Sunday, December 28, 2008

Divine nonchalance

I hadn't realized just how many dangers lurked on my morning walk to work, until I started to read the signs along the way...

Contains Chemicals

Mechanized Gate Will Crush You

Emanations may cause normalcy and other disabilities

Monday, December 15, 2008


Night starts too early and lasts deep into morning, waking up dull and heavy, the dark weighing on my chest. I want to burrow under the covers like my cat, nose first into warmth, the fingers of dreams lacing in and through my waking mind.

I stand in the kitchen staring at an empty pan and wonder at its meaning.

I have an appointment downtown, the city desperately decked in holiday cheer and screaming SALE SALE, bell-ringing Salvationeers and brass bands and shopping bags knocking against knees, shoppers looking nonplussed to find only one bag in hand, last year it was twenty, but even Santa's cinching the belt another notch.

I'm cranky and late and hungry, no time to dodge my way through the crowds to the library, just hope for a train soon and home to lunch.

Down in the Powell Street station a stringy guy in reindeer antlers sings "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with his guitar case open and he's good, the song pulls at me, but I have a train to catch and deeper in the station now another busker, this one a girl.

She looks unlikely, all pudge and colorless hair, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the station, guitar in her lap, but I get closer and now I can hear her voice, breaking free of the station and soaring up above the street, people are standing where they are to listen. She's singing "Hallelujah" and that's it, that's almost all I can take. I'm going to break into tears right here in the station. She finishes the song and I dig around in my purse to find all the quarters I can to drop in her case. Someone else is whispering his awe to her and she just says thanks and turns the page in her music.

A night later and already it's full dark at five. I'm in a coffee shop before strolling to a party, enough time to work on rewrites and I hear the familiar opening, it's John Cale's version, Hallelujah, and this time I think, yeah. Maybe the universe is speaking. We're on the edge of solstice, the earth turns and - miraculously - the weight shifts. Sun begins to rise a little earlier and hang in the sky a little longer.

Just hold on another week and watch. Hallelujah.

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Baby, I've been here before.
I know this room, I've walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.

I've seen your flag on the marble arch,
But love is not a victory march,
No it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.


There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?

Remember, yeah when I moved in you,
And the holy dove was moving too,
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.


Maybe there's a God above,
All I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

But it's not a cry that you hear at night,
It's not somebody who's seen the light
No it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.


I did my best, it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth, I didn't come all this way to fool you.

Yeah even though it all went wrong
I'll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


On the bus tonight, a young white woman in neat sweats is getting off at my stop. Her hair is in a bun. She stands at the top of the stairs as the light above the door turns green. She bends at the waist, pushing at the doors without treading on the stairs.

She pushes with thumb and finger on the handle, then folds her arm back against her chest, then reaches out to push again. You need to step on the stairs to open the doors, but she doesn't know this, leaning gingerly over the gap to push against the doors one more time.

I make my way around the other passengers, and step heavily on the stair. The doors spring open. The woman launches out and over the stairs without touching them. She lands on one foot, darting up and across the street before the bus can close its doors and release the brakes.

I watch her sprint away, shouldering my bags and lagging by nearly half a block already. She pauses once to look behind her as the bus pulls around the corner, then turns back, her tidy bun gleaming in the dark.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A failure of imagination

The movement of the historical moment beneath my feet has shut me up lately. I chose early on to make this a literary blog, not a political blog, but every time I begin a post, all I can think about is politics. So let me get this out of the way.

I was moved and exhilarated at the election of Barack Obama a few weeks ago. The next day, however, that joy was tempered as it became clear that Proposition 8 was going to pass here in California. This particular issue was deeply personal for me.

I was raised LDS, and I am still officially a member of that church, although I have been inactive for many years. My family and many of my friends are active members in good standing. Watching the church of my birth and my family put so much energy into the passage of this proposition has been painful.

Maybe it is a failure of imagination on my part, but despite my best efforts, I cannot see the compelling reason to strip away the right of gay people to marry.

A comment on a friend's website asked, "Why do they want the word marriage so much?"

This focused it all down to a single point for me. To me the question is, "Why do you want to be married? Why do you want the word marriage?"

"They" are not so different from you. Gay people want the same things straight people want (and have the same wide spectrum of wants as well). Did you grow up dreaming of being married? Did you imagine what your wedding dress would look like? Did you pick out your colors and flowers before you ever met your intended?

Now imagine all of that is true. You are still you, having the same dreams you have always had. And you meet and fall in love with the person you want to spend your life with, the person that all those fantasies centered around. But the person you love is someone the world around you says is someone you can't marry. Maybe there are a large number of churches (though not all) who believe it is a sin for you to love that person.

Does any of that change your wishes? Do you choose to be untrue to yourself and your love, and try to love someone the world approves of?

Do you foist a false marriage on someone you don't love, you can't love, in order to gain the approval of the world? (And what, then, have you done to the innocent other in this false marriage?) In order to obtain full citizenship in your society? Or do you quietly remain single and humbly take what crumbs the adults will allow to fall from the table?

Why is marriage important? Because marriage is the only way we have to choose and build our own family. We are born into a family, or we may be adopted into one, but when we marry someone, each party is freely choosing the other. A marriage makes the person you love legally your kin. No other civil contract can do this.

For those who believe in the words of Jesus Christ, it can be said simply: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

How would you react if a large group of people put vast amounts of money and energy into forbidding you to marry? Whatever else they may say, how loving would that seem to you?

Maybe my imagination has failed if I am unable to place myself in the position of the people who vigorously campaigned to make unlawful the marriages of many of my close friends, but if so, mine is not the only failure.

The ability to truly empathize is, I think, essential in a just society.

And here is where I see the problem of bringing politics in, because I can't end with just one issue. The prop 8 issue hit me close to where I live, but this should hit everyone:

5 at Guantanamo Ordered Released
Five men have been imprisoned and tortured by our government, and thus by all of us, for no reason at all. That we have allowed this to happen tells me that we have so very far to go. That we can, collectively, say that these people "deserved" this - that anyone "deserves" torture and no hope of justice - tells me that we have managed to convince ourselves that they are not people at all.

I'll go back to the way I usually write here. I can't write well or coherently about politics directly, but I hope that, at the bottom of every post, every little encounter I record, someone can see the fundamental reason I write: every human being is an individual with a soul. If your heart can beat for a moment with someone I see on the bus, maybe it can also beat with a man in a cell who has never seen his daughter, with a boy who dreams of being married one day, with a woman who wants to hold the hand of her wife in the hospital.

Update: I want to make absolutely clear that what I am talking about, what Prop 8 was about, is civil marriage. Religions are - and should remain - free to define what marriage means to them. Andrew Sullivan again puts it very well.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

President Obama

I am in tears. Soon, I'll be dancing in the street!

I think we've done a good thing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Indian Summer

So sorry for the long silence! I'm back now and seem to have my feet under me again...

Walking to the main library on an autumn evening, the sun casting long shadows on the ground. I see two men in vigorous conversation, arms waving. As I get closer, I see they're speaking sign language. It is an argument. One man's gestures get larger and faster, like he wants to scoop the whole street into his arms. In sign language, this counts as shouting.

The other man gestures back, quietly. The first man drops his arms to his sides. They look at each other, and the first man opens his arms. The second man steps into his embrace. The sun outlines them as they hold each other, then slowly separate, their hands on each other's shoulders. The first man lifts one hand, touching his fingertips to his chin, then moves the hand out toward the other man.

This means "Thank you."

On the train home later that evening; it's dark outside, but a breath of gentle air washes in when the doors open. A punk gets on the train. Four-inch double mohawk, pierced eyebrow, lip, ears. Studded collar and tattoos covering his arms and neck. Leather wristbands.

He's talking on his cell phone.

"I know, I know. She took it with her, and I don't begrudge her that, you know? It's just, I miss her."

His eyes fill with tears. He looks down at his hands, listening to the voice at the other end.

"I don't want to lose her," he says, his voice going hoarse.

My skirt blows around my legs as the doors open, and I step out into the night.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why I haven't been blogging

I'm volunteer coordinator for this:

If you're in San Francisco, check it out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A little hope

Naked hope, so sharp it's painful.

When I heard him speak four years ago, I felt the same thing. I wished - despairingly - that we were the kind of country that could elect someone like him President.

Yeah, he's just a guy, just a politician. I know this, too well. He won't save us. But if we take a chance on someone like this - someone who appeals to our better lights, who will say, "I am my brother's keeper" - if we take this chance, maybe we can save ourselves.

Maybe it will show we haven't given up on ourselves yet.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Walking to the bus from a doctor's appointment, I turn left, on impulse, down a small side street. It's mid-morning on a weekday, and there are no cars on the street.

I pass a domed building with wide, curving steps to the front door. The steps and Doric columns are pinkish marble. A small plaque tells me it's the Armenian Community Center. Beside it is a small chapel with a quiet garden in front, Gregory the Illuminator, Armenian Church. A young man, bag over his shoulder, turns sharply and disappears into the chapel. I think about going in, sitting in a cool pew, the scent of incense. Are non-Armenians welcome? What is the protocol? Does one cross oneself?

I turn right on Euclid Avenue. Something glides silently into my peripheral vision, snags at my eye, and I turn to look. It's a man in full bicycle-racing gear: lycra shorts and numbered jersey, sleek helmet that gives a feeling of speed. He is lean and muscled. He's riding an antique velocipede, a boneshaker, the front wheel almost as tall as me, holding himself still and upright, he moves at a stately pace down the road.

Two men are washing windows on my side of the street, one at the top of a ladder, the other holding the bottom. The man holding the ladder watches the velocipede pass, he can look at nothing else, he and I pause, and watch. The bicyclist stops at a light, balances for a few precious seconds, creeping forward and back, but finally he has to jump down. The light turns green and he's neatly in the seat again, he's moved so swiftly that I missed the moment. The window washer and I watch him turn and disappear around the corner.

I breathe in and breathe out, a space opened up inside my head, and I walk through soft morning air toward the bus.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nostalgia is a drug, part 2

Continued right away to give Geo a little something to read while she heals...

We ask the desk clerk (the twin who wears the dark glasses) for a Do Not Disturb sign. At least I think that's what I ask him. Behind his sunglasses, he gives no sign of even hearing me. I describe to him, in my parody of French, our adventure of the morning. We don't want another adventure, I believe I tell him.

He nods quietly, his sunglasses reflecting the light from the street.

We don't ride the metro in Paris. This surprises me a bit; I romanticize the metro - symbol of childhood freedom - it represents a big piece of my Paris memories. And I know how to find my way around from metro stops. Maybe that's one reason. I don't want to rely on ancient habits to find my childhood. I want a new route there.

And neither of us is interested in going underground and getting on another vehicle. We both want to walk. We've been cooped up too long; we want to wander and lose ourselves.

Paris is the place to lose yourself. People leave you alone. I appreciate this. When I was here as a kid, my family tried to teach me how to wear a "metro face." A metro face is stone cold, man. It tells strangers that you are not a soft touch, you are not interested in a date or a cheap watch. My sister had a great metro face, like a door coming down, shutting off her beautiful features behind bulletproof glass like the Mona Lisa. She looked like she was born here.

I looked like a goofy small-town kid from Utah. I'd give my gap-toothed grin to anyone, look people in the eye, chat with someone who tried to engage me. But here's the thing. Parisians don't engage.

I still have no metro face. I can shut it down some, if I'm paying close attention, but it takes a lot of concentration, and I can't keep it up for long. This gets me in trouble all over the world. Most often, it just means I get into some interesting conversations with colorful people. But it can be tiring, after a while. By the time we got to Paris, I was exhausted.

And I got to rest. In Paris, I can look people in the eye, I can smile at them, and they don't see it as an invitation. Parisians don't engage. This means a genuine rest for me. I can let my face do what it wants, and nobody expects anything from me.

I could have used a metro face in Provo much more than I need one in Paris.

As we walk, my bones loosen in their joints. I walk easily beside Mr. Billy, opening up, not caring where we go or how long it takes to get there. We follow side streets because they're small and curving and I see the wide doors I remember from this quarter. Behind these doors are broad courtyards and stairs leading to apartments or boarding-house rooms.

"Hey," says Mr. Billy, "I think the Luxembourg Gardens are right down there."

He points down a street. I can feel the past barreling in toward my chest; the pension was at one corner of Luxembourg.

We walk down the street, and my eyes are eating everything in our path.

"That's the metro stop," I say, pointing. I remember this. Climbing up and out of the metro onto a garden island in the street. I slow down. Many of the wide doors I remember have been replaced by slick storefronts. Children's clothing. High-end chocolate. None of this was here before, and I start to doubt myself. Maybe this isn't it. It's been thirty years. How would I know?

A paper store, called Marie Papier. This makes me smile, just a fraction. My mom's name was Marie, and she was a poet. A little joke, just for me.

Across the street is a patisserie. It's more than thirty years old, and it hasn't changed, it hasn't changed at all. I'm nine years old and pressing my forehead against the glass, counting my centimes for a mille feuilles or a chocolate eclair, dancing my eyes over cakes and trills of chocolate and fresh raspberries.

This is the pension where I attended school

We're here. There, to the left, is the pension itself. It's a nondescript building, but for me it breathes and speaks stories into my mind. I can see the row of windows on the second floor, where the classrooms were. I would hang over the railing during class breaks to see what was happening in the street. The back window, where the French student stayed - the only one who wasn't part of our group - I had a crush on him. I don't remember his name, but he wore a scarf around his neck and little round glasses, and he would tell me, in English, that he was "teer-ed", and I would reply that I had fatigue.

I squeeze Mr. Billy's hand, drunk on memories. It's several minutes before I can move.

More to the meantime, check out Mr. Billy's take on our adventures in France

Nostalgia is a drug

Our first morning in Paris, and we're sleeping in. Blissfully, hedonistically, sleeping late. Until we hear the doorknob rattle. We both scramble up, clutching the bedclothes to our chests, staring at the door.

"The maid?" says Mr. Billy.

"We have the key," I say.

In Parisian hotels, you leave your key at the front desk when you go out. No danger of losing the key, and the hotel always knows when you're in your room. No "Do not disturb" signs, but that shouldn't be a problem, should it?

The doorknob stops, and we stare for a moment before breathing, sighing, then snuggling back under the covers. The fingers of a dream are just creeping over my brain when the rattling starts up again. And then the unmistakable sound of a key sliding into a lock.

We leap into action: I lunge for the door, Mr. Billy for the safety of the bathroom.

"Nononononononon" I babble through the door, holding tight to the knob. The door opens an inch and I search the dusty files in my brain for the right phrase:

"Nous sommes ici! Nu! Nous sommes nu!"

I'm unsure if an announcement that we are naked will be enough of a deterrent, but the door closes at last, and I hear footsteps recede down the hall. Mr. Billy peeks around the bathroom door and I collapse on the bed, laughing hysterically.

"Well, we're up now. Wanna go see Paris?"

We have three days in Paris. No agenda, no appointments. We'd planned this break in the city without any ideas of hitting the tourist hot spots. In a way, Paris had been a big blank spot in my idea of our trip to France. We have no plans at all. We step out into the city, and I realize that we must not be far from the pension where I attended school when I lived here as a kid.

I use "attended school" loosely in this context. I was nine, and my dad was directing a University Study Abroad here. "School" was college classes at the pension where the students stayed. My family stayed in an apartment a few metro stops away. I completed the 4th grade via home study, and attended the college courses for fun. I got an A+ in French, but my 12-year-old brother showed me up with an A+++.

We were in Paris for less than a year, but that time was crazily overbalanced in my memory. Up until then, I was a kid from small-ish college town Provo, Utah. I could walk to my best friend's house & play in the field across the street. We could walk to school together and ride our bikes to the swimming pool, but to really get anywhere, I had to be driven.

One week in Paris with a metro map and a carte orange, and I could go anywhere I wanted in the city - all by myself. I hung out with college kids. I ate crepes made fresh from a street cart. My brother and I did the shopping for the whole family, because we'd picked up the language quicker than the older folks. It was paradise. This word has been overused, its juice and flavor squeezed out, but it was paradise in the full, fat, juicy sense of the word.

So I feign nonchalance when I propose to Mr. Billy that we try to find the pension. I don't want to make it a mission; that fear of disappointment is still strong, and most of what I want is unstructured time with Mr. Billy. We wander as aimless as eight-year-olds, pointing at buildings and eyeglass designs. We watch Parisians on the shared bicycles that belong to the city; you can pick one up just about anywhere, insert a token, and ride it to another part of the city, then drop it off.

A lot of people ride scooters. Helmet designs are particularly attractive here.

We wander, and we stop to eat hot crepes on the street, and we casually glance at the maps that are all over the city. I laugh when I see we've been walking in exactly the opposite direction from the pension.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I love Paris in the springtime

I was ready to be disappointed. The last time I was in Paris, I was twenty-one years old. I lived here when I was nine. But with age comes disillusion and cold, mature assessment. Paris would not - could not - wow me again.

Boy, was I wrong.

It starts the minute we leave the train station. I spy La Rotonde and the Café de Flore out the cab windows. It's all I can do to keep from squealing. Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre used to hang out here. We step out onto the narrow street and that old Paris smell - diesel exhaust and chocolate and a soft breath from somewhere above the buildings - spirals into my brain and sets the fireworks going.

We drag our bags behind us (the cab was unable to pull directly up to the hotel door) to our little hotel on the corner of the Rue d'Odessa. We learn later that this is where the finalists for "Nouvelle Star," the French version of "American Idol" are staying, but we would never have known: the place is small and sleepy. The desk clerks appear to be identical twins; one wears dark glasses. The elevator can only hold Mr. Billy with the bags, so I take the scenic route up the curling staircase.
Staircase at the Hotel Odessa
I lean out the window of our tiny room. To my right is Montparnasse tower, and directly below are sidewalk cafés.

"Let's go out and walk around," I say to Mr. Billy. I feel like I'm nine years old again, or twenty-one. I bounce on my toes. "Let's go see Paris."

And so we do.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

You gotta get in where you fit in

To get to the main branch of the library from my doctor's office, I walk through the Tenderloin.

Past the legit theaters on Geary ('Tis a Pity She's a Whore, A Chorus Line, a one-man show about Shakespeare), then left on Hyde. It's morning still. A man walking toward me has a vivid bruise over his right eye, staining eyelid, brow, and all the way up to the top of his bald head. His toothless cheeks suck in against his gums.

Someone whistles behind me. I don't turn. They whistle again, and a skinny white guy at the next corner turns to grin past me. He raises a chin. A voice from behind me asks how his night went. The man across the street chuckles. The light changes, and I cross toward him, seeing the net of scars across his cheek and jaw. His hair stands out in tufts.

"You find your pot, huh?" the voice behind me calls.

He nods vaguely, grinning, and waves them off, crossing against the light. He heads toward the mini-park, a tiny green space tucked in among the buildings.

Ahead of me is a woman with bright blond hair hanging to her shoulders. She wears shining burgundy lycra tights under a tiny black miniskirt. A blue and green scarf is tied around one ankle, and she wobbles slightly in her green heels. I look for her face as we pass storefront windows, but all I can see are her big Jackie-O sunglasses.

At the library, volunteers are unloading books onto tables out front: "Linux for Dummies" and "Europe on $5 a Day." Passers-by gaze at the books, and the volunteers work silently.

On the front door is a notice - the library is closed until noon. It's a long time until noon.

I walk toward the Muni stop, disappointed. A man sitting on the library's low stone wall catches my eye. He looks big and healthy, and he smiles widely at me. He wears a knit cap with bright orange flames that stand out against his blue-black skin. It looks like a graphic representation of his thoughts.

"You gotta get in where you fit in," he says to me. "If you don't, that's it!"

I smile back at him and nod. The sun shines out from behind a cloud, and I head for my train.

Friday, July 04, 2008

4th of July

Note: Digby just happened to link to one of my favorite songs, so I'm copying her today....

Monday, June 30, 2008

My doctor ordered me to take a vacation

...a real vacation, he said. No obligations, no running around. A good, solid rest.

No problem, I said. I'm going to France.

A direct flight is entirely too expensive, so we fly through Montreal. Nine o'clock in the morning on Sunday, we are on our way to the airport. At security, Mr. Billy is pulled aside. Suspicious character, Mr. Billy. Shifty eyes and whatnot.

He walks away with an official airport security shoehorn in his pocket. Thanks, security guys!

Eight hours or so later, we're in Montreal, or so they tell us. It's French-language training wheels. We wander through the clean, modern airport, the Limbo of air travel. Duty Free, bars, restaurants, endless shining hallways.

We are stuffed into another metal tube with wings, shaken and buzzed and fed and movied for another seven hours or twelve hours or fifteen days. Plastic shades are lowered over oval windows, and some people sleep.

Sleep does not come for us.

We touch earth at last. Paris. My head rings, a long, sustained note.

The training wheels are off, now, and my brain struggles to come up with the language I once knew. Mr. Billy has no French, so it's all mine to fuck up.

We follow the signs to the train station, down in the belly of the airport. We're scheduled to meet my dad on the Côte d'Azur this evening. It's Monday afternoon, local time.

We find the station. Victory! Now, we need to buy train tickets. TGV - Very Big Fast - the bullet train south. There are kiosks and vending machines and counters and signs and signs and my brain rings and the words mean nothing. Like writing in dreams, the words shift and change the moment I think I've decoded them. I leave Mr. Billy with the bags while I try to find something I can understand.

There, a queue of people, a sign that says something like what I need, I can't even form the question in English. I stand in line and I am standing in line for a lifetime and then I'm at the front of it. I walk up to the man at the counter and try my thirty-years rusty French.

"Two tickets, if you please, for San Raphael. Or Frejus."

He answers me in English. The train leaves in half an hour. All is well.

"Don't leave me for so long, next time," says Mr. Billy when I return. He's been sitting here, prisoner with bags. No language, no idea where I am. I'm hungry and thirsty, but don't dare spend a single precious Euro cent. The train tickets were much more than we expected. I can't even process the exchange rate. We can't afford this trip, not even close. What was I thinking?

There are no drinking fountains.

It's all right, though, our train is coming. We find the correct platform, we know which car we need to board. It's assigned seating on the TGV. The train arrives, and we look for our car.

No, we're at the wrong end of the train. We run the length of the platform. The car numbers are going the wrong way. No, somehow we missed our car. The note sings in my head, and thoughts are slow to swim to the surface. We should just get on, somewhere, but I can't articulate the thought, can't act on it. We're running, dragging our suitcases. I can't even see a door that's open, all we need is an open door, but it's too late, all the doors close, we're running and the train is moving, pulling away.

I can't speak, French or English. I make a panicked face at the attendants on the platform. They shrug at me. What's the fuss, they say. There'll be another train in twenty minutes.

Okay, okay, twenty minutes. I can deal with that. I'd better see if I need to change our tickets, I say to Mr. Billy. I have to leave him alone again. Back up to the queue. The minutes are ticking away. I get to the counter just in time. The platform attendants lied. It's another three hours until the next train.

We get to know the station very well. You have to pay to use the toilet. You have to pay for water you can drink. We sit, and we wait.

The train is twenty minutes late. We have to transfer in Marseilles. No problem; we have an hour between trains.

The train arrives thirty minutes late, and we get on the right car. We'll be all right now.

We watch the countryside out the window, but nothing sinks in. My ears sing. I'm tracking our progress on a map. The sun goes down. The next stop is Marseilles. It's dark outside, and the train slows, then stops. We look at the man across from us. He shrugs.

Some knocks. A clang. A loud report. A voice comes on the intercom. I can't understand these things in the U.S., let alone here. The announcer monologues. Clearly, it's quite a story. The man across from us looks at us for a moment.

"They don't know what's wrong," he says.

The process repeats. Knocks, clangs, the engine lurches, then silence. The voice monologues.

"They still don't know what's wrong," says our companion.

Again the ruckus, again the monologue. It's almost time for our transfer.

"They have no power," says the man across from us. He explains that we should still make our transfer - a lot of people are in the same boat, we just need to follow them.

The train begins to roll. The engine doesn't start up; they must have realized that there was enough of a slope to coast into the station. Softly as a dream, we pass graffitied walls and warehouses, and slide into the station.

We fall out of the train in the crush of bodies, dragging our corpse-suitcases. There are uniformed rail employees waiting on the platform.

"Transfer to St. Raphael?" I say, in French.

"Hurry!" says the rail worker. "It's leaving! Hurry up, hurry up!"

We step up the pace, rushing along with the crowd. The crowd rushes through the train station and out into the parking lot. Mr. Billy and I turn around, rushing back the way we came. There's the train, I see it now, we're running toward the train as it pulls away from the platform.

French comes flowing out of my mouth. I curse the rail worker eloquently.

"I told you to hurry," she says, shrugging.

"You didn't say where. Apparently that was too hard for you. Is your arm broken? Are you unable to point the way to the platform? I asked you about our transfer and all you said was hurry up. This was not helpful!"

She shrugs.

It's almost midnight, and we're in the Marseilles train station. The next train is tomorrow morning. I do what any grownup would do. I call Daddy.

"Don't worry," he says, "We'll pick you up."

It's more than an hour's drive, and my seventy-something-year-old Dad cheerfully suggests getting on the road at midnight to rescue us.

I find a bathroom (a pay bathroom, taking only coins, which requires me to buy water at McDonald's to get some change first), lock myself in the stall, and cry.

Mr. Billy is waiting out at the curb for me. We stare into the Marseilles night, nodding at the cat-sized rats that keep us company, and wait for Dad to arrive.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sudden fall, part 2

(Writing from a seaside villa in France. Life is grand, for you kind and hardy souls still reading. A break was called for, and a break this is. The story from before, however, continues...)

"I think I might've cracked a tooth," I say from the bathroom. I'm inspecting the damage to my face in the mirror. Not too bad. A scrape from the tip of my nose to my mouth. It jogs a bit to the right as it courses over my top lip. My boss will tell me later today it looks like the scar after harelip surgery.

Right now it just looks like I have a nosebleed.

A goose-egg is growing on my chin. It's already starting to bruise up.

I go back to the living room, where Mr. Billy is icing his foot with a bag of frozen peas. I get another bag and hold it to my face. I look over at Mr. Billy. "We're the disaster twins."

He tells me I shouldn't go in to work. I don't answer that. In only a few days, we'll be leaving the country for a three week vacation. There's just too much to do to miss a day.

I do, however, take time out to see the dentist.

"That's not a crack," she says, peering in (while I breathe out, relieved). "That's bits of sidewalk. I'll just buff it out."

My teeth appear to be intact, but there may be other damage. She can't tell - not even with x-rays - because of the swelling. I may have fractured my jaw.

"Soft food for a month," she says. Soft food? Is she crazy? I'm going to France! No crusty French bread?

"Just the soft, inside part."


On the bus back to work, I think of all the delicious soft French foods I can eat, while people's eyes slide off me. The bruise is in full bloom already. I feel like I'm wearing blinking lights on my face.

Eclairs, pot de creme, onion soup, pate.

Nobody wants to look at me. This isn't an insouciant, adventurous bruise. Something along the cheekbone, maybe, would speak of a branch in my way as I snowboarded down a pristine mountain.

Brie, chocolate mousse.

A bruise on the chin, a scrape on the mouth - on a woman's mouth - these are ugly. People see only bad crazy things that end up here. Somewhere out on the edge of sweaty half-dreams, where the money runs out, the addictions take over, that thing lives. That thing that most never ask themselves - How far can I fall and still live? A face like mine answers, Farther than you dare imagine.

Cafe au lait, I think. Ratatouille.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sudden fall, part 1

Two cars screech to a stop in the middle of the street. I watch the drivers jump out and run in my direction. This is interesting.

"Are you okay?"

"We saw you fall."

I'm on the ground, looking up at them. I just fell down, no big deal. A third person appears from somewhere behind me. I should probably get up, but it's not so bad, down here on the sidewalk.

I touch my face, and look at my fingers. Hm, blood. Maybe my nose is bleeding.

"Do you need a ride to the hospital?"

I look at the woman. It must have been a spectacular fall, to make her stop her car. I remember starting to fall, trying to catch myself. Taking giant steps, arms windmilling, all flapping limbs like Stan Laurel. My glasses are a couple of feet away. I pick them up and put them on. They aren't broken. Not even scratched.

"I just live right here, thanks," I say, gesturing vaguely behind me.

"Do you need help up the street?"

They really want to help. I thank them again. I'm just three steps from my front door. What was it the hobbit said? "It is a dangerous business going out your front door."

I find my keys, my purse, my book bag. I stand up. No problem. I unlock the door I just locked and walk inside.

"You're back," Mr. Billy calls from upstairs. He's laid up with a mashed foot.

"I fell down," I say, heading up the stairs. I sit down on the couch beside him. I'm sweating, and my vision starts to tunnel in. I put my head between my knees. Maybe I'll be a little late for work.

With my head between my knees, it occurs to me. This was a "sudden fall," a "drop attack," an "otolithic crisis of Tumarkin." Curse you, Tumarkin!

Let me back up.

Several weeks ago, I was tentatively diagnosed with Meniere's Disease. Dig the picture of the guy falling down. That's what happened to me, only I landed on my face instead of my ass.

I've been dealing with the whole Meniere's thing like the bowl of mush I am. Whining a lot. Hey, it's just dizziness. I should be able to deal with that. Had to change my diet, my work schedule, my sleep schedule. I can't drive anymore. That's all okay. I'm lucky to be able to make those adjustments.

But reading is difficult during a dizzy spell. This is not fair. Reading is the thing I do when I can't do anything else. When I was grounded as a kid, when I was recovering from surgeries, when I rode the bus, when I had to sit in a waiting room, I could always read. I'm a writer, dammit. If I can't read, I sure as hell can't write.

But drugs help. Diet helps. Reducing stress, reducing my workload - all of that helps. I was getting past the whining. Just the meat suit reminding me that my flesh outfit is me and I am it and we're in this thing together. All in all, it's a pretty good ensemble. My face fits me: kind of goofy-looking and friendly. I'm a decent dancer. I'm not especially tall or short or fat or skinny. Most of my parts work the way they should.

And then I fell down, and things got a little more interesting.

Friday, May 09, 2008

ping ping

Today I rode the train downtown. Morning train commuters are more self-contained than bus commuters. It's quiet, everyone in his own bubble. I stand all the way downtown.

It's a different crowd on the way back. Almost noon. A tall, thin woman sits beside me with her daughter. She is pregnant, but long and slender above and below her tidy, rounded belly. Clear-skinned, high cheekbones.

"I bet there won't be any kids there," the girl bumps her toes against the seat in front of her. Embroidery sparkles at the bottoms of her leggings.

"I bet there'll be a lot," says mom.

"I bet none," daughter sneaking a smile up at mom.

"I bet a lot! Look look, do you recognize it? There's the park."

They get off, whispering together, and mom's seat is taken by a stringy man in a beard. His jeans hang loose from his thighs.

He might be homeless, but I don't know for sure.

I look up at the next stop to see a transit cop standing at the front of the car.

"I need everybody to show me proof of payment. Ticket stub, fast pass."

She seems to have materialized in place. Full transit cop gear. Jacket, badge, heavy things strung from her belt.

The stringy man beside me bolts for the door, crossing directly in front of the transit cop. It's too late. The doors are closed, and he pings back and forth in the stairwell, pushing the door releases, palms open against the doors.

"You won't get out that way, sir," the transit cop says to him, softly. She doesn't want to bust a homeless man.

He's trapped, and he knows it. He buzzes past her again, toward the back of the car. She watches after him, then lifts a chin at the passenger closest to her. He shows his fast pass.

I lift out my pass, looking over my shoulder toward the back of the car. What can they do to a homeless guy? Normally it's a fine, but if someone doesn't have ID, doesn't have an address? It's not like she can arrest him, can she?

I can't see the stringy man, but I can hear him bumping up against each door of the car like a pinball. I imagine him fretting to the end of the car, pinned against the back door, heart thrumming in his chest.

Friday, February 29, 2008

I, who am your friend, will help you

The man sitting beside me on this morning's bus holds a small notepad; it fits in the palm of his hand. I glance away from my book to read what's written: English phrases, followed by Asian characters.

"Yes, I should like to come over."

"What time would suit you for my coming?"

The English is beautiful and formal, strangely contorted into correctness. Me and my dangling participles feel loose and jangly beside him.

The man looks like a character from a Kurosawa movie. Long, lined face. The honest farmer whose family has been brutalized. The salaryman who yearns for the forbidden. I peek to see more of the useful phrases he is learning.

"Do not bother yourself," his notepad reassures, "I, who am your friend, will help you."

This fills me with warmth, and gratitude. If he were my friend, and I was in need, I am sure he would help.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

En Wye See

Inside for two days. Rattling around hotel elevator, conference room, conference room, hotel room, conference room. PowerPoint slides and airconditioning that turns my fingernails blue. Up too late at night, unadjusted to East Coast time, getting up far too early, co-workers reflecting back bleary and hungover, some not appearing until afternoon.

Moving through the grand lobby, I spy daylight out there, but then it's back to another conference room for lunch and more sessions.

A couple of hours before the flight home, two precious hours, and I'm outside, stumbling onto the sidewalk blinking like a matinee moviegoer, surprisingly mild air - it's January! - my eyes wide, drinking in all the images I can't record in the camera I forgot to bring. Overtired, the whole thing happening a few paces removed from me, my head still rolling around an empty conference room, seeing New York City projected in a PowerPoint slide on the wall.

I trail behind co-workers up a broad set of stairs, library lions on either side. The doorman nods and a security guard peers into our purses, and deep into the library we go, ceilings high and stacks of books, but they would only tease - I'm too far from home with too little time to check out even one - instead we move in to the temporary display.

Running up the center of the room is a long glass case, a single yellow page running end to end, Kerouac's On The Road, all on one long page, so he wouldn't have to check the flow long enough to change out a page.

I don't usually dig stuff like this. Biographical stuff. Artistic process shit. I'm always comparing, thinking, if he didn't wash his socks until a manuscript was finished, maybe I shouldn't either. And the life isn't the art, anyway, the art is. This is why I don't read writer biographies. I'd rather just read what they wrote.

But it gets me. I'm crooking my neck to read - security guard scolding us about leaning on the glass - and I can see his cross-outs (not many), his dead-ends and wrong turns. I can see it was good right from the start, and he knew it.

And it doesn't make me feel small. I'm reading it and I'm waking up. It's okay, I think, it's an okay world where something like this is written, and remembered. Where a glass case is constructed so people can crook their necks and see, for a second, into somebody else's head.

It's time to head back to the hotel for my bags before being churned through the intestines of JFK and hurled home in the belly of a plane.

I nod at the security guard at the door, and breathe in some outside air on the front steps. Beside one of the lions is a delicate-boned young woman with a cane, black hair hanging to her hips. She turns to show a porcelain doll face, maybe Eurasian. I fall in love with her right there on the steps, watching her move fluidly, cane and all, and I'm glad. The girl with the cane, the guard at the door, the man eating his lunch on the library steps, the tourists. I'm in New York City, and it's alive and a hundred people jostle by, leaving little bits of themselves inside me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

It's being a long winter here in Billyland, but a welcome ray of light has peeked through. My novel, Hoodoo, is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

I don't particularly believe in contests, and I'd completely forgotten I entered this one. But I gotta say, I'm tickled. This one's an interesting contest; it gives at least a portion of the power to the unwashed masses - you know, readers - in addition to the usual few who decide what makes it into print.

The novel will now get a full review from Publisher's Weekly (that would be the usual few), and is in the running for a publishing deal from Penguin.

But one of the factors that will decide whether Hoodoo makes it to the next level will be reviews from actual, real-life readers.

If you wanna have a say, go to my Amazon page, click the download button, and read the excerpt. Don't worry, it's a short excerpt. If you like what you read, write a glowing review. If you don't like it, write a nasty review. Write whatever you like! It's the Internets!

If you write a few good reviews, there may be something in it for you. According to Amazon: "The three customers who provide the most high quality reviews will be qualified to win one of three customer prizes, including an Amazon kindle reader, $2000 in Amazon gift card value, and an HP photo printer. Learn more at"

All in all, it's probably all about driving more traffic to Amazon's site so they can sell more stuff. The wheel turns and we all do our part.

But I still think it's pretty damn cool.