A Farewell to Ephemera

Mopping the floor, yet again.  A drudge of a task, but something I feel compelled to do every so often, a time period described with intentional ambiguity.  But I’m actually mopping the floor, and that means I’m using three buckets.  That’s my special hack on mopping – use one bucket for soapy water and one for clean rinsing water; get a mop that squeezes out, and squeeze it into a third, empty bucket before dipping it in either of the other two buckets. That way you don’t try to clean your floor with the dirt you just took off it.  That’s the theory, anyway.

So, I’m mopping the floor with my three buckets : two nice new ones from the big emporium up the street, and one shabby old pale blue pail spattered with green paint.  There are  cracks around the spout but it’s the biggest of the three so it’s the one that’s full of hot soapy water.  I try to keep it out of the way as I ply my mop but eventually I get too enthusiastic and deal the old blue bucket a solid whack with the side of the mophead.  I hear the plastic crack.

In an instant I recall almost 20 years I’ve been using this bucket.  That green paint – it was from when we stained the kitchen shelves, easily 15 years ago and the bucket was already old.  We cleaned up after old Cosmo with it.  We cleaned up for parties with it – back when we had parties.  So many years of occasional but intense use.  Ending at that very moment.

All this I thought as I scanned the bucket’s outside surface for the damage, and soon enough I found it: a fine crack running mostly straight down from the rim to several inches below the level of the soapy water. It was not unexpected; I had known that this plastic was brittle and not likely to last much longer.  And now it had failed – I could see the puddle of washwater growing slowly on the lino as it trickled out the still-closed crack.  Soon the deluge would undoubtedly be upon me.  Fast action was called for.

I dumped a small amount of extremely dirty squeeze-out water out from of one of the new buckets and down the sink, and then carefully back-tipped the clean soapy water out of the old blue bucket and into the newly empty new bucket.  The busted old blue pail would serve for squeeze-outs now.  I’d be trashing what was left of it when I stowed the cleaning supplies.

I briefly recalled all those times – not all good, but all times – I’d spent with the old blue bucket.  But I didn’t care.  I just thought, I’ve got no excuse now to put off replacing it any longer.

And on the other hand:

There’s not much left from the very beginning, 28 years ago when K and I filled my dad’s garage with everything we’d be using to furnish our first apartment together.  And now, today, 28 years later, the futon frame and cinderblocks  and pyrex pots and pans, the linens and cushions and cleaning equipment and almost every bit of the paraphernalia of daily living circa 1987, all that stuff is gone now.   What’s left?  Not much.  Our cutlery caddy has withstood the test of time, and the big wooden ladle… but I write today with news that sobers my heart: Spartus has fallen.

Spartus was a foot-square wall clock, a blue frame around a white cardboard face under a sheet of clear plastic.  It ran on batteries and kept decent time for 28 goddamn years.  It was a fixture on my walls for as long as I have been out on my own in this world.  The cheap little Spartus clock from STOR and I go quite a ways back.

The thing I most cherished was the sweet, sweet constancy.  Spartus occupied the same spot opposite my bathroom sink for more than 20 years. Whether I was ahead of schedule, behind (more likely), or bang on track to get out the door on time, it was Spartus that advised me so.  My reliance on its reliability was unconscious to the point of being effectively absolute.

I really only thought explictially about Spartus a couple times a year when we changed the clocks for Franklin’s Circadian Hiccup, or on the rare occasion when the battery died, as Spartus’ unerring quartz movement sucked almost no juice from its double AAs.  It wasn’t quite silent but it was pretty damn quiet, even with its stuttering second hand incessantly hopping forward around its face, each tick identical yet unique.  Spartus quantified toothbrushing and bathtub play sessions for the boys, and taught them time-telling.  We stared at it daily and yet spared it no thought, just accepting it unthinkingly and utterly into the most intimate realm of our lives.  And in return Spartus measured out for us approximately 883,613,000 perfect little seconds, for us to use or fritter as we deemed fit. Spartus never judged us.  Then again, Spartus never hid the truth.

But a few months ago Spartus started losing time.  We switched out the batteries but that didn’t help.  Minutes, and then full hours, would slip past unmarked by its fragile black hands.  Soon it was merely a decoration, unchanging from day to day, with its second marker shivering every second but never actually moving at all.  We’d look at it out of habit, knowing despite our glance that it was no longer trustworthy but still tasting the gall of realization anew when the wrongness of the time forced us again to confront its demise.

I finally pulled Spartus down off its nail and set it aside – at which point it started working just fine.  I put it back in place.   It promptly stopped working again, or continued to not-work, or whatever, it just didn’t work anymore.  At all.  Even its little impotent click every second started growing unreliable.  There was no longer any reason to hold onto Spartus.  I took it down again and carried to to our electronic recycling bin, feeling melancholy.

I thought of things long in use – in my home, in our world.  There’s the blue plastic bucket, or at least it was there but these things change.  There’s the eternity bulb out in Livermore; there’s ancient buildings and bristlecone pines.  Spartus was tenacious compared to your general run-of-the-mill mid-80s discount plastic wall clock, but it was sort of small potatoes geologically speaking.

But you know what?  So what.  I liked Spartus and STOR is no more and my replacement from Target tocked too loudly so we had to scuttle it.  Spartus has fallen and I don’t know anymore if I have time to floss.  Some losses just hit me where I live.

One Long Catastrophe

It wasn’t a bad ride downtown.  I had gotten a decent seat and the crowd was light.  My only problem was open earholes: I didn’t have my ear buds with me that morning, so I was obliged to endure the sounds of my surroundings – the chimes and creaks and roars of the bus itself, along with the wide array of auditory output attributable to my fellow riders.  Which, typically, isn’t such an awful problem.  And sometimes, even when it looks like it might be a problem, it turns out to be something rather different.

I was seated immediately behind the rear stairwell, a favored spot because of its protected sight lines and proximity to the exit.  After several blocks a dude stepped up and started hanging out on the steps in front of me.  He was tall and slim and dark, squarejawed and handsome, with the wry smirk of a young man with absolute confidence in himself.  He wore urban clothes with real style, and headphones that led to a small device at his waist.  He stood in the stairwell like he was outside a club just after it closed, casual and comfortable, rapping smoothly to himself.  He wasn’t silent but he was quiet – I could barely heard him, and he was standing right in front of me. He was pretty much keeping to himself, and I was okay with that.  I didn’t need him to entertain me.  Then this other dude showed up, and put a whole different spin on things.

He was older, and darker, and obviously living rough.  His jeans were unfashionably pale and baggy, and stiff with grime.  His sweater was just wrong – a knit wool blue-and-maroon v-neck with piping around the collar; his knit scarf seemed to coordinate with the sweater by chance more than sartorial forethought.  He had dirt on his face, he smelled sour and stood unsteadily.  He’d boarded up front but was pushing his way to the back of the bus.  I wasn’t happy about it, and by the look in his eyes, neither was the fellow rapping in the stepwell next to me.

Both of us – the rapping dude and I – performed an instant calculation, and without so much as a glance at each other we both knew we both knew that the filthy streetdweller stumbling toward us was more likely to hone in on the guy who was also dark skinned, who was affecting a streetwise style more than a cuberat’s conformity… for these and even other reasons, the staggering bum was not interested in bothering me  However, the dude in the stepwell was a prime target, and he knew it even better than I did.

For a moment I sensed him preparing  a virtual social wall as the vagrant approached – and then he reconsidered. I was sitting right there, next to him.  Did he want me to watch him treat this man as if he wasn’t even there?  Did he want to treat another black man that way – in front of a pink, judgmental-looking stranger holding a pen to a notebook? It was all too complicated, and by then the bum was already upon him.  He’d never meant to open himself to this, but he could plainly see that he was about to be engaged in conversation by a man with serious hygiene and sobriety issues.  Whatever he’d had in mind for himself for this bus ride, this surely was not it.

The older man, true to expectations, leaned in to the younger one with conspiratorial fraternity.  Truth be told, I had trouble following their conversation even though my ears were open, the participants were standing next to me, and they both spoke English.  There was an easy slur to their speech, almost a creole that often evaded my understanding.  But I listened, and understood a little, along these lines:

“Yo, where you from?  D’I know you from somewhere?”

“Naw, I’m from [unintelligible].”

“Yeah thassit, [Unintelligible]. I hang out there alla time.”

For a few minutes I couldn’t follow any of what either of them said, until then the older man intoned, “You can’t lettem treachu like that.”

“Yeah, gotta mack a bitch.”

“Mack a bitch, thass rite.”  Together, they chuckled.  There followed another period of unintelligibility.

“Yo, wachu do for a livin’?”

The young man responded by pointing to the white box at his waist, referencing the music to which he had been rapping.  I wasn’t sure what he said about it but the older guy replied, “Shit, you better than that.”  This triggered some quick repartee that went right past me, ending with the older guy saying, “You gonna rap, why donchu earn some money doin’ it?”

More repartee – not understood.  But when it concluded, the older man got up close to the younger one, eyes yellow with hardship, an expression of naked vulnerability on his brow.  “Man, take it from me.   My life is one long catastrophe.”  For a few moments I lost the sense in what he said.  They young dude was listening, though – uncomfortable but attentive.  When I regained the conversational thread, the old man was speaking with a cracking voice: “I got a son, man, a good-looking young man.  I ain’ no fag, rite, I’m just sayin’, thas how it is.  I got a son.  And look at me.  Just look at me.”

I looked at him but he didn’t notice.  I couldn’t tell if I was seeing sweat streaking down his face, a tear, or some old scar.  He was thin and bent over with his conversation.   He shook his head gently, and the tattered scarf fluttered between them.

The bus stopped.  The old drunk man lurched suddenly past the young rapper, down the steps and out to the sidewalk.  The rapper stepped briskly up out of the stairwell and took a regular forward-facing seat.  He put his headphones on again, but he was no longer singing.

Criminals and Punishers

We’ve had plenty of news lately about violence against innocents, or at least, against people who had done nothing to merit the brutality inflicted upon them.  Casual observers seem to divide these into three categories: the timeless violence of individuals against each other for purely personal reasons of animus or greed; violence committed by marginalized zealots for the purpose of terrorism and political aggrandizement; and, as is increasingly being noted in current journalism, violence committed by authority figures on the population they are sworn to protect.   What I’m coming to believe, though, is that categories 2 and 3 are much more like each other than either is like category 1.

Permit me to unpack that inflammatory statement by starting with a counterintuitive fact that I won’t bother backing up because THE INTERNET: crime is dropping.  Violent, non-violent, inter-racial, intra-racial – since the 1970s, it’s been a down-curve across the US.  Also, no ethnic or racial group is inherently violent or genetically predisposed to cruelty.  Violence and crime are cultural phenomena.  Furthermore, assaults against the police are at a very low ebb right now – fewer officers were killed in the line of duty in 2012 than in any year since 1944, and that total dropped by another 16% in 2013.  Further, most of those that are killed fall prey to traffic accidents, not murderers.

However, we are better than ever at sharing news today, especially bad news.  That creates the false impression that the things we hear about more, are actually happening more.  In the case of citizen-on-citizen and citizen-on-cop crime, that’s demonstrably false.  We are safer today than we’ve been since before Truman took office.

But there is another kind of violence, not personal but ideological, which I believe is on the rise.  Terrorism, kidnappings, organized military-style activities carried out against civilian targets… this, I believe, though I don’t have hard evidence for it, is getting worse.  The cowardly assassination of cartoonists is only the latest example of a very depressing trend.  Thankfully, the world comes together when these things happen, and speaks in one multilingual voice to condemn them.  Anyone who endorses terrorism, kidnapping, or armed raids on civilian targets, anyone whose philosophy requires the silencing – by death – of opposing voices, has resigned from civilization.

At the same time, we are hearing increasingly about violence committed by peace officers and authority figures on the public they serve.   It sounds like news, but it’s older than time.  Only video technology has raised this ancient story to headline levels.  Rodney King, beaten senseless after a car chase, seemed an aberration 25 years ago to those of us living safely in pink skins, but his ordeal should have been our cue to ask ourselves how deep that iceberg of inhumanity went below the surface where we floated.  The answer we didn’t want to face: very very deep.  The power dynamic operating in poor neighborhoods has resulted in a form of oppression in which innocent people are viewed as merely not-yet-proven-guilty, and people guilty of small offenses are punished for egregious ones, often extrajudicially.  From my perspective there are far too many honest citizens of color with heart-wrenching tales of being profiled, encountering selective enforcement of the law, and being hauled away and even compelled to confess to things they didn’t do, for no other reason than their ethnic heritage.

This isn’t about the cops, or our soldier-torturers in Iraqi prisons, or the school administrators who suspend only one of the two kids who fought because the white boy couldn’t have been at fault… This is about a power structure at work. We don’t live in a police state – the authorities are our own representatives.  They stand for what we stand for.  And from the stories assaulting us so regularly now, it looks like we stand for race-based oppression and ethnic marginalization.  Maybe we don’t endorse those positions personally (though on-line comments to many news stories show that plenty of us think the oppression hasn’t gone far enough), but if we live in a society that treats some of its subgroups as subhuman, we cannot evade that taint simply through private belief in one’s own personal ethical propriety.

Maybe you find that to be a controversial position that offends you.  Maybe you know it’s just a lead-in.

We USA-ians live in a country that we, effectively, stole.   The wars we fought to gain this land (except the revolution itself) were trumped-up and one-sided; our historical policy toward the original inhabitants here was genocidal and consistently, viciously dishonest.  When we “bought” Louisiana and tripled our national acreage,  lots of people were already living there, some in large cities with thriving cultures.  We treated them like vermin that needed to be cleared from land we valued more than their lives.  At the same time, we maintained an economy significantly dependent on kidnapping people and forcing them into lifelong slavery unto their generations, consigning a whole race to animal status for our economic advantage.  When a man comes to our shores in shackles and spends his life as chattel, what will he teach his children about authority?  When the shackles are struck off but his home is burned and his children are lynched for failure to cede the sidewalk to a white woman, what role can have in our culture?

For those who think racial injustice is a bygone problem that is today eclipsed by racial entitlement, think again: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. You are the ones who incite violence, both against the police and by the police.  You perpetuate the disparities that you misinterpret as inherent racial failings.   You were bred in hatred and have been steeped in it until you no longer taste its bitterness.   Your history is false and you are ignorant of the truth experienced by millions of people surrounding you who struggle to achieve what you consider to be your birthright – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Try quoting that as you’re being raped by the police in their broom closet, and see how far Jeffersonian idealism gets you.

Here’s the tie-in: the violence we all condemn, the violence of terrorists and extremists that we associate with jihad or ethnic cleansing or intolerance in some sorry corner of a world we think we own, that violence is one side of a coin.  It’s not selfish, personal violence – it’s the violence of the anguish of the powerless and hopeless.   Even massively-funded forces that commit these atrocities see themselves as struggling against a riptide of western oppression and concupiscence, and lone jihadis or small extremist cells can imagine no way to bring the battle to their perceived enemies other than by imposing the kind of violence upon us, that they believe we imposed on them.  And since they are zealots, individual distinctions are less important to them than group characterizations.  Death to the west means death to westerners, regardless of their personal qualities.  All that matters is that people who look like oppressors get a taste of their own medicine.  It’s racial profiling, or ethnic, or national…. but it’s all profiling, for the purpose of committing violence, for the purpose of subverting a political dynamic.

In this nation, our political dynamic is well-entrenched.  It has evolved significantly since the passage of the 14th amendment, though not always in a consistent direction.  However, the treatment of non-white Americans as inherently subordinate to and lesser than our European founders and their ancestors, has never really been rectified.  Generations of disenfranchisement, being distrusted, being deprived of opportunity and excluded from society, cannot be undone by a few dozen years of what we laughingly call our social safety net.  There are still strong currents of xenophobia, chauvinism, and racism  in America.   In years past it was expressed through lynch mobs, arson, rape, enforced exclusion, and abuse of the legal system.  Those expressions are now disfavored, but the sentiment still comes across through other avenues: random pull-overs, slurs, denials of common courtesies and opportunities.  Black kids get kicked out of swimming pools they paid to use.  Black cops report harassment from other cops while off-duty.  Black patients don’t get the same quality of medical care in the same hospitals.  Black candidates don’t get call-backs for job interviews even when they have identical resumes as white candidates.  Black car buyers get worse deals.  These are only examples; the list is nauseatingly long.  Our racism runs very wide and deep – so much so it can be hard to point a finger directly at it sometimes.  But that doesn’t mean it is not there.

For those who protest that black-on-black crime is much worse than the media depicts: you are wrong.   First, the media depicts crime whenever it’s lurid, and there’s plenty of bad guys of all colors being outed on the media regardless of the color of their victims.  But most crime isn’t lurid, it’s ordinary and squalid and no one wants to read about it.  White welfare cheats and child beaters and muggers are arrested every day, and no one cares about them either.  There’s not enough airtime for that much sad, dull news.

But more importantly, there is a world of difference between the act of a desperate or hopeless or twisted poor person mired in an underculture, and the act of a uniformed officer who pulls that poor person out of line at the supermarket for a stop-and-frisk because of the color of her skin.  The first is an act of stupidity or selfishness.  The second is an act of official oppression that perpetuates historic prejudice.

If a poor urban youth strapped bombs to himself and blew up a police substation where he’d been abused and humiliated, it would be a political act.  Our poor urban youth don’t do that.  That’s ISIL’s game, and Al Qaida’s.   Those people use terror and violence against innocents to break down a structure that they think oppresses them.  That’s wrong and stupid, but in a much more serious way than a carjacking or a robbery.  It’s an assault against our deepest and most important values.   But now I’m increasingly thinking, it’s just the photo-negative of what happens in gulags, torture chambers in occupied territories, and in parts of our cities where poor people need to prove their value and innocence every day to a hegemony that assumes them to be guilty, or at least defective.

Terrorists exploit the innocent for political gain.  When they are not in power we call them out by name.  When they own the system and their exploitations serve to sustain their own authority, we no longer use that word… but I wonder increasingly why not.

Maybe you disagree with everything I’ve said.  But if you are a member of the cultural majority in this country and have never had a gun drawn on you or spent a night in jail because of the way you looked, I beg you to look at the information below before you excoriate me.  I’m a very lucky guy, but my kids don’t look like me and I have no idea what the future holds for them.  Please join me in working to make sure it’s better than it would have been in the past.

http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html

http://www.displaysforschools.com/history.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/12/05/the-long-halting-still-unfinished-fight-to-end-racial-profiling-in-america/

http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/archive/Pool-Boots-Kids-Who-Might-Change-the-Complexion.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/27/racial-prejudice-worsened-obama

Right Shit Ghetto

They were at it when I boarded the bus in the quiet of the outer avenues – two girls, dressed middle-school sexy with big hair and loud attitudes.   They stood in the rear stepwell, lounging against the steel guardrails.  They talked fast and loud, cutting each other off with ever increasing speed and volume.  I think they were talking mostly about other girls, with more detailed drill-downs about boys, teachers, skin tone, and hair.

I consider myself a patient man but it had only been a few blocks before they started to annoy me with their sheer vapidity and shrill shrieking expostulations. But at least, I told myself, they were over there in the stairwell, while I was way over here on the oppposite benches. I could almost ignore them.

There’s a lot of ridership circulation at Arguello, and with the middle school right there I was counting on the loud girls offboarding.  But instead they just stood in their stepwell and peered out, blocking half the doorway, barking questions at the sides of each others’ faces – “Where are they?”  “Where is he?”  Eventually, though, the people coming on pushed them out of the way, back up the stairs and across the aisle to exactly where I was sitting.   They leaned over my head to look out the windows above me, their midriffs crowding my face as they excitedly squealed at each other: “He’s over there!” “OMG!” “I see him! He can’t see us!”  “O shit!” “Scream out to him!” “There he is!!!” “C’mon – scream out to him!

This was all going down directly above my head, at eight o’clock on a goddamn monday morning. I had an ugly to-do list waiting for me at the end of the ride and I’d already been awake for three hours.   I didn’t care whom they’d just seen.  It was imperative that I keep them from screaming about it.

It didn’t take much.  I was in pressed charcoal slacks, shiny black oxfords, a crisp business shirt, and a blazer.  I was even wearing a black watchcap, albeit emblazoned with a grade-school’s logo.  But I’m sure I looked, as one might put it, hella serious when I finally turned to face them.  “Don’t scream out,” is all I said.  My voice was quiet but its deep timber cut through the noise on board, extinguishing their cackles instantly.  They turned their eyes on me with hesitant surprise.  I lacked the energy to do anything more than meet their gaze, and we held these positions for a still second or two before anyone spoke again.

It was the slightly louder of the two girls who broke the silence, the one with the slightly puffier natural and the slightly darker skin, the one who had initially resisted her friend’s commands to scream at some boy out the window over my head.  When she spoke now it was with her previous brio:

“He’s right – don’ t scream out the window.  That’s right shit ghetto.”

Her gaze flicked to me and I blinked in agreement.  Then we both looked away. She moved elsewhere into the bus, away from me.  I soon lost the sound of her voice in the crowd.  Eventually they both left the bus to other riders.  I just kept sitting where I always sit, screamlessly.

Downstream Thinking

Martin figured that the stupidest mistake he’d ever made must have been when he let Carlos take the shortcut alone.  Up till then the journey had been – well, if not pleasant, at least something he could endure.  He got to eat and sleep on a pretty normal schedule, and anything that went wrong seemed easily fixed or incidental.  He could deal with the rough path and deep bush.  That’s why he decided to stay on course.

But the little setbacks along the way  had hit Carlos harder, and he had already been looking for options.  One finally presented itself in a shabby mountain hamlet they stumbled into one misty morning – a goatpath stuttering up the hill behind the hovels and shacks, and over the next hill, and the ones after that until the fog obscured its further progress.  Carlos asked around and learned that the small path reportedly rejoined the main trail at the trading post, taking a more direct but more challenging upstream route.  Carlos felt compelled to try it.

Once the tough, resourceful locals described it as a tough hike, Martin knew he wanted no part of it.  He’d stick with the main trail.  It had never gotten so very bad that he couldn’t stand it.  The shortcut sounded risky. Martin would endure the longer route, because it was safer.

At least, that’s how it looked on the map, but the map didn’t show all the roadside hazards. Since the day they parted company Martin had been spider-bit, had his food stolen, had his shoes wash away in a flood; he hadn’t found one person or pit stop he could trust since Carlos’ mop of red hair had disappeared behind that first ridge.  From sleeping on anthills  to running from bands of angry monkeys, this had been the worst trip of Martin’s life.  All he could think was how much smarter Carlos had been to have taken a different route.

These thoughts filled his mind as he trudged up the riverbank toward the docks of the trading post.  He noticed there a derelict canoe, crude and rudderless, floating aimlessly downstream.  It drifted with a hollow thud into the docks near where he was standing so he tied it fast, as no one else paid any attention whatsoever.  He glanced inside and saw his friend there, naked and unconscious.  He had no possessions and his flesh had been cut, burned, and beaten.  His cheeks were hollow and his ribs stuck out.  If not for his red hair he’d have been unrecognizable.

Martin looked down on Carlos, barely breathing in his hollow-log canoe, and he thought to himself, “Well, that sure wasn’t much of a shortcut.”

Riding with Kenny Jr

I’d often forget that I lived in Studio City when I was growing up. But then I’d find a nationally recognized movie actor standing behind me at the post office, or someone with his own sitcom out renting a cassette alongside me at the local video shoppe, and I’d remember again. I’d cross paths with celebrities just often enough for the most blinding glamor to dim a bit, but not often enough for it to feel quite normal. it was always a bit of a thrill to see Hollywood’s big names wandering through my life. They were exotic. And my regular old San Fernando Valley self really just wasn’t.

There were also industry faces at my school. We had a couple of America’s most recognizable kids in my Jr High – they had authentic careers with feature films and network series, but during hiatus they’d mainstream with normals like me. We all obviously knew who they were, everybody with a teevee did. But after a few days of school with its weird smells and manifold inconveniences, we stopped caring. In this way, the exotic was normalized.

And then one time, normal suddenly got exotic. Now that was a fun evening.

I had this friend in Jr High – Kenny. He was a “junior” – named after his dad. His dad, as it turns out, had been a big pop star a decade or so ago, and he was just starting in on a second career in country music. Country music was still kind of a niche market, but this guy was about to bust that demographic wide open. But when I was in 8th grade, all that was the unrealized future, and I’d already missed Kenny Sr’s defunct pop star days. All I knew was, a lot of moms knew exactly who my friend Kenny’s dad was.

None of that had anything to do with me, or why Kenny Jr was my friend. He was funny as hell, is why we hung – creative, quick-witted, articulate and raunchy. He kept me in stitches. We were comedy buddies. That’s as deep as I dug with him. Hell, he didn’t even live with his dad. He and his mom had a little place off Moorpark. Despite his apparent pedigree, I had no reason to connect him with Hollywood’s exoticism. Kenny Jr was normal.

Then one day Kenny Jr and I were out, probably at his place because where else were two 14-year-olds going to be in 1978 in Studio City? The hour had grown late and I needed a ride out to someplace on Ventura or Riverside, one of those major avenues. Kenny Jr’s mom said she’d drive me there. That’s no big thing. Moms often gave their kids’ friends a lift. This was Los Angeles; a car-ride represented baseline threshold hospitality. I thought nothing of it, till Kenny Jr’s mom pulled up with my ride.

Some cars were mom cars – big station wagons, dinky runabouts, kid-hauling sedans. Some cars were dad cars – sportier, or shinier, or dirtier, or just plain more fun than mom-cars. And then there’s the 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. When one of those pulled up, I really wasn’t sure where it came from or where it was going. I just definitely knew that I wanted a ride in it. And then Kenny Jr casually popped the door and hopped inside, and I followed him.  As if it were normal.

my ride

The hood was bigger than my dad’s Pinto, and the fenders over the fat front wheels seemed to sneer at the road. The door was like an airplane door in heft and engineering tolerances. As a limo-length vehicle, the passenger cabin was spacious and exquisitely appointed. The interior – maroon, I think – was like a gracious corner of a sophisticated club, with every amenity at one’s fingertips and all the seats inexpressibly comfortable.

I couldn’t believe my friend’s mom was able to drive it. Or did she? Where, exactly, did she take me? Could I hear the engine purr? How did it smell? Today, I cannot tell you. The experience was so rich in details, I actually forget most of them. But this I know without question: That wasn’t just a quick lift around the neighborhood from a friend’s mom. The trip wherever I was going took a matter of minutes. The ride I got that night, in a sense, continues today.

Cagey

The party was at the little park up the street, where long lawns lay cradled between stands of cypress and juniper, and a spring-fed lake glistens primordially. The birthday boy’s parents had brought in a bouncy-house and laid a picnic table with mostly-healthy snacks plus some cupcakes for later, and different coolers for kids and grown-ups. The sun had broken through and the grass was dazzling green and kids were squealing with joy.

We were set up not far from the main footpath and had tuned out the steady trickle of humanity wandering past our site, walking their labradoodles or running the par course or whatever. It’s a public park; some contact with the public was to be expected. Our kids were safely occupied and our focus was on chips and dip and a coolerful of beer. No one was paying that much attention as the bird people approached.

They were, themselves, unremarkable enough: a woman and a man in their 50s or 60s, north Asian, plain-faced and plainly dressed, neither of them very tall or large, and each of them carrying a good-sized bird cage. She walked ahead of him, approaching us smiling. I assumed at first that she was the grandmother of one of the kids at the party, but the bird cages didn’t quite compute. Somewhere in my medial cortex I began to pay a little more attention.

The woman had walked up to a small clutch of party moms who were chatting nearest the footpath. They seemed nonplussed by this expansion of their little group, but greeted her politely. The birdcage woman smiled, held up her birdcage to show it off. The party moms peered at it compliantly. The birdcage woman sharply called out to the birdcage man, who scurried over to show his cage too with a deferential bob of his comb-over.

By now I was paying too much attention not to get a better angle on the proceedings. I strolled over and asked, “What’s up?”

She thrust her cage toward me, her smile strained when seen up close. Her cage was dusty and far from new, yellow plastic at the bottom and top, with the rest made of rigid metal wires spaced too close together to fit a finger between them. The whole thing was perhaps 15″ square and two feet tall. Inside were seven grey birds with red markings on their temples, shuffling on perches or nestled in bedding. A nesting area suspended near the top held three pearl-sized eggs. A bird sat next to them, looking at me with cold hard eyes.

The woman was still smiling at me, as if she expected something. I told her, “They’re very pretty.” She enthusiastically nodded yes, pushing the cage at me. I said, “Okay then.” With her other hand, she hoisted a clear plastic bag of bird chow or nesting material or some damn thing bigger than her head, displaying it to me. Part of the package. Now I understood. “Oh, wow,” I mumbled.

The woman stammered at me, struggling against a language barrier. They were leaving, for New York. Right away. No time. Leaving leaving, no more home. Birds, birds. Pretty. Eggs. Babies. Birds.

She stopped talking and held my gaze. I told her, “I’m sorry, they’re very nice, but I don’t want any birds.” Her eyes hardened on mine like a bird’s eyes. Without another word she turned her back on us and walked away, back to the footpath and out of our party, her birdcage clutched in bony fingers and her husband hustling along three steps behind her.

Sketchy

It was a sketchy ride from the start. The man who sat at my left knee had that sweet-vinegar wino smell, but at least he was neatly groomed and self-contained. But people kept pouring in at every stop and the guy at my knee got replaced by someone louder and smellier. People started saving seats for their friends, and other people started getting irritated by that. Some big tough-looking guys got on, and some big tough women too. Before we reached Union Square we were out of seats, floor space, oxygen, and patience – and the road ahead looked long and crowded.

When the doors next opened, another half-dozen riders forced their way on board at each of the bus’s three doors. I was across from the back door, where I watched them jockeying for their slots, the standard-issue square shoppers and office hotties… and then one more: At the back of the pack was a man of the streets, who seemed in particular to be having a difficult day. Before he could get one foot on the bottom step he was already yelling, trying to get folk to squeeze further inside so he could board properly, him and his enormous green ripstop duffel. The duffel was as big as a mastiff on its haunches, and the dude was having a lot of trouble getting in with it. So he yelled into the bus, demanding that room be made for him and his: “I don’t care who the hell you are, take a damned step back!” His voice was agitated and gravelly, and he had to repeat himself several times before he could step in far enough for the doors to close behind him. He muttered on the stairwell, It was hard to see hm but it was easy to tell hie was in a bad way.

He wore an old sweater, cable knit, mostly pills and pulls, yellow yard that showed a lot of grime. His pants were sturdy burgundy denim. His face was lean and unshaven and his eyes burned. I wanted nothing to do with him. Less than nothing, if possible.

Over the next few stops, a lot of people got on and off. The rank hobo next to me switched out for a leggy young woman. The guy with the duffel steadily pushed further into the aisle. Each time he’d move, he would hoist his bag with a heaving groan, and he struggled to keep it upright between his legs. As he worked his way slowly away from the bus door he continued to chastise everyone around him for failing to make room. Everyone tried to ignore him but he didn’t make it easy.

Finally a big, young muscular guy, more than six feet tall with arms like legs, stood up and started talking back to him. The big guy didn’t shout but his speaking voice commanded respect. After a few sharp exchanges the matter was put to rest. The buy with the duffel did no more shouting, and the big guy sat down again at the center of the back bench with his arms imposingly crossed. The duffelbag guy hovered uneasily over his teetering luggage, scowling through his stubble. I looked up to exchange a glance with my leggy neighbor about all this but she had mentally checked out long prior, so I just went back to my notebook.

At Fillmore, the big guy got off; the duffel dude courteously shifted his back to make room for him to pass. Then he noticed that a seat next to me was open, and with opportunistic alacrity he pivoted the duffel and plopped himself down to my immediate right.

The duffel’s zipper had burst, leaving an open flap that revealed mismatched bedding folded up inside. He pushed the drooping zipper-busted flap back up to cover his possessions, bu tit just flopped right back down again. He slapped it back into place. It drooped down faster. He sighed and shook his grizzled head.

He turned to me, starting at my shoes and scanning up. He apologized to me about his duffel. I let him reply to my response, and we wound up talking. We talked about frayed nerves, crowded buses, NYC subways, Philadelphia SEPTA cars, how people get snippy no matter how nice the weather is, and the rules for riding buses in general. He extended a hand to me. “My name is James.”

His voice was gentle now, resonant over the rasp of rough living. I took his hand in mine and shook it. He gripped back with tired bones I could have crushed in my fist like a baby bird.

Inexcusable Behavior

“Excuse me, young man!”

The speaker was an older woman, well-dressed, with tidy silvered hair. She spoke with a crisp authoritative voice, slightly accented but entirely intelligible. She sat at the back of the bus, speaking generally into the chaotic mass of riders ahead of her. However, from the angle of her gaze and her choice of words, it seemed likely that she was addressing one of the two young men sitting directly across from me.

They wore distressed jeans and high-end t-shirts; they had carefully-maintained hair styles and one wore discreet ear-gauges. At first they ignored the woman shouting towards them as one ignores any background noise one hears on the bus. But she repeated herself with increasing urgency, and it became harder to relegate her to the background. The two young men began exchanging uncomfortable little glances with each other, hoping the importunations would end, hoping the other would succumb to them first. The old woman was persistent, though, and one of the young men had thinner skin than the other. He muttered her answer to her through reluctant lips: “‘Scuse me, what?”

Her somewhat vague gaze now focused specifically on him. “Do you know if unmarried mothers can use the computers?” Her interlocutee seemed nonplussed, as well he might. He repeated himself: “‘Scuse me?”

The query came back with renewed vigor: “The unmarried mothers – the women with a baby and no man. Are they allowed to use the public computer network? Or is it forbidden?”

The one young man looked to the other, unsure how he’d gotten here or how he’d get out. No help was forthcoming from his friend, or from anybody else for that matter. He fell back on the truth: “Um, I don’t know?”

The querulous tone of his response suggested that he knew his answer would not satisfy this woman. She was already well along on her unique tangent, though, and had not time to tarry on old business: “Yes, and the black and Mexicans, what about them? Or the disabled, in wheelchairs? Are they forbidden? Because – I don’t think that’s right! The computer network is for everyone, and no one should be excluded just because of skin or because she likes men too much. Right? That’s wrong, right?”

Her mistake was to have spoken for so long. It gave the young man a chance to shrink away from her, back into the compass of his own conversation with his own friend, talking to him about this crazy woman, leaving her speaking crisply to no one anymore. Though she repeated her final questions a few more times, by now we all knew better than to respond to her in any way. Eventually she stopped asking.

Shortly thereafter she left the bus, walking with impenetrable dignity without another word, without a glance to anyone. We were each relieved, but not all as a group. There was no group. There was just a bus full of people who preferred to be left alone.

Hidden in Plain Sight

It’s the official start of the end of summer. Let’s have a season-ending blowout with yet another post about the greenbelt:

Even at the height of vernal efflorescence, when every bush and half the trees were laden with blossoms, the boys knew which was the purple plum. They’d plucked from it before; with a claw on a pole they’d filled bags with feral fruits a few years ago. When the greenbelt was ablaze with flowers this past springtime, they were already thinking of the plums to come.

The purple plum stands out on the thin strip of park across the street, gaudy with leaves the same color as its small sweet fruits. It’s a tree that calls attention to itself, tall and full-canopied, standing apart from the other trees, seeming to revel in its runway-ready style. This spring its nascent blooms were fragrant and hung heavy on the boughs. It looked like a good year for feral plums.

The weeks passed and some months too, and we watched the petals fall, the leaves unfurl, the fruits outswelling on the twigs, growing and darkening into promising little ovaries of potential lusciousness. We ventured to try one It was hard and bitter. Weeks later, juicy but sour. The time was coming, though. The cusp of fructification was nigh.

Well I don’t know what happened – some damn thing or other. Whatever it was, a few weeks snuck past us, together with some sharp-eyed hobos and grannies and hipster jam-crafters and a bunch of other folks plus some squirrels and raccoons and assorted sketchy wildlife… and each of those scored a share of early purple plums. More than a share, even, because after they were done the only plums left for me and mine were much too high up to be reached.

The boys, realizing this inequity when it finally occurred to them to pick their plums, were deeply saddened. Since springs early flowers they’d been waiting, and now it was for naught. Their precious purple fruits were out of reach.

In their gloom they didn’t notice me strolling just a few dozen yards down the greenbelt away from that proud, stripped, purple plum tree, back toward the thick bank of green trees linking the bridle path. It didn’t take but seconds to find what I sought among the branches of a particularly green tree, undistinguished from its neighbors but for one thing – the dozens and dozens and dozens of cheerful green plums patiently waiting upon it for me to pluck them and eat them. I tossed a few to the boys. The plums were warm from the sun, full of cool nectar and tender flesh, enrobed in tart green skin none but us had ever touched. They boy were grateful for my having salvaged their summer plumming. And maybe next time they’ll remember that the thing they want might not come to them just as they expected it to.