Notes From The Temple of Dominoes #36
"The tedious, filth-drenched blueprint for human compassion and understanding"
"Enter, ye spiritual gravel, the literary rock tumbler of the soul"
97/ 3/ 2 I'm at work, trying desperately to spill, listening to Enya on walkman and pretending to be someone who has spent one minute of the past three years in a state of relaxation...the big ugly disaster that makes it all worthwhile continues very predictably, and finally I'm sick of living my life like this. Imagine a big wet lake, liquid to flood the nations of the world, all pushed into a high canyon and trapped behind an enormous dam that finally shatters into rubble. Imagine the timid mountain of water standing on end where the dam used to be, wondering "Gosh, which direction do you think I should flood? First, I mean? I should probably - well, that might damage something - I'll start planning, tomorrow..." Too often I spend whole evenings of conversation in this state, choking and sputtering and starting every sentence five times, wary of tearing down the hill in any but exactly the right direction, deliberating every thought like a hostage negotiator trying to talk myself out of accomplishing anything. (For this I blame the thoughtless judgement of mankind. Cretins) In pouring finally downhill I learn to accept certain ugly paradoxes in life, like the fact that whenever I start to speak honestly about my life I wind up sounding like a self-help book...call me arrogant, fine, but I know I'm five times lake Erie balanced impossibly atop soggy mountain (yep, so are you) and waiting for the cities of the world to line up to be destroyed in an orderly fashion before I unleash my Bibilically efficient deluge. Sometimes I just need to trip over something and start crashing downhill. Fortunately, life provides much invisible furniture.
Can't sleep at all nowadays, which you'd think would free up my schedule a bit but still too busy to shower every day. Trying to establish calm habit of breathing steadily like a meditating Zen master who's not trapped underwater wrestling an octopus. Works pretty well, as long as I'm not thinking about anything else.
All writing herein copyright 1997 Martin Azevedo. Much love and thanks to Joane Azevedo and my family, Stefan Luesse, Evan and Wendy Hunt, Ben Chesluk, Joe Sullivan, Jeff Anderson, Melinda Klayperson, Jeff Lester, Sarah Manvel and Sarah Alford. This was written for Freda and John, Noni and Nono, Eddie and Greta, Dorothy and Adrienne. Send friendly correspondence to Raining Goldfish, box 590104, SF CA 94159-0104 USA, info@templeofdominoes-dot-com. Additional copies a measly $3.50 postage included, or just call up and beg but make it good. Thank you for your unsolicited donations. Thank you for being nice to the people who answer your angry phone calls for a living. And thank you very much for reading. Now everybody go play in the sprinklers!
Only For A While
96/10/21 Went to job interview in the same childhood slacks and holiday sweater I wore to my last job interview five years before. Sat on the bus afterwards thinking about how much I'd hated the last five years of my life and stopped on the way home to spend every cent of my remaining $120 on business clothes. The move made me feel strong and decisive - exactly the kind of skydiving mercenary I need to be. The type who never leaves the fitting room to model his new slacks for his mother. "I've determined that they fit. Let us leave now." This was a whole new world.
I watched myself in the mirror trying on shirts and ties and finally I understood that it was all fake, the whole world a big ludicrous costume religion, Halloween with paychecks instead of candy, and I was free to play along...it was embarrassing, so obvious...yet now I would be slipping in disguise behind enemy lines, finally useful and attractive in a way other people could understand. It would be weeks before I could pass a doorway without expecting some adult voice to call me inside and tell me how adorable my outfit was ("And what are you supposed to be, son?" "Employable") but this was a deep triumph. I was the new kind of savage, donning the skin of the most dangerous creatures of the forest, doing the weird dance and praying for the drought to end.
Supposed to meet young art student Lisa in front of a restaurant in North Beach, casually assuming I'd remember which one after I left the house. She'd answered my personal ad (they're free nowadays) and said she usually wore outlandish art-student clothes and different colored hairpieces several days a week. (My name, you may not realize, is Portuguese for "captivated by eccentricity".) I got to North Beach right on time and recognized none of the restaurant names. Made a mental note to spend the next day learning to be organized as I ran back and forth along Columbus Ave. in search of young women in wild clothes who might not be offended if a panting stranger dashed up and demanded "YOU! Is that a wig?"
The world was sharp and exciting as I passed the same tourists and Italian cafes and restaurants, running back and forth several times...I was late for a date with a woman I'd never seen before, and so anyone I passed might have been her, and so every woman I didn't recognize became my date for the moment I spent deciding whether or not she was the one I was supposed to meet, and so the world was transformed. Everyone I passed became someone's true love match, beautiful and subtle and exciting in some deep, no-longer-invisible way. Such an experience should be required training for soldiers and prison guards...a few scary ugly people became even more scary and ugly to me, but it was a sad, lonely, injured ugliness. Somehow I'd united with all things. I was late for dinner with a strange woman who knew forty words about me and "Knights In White Satin" was blaring in my head. I was ready for anything.
Took the bus home after ninety minutes and four laps through North Beach. I need to exercise more.
96/10/22 Started temp job at downtown brokerage firm, I'll be there a week and a half, maybe even longer if they like me...the main branch of the company fills a financial district office building and stock market information scrolls endlessly across LED displays in the lobby and each of the elevators, a constant reminder that money is the only reason anyone is there, myself especially...I work with three very nice women and nobody harasses me and the lunch room is more than a office corral filled with candy machines and degradation, which is more than I can say for any other job I've had, and since the pay is okay I'm hoping they keep me for a while, but I'm already getting the idea they're annoyed with the way I quickly finish each task and follow one of them around cheerfully waiting to be given another one. Doesn't help that my job title is "temp", which is more like an epitaph than a description. I feel like I've been adopted into a large family while one of the children is on vacation, desperate to be charming and lovable so they won't just send me crying back to the agency when junior comes home.
Spent lunch break walking around the block several times, rereading high school book on Greek mythology and remembering that in two thousand years nobody is going to give a shit what I did for a living.
Finally met Lisa tonight. Spent wonderful 2 hours talking over dinner. She's an idealistic artist who left home at 16 to travel with a nuclear-freeze hippie group, moving from city to city ever since. A blind date is like a helicopter ride, raising me up and reminding me just how many different lives are taking place within a single city, a single neighborhood. I don't think the thing with Lisa is going to go anywhere (I'll explain later) but she told me to call her. Certainly...
Walked alone through North Beach and Chinatown singing "Moonlight Serenade", deciding which of the things I'd said were stupid or condescending, wondering what she was thinking of me, wondering if I was ever going to see her naked, wondering if I was ever going to graduate from the struggle to impress people and find a home somewhere, wondering when my life was going to begin for real...rode the 1 California bus home reading aggravating Rolling Stone article about the "webheads" who came to San Francisco in 1993-4 hoping to get rich working their asses off building the World Wide Web but who found the typical corporate bosses making off with most of the profits from their appalling hours of slavish labor...the article was convincing but pretentious, mythologizing the '90's computer geek in a way I haven't been able to stomach since 1987, but I was still gripped by that split loathing I feel when I hear praise for a group I simultaneously look down on and want to belong to, which I suppose is most of them. Sometimes I become convinced my job is to travel the world stifling applause given to those who don't deserve it and only retreating when I realize my own behavior makes me cringe...but I knew much of the article was true: the possibilities of the Internet seemed endless, and there were and are lots of ambitious articulate very capable 24-year-olds out there who haven't been too rushedly neurotic, too panicked in the search for meaning in life to learn HTML or sharpen UNIX into an arrow to pierce the dragon's jeweled skin...and while I resented their $25 per hour referred to as "slave wages", I knew they had a few things I had not, but nothing I couldn't get. This was a different kind of helicopter ride, a long look over everything I haven't done and maybe should have, all the successes I could have been. A few well-quoted horribly articulate New-Burroughs HTML prizefighters exploded with the first great websites, great innovations I know nothing about, and I had to face once and for all that I'm driven by five things and all of them are jealousy, a mob of marrow-deep horrors all wearing uniforms of team Jealousy. With this I looked back at the job I'd left and the directions I was still free to go, felt the building mania that emerges inside when I realize my life is not yet over and I have no choice but to drop all regrets and choose a path to chase down...I got off the bus and skateboarded the last blocks home feeling wound up and excited again, packed full of life pumped up and shooting out through the cracks like a syrup bottle crushing itself in rage, my arms duct-taped to my sides, not knowing where to go next...certainly I can (and will) learn website construction, HTML, all that good stuff that will be the disco-Fortran of our time, but it still isn't what I want to do...
So what the fuck DO I want to do? The shape of the world has been sketched out and the plans stolen and stolen back hundreds of times in only the last few years, and while I'm not yet carpel-tunneled or burdened with the weight of a family, I still can't make three steps into cyberspace without a phrase book...I felt mute, confused, what am I doing with my life? And instantly, of course, I knew. I'd been discussing it all evening with Lisa, exploring my weird refusal to just step away from the unlikely career path that's kept me safely turned away from the illusion called "real life" for the past ten years...all at once I knew I'd have to stop lying to myself that I could produce any creative work without putting myself into it, that I could assemble something clever and worthwhile while keeping myself at the safe distance that I've always wanted to reach before performing anything...I do just gotta take out my most naked, frightened, angry, hilarious thoughts and wear them audibly on the stage...only this year have I started to realize that, while I don't think it's worth it to "give up" my lucrative exciting dreams (I have no real alternatives, at least not yet, and I'm still moving too fast to pay attention to any other curriculum) I may never achieve them anyway, or I might not recognize them if I do. It's entirely natural, I'm learning, for a hundred million kids to want the jobs that only ten kids get. And that doesn't mean that those ten kids were "destined" to get them...it means they were lucky, and applied and hard working, and blessed, and...it means a lot of things.
I started a band. I was always astonished that Jeff came over every week for four years, but he did...not just because I asked him to, and not just because he liked playing...yes, Kermit, he believed in the dream, I think. I believed it enough to bring Chris and Karsten into it. Me, I was never in the room, I was always living ten years in the future, expecting that all those hours in the practice room, spinning wheels in mud, would lead to somewhere, at least due to their sheer numbers. So, was it fate that we were to break up? Had we broken from fate's mandate by breaking up? What was all that time spent for? What I've been learning is that all that time I spent with Shebang Sisters really was just for that time. It was all done so we could be in that little room in the basement. Maybe that's not where I wanted to be or where I should have been, but I bought something with that time and what I bought ended with the time I bought it with. And there are memories and experiences and talents developed...but memories ain't no bank account. As for the rest, we'll just have to see.
Right now, gotta rest. That's what this moment is for.
and The Crap Exchange
96/11/9 My sister Joane got back from Germany last night, she'll be here two months...the family met her in the airport terminal and she was in tears in seconds, lots of reasons. I discovered, or saw for the first time and forever, that we're a family of lovable individuals who get exponentially more annoying in combination...Joane was desperate, her whole world of eighteen months before disassembled and rebuilt around her, sobbing and lonely and eager to confront these family people, not strangers but not really anything else anymore, and we'd traveled ten miles out of our way to meet her and couldn't be bothered not to laugh at the whole situation. My mother hugged her, my dad hugged her, Rena and I became a squad of wisecracking muppets between us, cruel but hilarious...Dad and Rena left to get car and I realized Joane needed to be with any one of us but only one of us. I waited outside for the car to arrive and she talked with mom in the warm behind the glass doors.
Still reading old books of Greek and world myths this week...fantastic stories about the most basic characters and feelings, written as if changing someone into an owl or hauling a soul back from the afterlife was as complicated as ordering cable...it gave dimension to everything: Joane was returning from the underworld, called here to teach the great lesson of Europe and/or Family, here to teach us what her name means, to help us all learn who were meant to be...
The evening wasn't the effortless conversation I'd expected it to be, but pleasant...Joane's main story is Stefan, boyfriend of several months and very likely future in-law. Sounds like a great match.
The family was now reformed and seeking a new stability, and so it was with some relief that the ritual began after dinner. Rena called me over to her car and handed me all her recent copies of Rolling Stone, an old lamp and a broken stereo receiver she didn't want to throw away, saying "maybe you can fix it"...my mother had a plastic bag for each of us with all the old bank statements we'd received at her house and junk mail and stray bills and newspaper clippings she wanted me to read...I'd stored a set of bargain car speakers in my garage, finally remembered to bring them for my brother. It happens every time we get together...I imagine that as more siblings are married and many children are born there will be need to organize the ritual into a set pattern whereby and elder of the clan formally declares "THE CRAP EXCHANGE WILL NOW BEGIN!" and no grandchildren will be left without some damaged appliance or wayward utility bill to show them they are loved.
Today was obligation day and I chauffeured Joane on visits to various old Jewish folks' homes to see ancient friends Freda and Eddie, with between time in the car for the two of us to spend arguing like two slapping six-year-olds about who had achieved the most enlightened spiritual growth over the last eighteen months. Apparently the oceans and continents between us had allowed each of us to recognize exactly which lovable flaws the other could stand to finally outgrow and this was the shining moment in which we would reveal our insights. Between politely defensive exchanges about our various contrived mannerisms and grating plunges into self-parody, we arrived at Freda's apartment for a heavy but pleasant visit, slow joy in the inverted bottle. Freda wrapped her hands around Joane's and declared "I can hardly believe it is true" when she saw her.
Eddie was also glad for the visit to his hospital apartment but only in his shaking, painful, lifeless way. Joy is ugliness when every moment of it shrinks into contrast and becomes visibly isolated, the temporary escape from the nightmare of loneliness...joy and sadness are two mirrors facing, neither picture more real than the other...
Exhausted, I finally drove Joane to another friend's party and came home to confront my thoughts, and my strange mail...got an anonymous poem, no return address, an unknown woman's confession that she deserves the attacks she gets from men when she lays oscillating complex traps for them and wanders away wondering why they say they're in love, "baiting up to cast out again"...a few lines referred to my book The Electrocution Journals, she'd read it and responded...was it a distant friend? Rebecca? I'd be disappointed - she's nice but this letter delves deeply into sex and Rebecca isn't sexy to me...Kathleen? I thought so, checked the handwriting...no, I knew those lines, those beautiful curves. I dug out boxes of old letters. It was Justine, ballet dancer, Eurasian model, seven years younger and better writer than me, more charming, more modest, more insecure, more together, more of whatever I want to be than I ever could be and she hates herself and her life and always has...last conversation I had with her, I called from scary downtown neighborhood pay phone, she answered sobbing, said she was trying to cry herself to sleep...never really said why, just asked if I believed in God, did life have meaning and why, questions unreal and laughable unless you're armed with hate and fear. I said I'd stay with her and we talked for two hours and I failed, felt no gear catch as the wheels spun, two speaking strangers who could not help each other. The last time I spoke to her was months later: she called, I said "I didn't know if you had killed yourself or not." I couldn't afford to care. She told me briefly how she'd moved to Portland and back and then suddenly she had to go, suddenly recognized me as an enemy, suddenly left.
She must have meant either to be recognized in this letter or to confuse me for hours as a personal exercise, and she accomplished both. It's quite moving that the stuff I sent her (I still have her parents' address) did affect her enough that she'd push aside so much rubble and contact me somehow, respond to it. By now I'd been losing faith in the book - it's good to see it does something for someone else. But an unsigned, angry, shameful letter is not a gift of joy...whatever she did, she did for herself, not for me...
Been an ugly couple of days, or weeks...nothing's really felt worth writing about, nothing in the world is important enough to waste the time, no time is worth spending, I'm like a miser with all his wealth buried somewhere in the forest, no one remembers where. And yet now I've spent the late part of tonight transcribing the trial grinding on in my head, again...I'll spend my life defending myself against stabbing shadows, lonely describing my loneliness...
Of All The Idiots In The World
96/11/12 Ugly morning. Joane and I fought like badgers in the car - she asked why my brakes made a funny noise when other cars didn't, I took it as an pointless attack and I exploded, I screamed, she screamed and sobbed...she said "I have nothing - I thought I had something waiting here for me, I came back for it, it's not here"...she said the only people in her life she'd really felt bound to were her family members, and to come back and find five annoying strangers, no center, no place to really feel home, it's horrific...
Still temping at the brokerage firm and discovered Friday that Deanna W. works there - I've known her since first grade and last saw her years ago, after she'd become a goddess and before she'd broken up with a guy I went to college with. Tonight the company had a free night at the Museum of Modern Art and we spent the evening talking and eating free food. Typical date for me, really - I spill my guts and drench her in personality (at one point I said "What charm I have is due to the fact that I never shut up", which ain't quite true but she don't know that) and I decide I really enjoy her company while she's busy mentally preparing a case for the restraining order. On the way home she told me about the blonde guy at work she has a crush on and I finished the bus ride feeling like a comedian who'd just realized the audience that howled at his routine didn't understand English.
Got another anonymous letter and realized the handwriting doesn't match Justine's. I e-mailed Kathleen and she says it isn't her, which is so typical of her that I'm surprised I bothered asking. I could push the issue a little farther but I guess I won't bother.
96/12/ 8 Last Sunday, my sister Joane and parents were to fly up to Portland to visit my mom's relatives, especially...word came Saturday morning that my mother's 85-year-old cousin Adrienne had died. Trip was canceled and the funeral set for Hollister, two hours away from here.
My mother and Adrienne had a common grandmother, Adrianna. Adrienne was eighteen years older than my mother and my mom always thought of her as the glamorous, beautiful young woman she saw as a child. Adrienne was a Mormon and had about three thousand grandkids.
In the early seventies she lived in Berkeley, on McKinley street, in a huge gloomy house. She always thought my brother didn't like her, he stayed outside...years later he told her he'd simply been afraid of the house. It had dark rooms, many doorways and an attic filled with ancient things.
She lived with her sister Dorothy, who for as long as I'd known her had been confined to a recliner chair, with a walker to get to the bathroom. Dorothy's doctors had been telling her she had six months to live for twenty years. I think she outlived three of them. Dorothy would watch television all day long, always knitting or sewing something, making barbie clothes or other gifts. A huge scary woman to a little kid, with white hair and indelicate features and a rough, deep voice. She died about fifteen years ago. My dad said she was one of the kindest people he'd ever known.
Adrienne was also beloved. She lived with her son Walt, in an in-law house behind the house he shared with his wife Julie and whatever of their eleven kids hadn't moved out yet.
She'd been going rapidly downhill for two weeks. Fading in and out of consciousness, hazy, mindless, a page with ink running, lowered slowly into the bath. Calling out for her mother, needing to be held by her, nonsensical. Everyone knew what was happening.
Suddenly she returned. With perfect lucidity she was able to speak to Julie and the family. She told them what was happening, who was in the room. Dorothy was there. And many others...Adrienne told one of the living relatives to move; he blocked her view of the small boy perched in the hanging flowerpot above. Ninety minutes. The room was crowded and Adrienne pointed out where each of the spirits was standing.
She welcomed another. The family watched Adrienne wrap her arms closed, into a warm embrace of the invisible. Her mother had come to her.
A few times Adrienne stated "No, not yet." The family was gathered around. Finally, she said "Now."
From that moment it didn't take long. She faded and slipped away.
96/12/29 Wow. It's been one of those get-nowhere days I expect to describe in my journal as a failure and a wasted opportunity, hours of river water fallen directly from the faucet down the drain...and then at the end of the day I hold up the glass and through the water I see a whole life lived in the time since yesterday. I spent the evening watching "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and wondering if Woody Allen had been reading my journal...a man commits a crime and tries to escape from the world he has created, finding there is no going back, only forward. Only forward.
Freda called last night to ask Joane to visit Eddie Kranzler in the hospital - he was "in a bad way". I'd never known him not to be in a bad way. I visited Eddie a few times while Joane was in Europe...he was born in Germany, Jewish, arrested as a young man on Kristalnacht in the 1930s, survived several months in Dachau, was released for unknown reasons to join his wife in America. They lived in Daly City until his wife died five years ago. He lived in the Jewish Home for the Aged, complaining about the food and the nurses and his hateful daughter and the fact that everything he owned was in storage.
Freda had volunteered to be a caring friend, telephoning him to speak in German and trying to keep his spirits up...she was an old power lifter trying to raise a mudslide. Eddie was a weight around the necks of all who knew him, a quiet, shaking old man with the cursed honor of his horrible past as the only badge of identity that survived his aged silence. He had stopped living five years earlier, at least.
Joane hated him. He was in love with her, she said, a shapely young woman who came to visit him for no good reason and she was too much of everything to him. She had told Freda two weeks before that she would only visit Eddie as a favor to Freda; she had no more love for Eddie left. He did not want to live and she would not allow him to drag her down any further out of mere misdirected loyalty.
Joane had recently seen an interview with a remarkable woman who'd also survived the camps...she'd become a filmmaker, an artist, a voice. What made her different from Eddie? Alive?
Joane spoke to Freda this morning, told her she'd call back in ten minutes and jumped into the shower, furious, wondering if her afternoon plans would be changed, if she would always be wrapping her life around others. "That bastard's going to die on my birthday!" Angry tears pushed out of her face. She would turn 28 in two days.
Freda called back and I answered. She'd asked the hospital for news and they'd begun to ask if she was family. "I'm with the Jewish Family and Children's Services." They would give no news. "Has he passed away?" "He has gone." "Where has he gone? Has he passed away? Have they taken him somewhere?" "He is gone."
Was it a good thing? Joane hated him. Freda also felt dragged down, felt encumbered, felt less alive with him. Mercy had been done. His torture had been ended. The world would feel less pain.
97/12/30 Joane called, needed to talk. Eddie died of starvation. It wasn't intentional as originally suspected - bleeding ulcer, eating was too painful. Joane tried to get him to eat, everyone did...he touched his lips to the dry part of the spoon and announced "this tastes terrible." He would take nothing in.
Joane told me how she realized Eddie actually got out of the camps very early... arrested on Kristalnacht, the beginning of Nazi rule, he was marched around in circles for a few months, then out again. His life had been changed, shaped and defined by the Nazi holocaust. And he had survived. He escaped, found his wife and lived in America while millions of European Jews were slaughtered without judgment or reason.
Eddie said it many times: the Nazis took away everything he had...everything but his wife. When she died, he had nothing.
Joane thought she'd feel relief when he died, but no. Horrific visions of responsibility for his death, mistakes, guilt. Survivor's guilt.
Called Evan, spoke about "Time Pressure"...he'd been insisting for years that I read it and as October ended I finally did. Above all else, the book reminded me of how my frightening interest in recording long conversations about life and history with old people (and young people) before they die was just my awkward, poetic, pitiful little way of fighting mortality, one cassette at a time. Am I coldly reducing great, complex, eternal souls to the value of a few hours' conversation? Eddie had been interviewed on video by the Shoah project, his involvement with the war documented in detail. Was this, then, his value? Was everything worthwhile in his life sucked out and pressed into this tape, now immortal, now outside his body, now preserved and concise and useful?
I worried. I could not describe this poor man without describing how he was resented, pitied, hated for the unreturned life given by those around him. But...I'd just heard the magical story of my mom's cousin Adrienne, a spirit escorted into the next world by a parade of loved ones. Was Eddie still here? Could he hear my words, my labels, reducing him to a forgettable crumb, as worthless as a videotape? Shit, are they all observing us, judging us, haunting us? I owe my life to an unbroken chain of fathers and mothers reaching infinitely into the past, and if I think about my dead relatives at all it's because I'm doing something I wouldn't want them to watch. In the end I think I just don't budget the time to be reverent.
Evan understood. It's not rational,...and maybe we do just fear what we fear of them because we feel what we feel for them. If they live on, they live within us, and it is within ourselves that we can see them, hear them, hear their criticisms and warm voices.
And, apparently, Woody Allen understood. I spent the afternoon editing notes about the film I'm working on - frustrating, maybe pointless work that took too many hours but I had to do it. Then watched a movie. A slow day, a very few more steps into a life that may never be more than it is right now. But important steps. Steps that leave me with more than what I started with. More than just the mountain of questions that will always be there.
97/1/28 Started working the 3 pm to Midnight shift this week, tech support for the Whole Earth Networks ISP, so it'll be a while before I can sleep. The good news is that I'm learning like a toddler in a toy factory, because I have to, and I like the company and I like solving the clients' aggravating little mysteries. The bad news is that I represent the company to the angry people who call us with problems they don't understand, always convinced it's our fault if we can't prove otherwise. If we detectives can't solve the murder, we get blamed for the crime.
Errands this morning...walked down Clement St. to the library, skateboard in hand...a Caucasian man with a thick mottled nose spoke to me, standing beside a hand-truck with two smallish boxes on it. "Wanna make five bucks?" he asked. "Help me move these boxes?"
Should I? Strange invitation...but I was broke. And hungry for a burrito. "Sure." "
Put your skateboard in the truck. No one will steal it. I got a bad arm. These boxes on the dolly." I carried three boxes from the truck. "That's it. Great country. I love this country! Great country."
Why did I do this? To write about it later, of course. "Where are you from?"
"Russia, Russia! Put them in the back." He led me through the Chinese bakery, behind the counter and through the kitchen where five or six laughing Chinese men busily prepared trays of buns and rolls, through to the back storage room with a sinkful of cuts of beef and palates of softasilk flour with strange clear jelly spilled into the corners of the sloped floor reaching toward the drain grating in the center. I stacked the boxes quickly on a table against the wall as the man supervised and congratulated his new homeland. Was I trying to convince him this was a good place? Was I just a swell guy? Could I take his money? I'd gladly have done it for nothing if I knew it wasn't a weird practical joke that the man had asked me to help in the first place. The fear of this being some bizarre trap was exhilarating, of course, but it became clear that whatever reputation for creativity I have comes from the fact that not only can I worry that a situation like this might be dangerous, but as I turn every corner I can think of new ways for it to be dangerous. The boxes are full of heroin! The Chinese bakers are murderous lunatics! The pork buns are stuffed with human flesh!
This man was in love with America and he loved capitalism. Could I insult him by offering my labor as charity? Would he appreciate the feeling of community or feel disempowered by the suggestion that he was needy? I'm poor, dammit.
Second load, left the cart inside as he instructed. He poked his head out of the office as I walked out, a rolled-up five-dollar bill in his hand. "Thanks. Don't forget your Mercedes," he reminded me. I grabbed it out of the truck.
To the library, the post office, wheels squeaking - bearings rusted after the storms, need new ones - rolling over the hill by UCSF and straight down to Fell, sitting on my board, braking with my feet and speed-wobbling like a bolt was loose...Grabbed a burrito on Haight and ate as I walked to busstop, past groups of throwback punk rock kids on the sidewalk...I was self-conscious, respectful but not gonna share today. One kid sat on a garbage can and shouted "GIMME MONEY!!" angrily. I didn't. Down the block one hippie-looking guy, maybe 24, asked as I walked past, "You wanna sell that?"
"What?" My burrito?
"That, dude." My skateboard.
"What are you thinking of?"
"Uh...you smoke pot? I got pot." He smiled at my skateboard, tucked under my arm, like an eight-year-old eyeing legos for the first time.
"Nah. Not that."
"I got five bucks worth of pot. Five bucks? Hey" - he nudged his friend, blonde curly haired guy with four visible teeth, his mouth open, carrying a skateboard - "you got five bucks?" "Nah", the answer.
The hippie continued. "Will you be around?
Can I bring you five bucks? Will you be around?"
"Nah, I'm going to work."
"Can I bring it to your work?" I handed my skateboard to him. "Just give it to someone else."
He smiled, astonished, delighted. "Thanks, dude! No pot? You don't want money?"
"Give it to someone else." I waved goodbye and got on the bus. He thanked me. I congratulated myself all the way down Haight and Market, envisioning the hippie's peaceful, childlike smile as he cracked some old lady's skull with my squeaky little Mercedes and rode off with her purse on the familiar old deck I bought for $3 on Haight Street and would never see again.
I knew what Woody Guthrie felt like stumbling home from the bar with sixty dollars in his pockets and handing it away on the street before he reached home, how it's easy to give away everything you own if you know you can get enough of what you need. It was perfectly natural to give my skateboard to someone who needed it more than me. Just as it's natural to try to impress friends with the story afterwards. "Marty, why can't I, my friends and everybody I've ever met be more like you?" "Why, with my new series of books on tape, YOU CAN!!!" I've spent about eight bucks on skateboards in my life, not counting bearings. Brian's got connections and says he can get me a new one for free. I'm not hurting for skateboards.
97/ 2/ 5 Still working late...spoke to more stupid people tonight than I wanted to know existed on Earth. Got phone message from Serena - I listened a few times just thinking about how sexy her voice sounded...called her in Texas while things were slow and she told me about her new job as a dominatrix, how she got fifty bucks for letting a foot fetishist massage her feet for half an hour...I asked her how much it would cost to take her out to dinner...she described the several men in her life, none of whom, she said, deserved names beyond their titles: "the pilot", "the ex-junkie", etc. At least she calls me by my name.
No time for anything major before work so I dropped by Freda's on the way in, mostly to see if she was still alive. The nurses won't tell me anything anymore. It was disorienting to hear her answer the doorway phone...for weeks I'd half expected her to have passed away before I'd get to visit again and I'd heard nothing either way, and so she'd become Schrodinger's grandmother, both alive and dead at the same time as far as I could tell, unable to return but maybe not yet departed, and now here she was answering the phone across that distance like it was just another heavy task in the life of a very old woman.
The door to her room was open and the nurse smiled to see me, a loving visitor for Freda and a moment's relief for her, surely. Freda sat in her wheelchair wrapped in colorful blankets, facing the far window. I walked in and greeted her and she weakly said "Marty", raising her hand and staring straight ahead, like she couldn't see where I was and it didn't matter anyway. For Freda I'd always arrived both as myself and as the visitor she needed, the adopted grandson. If she greeted the man standing in front of her, I would step in front of her and become that man. She took my hand in hers like I was everyone in the world she wanted to visit, right there in her apartment. Her head hung forward and her eyes aimed emptily at the window.
"I'm sorry I ruined your New Year's Eve", she rasped. I explained that she hadn't and whatever else I said I said very loudly and slowly. Her eyes never moved. I played along, not knowing what I was playing along with.
We talked about the usual stuff, her grandson and Joane...over and over she gave me messages. "Tell Joane I am very sick. Tell Johnny I am very sick. Make sure they understand that." I offered to take down a letter to Joane and scribbled quickly.
"Thank U so much for yr lovely letter. I have been very sick since you left, all the time. That is why I don't write." Her eyes focused and for the first time that day I knew she could see. She looked right at me and I at her.
"I hope Marty described to you that I'm really dying."
She continued, then dictated a short letter for her grandson. She spoke slowly, as if straining to be something she could no longer be...the sentences staggered over one another, words from different sentences, different letters. Her eyes closed, then opened. "Hoping to get good news from you soon"...she snapped back to life, sort of, speaking of other things.
I hugged her for I think the second time ever, held my head close to hers, arms around her, for minutes until she let me go. It was awkward and beautiful and profoundly intimate, far beyond sexual, just physical, life touching life while it still has the chance...
97/ 2/13 Completely surreal 24 hours. I checked my messages yesterday afternoon and heard one of the sexiest voices I'd ever heard: "This is Reina. I'm calling because I sent you... some anonymous letters. Not anonymous anymore...I guess you never got them." I'd received several intimate, poetic confessional letters to my p.o. box last November, finally deciding they were from Kathleen (all signs pointed to her), who claimed she hadn't sent them (which was typical of her) and I didn't press the issue...until suddenly the whole world shifted.
She'd left her work number. "This is Reina, can I help you?" "This is Marty." She gasped and transformed audibly on the phone, that kind of gasp that says I've stepped instantly through a shield that keeps the whole world safely outside. I couldn't let myself believe this conversation was anything but an accident, it wouldn't mean anything...but I was excited. For the moment, I was on the other side of the shield.
I'd seen the show small theater show in October, I think, and met a guy there who seemed like he'd "get it", he'd understand my writing, so I got his address...a redheaded woman met him as I left. I mailed him the book and he gave it to her. She said it reminded her that she could write, as she had years before...she'd lost much faith in herself. She wrote obscure, anonymous letters to thank me, and tease me....It became a project, a secret kind of intimacy, unique and seductive and, yes, magical. Why can't we live every moment of our lives like this, expressive and excited? We can, of course, but that's so hard to remember...
I was thrilled, silently, like after years of work I'd managed to share something real over such a distance. I also had a thousand questions to ask, all pointless or redundant - she'd already asked and answered them herself in her letters. This is all too familiar, thought the adults gasping at this weird opportunity. Luckily the roulette wheel of my identity had landed on articulate and somewhat clever instead of clumsy and pretentious, so at least I was not crippled by idiot babbling.
"It's disenchanting to be talking to you like this," she said.
I'd considered not returning the call - maybe she was expecting someone else...but then, if my life is driven by fear, it is steered by curiosity. "Yeah, I was afraid I would disappoint you."
"No, I just imagined we'd...fall into each other's arms."
"What are you doing tonight?"
We'll be meeting outdoors, near the park, beneath a statue, 10pm tonight. Yes, tomorrow is Valentine's day. Maybe that's why she called. It's certainly related to the reasons I called back. Curiosity is hunger, and I've been hungry a long time...
Excuse me, the temporary parking lot roller coaster beckons...enjoy this time, young lovers...and don't say I ever hoped for anything...or that I ever stopped hoping...
97/ 2/14 Another Valentine's day spent at a graveyard. Second year in a row. Joane's fiancÚ Stefan has been in Chicago and flew out to visit Freda, Joane's friend...I picked him up at the airport and we dropped by the cemetery where Eddie, his wife Greta, and Freda's husband Rabbi John Mimrane are buried. (Joane had asked me to visit them weeks before, put flowers on the graves and all that.) Then downtown and on to visit Freda. Stefan had spoken to Freda on the phone and had promised Joane that he'd spend as much time with Freda as possible.
Freda was in her hospital bed, her back propped up, with a large smiling Russian woman leaning over the railing reading the newspaper very loudly. I introduced Stefan to Freda, they shook hands and we went to the kitchen for a minute to prepare the food we'd brought. We returned and Freda asked if Stefan was ever going to get a chance to fly out for a visit.
We spoke a few confusing minutes, Freda's head drifting down - "Should we let you rest?" "No, I'm just resting my...." Stefan and I quietly introduced ourselves to one another as Freda slept, talking about movies, writing, etc...we're really pretty similar, which made it easier to deal with the fact that the person he'd flown thousands of miles to meet seemed likely to snooze away the whole weekend right in front of us. Several times Freda interrupted us, sitting suddenly forward, upright, eyes closed, raising her arms and crying with one of those awkward, weak screams people give when they're scared but haven't yet fully turned to see what it is they're scared of.
After about ninety minutes she woke up and asked for tea. The nurse came in to roll her onto her side for a while and Freda said she couldn't breathe, asking us to raise her. She pulled on a bar suspended over the bed and we lifted her further up on the mattress. She couldn't lift herself. Not while she was awake.
She flailed her hands out for her controls - she needed to hold the hospital bed controls in her right hand and she'd held the blue telephone in her left. Now she slapped around the telephone, grasped my hand and held it warmly. By now she never said anything once - each sentence was a grip to hold her in place as the bus hurtled violently beyond the road. "Thank you, Marty, you saved my life. Thank you, Marty, you saved my life. Thank you, Marty, you saved my life." Over and over she said it, maybe three minutes. "I'm so very glad you're here. I'm so very glad you're here." Again, over and over. She started saying things I'd heard her say many times before - "Very good", "So nice to see you", "More tea". Her eyes opened and I introduced her again to Stefan. She asked me questions about him, asked how he was, and each time I began the answer and gestured for him to step in. She lowered her head again and I asked him to speak in German...it was a weird radio play, myself as the narrator and Stefan's voice stepping in each moment as the voice of her past and the future, the lead character and the storyteller.
Stefan and Freda gently conversed in German and finally she nodded into sleep again and we slipped out. Stefan told me how she'd no longer been speaking with the High German accent he'd heard on the phone - she was now speaking with a strong Viennese accent. The voice of her youth.
Not every week can be this interesting, thank God. Lovers around the city spent last night preparing sweet private plans to share on Valentine's day. I was in the panhandle in the middle of the night, fidgeting underneath a dark statue, waiting to meet my stalker.
I saw a young woman approaching, awkwardly bounced up to her - what walk should I use when approaching a total stranger who longs for me to be the one she's been wanting to meet? Didn't take long to figure out that any inflated front I tried to project to impress her would soon explode into flames like a cheap Halloween costume...she arrived apologetic and hesitant, explaining that she'd realized in the time since our call that although she has yet to stop sleeping with anybody she's ever dated (and it's more than a cabful) she realized she didn't want to hurt her boyfriend by getting involved with anybody else. I felt like a gang of thugs had decided not to beat me into meatloaf because I wasn't attractive or exciting enough. We had a great long talk...my favorite party game is to have someone who will honestly answer my questions without implying that the person asking the questions is less or more important than the person answering them. New friend, I suppose.
97/ 2/15 Called dad from work - he'd left a message - and he told me Noni (my grandmother) had died today. He'd taken her to the doctor and she'd been in the hospital for two days...the first nights in over ten years she'd not slept in her own bed.
I wasn't horrified but I was horribly...disappointed, and sad. I'd decided months before that the time I should be spending with my grandmother would have to wait until Freda was no longer such a distraction. I didn't have time for anyone else, or for myself...
The rest of the family had gathered to meet Stefan over dinner and wherever I was I needed to talk about this, so I left work to join them. Wasted an hour trying to find the restaurant and arrived angry and late (same thing) and unexpected...my mother asked how I'd gotten off work and my response was "I SAID MY GRANDMOTHER DIED." Mom and Dad got up, Dad pulled my brother Mike aside and Mom told me Mike and Stefan hadn't been told. I was already angry and now I was just batty - it was so stupid - I'd come to find the one place where people would be talking about this most important event and some bizarre spell had been cast over the gathering. I was furious. I started to talk about it and my dad pointed to the tape recorder.
Months before, I'd gotten into the habit of sending Joane tapes of ordinary conversations made at family gatherings, tapes she said she'd listened to over and over. Once I coldly joked about the sad way her cat had died and months later she told us that tape, her lifeline to her family, had been horribly painful to listen to. A clumsy rule was established that no bad news was to be discussed on the tapes. Stefan had been asked to tape the conversation that took place when he was formally, gradually introduced to the family while Joane was still in Germany, and somehow it had been decided that Noni's death was not to be discussed. I'd landed on Mars.
Slowly it melted. Mike had only been there for ten minutes, I later learned. It almost made sense, the way many tragic mistakes are made in a quick succession of reasonable steps.
Stefan had visited Freda again today and said that her sentences had lost all structure...she'd been a professor of four languages and he heard her stringing together words from English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Yiddish, all into the same sentences, making no sense. Joane later called her from Germany and Freda could only put forth a few words: "Going...going...Good girl. Hang up the phone." the connection clicked off. She sobbed. She'd lost two grandmothers in one day.
The family bridges were rebuilt over our few hours together and finally Stefan and I headed back to my house in warmer spirits. In fact, I'd developed an odd form of excitement; life was more visibly beautiful, more apparently a gift to be enjoyed while the opportunity was available. We parked in front of my house and I dragged Stefan out for banana splits. Was that enough? Life is short. Someday each of us will be dead. I dragged Stefan to a karaoke bar. The sexy bartender sold us weak kamikaze drinks and I sang "King Of The Road" and "Whiter Shade Of Pale" with my new German brother-in-law.
Another vital, enjoyable conversation with Evan about the insanity of life and the collapse of civilization...he's very happily married and he ranted about how he usually found Valentine's day disappointing; I pointed out that at least the holiday hadn't taken bloody revenge on his family.
I felt like I'd somehow overstepped my bounds. Freda was born in 1899, had lived on three continents in eleven decades, had seen so many different lives, met countless thousands of people and many surviving relatives. I'd known her through a series of obligations and coincidences in only the last moments of a long long life and yet I'd been the one holding her hand as she slipped closer and closer to the waterline, a century of life transforming finally into memory. Who was I? Who was I but a bystander, the winner of the unreal coin toss?
Maybe that's what Stefan has been thinking, about Freda. Or about Joane.
Evan answered my question. "You were the one who was there." Period.
A friend called last night to ask me to be part of her pirate radio station schedule and the show they'll try to syndicate nationally. Cool stuff. It's been an oddly inspiring coupla days. But I can only experience so many fascinating autobiographical monologues before I start wanting to just sleep through my weekends once in a while.
97/2/24 Got the message today that Freda died. Weird that a voicemail message seemed appropriate. (My mom had left her number and got the message.) It was expected. I last saw Freda nine days ago and I figured I'd slipped in during the last moments that a visit with her was really a visit with her. Most of the woman I knew had already left the building. She died yesterday and I have no idea what her state has been. I've been too busy to see her, busy with the movie and busy with my own grandmother's funeral. One wacky week follows another.
I arrived in Santa Rosa 2 am Thursday morning. I'd tried to get off work early - didn't want to be crabby and depressed during the funeral, y'know. Wound up leaving SF at midnight.
My grandmother's house, a perfectly groomed suburban house in Santa Rosa...the whole thing would have seemed much less weird if not for the house. She was the house and the house was her, as far as I was concerned...when I entered the house I entered a visit with her. Now the house was still there but the heart was missing.
Rena and Phil were asleep in the living room, my parents in the guest room, Uncle Ray in Noni's room and I joined my brother Mike in the den. Dormant family reunion in the middle of the dark. I'd hoped to sleep right away but it wasn't gonna happen. I crept through the familiar unlit house to the back window of the den, where I could see the backyard, still and placid and glowing in the moonlight like a memory stored in the freezer. A single grafted walnut tree in the center, surrounded by a smoothly groomed lawn and lined with plants and flower gardens. My cousins and siblings playing hide and seek on the lawn, trying once or twice to climb the tree...I wondered what I'd be missing by not exploring this moment, barefoot in the backyard, instead of trying to sleep right away. Maybe something was waiting for me out there. I climbed into my too-thin sleeping bag and thought...Who owns the house now? I guess we do. I don't think I'd ever stepped all the way into my grandmother's room. The next day I would recognize that many of the closets in the house I'd never seen open. Noni was a good grandmother but every inch of her house was not accessible to the average family visitor. Much was politely kept closed.
I'd been asked to be a pallbearer. Showed up early. Nice suburban church with a schoolyard in back and a marquee outside spelling out "You are dust, to dust you shall return" in letters usually reserved for phrases like "on two screens".
Said hi to my relatives, feeling weirdly proud that I now owned the right clothes for an event like this. Noni hated my large gold loop earring but I'd worn it for years and it looked damn good with the suit. Surely Noni was in a better place now, where she'd find someone who could finally explain it to her.
I was told Noni was Portuguese for Grandmother. (She was Italian.) We called my Portuguese grandfather Nono - "Noo noo". She liked being called Noni because it wasn't "Grandma". She didn't want to be old; she was vain and independent. The last thing in the world she'd have wanted would be to have to sleep anywhere but her own bed at night, to not be in complete control of her life. She had her hair done once a week - what hair she had left; I was with her while she bought a wig without saying a word about it - and she always wore nice clothes. Her house was equally pristine, at least until recently.
The undertaker was a friendly, polite game show host with a gray suit, a coffin in the car and not a care in the world. He cheerfully instructed us about how to take the handles of the coffin and slide it out of the hearse, short ones (my cousin Dave) in the middle...a steel casket, silver-blue kinda like her hair, about 300 pounds.
The moment I touched it I knew for sure. I was carrying something I couldn't put down. A year ago, my uncle's funeral seemed like an elaborate practical joke...this was real. I understood now why the body is part of the ceremony: the body is what the ceremony is about, like it or not. The audience talks about the memories they're left with and the spirit that's moved on, but they're there to learn that this body is the real addition to their world that must be accepted without qualification. We are gathered to remember, because we have no choice other than to forget, and that would be more costly. There is work to do. Many streams to be rerouted.
I saw many things through different eyes this day - her eyes. I knew as I carried the coffin into the cathedral that this religion, this church, was my grandmother's portal. Whichever direction she had gone, I was stepping into the doorway and leaving her inside. Whatever it was she saw there, this was the day it - pardon the expression - came to life.
I had a large role in a weird play. All at once I felt that I'd been given a task of great responsibility and importance and I was profoundly honored by the position. I was bearing her through this world when she could not carry herself, in that final ceremony. I don't know if she'd even thought about who the pallbearers would be, but maybe for the first time I felt like my relationship with her was due to more than coincidence. I had earned my way into her heart and life.
Up the stairs, through the large doors of the cathedral - surely much smaller than I remember them now, two days later. We lowered it onto a silver cart to be rolled down the aisle, my brother, brother-in-law and cousins sitting in the front row, before an elaborate stage with alters and thrones.
Noni knew this day was coming. Years before I'd taped a conversation with her as we flipped through family albums, hoping to capture the information somehow. In recent weeks or months she'd stripped the pictures out of most of her albums and labeled many of them with names and dates. She'd also given clear directions for her funeral. Ten full decades of the Rosary - "No skimping."
The middle-aged priest introduced himself - Father Ed Cordoza, Noni Jennie's nephew. He led two decades of the rosary and a full mass. Brother Dick Morotto - another Nephew, a Christian Brother and teacher - gave the eulogy. He described Noni as having been full of life, busy with many organizations. He used to tease her about her real name - Eugenia, a name her son Ray didn't even recognize - and said he loved to make her laugh. He told about her work with the organization Birthright: she'd been with many pro-life organizations (we rarely discussed it at family gatherings) but this group forced her to speak directly with young mothers, young women facing the realities of a world Jennie had never lived in. "I was raised to believe that black was black and white was white," Dick quoted her, "but...it's stretching me." He applauded her for being able to be "stretched" at age eighty-eight.
I was astonished. I'd carried her casket into the room and I hadn't yet learned everything I was to learn about her. The one word I never would have used to describe her was "flexible", and yet Cousin Dick - a man a day younger than my dad, who knew her much better than I did - chose that as the face to show. More complementary than "vain" or "judgmental", yes, but revealing if at all true.
Dick dashed over and kissed the casket as we lowered it into the hearse. I did the same before it was pushed inside. I'd have regretted not doing it. I hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. We walked back to the group as the undertaker shut the doors and I knew she'd be gone forever. I would miss her, I finally realized how much.
It affected me. For several days it would be hard not to experience every bright and cheerful thought, in the form of an articulate eulogy. "I used to love it when he would..." There are places for such thoughts and we recognize too few of them.
After a reception and some food, we went back to her house to deal with - as in, divide up - the possessions. Weird weird weird combination of Christmas, a flea market and the L.A. riots. Chairs, pictures, shelves were post-it marked with cousins' names and everyone had a pile of their claimed stuff. Looked like the floor shoulda been covered with wrapping paper. No one was the least bit petty or argumentative - it was a very friendly and civilized gathering; in fact, it was almost the most fun I've ever had with my cousins. It was the first time we'd ever had a family gathering with a focus, a real reason for being together. I realized I might have learned to really enjoy being around these people if we hadn't organized all our gatherings around important but shapeless gatherings like holidays. Part of the reason extended family gatherings are so absurd is that we collect the people theorized to be the closest to us and we do together only those things guaranteed not to reveal any character or individuality. We never get a chance to find out who our relatives are.
I hesitate to list the stuff I brought home, but suffice it to say she hid no stash of consumer electronics. I mostly got the kinda domestic stuff you might borrow from your mom if you figured she was never ever going to need it again.
Drove home to spend the weekend working and editing the movie with Joe on rented Betacam equipment. A lifelong dream come true, now squeezed into fun shadow like a playground between two skyscrapers. Glorious excitement.
So today I got the message - again, while at work - that Freda had passed away yesterday, a week after my grandmother. It was so subtle...like I've been staring through a little window at a doctor who's been motionless watching her, finally raising his eyes and nodding his head an inch for me. It was time. It was almost past time. I realized yesterday afternoon that I'd heard nothing but I presumed it had already happened.
It was natural. My grandmother was pleasantly vain; she wrestled to avoid aging. Freda was fatter, older, creakier, wiser, weaker and much much slower than my Grandmother. I love Freda and I'll miss her, but then I feel like she'll always be in the same place she's always been. Maybe that place is within me. Knowing she's dead is like knowing it's no longer baseball season.
Sometimes it's just not baseball season. I continued at work...incredibly quiet weekend, maybe 20 calls total. Spent the day building my website and writing this. Beats digging trenches.
Turned the phone off at 8:45 and walked around the office waiting for co-workers to finish up. Stood in the dark lunch room and looked over the water. A canal runs behind China Basin, Third street crossing behind that, with the Bay stretching widely beyond. Every inch of water was black and spread with steady ripples reflecting a white moon. The crappy empty road parking lot area South of the desolate light industrial district and it was horribly beautiful, the buildings blended dark blue into the brown dirt. I stared, shaded the window with my arms, drunk up the sight of it, the bright moon on the cold water. I saw the whole of our world floating and lifted, only a family of small rooftops drifting on the rippled ocean surface that stretches far beyond the range of our daylight. We gather together enough space to call a home, a city, a nation, and all of it floats on a few drifting leaves, high over the bottom of the ocean, all held floating on the black water.
© 1997 Martin Azevedo