architect. Which makes sense. Not only because he could do his own plans and oversee his own construction, but, if he’s from Fairfax, he knows our building inspector, with limited weekday hours, no weekends, is swamped.
As an architect, he would also know how much he could add or re-do without getting nailed in the final inspection that’s mandatory when a house is sold. Which I assume is the goal. To flip the dump. It looks like a big house (though I’ve never been in, and only met one previous resident, who came over to apologize for making flames come out of the socket in Josey’s room). It’s an extra large lot — albeit, vertical — covered with tall, elegant trees — albeit, eucalyptus, whose shallow roots make them first to tumble in a good blow. It also looks like it would have a panoramic view of the Ross Valley from its wraparound deck. And it started as such an obvious piece of cobbled-together-by-stoners crap (we didn’t even bother to walk the 50 feet to the Open House) that they must have bought it for a song. Couple hundred grand at most. And in this county, day and age, even in a stubborn old hippie town too far away, a house like that — if you could make it less obvious of a p.o.s., while making it just a little more solid, you might flip for seven- or eight-hundred. After paying for an off-the-books crew and cheap materials, that’s a tidy profit.
He has what appears to be his wife and a couple of kids in residence, and maybe himself. So I might be wrong about the flipping. And maybe I should be more sympathetic to a young couple bootstrapping into the upper-middle class — though I have never, and would never, complain or narc him to the town. But the chemical warfare is testing my old live-and-let-live. And the whole thing has bugged me at least a little from the git. It infuriates Roni. Who may be a crazy artist, given to the most whimsical observations, but comes from Brooklyn, back when that meant, let’s just say, unsentimental, and has always had more practical sense than me. I think she starts from the notion that these regulations were put in place for a reason.
There are three houses on the cul-de-sac — which on the map is more a blob-like tumor at the hairpin of a meandering string and marks the point where the street changes its name from Anglo-Saxon surname to Spanish for a California shrub. In real life, at scale, the string where we live is still too narrow to be two-way (but is) and almost too sparsely paved to qualify as a road — let alone, as it proclaims in the Anglo section, an “avenue.” Maybe it’s a metaphor. In any case, I won’t name street-names here, on the off chance one of the 38 readers is a local building inspector. If The Man wants directions, she’ll just have to go back through chapters 1–45 and find them herself.
All three houses, it dawns on me, were shit when we moved in. Somehow, even Fairfax-style progress had passed this little map-tumor by. And if our place won on curb appeal, it turned out to be riddled, inside and out, with leaky, leaning, decomposing and imponderable quirks. But it, too, was cheap, and we figured we could squeeze another fifty grand out of the mortgage — also cheap — to make the improvements. Well, home renovation as a financial black hole is a story as old as Mr. Blandings or Tom Hanks, so I won’t burden you. Suffice to say that, while they tell you never to hire friends, we hired the bassist and keyboard player from my band, along with our former downstairs neighbor, then in transition from being a sea captain. And now we’ve spent the last year paying bass and keys all over again to fix just a few of the improvements Cap (now lost at sea) and the boys made decades back.
Confirming, once again, that “they” often know what they’re talking about.
The other cul-de-sac house, which looms over us, just above the trail, makes the amateur construction of ours look like Jay Z’s crib in the Hamptons. Not sure it’s been painted, plastered or caulked since the first Nixon administration — though I’m pretty sure it got a new hot water heater, because the old one’s been laying in the driveway for ten years. And while I can hang with that, I do worry the house is going to slide the few steep yards onto our roof one day. Or somehow set both houses alight. But live and let live, right? And the funk of his joint was no doubt a factor in the low price of ours. And, until now, I’ve gotten along with the owner, a crusty old hunting enthusiast who’s lived in the house forever — since (I gather) he inherited it — who never really leaves the house — except pre-dawn with his retriever to hunt and fish — who, in the unlikely event he ever voted, would definitely be choosing a candidate based on capacity for vitriol — an Orange Supremacist, for example — and who is not technically old, but my age. He’s also, I discovered, a supremacist in his own right. Or maybe, like so many, just freshly emboldened.
There was a ruckus in the cul-de-sac, which is rare. I ignored it because I prefer to keep doing what I’m doing — which is often something like this and requires a certain sustained focus. And, generally, a ruckus in this neighborhood turns out to be boring. Pure, stupid distraction. Although the last time I was moved to bestir myself, mid-chapter, it was the high-decibel impact of two teenagers not quite making the hairpin and crashing a stolen pickup into the wooden guardrail. When I emerged on the scene then, I found the driver’s door open, engine running, teens nowhere to be found (not yet) and front wheels dangling over the blackberry-choked pit that’s secretly part of our property. This time the noise was less percussive, but more sustained, still going on when I glimpsed through gauzy/dirty curtains the pulsing blue of local justice.
Time to investigate.
I should explain that the parking situation in the cul-de-sac is less than ideal, but custom long ago established whose car goes where, and the retired symphony violinist who lives in the next house down, gets to park his white truck beneath the hairpin in the nook he carved himself. It’s a shitty spot and makes the narrow road more so, and our firefighter friend Otis told us the real problem is that firetrucks might not be able to make the turn, and it drives Roni crazy because she swears there used to be a No Parking sign there. And now a gray van was parked right in front of Carl’s truck, and somebody was in the street shouting. But not Carl, who mostly lets his bow do the talking.
It was the Great White Hunter.
What I’d missed earlier is that, before he’d tucked in with Carl, the hapless van driver had tried to park behind the 20-year-old blue pickup — the dirty one with the busted shell and NRA sticker — that belongs, of course, to the Hunter. And in these parts, that’s close to a capital crime. And it doesn’t even have to be right behind, actually blocking. It only has to be partly blocking or threatening to block. And it doesn’t have to be for long. A quick pick-up or drop-off will do (as our visiting friends have learned well). Because apparently one of the things our Great White neighbor is doing when barricaded in his fortress of simmering solitude is waiting for someone to go near his nasty old truck. And it doesn’t matter who.
Until it does.
Because here, with a cop in the middle, he was excoriating a brown-skinned man — familiar as one of the construction workers — who might have been forgiven for not understanding — I mean on a human level — what had gotten whitey so mad, but who probably understood better than a gringo could in any language. The ruckus had been going for a good five minutes, a long five minutes, when I figured out what it was really about and stepped out the front door. I imagined that his neighbor bearing witness might shame a neighbor.
“Why don’t you go the hell back home!” he raged at the impassive workman. “Get the hell out of here, you people…”
And he wasn’t talking about construction workers.
Not only had an un-white working stiff displayed the unmitigated, un-American gall to encroach on Carl’s dubious spot, he’d first had the gall to try and park near a raggedy blue truck.The rant went on five more minutes, before, in the face of an officer and a witness, the Hunter reluctantly let it go. And as the white cop returned to writing a parking ticket for the brown man, my neighbor turned to recruit me.
“These people…” he started in, puffing from the orgasm of unhingement. But when I declined to take his side, he tried a new tack.
“These people!” he exclaimed, turning again to address the cul-de-sac. Actually, it was the same old tack. And seemed to have another minute or two of life.
I didn’t walk away, because I was surprised at what I was hearing — in a stubborn old hippie town — and slightly fearful for the construction worker, and not at all bored — just depressed at another ugly sign of the times. And eventually the workman went back to work and the cop drove off and the G.W.H. casually turned the conversation to the burgeoning coyote population here on the hill.
Shuffling closer, widening his eyes, he leaned in to confide, “Shot three of ’em last month!”
“Here? In the cul-de-sac?” I asked, not fully masking my alarm.
“Three of ‘em! Right there — “ He pointed to a nearby spot on the trail, which also happened to be near my kids’ old bedrooms and, more recently, my end of the couch. “Shot ’em with my .22.”
“There?” I said, with as much disbelief as I thought safe to show. And he nodded his head sharply and cackled. “Three!”
And that, sorry to say, is the news from the cul-de-sac.
Back to you.
47. Citizen Kang
When Maria was approved for citizenship and Kang — who’d submitted at the same time — was not, when the dot-gov form-letter told Maria she was cleared to come aboard, at the same time telling Kang they’d lost his paperwork, I ventured a dinner-table improv about a Trumpland security stooge reacting to an application from North Korea.
“Oh, sure, I’ll get right on that — in hell.”
If it wasn’t as funny as I thought, it also wasn’t, in this historically xenophobic context, farfetched. And certainly the good reverend’s timing was unfortunate. The very moment his forms — painstakingly completed with the help of Sonia — were making their way through the lower intestine of the approval process — this close to freedom’s ring — their Supreme Idiot decided to threaten Guam, and our Supreme Idiot threatened to nuke North Korea back. And here comes Kang’s application. But I guess there aren’t enough stormtroopers yet installed to carry out the Orange Supremacist’s every base-licking whim. And last Friday, Kang announced — in his inaudible way — that he’d been approved, too.
He was obviously relieved, and, sure, proud. But it wasn’t exactly American-flag undies time. Because Reverend Kang isn’t so much into patriotism. And in a country as self-congratulatory about self-love — as porch-flag-flying, lapel-pin-wearing, grade-school-allegiance-pledging, pre-game-anthem-singing (with or without knee), seventh-inning pseudo-anthem singing and novelty-underwear-gifting — that kind of thing, in the blue and red eyes of some white Americans, is the mark of a turncoat.
“I’ve had four citizenships,” Kang explains, sitting beside his Brazil-born bride at the Family Table, counting for emphasis on his fingers. “Korean, Japanese, Brazilian. Now US.”
He pauses. “When I arrived in Brazil, I had to list nationality as ‘indefinite.’”
He reminds us of the history of Korea, annexed by the Japanese in 1910 and partitioned — “temporarily” — by the UN in 1945, with the north, after an election overseen by the Soviets, becoming a one-party Communist state under Kim-Il-sung — Haircut 100’s grandpa — in 1949.
“I learned more about Japanese history than Korean,” says Kang, born in 1928 and schooled under the occupation. “I only studied Korean language until third grade. After that, it was all Japanese. In school, in public places. Speaking out loud in Korean, we would be punished. We couldn’t sing the Korean anthem. They even changed my name to Japanese name!”
“And then,” he points out, “Communists took power and reinvented history all over again. So, really, idea of citizenship to me is meaningless.”
Not to say he isn’t happy with his new status. He is. They both are — although, once more, the motivation might not be what you’d expect.
“I want to help someone,” says Maria in the near-whisper that is her conversational voice.
“You mean you want to help bring other friends and family members in?” I try to clarify, leaning closer.
“No,” Maria says, “I want to volunteer.” She means, officially, become part of a volunteer staff. “You can’t if you’re not a citizen.”
“Brazil was so poor it was easy to help people,” Kang chimes in. “Here, I can’t help so much.” He’s talking about helping with money, donations, and his point — which is also something of a mea culpa — is that a struggling American may actually be better off than a preacher from Korea, via Brazil, on a pension.
Their daughters take turns helping “Mommy” and “Daddy” get all they need (which is sometimes off the menu and spoken in Portuguese). While the younger, Sonia, was born in the States when the Kangs were at the seminary in San Anselmo, both sisters went to high school here, living for years with the families of seminary friends. And now in a gentle statement of distress that’s as close as she comes to an emotional outburst, Maria shares a couple other reasons she wanted to stay in America.
“My kids were here. When my kids were here, I was miserable in Brazil.”
“She got an ulcer from worrying,” says Kang. “Brazilian doctor said, Why your children in US?!? This is the problem!”
Kang adds, “And we had no phone. Thieves cut wire. For copper.”
The Kangs got their green cards in ’93 during his second seminary stint, studying for a Ph.D. They returned to Brazil for another decade, but finally in the early Oughts retired to Fairfax and an idyllic cottage with a vegetable garden behind Soy and John and the grandkids.
“I still have family in Brazil,” Maria goes on, “and I miss them. But with a green card, I could only visit for one month. And last time I was there, I got very, very sick. When I came back my face was so, so pale, and my eyes were so red, and I was wearing a mask. Immigration lady wanted to know why I was wearing a mask. I said, Very sick. And she made me take off my mask, and they took a picture, and they were not going to let me back in. After that, I said I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I expect them to say they applied for citizenship now because of worries about the new president — Kang always clucks at the mention of the name.
“Were there political reasons for you to apply at this time?” I probe.
“I like to vote, ” says Kang. “Maria, I don’t know.”
“Well, in Brazil,” says Maria, “until you’re 65, it’s an obligation to vote.”
“In North Korea,” Kang notes, with a chuckle that glosses over the years of torment, “party picks one candidate, and everyone must vote for him. If party member in street asks you about candidate, you must know where he studied, where he works, his family, qualifications — or be punished.”
“And what about all the questions on the citizenship test?” I ask them.
“Oh, the test was hard for me,” says Maria (though her husband wants me to know she still managed to get all 20 questions right). “But the hardest was when they asked: Can you defend the US? And I said, Well, I never learned to use a gun. But if somebody teaches me, I can. And then they all” — Maria puts her hands together and almost laughs — “clapped!”
The application process took seven months total, the in-person part an hour.
“Everyone at immigration was so nice,” says Kang. “While Brazilians are very kind and generous people, in public business they are corrupt. So corrupt! Many governments, so corrupt. The man at the dry cleaner” — Kang points out the window to where my new car is parked — “he is Korean. He said it’s nice here because the taxman doesn’t come first and ask for a bribe.”
John strolls in and sits next to me. I indicate the laptop on the table and warn I’m interviewing his in-laws for the blog. He says, “You should’ve seen him preach. Quite a spectacle.” And if his relationship with his father-in-law is not always silky, there’s unalloyed affection in that comment. Gary rolls in and sits next to Roni and starts talking about my next-door neighbor shooting coyotes in last week’s post. I point to the laptop and tell him I’m interviewing the Kangs for the next one. Then a gray-maned Brooklyn imp appears at the open window, and all hope is lost.
With one hand, George lights a Jamaican-style spliff and, with the other, tries to fan the smoke into the restaurant. Not so much upset as a-flutter, Maria looks left and right and smiles. She’s seen this act before, and, besides, I’d guess the compact bad boy with the butt-long ponytail is a favorite. I‘d guess he’s everybody’s. The ex Merchant Mariner returned last night from three weeks in Europe and a pleasure cruise down the Danube. With the family table at capacity, he sits at the nearby four-top and turns his chair sideways.
“The Danube is not blue!” he exclaims in his dense accent. “I told the people on the boat, Look, the Danube is not blue. And this lady said to me, When the sun is overhead, shining a certain angle, it is. So on a gorgeous day, when the sun was overhead just right, I said to her: See, lady, the Danube is not blue!”
I say to George, “Well, the guy did write that song like 300 years ago.” [Actually, 151 — ed.]
In any case, it’s clear the interview has been irrevocably swamped by surging bonhomie. I tell the Kangs I might call them tomorrow and urge George to tell us more about his trip. But that just makes the salty Old Salt determined not to — George don’t jig for no man. And eventually I see Maria and Kang are tiring, and since I’m still not drinking and it’s Wednesday — no Wendy, no Gio — I am, too. Roni and I exchange eyeballs, and I offer our friends, the Sisters’ parents, a ride home.
“Mind if we make a quick stop?”
Kang snaps his head sideways in a way I know means yes, but to the uninitiated might seem grudging. And, as I make my now standard apologies for the e-Tron not being as roomy as the Prius, we jam our creaky bods into cramped seats and drive on electric power the five blocks to the PO Box. As we wait for Roni to grab the bills, we chat some more. Kang doesn’t remember that we’re departing the US in two weeks.
“For how long are you going?” he says, with concern.
“Are you going far away?” says Maria.
“Italy,” I say. “Florence, Italy.”
A citizen of the United States draws a breath and puts a hand to her chest as if to say oh my.
I crossed the Alps today. Except they looked like corn flakes bobbing in a bowl of milk. Nothing Hannibal about it. Not riding elephants. Riding Air Dolimiti, named for the Dolomite mountains on the Alps’ southern edge, where Italy managed to hold the line against Austria-Hungary in WWI, but, a couple millennia earlier, couldn’t keep out a Carthaginian on a pachyderm. A little Drunk History of my own, compliments of a complimentary glass or two of French red. But looking down at that blanket of clouds with the white peaks popping through, I had to tell someone, and my running mate is snoozing.
Is this thing even allowed to travel? This true story of spaghetti and meatballs in a small strange town?
You would think a thing called “Center of the Universe” could travel anywhere it wants. The whole point is that everything, everywhere, points to the unprepossessing corner of Bolinas and Sherman, that all roads lead to Sonia’s lasagna. And you would imagine that a thing called Center of the Universe is damn sure allowed to trace the vectors that prove it is just that. I think the question arises because, at the suggestion of an editor, I’ve spent the last six weeks, at home and away, struggling to make the universe of a book called Loudmouth smaller, quieter, to narrow its scope and tighten its focus. And the salutary effect on that shaggy-dog tale, already five years in the telling, has inspired me to permanently swear off the meta, the epic, the overly dilatory and other favorite indulgences. But I swear off a lot of things — including French red — and here I go again.
Citizen Kang sent me an email in Florence, a caveman outpost when Hannibal tromped past, en route to taking on the Roman Empire, but later birthplace of the modern world, and where I am celebrating an epic birthday brutally slashing an epic. With clearer eyes, I can see Kang’s note was his present to me. And, with all its unironic, English-as-a-fifth language, 60-point-font embrace of life, love and the laptop his daughters gave him, along with Facebook and Gmail accounts, I received none better:
It was very nice to see your photos on the face book! They are so beautiful… We also like to congratulate your birthday and hope you should feel happy to celebrate it doing such meaningful trip in the trove of artistic treasures.
Here everything is as usual only difference is your absence at Sorella which makes the Saturdays without that jubilant atmosphere! Only yesterday evening was very exciting, with a big crowd of people with scary fantasy of Halloween. I asked a lady waiting on the line “What all that means?” She explained that they are celebrating the feast of dead, pretending dead people were coming out from tombs. I couldn’t be sure if the explanation is correct, but I thought how the way of celebrating the All Saints Day is different from the practice of Brazilians who visit the cemetery on this day. Indeed the American way is more interesting because people could surpass the tragedy of death making fun of it.
We hope you may have a really wonderful vacation and will come back to Fairfax with renewed passion to complete your book. We are missing you so much!
You want vectors? This is a man who started in a village in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, where the crazy Kims have presided for generations, was conscripted into the army and then imprisoned in the south for half-a-decade, and, when, after armistice, the aspiring Presbyterian minister didn’t want to stay in the south, because it would be too painful and too perilous to be so close, while refusing to be repatriated to the north — which had passed from the anti-Christian frying pan of Imperial Japan to the anti-religious fire of the Communist International — when the UN didn’t know what to do with the impossible Christian, was shipped off to India and, a year later, Brazil. And who wound up, after a few more improbable decades in San Anselmo, CA, at the theological seminary, and then hippie Fairfax, in the shadow of the not-quite-Dolomitic Mt. Tamalpais. And, at 87, he’s straining to send an electronic letter six-thousand miles to central Italy. And I’m straining, at 102, with spotty wi-fi and rickety tray-table, to answer from five miles high.
Roni said, Does it make you feel bad? Do you feel guilty about leaving Kang and Maria?
Well, it does. It weirdly does. But I say: Nahhh. Because in order to get myself to go home, I need to keep the escape-hatch open to going away again. But who knows? Shit happens. And the number one number-two that happens is money. It runs out, especially when you spend it — always, everywhere — like a drunken sailor on boot leave. And a couple days ago Roni, who balances the family checkbook, said we gotta talk when we get back. And I forget what euphemism she used or if it was all just done with eye-rolls or head-shakes directed at whatever travel-related scheme I was already starting to hatch. But I knew, by any other name, it meant moolah. Scrilla, fetti, cheese.
Sure puts a big, bad birthday into perspective to prowl alleys and piazzas that have been there eight centuries. But it may yet turn out Dorothy from Kansas was right about home. Or George from Liverpool about away (“The farther you travel/The less you know”). And an email like that from a holy man like that gets me to thinking Sorellas might really be the center of the universe, that — forget Michelangelo’s David or Brunelleschi’s dome — a little Italian trattoria run by Korean-Brazilians, under a dome of California redwoods, with a slightly sour German upright and a stash of good, cheap Sicilian, may be all the universe you ever need — broader than the Alps, thicker than the milky clouds, bigger than the type in Kang’s email.
49. Reality TV
Kang leaned closer and, in a voice I won’t call a whisper because it was simply his regular voice, said, “I’m the only Asian here.”
It didn’t seem like a complaint, but — to a Scotch-Irish member of the expiring racial majority — it also didn’t seem like a happy thing. “That must not feel good,” I proposed.
As if to say he was used to being the only one, Kang told me how the people stared when he showed up in a remote Brazilian village as the new preacher — “I was the first Korean they had seen!” — and punctuated his observation with the sharp guffaw that is simply his regular laugh. He added that when he was sworn in as a citizen last fall in Oakland he was the only North Korean in the room. And he told me how the locals stared and reached out to touch his grandson’s hair when the boy went to Brazil. But I didn’t know what to make of that because his grandson doesn’t look particularly Asian, nor does his hair. Maybe I was confused. Or insensitive. As if to prove it, I insisted on responding with a moth-eaten, second-hand yarn about how fifty years ago people in Africa reached out to touch my sister’s blond hair. And even as it unspooled, the anecdote struck me as not just canned, but a colonial-era cliché, and off the mark as a show of solidarity.
Ordinarily, we don’t roll into Sorellas until 8, by which time, the theory goes, the parents with the cranky kids will have evacuated for another weary round of Go the Fuck to Sleep. Tonight, per Soy’s request, because of the filming, we assumed our places at 5 pm. And though it was Saturday, Wendy’s night, a simulated Italian of Austrian extraction was playing “That’s Amore” on the squeezebox — playing, not singing, and strictly sotto, Giovanni didn’t have to explain, because of the filming.
The filming was for a TV show called “Check, Please! Bay Area.” Which might not seem like a big deal to you, but is “Young Sheldon” to me and Roni. “Check Please” (I’ll forego the Trumpian exclamation) is a restaurant review show where three average folks — San Francisco average (proudly multicultural and gender-fluid) — under the you-go-girl supervision of host Leslie Sbrocco, each recommend a favorite eatery the two others then visit and appraise. The show serves up brief filmed profiles of each restaurant, including star-filtered close-ups of food and color commentary from the chef, and then, back in the studio, Leslie and the reviewers sip wine and banter — mostly good-naturedly — about their experiences. We always imagine we’re going to discover some hidden culinary gem, but it doesn’t often happen. What really keeps us tuning in is wondering who’s going to slip whom the passive-aggressive fillet knife or how the mildly wounded will passive-aggressively respond.
A million years ago, when we lived in New York, I wrote a book about Kiss, and Roni posed as a publicist to finagle me onto “The Joe Franklin Show,” the corniest talk show in America and, until Franklin hung up his plaid sportscoat after 43 years, the longest running. In recent seasons I’ve been bugging her to get me on two other shows: “World’s Worst Chef” — because it’s impossible to imagine a cook more incompetent. And “Check, Please! Bay Area” — because it’s impossible to imagine a restaurant-goer more enthusiastic (50,000 words — so far). “Check Please” was such a natural for me that when Soy and Sonia were notified that an unspecified fan had picked their restaurant they assumed it was me. And assumed I was fooling when I said no. And still weren’t entirely sure when the producer told them the secret recommender was a woman. Alas, I’m not, and it wasn’t. Turns out my long-suffering life-partner is done with the fake publicist business. So these recent golden opportunities were — it’s the only word, Roni — squandered.
The point is, that’s how much I love “Check Please.”
But it brings up a bigger issue: What do you wear when worlds collide? When your favorite local TV is filming at your favorite local trattoria? Is it like a wedding, I ask Roni, where you’re not supposed to outshine the bride?
“Where she’s the only one gets to wear white?” my bride replies. “I don’t think so.”
Duly liberated, I went full flamboyant: custom Hong Kong suit — silk, with stripes of red, gold, black and green — over a polka-dot Carnaby Street (by way of Siegel’s in the Mission) shirt. Roni looked nice, too. We jumped in the E-tron and silently descended the three blocks on electric-only. And then, in a sure sign the bloom is off the rose for the new car, shoehorned it into the restaurant’s miniaturized parking lot between Gary’s Subaru-Wagon-cum-storage-unit and a stranger’s menacingly dimpled F-150.
A clipboard lady stood sentry by the door. “There’s filming for TV going on inside,” she warned, by way of legal disclaimer.
“Better be!” I said, by way of lying. “You don’t think I’d be out like this on just any old Saturday night?”
Inside, Kang and Maria were already at the table, alongside Gary, who I passive-aggressively teased about being extra careful when he backs that beastly wagon out. Kang said he’d thought about calling me this week, because he had a Time magazine article to share, but remembered I never answer my phone. It was Roni who suggested we juggle the seating arrangements so Kang and I could sit next to each other.
“I still find it amazing,” I told the good reverend, as I slid into the booth, “that you and I wound up side by side in Fairfax, California.” Then, concerned my greeting might send him spiraling into dark reflection, I abruptly changed the subject.
“Look at this,” I said, indicating the crew, “your girls are going to be famous.”
Soon the clipboard lady stopped by the table and asked if we could pretend to do a selfie, and the camera guy shot it. And I glanced around at the rest of the dolled-up friends and family the Sisters had summoned for the occasion and was pleased to see nobody in a red, green, black and gold suit from Asia. I was the only one here.
“Check, Please! Bay Area” starring Sorella Caffe airs July 26, 2018.
50. “On First Hearing the Cuckoo in Spring”
I don’t really know what a cuckoo sounds like, but today I heard him loud and clear. It could be because we had a lot of late-season rain, weeks and weeks of monsoonish downpours, so a cerulean dome festooned with pompoms arrives as an overdue reprieve. Or it could be because, on this peerless April AM, as part of the penitential routine that used to be my daily walk, but has transformed, as ability creeps up on ambition, into my daily hike, I’m drenched in it. The staggering sights, but also — if, like Frederick Delius, you listen — the boundless sounds.
The first thing I noticed when we started living back in our Fairfax house after mostly living in a rented studio in San Francisco for five years, was the absence of sound. There were no jackhammers banging or cars honking or pile-drivers smashing or big-rigs slamming delivery ramps to the pavement or warning sounds beeping, beeping, beeping as the scissor-lift driver backs up the whole motherfucking block at five in the motherfucking morning. Or helicopters — whether orange-and-white Coast Guard whirlys guarding downtown’s concrete coasts or eye-in-the-sky newschoppers eyeing anti-Trump demos, anti-gun demos, anti-abortion demos and 5k charity runs that hoot and holler along the Embarcadero at indecently regular intervals. Here there were no drunken post-midnight girl-shrieks, no soul-deep mid-afternoon schizo-screams, never the thud of a body from the 22nd floor on an otherwise placid Sunday evening and no firecrackers that sure sound like firecrackers — as everyone always thinks when there are gunshots. (Although a long time ago when there were gunshots on Woodward in Detroit and Mission in San Francisco, I thought right away it sounded like gunshots.)
None of that in Fairfax. Only stillness. And today as I stride off from the homemade redwood houses on crumbly, zig-zag streets — away from even the gentle quinoa-crunch of our little hippieville — into the unamplified landscape beyond, it somehow becomes stiller. A rich, nourishing broth of zilch. It’s why I don’t listen to music at home anymore. I get too much out of listening to the silence.
And I’ve been listening to it intently since July when I started these walking tours — hikes — traversing the wilds of Fairfax and San Anselmo as they feather into the water district and parklands, rolling in a 20-mile undeveloped swath, up, down and over Mt. Tamalpais — the “Sleeping Lady” of Miwok lore — 20 miles to the Pacific. I’ll admit this raucous silence sometimes makes me wish I knew birdsong. Maybe if I’d ever heard a real cuckoo — instead of stumbling upon a cuckoo-related “tone-poem” I’d never heard by an early-20th-century composer I’d never heard of — I wouldn’t have to steal titles or make up words. But I suppose that makes it easier to tune into all the wheetling, raowing, teetittering, blee-blooping, yeeeking, yack-acking and fridditoriousness that goes on around here. Not having the taxonomy keeps me open to discovery. Unnamed tunes that ramp through a dozen shifts in volume and tempo, before abruptly, but neatly, curling under. And one that’s an honest-to-god pop hit (by the Birds?): seven dulcet tones, up and around the scale, in key, all the way to pitch-perfect resolution. Not forgetting the songs without throats: the jew’s-harp thrum of hummingbird wings that feint at my head — to threaten or check if earwax might be pollen — and the clave-knocking of the woodpecker. Two birdsongs I do recognize. And one more that I thought I recognized, which turned out to be the frantic ch-chitchering of a nut-peeling squirrel.
But birds (and their impostors) are only the beginning of what’s in this sonic stone soup — if you listen. There are other flying things, like flies — which at snacktime intimately demonstrate Professor Doppler’s effect by divebombing my humanely-raised jerky stick — and more delicate winged creatures that seem to be a less bloodthirsty, NorCal strain of mosquito and swarm in droning clouds that sound like knobby tires on asphalt. Which sometimes they turn out to be (“On your left…” the Tour-de-France-costumed cyclist calls out). And there are flying things flown by humans. Because the moment you think it’s just you and Mother Gaia comes the omnipotent, miles-high rumble of a C-5 out of Travis. Or the comic sputtering — especially on a perfect weekend — of a vintage biplane. I shade my eyes. The awkward dodo finishes a last wobbly barrel roll and is gone.
Not if you listen: my footsteps hurry along the dirt path with a slap and squeak, crossfading into the sounds of a rejuvenated San Anselmo Creek babbling over rocks, sand and dead winter leaves. I thump across the Boy Scout-built wooden span bound for daylight at the ridge — where the sounds of huffing and puffing become deafening — and eventually rustle through the brush to the fire road, where I’m surprised to find myself at Five Corners: an intersection I know well from a more reckless decade when I got healthy in the woods on an eight-speed Rockhopper. Amid grunts, sighs and creaking Tin-Man hinges, I plop down on a railroad tie that, in winter, helps channel mudslides and glug down the tapwater I’ve carried from home — the Fairfax tapwater that originated just one uphill mile from here, behind the dam, beneath the paddling ducks, at Lake Lagunitas.
On Saturdays — on the most glorious Saturday in the history of Saturdays — at a major offroad crossroads, there are many sounds. Including, when nobody thinks you’re listening, these:
He: “I was thinking about doing that…”
She: “Microdosing — I think we should do it together!”
Emboldened by rest and rehydration, I resolve to take the steep, rocky, no-bikes-allowed hillside path opposite, the one less traveled, the scarier one. And halfway up I’m startled to hear a mountain lion (which lately stalk our local wilderness — and even more my irredeemably city-mouse consciousness) that’s learned to mimic the snort of a horse. Because, at this angle, it can’t possibly be a horse. Whereupon a pair of pinto beauties crest the hill, wary riders pausing to make sure fatso doesn’t do anything spooky.
I veer back into the underbrush. And soon all sound stops. Really stops. No bird singing, fly buzzing, or highly evolved mountain lion snorting like Mr. Ed. I check the time. Noon. 12:04, to be precise. Ah, midday heat. Nap-time in the forest. But a few beats later, like the world’s biggest double-bass stepping up for a cadenza, an Air Force heavy jostles the troposphere from its edge.
I don’t always know where I’m going in the forest — I used to know, when I was raging around all the time on my bike. But I actually consider the regained lostness a big part of this punishment’s reward. And push to embrace it, pursuing every blind, unknown, seemingly difficult and certainly predator-infested trail. But after nearly a year I can say with some confidence that almost all of them lead back to Deer Park.
As I steer homeward, trudging down dusty Deer Park Road toward the semi-paved civilization of Meernaa Avenue, Ivy Lane, Creek Road, past our old house on Dominga, through the shortcut to Park and left to our new house — of 20 years — on Wreden, the rest of the orchestra gradually re-enters. Birds are joined by hammer, dog, ringing phone, garden hose dribbling onto daisies and carnations, a storytelling podcast, a young drummer’s stumbling paradiddles, a convoy of Harleys out on Drake, the orgasmic screech of a table saw finding plant-flesh, a howling woodchipper cleaning up from the wind storm, a cursing homeowner trying for the first time in months to start the gas mower — over and over and over — and the satisfying thunk of a car trunk stuffed with winter clothes for Goodwill. I pass Peri playground — hallowed ground of sand and rubber where, in prior millennia, my kids used to play — as toast as a hiker can be after four hours of nature-based restoration. Maybe even delirious, because I think I hear this:
I continue stiffly forward — one more uphill… three more blocks — paying no attention to the hallucinations. Nonetheless, she persists.
Sister Soy is in the park overseeing Trent, her beloved fireball of a grandson. As he races past in a peddle car and leaps out to climb the slide one more time, she calls out again and — maybe just the tiniest bit numb at the end of a day in five-year-old-world, craving grownup contact — waves. I limp across the street and, not a little numb myself, lean wearily on the fence.
“You coming in tonight?” she says with a big, crinkly Soy-smile. Adding, by way of slightly bashful retraction: “Gary’s been asking.”
51. 14 Bags
Ceremony of the 14 Bags? Miracle of the 14 Bags? All Bags Day? Whatever you want to call it, we’ve been preparing furiously.
Twice yearly — unbeknownst, it seems, to most Fairfax citizens (but not my small-print-reading bride) — the local waste cartel lets residents put out 14 bags of trash and/or recycling, 12 more than usual, at no extra charge. But more than the thrill of saving the $38 for a spring-cleaning disgorgement at the dump, along with the relief of not having to drive there in a shiny new (psychologically speaking) car stuffed with greasy, grimy, jagged things, the Feast of the 14 Bags turned out to be an unexpected occasion for reflection.
The house hadn’t been seriously culled and cleaned since before our kids left for college, which is more than a decade-and-a-half ago. And since we’d been spending most of our time in the city the last five years, the neglect had seemed to compound. It was a fixer-upper to begin with, half of it added in the wild-west, pre-code era by hammer-happy amateurs, and one we never finished unpacking, let alone fixing up, having long ago decided that we had paintings to paint, writings to write and somewhere in there businesses and children to run — better things to do with our lifespans. So the dust-bunnies propagated licentiously, the towers of books and CDs grew tippier, the stain under the kitchen linoleum creeped ever wider, as the floor got warpier, and the ceiling around the heater dropped paint chips like eggshell snow. And the cobwebs and the cobwebs and the cobwebs.
Meantime, the kids’ old bedrooms got fuller — eventually impenetrable — as the stuff we couldn’t bear to throw out was thrown in with the stuff they couldn’t. And when friends came to call, we made sure to shut the bedroom doors, but not before evacuating the paper-goods heaped on the dinner and coffee tables — “temporarily” stashing bills, catalogues, programs, manuals, magazines with “SAVE” scribbled on the front, business cards, napkins with email addresses, art books, tree books, notebooks and bird-watching guides in new and old heaps under and around the beds. But with no way to say no to a beloved sister-in-law and her two friends, traveling cross-country on Florida teacher pensions, pleading to stay in those bedrooms while we visited our son, now astonishingly grown, in Asheville, we did the one thing we could to avoid abject humiliation: embrace the 14.
El Día de las Catorce Bolsas.
If the prior post was about what I discovered in the Fairfax jungle — birdsong and mountain bikes — this is about the jungle I discovered in our four walls. And sometimes, when big round spiders scrambled out from under an old Amazon box labeled “Important Papers” or I found another worm-like creature stuck to the bottom of a Hertz receipt from Orlando in 2008, they were one and the same. We never found a mouse, thankfully. But we did find a rhinoceros — the little plush one John Morthland, our first-born’s first visitor, gave her in New York — as well as the plush cat we called Stuffed Ivy, because she looked just like our actual black-and-white feline, whose ashes are somewhere on that dusty, jampacked breakfront, one or two shelves above the incinerated remains of her unlikely companion, our Corgi.
We found implements of pot smoking in both kids’ rooms — including a bong in the form of an old-timey gas station pump. And a notebook of adolescent agonizing — a distressing slurry of guilt, fear, poetry and braggadocio — about meth. There were Mel Bay books from when one was studying violin, the other tenor sax. There were posters from movies like “Josie and the Pussycats,” the 2003 Crispin Glover remake of “Willard” and “21 Grams” (with Sean Penn), collected when both were working at the Fairfax Theatre — occasionally serving up popcorn to none other than Mr. Penn, then ensconced in nearby Ross. Somewhere in the strata of t-shirts, sneakers, toys, records, books, DVDs, trophies, and post-pubescent implements of mayhem in our son’s hovel were spools of movie trailers, actual 35 mm film the theatre threw out at the end of a run and that, as a cinephile — with distinct hoarder tendencies — who’d ascended from candy counter to projection booth at 16, he could not pass up.
In every room was a cache of ticket stubs from long-ago concerts: No Doubt at Shoreline (our daughter’s first show, with me as chaperone for her and three classmates), Korn at Oakland Arena (our son’s first), DJ Shadow at the Warfield, Dem Franchize Boyz at the Sonoma County Fair, Guided by Voices at Bottom of the Hill and Bruce Springsteen, solo, at the Paramount in Oakland. That was the time Roni and I dragged our 17-year-old backstage — not then much of a fan of either Bruce or his parents — and Springsteen threw an arm around my shoulder and said to my son: “Boy, I could tell you stories.” Which is one of the stories in my thinly-veiled memoir of a novel.
Point being, what are you supposed to do with ticket stubs? What about memories?
There was an Oscar the Grouch finger-puppet from when they both loved “Sesame Street” and a Lisa Simpson Pez dispenser from when we all loved “The Simpsons.” In our daughter’s mess, there was a My Little Pony — sole survivor of the nine she obsessed over when we lived on Dominga, just around the corner from the combo Chinese/sushi restaurant that would soon become Sorellas. Jumping five years ahead in the pop culture trendline, I found the choke-chain necklace our baby wore the day she defied orders and got her nose pierced, sneaking into the house, awkwardly propping a hand beside her right nostril to conceal it. On her wall was a snapshot of her prom date Stevie and another of her best friend Chelsea — who we lost, inexplicably, long after all the kids seemed safe from the misadventures of youth. In pencil on the wall, a quotation from Bradley Nowell of Sublime, who became the first intimation of loss for the middle school class of ’97 when he OD’d in a motel out by the zoo.
“Good music is good music and that’s all that really matters,” Bradley apparently said. I’m not sure who either of them — Bradley or my daughter — was arguing with at the time (or if that quote would win), but point taken.
There was our son’s Pog collection — boxes and boxes of the silver-dollar-sized plastic disks that were as mysteriously valuable to schoolkids in that day as bitcoin is to finance bros in this — as well as his extensive baseball card collection, which became twice as extensive when our friend Kevin Berger on the threshold of middle-age decided he could finally part with his. There was the skateboard that earned our boy his first ticket — for skating home from the theatre on the sidewalk — which he fought and won. There was one wood and one aluminum baseball bat, along with a ball signed by Will “The Thrill” Clark, from when, after dropping his sister down south at arts camp, the three of us motored on to Giants’ spring training in Arizona. And secreted in a sock in a cigar box, stuffed way under his bed, was a chrome pistol. It took me a startled minute or two to figure out if it was as real as it looked (first thing I did, summoning my training from cop shows, was check it wasn’t loaded), but finally decided it must be a starter pistol. Or that’s what I told Roni.
And what do you do with that?
The truth is, we kept a lot of things. I assembled a box for each of the kids labeled with their initials and the designation “Important Stuff.” And after I filled those, I started filling others. And I’m not mentioning all the useless crap of mine and Roni’s that may or may not have made it to the bags. For instance, a Wall Street Journal article from 17 years ago about how MTV so deftly keeps up with The Youth and a photocopy of an editorial from the Memphis Commercial-Appeal that my mother — and others from the Dixie side of the family — send me every Easter when it’s reprinted. “Jesus, the Perfect Man” is the headline, but I’m not sure I ever read beyond that. It was written by managing editor C.P.J. Mooney, my great-grandfather, who would later win the paper a Pulitzer for inveighing against the KKK. There was a dispiriting letter from one of my editors about one of my books — a quickie, written for fast cash, about dead rock stars — who said the lyrics cited in the manuscript would cost a fortune and take forever to secure. He urged a complete rewrite. And there were notebooks filled with brilliant notions for other books, movies, TV shows, magazine stories and mock-operas that seem now about as brilliant as the tarnished bathroom fixtures. Tucked into a corner were the skis, boots and poles I bought with heedless overenthusiasm when our agency won the Heavenly account — even though I didn’t really know how to ski and never would. There were dozens of Mix magazines, from when I was trying to set up a studio downstairs and gooning out on music gear, and almost as many of Mountain Bike and Fat Tire Flyer, from when I was commuting through the woods to the Larkspur ferry and, on occasion, all the way to my cubicle at Levi’s Plaza. 23 miles.
Roni found forgotten drawings, paintings and correspondence — including from Tony Politi, her lifelong suitor, when he was in Vietnam — before he was in prison — and photos that blew our minds, including that cropped, crime-scene Polaroid of me shaved (not on my head) and gruesomely stitched, post-appendectomy. In a folder under a pile in her closet was our kid’s acceptance letter to Reed, confetti still inside. X-rays of her father’s back. X-rays of her own knee when she tore the ligament. A handkerchief with a big, embroidered L left by Lottie, well-deserved favorite among Roni’s vast mob of aunts. And an uncashed check for $5 from Patti Smith, long before her old New York pal was serenading the Nobel ceremony and installed in any Hall of Fame (payback for when Roni picked up the tab at the Pink Teacup, the late-night soul-food dive off Bleecker).
We found my old black leather jacket in one pile. And then in another a snapshot of me, 50 pounds younger, standing on a coastal bluff in the jacket, wind in my hair. When I had hair. There were hand-hewn holiday cards from the kids, goofy, telling crayon portraits, embellished with glittering stars, framed with popsicle sticks. There was the Marge Simpson doll our daughter gave her mom for Mother’s Day, and the hermit crab terrarium our son brought home for her birthday — when he was young enough to be sweet, but clearly on his way to cheeky. And there were flashlights, in every nook and burial mound. Enough flashlights, in enough shapes, colors and sizes — big, little, waterproof, freestanding, flexible — to start a flashlight museum. Which, come to think of it, might want to share a Rem Koolhaas building with our cellphone museum, because we found a lot of those, too — bricks, flips, Razrs. Roni found that, once upon a time, we tried to grow up and write a will — along with official instructions to the children on when to pull the plug — and after popping for an actual lawyer, filed the documents in a secure, but memorable, place that we could never remember. Until now.
But you’re not gonna put that in a trash bag.
We had enough other junk that it wasn’t hard to fill up the bags, especially after Steve — bassist extraordinaire for Wendy’s band, of course — and his contractor buddy Chris replaced the disintegrating kitchen floor (that was worth a couple bags). And at the end of every long, dusty day — physically and emotionally trashed — we would count how many bags were left.
There was junk we almost didn’t find because it had been there so long. Hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t until I thought our bedroom was entirely clean, cleaner than it had been in 15 years, that I noticed there were two big boxes piled in front of my bedside table, making it impossible — for most of those years — to open the drawers. In the top one was a clipping from my father, who preferred to communicate with his children like a kidnapper, with cut-up newspapers. This message arrived on the occasion of our purchase, 19 years before, 10 years before he passed, of a fixer-upper on a hill in Fairfax. The article, an odd choice for my all-business pa, was a kind of household hints piece and said it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to make your house look good and can really pay off (everything in pop’s world had to pay off) when the boss comes for dinner. Per usual, the story was copiously underlined, with lots of exclamations and checkmarks. In the margin at the top, in a print-like hand, he’d written: “Ideas for Bob!” I studied it way too long, at the end of a long, dusty week, looking in part for evidence of dementia — the nonsensical underlines and annotations that marked his missives toward the end — before realizing that my father’s handwriting would be the last thing I saw as I cinched bag 14.
52. It was a dark and Stormy Daniels night
I had plans. One was to get drunk at the Fairfax Festival. The other was to sit down at table 10, across Bolinas Road from the main stage, and live-blog what happens next. It’s the one day of the year — since the ill-fated experiment of 2008 — that Sorellas is open for lunch, and I like to take advantage of it.
Anyway, Fairfax Festival is a big deal around here. Big enough that sometimes the kids come home and sometimes friends come up from the city, and in any case you run into everybody you ever knew in town and get to marvel, in the sun that always shines the second weekend of June on the west side of Marin, how old they look. The festival takes place annually, and this year is the 41st. It’s our 33rd, going back to chapter one, which finds us stuck in traffic behind the parade and, ultimately, falling in love with the small, strange town we didn’t mean to visit, had never heard of and could not believe.
The fest is part Norman Rockwell — there’s a parade at 10 am, and the schoolkids march or ride Big Wheels, and the kids from the dojo strut in white wraps and various colored belts and stop periodically to do group karate chops, and a county supervisor rolls by, waving from atop the back seat of a constituent’s vintage convertible, and the ladies with the bellies from the bellydancing class undulate past in finger-cymbals and full Scheherazade, and there are art cars and homemade floats — most notably by the residents of Bothin Road, who might put together a big plywood-and-cardboard galleon or castle or spaceship — and there are lots of people on stilts, some in drag and one on a giant old-fashioned bicycle, and the Nave Patrola, a “lost” unit of the WWI Italian Army, featuring eminent local Italian-Americans, sponsored by our favorite Italian-American-owned dive bar, performs a joke drill that culminates in a dozen guys, all in fake mustaches, soup-bowl helmets and fatigues, falling in a heap. And it’s part acid test — lots of bubbles and psychedelic facepaint and wigs and funny noses and grimacing guitar shredders on flatbeds and big, stoney gaps between groups, like the parade is over (but it never is) and old acidheads lining the route, many in the company of grandchildren (most named Cody), wishing they were tripping brains — but it’s contraindicated with Cialis.
After the parade, there is music all day, in descending decibels from big, better-known electric bands on the main stage (Bernal Beat, the irresistible Latin octet with Gail Muldrow and John Molloy, kicked it all off this year) to small, country-rock trios on the bandstand in the redwood grove (where Wendy and her other group, Todos Santos, did an exquisite “Bluebird” that, along with the detritus dropped by an especially insistent gust through the redwoods, brought mist to my eyes) to earnestly unamplified singer-songwriters up the hill outside the Pavilion. Inside that old barn-like building was EcoFest, which to me sounded a little re-education-campy to be fun. And on the ball field, presented by the Burning Man-affiliated Church of the Open Mind, an all-day silent disco, affording the rare opportunity to don over-ear headphones in the unmitigated 80-degrees of left field in summer and hippie-dance till you plotz.
After the parade, there is music all day, in descending decibels from big, better-known electric bands on the main stage (Bernal Beat, the irresistible Latin octet with Gail Muldrow and John Molloy, kicked it all off this year) to small, country-rock trios in the redwood grove (where Wendy and her other group, Todos Santos, did an exquisite “Bluebird” that, along with the detritus dropped by an especially insistent gust through the redwoods, brought mist to my eyes) to earnestly unamplified singer-songwriters up the hill outside the Pavilion. Inside that old barn-like building was EcoFest, which to me sounded a little re-education-campy to be fun. And on the ball field, presented by the Burning Man-affiliated Church of the Open Mind, an all-day silent disco, affording the rare opportunity to don over-ear headphones in the unmitigated 80-degrees of left field in summer and hippie-dance till you plotz.
In and around the music stages, there is food and beer and more beer — Native Sons of the Golden West draft beer booth, Ross Valley Fire Department draft beer booth, the souvlaki booth, barbecued oyster booth, sausage booth (serving beer in cans) — and then, back under the redwoods, by the creek, 40 craft booths and a flea market, offering batik dresses, tie-dyed t-shirts, musty records, rusted signs, dangly handmade earrings, spiritual books and guru DVDs, wood flutes by Ancient Winds, “peace accessories” by Peace Chain Joe, handtooled belts and paintings of visions. And somewhere in the shade, near an al fresco gallery of such visions, my own vision failed. Couldn’t tell what the fuck had got into my shoe and decided my left arch had abruptly and painfully collapsed of its own accord — wages of longevity, alas.
When the kids were little, we’d sometimes buy them new tie-dyed t-shirts at the festival, and when we were hoarders, we’d sometimes buy a pile of records (even when we didn’t have a turntable) and more moldy books and maybe, for Roni, an old doorknob, a box of dollheads or a jumbo bag of swizzle sticks, but these days it’s strictly window-shopping in the woods. And what mostly happens at the Fairfax Festival happened to us again and again. We ran into our old across-the-street neighbors from Dominga, Wendy (different Wendy) and Noah and his little daughter Willow, who’s pushing 40 now and has two kids of her own (Codys), and Fred the Baker, who lived next door and has dropped a few pounds since giving up the bread biz (and didn’t recognize me either), and Steve (different Steve) and his wife Marcia, who’s town librarian and marched in the parade alongside the Bookmobile (I yelled out she was my favorite float) and Alex and Lisa, who live just down the hill on Scenic, but often pass by on Berry Trail, and their patient friend Anne, who I meet, and don’t remember, every year.
But the plan was to get drunk at Sorellas and see what ensued and, after Bernal Beat, that’s where we went. Soy installed us at table 10, and I ordered a Peroni from Heather, pulled my laptop from my backpack and waited for the magic — the story that writes itself. John Molloy sat down and asked what I was doing. When I explained I was doing the blog, live, he offered this lede: “It was a dark and Stormy Daniels night.” He was with his friend Eddie, who plays in the drumline with him (they were in the parade), and they conferred excitedly about the drummer in McCoy Tyner’s band. More subdued than usual — at the crack of noon — Gary drifted in. And, at John’s invitation, we were joined by the Bernal Beat trombone player — a tangle-haired, gray-bearded mountain man, the other Anglo in the band, who was eager to confess he came from Omaha, repeating it to Wendy and Steve when they arrived. If I imagined table 10 might be the hippie equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, with a Dorothy Parker-in-batik dispensing certified-organic wit, I may have been off the mark.
“It was a dark and Stormy Daniels night.”
The other thing is that getting drunk in the day — when you’re coming back to drink more at night, when you’ve got so much left to do on the damn book, and the hangover after Maria’s birthday last Sunday set you back two days, and the round table is turning out not to be the Round Table — never seems as appealing close-up. The best story I heard that afternoon was from Mr. Omaha, who after he told Wendy and Steve where he was from told them how he drove a long-haul truck for seven years and that he used to practice clarinet as he went — well, not on curves or when there were cops around, he clarified. The other other thing about this year’s Fairfax Festival was that the parade was shorter, shallower and, frankly, drabber than any I can remember. No Bothin float (Barb at the hair salon, a former Bothin resident, told Roni they’re all getting too old). No Nave Patrola. No bellydancers. And no giant old-fashioned bicycle. Seemed like this year the town of Fairfax might’ve smoked too much. Or not enough.
After a couple beers and a meatball hero (just one of the exciting special items on the menu for festival day), we worked our way back through the redwoods and ran into Katie. Katie was a parent of a kid in our son’s class and a cohort of my wife when she was the big cheese at PTA, and right there and then Katie invited us to dinner. We said we were already scheduled for Sorellas with our friend — whereupon I introduced her to Gary — and she said maybe she’d join us, maybe they’d all join us, her husband Nick and their four friends.
And I told Gary and Roni I really had to get home, take a break before the evening festivities — my foot was killing me — and started my limp up Wreden.
When I warned her on the phone that our party had gone from three to nine — plus her parents — Soy said she’d make it work. And when we arrived she’d pretty much cordoned off half the back room by jamming together a bunch of little tables, blockading all but one narrow path — so narrow that when Soy first tried to pass with a full load of dishes, I had to stand up and step aside. But she made it work. We all did.
Turns out, I knew Katie’s and Nick’s friends, too — or all but one. Natasha had been a big school activist when I was on the school board. And in the early aughts, Bill was awarded Fairfax Volunteer of the Year (which is how I still salute him), in addition to being a noted local restaurateur, while his wife Carol helped run the family seafood joints — one in SF, one in San Anselmo. Jack, the stranger, was Natasha’s date, down from the Sierra foothills, who had lived in Fairfax back in the day — the glory day, he confirmed, when Jerry was still noodling at the Sleeping Lady (still on Bolinas Road) and Van Morrison was up the hill thrashing out Tupelo Honey in the Jacuzzi. I introduced Soy to everyone — even Jack — before I realized that Soy already knew everyone — except Jack — before I remembered where I was.
I ended up sitting next to Nick, who I hadn’t seen in years and never knew that well to begin with, but under the influence of festival bonhomie and a splash of Sicilian red, the stories flowed. Nick is a self-described townie from Redding, who after graduating high school worked at the supermarket and brought all the beer to all the townie parties. Having shunned college and its automatic four-year draft deferment — seeing as how he already had a sweet job — he paid no attention to the Selective Service notices that ordered him to report. Some time after notice three, the FBI woke him early one morning at his parents’ house. With a rare combination of cluelessness and gall, he asked the G-men: How am I supposed to go to the draft board when I gotta be at work?
But he was smarter than he seemed. And with his mother running a bookstore, he was better-read than most of the kids who did opt for deferment. The Army noticed. In return for a five-year commitment, a senior officer offered to send him to West Point prep school and then put him to work stateside in intelligence. With a rare combination of cluelessness and gall, the 18-year-old told the officer he knew the difference between two and five years and his answer was simple: Fuck you.
“I actually said, ‘Fuck you,’” Nick said.
They made him a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam, where for 14 months he got a whole different kind of smart.
He looks you in the eye and talks with a surging intensity — a rare combination of passion and cynicism, geniality and indignation — as he hunches his six-three bean-pole self over the table. After Nam, he went on to get a masters, which led to a job even better than the Redding supermarket (though with less free beer) working on Bay Area environmental issues. And today with his little round Harold Lloyd specs and curly moptop, far from the rough-and-ready townie, he looks like a professor — but one who’s approachable and with-it.
“Have you ever thought of writing your story?” I said.
I already knew one chapter went horribly dark. Everyone among their old PTA friends and small-town neighbors knew. A year-and-half ago the kid who was in the class with my kid, a lovely sweet girl, who’d gone on to be a lovely sweet accomplished woman, not yet 30, was lost in an icy car accident in the boonies, where she was working on environmental issues. The unthinkable, if not the unendurable. (Just a month after our daughter’s friend Chelsea.) Roni, who was closer with Katie, had commiserated months before. But I wasn’t around, wasn’t close, and, well, it certainly didn’t seem right to bring it up at a Fairfax Festival dinner. After all, you have to make sure the wounded get a chance to rejoin stupid everyday life, don’t you?
“After we lost our daughter,” he went on, “I was convinced to go to a writing class run by a vet. And when I wanted to work on children’s stories — these Brown Bear stories I’d told the kids when they were little. The guy said, I don’t wanna hear Brown Bear stories, I wanna hear about Vietnam.”
Mostly, we talked around the dark parts, here in the frothy post-festival back room, where Wendy and Steve were trying loudly to get a tune in edgewise. I held forth on the therapeutic effects of writing — not just the unburdening, the forcing light into recesses — and told him about the unexpected genesis of my novel in the suicide of a stranger. Not the same kind of trauma, I averred, but trauma nonetheless. Even the genesis of this blog in the trauma of tending to our desperately afflicted friend Sandy. You have to write it down, I said. And after a beat that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure, he gave a single nod and said the vet who runs the program says the writing’s going well.
Then with a rare combination of nerve and astonishment, he told me that four weeks after his daughter’s accident he’d been diagnosed with cancer.
“Oh, my god, I had no idea,” I said. And I hadn’t and couldn’t.
“Cancer of the tongue, way back there,” he explained, pointing. “Had to pull my tongue all the way out. When I woke up after the operation, I wondered why my jaw hurt so much.” He actually laughed.
“They got it,” he added. “No chemo or radiation. But for six months it was hard to eat and drink, hard to swallow. And it seemed to delay my grieving, so a lot of that I’m only working through now.”
I had plans for the day. But, as always, the day had plans for me. And the next morning stupid everyday life was back in all its variegated glory.
I got up early to check on the overnight results of my weeks-long, Wiley-Coyote war with the raccoons, then viciously upturning our lawn. Threw on a shirt and shorts, slid into my shoes and quickly realized the fallen-arch issue had not been cured by a night’s rest. Limped out to the yard, replacing divots and re-stretching the anti-critter netting, limped back in and, with a pained exclamation that was more pathetic plea for sympathy, kicked off the shoes.
“Have you looked inside those shoes?” Roni responded. “Let me see those things.”
“Leave me alone,” I protested, “I’m eating breakfast.”
Undeterred, she retrieved the dusty Merrell slip-ons and fished around inside.
“Do you know,” she exclaimed, brandishing corroded metal, “there’s a nail in here — all the way through!”
I had plans, but, after finishing my scrambled free-range eggs with cheese, checked the puncture hole in my left foot, slipped on my Kiss sneakers and headed out for a tetanus shot.
53. Happy Trails
I’m a rocker. Baby, I’m a rocker. And if I’m not a young rocker anymore, well, never you mind. In any case, an organized hike “exploring our public paths and right-of-ways” at such an earnest hour on a Saturday, overseen by such an earnest organization as Sustainable Fairfax, is not something my public — that is, the acid-tongued peanut gallery in my head — would expect. Even without a hangover, that would hurt. But the route encompassed Frustuck and Berry Trail, skirted our property and finished on Manzanita, all of which was smack-dab in my hiking ambit. And after much conscience-wrestling, I decided it was worth the loss of dignity.
My worst fears, of course, were instantly confirmed. Not only was it a pack of geezers, it was hippies from central casting, all tie-dye and gray ponytails, not a black leather jacket in sight. I tried to tell myself it was the counterculture vibe that attracted us to Fairfax in the first place, that underneath the leather (strictly metaphorical in this weather) I was tie-dye, too. But I also had to laugh — with all that fashion-backward authenticity on display. And though this was an event by and about Fairfax, a third of the 24 hikers were from San Anselmo or San Rafael, while one, who has a son living here, came for the festival — which, it now dawned on her, was still a week away. All of which serves to reinforce that our Mayberry-on-Acid, in the lee of Mt. Tam, is not just a small town, but a sovereign state — trans-geographical, trans-chronological and militantly post-rational — of mind.
But I was here for the trails.
It has often occurred to me since moving to Fairfax that the character of a town can be measured by the quantity, complexity, utility and even the obscurity of its shortcuts and footpaths. Certainly every town where childhood is worth remembering has a few good shortcuts. It was a rite of passage for our kids — at seven or eight — to go through the secret path, narrow and tree-shrouded, from Dominga Avenue to Bolinas Road, never having to cross a street, to bring back yogurt or organic fruit roll-ups from Good Earth, the hippie-food superstore when it was tiny, funky and crammed in where the wine bar is, next to Sorellas. So in that regard, Fairfax has character to spare. And the Sustainables have wisely homed in on it. Fixing trails, footpaths and shortcuts that had become overgrown or impassable, resurrecting others that were no longer just delightfully obscure, a townie’s insider knowledge, but completely forgotten. The tree-huggers, to their credit, actually sat down with the old town maps.
The hike started in downtown at the Parkade (the hyperbolically named parking lot that used to be the town’s train platform), and as we crossed the street and headed for the hills, we passed Bev’s Hair Design, where I waved through the window at Roni, in the chair for her monthly maintenance, and Barb, the veteran hairdresser, fount of Fairfax news and honored guest at our daughter’s wedding, and the whole thing felt so warm and cozy and small-town — Penny Lane, indeed — that my eyes brimmed with untoward moisture.
The hike MC was a mustachioed 40-something shinehead named John Reed (namesake of the only American — until our president passes — interred in the Kremlin wall), a Sustainable Fairfax member who also happens to be the current Fairfax mayor. Of particular fascination to me was the funicular, the Depression-era tram our otherwise well-spoken head-of-state kept calling the “funincular.” And while I found myself dying to leap up — like a character in a Rachel Cusk novel — I let it go, in the interest of peace-and-love. I was intrigued to hear there were actually four stops along the tram’s precipitous 1.5-mile journey, and that the terminus was at a long-gone inn on the ridge by the water tanks — another of the places I like to walk. But when he delved into the speakeasys, with only a euphemistic aside about “other stuff,” never mentioning the whorehouse — that is, the series of cabins strung out along Berry Trail for the purposes of sex work — I could stifle no longer. Resisting the urge to call him out in front of the entire Woodstock Nation, I found a discreet moment as we walked. Of course, he knew about the brothel.
“But I didn’t want to…” Hizzonner began, with nary a smile.
“Shock their delicate Fairfax sensibilities?” I finished.
Turns out the mayor of Fairfax is a bit of a prude or maybe just a politician.
He was also a genial and well-informed MC, and I learned about several substantial shortcuts — some of which appeared, at first glance, to merely be paths to private homes — that had long been hiding in plain sight. But when we paused at the entrance to one covert path, I was ready.
“Does anyone know Berry Trail?” the mayor asked.
I waited for a beat, surreptitiously scanning the faces. And when no one raised their hand, I — like a fifth-grade brown-noser — proudly pushed mine high.
“I live on Berry Trail,” I announced.
No one gasped. And when we passed my backyard, newly restored and fully abloom in red, purple, pink, white and green, there was but one admiring exclamation. Still another fellow hiker, pointing out the 20 vertical feet of proximity, asked if I didn’t mind being so exposed to people walking by on the trail. I promptly jiu-jitsued her negativity.
“At first I had privacy concerns,” I said, “but now I really like it.”
And it’s true. There are only maybe a couple dozen passersby a day — fewer in the rainy season — and living beneath Berry Trail, a skinny footpath through the woods with two streetlamps and a manhole cover, is like living in another century, or the hollows of West Virginia, and in any case weird enough to be appealing to weirdos like us.
After we tiptoed around the upturned garbage cans, broken truck and discarded water heater in my neighbor’s dirt driveway — which is actually the beginning of Berry Trail, speaking of obscure — MC Reed stopped again, where Wreden turns into Manzanita, to tell us about the final leg of the journey. I flashed that it was Saturday and quickly texted Soy our attendance figures for the evening — Val, Gary, the Kangs (of course) and us, but no Jacquie, who was off to Vermont for her fortieth Middlebury reunion. The new trail on Manzanita, the mayor was explaining, only opened two weeks before and goes all the way down to Frustuck, the other end of Frustuck. Now, I walk on Manzanita almost every day I walk and still couldn’t picture it. Nor could I remember seeing any Sustainable Fairfax crews working in the vicinity. But at the crest of the short rise, just past the intersection of Mountain View, there it was. Again, in plain sight. A wide, shady staircase of packed dirt and railroad ties that ran down a neighbor’s fence, through the gate to another’s sideyard (grandfathered in), all the way to the cheerfully ramshackle Fairfax compound where Josey’s old schoolmates, Katy and Whitney, used to live and where their artist parents Martha and Richard still live and work, their Model T barely tucked into the jampacked garage.
It was the mayor’s first time on the new trail, he said. And at the head of the staircase, a Sustainable comrade suggested he pose for pics. I asked the name of the new shortcut, and Reed said it doesn’t have one yet.
“The Manzanita-Frustuck Trail?” he ventured.
“Aw, you gotta give it a glorious name,” I said, with a grin. “a fun name.” A prospect I imagined would provoke light banter from the crowd.
Instead, I was set upon by a short-cropped fireplug of an Earth Mother, who reacted as if, somehow, I’d already made it happen, preemptively trampling her inalienable democratic rights.
“No!” she insisted, with a brusqueness that shaded well into pique. “I want a practical, descriptive name. Man-Frus Steps. Or Frusanita.”
Feeling like we might be slipping into some kind of dismal Trump-era loop, I decided at the bottom not to swing back to the Parkade or join the Sustainable folks for lunch at Iron Springs Brewing and, after offering profuse thanks to our fearless leader, headed back up the Man-Frus Steps alone.
54. The Unvanquished
I regret to inform you Dave is no longer appearing at Sorellas.
There are some who might argue that — officially — he was never appearing in the first place, that the gig in the back was Wendy’s, and Dave and his pocket trumpet, and pocket voicebox, were merely invited to jam. An open-ended invitation, for sure, but still he was a visitor, not a resident.
Others might say this scuffed-up hepcat from Chet Baker planet, who continues to fill his leathery sacs with tar, even as he tools around town breathless on a Rascal, has shed the capacity to blow in any way the auteurs of the American Songbook might have envisaged. As to his gloriously exhausted vocal instrument — Satchmo meets Goulet meets Anthony Newley — sometimes these days, they might add, all that comes out is hiss, no tone. Sometimes no words — Wendy quietly prompting him or leapfrogging to the bridge when, despite her prompting, Dave skids off the map.
But who’s to say the squibs and squeals of Dave’s playing and the leaking-tire passages of his singing aren’t music of an even higher order, at least as credible as the polished performances of his fully oxygenated youth (which, alas, never made it to wax)? Seems to me that whether viewed as avant-garde abstraction or red-raw naturalism — chronicle of our timeless grapple with the gargoyles of time — the noises Dave makes are every bit as moving as “Autumn Leaves.” Or more so. Gleb, the young Russian music writer, was mesmerized. Called his night in the back room with Wendy and Dave the best of his whole California trip.
And now, no matter your p.o.v., there’s yet another sense in which Dave is not playing Sorellas. It’s the practical (vs. metaphorical, artistic or spiritual) sense that he simply is not. Not appearing, not sitting in, not singing, not pressing his pocket trumpet to a less tender zone on his embouchure and trying again to toot. Nothing. Done. Finito.
It doesn’t much matter why.
Oh, there may have been a verbal tussle with an annoying customer or with a friend of Wendy’s, a singer who stopped by to try a tune or two and whom Dave may have accused of “stealing my gig.” And, sure, like the rest of us, the man has experienced some fuzziness over the last year — which has meant a little more hiss, a little less stamina and a slackening in sartorial and tonsorial aspirations. Though in Dave’s case, that fuzz comes with a better-than-average alibi, as it coincides with Joan, his indefatigable helpmeet, having all that immobilizing pain and then a double hip replacement. Not to mention him turning 88, fer chrissakes. Still, it was probably for the best — for Dave, for everyone — when Wendy dropped the bug in his hearing aid last fall that he might want to cut his Saturday night appearances from two hours to one. Which he did, perhaps gratefully.
Now in the fullness of Fairfax spring, Wendy Fitz found herself back on the spot. After the recent awkwardness in the back room, it was Wendy — not only band leader, but Dave’s friend — who was expected to tell him he might have to cut his one-hour Saturday cameos to zero. Wendy, who’d been so patient and gracious over the years, who long ago could have chewed out Dave for stealing her gig — and nights she went most of a set without singing, she’d have had an airtight case — but who never did, who kept on playing (and prompting) at his side in what could only be seen as an act of vision, generosity and, it occurs to me after last Monday night, love.
There’s a lot of love out there for Dave Bergman. I know because, last Monday, a lot of it was out there at our place.
It just didn’t seem right that Dave should shuffle out the back door into the Sorellas parking lot, fire up another Pall Mall and Rascal off into the Ross Valley sunset. So we decided to throw a house party, his very own headlining gig — Club Dave, we called it on the flyer. Wendy was not just relieved, but enthusiastic. She would gather the rest of the band — Steve and John, no less psyched — and put together a guest list of Dave’s nearest and dearest. Roni and I would do the rest — well, except for the slaving over a hot, smoky bbq, which we managed to fob off on Val (hereafter known as the Nicest Person in the World). Since the sisters would have to be there, the party would have to be on a Monday, the restaurant industry night-off. And since — as Wendy was quick to point out — the guest of honor was leaning a little fragile, best if the date was sooner. Though I didn’t anticipate resistance, I did ask Fitz to help make sure her buddy got the date right. But when I emailed Joan, I got a friendly reply that said she’d spoken about the party with Wendy and that Dave these days was sometimes up, sometimes down — and she was still recovering from her hip thing — so she’d see if they could make it, but thanks. Even as I steeled myself to honor Dave without Dave, I was glad to get Joan’s followup, explaining she’d just realized the event was in his honor and promised to do her damnedest.
Dave showed. Not entirely sure, after ten-thousand gigs, he knew who, what or why (and he always called me Gary anyway), but he showed. And to see him enter my house — to hold his hand so he didn’t trip on the unexpected step up into the living room or the one down into the garden — was a strange kind of thrill. Same when the Kangs showed. And the sisters. And Chalin. Not to mention John and Steve and Wendy. And Gary. And Flo. And Tim, Wendy’s ex bass player (and ex), and his girlfriend Mary. And John’s mother Rina, who’s ninety and blind and doesn’t get out much and was tapping toes in her deck chair all night long. And all night long whenever I’d look around and see familiar faces out of place, or unfamiliar faces — old friends of Dave’s or Sorellas customers I didn’t know (but Soy and Sonia did) — I’d think I must have stumbled into a dream, an idyll about community, music, small-town life and long and wildly divergent paths that, in the second millennium, in the suburbs of San Francisco, had miraculously crossed, an outrageous fantasy that the back room had landed in our backyard.
Taking his seat in front of the band, Dave began to balk, panic even. Kvetched to Wendy about valve-oil for his trumpet. How could he play without the oil for his trumpet??? I tried not to listen. Told myself the rollercoaster was part of the thrillpark. But Wendy gentled him into performing (even as Steve spotted the oil in his trumpet case), and Dave kicked it all off with several perfectly rotund notes — as if he’d been saving up breath all week — that soon dissolved into squonk. He was certainly fragile to look at. A man who didn’t have a pound to lose had lost, I was told (and, looking at his bunched-up trousers, fully believed), 25 of them. And when the song was over, Dave put away his axe and rattled around in his bag of tricks.
What he came up with was a story, a twice-told shaggy tale that had nothing to do with the moment (except perhaps as oblique reference to the circle of life), a joke-story about when the obstetrician yanked him from the comfort of his mother’s womb and spanked him on the bottom and newborn, dangling Dave shouted back at the doc: “Hey! What’d I do!?” Old seated Dave waited out the laughter — which was genuine, a sincere expression of affection, if not amusement — but finally, theatrically speaking, could wait no longer. Called for his showstopper, his signature rewrite — replete with shout-outs to Sorellas, Dominican College, Stinson Beach, China Camp and other local landmarks — of “The Lady is a Tramp.” He fumbled the opening, but with Wendy’s aid, got it back. And lost it again. But even when he found it — over and over — his tour de force seemed to lack just that. Force. Then about a third of the way through, suddenly, dangerously, forcefully, Dave launched himself out of his chair. As I leaped to steady him, he staggered forward, oblivious to my ministrations. I was expecting some heroic, farewell reenactment of the finger-pointing stroll through the crowd that was the highlight of “Tramp” in the back room. Instead he teetered across the deck toward the chair next to Joan, dropped into a fraying mesh seat and rasped to no one in particular: “I need a cigarette…”
When it was determined that Dave had not expired right in front of us, I handed him the black plastic ashtray I’d stashed for the occasion, and the band started up again — vivid, soulful chords caroming off the stone wall into the canyon. A few numbers in Wendy called up Connie Ducey, a name I recognized from the 19 Broadway marquee, who instead sidled up to Dave in his deck chair, handed him a microphone, and, unrehearsed, led him through a verse of snappy call-and-response, followed by an oozing chorus of perfect harmony, on “Mood Indigo.” And never were 55 musical seconds sweeter. But after that brief re-ignition, the show, for Dave, was over. He wasn’t going anywhere — too beat. And soon too cold. Joan asked if I had a sweater he could borrow. And if it warmed the trumpet man, it warmed me more, to have Dave Bergman on my deck in my hoodie.
Wendy’s guest list encompassed pretty much the entire upper crust of lowdown local music — mostly jazz musicians, mostly older. Garry Graham, the youngest 80-something you’ll ever meet — and, as owner of 19 Broadway for 37 years, the king, arguably, of Fairfax music — took over the keyboard next. He tried to lower expectations by saying he’d learned music from his father, a piano player in a bawdy-house (I reminded him of the bawdy history of Berry Trail) and then, of course, blew everyone away with a Creole-spiced “Java Jive (I Love Coffee I Love Tea),” complete with audience singalong. There were more vocalists, pianists, bassists, a jazz guitarist (who couldn’t handle my Steve-restored Mesa Boogie) and a lot of encomiums to the pocket trumpeter, who seemed to accept them with abashed pride. And way later than anyone would have predicted, considering the median age and actuarial tables, Dave and Joan, with the help of single-r Gary (our Gary), slipped out, as did the Kangs and Flo and double-r Garry with his charming wife Amory. Sonia escorted Rina up and down steps and, eventually, into a tall, white SUV. And somehow (I had to avert my gaze) not a single person broke (or re-broke) a hip, and the impenetrable gridlock that had spilled from our driveway into the cul-de-sac got penetrated, and the one word people said in parting more than any other was “magic.”
And they weren’t wrong.
Something wonderful and inexplicable had happened. And soon it was me and Roni alone in the blooming garden beneath Berry Trail on a clear, balmy night of a nearly full moon, with the tones of pocket trumpet and piano ringing in our ears, and I said that, to me, the one word that described a night like this was the name on the town sign.
55. Reefer Madness 2018
I was tempted to kneel, but wondered too long if it would be funny, if it would be taken the right way, taken that I was against jingoism, for the NFL protesters, for dissent, iconoclasm, culture-that-is-counter and other values that, coincidentally, made a small, strange town like Fairfax feel like home when we stumbled on it 34 years ago. Instead, I scribbled in the notebook on my knee with a theatrical intensity meant to signal I had an excuse for staying seated. First thing I scribbled was:
“Pledge of Allegiance? Under God???”
It’s Chipper Days in Fairfax. But that doesn’t mean everyone at the town council meeting is cheerful. The first Chipper Day had a few glitches — the dumpsters were full by 10, and the crew had to scramble to find more and then find the mayor to get approval. Also, the minute you do a Chipper Day — the minute you do anything, really — there is some constituency that feels left out or let down or gypped. So the council voted to roll the chipping machine over to Manor Road to get rid of their dead trees and branches and hurty feelings. But considering the success of Chipper Day on Cascade, it seemed a wise disbursal of the town’s fire preparedness funds, the council agreed. And after the vote, all was chipper again on the dais. Down at the podium in the audience, an old man who’d been on the chipper committee in the Cascade neighborhood was moved to share how great their day had been, offering profuse thanks to the committee, the chipper operator and, of course, the council. He was certainly chipper.
Who was not chipper was another old man, who dragged his chair next to the podium to make sure he was first when the official public comment section started. “Twice in the last week,” he said with understandable indignation, “I’ve almost been hit by bicycles down by Picaroto Cleaners.” Not just him, he elaborated, but him and his little dog. A week earlier they’d almost been hit over by Landsdale Station (which is actually in San Anselmo, beyond this body’s jurisdiction). “No one stops at stop signs anymore!” he lamented. And when that didn’t get a rise, he added that this week’s near-tragedies took place when he was en route to visit a fellow who’d been paralyzed in an accident (though not a bike accident), whereupon he devoted the remainder of his allotted three minutes to a heartfelt exhortation to “visit the homebound.”
But there were issues more important than killing, maiming and anarchy on the public’s agenda. For one thing, there was music.
There were plenty of other places to sit when they insisted on parking themselves in front of me, partly blocking my view and fully invading my leg-stretching space. I assumed the hippie couple was stoned and there for the main event — “hippie-yoga couple” is actually how I described them to Roni, trying to suggest the tidiness of their vegetable-dyed habiliments and hauteur of their aura. When the petite partner, in batik top and cotton wrap-skirt, stated, avec French accent, her name and address, I learned they live on Dominga.
“Oh, yeah,” said Roni, memory jarred by the accent. “Down by the Garage Mahal.” (Which is another story of petty perfidy for another time.)
But it wasn’t pot that had got this pair inflamed. It was pot’s frequent affiliate, “amplified music.” Her particular beef (or beef-substitute, as the case may be) was the sonic onslaught from the farmers market that is convened every summer Wednesday on the half-acre that passes for a village green, directly across from Sorellas. And it wasn’t about hearing it a block away at their house, but right there at the market.
“A guy was playing the digeridoo,” she said impassively, referring to notes. “Ordinarily that is an instrument I like. But he was terrible! I was trying to talk to a friend, and it was painful.” Finishing up with an economic zinger she may have imagined went straight to the heart of a bourgeois council, she leaned close to the microphone and admonished: “Not good for shopping…”
Her husband, by contrast, blew his tie-dyed stack. Tall, skinny, with an exquisitely curried gray mane to his nipples and groomed David-Axelrod mustache to his canines, he wasn’t here to talk about farmers. He was here to talk about apostates.
“I demand you resign!” he said to the council.
“You’re yelling,” said the mayor.
“I haven’t begun to yell! This is an emergency!”
The emergency, once more, was music. But not the digideroo from the market. The good ol’ rock ’n’ roll from Peri’s bar — under assault from buzz-killing neighbors for years, perhaps forever, perhaps as good ol’ rock ’n’ roll must always be. But in a town where half the population is, or was, musicians and roadies, where Van Morrison and Phil Lesh and John Doe once pitched their tents, where Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and Dave Getz of Big Brother and the Holding Company tent currently and Jerry played all the time, where, to paraphrase the Starship — at least one of whom lived just over the San Anselmo line, a stone’s throw from the aforementioned Landsdale Station — we built this town on rock ’n’ roll, you simply have to ask: wtf?
The council, it seems, had voted unanimously in favor of Peri’s appeal of its music permit revocation. And apparently Mr. Pantene had slipped out back with a decibel meter.
“That is 1,600% greater volume than allowed in the Fairfax Master Plan. Sixteen-hundred percent!”
The mayor — Peter, a harmonica player of stellar gifts who sometimes jams in the back room with Wendy and a pol of admirable temperament and murky ideology — gently informed his incensed constituent the council had to move on. And after one unconvincing feint at standing his ground, luxuriant gray head held high, batik bride in tow, the John Brown of Turn-It-Down (who, of course, research reveals, is himself a musician) high-stepped out the door.
A council member made the stoney announcement that “There are goats running around Fairfax.” Which caught a few of us by surprise. I imagined it as a warning, even a call-to-arms, urging able-bodied citizens to stand up to the marauding herds. Turned out the goats were hired to munch weeds* (*not weed) on our sere summer hillsides — another fire-prevention initiative from those wonderful folks who brought you Chipper Days. It was really just an FYI.
Another jolly FYI from the council: “On September 6th, we’re having a celebration of people in our community over 90.” Which oughta be a scorcher.
And then there was the lady — perhaps from an unpublished Samuel Beckett manuscript — who stepped up with a quiet, earnest complaint about the town’s complaint form.
I thought we must finally be into the meat of the thing when Lew Tremaine, target of a too-slick-for-Fairfax poster campaign recently sprouted around town, slid up to the podium to reveal his group had placed a measure on the ballot to get local legalization off the dime, a hurry-up initiative that makes sense of the opposition slogan: “Slow Down, Lew.” And as Lew and his youthful posse pivoted to slide out the door, demonstrably uninterested in tonight’s performance of bureaucratic delay, Lynette Shaw, proprietor of one of the first cannabis dispensaries in the nation, stepped to the mic to confess she doesn’t always agree with Lew — thereby establishing scientific dispassion — but in this case — a case, it has been pointed out, that would leave Lynette Shaw with a legislated monopoly in Fairfax — she does.
But all that was merely a cruel teaser.
Before we got to the weed wars, there was still a town budget to approve, a feature presentation from a county representative about the program to make ours the primo carbon-free county in the country, a plug for the Environmental Forum’s Master Class (“field trips to die for”), an update from the Fairfax Council on Aging about getting older people more engaged, along with one more expression of gratitude for Chipper Days that suggested some older people might not need the encouragement. It was a dense two hours into the festivities, when, with the Women’s Club now full — and, on a mid-July evening, hotter than a hash pipe — Mayor Peter finally made his solemn proclamation: “It’s my job to maintain order. We agree to not use profane language or deride members of the council or staff. The goal for the evening: a high-level policy discussion that doesn’t get lost in the weeds.”
I studied him for signs of comic intent. I don’t gather that, ordinarily, Peter has a whole lot of it. Driven by my own compulsive comic intent, I was tempted to inquire if His Honor was joking. But, again, continued scribbling. After all, it was time for the main event.
Once again, even when it comes to weed, I’m happy to say, life defied cliché. I looked around and saw old longhairs, young longhairs and a conspiratorial knot of teenagers and assumed one thing. But as each of my cartoons stepped to the podium, he or she quickly proved me wrong, in every respect.
For one thing, the first commenter, one of the teens, was from San Rafael, not Fairfax. For another, the second commenter was from Larkspur. The third, from Mill Valley. In fact, most of the ten or twelve young, old and in-between peeps who stepped up were from out of town — that is, out of the jurisdiction — and one was from Santa Rosa, more than an hour north and out of the county. More curious, none of them — not the teens, who if they’re anything like my kids should’ve been gathered round the bong in their bedrooms, what with mom and dad at an out-of-town meeting; not the moms and dads who should’ve been happy, after the kids had finally crashed, to fire up a bowl of middle-aged nostalgia that might also be a spur to middle-aged love; not even the tightly-wound dude who wore his center-parted hair, now white, to the middle of his shoulder-blades, as he had since the heyday of the Airplane and Dead, nor the 16-year-old with the goth haircut who turned out to be his son — not a one was here to stand up for weed. No, mostly they were here to Just Say No.
They were OK — reluctantly, for the most part — with medical, calling it out for the scam it often is/was. And OK — reluctantly — with delivery-only — as long as there wasn’t a 15-year-old on the receiving end. But generally they concurred that marijuana was a “gateway” to the dark path, and, to what seemed to be boilerplate about how retail pot in Fairfax would send the wrong message to the kids, each speaker added a single trenchant detail. One speaker covered increased crime, another traffic, another the prevalence of fake IDs. The goth kid got in touch with his inner copywriter and dispatched this grabby opener: “Corporate marijuana is out for the brains of young people.” Another commenter astutely picked up on the budget discussion (which revealed another surplus) saying “Clearly, we don’t need the tax revenues.” Two commenters used the tragic example of Cotati, where there were not one, but two, pot shops, and where, on a recent visit to the home of the Cotati Accordion Festival, I failed to find iniquity or crime, let alone tragedy, anywhere. In any case, the tone of deep, neighborly concern — never hysteria — was so uniform, so measured, so seemingly reasonable, and their arguments meshed so seamlessly, it was almost as if they’d planned it. In the end, there was only one thing a sound-minded, right-thinking bystander could conclude from their argument:
Slow down, Lew.
Going in, I was sure — in my provincial Fairfax way — that the conclave was going to be full of enthusiastic stoners — the 70% of survey respondents who’d told the council they were all in favor. Instead, I smelled a skunk.
Seeing me scribbling, one go-slow advocate sidled over. He was well-groomed. He was fit. He was stylish — but not too — in a jocky way. He was calm, focused and carried himself — even in a squat — with the muscular self-assurance of a senior executive accustomed to annihilating his quarterly KPIs. He introduced himself as Matt.
“If you’re writing this for the press,” he said in a stage-whisper that made it hard to hear the proceedings, “Linda over there” — he indicated a well-groomed, fit, stylish (but not too) blond — “would be a great interview.”
As the discussion returned to the dais, where council members blathered on, demonstrating their compassion, confusion and inexhaustible capacity for blather, I was happy it never came to that. I was happy the go-slow groups filed out before the council voted to look into it a little more and, effectively, go slow (though Peter pointed out the members had committed to a plan by October), filed out before I filed out and Matt and Linda could ambush me outside. Mostly, I was happy they were from out of town. Happy that these perfectly decent, genial, God-fearing people, these good parents, good citizens, good taxpayers, regular volunteers, sporty, clean-living, civic-minded, well-organized, allegiance-pledging folks were from elsewhere. I’d hate to think my small, strange town had come to this.
56. Take This Job and Shove It
Giovanni, who has played Italo-German-Polish accordion on Friday nights at Sorellas for almost the entire decade-and-a-half the restaurant has been in business, is done. Finito. Fertig. Skończone. The guy I sang “Brown-Eyed Girl” with a hundred times is saying later-sucker to the workadaddy world. Called Soy one recent afternoon and said you won’t have John (his non-accordion name) to kick around anymore because John is now a millionaire. I forgot to ask Soy if, after that, he laughed like a maniac or it was all straight-up ice.
If the farewell seemed abrupt, even a tad tart, I’m not sure it was aimed at the sisters. They treated him well. Fed him. Watered him. Hugged him. Celebrated him in their signage and spam. Paid him. Advanced him (when needed). Encouraged him to put the tip jar out front. And at the end of a three-hour weekly shift, helped make sure he would take home a couple hundred bucks from their little mom-and-pop Italian. Which is not a million, granted, but not terrible for this historically undervalued class of artisans — among whom are some really good accordion players (which my brother, an almost-graduate of the conservatory, confirmed Gio is) clearly deserving of more from the cosmos.
More likely, that tartness is aimed at light tippers and heavy accordions and merciless landlords and unsympathetic bosses and unjust bouncers and faithless girlfriends and relentless bill-collectors and incompetent VA doctors and even a little bit at me. I know he got pissed at a post in which I kidded (affectionately, I told myself) about his banishment from Peri’s for cold-cocking another “kidder” in the pool room, as well as about his propensity to misunderstand in weird ways. Like when I gave him Joel Selvin’s wonderfulbio of Bert Berns, who wrote and produced “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and he gave me, in return, a Rodney Dangerfield movie co-starring Gilbert Gottfried, as if the book had been an insult. Or like when Sandy would join us, and Gio would trot by to play “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” Time for me to go, the black-leathered progenitor of heavy metal would announce. I can only guess that at some point, tucked into Table 10, mere inches from Gio’s high stool — and attentive ear — Sandy had dropped one of his darkly ironic remarks, something about McCartney or bouncy pop or post-Revolver Beatles, and the accordionist had taken it 180º wrong. Gio didn’t do irony.
I thought that was funny.
But it may be that I deserve daggers most of all for things Gio doesn’t know. Because right when my friend and sometime singing partner was scraping bottom, having been laid off from his longtime day-job as a technician making false teeth, when my 60-something buddy-boy got in a tussle with his nasty stepfather and was banished from his mother’s house and affections, when the maniacally laughing man who had given me so many Friday evenings of joy was sleeping in his car, I was not only in a flush phase, but sitting on a surplus apartment — the in-law unit at my house (quite separate from the other surplus apartment we were renting in the city) — and didn’t speak up. Left it to a human with way more humanity — and a lot less money — to take him in.
Too much hassle, I rationalized. Too close quarters. Too open-ended an engagement. Too risky all around. Anyway, house is a mess — we’d have to spend a week cleaning. Plus, I argued to my better angels, the guy’s not without his quirks. Of course, when his benefactor decided to throw him out for not washing the dishes, I felt justified. But even guiltier. And still feel it today. Except today I also feel like I might’ve missed out on an Instant Karma jackpot — if and when Gio pays back all his friends with interest (though I haven’t yet noticed Gail tooling around in a new Escalade). Because my friend, the small-town troubador, is now officially Big Pimpin’.
Still, it’s kind of a sad story. The wicked stepfather died, so Gio was able to reconnect with mom. Then mom died. Which, despite the prior unpleasantness, was terribly sad — all the way up till Gio reconnected with her estate. Turns out mom not only owned her house in Marin County (ka-ching!), she owned an apartment house in Los Angeles (ka-ching! ka-ching!), and he was her sole heir. Kind of sad. Kind of not.
After Gail had finally motivated him to move on — but not before, ignoring her warnings about the slippery porch, he had badly broken his leg and temporarily relocated to Marin General (overlapping, it so happened, with Sandy, admitted two days earlier with the brain hemorrhage that ultimately killed him) — Gio, just to draw the circle tighter, took a room in Lynette Shaw’s. She’s the retail pot monopolist who makes a cameo at the Fairfax town council in the previous post. (Like I said, it’s not just a strange town, it’s small.) Unsure how they first crossed paths — never knew Gio, a reformed juicer, to be a pothead — but I imagined him sitting on the edge of a single bed, in a sparse room, in a haze of sampled product, flipping open his vintage cell (back in service, since the windfall), and calling the restaurant to belt out his accordion transcription of Johnny Paycheck’s biggest hit.
I thought that was funny, too.
I pressed Soy for more. Would Giovanni ascend the high stool one last time? Could we have a going-away party? Or are we really never going to see him again? Her reply: Gio said he’s a millionaire, and that’s that.
The truth is, in deference to my fitness regime, I’d largely abandoned my friend over the last year, deciding that Saturday nights at the sisters was enough indulgence for my blood sugar and foreswearing Fridays. But every once in a while, I’d crack. Stop by, glug a glass or three of Nero and join Giovanni for high harmonies and a rollicking “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But even when I wasn’t there, I knew he was. Gio was part of the family and the scene. A character in the longrunning play. A star — alongside Kang, Maria, Wendy, Steve, Gary, Flo, Jacquie, George, John M., the sisters and whoever else happened to be in the mood that night for hot lasagna and warm companionship — of the movie continuously unspooling in my mind. The one about home. But now — with this, with Dave’s exit and, two years earlier, Sandy’s — it seems inescapable: the wheels at the center of the universe are turning. They’re always turning, of course — it’s the nature of the universe. Just that sometimes, in the glow of friends, family and well-played accordion, you forget.
When Soy told me about Gio, I knew that, more than funny, this was breaking Italian-restaurant news, and I was duty-bound to write it up. But I thought for sure I’d be able to track down the maestro for the full horse’s mouth. Maybe even convince him to haul out the squeezebox and take a dip in the Bert Berns songbook. I thought Gio would tell me, in his own lovably leery words, how it feels to be free and easy, sitting on top of the world, a millionaire. And so, notebook at the ready, I waited. And waited. And this morning it occurred to me it’s never going to happen.
Finito. Fertig. Skończone.
Steve keeps an even keel. Today, raising his volume slightly, in spurts, he’s as excited as he gets. What he’s excited about is his pre-amp kit arrived from China. Christmas in October. Putting together a Dynakit with his dad is what got Steve started in all this.
All this is electricity. In addition to playing standup bass — acoustic, I’ll point out — with the redoubtable Ms. Wendy, Steve is an electrician. An accomplished one. He tells me when he applied to be an apprentice and revealed that, while he had no professional experience, he used to put together Dynakits, the master’s eyes brightened to 1600 lumens, and the youngster got the job.
With Steve, the stories flow like 110. I know because, for this job, I’ve volunteered as his apprentice. I retrieve hammers, screwdrivers, wirecutters, staples and screws from his red canvas tool tote when he’s under the house or stairs. Sometimes I get to flip the breaker switches or help pull wires through walls. I have no known aspirations to become an electrician, but a week ago I did buy a tote just like my master’s.
Roni and I have been cleaning, sorting and fixing our house intensively for the last three months, ever since we officially dropped the shameful rental in the city, where we spent most of the last five years. Shameful, because we couldn’t afford it. More shameful, because we were cheating on a 34-year marriage to a wonderfully freaky village of 7,000 named for a wayward Scottish Lord, an exurban idyll in the redwoods, 23 miles northwest of Gomorrah. No doubt San Francisco was fun, going out to eat and drink and see cool new bands and contemplate German Art After 1960 and being carried along within the amped-up evening crowds in the Mission. And it was sure a mercy, when the merriment overtook you, to not have to climb in a car and run the law enforcement gauntlet on the other side of the bridge or drop a bundle on a last-minute hotel room. It was exciting (a word I tend to use somewhat indiscriminately that Steve is now using indiscriminately, while denying it is ridicule). Tons of fun. But in the end left you a little hollow.
Electrically speaking, Steve has transformed our world. He has replaced the outlets in Josey’s room that got burned out — actual flames shooting from the socket — years ago when a tree knocked out the transformer at the ramshackle, rundown house across the cul de sac — the hippie house (as opposed to the ramshackle, rundown house right next door — the racist house). One of the tenants rushed over to assure me he’d take care of all costs. Everything will be cool. And if I always suspected that crazy crashpad harbored shady enterprise, I became simultaneously more suspicious and more disarmed by the offer. Later, when I showed him the full extent of the damages, and the estimate, he became less interested, even resentful, like I was trying to scam him, and abruptly moved away. Steve has fixed the three-way wall lamps on either side of our bed. On Roni’s side, you could only turn it on by meticulously dialing to a spot between clicks. On my side, the bulb had exploded and, as a neglectful, unhandy homeowner, I had left the jagged stub in for five years. Maybe ten. He extracted the debris and somehow made the lamp work again. And if I’d long ago given up reading paper things in bed — the busted bulb just one more excuse to switch to books on the iPad — it was still a revelation to see the mess that’s my half of the bedroom.
Steve made the exhaust fan in our bathroom work — the GFI switch had been tripped, five years ago. Ditto for the electric heater. In addition to Josey’s carbonized outlets, Steve replaced the pair in the living room floor that would no longer grip the vacuum cleaner plug or the lights for our Festivus pole. He added a more convenient, and grounded, outlet in the guest bedroom and a circuit to the sub-panel. He made the lights on the lower deck work (corroded connections). And this afternoon we’re midway through installing new lights on the outside front stairs (so no one breaks a neck) before we, before Steve, installs more on the back stairs and path. There used to be lights on the front steps, but the carpenters who replaced the rotten stairs made the executive decision not to replace them, and I didn’t notice till years later. Too caught up in Gomorrah.
Steve doesn’t just work with electricity. He loves electricity. As he toils, he doesn’t talk about sports or girls. He talks about men — dead men, electrical engineering geniuses like Nikola Tesla, who pioneered x-rays, wireless and alternating current (the AC without which, among other things, the Australian band might have gone half-named) and Philo Farnsworth, who invented TV on Green Street, four blocks from our former apartment. Talk about Farnsworth leads to talk about Marconi and the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall, the local landmark that used to be the telegraph receiving station for the entire west coast and was later taken over by the Synanon cult. We talk about how Tesla (without whom Elon’s cars might be called Muskmobiles) died broke, ripped off by General Sarnoff. And it becomes as clear as halogen that Steve doesn’t just love the work and science. He loves the whole package.
Steve’s family arrived in the Bay from Iowa when he was 13. And when you listen to his stories for a day or three, you have no doubt about the cliche that you can take the boy out of the country, but not the country out of the boy. One afternoon we were making a dump run in Steve’s El Camino — his wobbly, rusty 1972 El Camino (no Dream-Cruise showboat for Steve) — and he told me how he got together with Wendy, a piano player who’d lost her bassist.
Even when it was world-famous, heyday of the Dead and Van Morrison, the county’s music community was small and tight. So it wasn’t long before someone mentioned Steve to Wendy, and, musically speaking, it clicked. After all, Steve’s really good. Weekends they’d gig, including the back room at Sorellas Saturday nights. Wednesday afternoons he’d pilot the El Camino north to her place in Fairfax from his in Tam Junction — a half-hour, in good traffic — and they’d rehearse. One day after practice she offered to cook him dinner and, for accompaniment, poured a couple glasses of Napa’s finest. He wolfed the dinner, but turned down the wine. Anyone else, you’d guess they’d been pulled over a bunch. Maybe even done a night inside. Learned a lesson. But, with Steve, it just seems like one more Iowa thing: an earnest, Midwestern respect for the law. The weekly dinners went on, without the vino, but then one day, without comment, the piano player plunked another big glass in front of her bassist.
Steve protested. No, sorry. I can’t drink this. I have to drive, he said.
And Wendy looked at him.
And Steve said, I have to get home. If I drink this, I won’t be able to.
And Wendy looked.
No, really, he explained, in his earnest, even-keeled way. If I drink this, I’ll have to stay here.
Now Steve is fully aware that — for all his nights in the wild and wooly precincts of jazz and pop, for all his hepcat lingo about cats and gigs and bad scenes — he remains, deep down, an unreconstructed hayseed. It’s certainly part of his charm. But eventually, with Wendy, he got it. That was five years ago.
But his charming naivete is nowhere more apparent than in the other romantic tale he tells — between tales of electricians. Turns out, Steve was married once upon a time — but married like a guy in a blues song. And, just like the songs, exactly like the songs, as if the songs were her instruction manual, the bride took all his money — via his credit cards — as well as his car and, in the middle of the night, without warning, lit out for parts unknown, leaving Steve no forwarding address, a teenage daughter from her previous marriage and a sheaf of unpayable bills. Yet somehow — aw shucks — he doesn’t even seem mad.
Speaking of passion, a long time ago, in the early days of personal computing, when I was getting started as a writer, with a newborn and my own unpayable sheaf of bills, my father and brother collaborated to buy me a computer. A 40-pound “portable” called a Kaypro. At first, I resented the thing — and them — because I thought I would’ve been much better off with the cash and my old typewriter. But the Kaypro forced me to learn about computers and, more importantly, within a few weeks enabled me to write faster and more efficiently, to cut and paste and revise to my black heart’s content, without benefit of Wite Out or scissors and glue. In the end I came to love computers — not in the way Steve loves electricity, perhaps — and I just assumed, as an electro-phile, Steve would feel the same. When he shrugged that he didn’t know much about these latter-day marvels of electricity, I assumed it was Iowa modesty talking. Later, we sit at my desk ordering light fixtures online. I slide the laptop over to Steve, because he’s the one who knows best. He touches the trackpad, and it jumps to another tab. He touches it again and sends us from low-voltage lighting units back to major appliances on the home page. Flummoxed, he drags his index finger impossibly slowly down the trackpad, and I grab the laptop back — a turn of events he greets, not with pique, but relief.
Iowa strikes again.
But Steve wasn’t just any country boy. Yes, they lived in a big farmhouse — Steve, two brothers, a sister, mom and dad. But it was at the edge of a small city, a place where Steve’s grandpa owned the radio station. KWDM (Western Des Moines), second floor of an old two-story downtown building. Think about all those wires and plugs and dials and guys wearing urgent little headphones. Imagine a big microphone with the station’s call letters. Picture the “On the Air” sign lighting up as you walk by holding mom’s hand. And then imagine your grandpa puts your dad to work running all this. As son of the KWDM station manager, son of the dad in charge of all those wires, dials and guys in headphones, here in west-central Iowa, not a pancake-flat mile from vast, lulling cornfields, how could you not fall in love with electricity?
Steve’s dad seems like an interesting guy. After Grandpa sold the station in the early sixties, his father, a high-school grad, decided to go to college, emerging with a Masters in Divinity. Found a job as a preacher in Des Moines — Steve remembers him searching for peace and quiet to compose his sermons. And then the preacher — surely a progressive one, perhaps too much so for west-central — was offered a job in faraway Northern California, running the regional office of Planned Parenthood. That’s when they all moved to Tam Junction in Mill Valley.
Steve liked rock ’n’ roll. He listened to it while he smoked the pot he also liked. He adapted well to life in the late sixties and early seventies in California. He went to Tamalpais High School, where he decided to play bass and had a teacher he loved and admired (and eventually played alongside) who said to start with standup. Electric bass players are a dime a dozen. Standup players are hard to come by. So you’ll always have a gig. And that led to Steve joining the Tam High jazz band and liking jazz and, well, always having a gig. These days, more than he can handle — five nights a week in bars and restaurants, plus afternoon weddings, company parties and the like. He’s that rarest of musical talents: one who makes a living. Does electrical work just to get himself out of bed.
Steve keeps an even keel. But he’s excited about the new CD he recorded with the esteemed Bay Area pianist Dick Conte that he brings to us one October morning. The album, Blue in Green, is a treatment of Bill Evans material and was recorded at Fantasy in Berkeley, where the master also recorded. Dick Conte, Steve tells me, used to live next to Bill Evans’s heroin connection. Sometimes he’d see the great man stopping by. Steve loves Bill Evans. So do I. One time I checked my iTunes stats and discovered my number 1 through 3 most-played songs were by Evans. Wendy and Steve play “Waltz for Debby.” They’re playing tonight. Needless to say, we’ll be there.
58. Map of the Universe, Virgo Supercluster, Late November
The camera drifts in, pans the tightly packed table and pauses on a couple locked in conversation: SHE, not just the first women’s mountain biking champion, but champ five times in a row, besting all the women and damn near all the men in those mixed-gender races, a kind of Muhammad Ali of her sport (a characterization she would reject utterly) when it was barely a sport and definitely not an industry, an extraordinarily natural athlete with style, wit and an agenda, Jacquie Phelan (you remember Jacquie), champion of strong women, extreme recycling and immersive bohemia, bipedal raccoon, daughter of Tarzana, child to trouble, Middlebury grad (en Français), betrothed for 30 years to mountain bike designer/maker Charlie Cunningham, who’s still getting over (with a little help from his friends) a ridiculous fall from a mountain bike (not the first, in six decades of hellbent bikes, go-karts and test-driving your own inventions) that broke a few bones, but delivered what seemed to Charlie a negligible knock on the noggin — one that, a few weeks later, sparked a cerebral hemorrhage and has left him struggling, cognitively, for two years; HE, her conversational foil, Bob Wilbee, distributor of industrial pumps and commercial trash and linen chutes, former manager of the Larkspur Landing Steak & Brew and a genial born-and-raised local who looks like that guy, that actor, you know — the genial dad on some TV sitcom or maybe a middle-aged Gene Kelly — and was genial next-door neighbor to Samuel “Sandy” Pearlman, round the corner from H&J Tires, in one of those faceless one-story business complexes for businesses that don’t really need a face, and is brother and business partner to Jimmy Wilbee, ex Zen monk in Japan and lapsed actor in San Francisco whose clavicle-length white mane makes him a dead ringer for the King Lear figure in Kurasawa’s Ran and who sits to the right of his husband, Jeff Hoey — with the long Chinese warrior mullet — with whom he cohabits on a boat in the same San Rafael marina where Sandy, post-salad-days, lived briefly on a Chris Craft so funky you could put a finger through the hull (as our pal Captain Tim demonstrated, in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade a landlubber from purchasing it, even for chicken feed — even rabbit feed, which is what Sandy dished out to the floppy-eared critters that cohabited with him on the boat), and just to the left of Hi Dong Kang, North Korean refugee, pastor and paterfamilias, with whom Jimmy is now chatting in the Nihongo the good Rev was compelled to acquire during the decades-long Japanese occupation and who is, as ever, at the side of his Brazilian mate of more than half-a-century, Maria Kang, mother of Sao Paolo-born Soyara and her SF-born baby sister Sonia , who are owners and operators of this, the finest Italian restaurant in the Virgo Supercluster, where, opposite Jimmy, to continue our cinematic circumambulation, sits Gary “Wingo” Wingert, inveterate, if not compulsive, customer of said restaurant, owner/operator of Wingo Tech Rescue and ex of Aurora, Colorado (site of a movie theater massacre that, a thousand bodies back, had its 15 minutes of infamy), former gate agent for Frontier Airlines and Deadhead for the Fixx (now his bosom buddies irl), father of a gothy, artistic daughter and two voluble cockatiels, Doobie and Cooper, who shriek in panic when Papa ducks into the bathroom, and cheek-by-jowl with me — from Sheboygan, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Detroit and sometimes Memphis — who is, in turn, shoulder-to-shoulder with Roni Hoffman, painter, photographer and soulmate out of Bensonhurst and Coney Island — Brooklyn before it was BK — and on Bob Wilbee’s other side, to complete the circle, Diane Greenfield or maybe Diane Wilbee, his ex-wife, now live-in girlfriend, hawker of fine fragrances at Macy’s, who decided to shrug off retail fatigue and join the festivities after all and is passing out free samples to Jacquie, a hitherto closeted fragrance freak, who proceeds to spritz them in the air, drowning out for a moment the finest Italian food in the Virgo Supercluster (later I get an email from her apologizing — unnecessarily — for “ruining” dinner), all one exceedingly narrow servers’ lane away from the resonant new spinet and the more compact circle commanded by Wendy Fitz, formerly of Malibu, by way of Port Washington, NY, barroom chanteuse, blues, r&b, country and, indeed, jazz pianist (no matter her averral), a circle encompassing her man and bassman Steve Webber, inescapably of Des Moines, son of a preacher turned Planned Parenthood sex preacher, grandson of a radio station owner, and her drummer, the mighty John Molloy, ex of Newburgh, NY, ex of NYC punkers Brad Factor, currently (intermittently) of the Company She Keeps, but, most impressively, for a rank Anglo, longtime member of an Outer Mission Latin outfit called Jose Najera & the Bernal Beat, not to mention husband to Soy, brother-in-law to Sonia, father to Conner and Jack, and to Lauren by a previous, son of Rina, son-in-law of Maria and Kang, doting grandfather to five-year-old Trent — the mind brims, even as the table (actually two four-tops shoved together to host 10) overflows with a visit by an eleventh, the inimitable Georgie P. — inescapably, by the accent, out of deepest Brooklyn (not far from girlhood haunts of Hoffman) — a recently retired merchant seaman, shipboard chef and, between sailings, purveyor of fine herbs, a man who used to feed a crew of 30 three meals every day, but doesn’t like to eat en masse (it’s the only way you could describe 11 at a table for 8), though eating en masse is what you might call George’s typical double-entree dinner (that somehow hasn’t turned him into a double-man), and refuses to sit — even if the physics could accommodate another chair — which seems to cue the recitative, with rare diction, of the night’s featured foodstuffs, by the widely cherished Heather Houseman Roach, accomplished cellist and veteran server, Marin native, bride to the central valley’s Adam Roach — who in addition to strumming and vocalizing for Beso Negro owns The Forge, Fairfax’s first tattoo parlor — and now mother to 1.5-year-old Baby Jack, who is surely the next generation of Sorellas family, or the next next gen, behind Soy’s and John’s sons, Conner (a junior in high school) and Jack (Grownup Jack, halfway through UCSB), both of whom capably reinforce the restaurant’s staff when on school break, which makes them more than just Molloy/Kang family by blood, but our family, by bolognese sauce; and now, within the earnest tete-a-tete of Bob and Jacquie, a pump king is unspooling to a bike queen the run-on sentence of supernatural connections, “coincidences” doubters will try and tell you — beginning with Bob’s own full name: Robert Duncan Wilbee!— that led to our discovering Sandy had been stricken, because it was Robert Duncan Wilbee (who we didn’t know from Adam Duncan Wilbee three years ago) who first got the news when his grandson told him mommy found a sick man in that parking lot there, Citibank in SR, and he called his ex-daughter-in-law in Fairfax, the formidable Jamie Carney (whose formidable aunt happens to be Rebecca Solnit), and she said it’s true, man named Pearlman and Bob said — exclaimed — Sandy Pearlman?!? his studio is right next to our office, and then called Sorellas (of which he happened — “coincidentally” — to be an occasional patron) and left a message asking if the owners knew a guy who owns an ad agency who comes in with another guy named Pearlman — because that’s all that Duncan W. (him) had gleaned of Duncan period (me) from coffee conversations with Sandy, Roni’s and my friend since long-ago NYC, when he was still riding high — or, rather, low and sleek — in Porsches and Maseratis as svengali of the Blue Öyster Cult (and as the band’s producer, the real-life “more cowbell” guy on SNL), whose characteristic black, billed cap, a “Swedish paratrooper hat,” in his indignant description, dangles, in tribute, just outside the bedroom door where I am writing this, temporarily replacing the portrait of my kids — when they were in Manor, the grade school around the corner from Gary — that was my birthday present one score years ago, but had discolored (even though it’s black-and-white) after hanging in the sun so long and which I took back to photog Art Rogers down the boulevard in Pt. Reyes (who happened, in the day, to be Wendy’s photo teacher and happened, in another day, to take the pic the artist Jeff Koons appropriated that led to Art’s famous winning lawsuit), who avowed that it should have never happened, sun or no, and he would reprint, free of charge — our forever homie Sandy, who had a crush on Heather back when she was scooping frozen treats at Double Rainbow in San Rafael, well before she was scooping hearts at Sorellas, who took us to Europe with the band for our honeymoon, who helped us get our first California apartment and me my first straight job and about whom Soy phoned me at the office one morning, much as she did when inviting us to family birthday parties — John’s, Trent’s, Rina’s — leaving me fully disarmed as I leaned back and said to what do I owe this pleasure, and she said you’re not going to believe the strange chain that led to this call and went on to deliver one of those gut-punches for which that infernal gadget is notorious, especially when your defenses are down: Sandy’s in the hospital, Marin General (where, unbeknownst to any of us, Giovanni had just been admitted with a busted leg, and, six weeks later, Charlie would be rolled in with his brain bleeding) and the caller (Bob) told whoever was going to listen to the voicemail that it was touch-and-go; and it recently dawned on me that exactly such a strange chain of connections, links, circuits, is what this is all about — THIS thing, this so-called blog — actually a book, really a mash letter to a municipality, deep down an investigation of the mysteries of affinity — as well as THAT thing, the so-called restaurant, where the lasagna, its raison d’etre, is really ancillary to the toothsome solidarity served up six nights, even as, reflecting on Jacquie and Bob — just the latest worlds-collide confab in that back room — set me to reflecting (again) on me and Kang — me, Wisconsin, Greenwich Village and exile to mythic California, and Kang, a village in the north, POW camp in the south and exile, via India, to unimagined Brazil — our tracks, paths and trajectories, what I often think about when we’re together, and how it is even possible, what accident of spacetime navigation, whose god, what astrophysics or biochemistry or legerdemain, could conceivably have delivered us to each other’s company in this tiny, faraway corner of Eden (once the smoke clears and the mud doesn’t slide)? — it dawned on me that, to work this out in my mind, I needed to work it out in a chapter, and, yes, I know a map or diagram of that gurgling quark soup, the chain-reaction chowder that begat atoms, molecules and, for that matter, maps, not to mention mapmakers, going all the way back to the dust of stars, might have been easier to follow, but a run-on sentence is like life, and, to that point, even as I am cantilevering this one over the void, the phone rings — perhaps the Tetragrammaton himself — but it’s Kang, and he’s asking for Jimmy’s number, because he wants to complete a circuit with the Lear-haired Wilbee, thanking him for the Korean goodies he’d dropped off, unprompted, at Kang’s and Maria’s dollhouse behind Soy’s and John’s, completing his own Zen circuit in the afterglow of Saturday’s transcendent chaos, etc., etc., etc., dot, dot, dot, as the camera drifts back: from a couple locked in conversation to a glowing azure two-ball to a cartwheeling supercluster and, 46.5 billion light years later (or is it earlier?), the impenetrable gloaming of a Swedish paratrooper’s hat.
59. Letter from a Sinkhole
Dear Rev. Kang,
I know you don’t like it when we go away. And, once again, I forgot to write. Not even a creepy Victorian holiday card! So belated happy new year to you and Maria. Let me catch you up on our recent sojourn in the Sunshine State.
Yes, mother’s fine, at almost 97. Thanks for asking. Still talking, still walking — and proudly so. Even demonstrated (in heels, no less) how she can bend at the waist, knees straight, and pluck a stray button from the carpet. All her ambulatory trepidation, she assured us, with a note of defiance, is not about physical prowess, but visual acuity. She has macular degeneration, the incurable kind, same that turned Molloy’s mother Rina blind many years ago. So she walks with a cane and a high degree of caution, fumbling for the next handrail, chair back, car door or wall because she’s afraid of being upended by some unseen bump, pothole or slick. All of which is understandable, even pitiable, even amazing — at almost 97.
And she’s allowed to feel nervous about walking when she’s almost blind. And we’re allowed — I’m allowed — to feel sorry. It’s normal and healthy and right. And we’re allowed — me, too — to feel sorry that, without her hearing aids (and sometimes with them — don’t get her going on that South Asian ear quack), she’s pretty much deaf. And I do. I do feel sorry, gratefully so, as I embrace the opportunity to experience sympathy for the woman who bore me and paid housemaids to raise me and who seems to strive so hard to elicit the opposite. Deaf and blind is one thing. Vicious and cruel another. And for those eager to ascribe the latter to her being almost 97, I’m here to tell you that all that hissing and growling has little to do with arteriosclerosis or the irrefutably depressing prospects of going fully eye- and earless — nor, for that matter, with the Fox News that, since she canceled the Times for “picking on Trump,” has provided the terrifying arrow-slit view of the umber hordes she always knew were coming — because she was exactly the same at almost 37 and almost 47 and almost 67. And it’s that meanness, not her geriatric infirmities, makes me — unmasking perhaps a mean streak of my own — want to go upside her umber coif with a silver pheasant.
Her father, my grandfather, a lifelong student of the War Between the States, had a big silver-plated pheasant, and after he was laid to rest among the steel gray defenders of bondage in Memphis’s foremost Confederate graveyard(now overlooked by a black neighborhood), the pheasant came to live in the middle of mother’s dining room table. And this visit, just as our first-born was passing a dish, the bird keeled over. Our daughter, who’d vowed to skip this year’s Florida festivities after last year’s troubling hijinks (which followed, quite naturally, on the conflagrations of the year before and year before that) and who flew in from LA only after much guiltifying that her lone surviving grandmother was almost 97, swears she didn’t touch the thing. Point is: mother didn’t freak. Granted, she hadn’t yet noticed (thanks to the macular) the substantial divot in the high-gloss oak table. Still, there was no temper tantrum, and that was a merciful surprise.
But what you have to remember, Rev. Kang, is there are few straightaways in the neurosystem of a Southern Belle (original recipe). And this one’s psychology acts more like an international spy trying to shake a tail, jumping in and out of taxis, hurtling down crooked side-streets and over half-opened drawbridges, ducking into an alley while the tailing car zooms past and then cooly pulling out in the opposite direction until — with the coast finally clear — it disappears on foot into a bustling souk. Then again, sometimes when there’s no explosion, it just means a grievance is being stockpiled for a bigger, future explosion. Or maybe it’s bogged down in the neuro-gridlock of a thousand-and-one bitter pills. In any case, passive-aggressive doesn’t begin to describe mother’s approach. And vigilance is the order of the day.
Which makes for long days.
That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Rev. Kang. We’re not in “Mayberry on Acid” anymore — unless it’s bad acid, Woodstock’s “brown dot.” Things are different down here in the sinkhole. Sure enough, after browbeating her oldest grandchild into mute rage over, let’s call it, a relationship issue, mother leans over to ask me if I think my daughter’s gone quiet because she knocked over the pheasant. Which, in case you weren’t paying attention, is really two digs in one — a reproach of the grandchild’s social skills couched in seignorial forgiveness for her faulty table manners. Later, having failed to get enough of a rise, she allows that, actually, it’s more than that: my daughter, she announces, is “on something.”
The other thing about mother’s psychology is that, even beyond the dizzying stealth, it’s a damn good spy. Sometimes I suspect she’s just playing up the blindness, deafness and, these days, the forgetfulness to get us to lower our guards. Because you can still be sure that the one thing you don’t want her to notice or know is precisely what she does or will. When my brother and I were kids in our room jumping on the bed, mother would holler through the wall: “Don’t jump on the bed!” We’d ask her how she could possibly know, and she’d tell us she had x-ray eyes. It impressed me so much that decades later I wrote a song. Well, now those x-ray eyes, somehow undimmed by the macular, have penetrated that her granddaughter’s boyfriend is not lily-white.
Did I mention mother is from Memphis?
In the South, she will argue, whites have loved their “colored,” and treated them better, than any sanctimonious Yankee ever could or would. And that’s especially true in Memphis (where they killed MLK with kindness?). But mixing? That’s not right. “After all, you have to think of the kids.” That was one of the things she kept harping on through this year’s visit. You might say it was the week’s official theme, as if selected in advance by a prom committee. “Think of the Kids! Class of 2018!” — and above the gym stage an eight-foot-high cardboard cutout of a sweaty-browed stork, outlined in glitter, flapping away from a mob of gingerbread men chucking phalluses.
She wasn’t only worried about the clan’s skin. She was also worried about its noses. Bad enough that one member of the family (she seemed to forget it was me) had married into the Tribe. Now another was threatening. And she commenced to rave about the exorbitant nasal dimensions of a comely lad of, in fact, moderate schnoz, but impeccable Hebrew lineage. Never did she utter the “Jew” word (just as she never said the “N” one), and never did she have to. Hers is the pig-Latin of racial coding. Barely pretending.
You also have to think of the kids when you think of our family’s non-straight members, banished from the birthday celebration for the Prince of Peace-and-Love (or any other celebrations) as long as they persist in flouting convention and squandering God-given reproductive powers. Anyway, mother has lived in this town more than fifty years and will not have those silly girls — now an upstanding married couple, past 30 — flouncing around humiliating her.
And when our daughter clarified that her Brown-eyed Handsome, a New Yorker, was also of Caribbean extraction, grandma was quick to note: “New Yorkers don’t like Puerto Ricans.” Which, compared to most of the matriarch’s supremacist assertions, came off as a little flimsy. So a few hours later, she added some signature oomph, inquiring if I didn’t worry the Puerto Rican would murder my daughter. Delivered sotto voce, through gritted teeth, at the big Christmas dinner, more than familiar racist chit-chat, it was a call-to-arms. Daring me to stand up and be a man, to show my love, prove my mettle and defend my stock — like a decent dad would — from a hot-blooded, stiletto-packing Latino cartoon.
It’s been a lifetime of this. And it’s taken me a lifetime to find my footing. When I was young, such assumptions were my entire universe, center and periphery alike — nothing to believe or disbelieve, they just were. Like gravity. Or Jesus. Even when they seemed to go against everything we were learning in Catholic school (well, except the part where they told us to shun other religions), lessons about a God of love and a nation of equality, as well as against the history-in-the-making I was seeing on our black-and-white TV and cultural upheaval blasting from my transistor, and even though my mother’s pronouncements sometimes struck me, prima facie, as mean and hateful, I just thought it was me, that I was naive, immature, ridiculous — as mother assured me I was — about the wicked ways of a mean, old world. And I thought those things — on and off, more or less, consciously and unconsciously — a tad too far into adulthood. But when people of color insist that racism still runs deep and wide or Jews that anti-Semitism is rife, where I might once have dismissed it as cant or exaggeration or whining, today the claim lands like a gut-punch. Sorrow mixed with profound private shame. Because I know full well that shit was in there.
Still is, I’m sure, all compressed and crusted and covered in hair, like a petrified stillbirth. But I know better now. I know that, as with most formulaized hate, there’s a part that goes beyond the political, traversing the spaghetti pathways of psychology back to — way back to, in the case of my near-centenarian ma — a frosty père and besotted mère in an era that frustrated the development of smart, strong women, even as it offered racial fantasy as one framework for venting that frustration. And as, year after year, I am baited into engaging with her, to trying one more time to make it better, I know things will never change. I know that, down in the sinkhole, there will be no Christmas Miracles. “It’s a Wonderful Life” won’t happen. Nobody’s eyes will be opened, let alone their hearts. More likely, a cheek will be slapped or, as in one long-ago Season of Peace, a carving knife thrust toward a ribcage.
I honestly don’t know what she’d do with a North Korean like you. I don’t think she’s ever encountered such a creature. Safe to say, what she’s heard on Fox has not been in the slightest reassuring.
I might also explain, Rev. Kang, that she doesn’t have reliable internet (after she got mad at high-speed Comcast and switched to low-speed AT&T), which makes it technically hard to communicate, and her demands, judgments and surveillance are constant throughout the day, wherever you might attempt to hide (especially after she got mad at a houseguest who’d accidentally locked herself in the bathroom, and having summoned the handyman — a forbearing immigrant named Gerardo — to rescue the offending damsel, she ordered him to disable the house’s interior locks, every last one). I might even say the whole situation is humiliating, for many reasons, and, present evidence excluded, I don’t like to talk about it. Don’t really know why I brought it up. To get revenge on an almost 97-year-old? Prove I can be just as cruel?
I suppose the truth, Rev. Kang, is I didn’t so much forget to write as I was too busy counting the days until our next dinner — you, me, Roni, Maria, Gary, Val, George, Flo, Jacquie, Heather, Sonia, Soy, John, Steve, Wendy and the gang — at home.
Love and peace,