Saturday, December 24, 2011


I'm on a 34-foot sailboat in Monterey Bay. It's Christmas Eve day. I'm at the wheel, my friend Steve coaching me, gentle course corrections. A curl of his long white hair is caught in a spiraling current of air, a finger of the breeze that bellies out the sails. I almost convince myself that I can feel it, can feel when the wind takes her, yeah maybe I'm starting to get it, rolling the wheel by instinct, so what if I come from the desert, so what if I don't know enough to call them lines instead of ropes, I've got this.

"It's starting to luff," says Steve. Damn. He's right, the sail clapping sarcastically. I'm not even sure which way to steer to fix it.

It doesn't matter. I get us close enough to the buoy to see seals lounging around its base in the sun. Closer still and they're not even conscious enough to lounge, they're out, kay-o'ed, not one of them gives enough of a shit about us to even lift an eyelid. The buoy makes its call, skipper Eric says the light is solar-powered, the horn sounding from the motion of the buoy in the water.

"It sounds rather depressing," says Steve.

"Whonk," says Eric.

"Mom," says Dan. I hear its voice calling out over the waves: Mom....Mom...Mom....

Sun shines off the water like a gemstone spill. How can I write about a perfect day? About the sea otter kicking backward through the water on its back, wind taking the boat, the feel of her speeding beneath me to meet it when I get it just right, homemade baklava. Dan hands me a brimming cup of water, not a drop spilled, he laughs at his running attempts to pour from the bottle, but success in the end.

I start to feel the cold, the only reason I'm happy to turn back toward shore. We approach the harbor and tell stories, the stories turning grim, sad, until we get to the one of the woman who tried to kill herself with a knife and all her pills. Steve was her social services person, found her just in time, her bloody footprints all over the room, "She was a pacer," says Steve.

We're quiet. A long minute before Steve refreshes his voice, asks why talk about this when we're here? Maybe because we want to remember: this is a gift, this is rare.

Eric makes a neat three-point turn to bring her into the slip. "No blood, no gel paint," he says.

That's how you know it's a good day.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


"Would you mind if we bless your foot?" asks the young woman sitting beside me on BART.

"I'll take all the help I can get," I say.

They could be an ad for Christian youth. One hispanic woman, one white, one black, two young men. Their faces softly thrilled with their trip to San Francisco. They're going to church on Valencia Street, "God manifests in oil from the Bible there," says the girl on my right. Ice skating at Embarcadero later.

They reach out hesitant, delicate hands. "May we touch you?" A hand on my walking boot, another on my arm, they lay fingers lightly on each other. They all pray at once, strangely conversational, like overlapping dialogue in an Altman movie. "Jesus, your suffering on the cross was enough." "Take away her pain." "Let her be healed."

"Just the faith of a mustardseed is all you need." I don't know if I even have that much, I think, but no. I have faith.

Faith in my animal self that unfurls and stretches in the light of the full moon. In the alien moon herself, pasted yellow and flat in last night's sky. In friends who forbid me to ride the train and hobble home through dark streets, bundling me into a guest bed with borrowed pajamas and a glass of water. In the friend who makes a December refuge for me and my suitcase.

The homeless woman who sweeps an arm wide in greeting to everyone she passes. The elderly man in plaid pajamas out front of his building, chatting with a neighbor. The sudden, sharp column of sunlight between two buildings.

I have faith in pockets of strange beauty and unexpected generosity. A young man, good looking, in sunglasses, guards a shopping cart heaped with all his possessions.

He nods at my walking boot. "I hope you feel better soon," he says.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


This weekend was meant to be the beginning of my nomadic year. On Wednesday I learned my foot was fractured, tying me to earth. I'd had fantasies of walks up and down the long hill where I'm staying this week, but I'm forbidden to walk more than a few blocks at a time.

I've had to slow down. As I walk to dinner in my old neighborhood, I see a man in a doorway with his back to the street. My instinct is to turn my head away as I pass. There are many things a person can do in a doorway, especially in this part of town, few of them are things I much want to see anymore. But this guy was playing a bamboo flute. Not in that broken, half-assed way I expect of my neighbors. He's good. He's facing the wall and the sound bounces out onto the street, sweetening the slow walk, my foot rocking heel to toe in its stormtrooper boot.

At the bus stop, a man asks a cabbie at the curb if he knows how to get to Sparc. It's a marijuana dispensary, he says. Oh, says the cabbie, that's all the way down near 11th. A middle-aged Latino man in a suit is walking by, and he stops to say there's another very nice dispensary just in the next block.

A guy with a bullhorn is talking in Spanish about Jesús Cristo. A queen with a pink blossom tucked behind one ear smiles. She's well over six feet tall, closing in on seven.

I sit in a seat reserved for the elderly and disabled on the train. A woman sits beside me, long white hair in a turquoise clip. Gray pleated skirt and rose-colored coat, black felt boots. She turns a single-trip ticket around and around in her creased hands. We get to my stop, and she uses her hands to pull herself to her feet. I make the identical gesture, the two of us moving slowly out of the train. She's ahead of me as we go through the turnstiles, but she turns back from the stairs. I follow to see the escalator is out of service. 

Looking for the escalator? she asks, as I turn toward the other exit. Yes, I say, and we keep each other company out of the station.

Tonight I'm re-reading Housekeeping. In it is a woman who chooses, for her own eccentric and half-understood reasons, to wander homeless. A strange piece of inspiration for my wobbling liftoff, weighed down, obliged to look around in every minute, slowed, but not stopped.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just when you're ready to leave, you meet the neighbors

It's late after a night out, past time for bed. I put on a robe and slippers to go to the bathroom. My building has shared bathrooms. It's not so bad. They're professionally cleaned every day. Some days they need it more than others.

Tonight, someone knocks on the door. This is not something we do here. If the door is closed, the bathroom is occupied. Just a moment, I call, drying my hands. I open the door to see my neighbor, his blue eyes open all the way.

Please, he says. I've cut myself. I need you to dress the wound. One hand is cradled in the other, wrapped in a towel. He leads me across the hall to his apartment, like mine but with no window. The man is easily two of me - maybe three - tall and broad. He walks with a cane. He leaves the door open and points at the drawer that contains his first aid supplies. There, he says, and stands back, as though I need plenty of room to work.

Usually, this neighbor avoids my eyes, but this week he's been friendly, saying Hello when we pass in the hall, on the street. He was in the stairwell when I was on the way to work the other morning, almost dancing, earbuds in. He turned a big smile at me. A certain flavor of bright attention, it's familiar to me.

The drawer is cluttered. He's explaining how he has an expensive knife from Japantown, but something just went wrong with it, he didn't know how it happened. My choice is between a large gauze pad and a regular Band-Aid. Let me see, I say to him. He looks a little taken aback, then shows me his finger. It's a small cut with a lot of blood.

You're going to be fine, I say. I wipe the cut with an alcohol pad and, unwrapping the Band-Aid, ask him his name, tell him mine. His face is open, eager eyes sticking to me. Are you a nurse? he asks.

I'm putting on the bandage when a woman appears in the doorway. She's my size, gorgeous, seemingly not much older than me. Hi Mom, says my giant of a neighbor.

Are you going to the hospital? asks the woman. At first I think she's talking about the cut, and I start to tell her it's not serious, but then I see this is a different conversation.

I'm different on this medication, Mom, he says. People tell me so.

What people? she wants to know.

The man at the smoke shop. He says I'm not myself.

I'm standing between the two of them in my robe and slippers, bandage wrapper in my hand. The mother touches my arm. Thanks, she says. I tell her - and him - to let me know if they need anything more. I mean this. I can't tell her how normal this feels to me, how light it is to me to put on a Band-Aid and make small talk, how they aren't completely alone. 

But she nods me back to my room, down the quiet hallway. The door closes behind her, the two of them, mother and son. It's the middle of the night, and it's only them.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Walk outside

I wasn't going to write today. What could I possibly write? There's too much happening out there and in here, and it seems impossible to throw a few puny words at that massive mountain.

So that's it, then. I can stop writing and put away the books and the tweed jacket with the patches on the elbows, stop calling myself a writer and rearranging the world to provide me with More Time to Write, because, and this is a secret: no matter how much you get, it's never enough.

And, still, it's always enough. I can sneak away like I'm cutting school, take a little walk.

And there's the young woman in the park, lying on her back, examining a leaf she holds at arm's length while she talks on her cell phone. An older man stands on the sidewalk and flosses. He works at his teeth with great concentration, and I love him for it.

I hear a man tell the girl beside him that she'll learn a lot while she's here. To not get caught is the main thing, he says, Ask yourself, do I need to not get caught standing here? She hasn't grown hips yet, her skinny arms a little too long for her body, she holds them out to the side, nodding.

One of my neighbors picked up a Halloween mask last night and wears it back on his forehead, over the top of his hood. It's new and shining silver, a brilliant red feather on one side. A short wind flirts through the feather, flaps the legs of his pants against his skinny shins.

A hundred thousand human beings, each one a hundred stories, all right outside my door. Any time I think I don't have anything to write, all I need to do is walk outside, like Exene said:

Hey baby, Baby take a walk outside.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Live everything

There's a crowd tonight, and they show me their IDs as they line up at my bar, hopeful eyes on me. So many of these kids were born in 1990.

The obligatory contingent of sexy/slutty costumed girls, but only three. There are wizards and nerds, Mexican wrestlers, and the guy in blackface is a black guy. Two blond girls tell me they're Mary Kate and Ashley.

The bands playing tonight do covers of Misfits and Gang of Four. I'm wearing the spiked collar I wore when Gang of Four was still touring, before most of these people were born. I'm dressed as myself of many years ago, plus devil horns, because why not?

My teenage self envies me, if she thinks of me at all. She certainly never expected to see this many years, certain of flaming out before reaching such advanced age. Dumb luck, I tell her, but she's moshing, she doesn't hear.

One environmentally aware kid at the bar doesn't want a plastic cup for water. Instead he crouches under the spigot, mouth open.

I love these people. Another kid petitions J about a benefit for Occupy SF. I just had the idea now, he says. He has the angels on his side.

There are nights when I like nothing better than this: pouring drinks and watching the crowd. I don't hear it when someone kicks a hole in the wall, but I do see the kid who booked the show. The room is almost empty by now. His cheeks are red beneath his blue wizard hat, and he keeps saying he can't believe it. Nothing he says will un-kick the wall, he's on the hook for the repair, and the injustice of it all pops the air around his head like cartoon swears.

I should have some way to end this post, some exit strategy, but that's it. Bar packed up, drunk kids roused and sent home. There's no knowing how many more nights there will be like this, and every thought in my head is a question. I'm trying, like Rilke counsels, to " patient toward all that is unsolved in [my] heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms," he says, "and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue."

And what the hell, that guy knew how to put words together, even in translation it comes through:
 Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

October 16 comes every year

Last night I read a story in a bar, bought a beer for a Pulitzer-winning author whose previous book made me stay up all night reading, and danced awkwardly with a roomful of writers. I wore my mother's ring, it makes me feel like I'm carrying her with me. I think she'd have loved every moment. If she still exists in any form other than behind my eyes, if she gives this world any thought at all, I like to think she's grooving on this literary life along with me.

Today is her birthday. It's San Francisco summer, October and one of the few days of the year when I can walk outside without a jacket. Outside the mortuary are six men in dark suits and crisp white and black hats. They hold trumpets and trombones, waiting.

I pass an open house, people who are able to contemplate owning a place in San Francisco heading up the stairs. A man stands just a few feet from the Summit Real Estate sign. He has his own sign. "Summit Real Estate are Thieves," it says. The sign is upside-down, resting on the sidewalk while he shakes out his arms.

On the steps outside Coit Tower, a woman's purple dress blows up in the wind. She's wearing matching shorts underneath, but still she holds her skirt down against the next gust. A grandly fat tourist and his blond daughter try to open the JCDecaux toilet, the girl prying at the door, listening for sounds from inside, the father concentrating on the display beside the door, occasionally poking the button with one slow finger. He finally sends the girl to join her siblings and gives his wife an I tried expression before tramping off to find some accommodating bushes. I wind my way down the steps, seeing the display as I pass the toilet: Out of service. Could none of the ten people close by the small drama read English? None of them tried to help the man as he pointlessly pressed the button.

Not even me.

I head up a street I've never walked before. The last block is steps leading up to a low wall. A young couple from the neighborhood are sitting on the wall, staring out at the view. The Bay Bridge, white sails shining like metal in the sun. The city is so beautiful today it hurts.

I wish I could call Mom.

Back downtown, people left flowers and notes and candles outside the Apple store in San Francisco. The outline of a cloud hangs in the window. I imagine Jobs perched on his iCloud, our very own capitalist saint. In the next block are the hip-hop dancers, a guy with his hair dyed bright orange, shaped into a square with a shelf cut in on the left side. A drumline winds past them, high school kids led by a tall kid with his bass drum, boom boom, a kid with a donation jar bringing up the rear. Another block and the tourists thin out. One of my neighbors is just waking up, putting on his shoes, squinting up at the sun from under the scaffold that serves as his roof.

Outside the International Art Museum of America is an explosion of flowers. Although they've been open for months, today is apparently their grand opening. The flowers are meant to be celebratory, but they strike me, today, as funereal.

I can't remember the last thing I said to Mom. Did I talk to her on the phone? Or was it on my last trip there? She was so diminished that time, but it never occurred to me that she had one foot already in the next world.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


It's Saturday morning, and the sun is out. I walk through Civic Center, where the giant dandelion sculpture replaced the giant blocks. A young man in artfully scuffed leather jacket and steampunk goggles steps between the metal leaves, looking up at the dandelions. Maybe he's rolling on acid, or maybe he's never been in the big city before, but his face shows open wonder, that soft toddler gape.

A neighbor is just getting up, shaking out his shoes before putting them on, standing on his bed for the night, a clean rectangle of cardboard. I'm in his bedroom, walking down the street. A woman in a wheelchair is forehead to forehead with a man, her boyfriend maybe, the man kneeling in front of her, her arms tan and toned, a scarf around her hair, they're having a private moment, and I feel rude looking, but I don't want to look away.

Last month I was in Utah, and as my nephew drove us into town I was lost, the place has changed so much, I thought I was in a different neighborhood entirely when I saw the bones of the tabernacle, and I was jolted, the whole town shifting around this point, one of the few lovely old buildings still standing in my home town. And only barely standing, its burned naked ribs exposed, this is what they mean when they say a shell of its former self.

This week it was announced that the tabernacle would be rebuilt. But they're turning it into a temple, which means this sinner will be prohibited from entering ever again, unless I undergo a conversion, see the light, and purge my amiable apostate's soul. Not likely. So the place where Dad sang The Messiah with the Ralph Woodward Chorale, where I sang countless times with church choir, where I solved the mazes my brother drew for me, where we played hide-and-seek backstage, where I attended Stake Conference with the Osmonds, and we cracked up - silently, our faces turning red - to see that Donny wore spangled purple socks with his Sunday suit, that place lives only in my head. The last time I was there was for a friend's memorial. A nonsmoker, he'd died suddenly from lung cancer, leaving behind a wife, small children. I reconnected there with his little brother, a best friend when we were kids, I'd promised to pack him in my luggage and take him with me when my family went to Paris.

I was already on my way to other homes, even then. I'm home now in San Francisco, my neighbors making occult signs to nobody at all, arguing and singing in the alley beneath my window, when my music stops at night I think for a moment it's still playing, but it's my neighbors, the people who share this piece of earth, this moment, voices calling into the night.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One weekend only makes me want more

I'm entirely too sleepy to be writing. Two and a half sleep-deprived days in New Orleans, and I couldn't stay awake long enough to drink the place in.

I didn't know the air would be so soft. It's heavy like Hawai'i, but not so aggressive about it. The air wraps sweetly around my shoulders. Coming from the airport, my eyes are wide open, looking for the thing that makes people go all loopy for this place. "It's not the skyline," I write in my little notebook, trying to see in the dark, my scrawly pen marks barely readable. I'm finishing the word "skyline" when we're in the city, and I say, "Oh." LIke every New Orleans movie you've ever seen. Free-standing houses, a hundred years old and older. Porches.

Of course the guy behind the bar is named Dmitri. Of course there's a writer with glasses and his toothsome girlfriend in an eye-popping red dress. Of course his blue-haired friend, the guy with heavy mascara and platforms, but I'm from San Francisco. What else you got?

What else: a buddha-headed guy on the sidewalk at midday, his head doused with thin red paint or blood, his hands dipped, too. His eyes a shock of white when he lifts them to look at me. He holds his hands out from his sides like he's been bathing them in gore, and maybe he has.

What else: a man on the street says Hello. A woman says Hello. A guy taking a smoke break from a restaurant asks how I'm doing. None of these is a come-on. Maybe here I can stop even trying to wear a metro face.

What else: for $5 I get to see John Boutté play. He's smaller than I'd expected, narrow-shouldered as a kid. But he sings Halllelujah, and it prickles up the roots of my hair.

Hallelujah is in my head as I turn down Chartres Street, only a block away from the Saturday night crowds and it's quiet, just me and my footsteps. A guy is taking a photo of one of the houses, his girlfriend posed in front. I duck to stay out of the photo as I pass, and they laugh.

A few steps down the street, a smell stops me. In San Francisco, in my neighborhood, I might keep walking. I'm not proud of this. Here, I stop. I circle back. The couple is behind me now, and I ask them if they smell gas. They cock their heads as though listening, and then nod. It does. I'm looking around, and finally see the streetlights. They're gas flames, the real thing. I point, feeling a little sheepish.

"You really care," the guy says.

Is it because I've only been here a day, or would it increase the longer I stay? Either way, he's right.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Long term care

I'm at the long-term care facility at Laguna Honda to see my friend S. Passing the art room, I see two women wearing white lace mantillas. They seem to be leading a meeting, or a ceremony. The door is closed, so I can't hear them.

S has me wheel her to the farm out back. There's a life-size bronze statue of a rabbit-headed man. He's talking on a cell phone. I find him vaguely disturbing, but S laughs when I tell her so. She's more worried about the evil ones. They're still down at the far end of the farm, so we can't go there.

Instead we hang out with the turkeys and the goats. The big toms come right up to the fence, looking self-important, their feathers puffed out, their psychedelic, prehistoric heads. One goat keeps butting his head against our hands, wanting to be petted. The hills are all lost in mist, and I help S wrap a blanket around her shoulders.

Last weekend, I was in Utah, where the sun gave hard edges to everything. I saw my name on a tombstone in the cemetery. It wasn't someone else with the same name, it was me. Dad had put my name, and the names of my siblings and my stepmother, on the back of the monument he'd sculpted for my mom's tombstone. I didn't know about this until I saw it, after the unveiling, walking behind the tombstone to pose for a picture.

It stuck with me all week, the strangeness of seeing my name there.

I'm leaving S and on my way out when I hear singing. It's several voices, in tight harmony, and it's not a tune I recognize. I'm not even sure it's a style of music I'm familiar with. As I round the corner, the elevator doors close on the voices, and they fade quickly away. I take the next elevator.

On the first floor, I hear them again. They're ahead of me, and now I see about ten people in dark clothing, following a stretcher. I speed up, hoping to hear more of the song. They're still singing, and walking at a good clip. I can see their backs, a woman's straight black hair smoothed into a chignon.

Although I have no more than a glimpse at the stretcher, I'm almost certain they are singing this person into the next world.

Today I think, that wouldn't be a bad way to go.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We are all gods

"I'm not like those guys across the street," says the man outside my apartment building. "I got Polo, American Eagle, good shit."

A tall, skinny man looks heartbreakingly vulnerable with his exposed Adam's Apple, long neck stretched out from a wrinkled collar.

It's morning, but the woman in the doorway is well on her drunk for the day. The tall can of beer in her hand is not her first. She's compact as a piston, feet firmly planted, but her body circles on its axis, her brow lowering. Her friend holds her hands out in a calm-down gesture. She sees the storm about to break.

"I'm good," a man says to me as I pass. "I'm good." It seems important that I know this. I nod.

At breakfast, a movement snags my attention. There is a couple at a table, a third person bending over them, his head between theirs. A friend, I think. But the movement judders like a loose filmstrip. He's moving too fast, chaotic. A glass is knocked from the table, breaks. The standing person looks confused about where to run for a second, then he's blasting out the door. I can see his path as a cartoon dotted line, a feint toward the back then veering wide, out into the street, disappearing in the crowd.

The couple turn toward the rest of us in the cafe, their faces empty as pie pans. The woman holds up her cell phone: he failed to snatch the one thing he was after. We - the customers, the waiter, the waitress - speak softly, gently with each other. The woman leans her head on the man's shoulder, closing her eyes.

I realize that coffee has splashed the people beside me, sloshed up onto the bench and table, missing by millimeters my coat on the bench, as though it was protected by a force field.

I feel strangely protective toward my neighbors, the waitress sweeping up broken glass, the customer wiping coffee from his arm. Even the desperate man, somewhere out on the street, cursing his rotten luck.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Last night

Note: These posts are jumping around in time. It's appropriate to the way time bends, slips, turns in on itself here. More posts will come, from other days.

I am sad as the Portuguese around me today. The last day of workshop, and the crown of privilege that's hovered around my head is dissipating.

In the internet cafe, two new friends sneak up on me while I write. I've known them only two weeks, but in the distortion of days here, our friendships go back years. I push out chairs for them to sit. I don't want to stop seeing them, afraid to let them go, my heart can't take so many goodbyes at once.

I think I'm too tired for another reading, but it lights me up, again. Poetry and harmonica blues. "Some men hand out their hearts like leaflets." In a story, a couple talks about who will die first, letting themselves slip into fear.

I start to think, for the first time in over twenty years, that maybe I can write poetry. At the open mic a few days ago - two months ago, a year ago - everyone called my piece a poem. So maybe I already do.

A. and I put on our party dresses, and we say Wow together as we step out of the elevator. Another fragile wonder, another secret place in the city that has opened to us like a jewelry box. A terrace overlooking the city. The setting sun fires houses on the Alfama hill. We snap up hors d'oeuvres like starving writers, return to the bar for wine and port-tonic. We kiss cheeks again and again and promise to stay in touch.

Later we meet in the Bairro Alto. Impossible that we can find each other, but we do, like homing pigeons, keyed to other writers. We run into each other all over the city. The street is bursting with people, we squeeze by, shoulder to chest to ass, drinks in plastic cups held high over the crowd.

S. beckons and we follow, a long disappearing reappearing line, linked by sight to the person just ahead. Down and down, the crowds thinning but not gone. A white rabbit graffitied on a wall. Down the rabbit hole to a tiny room, where dancers somehow dance, somehow groove and sweat and move to make space for us. We dance to Madonna and Cher, we air guitar, we sing along, eyes squeezed shut and abandoned to this moment, this night, this sweating, jumping room.

I leave without saying goodbye, slip out of the club to my home for one more night. One roommate already asleep, the other already on her way home to the US. A third still out, the place is quiet and dark.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The day after

The men at the outdoor restaurant two doors down are at work before noon. Shirtless over black charcoal smoke. I think of the god Vulcan in his underworld. The man with an apron over bare chest looks up at me as I pass, stepping carefully down the steep cobblestones.

T's feet slipped out from under her and she was airborne, graceful as a dancer, her legs to one side, landing hard on her hip. She's native to Lisbon and still slips. I help her to her feet and feel a little less clumsy. She says it's a controversy: one side passionate for the preservation of Lisbon history, the other dedicated to public safety. High heels are impossible here, though a few women - mostly foreign - teeter down the street on wobbling ankles.

The Alfama apartment is empty now; the others gone, and my head quieting down from two weeks of crackling. I thought I'd write during a writing workshop but every hour was eaten up. I can't seem to pin anything down yet, it's all still shaking and grooving in my head.

I didn't have roommates in college. Here I had three, an intense, short-lived family. Two elder sisters and a younger. We breathed and slept and drank together and each knew when the others came home, or didn't.

There's too much to say, so I'll say this: a beer and peanuts sit in front of me. I'll go to dinner soon, late: it's the fashion in Lisbon. Tonight I'll sleep on the bottom bunk in a hostel room with two young British women. They arrived and I did, we said hello and did not introduce ourselves.

Tomorrow I will swim in the Adriatic. On Monday, I'll step onto a bus and travel to an artists colony. A real Portuguese artists colony: a restored monastery on a river in a national park. A few days to untangle all the shining bits of glory that have knotted up in my head.

And then home.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Day three

The man sitting at the next table has walked here out of a Saramago novel. He wears a jacket and a hat, a bow tie hanging untied against his mustard colored shirt. White beard and oval reading glasses. It is eighty-five degrees, and he wears a jacket and a hat. He is with two younger people, I imagine the young man with the large horn-rimmed glasses is his son. But the woman has a mouth like the young man, maybe they are brother and sister.

The man in the hat reads the newspaper while the young man types on his Mac and the young woman her iPad. They were talking earlier, their mouths shaped for smiling and drinking wine. I want to know them. I want to step into their lives, but I would be stumbling in, big-footed and American.

This cafe has walls that are feet thick, stone blocks strapped together at one end with enormous metal staples. Stone arches between the rooms. I sit on a couch. The table by the window is made from an old sewing machine, the machine gone, but the girl in the sundress sits there and rests her feet on the treadle.

Waiters here are slow to appear, but solicitous as nurses with my handicap. I speak my baby Portuguese to them and they answer in English, indulgently. But so far, strangers do not engage. They seem happy to stay sealed off in their own lives.

But it's only the third day.

I keep finding deeper happinesses at being here, narrow streets with the slick cobblestones, my sandals skating out from under me. As many churches as Utah, but these are Catholic and hundreds of years in place, the bells tolling the hour.

My apartment is in Alfama, the neighborhood untouched by the earthquake and tsunami, the oldest buildings in Lisbon. The streets a labyrinth, but you can only get so lost. Climb uphill toward the castle, or downhill toward the sea.

I sleep on a futon in the dining room, dreaming of my mother, my roommates softly passing on their way to the bathroom in their nightgowns, and I breathe in and count my luck before rolling back to sleep.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Long day to Lisboa

The other passengers are looking pulled and sticky as chewing gum, the departure time ticking ahead another half hour, already two hours delayed.

It's nearly midnight and Wok & Roll is closed, as is the Mexican bar and the pizza place, no choice but McDonald's if you need something to eat, even the tiny newsstand's shutters rolled down.

I've found a place to plug in, but one person after another tries to follow suit, only to slump away in defeat when the socket won't hold the plug. It slips out, limp and ineffectual as all of us, blinking slowly at the overhead lights in the Newark Airport international terminal.

A slim blond woman's face turns red and she knocks her head against her husband's shoulder, she can't keep up that raging, scary smile, her eyes tear up and she hangs against his body.

We believe we can see the future. I can say I'm going to Portugal and I'll be back in July, but this morning as the plane took off and taxied out to shine us a view of San Francisco, there the Bay Bridge, there the Golden Gate, as it shuddered higher into the sky, my certainty shuddered too, the long rubber band of the round trip not as robust as it seemed when I bought my tickets.

Maybe this will be my last view of her face, my San Francisco, who's to say, there are a thousand slips possible between now and then.

Just when I believe I might never leave Newark Airport, we are boarding the plane at last. I can see a crew scrubbing the underside of another airliner, flood lights shining up their high visibility suits, and they are absurd and graceful as giraffes. I want to wave at them as we pull away.

There's no sleep for me, though my neighbors sprawl across each other's laps, blocking me against my window for the duration as my bladder swells and we hurry into the sunrise, it's already tomorrow, although my body believes in one long today, brain too buzzed to read, it's guilty episodes of House until we land.

I want to cry with relief in the airport bathroom, a heroic torrent of pee to mark my arrival in Lisbon, Lisboa, Portugal at last, I've dreamed of Portugal for twenty years and more.

My sleepless brain is too foggy to register the grandeur of the moment. The passport agent looks at me like I'm a strange animal, his English is perfect, and I've misunderstood him perfectly. You must be tired, he offers, and my laugh is helium high.

But I am here. I am here. My roommate is disappointed with our one-night hotel, and it does smell of piss in the hallways, but our doors open onto tiny balconies and I can look down at the fashionable shoppers in Chiado, could work a loogie into my mouth and let it drop onto a casually coiffed head if I wanted.

The internet cafe just down the cobblestone street serves gazpacho and vinho verde, and I write looking over a courtyard, and every fourth person smokes, and the blue tiles on the building across the yard are more beautiful than I'd imagined.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Big shot

He has one bare foot, pants leg torn halfway up, the foot swollen, elephantine, an open ulceration on the top. It looks like the photos in the brochure for wound cleaner, showing what happens when you don't use their product. Long, matted beard.

He holds one hand to his ear.

"Twenty-five K? Add a zero to that. Add a zero to that, dipshit. I gotta warehouse full of uniforms. Add a zero to that! Now we're talking. The dickwipe down in receiving doesn't know shit. Add a zero to that."

Homeless in the financial district too long, it's seeped into his hallucinations.

The F Market is standing room only. The man sitting in the front seat leans in, asks about my necklace. I tell him it's a typewriter. His face still holds a question. I'm a writer, I say.

"Oh yeah? You any good?"

Yes, I say. I lift my chin, just a bit.

He adjusts his baseball cap. "Win any Oscars?"

No. I think about saying more, telling him that's not what I write, but he nods up at me.

"Ever hear of Mark Andrus? As Good As It Gets? Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, huh? I've worked with all of 'em. Yeah? You know As Good As It Gets?"

He starts ticking off the names of people he's worked with, a long list. One name is familiar: Bellisario.

I've met him, I say.

"Great guy, really a nice guy. That's what you gotta do, just go down there and talk to him. He'll get you a shot. Ghostwriting, that's what I did. 'Course you don't make nothing. I mean nothing, just crap pay. Y'know when Stephen King sold the screenplay for The Shining, he got a check, he was all excited. Took it to the bank and handed it over, paid off his trailer and asked for the rest in cash. The teller looked at him like he was crazy. Stephen King thought it was a check for $7,000, the most he'd ever made at once, but he was missing a zero. It was $70,000, and he was asking for the rest in cash! The teller just about had a heart attack."

The man monologues, going into folksy old grouch mode. The train is slowly emptying out. It's just me and Mr. Hollywood, a bit fat and gray-haired, and a skinny man a few seats away. I wonder if the skinny man is bothered by Hollywood's rambling as it amps up, volume and speed, he's dropping names for all he's worth, talking about how he does it, plot devices, you gotta have a dog and a suspicious clerk, all the stock characters, but it starts to get surreal, the dog putting on a mailman's hat and undergoing an existential crisis, suspicious clerk lost in the woods and taking off his clothes piece by piece.

Now he's doing an impression of Jack Nicholson, he's back on As Good As It Gets, and Jack takes him to the bank to draw his pitiful check, but (and here he's talking out of the side of his mouth, Nicholson-style, and it's not a bad impression) then he writes another check for Hollywood, telling him he's earned it, he's nobody's bitch.

I'm noticing a theme. Banks and unexpected riches. I'm almost at my stop, and Hollywood pauses for breath. I shoulder my bag, and the skinny man speaks up for the first time.

"You really should follow up on that Bellisario connection," he says, "He's a good guy."

I don't have time to take it in, slamming my mouth shut, I hop off the train as the doors close, nearly catching my heel.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Bad night

It's late but not terribly late. The F Market is stuffed full of tourists, baseball caps and shopping bags flapping out the windows, between the doors, but a #6 bus is right behind it, almost empty.

It's just us late workers on the bus, rolling quiet down Market Street. A woman gets on, she's stooped and seems to have trouble walking, her face hidden under a kerchief. The driver says "No," and a sob rips up from deep inside her, from the soles of her feet, tearing through and shuddering her whole body. She stands - barely stands - her back to us and facing the driver, wordless and heaving.

The driver tells her No again, and he'll have to call the police, get off his bus unless she can pay.

A man has gotten on behind her, he engages the driver, Let her ride, please, just let her ride.

The man has a speech impediment or he's maybe developmentally disabled, his words half-swallowed, but his righteous anger makes him glow.

The woman's sobs crash over us in waves, she's making words now, Please, and Only two stops.

Man and driver still arguing, back and forth, Two dollars, says the driver, and the man puts in money, Two dollars for her, too, and the man stares the driver down, Just let her ride, only two stops, let her ride.

You gonna pay for her, too?

The man shuts his mouth. His eyes are wide, staring at the driver.

The woman sobs. I've cried that way three times in my life. I know that sound. For whatever reason, she believes her world will end if she is forced to walk the two long blocks along Market Street.

I have two dollars. I'm sure I have two dollars, cash, in my purse. I could walk it to the front of the bus and save her. I don't. I don't know why. I could still, but I sit where I am.

The man finds his voice again. Let her ride. And then he puffs up his chest. He's tall, his eyes wide, he says something loudly and I see his hand makes contact with the driver's arm. It looks like just a touch, but now the driver is yelling, saying he'll call the cops, but the man's voice is bigger. Slow down, he says.

Slow. Down. Slow down. I didn't mean to touch you. I'm sorry. But let her ride.

He's wonderful. The driver sees he can't win. Okay, he says, shaking his head. Okay. You're responsible.

He closes the door and the woman's sobs stop. She sits close to the front. Thank you, she says. She turns to the man who stood up for her. Thank you. He nods.

She glances over one shoulder at the rest of us, sitting silent on the bus. She isn't old. She's no more than thirty, if that. She's beautiful. Crazy beautiful. Heart-shaped face, full lips, enormous lavender eyes.

But that face is covered with open sores. Deep, vicious divots the size of quarters. They will scar and never, ever go away. Her hands are swollen, held in close to her chest.

Her eyes flicker over us, then she turns away.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday, 13

Walgreen's isn't open yet; delivery guys are loading boxes through the front door. One guy's shirt collar opens to show a perfect, lipsticked imprint on his neck. A kiss, preserved. It's so pristine I wonder if it's a tattoo.

I'm walking through the park when the fountain comes on. A sudden wall of water. I think this should make me happy, and it does, but in an abstract way. I observe myself being cheered.

One of my neighbors has wind chimes. The wind is sharp this week. The sound of metal on ringing metal is layered above the sounds emerging from the alley below. I don't know where the chimes are; I can't see them when I climb onto the window seat and press my face against the glass.

Today I'm visiting S at Laguna Honda hospital. A man in a wheelchair sits in the community room. He looks as though he may have severe cerebral palsy, like my cousin, my great-aunt. His neck stretched long and his head high against the headrest. His whole face smiles when I say hello as I pass. He lifts his chin as though to nod back at me, as if to thank me for recognizing the man inside. Or maybe I assume too much.

An elderly man in a black leather vest - missing teeth, tattooed arms - carries a bicycle wheel through the hallway.

There are snacks in a side room today. Guacamole and chips, wine and beer. H says she's feeling a little tipsy; she hasn't had wine in years.

"There aren't many of us in here," says a fast-talking man, "but we take up so much more space, with all the wheelchairs." He talks like he's trying to get out as many words as possible while someone is listening.

I hug S goodbye, wave to the others as I leave.

In the elevator, another wheelchair-bound man asks me to push him to the corner. I end up pushing him through hallways and onto a different elevator, through more hallways until we finally find the smoking area, a last patch of sun. He mumbles, his words trailing off to nothing; I keep bending over him to try to catch what he's saying. He asks for a quarter.

A skinny man on his way back inside is stopped by my companion. The skinny man asks him to repeat himself three times before pulling out his pack of Marlboros and handing him three cigarettes, taking a dollar in exchange. Price is up since I was a smoker.

I ask my charge if he'll be okay now. He nods, says something like Yeah, so I leave him in the sun to find my way back. Down the broad steps, onto the train.

A woman on the train carries a tight bouquet of white roses. A kid by the door looks like a hayseed, the arms of his plaid shirtsleeves cut off at the shoulder, threads hanging. I don't know if it's a carefully crafted look or the opposite.

A few steps from my building, a new sculpture has been installed: giant wooden blocks. I want to look for the monstrous toddler who left them here.

Outside my window, the chimes are ringing.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Fallen, Inc.

There is the man in the sandwich board, Revelations in black on white, Fallen, fallen is Babylon. He seems standard-issue street prophet. Tall, thin, bearded, weatherbeaten.

But there, across the street, another man in another sandwich board. A competing philosophy? No, one morning I detour to that side of the street. Identical fonts, identical texts. This man is short and bald, wearing dark aviator sunglasses. He looks more like the driver of the getaway car than a street prophet. Or the man who calmly tells you why the goons are breaking your legs.

I'm oddly disappointed. A lone street crazy with his words of warning carried on his chest is human, full of pathos. But a franchise? How does that even work? They aren't asking for money. They have no literature to hand out. Only a scriptural warning, judgment raining down on the whorish Babylon of San Francisco.

Last week the man across the street was replaced by another short man, this one with brown hair and inoffensive eyes.

Today I see the tall man from the bus. He's conferring with the man in aviator shades. The brown-haired man across the street walks slowly. Is the man in sunglasses in charge? Is he paying the other two to carry his signs?

His face has the jowly, dissipated look of a cut-rate villain in a movie. The type who wears a heavy gold chain around his wrist, who gestures impatiently with his chin, whose smile is more horrible than his accustomed scowl.

But a man can't help his face.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

May day

I catch myself toying with the phantom of my wedding ring. The way I would fiddle with it with my thumb, pushing it up and down the ring finger. The first day I took it off, I couldn't stop worrying at the empty space, and when I got back to my room I put it back on in a panic, sat on the edge of the bed and got my breath back.

It's been over a year since my thumb went looking for the ring. Maybe it's because I wore my mother's ring last night, not on the ring finger, but on the middle finger, right beside it. Mom's ring is large and bold. It suited her long fingers and for a long time I thought mine too short to pull it off, but I like the way it looks now. It is a large glob of silver, pulled into random, organic points around a single pearl. I have to turn it around so the setting is in my palm in order to fit my hand into my pocket.

Yesterday I went to see Nine in Rockridge and I stepped off BART into a residential street. Roses are in bloom, and the smell made my heart cave in a little. I love where I live now, the white ladder I climb into my loft bed, the big window set in the brick wall, my neighbors out at the tender edge of almost making it, but yesterday I wondered if I needed something a little quieter, someplace where I could open the window and hear birds instead of bum fights. I missed, for a moment, my old flat in the Inner Sunset, neglected flower boxes on the lanai, crows bouncing on the power lines, my cats chattering lustfully at the window.

But this morning is bright and warm and people are out on my street. A black man is glorious in a lemon yellow suit, matching hat and shining yellow shoes.
He's talking with his friends, and along comes a giant of a white man, dressed like an extra from The Road Warrior, armored in pieces of tire and leather and steel, a vicious scar along one cheek emphasized with tattooed cartoon stitches. 

"Nice suit, man," bellows the road warrior as he passes the yellow-suited patriarch.

And in only three blocks I'm in the park. They're just finishing the mowing, and I breathe in the smell of cut grass. An elderly man does his tai chi in front of the falling water at the Martin Luther King fountain. Two ancient Chinese women are running, their arms chugging in I'm-running motion, but their feet barely lift from the pavement. I could catch and pass them at a walk.

How many husbands, lovers, children have these women outlived? How many wars, how much self-delusion, how many lies and truths? They doggedly run, one behind the other, turning corners with military precision, every morning they meet to do their run.

Here is where I am now, and maybe I'll live long enough to treasure everything in this moment: my grief, my phantom ring, and all the soft green shoots springing up beneath my feet.

Saturday, May 07, 2011


It's a crazy gorgeous day, sunshine overflowing onto my shoulders and I've walked for miles, up to Coit Tower and down, through Chinatown and along Powell, up Cathedral Hill and down, down into my neighborhood.

I'm only two blocks away from home, among Market Street crowds, I'm texting my friend as I walk. I know, I know, but I'm holding my phone in my left hand, out to the side while I text and then it's bumped from my hand onto the sidewalk. I hear a heavy breath, see shoe slap pavement beside my foot, a hand reach for my phone as I do, it misses, and a voice close to my ear says:


I see his face for a millisecond, then his back, and his friend coming around me from the right, maybe 18 or 19, they are running flat out, cutting through the crowd. I have my phone in my hand again and I'm staring and trying to think what to do. Call 911? Yeah, that'll be their top priority.

They're still in sight, running straight down the block, backpack jouncing on the guy on the right, and some of the tourists are stopped and staring, open-mouthed, and I'm trying to keep them in view, and I think I see them slow down, walking, trying to blend into the crowd, and then they stop at the light.

I am feeling bold and righteous today, and I take some running steps to catch up, I'm maybe thirty feet away and the one on the left has turned to look back and I raise my arm like an avenging angel, pointing my finger at him.

"YOU," I shout, ignoring the people who turn to stare, "You want my cell phone!?"

I am on fire. I'm bearing down on them with speed. I have no idea what I'm going to do next.

His face turns innocent. He points at himself. "Me?"

A kernel of doubt rolls around my brain. Could it be someone different? Could this be just some random guy?

"YEAH," I say, as though there is no need for doubt, as though I am ready to fight him, who cares that he's a foot taller than me, that his friend is half again as wide. I'll take them both.

And then...nothing. It may not be him at all. I have no plan.

I keep walking, passing them, I see a neighbor and tell him what happened as I punch in the code for our building. He tells me this is becoming a common method of snatching cell phones. I say goodbye at my door and put my key in the lock.

My hand is shaking.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don't stop

Homeless man, nestled in the doorway of the copy shop for the night. Flattened Dell box makes a thin cardboard wall between man and street. The news plays on his radio. All I see are his legs, curled up under a thin blanket.

As I pass, he starts to sing. The man's voice over the sound of the radio, clear and younger than I'd expect.

"Don't stop belie-eeving....doo doo dooo

"Hold on to the fee-ee-elin'..."

I can hear my boots echo on the sidewalk as I turn the corner. You and me both, friend.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


It's well after midnight on a Monday night. A police car has driven up onto the brick plaza, one cop on either side of a guy with long blond hair and blotchy red cheeks. The hair looks like a wig, parted in the middle and straight curtains on either side. The blotches might be scrapes, or sores. I want to look more closely as I pass, but it's rude to stare. An arrest feels oddly personal.

I'm stopping for a quick snack; dinner was missed. The only choices this late are Donut World and Carl's Jr. I don't want doughnuts. The man in front of me orders loudly, startling me, but the guy behind the counter only blinks. He sees it all, at the Civic Center Carl's Jr.

Outside on the plaza, a man is pressure-washing the pavement. It's not one of those tiny wands; it's a wide-open hose, and the man leans into it like a Laurel & Hardy bit. He leans forward, held up by nothing but the force of the water.

Something about his hat, the high-visibility suit, his calm eyes - he looks like he belongs on the Mongolian steppes.

I watch him slowly wrestle the hose from one spot of pavement to another. I'm envious. He begins his work with filthy pavement. He turns on the water and makes it clean, washing away the pieces left behind by the masses of people: dead skin, vomit, hair, excrement, food, all of it, clean as the day the world was born.

The best job I ever had was washing pots at a restaurant. I came in early in the morning and worked my way through the stack of pots, sunlight streaming in the back door, music on the radio, me and the pots, each one moving through my hands until it shone on the rack.

This is a beautiful thing, just this: begin with something soiled and make it clean. Reset. Start over.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Uncle Stan

Like me, he was the youngest of the siblings. Like me, he was the black sheep. I don't remember a time when I didn't have a crush on Uncle Stan. Long legs in jeans, cowboy boots, mustache just clearing the corners of his mouth. Must have been six feet, more. In my imagination, Uncle Stan is a giant.

I was pouring drinks for a guy the other night, and he told me about his boss. He said his boss was like Steve Jobs, he carried around with him a reality distortion field. And if you were in range, you'd fall right in, you believed anything he said.

Uncle Stan had a reality distortion field. Though his range might have been smaller than Steve Jobs', it was no less potent for those in its path.

I remember Uncle Stan's trailer parked out front of our house. The little door in the back, the two rickety steps up, Stan's mobile bachelor pad. He smelled like cigarettes and occasionally alcohol, although I didn't know it at the time. I only knew his breath was thrillingly scandalous in a culture that neither drank nor smoked.

But about that distortion field: Stan had a scheme, an idea. Uncle Stan always had a scheme. Rumors of having been a bounty hunter. He had a ceramic duck in his trailer. Uncle Stan with the ceramic duck in his hands, he lifts the head, and it's a lid! The ceramic duck is a soup tureen! Uncle Stan described a restaurant with hundreds of these ceramic ducks, the old ladies would go nuts for them. A theme restaurant, all about home cooking, country cuisine.

I believed in Uncle Stan's restaurant, with the ceramic ducks. I believed in Uncle Stan. Married seven times, I think. Twice to the same woman. The distortion field worked on them as well. For a while.

Uncle Stan, why do I love you so? I never lost that six-year-old hero worship, born when you helped us rescue the baby jackrabbit after our cat ate its mother. The jackrabbit died, but it wasn't your fault. You'd moved on.

I love you even after you got Grandpa to sign the ranch over to you. After you let it fall into mud, after you sold it to a stranger who presumably took possession after you died. I love you in that heartsick way when I hear about the ranch turned to mud and ruin. The ranch where my mom grew up, before you. The ranch that made my summers summer, where I picked corn and strawberries, where I crept into the henhouse and slid my hand under the fluff of a hen for the warm egg. Where my brothers killed rattlesnakes, coming home like heroes, rattler corpses hanging on sticks.

Ranch of my heart, my paper plate art on the wall in the men's bunkhouse, Reader's Digests from the '40's in the rock house, the fire and Grandpa worrying a toothpick, his head tremoring lightly.

The last time I saw Stan, he sat in front of the fire like Grandpa, his long legs extended to absorb the warmth. A toothpick worrying his mouth.

There's nothing left of the ranch, my brothers warn me not to even go there, it's too depressing. Nothing left, they say. Not even Grandpa's hybrid corn stalks, growing black and blue and red kernels for festive popcorn.

After Grandma and Grandpa died, Stan went missing. His ex-wife stopped by, worried she hadn't heard from him. She found his body on the property, a bullet in his head. There were whispers of suicide, even murder, but the inquest found it was an accident. He'd rested his shotgun against the fence when climbing over, it fell, it went off. He should have known better.

Uncle Stan's Vietnam buddies threw him a wake. They made him a wreath of barbed wire and sunflowers. Sunflowers, like the ones that grew above my head, nodding down at me as I ran through the fields at the ranch.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I've had the flu. The transition to freelance is a bitch. I should be copyediting. I should be updating my website, facebook. I should be working on the database. The dishes/laundry/housework need doing.

I've been trained well in a sense of obligation. Not so good at execution, but I wear my guilt like a cape, a superhero of self-recrimination. Like it makes a difference.

Ask me what is the most important thing I could be doing right now, and my answer is writing. So why are so many hours of my day spent doing anything but? Because I have no looming deadline. Because nobody is tapping a foot, waiting for the next chapter of my novel. Because other little tasks push in, promising a bubble of effort and then it's done. And then I can write. But another task is behind the first, and then another, like needy children.

Because of the fear. Because I didn't get a Stegner fellowship. Because I look over my novel in progress, the best thing I've written to date, and it wasn't good enough to get me a Stegner. Because the suspicion wells up that I'm fooling myself, hearing only what I want to hear, that I'll never be good enough. Because I make the awful mistake of reading other writers write about writing, and I think, if I'm not doing that, maybe I'm not a real writer.

I picture a crowd of people focused on me, expecting something. Expecting perfection, greatness. A perfect copyedit. A perfect database. A perfect girlfriend, hostess, friend. A perfect novel.

But that's just ego. Nobody gives me that much thought, nobody expects perfection.

I have to get outside, be in the crowd, see other people being the heroes of their own stories, and then it all quiets down. Let ego and the thousand tasks float away in their bubbles and I can come back to what matters. And then the words flow.

The bus driver with her newly-waved hair falling over her shoulders. The woman in office wear, carefully carrying a paper plate of food covered with another paper plate. The man on a bluetooth headset talking exuberantly, stepping out from every curb, waiting for the light to change so he can hurry across the street, light on his feet as a dancer. Where I am anonymous, my eyes as big as the block, the city, the whole world, seeing everything I can.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fallen, fallen

I see him in the mornings as I'm walking. He wears a sandwich board that carries the quote from Revelations: Fallen, fallen is Babylon.

The man in the sandwich board and the middle-aged people doing their morning tai chi in the park. A second group uses fans, the sound as they whip them open like a flock of monstrous birds clapping their wings in unison.

Two young women cling to each other in their walk-of-shame party dresses, tiny skirts and teetering, golden heels. Across the street two Mormon missionaries - about the same age as the girls - the boys' cheeks fresh, they seem happy to be here, walking past the sex club, the homeless men lying on the sidewalk, shirts slid up to warm their bellies in the sun, one with his hand tenderly down the front of his pants.

God damn it, you’ve got to be kind, my man Vonnegut whispers, and I try to climb inside the people I pass, to find the human center.

The man making broken, crazed cat's cradles asks for change, can't I give him something, anything? He looks healthy, lucid, young, capable of caring for himself, so why does he insist, why push for something from me?

I don't know. I don't know if he might be as unmapped as the strings in his hands, beaten and hungry in ways I can't see. Can I forgive him, the girls in their shoes worth more than my monthly rent, the hipsters laying out a picnic in the middle of the busy sidewalk, the pushy tourists with their Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags?

Does it matter?

I'm in my neighborhood now. The man walking in front of me steps on his right leg and the knee buckles out to the side. An old break that was badly set. My grandfather had the same limp, the same awful buckle that made me cover my eyes and peek between my fingers.

I shake my head at the man selling Street Sheets, but he calls after me as I pass, Thank you for the smile, he says. Thank you.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Reply to a Craigslist missed connection

Kaitlin (caitlin?) from **** - m4w - 22 (downtown / civic / van ness)

I was the bearded guy that really liked beer. you were pleasant. :)

Dear bearded beer-lover,

I wish there had been Craigslist when I was your age. Back then, I met someone or I saw them once and maybe never again. Our eyes would meet across tables in the library, and for weeks I would carry the heat of that look in my head, straining to see him just one more time.

I did answer a classified ad, in the campus alternative newspaper: Male Agnostic Seeks Female of Similar Disbelief. Agnostics were a rarity at Brigham Young. We met, we drove to Pasadena to meet his family, we stayed at an empty friend's house on the beach. We blew bubbles that landed and popped on our naked skin. I don't remember how it ended. He wrote great letters.

When I was your age, 22-year-old boy, you were barely born. You were pushing your way out of your mother's belly and into the world.

I think I remember you. Do you know how many bearded boys I poured beer for that weekend? But I remember asking to see your ID, remarking that beards didn't fool me. Even so, you looked a bit older than twenty-two. You circled back more than once for a refill.

Or were you the one who asked for one big beer?

Either way, dear boy, I thank you. Your words covered me in sunshine, and I imagined another life, where I was twenty-two years old, now, in San Francisco.

What a blaze I'd cut through this city.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The International Art Museum of America

The International Art Museum of America has opened its doors. It is on my block, just down from cherry-red suits, long jackets and matching banded hats in the men's clothing store and the Marinello School of Beauty. Already the front windows have been tagged, etched for permanence, for a place in history.

The International Art Museum of America is Doric columns and gold leaf, a wide, shining lobby. The windows that face on the street open on a jungle scene, a Disneyland fantasy of fake moss and plastic huts, one wall covered in jungle photo wallpaper that reminds me of a neighbor's basement in Utah. The forest wallpaper behind the ping-pong table. I can see seams between the sheets of paper.

Beyond and through the jungle I glimpse more white columns and the corner of a heavy gold picture frame. Another window sends back a mirror image of me, looking through the glass, tiny and lost in a block-deep jungle.

My neighbors totter by in varying states of lucidity. A woman with ruddy cheeks jumps back visibly, shocked by the scene through the glass. She turns and I see she's only a girl, her head loose on her neck in a way I recognize, white-knuckling her way to ageless and burned out like the girl with the tattooed Raggedy-Ann face, the outline of a grin that fools you into thinking she's smiling.

Like the girl who wears the night before in the shape of a red, swollen eye. The eyeball itself looks damaged, hanging the wrong way in her face, but she greets a friend like it's nothing at all, Hey Boo, what's up, huh?

The International Art Museum of America is closed as I walk by. A neighbor from my building smiles and says Isn't it wonderful? I tell him it looks like an amusement park. He says, I don't know what it is, but I want to visit!

Is it a sign of things to come? Is money lapping at our shores, the wave rolling up from Powell, washing clean the streets? The International Art Museum of America, then Twitter, and it's only up from here, my junkie neighbors pushed out and richer, whiter people moving in.

And will rents rise so I'm pushed out with the rest? Will the line fall above or below me?

The International Art Museum of America doesn't care where my neighbors go, some other neighborhood, filthying up their sidewalks. But they're tenacious here, they've held on through more urban renewal projects than this, and they might hold on still.

A man with matted hair and one bare, filthy foot, leans in toward the "wooden" hut behind the glass. A shining line of drool hangs unbroken from his lip to the sidewalk below.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A certain delight

I glance out the window as I leave the apartment and see sunshine, sunshine, and then a quiet shhhhh and a curtain of rain is falling, the shhhhhhhh like a whispered secret, thundering into my heart.

I step outside and see tiny white pebbles popping into being on the sidewalk. Not rain, then. Hail.

Rain and hail, and I squint at my weather widget in the middle of the night, at the graphic of snowflakes, the temperature in the '30's. I never see the rumored snow, but it's cold and wet, rain in sudden drops, over in moments.

At the bus stop, a man smiles wide, It's so cold! he says. Yes! says the woman beside me. And the rain!

We seem to take a certain delight in the sideways weather. We smile at each other from beneath our umbrellas, hats, hoods.

It's evening, and I'm helping at the opening of an art show. I'd expected a small crowd, San Franciscans are easily put off by bad weather. But I'm pouring drinks as quickly as I can, more people appearing, shaking off the rain.

At one end of the bar a man turns, and I see his face: Jello Biafra. J. gets him a beer before I can hop to it, and he disappears.

It's late, the art crowd is putting on their layers and slipping out the door, and there goes Biafra. I pout, and my friends shoo me down the hall. He hasn't left yet, they say.

He's at the door, and I'm one of those fangirls, but I have to thank him. Your music kept me sane when I was a kid, I tell him. He remembers the last show I saw him play, in Seattle, during the WTO riots. They'd closed off downtown but kept open a route for people with tickets to the concert. Helicopters overhead, tear gas, craziness outside, but inside it was Biafra with the WTO Band. It felt like an ark in a storm, and we didn't want the show to end, the lights warm, the crowd surfing the tide of music and adrenaline, the brotherhood of protest. We believed we could change the world. The world changed us, but sometimes I can still find that belief. The Egyptians changed their world, and the inspiration is catching. It's spread all the way to Wisconsin.

I'm glad you kept your hair gray, says Biafra, on his way out into the night.

It's after two when we lock up and head home. The rain has stopped, lights shining on wet streets.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's Sunday and still no post

I can bring myself to the writing the way you drag yourself to do the dishes, one after another, the water flowing over a bowl, a plate, sun is shining in behind you and the sound of the water becomes a song, you had only meant to clean one or two but now the rhythm has you, you are wiping down the empty counter, dishes stacked and dripping dry, order restored, a little space opened up in your apartment, a space in your head where you can breathe and see a scrap of horizon.

If I tip my head to the right and shake it slightly, out falls the woman with the black leather eyepatch and upright 'fro, sunshine cutting down the north side of Market, the man on the bike arguing with the guy from the store that sells cheap Giants t-shirts and Raiders hats. The store guy demands his money, and the man on the bike, his mouth full of sandwich, replies, If you want to make a claim against my estate...

From him to my morning run, past the store with its doors open and drop cloths and ladders and two men in white coveralls with paint rollers, past another runner and a morning-shifter with his lunch in a paper bag. The guy in street-person clothes: layers and layers, short over long and all mud and dark colors. He startles at the sound of my feet slapping pavement behind him, his shoulders relaxing when his eyes dial in. It's still pitch black in the canyon of downtown, but when I get home, the sky is pale out my window.

It's been early spring for a week, and a girl in a pink, one-shouldered sundress steals my breath. I watch her where she sits in the cafe, her bare feet jiggling over her flip-flops, wide mouth open and smiling at what she reads, her awareness of her own beauty, bare shoulder an aching reminder of better worlds hidden somewhere in her curling hair, in the blades of grass outside.

The sun has shone and I've worn skirts and walked until I was browner than a week in Mexico, but tomorrow the rain is back. Tomorrow is Monday, and work, and maybe dishes, maybe a morning run along shining wet sidewalks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

All the Saints

You want to whisper here. The ocean roar and clash of waves on sand seem to bracket deep silence, set it off. You look up and down the beach. White sand, water shining green at the edge of the beach then dropping off to blue-black. The Peligroso sign shows a pictogram of a person tumbled in the trough, beaten down by wave after wave.

White sand, water, footprints, but no people. Miles in either direction, and no human beings aside from you.

A geyser of water shoots up, then disappears. You look and look, your eyes awake, your whole self looking, and there it is again. Now you see the blow hole, a great round mouth in the water, the whale sighing and huffing, its shining back sliding just above the surface. Then the tail, unmistakable. Distances and sizes difficult to judge. The tail may be as wide as I am tall.

It's this easy: wade in the surf, lie in the sun, watch the whales who like to play in the deep waters just off this beach.

A few days ago, off a different beach. A boat full of people, music playing, people in polo shirts who are paid to make us jolly. Someone sights the first spout, shouting, leaning over the railing, finger pointing toward blank water. Another spout, another, and the boat gives chase, the volume turned up on Beyonce, Celine Dion. Another tourist boat beside us, several smaller ones. Ahead of us a ridiculous pirate ship, "sails" furled and unmoving, its motor gunned.

A polo-shirted boy tells us to pose and smile, and we do, bemused. He works his way through the crowd, switching English to Spanish, pumping his fists to What a Wonderful World.

More spouts and a tail, and then a leap. The great mammal is up and out of the water just off our prow, showing us his belly, polo shirts cheering and cameras clicking.

We keep up the chase but it's all anticlimax after that. The bartender stands ready but we're all here in recompense for sitting through a time share presentation only to say no. We don't want anything that isn't free.

Back to shore and disembarking, a polo shirt tries to sell us the photo of the breaching whale, already printed and glossy, instant postcard.

The time share salesman told us over breakfast how the whales used to come in closer to shore, but we chased them out to sea. Now the boats find them in their breeding grounds and how long before we've chased them away from there as well? He shrugs and swallows his coffee, and when he stands he's all sales, beckoning us to follow as he trots through the resort.

Nobody chases them here. Here I want to whisper, it's so quiet, the sound of the ocean dropping away when I am up and over the dune. It's afternoon and a few people appear. A family, mom and kids watching from the dune, dad playing out his fishing line along the beach. A wakeboarder and his friends, the body of a young god. I think about Death in Venice while he runs with taut attention for a wave. It doesn't matter that he's not all that good, one long arm reaching to catch himself in a fall.

We turn and clamber up the tiny mountain path and through the break in the fence, balancing on rocks and then it's dirt roads and chickens and dogs and kids playing video games under a blue tarp and men moving a boulder, one looking up as we pass and he laughs, inviting us to laugh with him.

At lunch I point out the nativity scene at the other end of the restaurant. We've seen a few Christmas trees still lingering. J. says he doesn't think it's a nativity scene, rather a prayer altar for all the saints, each one meaning something to someone here. I wonder if I should thank the saints for this place, for the quiet that makes me want to whisper, even after I'm home.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Lillian H- was ancient, to my kid brain. Her hair was floss white. She sang in the church choir, her old lady vibrato inspiring endless imitation from my brothers.

I was confused about last names at the time. Her brother lived in the neighborhood, and I took the fact that his last name was different from hers as evidence that she had never married. Her brother was married and had a family and held ice cream socials in his back yard, with homemade ice cream. I never knew if she had been divorced or widowed, but there had been a husband at one time. Mr. H-.

She barely existed for me. Old people seemed hardly human, except for those who fell into the Likes Children category.

Lillian H- did not. To me she was just Old Lady, with old lady vibrato and old lady hair and old lady clothes.

Until she wasn't anymore. I might have been walking home from school, when I saw Lillian H- running down the street. It was autumn.

Apple Avenue ran steeply up the side of the mountain. It was a hard slog to walk up, but you could let gravity take you on the way down, and run. Run to keep up with your feet, run for the fun of it.

Lillian H- was running. This was when I realized she was tall and slender. Not stooped, like so many other elderly women. She was tall and straight. She wore jeans, and her long legs carried her down the hill, her dark gray poncho swirling out behind her. As she passed me, she pulled a leaf from a tree, the branch bouncing back.

Lillian H- was smiling. As though there was nothing better she could imagine than this moment, this run down a steep hill, this leaf in her hand.

In that instant, she was no longer Old Lady to me. It was like a whole room in my head opened up, and I thought: Yes. This is a picture of age I'd never considered before, never knew was possible.

But when my hair is white and I don't exist for anyone under thirty, I won't forget how it feels to run down a steep hill. Lillian H- showed the way.