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.