Archive for the ‘Real Life’ Category

State of the Bunion

August 22, 2011

My boss is a 63-year old ex-Marine vegan teetotaler who as long as we’ve known each other has given me shit in a (mostly) joshing way about certain habits of mine—mostly the smoking but my diet, too—and a constant theme in this has been his occasionally irritating certainty about what does and doesn’t give a person cancer. So, fine…go ahead and give me shit, I don’t care, just so long as you’re sure to give me a long leash along with it—that was my attitude, and it worked for both of us. Then, some time back, he started having trouble peeing and found out he had bladder cancer. They removed his bladder and he was out for four months, recovering and whatnot, and he finally came back to work two weeks ago. His energy and sense of humor have been remarkably high, but he’s also been  thin and frail since the operation, looking a lot older than his age. (One day I mentioned the irony that of the two of us he should be the one to get sick, and he crowed “I know it! I can’t believe it!”) He was limping around all day today, and it turns out he took a tumble while walking from the train to the office this morning, landing on one of those skinny little hips of his. It was still bugging him this afternoon so he just now took off for home, and to top things off he’s supposed to get the test results today showing whether the cancer’s spread to  his other lymph nodes—a big fat worrisome if  since it already spread to the one by his bladder.

And of course I’m still dealing with my dad, who, when I ask him how he’s doing, simply tends to mutter “Not good. Not good.” (You know you’re talking to your 84 year old father when he asks you if you know who Pat Boone is, and he doesn’t hear you screaming “YES! YES! I KNOW WHO HE IS!” because he’s too busy telling you Boone used to be on the old Arthur Godfrey show.) Dad’s going blind, he’s got emphysema, he has a double hernia that his HMO won’t touch because of his overall condition, his back is giving out, and he has an enlarged heart, plus his skin looks like shit because he doesn’t have enough energy to smear himself down with some moisturizer. And yet he keeps floating the idea of coming to San Francisco for a visit, which is obviously the looniest idea in the world. I pointed out that if making it across the living room is a Herculean labor for him, how the hell does he expect to get to the airport for a two-hour plane ride, keep his energy up for 2-3 days, and so on, all of which only begs the question of why he’d want to travel when he can barely see or move around. I told him it’d make more sense if I visited him again, an idea I’d barely gotten out of my mouth before he was on it like a ton of rocks: “That’d be great!” Then, of course, it was easy to see he really just wants to see me one more, or one last, time.

This bullshit’s giving me the intimations-of-mortality blues, I know that much. Some folks would say it’d be easier if I’d written a great book or had kids so I could feel like I was living on through them, but that just brings to mind Woody Allen’s line “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Okay, maybe I don’t need to live forever, but the current system of things leaves a lot to be desired and I keep coming back to the idea that I was just born too early in the evolutionary tide. Sure, it beats where the caveman came in, but you just know that 100 years from now cancer’s going to be a thing of the past, and maybe the Tea Party, too. Maybe people won’t even be dying by then, and they’ll have gotten past all prejudice and superstition, and we’ll all be living on peaches and Irish whiskey. I feel out of touch with most every goddam thing anyhow, and when I go downstairs for a cigarette I spend most of that time staring into the middle distance and wondering “What did I want?” Well, in the immortal words of Elaine Benes, I know it wasn’t this. Just now I was down there and some cute young thang in a classless, clueless star-fucker get-up—Ugg boots, miniskirt and cowboy hat—came moseying up the sidewalk when a second woman appeared, walking in the opposite direction. This one was closer to my age, and she had appealingly scruffy gray hair, a denim jacket, and blue jeans with a hole in the knee, and she was moving like she didn’t give a damn about anything in the world. When the two of them passed each other they seemed to lock into a single human being for one elongated second, and I felt like tilting back my head and baying at the sky.

August 17, 2011

Got a haircut in my old-timey barbershop tonight, and the guy in the chair next to me asked for a shave. While the barber was tilting his chair back I said “I haven’t seen anyone get a shave in a barbershop since The Untouchables,” at which point the two oldest barbers, guys both in their late 60s or early 70s, made pained “Oooohhh” noises and began laughing. Albert Anastasia, wherever you are—you still got it, baby.

Daft in August

August 15, 2011

Last week my office building’s management was emailing advisories about a possible protest at the Civic Center BART station—the BART cops shot a drunk dead there a couple weeks ago. The protest didn’t materialize then but today we got another email, and sure enough while I was walking to the subway after work a squad car followed by two vans packed with cops came roaring down Mission. Inside the subway the P.A. told us that our MUNI car wouldn’t be stopping at Civic Center, and when we got to the station it was like the opening image of Among the Thugs in reverse: instead of standing on a platform and seeing a trainload of brawling soccer hooligans flash by, I was standing on a train flying past an eerily deserted platform—eerily deserted, that is, except for one old man in an orange vest, who was sleepily working a push-broom in one spot. There was no telling what, if anything, was going on one floor below us.

I got off at Church and my feet had barely hit the pavement before I heard an unearthly yowl followed by another one. Two women were in the middle of Market Street, one of them a homeless-looking black woman who was sprawled helplessly on her back, the other a white chick who looked like an office-worker. The white chick was straddling the black woman and totally whaling on her, raising her fist straight up into the air before swinging down and punching the other gal in the head as hard as she could. By the time I got across they’d separated and the white woman was stomping away with the black woman chasing and yelling after her. I’d have chosen another tactic myself, and for good reason, because suddenly the white chick started throwing kicks, half-karate and half-mule, back behind her, and one of them managed to catch the black woman in the stomach and knock her backwards off the curb, flat on her ass at my feet. I got her to sit up and sit still long enough for the white woman to get clear; then she started crying and digging her nails into me and refusing to move even though a bunch of cars were bearing down on us. Somebody found her shoe and her cell phone—because, you know, everybody has to have a cell phone now—and I finally got her to let go of me.

And now here I sit, with my happy little jug of apple juice and the roar of helicopters at the Civic Center coming through the windows. I believe I’ll be hunkering down tonight…O, happy day.

Maybe I’m Semi-Amazed

August 4, 2011

Thanks to the miracle that is Facebook—what’s the emoticon for sarcasm again?—it’s been brought to my attention that my 40th high school reunion is coming up next summer (do I feel that old? Oh, hell, yes!), and naturally someone started a central page for all us geezers to gather together in our wheelchairs so we can click our dentures in unison. It’s been an odd sensation, to say the least. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with about a dozen of the people I knew back then—we’re talking the class of ’72 from Bellaire High School in Houston—but now the floodgates have opened for real. Some of the folks I’ve been dealing with the past few days have names and faces that are permanently imprinted on my brain-pan; others of them, umm, not so much. It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter. Right now, for instance, we’re discussing (or maybe we’re debating, I’m not sure) the relative merits of Cormac McCarthy’s various novels, which is a pastime I never expected to engage in with these particular people, not at any point in my lifetime. And today one of them posted this photo featuring several of my cohorts from the drama department, our time in which—for a great many of us, I think—constituted our real high school experience. (If you think I can ramble on about my family and shit, just get me started on this stuff.) If I walk into work tomorrow morning and find King Tut shaving his callouses in my cubicle, I’ll be less surprised than I am right now.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I see someone just answered my post about Blood Meridian

Hard Time

July 22, 2011

An online friend of mine just suffered a right royal fucking at the hands of some Florida cops, and his story reminded me of the only time I ever went to jail. It was for public intoxication, even though I was actually behind the wheel of a car at the time and they should’ve thrown the book at me.

In 1978 I was living with a woman named—ah, hell, let’s call her Clarice Starling. The whole notion of living with Tom Block had lost its charm for Miss Clarice, and around Thanksgiving of that year she summarily dumped me. I had to save up enough money before I could move out, though, so for a month we shared the same bed without having sex and often (on her end) holding very little affection for the other. I was desperate to keep her, though, because I was just that pathetic, and I was frantically searching for some way of getting back in her good graces. One Friday around this time I got my paycheck from my regular job, and that night I had a toothache which, in my infinite wisdom, I decided would be best treated with a fifth of Bacardi. At the time I was driving a ’76 blue Ford Galaxie, a great big ol’ Panzer-looking thing, so I started tooling around Houston, drinking out of the bottle with the radio turned up loud.

At some point I began steering my way towards Galveston because I knew a fast drive would blow my thoughts away, which is what the Bacardi was really there for, too, and along the way I picked up two Mexican guys hitching on I-45. We shot the bull for a while before they told me they wanted to boost a Coca-Cola bottling plant on the island, but they weren’t even after money, I don’t think—just mischief. They asked me if I wanted anything, and remembering that Clarice liked Dr. Pepper, I told ’em to get me as much of it as they could. They directed me to a point outside a chain-link fence and had me park there, after which they clambered over the fence and disappeared into the darkness, heading towards a huge warehouse. It seemed like forever before they reappeared, and then they made two or three return trips back into the darkness, before they came back for good and started throwing case after case of soft drinks over the fence. When they started chucking all the cans into my back seat, there were so many of them that they filled the well to nearly the top of the front seat—I mean, it was really a lot of soda pop. The only problem was that Coca-Cola doesn’t bottle Dr. Pepper, of course, so my new friends had improvised and brought me 300 cans of Mr. Pibb, which was Coke’s Dr. Pepper knock-off. It didn’t matter. I was sure Clarice would see me in a whole new light.

We went to some Mexican dance club they knew about, and that’s where I lost them. I was already reeling drunk, but I was tapping 100 mph on the trip back to Houston. (I-45 is a long straight shot and there was barely any traffic—it was well past midnight by then.) I drove to a friend’s house in West University, about a mile from the apartment Clarice and I were sharing, and woke him up at four in the morning, barging into his livingroom, drunk and full of bullshit. All of this only irritated him, naturally, so I split, rebuffed by the world but still in possession of one hell of a lot of Mr. Pibb. I started driving back to my house, but when I was still about a mile away from it, a West University squad car started tailing me. It followed me for a couple blocks, right on my ass, and when we stopped for the red light at Bissonnet, it felt like the cops were sitting inside my car with me.

When the light turned green and I made the turn, my left rear wheel just managed to graze the island, and they instantly popped their lights on. They were two young cops, and they acted like they were going to let me off with a warning when I pointed out how close my house was to us—you could see it just across an empty field from where we were standing. But something—maybe it was the backseat filled with obviously stolen soft drinks—queered the deal. They started putting the cuffs on me, at which point I lost my shit and started calling them pigs. That was a mistake, but they took it surprisingly well; looking back on it, I don’t think I could’ve resisted taking a swipe at me for some of the things I said to them that night. I yelled at them all through the ride to their rinky-dink jailhouse, and I yelled at them all through the booking process, and when they threw me in a cell (I was their only guest that night), I started singing whatever songs came to mind at the top of my lungs—the big one I remember was “Camptown Races”. I kept it up for an hour or more, and though every once in a while somebody would come tell me to shut up, that was all they did. Nobody laid a hand on me, and eventually I passed out on the bunk.

When I woke up the next morning I had a miserable hangover (I’d all but killed the Bacardi by the time they pulled me over) and I stank to high heaven. I was finished. They let me call Clarice, and she and my sister showed up within an hour. But at the front desk I could see the sergeant telling them something that made them tighten their jaws, and then they began talking to each other. It turned out the West U. cops had just gotten around to calling my name in to the Houston Police Department, an organization with whom I happened to have—oh, I don’t know—three or four outstanding traffic tickets. So now I had to visit the HPD station downtown and take care of that.

The upshot was eight raucous, rancid hours in the Houston drunk-tank, and I tell you this much, those Houston cops had no sense of humor. The sergeant who picked me up—a barrel-chested redneck son of a bitch—announced his presence in my West U. cell by slamming the door all the way flat against the wall and roaring in my face, “I heard what you said to those officers last night, an’ if you use that word with me, I’ll beat the living shit out of you. You understan’ me?” It seemed like both of us were swaying back and forth a little, and I could feel him about to blow, so I started turning the flame down: “Look, I understand, officer. I understand. I just want to go home.” Which was true.

They gave me more of the same downtown, with each and every cop in turn telling me how he wanted to kick my ass right then and there, and this lasted until I was sitting on a bench back downstairs again, on the verge of being released. The woman who processed the discharges wasn’t a cop, just a city clerk of some kind, but she was a heartless bitch with a piercing Southern accent. I could see the release form with my name on it in her hand, but every time she got close to it, another clerk would hand her the forms for a new bunch of guys coming down the elevator and she’d bury mine under all of them, with each pass-over like that meaning another half hour of me sitting on the bench. At one point I got up and cautiously tried to point out this oversight to her, only to see her whip her head around on her neck like a monster out of Greek mythology. “Set your ass back down or I’m gettin’ the officer!” she screamed, so I beat a retreat. It took her another hour before she finally took mercy and called my name. The last words that passed between us—“You’ll be back!”—she spit out with genuine hatred. Of course I didn’t dare say a word back to her, and to this day I sometimes get the vibe that she was right, and I’ll someday be standing before her again.

Clarice was waiting for me outside, and we drove back to the West U. lockup to get my car out of impound. It turned out that if the Texas cops stopped you for a DUI back then, they had the choice of either hitting you with just that one charge, or they could total up the fines for all your moving violations and hit you with that amount instead. A DUI fine in those pre-MADD times was only $100 or so, so the West U. cops had talked it over and decided to charge me with public intoxication and tack on another $250 or $300 for scraping their precious traffic island; on top of that, I had the Houston fines as well. I’d lost the entire paycheck I’d gotten just a day before, plus I owed Clarice and my sister for the balance they covered.

So it was a pretty sad scene when Clarice and I finally got back to the apartment. And yet, ever the optimist, I hopefully led her out to the carport and opened up the backseat door of my car. A bunch of warm Mr. Pibbs came tumbling out onto the asphalt, and I beamed at her and said, “Honey, look there! They’re all for you!” At which point she just shook her head and said, “I don’t like Mr. Pibb”, then walked back inside the house. I’m pretty sure she was lying about that last part, though. Have you ever tasted Mr. Pibb? It tastes just like Dr. Pepper.

Relatives

April 28, 2011

Y’know, I complain about everything because complaining suits me, and I’m alienated from most everything because that’s my nature. But it’s a frivolous and tiresome way to be, considering I’m a white guy in America in undeserved good health. I’ve seen and done a lot of interesting things, and right now, when loads of smarter and better educated people than me are barely making ends meet (or aren’t making them meet at all), I’ve got this cushy-ass office job that pays me more than a single guy needs to basically come in here and sit. But still, it’s all too easy to get caught up in my own shit and exaggerate the things I never had, and all that bonny crap…

What brings it to mind, almost every day, is this old guy who I always see during my last smoke break. He’s the busboy at the Chinese deli downstairs, and he’s gotta be 60 or 65 years old. He’s as frail as a bird, with thin little arms that look like they’re made out of balsa-wood, and he has a long sallow unhappy-looking face. He’s always out of breath because of his job, so I can see he has only a couple or three teeth in his mouth, but even if he had a full set of choppers he’d still be a homely little sonofabitch by our culture’s prevailing standards. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak English—he’s only grunted when I’ve said hello though I’ve heard him rattle on in Chinese with his coworkers. I never see him when he’s not working—he’s always straightening up the tables or stocking the cooler—and come 4:15 he has to stack up the aluminum tables and chairs on the patio, and then he drags that day’s garbage down the street and around the corner to the whole other side of the building, where the dumpsters are hidden. It takes him two trips, hauling these giant plastic trash cans brimming with refuse almost a full city block, while all the office workers with their nice clothes and laptops and gym bags make sure to dance their way around him.

I can’t blame them, I’d do the same thing—treat him like a pothole and jump right past him—if he ever got in between me and the subway when I was getting off work. But when you observe his routine day after day for a while, it’s impossible not to wonder how he views the situation. There’s an art academy a couple blocks south of here, and around this time of day a stream of students comes trickling down this way heading to Market Street, and lot of ’em are these 20-something chickadees who’re all just cute as a button. Is the busboy like me? Does he check the young girls out, too, even resignedly and from a distance? Does he even notice the office workers? Does he resent their jumping past him, or wonder why it is they get the laptops and nice suits while he has to haul the goddam garbage down the street and get in everybody’s way? Is he even half as bitter or discouraged as I’d be in his place?

At one point in Junior Bonner Steve McQueen says about his second-place lot in life “Someone has to hold the horses”, and the only thing that makes the thought bearable is the fact that most of life’s horse-holders are out of our sight, tucked away somewhere that lets us promise ourselves they aren’t too miserable or too tuckered out from the day to enjoy their loved ones, that something in their lives makes their existence worth the unholy grind. Carlos, the guy who works in the taquería by my house, told me once that he makes so many burritos he wakes up in the middle of the night to find his fingers making a rolling motion. Once I had a job I used to dream about, too, but I was fresh out of high-school then, with my whole wide life before me; Carlos is a full-grown man with a son already in middle-school. If I sometimes resent the distance between myself and Brad Pitt, what the hell must Carlos feel? And what goes through Brad Pitt’s mind when he sees someone like the Chinese busboy? Success at that level must come with its own level of dread, and I’m not saying that just because I hope it does.

Way Down, Below the Ocean

April 26, 2011

Man, it’s a beautiful day out there—one of those days I have to actively resist the urge to chuck it all and just take off, leave everything behind, and just go. It’s the first real spring day we’ve had, nice enough that I sat at home in my shorts for the longest time this morning, smoking cigarettes and just staring out the window even though it was sure to make me late. When I finally got moving I hailed a cab and the driver, a guy from Thailand if I had to guess, was playing Bach loud enough I had to yell out “Second and Folsom!” at him before I drifted off in the back seat. An Asian guy playing Western classical music while zipping me along in his cab through San Francisco…Well, that’s the 21st Century if anything is, but I’m tired of that, too. From the corner where my office is you can look down Second Street and catch a glimpse of the Bay reaching over to Oakland, with one toe-end of Treasure Island just jutting into the picture, and the fact that the view is blinkered on either side by a canyon of blank-eyed office buildings only makes it that much more like the end-point of a dream. That’s when that verse from “Henry’s Understanding” came to me:

& horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me
that one night, instead of warm pajamas,
I’d take off all my clothes
& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff
into the terrible water & walk forever
under it out toward the island.

It’s not like that, I don’t work like that, I know that the islands and Bach are just a coincidence, but I do need to get away, in some damn way or other. The fucking situation is wearing me down, and the dribs and drabs of other people’s bad news keep rolling in and bugging me, too. The way I’m feeling right now I don’t even need a car. I’d be happy to grab a duffel-bag stuffed with a couple of shirts and whatever book I’m reading, and make it out to some godforsaken stretch of highway where I’d just sit down, have a smoke and take a good, long look around me. It could be anywhere, really, I don’t care, just so long as the horizon gets out of my face for a while.  Y’know, I’m very nearly burned out here—

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”: Bad Bets & Old-Timey Titty Bars

April 21, 2011

I guess it was last Saturday night when I decided to take a break from Berlin Alexanderplatz and pop in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I hadn’t seen it since ’76, when I made it to the theater in time to see the original 135-minute cut that performed a very public belly-flop before it was withdrawn for recutting. That bit of alacrity on my part was mostly due to A Woman Under the Influence, a movie which—despite it being the definition of “emotionally exhausting”—thrilled me so much I saw it four or five times during its theatrical run. Lots of movies pull me back to them time and again, but A Woman cast a spell on me: when I came out of the theater the last couple of times I saw it, I felt pressed to literally express my appreciation to Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Falk, to the point that it seemed a part of the movie’s process. (I could be like that back then. The second time I saw Apocalypse Now, I was ready to quit my cushy oil-industry job and join the rebels in El Salvador. Now I’m just glad it was a Saturday night and the acid wore off before I did anything stupid.)

Chinese Bookie was a different story. When it was over I not only didn’t feel like wiring my thanks to John Cassavetes, I barely spoke to my buddy on the ride home. It’s not a movie that jazzes you up that way. When we first meet the world-class small-timer Cosmo Vitelli (that name alone may be my favorite thing in the movie), he’s just paid off his debt to a loan shark, and to celebrate he goes out for a night of gambling; then, when he loses his shirt again, he’s ordered to whack a rival mobster to rub out his debt. Cosmo makes his living from his L.A. nightclub—the Crazy Horse West—which is a hybrid affair, a topless bar dressed up as a cabaret club, although how it survives is a mystery: though it’s often packed, it’s also often empty, and even when it is packed the customers are unhappy with the show.

Clubs like Crazy Horse West are harder to find than Route 66 today, but when I was of titty-bar-going age a club very much like Cosmo’s place could be found on Market Square in downtown Houston. At some point in its checkered past the Moulin Rouge had probably offered entertainment that was both reputable and actually entertaining, but I only knew it as a rundown two-story brick theater whose roof was topped by a crumbling Dutch windmill that tilted to one side like a sad, dilapidated hat. The inside resembled a cavernous old barn, with several small tables and chairs crowded around a felt-topped stage, and the blinding white spotlights filtered through the strata of cigarette smoke before leaching away to darkness beyond the corners of the dance floor. The place was strung with tinsel and mirrors and threadbare velvet curtains, and white trellises curled with plastic ivy vines reached up to the darkened balcony that ran around the top of the hall, while some large planter boxes covered the floor in an irregular enough pattern that customers navigating their way to their seats regularly barked their shins on them.

Contra the usual strip-club, most of the patrons were as old as I am now, maybe even older. It was a mixed crowd, with a surprising number of women, by no means all of them hookers; even stranger, everyone dressed for the occasion, and they all behaved as if they were attending a real stage show, something in Vegas maybe. The thing is, the Moulin Rouge’s performers were barely worth putting your pants on. They were all on the order of off-key barbershop quartets, bad magic acts, and underpopulated Dixieland jazz bands—there was even one guy who’d climb onstage and spell out words fed to him by the audience. After the night’s straight act had finished, the announcer—powder-blue tuxedo, coiffed gray hair—would climb onto the stage and make a great to-do about whichever stripper was getting ready to come out next, trying to build anticipation for her by not shutting up about how great she was. Then, after an eternity, she’d finally come out, and the real show would begin…I remember one woman, 50 years old if she was a day, who appeared in a blonde beehive wig and backless blue sequined dress. She simply walked around the stage in her heels while Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” played on the PA system, slowly untying the strings around her neck and finally peeling the front of her dress down to her waist. Then she stripped off one of her elbow-gloves and methodically worked it around her neck like a snake until its fingers were spread across her left breast, and she looked down at the glove in coy surprise before shooting a saucy Oh, my! smile at the front row, where a line of tired old men stared back at her.

I can see now why I felt so flat that night in 1976: Chinese Bookie is one jammed-up movie. Cassavetes’ juices just aren’t flowing in moments like that cheesy phone call about “the Paris number” while other long passages—Exhibit A: the gangsters’ double-cross—burn a big fat hole in the screen. You can read Cosmo’s hopes for Crazy Horse West as a metaphor for artistic passion and commercial degradation, and while the idea that Cosmo’s headliner, the third-rate entertainer known as  “Mr. Sophistication”, is a stand-in for Cassavetes’ actors (or himself) is a tempting (if unflattering) one, it doesn’t explain why, whenever this important character opens his mouth, such boring things have to come out of it. Chinese Bookie might make a more resonant character study if Cosmo had even a teaspoon of talent, but instead he’s a clod whom we happen to catch just as he’s committing the last in what is undoubtedly a long line of fuck-ups. And what a clod he is: he fumbles the job when he tries to pin a corsage on his date’s dress, and even the stupidest of his strippers is turned off by his bush-league trumpeting of Dom Pérignon as “The best!” The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has other problems—a cookie-cutter shootout, a stiffly symbolic gunshot wound, and the racially awed shots of Cosmo’s black girlfriend. And while Ben Gazzara could ooze middle-aged defeatism like he invented the stuff, Bogart, Holden, Brando, Finney, and any number of unsung noir actors did, too, only their movies used disillusionment as a taking-off point—not the final destination.

With the kinks worked out of it Pat Garret & Billy the Kid might’ve been Sam Peckinpah’s greatest masterpiece, but fixing all of Chinese Bookie’s problems might still leave a movie that’s more fun to think about than it is to actually watch. Yet in 35 years I never did shake its sour morning-after vibe, and there’s something to be said for that. Douglas Sirk once said that you can’t make a movie about things but only with them, and in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes draws a picture of oppressiveness with little more than a rumpled tux and a bagful of hamburgers. That surely counts for something; I’m just not convinced how much.

The Adventures of New Old Grumpus Maximus

March 24, 2011

But, lord, I’m in a pissy mood today. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I fell asleep on the couch last night, and slept there the whole night long, sitting up no less, as if I were doing something sentient and useful instead of filling the room with my snores and the occasional fart or coughing fit, so that when I woke up at 7:00 this morning I still had Meyer Lansky’s biography spread open on my lap and a crick in my neck that’d put down a fucking giraffe. Plus it’s been pissing rain for thirty days and nights now, and it’s freezing outside, so when I slogged into work I was a half-hour late and immediately made some bonehead mistake which, ha ha, went out over the company intranet a second before I caught it. To relax I engaged in some restful Googling of the search-term “German Autumn”, which was okay at first (thanks mostly to this interview with the surviving pilot of the Landshut hijacking, a great read even if it’s from a website anti-Muslim enough to give Pat Buchanan pause), but it was around this time my mood really started to sour.  I even read about these fucknuts, who actually shot an entire movie before realizing their script just might have a teensy-weensy problem, which normally is the kind of thing to cheer me right up, but today it just added to the gloom.

As fate would have it, though, a co-worker showed up about that time—a guy named Michael who I share occasional smoke breaks with, and one of the few people here who gets my sense of humor, even if he sometimes acts like we’re more simpatico than we really are. I like him quite a bit, but at the moment I wouldn’t have felt like interacting with Molly Parker if she’d walked up to my desk in a Merry Widow, and when I asked Michael how he was doing, I hoped he’d say just fine and keep on moving. Instead, as if to apply the coup de grâce to my whole fucking mindframe, he gave a dramatic sigh, planted his folded arms across the top of my cubicle, and announced in a voice loud enough to carry 20 or 30 feet: “I’M PISSED!” Okay, now, anger I can relate to, so I put down my croissant and looked up at him.

TB: What’s the problem?

M (emphatically): Britney Spears!

TB: …

M: Haven’t you heard?

TB: About Britney Spears.

M (braying): YE-EAH!!!

[pause]

TB: What’s she done now?

It seems that Ms. Spears was planning an outdoor concert next week (new album dropping, natch) in front of the Castro Theater, a concert that was originally slated to be both free and unpublicized, though it is going to be televised on Good Morning America. (Michael: “Robin Roberts is even going to be there!”) But then came another gloomy weather forecast, along with complaints from a merchant’s group, and of course those shitbirds at Ticketmaster, incensed as ever by the thought of people having fun without paying for it, got their foot in the door. The upshot: Britney’s still playing alright, but indoors at Bill Graham for $3 [sic] a pop, and the whole thing sold out in a fleeting half an hour. It’s a crummy deal, to be sure: there’s no way a free Britney concert would ever stay a secret, but the idea of her bopping around on Castro Street just as a lot of her biggest fans are walking out the door to start their day—well, it’d be a nice throwback in spirit to the Castro’s halcyon days.

But I had no idea Michael is such a militant Britney fan—the poor guy’s almost deranged by the whole affair. He’s already written a letter of complaint to someone (his voice was so choked with rage I couldn’t make out the name), and the fact that GMA used the weather as an excuse has him going for the throat. “Cher performed in the rain!” he pointed out. “And”—snapping his fingers here—“Diana Ross gave that concert in Central Park! It was pouring then!”

Ouch! I feel for Michael, I really do, but at least he broke up my downward spiral. There’s nothing like having your life turn into a sitcom to pull you out of a nose-dive.

Class Act

October 13, 2010

I was just having a smoke and I started talking to S., this guy who works in my building who I smoke with out in the courtyard sometimes. S. is a cool guy, 28, who’s deeply into hip-hop and who’s taught himself how to record his friends’ music. (And now he’s making videos as well—see below.) He has a pretty responsible office job—he dresses better than I do, anyway—even though he’s a little rough around the edges, by which I mean he has more than a little street in him. Racially I’ve always found him hard to pin down because he looks Latino but talks like a mix of black and white, going back and forth between the two worlds with easy fluency in both of them. (Unlike the goon I saw at the DMV yesterday, a white guy whose stabs at black speech and mannerisms were so forced that he made the white-dude-trying-to-be-a-black dude in Season 2 of The Wire look like the love-child of Beaver Cleaver and Eldridge Cleaver.)

Anyway, so just now S. was showing me the video he made for his half-brother’s band, and when he mentioned that his half-brother is black I said, “You know, I’ve always wondered about your ancestry” and he started rattling off his history—a Filipino dad and a German-English mother, etc., “and then when my dad went to prison, my mom started dating this guy she worked with, who’s black.” He sighed then, just like that older brother did in Capturing the Friedmans when the filmmakers asked an innocent question about his dad, and he told me that his father was sent up for molestation: he used to have sleepovers for the neighborhood kids, then he’d give them all (including S. and his two sisters) milkshakes dosed with roofies. The old man didn’t molest his own kids, but nevertheless when he got out (he only did seven years, I didn’t think to ask why such a short stretch) S. made a point of looking him up and telling him to stay far away from him and his sisters. That was 10 years ago and S. hasn’t seen him since.

Remarkable as all this was for a breaktime smoke, it was even more impressive because of the poised way S. told the story: it was so obviously the product of a man who’s worked his way past a world of shame. As he put it, “I used to tell people he was a bank robber because I was afraid that shit would rub off on me…” I just wish I had had it half as together when I was his age.

“The friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen”

October 6, 2010

I had nothing short of a goddam blast in Austin—four or five days hanging out with a variety of terrific people, and enough of a good time that I’m wondering how much longer I’m going to last in San Francisco. I still love a lot of things here, no doubt about that, but Austin completely whips S.F.’s ass on a couple of crucial fronts. Mainly, the folks there are so welcoming and unpompous that it was easy to drop my own bullshit—all those impulses honed by spending too much time around hipsters and the vagrant, shaky egos on the Internet. Anyway, right now I’m caught between catching up on my work and falling fast asleep at my desk—I’ll have to write more later.

Unsettled Conditions

September 23, 2010

I ain’t been posting lately because—well, partly because I haven’t felt so hypnotized by any subject that I just had to write about it, and partly because I’ve been on the funky side of things of late, and I was tired of putting up those damn stop-gap picture posts and so on. About ten days ago I ran into a guy I used to know from The Expansion (the bar I used to shoot pool in, and a place I spent way too much time and money in for about five years) and while kicking around those days Rick mentioned how “ratty-ass” I was back then—talking about my anger-level and how just kind of temporized and jimmy-rigged my life was in general. When I’m feeling good about things I tend to think I’ve left Mr. Ratty-Ass well behind me, back in Houston or in North Beach or wherever, but really, he’ll probably always be lying just below the surface like the big stinky catfish that he is. There’s also been a vexing health issue (nothing super dire but a drag nevertheless) at the same time that a couple of friendships have been mutating in unfamiliar directions, and all of it’s been just enough to give me a nice case of the blues. (Some things are eternal, though. Pap’s newest thing is riding me to find him a place where he can buy discount cigarettes even though his emphysema is worsening by the month. When I mentioned the conflict this created for  me, he came right back with, “Uh-huh, now listen: I need to be able to do this with a credit card or debit card. Don’t make me do this by check.”)

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I haven’t ditched this place—Stella’s just searching for her groove, is all. I’m heading for Austin next week for a few days of R&R with some old friends, and movement usually acts like smelling salts on me. ’sides, who knows what’s going to happen before then…

11:58:05 a.m.

September 14, 2010

Yesterday I was filled with despair, but today it’s only a wistful sense of futility—that’s got to be some kind of progress, right? Maybe it’s because the pitcher in Starbucks had exactly enough half-and-half to fix my brew the way I like it, or maybe I just had a bad case of the black ass yesterday. It doesn’t matter—nothing’s changed. I’m not going to do anything to “improve” myself, I know that much, because I’ve looked at all the options and they all disgust me. I’m not going to take dance lessons or audit any classes in animal husbandry or join Toastmasters to “open up” some new side of myself. There aren’t any sides, just like there aren’t going to be any romantic slow-mo runs to the dry cleaner where “she” is picking her clothes up, no winning lottery tickets, no being discovered by a benevolent billionaire. Maybe the old man’s right, maybe I should set my sights on some lonely old bag, just take her for every cent she’s got and skip off to Europe. I bet France would feel pretty good on money like that. Buy some threads and visit the goddam castles of Spain, or I could charm my way into some social circle, then beat ’em out of whatever dough I can get and bring that scene crashing down, too. Yeah, that sounds just about right. Let’s go—

The Return of Pap Finn

August 16, 2010

Y’know, not to go on and on about this shit, but the old man called last night, and we’d just gotten the hey-how-are-ya stuff out of the way when he blurted out that he’d forgotten why he called. Okay, that’s fine, so we kicked back and just talked about baseball and quitting smoking and how he was the guy who opened up Motorola’s market in Mexico (a favorite topic), until he suddenly interrupted himself in mid-sentence. His reason for calling had come back to him, he announced, at which point he proceeded to lay on me a few choice tips for getting laid.

• Be yourself. Don’t try to impress. Instead, let them impress you.
• Department store sales clerks are often lonely.
• Women 36-40 are “the horniest”.
• Hotel bars are a good place to meet older women with money.

There was no real context for any of this; he was just sharing the fruits of a lifetime’s research with me. Aside from the fact that Don Draper would reject these ideas as degrading to everyone involved, I’m a little freaked out that this is what an 83 year old man thinks is fitting advice to give his son—in the year 2010, no less. (At least he didn’t suggest that I croon “Stardust” to the rich old hotel ladies before looting their steamer trunks.) He’s sober nowadays and he at least sounds in control of his faculties when he’s saying this stuff, but I’m fucking-A starting to wonder. I’m also starting to wonder if him splitting when I was a kid wasn’t the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to me, even if it did mean being raised by Mommie Dearest. With all the proclivities and hang-ups I’ve managed to come up with on my own, I hate to think what I’d be like if he’d stayed.

he also needs a manssiere

July 16, 2010

Having a smoke downstairs and a coworker, funny-talking guy about my age, comes strolling back up to the building. Rough summary:

Tom: Nice day out here.

Guy: Yes, except for the black racist I just met.

Tom (mentally): Here we go.

Guy: A black guy up at the corner is yelling “Racist!” at all the white drivers. I gave him a look so he yells “Racist!” at me. I say “No, mate, you’re the one who’s racist.” Just because [rubbing his forearm] he, he’s got a little skin condition, he calls me a racist!

Tom: …

Guy: Do you understand this? I’m from South Africa! How can I be racist?

Tom: …

Not for the first time, how hard is it to take a step back from yourself?


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