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.