Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Swaddled in iron grey batting
“Every truth has four corners: as a teacher, I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.” - Confucius
Some of us had headed off to Berkeley in 1971, others to San Francisco State or other parts unknown. But to anyone who launched from our fog-bound nest in Daly City, where we had developed and hatched together – anyone who escaped from that wasteland of ticky-tacky row houses that spread out like an Escher print below us as we looked down from Skyline Boulevard on our way to the City of Lights – anywhere else at all seemed like an exotic locale.
That was the Daly City curse, to be shrouded in a thick, penetrating mist all the days of one’s life, ever cold to the center of our bones, hair frizzed out past all reason, glasses misted over, skin clammy and sporting a pale blue undertone for chronic lack of exposure to sunlight. You could always tell who the Daly City kids were at camp when we got into our swimsuits, skinny, and as grey-complected as the fog that spawned us.
My family owned a brick red, ticky tacky row house – one of those made famous by Malvina Reynolds in her 1962 protest song “Little Boxes” - bought for $11,000 in 1954, right on the crest above the valley that fanned out in a view extending all the way to the Mt. Davidson cross, when it wasn’t obscured by the grey cotton batting. Off to the right was Colma, the town noted in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for being home to more dead souls than living. Colma was composed chiefly of a patchwork of cemeteries – Jewish cemeteries, Greek orthodox cemeteries, Chinese, Korean, Catholic, and pet cemeteries - punctuated by monument shops, mortuaries, Mexican restaurants that were frequented by local gravediggers, and a few dangerously rickety houses. A favorite Saturday late night activity was to meet at the Chinese cemetery with a bottle of peppermint Schnapps and drink the night away. Other than that, the entertainment center of Colma was the bowling alley, occasionally patronized by local celebrities of a dark and stormy nature, including Hells Angels and small time Mafia figures, who shall by all means remain nameless, and us.
In my corner of the fog-bound nest, there were three of us. First, there was Bob, a hyperactive, muscular, wild haired, green-eyed, freckled French Catholic, thrown out even from Riordan, the bad boys’ Catholic school (St. Ignatius was for the intelligentsia, Sacred Heart for the solid middle class). He was a smoker, which marked him as a rebel, and he could make perfect smoke rings that would drift upward like Mobius strips, holding together despite gravity, by disjointing his jaw like a snake.
Bob’s father, an alcoholic, had been killed in a car accident when Bob was eleven. He was drunk, and had been driving home from picking up Chinese food. Moo goo gai pan was spread all over the front seat when they found the car pointed the wrong way on Alemany Boulevard, Bob’s father thrown out onto the asphalt. His mother had remarried another alcoholic who maintained a quiet, yet incipiently violent, distance from Bob and his four brothers and sisters.
Bob and I went to Berkeley together, him with the higher SAT scores, me with the higher grades. Mr. Ratto, our high school counselor, had told Bob flat out that he was not Berkeley material. “Don’t waste your time,” he said. “With those grades and your attitude, you’re kidding yourself.” Two nearly perfect scores later, he was handily admitted to Cal, and we headed off in the same direction.
Then there was Graham. Graham was arguably the handsomest boy in school, with almond shaped eyes and a white hot grin that won him Best Smile in the year book, even though I’m sure the only date he had in four years was with me. He had a thick, straight thatch of hair that he would toss back to reveal the widow’s peak on his forehead. He was painfully shy, and occupied his time with photography, Camus, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and making steel drums out of oil barrels for Joe Morello. Morello was the drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and gave Graham drum lessons in exchange for the squatty instruments, each one a unique inverted sea turtle of a drum, invoking with its tinny, muted sounds images of a sun-washed Jamaican block party.
Graham was obsessed with finding exactly the right barrels. When he found one, he would first wail away at it, working his right arm into a near state of extinction hammering out the bowl, and then finagle one of his friends, usually Bob, to drive him down to the beach (Graham wouldn’t learn to drive until he was at least thirty) so he could set the thing on fire. He would sit for hours on end with a wooden mallet and a nail punch, imprinting the segments on the turtle’s back, then tuning each pentagon or rhombus or hex until the full spectrum of notes was latent there. Morello, once a master drum maker himself, was going blind and could no longer get around. So he taught Graham everything he knew.
Graham’s mother was an alcoholic, and channeled the mother character played by Joanne Woodward in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds” to a T; Bob was the first one to notice this fact. Graham’s father would sit all day on their cracked vinyl fold out sleeper next to a load of unfolded laundry – we used to wonder if it was always the same load of laundry, or a different load each time – playing the mandolin, while Gerri went further and further into outer space, finally pacing and screaming and blubbering about Jack’s wasted life and his spineless lack of manhood. Jack just kept right on playing the mandolin, although as the years passed he upgraded to the mandola.
One night, when I was at Graham’s in the middle of making Gerri’s special fried rice recipe and Gerri was on her second tall plastic tumbler of Carlo Rossi, my mother called to tell me that our house had been broken into and vandalized. Being a generous soul and not one to ever miss the excitement, Gerri insisted on driving me home. Miraculously, we arrived unharmed, and Gerri, still holding the tumbler of Carlo, fell up the narrow stairs of our ticky tacky row house to survey the scene of the crime. Every wall was smeared with raw egg and studded with bits of shell, the green and white velour sectional covered with ketchup, the mantel clock broken and stopped at 2:00 in the afternoon when the culprits had likely been there doing their dirt, our dachshund still sleeping off the package of hot dogs he had been fed to keep him busy. My father, frozen, stood nonplussed in the middle of it all. The police had just arrived, and my mother was mechanically telling them everything she knew, which was mostly just that she had come home to a wide open front door and a sleeping dog, and destruction. What happened before that was a mystery.
Then, spotting my father, Gerri came into her own. “You spineless excuse for a man, you limp piece of s--- nothing, standing there while your wife handles everything. Isn’t that just like a man, you’re all the same, you disgusting b---s--- piece of c--- son of a b----. . .” Expletives deleted. After all, it was the '70's.
In those days they worried less about drinking and driving. And that’s how Gerri came to be given the bum’s rush out the front door by the law that night, stewed to the gills, winding up in the iceplant on Skyline Boulevard just south of Joe’s of Westlake. We think she was headed out for a bite to eat since I never got to finish making the fried rice. When the police found her there, they dusted her off, led her around the divider so she was pointed in the direction home, and sent her on her way. Although Gerri never came to call at my parents’ house again, she always had a kind word for my father after that. But never for Jack.
As for me, my world was governed by a primal fear of life itself. My parents had both been abused as children, then abandoned to fend for themselves. Yet, in the end, they had landed on their feet anyway, and in each other’s arms. They weren’t even alcoholics, like their own fathers had been. And so their experience had told them that a person best forges a good life alone, by one’s own self, unfettered by the love or attention of an interfering parent, or even by a child; and that the world is a dangerous place, where children should be kept safe at all costs. As a result of their custom-made worldview, I grew up not only ignored, but also locked up for my own protection, a depressing combination for me, at best.
I lived and matured in my void of no experience: a hard, narrow, hot vacuum where play and family and neighbor kids and everyday danger should have lived. Home alone, on house arrest. Into this vacuum, empty of skinned knees and snotty noses and friends, fear came to stay with all of its belongings, and didn’t leave my side until one day I decided to drive it away.
Each of us was thusly born from the ovum of our nature and the seed of our experience. Graham, quiet and less adventurous by nature, stayed behind at San Francisco State; and Bob and I flew every day, back and forth, across the wide water to Berkeley, me without my parents’ blessing, still tied to Graham with the loose knots of familiarity. And that is where, in 1971, my airdance to this rooftop began.