Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue moon

Last night the moon sported a halo; a ring of lighted clouds circling clear black sky, like a hole punched through to the back of the universe.

A man on the street with a saxophone plays Auld Lang Syne - not a brilliant rendition, but competent - I'm just sentimental enough to slow down and turn a smile his way. He breaks off mid-song and waves. Happy New Year, he calls. As I walk away, he rolls into You Are My Sunshine; ten steps later and it's Pop Goes the Weasel. I wonder if these are the only tunes he knows.

Not everything transcends.

But just ahead of me is a woman in a miniskirt, her black stockings growing a hole and running just beneath her round bottom, and it's enough: I love her and the run in her stockings, her wide hips and the cheap windbreaker hanging from her shoulders.

A friend gave birth yesterday: twin boys, each weighing less than her hardback edition of Anna Karenina. They got here too early for any of us to be easy, but so far so good. One slugged the other on the way out, gifting him with a shiner, an early tell of which is which. This could be a good sign, a will to fight their way back from the far edge of the possible. Welcome to the world, brother.

In an hour or so I'll put on my party dress and dance in the new year with noisy revelers, but for me the year crept in on baby feet last night. The moon swung like a pendant in its halo of bare sky, sneaking through the blinds and prying open my eyes; I'm wide awake out here on this dizzy edge, waiting to see what happens next.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


It's raining in San Francisco. People crowd under an awning, one woman bending from the waist to look up toward the sky, a drop catching her eyelid. She blinks, then smiles and shakes her head.

My boots shine in white light from a laundromat. A young girl in a striped hat circles the central counter, middle finger tracing her path along its surface. She looks over at sister or mother loading clothes, and begins another round.

I'm running late, and the bus is too. I step out to hail a cab.

Crazy night with the rain, the cabbie says. He turns up the volume for Ave Maria.

The city seems to slow down, moving in time to the music. Girls in tiny skirts stretch their naked legs hopefully in skyscraper heels, every step a prayer.

Ave Maria
Gratia plena
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus

A sodden Santa looks up as we pass, water dripping from his beard. Lights blink in store windows. I ask the driver to drop me off several blocks early; I want to walk. I climb out into the cold, rain hammering onto my umbrella.

Sancta Maria
Mater Dei
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus

At the corner store, teenage boys crowd the man behind the counter. They imitate his speech impediment, cruelly, but he doesn't raise his voice. Buy something or leave, he says, words squeezed and misshapen, but his eyes sharp. The kids are embarrassed, reaching into pockets to pay, edging back out into the night. I bring my juice to the counter and he looks at me, smiling gravely, like a blessing.

Still raining, he says.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven

I don't expect Chopin on a Saturday evening. The pianist is at an old upright in the corner, its insides exposed. People sit at tables, arguing, ordering beer, flirting. He's playing one of the études while glasses clink and chairs scrape. He's smiling, curled over the keyboard and watching music roll from his fingers.

Between songs, he leans to the left for a kiss from the woman sitting at the nearest table. She reaches out a hand to play her fingers over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

He slides easily into Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, lounge-worthy and loose, tinkling through the café.

In the BART station a bluegrass band is playing. A mob of a band, boys and girls in dreadlocks and bad beards, overalls and ragged layers of clothing. Three guitars, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and three skinny guys hanging at the sides, shuffle-dancing and singing. I don't know the songs but they light me up anyway; I let my train go to listen a little longer.

They rearrange for the next song: "fiddle in the middle," says the monstrous boy with the mandolin.

A woman is walking her bicycle through the station. She's crying, walking her bicycle. I watch her hop on and ride into the night, crying.

The café pianist plays Pennies From Heaven, and I look out at the sky, feeling riches tumble all around my shoulders.

Friday, November 27, 2009


There's a cluster of balloons caught in the wires overhead. Sunlight cuts sharp across the tops of buildings, turning one white stray almost translucent, where it nudges along the wire, feeling blindly for a way out and up.

Telephone workers are in the street, heads cranked back to look, hats pushed back. Equipment hangs heavy from their belts. The truck's cherrypicker is tucked in, door open, waiting for someone to climb in and free the balloons.

I stop - the sound of my footsteps catching up a second later - and look up with the men.

None of us wants to be the one to break the moment. We stand and look at the balloons, a handful of candy suspended in wire.

We watch. One by one, our thoughts separate and work themselves free, lifting up and into the cloudless sky.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

We're wide awake, the moon and I

A right turn off Shattuck, and cafés and bars and beery, stubbled boys are swallowed up in silence. On either side are close-buttoned houses like sleeping hobbits; I smell rustling trees, unfolding quietly in the dark.

The street rolls under my feet, dreaming of the day's bicycles and cars and dropped keys.

I walk for blocks, checking the address. I should be getting close, but still it's houses and pumpkins on porches and harvest wreaths. I'm not sure I want to get there, I could spend a while here between the sleeping houses, but then I see a pool of light on sidewalk, the sandwich board set out front.

"Here for the Science Review?" asks the waitress.

"I'm here for the band."

They're setting up in the next room, but it's reserved for a collection of beautiful college geeks. I find a place on the fringe, where I can see.

She tests her accordion, a lock of blond hair falling into her face. He tunes his guitar. They play loose and easy. You haven't lived until you hear Princess Yum-Yum sing to a calypso beat and accordion.

The accordionist's brother arrives late in the second set, as the last of the college scientists are wandering out, a last shining look toward the musicians. Brother stretches his legs out under the table and points his iPhone in their direction.

At the mercy of BART schedules, I don't stay long after the show. Back in SF, walking home, I pass a café with people spilling onto the walk. Three hairy white guys are playing hot bluegrass. The one playing harmonica has a washboard hanging from his neck; it sprouts shining cymbals and tiny drums and mysterious noisemakers.

Down South in New Orleans, they sing. The prettiest girls I've ever seen. Did the band in Berkeley sing the same tune? I'm pulled in. They're rocking the place, and I'm in the crowd, stomping and clapping.

It's late before the place closes down, chairs taken in from the sidewalk. I take the long way home, down empty streets.

We're very wide awake, the moon and I.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

After the Party

I can hear the footsteps of other guests heading toward their cars. One asks if I'd like a ride. No thanks, I say. Not tonight.

Tonight I want to hear the ocean to my right as I walk along the dark street. My own shoes on the pavement, my breath going in and out. The sound of a small pickup idling at the corner booms out in the silence. It is metallic and outsize, the sound of an entire factory clashing into production.

I turn onto Taraval. Music pushes out from the Riptide. Narrow windows give glances of a tight crowd; boys holding girls hard against them, smokers slouching just out front.

On the bench at the stop is a young kid in a big black cowboy hat. An older man stands guard over a pile of bags and backpacks.

"I'm gonna fill the tub with salt," says the kid.

"You ain't going there," the man says.

"Tsh! Tsh!" the kid shushes.

He stands up and paces back to check the display. He's limping; one heel doesn't reach the ground. "Eight minutes," he says, drawling it out: Aay-it.

The train is full of kids heading out for their Saturday night. They are loud and full and humming with energy. One tall boy wears sneakers with puffy, distended tongues. They look festive, cartoonish.

I get off a stop sooner than I intend, but it works out well. I walk through quieter streets, my head emptying of all the pushing voices.

The host of tonight's party got bad news this week. A tumor. The party had been planned weeks before. My breath stops. Everything at the party stops. He tells us he'll be okay. It's going to be okay. He wrote a song about it, in the key of E. Guitar and accordion and our host singing that he'll be all right, and we all join in for the chorus.

He's going to be okay, he says, but his and his wife's faces are wide open and pale. Their eyes are bright and they smile with their whole tired selves. In the warm of their kitchen, we sing songs and clap out the beat, and one by one we shrug on coats and say goodnight, shining with grace of these people, this moment of being alive.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Thank you Pumpkin

I'm reading in a cafe in the Mission, looking up now and then from my book at the people coming and going. Most of them are young and beautiful - men and women - and they carry an awareness of this, like the sunshine edging in through the open front of the cafe.

A tiny woman enters, delicate-boned, made even smaller by the vicious curve of her spine, curling her completely over like a hook. Her skin is dark brown with large black freckles along her shoulders, the straps of her overalls hanging around her elbows.

A rope of drool hangs from her mouth, catching the light. She holds a brightly colored box of Trix in front of her as she wobbles toward the back of the cafe like a shield, a talisman.

I think about oracles in ancient Greece.

People in the cafe look and not-look as she passes. She disappears behind a corner near the restrooms, and one of the waitresses moves to talk with her. I can hear her speak, but I can't make out the words. Her voice is creaky as a cartoon witch's, words punctuated with a truculent "Aaaaah!"

The waitress disappears into the kitchen, and she fills the space with her voice: "Aaaah. Aaaaah! Aaaaah."

The waitress re-emerges with a plastic cup filled with milk, gaily-colored balls of cereal floating at the top, and a spoon.

"Thank you," scratches out the woman.

Her box of cereal replaced with this cup of baubles, she holds it aloft and retraces her path back through the room. She bumps into a woman as she passes, apologizing, and the woman shrinks away, looking her up and down with unveiled horror before her eyes sheath over with not-seeing.

"Thank you, Pumpkin," calls the hook-shaped woman one more time as she disappears into the hard light of the sun.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mixed tape

I'm sitting near the back of the bus, a group of college-age kids across the aisle.

"Oh that was a long time ago."

"Did you know that Sheila's dad's car has a tape deck? A tape deck!"

"When was the last time they made cars with tape decks?"

"Come on over and listen to my mix tape!"

They laugh uproariously.

But I'm snapped back in time - one instant on the bus, groceries at my feet - the next I'm the car with my brother. He's wired a CD player to the speakers, but it's delicate. On bumpy roads the CD skips. The technology is still new, and I wonder if they'll ever make them stable enough that cars will some day come with CD players built in.

"Oh, sure," says my brother, his arm resting on the sill of the driver's side window. We listen to Elvis Costello, hurtling through the dark.

My brother and I are escaping. It's New Year's, but we didn't spend Christmas home with family. We're in L.A., or rather, leaving L.A. We've each been on our separate trips this week, but tonight we're both staying at my former boyfriend's mother's house in Topanga Canyon.

The mother is away; it's just former boyfriend (now friend), brother and me. There's nothing but bags of wheat germ in the fridge, so the three of us take off down the other side of the canyon looking for food. We're almost ready to settle for a convenience store burrito when we find a bar that's open. The fifty-something waitress has high blond hair and blue eyeshadow. Bar patrons sing Auld Lang Syne and she brings us a vegetarian pizza. All the vegetables are grown in the garden out back, she says.

It seems to be the best pizza I've ever had.

All this I've told again and again. The pizza and how we learned we'd stumbled into San Fernando Valley when a girl exclaimed, "Oh, miga-aawd!"

But I've never told about the three of us in that mid-century modern house hidden in the trees. About the tall windows and the mirrored wall, reflecting our selves back, perched on three mismatched chairs. My brother with his long legs stretched out in front of him. About the deep quiet surrounding us, how I dream of a movie with this image: three people in a white room, trees outside whispering secrets to one another in the dark.

About the furtive kiss with the former boyfriend when my brother is in another room, the relationship over but our bodies unconcerned.

It's one of those rare moments when we're aware - my brother and I - that we're on the verge of something new. My brother will marry soon, become a father. It's the last time we'll be together like this, and I think we know it.

I'm on the bus on my way home from work, groceries between my feet, and I'm missing my brother sharply. Late night talks after a date. Riding to school with him in the '65 Mustang he'd fixed up, rolling in a cloud of music. Staring in shared terror at the black widow on the wall of his basement room, the red hourglass on her abdomen winking out. An early morning drive home from our brother's wedding, windows rolled down and music blasting to keep us awake. Lying on my stomach in his room, reading lyrics from his album covers.

That last drive in the living dark, music rolling over us, as I lean out the window to breathe in the green of the trees.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why not

This morning on my way to work, a man crosses my path from right to left. Before I see him, I hear an exaggerated plosion of breath, before even looking I recognize the sound of someone whose link to this world - to sidewalk and streetcar and yapping dogs - is fragile, fraying.

A street crazy, I think.

As he passes in front of me, I see his profile, then the back of his longish gray hair, well-tended and neatly pulled into a black band. He stops, now, just to my left, and throws one hand up, drawing himself onto his toes beneath his hand, balletic, perfectly executed.

He drops his hand and falls back into man walking down the street. And then, again! The hand lifts, the body follows, and now the other hand reaches out and pulls him into an arabesque.

And then it's gone; he's just a guy, walking.

There's nothing in it of that nutzoid tension, that buildup and valving off promised by his exasperated huff. There's a contradiction here, and I remember the other day when I saw a man flinging himself - beautifully - around the J Church tracks as they disappear into the tunnel. I thought street crazy then, too, until I saw the woman filming him, holding the Trolley Dances clipboard.

The dancer of today stops again, again the hand goes up, again that beautiful form, his long body describing an exquisite curve, and he seems to say Why not?

Why not dance?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bikinis and swimsuits accepted

The eastern half of Dolores Park is still in sunlight, but I'm in shade. There are bodies scattered over the slope, the woman selling empanadas, the man with marijuana chocolates. Two people are rolled into a blanket, a bare foot showing at one end, a hand at the other.

Just downhill from me is a crusty old man in baggy jeans, no shirt. While I watch, he stands up and unbuckles, sliding the pants down over his hips. Saggy old white man in saggy whities. Or former whities, now nearly transparent and the color of old bones. He reaches a hand down the front of them and roots around in there, and I wonder if we'll get the whole show; nudity is all the rage these days, I'm told. But he pulls his hand free and lies face down on the grass, arms out above his head. He looks like someone flung him there.

I stand up and make my way down the hill, toward Valencia. A boy sitting on a stoop nods at me as I pass, then says something I don't hear. I stop and turn. "You have a great smile," he says.

I'm looking for a cafe described by a Litquake volunteer, and almost miss it. I was distracted by the woman talking about how her bullet hole is still sore.

In the back, by the bathroom, is a poster advertising Halloween festivities here. Costumed guests will get two beers for $8. Bikinis, it says, and swimsuits accepted.

It's dark as I walk home past the tennis courts. I can hear the pok pok of ball against racket, see the green of the balls glowing against black sky.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Scattered showers were predicted.

It's mid-afternoon, and a sudden crush of rain halloos and stomps and clatters on the roof. The smell of softening earth springs close behind and I lift my head from my stuporous glaze. I gather up raincoat and umbrella and dash for the stairs while co-workers tsk.

Sacramento street is a crashing river, gutters overflowing until the two streams meet in the middle of the road. I leap as broadly as I can, umbrella high, knowing I'll never clear it and not caring, it feels so good to leap, and I laugh, splashing to my shins, the water sucking at my jeans and slurping over and into the tops of my boots, my socks turning squishy and damp.

I skip my way to the park at the top of the hill, to the top of the park, where bulldozers stand, water puddling in the open seats. I can see the city below, snugged into fogbanks.

One other human is at the top of the park among the giant trees. We hold our umbrellas as lightly as helium balloons. Tufts of reddish hair decorate the perimeter of his bald head, and he grins.

Another rain lover, he says. He was visiting a friend in the hospital when he heard the clamor and had to get outside. He's lived here thirty years, but he still misses the thunderstorms in his hometown in Pennsylvania.

We bow to one another and continue on the way. My jeans are wet to my knees, and my boots won't dry for a day, maybe two. I don't care. I can turn up the heater at work, eat soup for dinner.

The rain backs off, tiptoeing away in squishing socks. When I circle back to Sacramento, the rivers are gone, already gone, the street clean and shining in their wake.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Because I need to start somewhere

I'm emptied out, used up, full to the teeth with other people's words. Yesterday was the crashing finale of Litquake, where I helped unleash an army of volunteers on the streets for the crazed high of the Crawl.

No words of my own, though. My own words slink away like criminals. I'm shattered, shaken and spitwadded, and no words, no words.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Someone might see

I'm walking to work behind a young white couple, she with sleek blond hair and cloddish boots, he in hipsterish black, skinny legs in skinny black jeans.

He walks a little closer to her, lifting one big hand to lightly skim her ass, feeling her muscles move her legs forward and back, her hips side to side.

They walk this way for a block and a half, and then she looks left, right, her hair twitching from shoulder to shoulder, and reaches back to brush his hand away.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Mr. Billy and I are on the number 6 bus late on a Friday night, heading home after a play. Across from us, in the backward-facing seats, is a man and a woman. They're both wearing headphones.

She is looking out the window at the passing city. Her hair is pulled back in a bun. High, aristocratic eyebrows and composed mouth.

He looks vaguely in front of him. He's tall and loosely strung, large, freckled ears. One giant paw holds his iPod, the other holds his phone, each at the ready. In case. His mouth is open, like he'd been stunned by a bright light.

I'd assumed they were a couple, but as the bus trundles out of downtown and up Haight, I see they never once look at each other. I wonder if they know each other at all, if maybe, complete strangers on the bus, they are feeling the bare contact of thigh against thigh while looking away, denying the flirtation, their bodies exchanging lustful heat entirely against their will.

I look up at Mr. Billy, but when I look back, her head is on his shoulder. A couple, then. Still no words, no change in his expression or hers.

The bus is nearly empty, a lighted capsule in the speeding dark. We've passed the Masonic and Haight stop, where most of the passengers heave themselves from their seats and out to the street; our couple remains.

She's lifted her head from his shoulder and is looking out the window again. Not once have their eyes met, not once has one even tried to look at the other.

Suddenly she gets up from her seat, skirts neatly around the man's long legs, and is waiting near the door, her deep eyelids lowered as she gazes coolly at the floor.

He stays as he is, stunned face, devices held out in front of him like the reins of a horse, until the bus stops, and he's up and out on the sidewalk beside her, the bus rolling on; I'm unable to catch more than a glimmer of her legs beneath her pencil skirt in the dark, and then they're gone.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fire, averted

Mr. Billy and I are indulging in crepes at our favorite local creperie on Haight. I'm considering making a pig of myself with a dessert crepe (chocolate and salty butter - nothing comes close), when Mr. Billy stands up and heads for the door. The counter girl is next to him, pointing at a black Mercedes parked in front of the shop. Something is leaking at an alarming rate from the back of the car.

Mr. Billy gets closer to investigate. He puts his hand in the stream then stands up. "Yep," he says, "Gasoline." The counter girl and I watch as the gallons pour out onto the street while Mr. Billy disappears into the bathroom to wash his hands.

"We should call the cops," I say. It occurs to all of us at the same time that anyone walking by with a cigarette could touch off a fire, a Very Bad Fire.

The counter girl picks up the phone. "Um, fire?" she says.

"How fast is it leaking?" she asks nobody in particular.

"About a gallon a minute," Mr. Billy says.

Another customer has come in, and he's shaking his head. "Think of how much money is just running out onto the street," he says.

The counter girl hangs up the phone. "They said don't let anyone get near it."

I order a cup of tea while we wait for the firemen. A guy wearing an orange vest with a cigarette hanging from his mouth is sweeping the street. He gets close to the Merc.

"Stay away from that car, it's leaking gas," I say. Three of us point at the stream, still going strong.

He nods and says thanks, and keeps sweeping in the gutter, right up to the car. I realize the cig isn't lit.

"Get away from it now," says Mr. Billy.

"No, I'm okay," the man says, but he moves away.

"Do you see that cigarette butt lying right under the car, ominously?" asks the cook. She had been about to take her smoke break when she noticed the smell.

We look at the butt, at the growing lake of gasoline, running down the gutter to the Ashbury corner. Then we hear a siren.

It's been less than five minutes, and here are the firemen. They inspect the car, ask if the owner is around.

"Nope. She parked and went off."

Two guys open the gas tank cover, while a couple of others pour kitty litter - or something like it - into the gutter.

"Gas cap wasn't screwed on tight."

The fireman tightens down the gas cap, and the leak stops. Just like that. The firemen soak up all the gas, get back in their truck, and disappear.

"The owner of the car - she may never know what happened," I say as we walk toward the bus. I look back down the street where no fire started today, and I take Mr. Billy's hand.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gumby in lace

The bus is crowded this morning, but there is a loose, benign feeling. People are smiling. The woman whose toes I just avoid smashing holds back her gray hair with a girlish headband.

Rain was forecast today, but the sun shines.

I churn my way to the back, to a seat at last, and bury myself in my book. Near the end of the trip, I'm jolted by the appearance of two long skinny legs in lace tights just in front of me. The woman wears tiny black shorts - almost hot pants - and a vintage houndstooth jacket belted tightly at the waist. I glance up at her face: jewel stud in her sharp nose, lips crisply painted in fuschia.

It's cold this morning. I'm wearing enough layers to feel like the Michelin man, but she doesn't seem to feel it, although I can see her pale skin through the lace.

She's tall and thin as a rubber band - miles between the hem of her shorts and the tops of her boots. I think of Gumby, with his bright cartoon face. I picture again her painted lips and think her hair must be crimson, but I steal another look at her face and see I was wrong: it's brown - maybe auburn - and hanging to her shoulders.

The guy next to me shakes with laughter, his face hidden by his hoodie - the hood of his hoodie - I think, the words rolling around in my head. He's watching a cartoon on his iPhone.

To my left a high school girl tries to tell her friend a story, choking on her own laughter, the words coming out mangled and crushed.

I can't look away from the skinny girl in her lace tights. I compare my own legs in their boots and patterned tights. I'm short, and my legs haven't been that skinny since I was twelve and asked my mother why my calves were changing shape, maybe something was wrong. She smiled and told me I was becoming a woman, and I was terrified and thrilled, lifting my skirt to see the slight curve of my legs in the mirror.

I can see between the girl's legs to the people standing behind her. I slip a glance once more at her face - morning-sharp and vulnerable - and something in me recognizes her.

I step off the bus with her face ringing in my head, her legs and jeweled nose keep pace with me as I walk to the office, the sun disappearing behind gathering clouds.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shared Sacrifice

I've been a bad blogger lately, an unreliable blogger, an occasional blogger. But that isn't because I've stopped writing.

If you're jonesing for some Chemical goodness, check out the new online journal Shared Sacrifice. I'm not posting there every week, but I hope to be able to contribute on a regular basis. Today I'm hard at work on a new story for the next issue (with a short break for this plug), and you can read more of my work in the current issue and archives.

The journal is an outgrowth of the online radio program of the same name. Worth checking out.

If you'd like to contribute, they're still looking for writers and artists...