Tuesday, December 26, 2006

God's Special Place for White People

Many years ago, God took aside a group of 21.388 white people and told them, "I will grant you a place where you can live in peace. It will be your place, where you can pursue the interests and fulfillments native to you. It will be a precious place, with attractive, early 20th-century architecture and unsurpassed natural beauty.

There you will be free to eat baked goods, to buy clothing made of natural fibers, Gore-Tex and polar fleece. And you will drink only the finest beer, brewed on-site and served by cheerful, clear-skinned and straight-haired young women."

In return, the 21,388 white people were asked only to live by a few golden rules. First, they must be cheerful at all times, except when faced with political ideas unlike their own. The young men must grow interesting facial hair, or remain unshaven for several days at a time. They must wear unusual, whimsical wool hats without irony, and in fact must eschew irony of all kinds.

They must don footwear made not of leather but of nylon, rubber and, often, Gore-Tex. And they will ingest only foods and substances designed to leave them "mellow," and "laid-back," and "having no beef with anyone...except that facist Bush."

And occasionally, if a young white person had wanderlust or the need to sow their oats, rumspringa-like, in a large city, that city would be San Francisco, California, Portland, Oregon, or Seattle, Washington. Perhaps Denver, Colorado. But never Los Angeles, California.

And finally, they must agree to be proactive in spreading the message of enlightened whiteness native to them. They must create posters, hold protests and politically conscious events designed to educate the peoples of the world, well, actually, the peoples of the U.S. unfortunate enough to have been brain-washed by unholy forces beyond their control.

The 21,388 white people agreed to God's parameters and were welcomed into their special place. And that place was called Ashland, Oregon.

Occasionally, travelers would stop in Ashland, Oregon, on their way to the larger cities in the North. There they would be welcomed by the denizens of Ashland, Oregon, as long as they did not try to bring their dogs into Ashland's precious coffee shops. If they were to try to do that, they would be shunned by the white people working cheerfully at the coffee shop, even as they tried in vain to argue that the sign outside said not that dogs were not allowed in the coffee shop, only that they must remain on leashes upon entering the coffee shop.

Quickly realizing the futility of their argument, the suede-wearing, ethnic interlopers would then nod sadly and remove their dog to the chill outdoors. They would then tie the dog up to an attractive, circa 1900 park bench placed outside the coffee shop, where the dog would longingly stare through the window as the interloper bought his hot chocolate, doing his dog-like best to ignore the bearded young men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes a few feet away.

Thus put in his place, the interloper would then get a second chance from the very fair white people working at the coffee shop. After patiently waiting his turn behind a very clean-looking young family refilling their stainless steel coffee cups, then shifting from leg to leg and nervously looking out the window at his impatient dog while the young white woman working at the coffee shop discusses local happenings at great leisure with the clean-looking family, the faintly ethnic-looking interloper would politely order his beverage, trying to seem more than interested, no, actually understanding and empathetic as the young white woman explains her sudden bout of deja vu, which has been happening to her more and more lately, and still kind of freaks her out, even though she understands that it is the result of a scientific process, not any kind of mystical reminder of past experiences.

And though the interloper wants only to get his beverage, without whipped cream, and return to his dog outside, he will nod in understanding and offer his own opinion about recurring dreams, never having heard them referred to as "filing systems" nor having the slightest interest in the experiences of other Ashland, Oregon residents whose recurring dreams turned out to be actual foreshadowings of real-life events.

Eventually, the slightly ethnic-looking and normally impatient interloper would be sent on his way, full of understanding that the personal freedom of the other white woman working in the coffee shop required that she add a large pile of whipped cream to his hot chocolate, perhaps because the hot chocolate would be unable to completely express its innate hot chocolateness if it were to be served without whipped cream.

After all, once someone has educated you in the organizational ways of the human brain, who are you to argue that a hot chocolate can be adequate without whipped cream?

It is a type of paradise, and without question the best place to stop overnight on the Bataan death march that is I-5 between San Francisco and Seattle, not depressing like Grants Pass and Roseburg, and full of clean enlightened white people, not dirty enlightened ones like you'll find in Eugene. And consider that while the white populace of Ashland, Oregon may be annoying, they are certainly far less likely to find your wallet and then rush to Stater Brothers to spend $480 than the angry, frustrated residents of Lancaster, California.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bad Jobs No. 2

The original plan was to come back to Orange County after graduation and get a place on the beach. Nothing beyond that. I'd get some kind of job, but I had no idea what kind. Something where you sit in an office and dress nice.

With all of this in mind, I probably shouldn't have been too surprised when that particular dream fell apart. I had decided in my mind that I would get this beach house with Uncle Sam, fellow Santa Clara Class of '87 grad and OC kid, and supposed that merely hinting at this was enough to cement the deal.

It wasn't.

The place we found was right next to the Newport Pier, on the sand. Uncle Sam and I measured the distance to the water: 117 steps. But then, suddenly, Uncle Sam had other commitments, which reminded me of the folly of this particular plan. It was never designed to work, because it'd never gotten past the "wouldn't it be cool" stage of development. And so we moved on.

The white liberal arts cliche is Europe following graduation. It usually comes inspired by the semester spent abroad, learning how to smoke, junior year. I'd been an Resident Assistant my junior year and went nowhere except back to Santa Clara, and smoking was my mom and dad's vice, not mine, and besides, Prague hadn't happened yet. So I really had no reason to go to Europe.

My sister, Noodles' Mom, had been in Australia the previous year, and had loved it. And it was already August. Fall and Winter in Europe could be so cold. It would be Spring and Summer in Australia. Plus, my mom had begun appearing at the foot of my bed each morning and bellowing, "HAVE YOU GOTTEN A JOB YET?"

That cemented it. I sold my Tercel, put Newport Beach in the rearview, bought an open-ended plane ticket and left from LAX in late August, 1987.

Understand now that the Lefty presented to the world today isn't quite the same as the one on display in 1987. This was almost twenty years of hard knocks ago. I still had some strut.

Two months into my trip, I strutted into Tully, Queensland with Rick "The Sponge" Soukup, of Des Moines, Iowa and the University of Tulsa. Infatuated with the idea of going native, and completely forgetting who I am, I'd let Soukup talk me into becoming an illegal alien, er, "undocumented worker." We got jobs on a banana plantation in Tully, a small town near the coast.

I listened to and trusted Rick even though the previous week he had swooped in and stolen Soibhan, this English girl, that I was trying to impress by playing "American Pie" on my guitar on the porch outside my cabin at the Jungle Lodge in Cape Tribulation. It was midnight, and I had just hit the verse where the marching band refused to yield when Rick, who I'd been hanging out with for a week, walked up to us, leaned over and whispered something in Siobhan's ear and off they went. I sat there, guitar in hand, friendship bracelets quaking with wannabe rage.

Still, I thought, how great to be here in the jungle and have Rick Soukup, University of Tulsa wide receiver, walk right up and throw a big wrench into your efforts at seducing an Englishwomen. How great to be in the jungle trying to "American Pie" your way into an Englishwoman's heart. How great to cast your lot with a girl named "Soibhan." Twenty-two years old, long hair, hoop earrings, a bunch of Greatful Dead (did I misspell it? Good.) bracelets up and down both wrists, Chuck Taylors and big green Army surplus shorts. I was at least 500 miles from the nearest person who could tab me instantly as a pampered Jewish prince, I thought.

But you know, as I have said myself on many occasions, being a Jew means you can run but you can't hide. More accurately, being a pampered Jewish prince means you can run, but you can't hide ... from yourself.

Rick and I rode the last 50 miles into Tully lying in the back of a pickup truck, playing guitars and inhaling the sweet smell of sugar cane burning off the fields. Rick Soukup was a good influence. We got to Tully, called the guy at the banana plantation and rented a trailer.

To digress, my infatuation with blue collar drinking establishments is near legendary. However, my inability to engage with actual blue collar guys without stammering, sweating and then later making rude remarks about them to my friends continues to dog me. So it was with life as an illegal alien. The romance wore off the minute I stepped into the trailer.

It was a small room, one actual bed and a big foam slab. The windows barely opened, which was okay because that at least kept the flying cockroach population in check. As it was, Rick Soukup had a parlor trick we used on visitors. "Go ahead, open any drawer. I guarantee you'll find three cockroaches in it. One ... two ... three!"

There we landed, excited at the next chapter of our adventure. Rick Soukup had already picked tobacco in Western Australia, but I was a complete neophyte. I had no idea what to expect, but was already a little miffed to find that our work day began at 6 a.m. Soukup quickly dropped off to sleep, leaving me with my Walkman playing a cassette of Echo and the Bunnymen, reading "Portnoy's Complaint," trying to fall sleep.

The banana plantation completely takes care of you. A "combi-van" arrives at the trailer park, right outside the store where you can buy peanut butter and jelly, to take you to the field. Our "combi-van" was a Toyota van, one of the pioneering minivans of its day. It was white and had 8 seats, plus the combined body odor of 15 field workers who don't bother to shower because why shower? You're going to be covered with banana sap within minutes, anyway.

The Jewish prince was horrified. Despite my Che Guevara-esque rhetoric and aged, often bartered-for clothing, I was not all about B.O. and broken jump seats in Toyota vans. Especially not at 6 a.m. And I didn't appreciate the fact that my PBJ contained raspberry jam, the closest thing the trailer park store could approximate to my beloved grape jelly.

A half hour later, we arrived at the plantation. Keith, our foreman, showed up. He was a "POM" (Prisoner of Mother England), he told us, a cheerful, straw hat-wearing, moustache-cultivating guy who assigned us jobs. Something about Rick Soukup screamed enthusiasm and competence, so he was assigned to the fields. Something about me whispered lazy wannabe, so I was led to the packing shed -- not really a shed, more of a covered, open-air carport of sorts -- where I would make boxes, hand them to the women who packed the bananas, then carry the now-full boxes onto pallets. I would do this over and over until lunch, then lie alone and brood for an hour because who wants to talk about cricket and pretend like it's baseball when actually the guys wear white v-neck sweaters to play, then go back and make and carry boxes until quitting time?

Six thousand years later, Keith came back to the shed and told us to shut down for the day. Exhausted, Rick Soukup and I retreated to our trailer, where we made a very long list of slang expressions for breasts and reminisced about fraternity parties we'd gone to.

The other workers, we later learned, went into town and drank Australian beer until they passed out. They did this six days a week, somehow making it back to the fields in time for the next day's work.

One day, I overheard Ron, a guy probably in his early-30s, talking about how he'd curbed his drinking. "I used to really go at it," he was telling everyone at lunch. "Now I just drink 6 or 7 a night, and then a case on the weekends." But Ron was a nice guy, which naturally was impossible for me to notice at the time.

I hated the boxes. I hated the combi-van, the B.O., our trailer. I hated everyone in the shed. People tried to be nice to me, but I was too full of just-graduated from a private college arrogance to notice. I just stood there, complaining to myself, unable to fathom how these people could not only continue to work in this packing shed but also not see that I was getting killed over here.

Bananas rolled down the belt in waves as I struggled, Lucy Ricardo-like, to keep up. I was the sorcerer's quasi-hippie apprentice, shaking my then-fashionable mullet out of my face as I feverishly assembled boxes.

I started reading Hemingway at lunch. I hate Hemingway now, and frankly hated him then, but I wanted to make sure that the lowly field workers knew that I was American intellectual slumming it to get some real-life experience.

If I had a time machine, I'd set it for 1987 so I could slap myself.

One day, Rick and I decided to go into town after work to check things out. It was only mid-week, so we didn't bother to shower. If they could stand it, we could stand it. We thought about changing out of our banana-stained shorts and t-shirts, but worried that it might kill our momentum.

When I was 9, my sister, Noodles' Mom, told me to never eat the tip of a banana because that's where Tarantulas lay their eggs. She did not tell me that bananas, when handled by the ton, produce a sap that is as plentiful as it is permanent. One hour at the plantation, either in the fields or in the shed, and you were covered with this sticky, brown banana tar. It was a badge of honor. "That's right, I'm in bananas, just like you."

Into town we trudged. The bar, to our utter shock, was packed. Full of banana guys, in their banana gear, so wasted that they were breathing out of their eyeballs. Fights, off-key singing, terribly clumsy passes made at banana-stained women they'd known all their lives. It was worse than any college party I'd ever seen. How, I wondered, do these people make it back to work every day?

The weekend came, but we decided to work Saturday, to make some real money. We were making about $60 a day during the week. Saturday added another $80.

There we were, a motley duo, Rick Soukup and I, waiting for the combi-van at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. It arrived, a little less packed than usual, and we rode off to the plantation.

About halfway there, we came upon a Jeep turned on its side. It looked just like the scene from the Jungle Cruise, except without the gorillas looking through everyone's stuff.

The combi-van slowed. Then, from behind the van stumbled a field worker named Cono, a younger guy, lanky, with a black beard, who was rumored to be a legendary drunk.

Cono walked up to the now-stopped combi-van in his Blundstone Australian field worker shoes, scratched his head and asked, "Do any of you know if I was driving last night?" Nobody knew. They'd seen him at the bar, but no one knew if he'd been behind the wheel, presumably of the Jeep that now lay on its side. Finally, an older lady who gossiped about everyone at lunch spoke up: "I think young David was driving, Cono, not you."

He seemed relieved, but everyone agreed that it'd be best if he hid somewhere until we could locate young David and check his story. We drove off, narrowly dodging a Kangaroo that had hopped into the road.

I lasted an entire two weeks at the banana plantation. Though I'd caught on enough for Ron to announce, one day, that I was "working like a stromtrooper!" I couldn't shake my deep-seated tendancies toward laziness and unwarranted complaining. One night Rick Soukup told me that someone at the plantation had asked if I was from a wealthy family. I thought it was a compliment.

I gave notice to Keith on Wednesday of my second week. "We'll hate to lose you," he said jauntily. I figured he was lying. I still didn't get it. On Friday, at quitting time, Keith rode up on a tractor and threw me a Foster's. A few of us stood there, drinking our beers next to the packing shed. These people had done their best to ignore the fact that I was an unappreciate little snob, and now, with the benefit of nineteen years to consider it, I'd like to thank them.

That night, completely without warning, this guy we knew, a sweaty, pale New Zealander named Hugh, suddenly appeared at the door of our trailer. He was down to his last $10, and homeless, but his timing was great. He slept on the floor that night, along with the cockroaches, and then took my spot on the giant foam pad the following day.

I left on Sunday, heading into Tully to pick up my paycheck. Because I had thought I was clever, I had told them earlier that my name was Larry Tate, who you may remember was the obsequious, amoral name partner at McMann-Tate, the ad agency that employed Darren Stevens, who really should have figured out that being married to a witch can have a huge upside. I also claimed an exemption for my wife Natalie, as I was a big fan of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs at the time.

I was paid in cash. They gave me an envelope filled with colorful Australian $20s. On the outside of the envelope was written "Michael Pate." I went back to the trailer park and said good-bye to Rick and Hugh. We planned to meet up in a few weeks, back in Sydney. I never saw or heard from them again.

Nineteen years of hindsight later, I figure I dropped the ball badly in Tully. I had a chance to make a break with the princely path I'd taken up to that point, but instead, I whined and complained and got out of there as soon as I could.

After Tully, my Australian adventure went south. I had planned to ride freight trains across the country to see the Australian Grand Prix in Adelade, but instead I just went back to Sydney, got a horrible stomach flu, and cashed in my plane ticket early. It was as if Tully had reminded me that I wasn't a world traveler or a young artist searching for truth. I was a 22-year-old, middle-class English major looking to kill some time before the world got ahold of me and did with me what i wished.

I got back to Orange County in December. It was stil 75 degrees and sunny, but somewhere between Sydney and Santa Ana my OC dream had faded. I didn't know what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I didn't want to live on the beach and work in an office. It would take several months (and two more bad jobs) to get me out of there, but the following August I left Orange County one more time and headed North.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Visit to Another Place

There is a world out there, one that exists parallel to the one in which I live. It is populated by smiling, fresh-faced young women and small-framed, ponytailed men. They all wear green vests.

In this world is an almost endless supply of items that allow us to live life more fully -- kayaks, tents, bicycles. For "Outside" subscribers, it is always Christmas in this world, everything they could want is available, and everyone is on the same page.

I am speaking of the world of REI Co-op, where the Jawa and I went today to return the Thule luggage thing we bought last week. Ours came without the proper number of straps, we thought, and so we loaded into the Volvo -- the appropriate vehicle for REI Co-op -- and went South of Market.

Now come on. Of course I've heard of REI Co-op. I lived in Seattle for 10 years. Until they built their flagship store, the one with the climbing wall inside, REI Co-op was in my neighborhood, on the same block as The Stranger, the local weekly that published my impressions on music. I have been to REI Co-op.

It had been several years, though, and I'd forgotten that REI Co-op exists as a separate world, exempt from time and trends, a place where cargo shorts and trail running shoes are always proper dinner wear.

There is a smell to an REI store. It is a combination of rubber, Gore-Tex, trail mix and wax. It is clean and optimistic, the smell of people who live by the store's motto: "Life is good."

Each store buzzes, as it is full of people outfitting themselves for a weekend of adventure and fun. They may be climbing, biking, windsurfing or camping, but guaranteed they will wake up Monday morning sore. It will be a good kind of sore, though, the soreness of a weekend well spent, a weekend that actually adds years to your life, rather than subtracts them.

There was a time when I could have been an REI kind of guy. The year before I met Sandra Bullock, I dated an REI gal. We rode mountain bikes together, and camped next to her Mitsubishi Mirage. We wore our Nike Lava Domes and played tennis. It seemed like a very clean way to live, and I was suprised at how quickly I not only left it behind but in fact vehemently insisted to Sandra Bullock that I would NOT pursue that lifestyle again.

I'm an indoor guy. We're driving up to Washington on Friday, and everyone keeps reminding me to "stay on the main roads," a reference to the unfortunate and tragic experience of the Kim family, Noe Valley residents who got lost in the snow somewhere between I-5 and 101 in Oregon. Listen to me, people. THERE IS NO WAY I WOULD TAKE THAT KIND OF SHORTCUT.

I don't like wilderness. It makes me nervous. Once I attended a bachelor party held in a cabin near Mt. Rainier. Everyone else went cross-country skiing. Another groomsman and I donned our leather jackets and walked a mile through the snow to get to the nearest bar, where we felt comfortable. I like towns, cities and people. Not isolation. There's stuff that can kill you out there.

Which again is why it's unusual to find myself at REI Co-op, parked among the Subarus with their various luggage racks. Our luggage rack, naturally, was defective.

Or maybe it was me that was defective. Because when the nice young woman in the green vest opened the new Thule rack's box, it also had only 4 straps. That's all the straps you get. Not eight.

So the Jawa and I stuffed the bag into its little storage sack and slinked out of REI Co-op, dragging with us the dirty stench of urban incompetence. There will be no vest in our future.

Poor Sandra Bullock. I can't say that she was sold a false bill of goods, because I made it clear from the start that I was far more comfortable in front of a TV than kayaking down an icy river, but I know that her perfect world would include the occasional trip to REI Co-op, a tent and a Coleman lantern.

She grew up camping, but the one time she talked me into it we had to stay at the state park. It was fine with me, because the state park had bathrooms and was within walking distance of a bar but everytime the subject some up, she says, disdainfully, "We've gone camping once, and it was at a state park." But just as I am incapable of operating power tools, so am I uninterested, and more importantly, incompetent, in the outdoors.

Once we strap that big Thule bag on top of our Volvo and throw our dog in the back, though, who's going to know the difference?

There is a clean, optimistic world out there, operating parallel to my world of busses and dirty alleyways. But I can visit it whenever I want, to get a taste of what it would be like were I slim, outdoorsy and sported a ponytail.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bumps in the Road

Parenting: sometimes it's rewarding, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's pretty easy and everything goes as planned; sometimes, it's all gone Pete Tong.

It was all sunshine and flowers Thursday night, as a very disgruntled me joined Sandra Bullock and the Jawa for the BHDS Hanukkah (get off me; there are a number of correct spellings) celebration.

If it was all sunshine and flowers, why was I so disgruntled? Because I still haven't rebounded entirely from my post-bookfair doldrums, but more because by going I was missing a perfect night of televised sports, courtesy of the NFL's Thursday Night Football package (Niners vs. Seahawks) and your own Golden State Warriors (vs. Houston). So where I would have preferred to be lying on a mound of pillows, watching my local teams, instead I was glad-handing with the other parents.

Parenting is not always easy.

Even the Wine Guy, who normally either avoids school functions or stands warily in the corner, was far more on-board with this particular event. As I should have been. And why? Because the Chanukkah (there, like that one better?) celebration would include the debut of the 4th and 5th grade band's new holiday catalogue of songs. Neither the Wine Guy nor I had ever seen our sons play with the band (his -- trumpet, mine, the oversized saxOphone), so we both should have been excited.

Instead, I obsessively checked my Treo for scores, ignoring, snubbing or being generally unpleasant to anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with me. A few people got a brisk explanation: "I'd rather be at home watching football," but that only made me look like more of a jerk, not less of one.

After a long, overly-ambitious intro to the evening's program by the very nice and very new Head of Judaic Studies -- with ZinGal and I scoffing quietly at her inability to quiet the crowd -- the band finally set up. It took them about 45 minutes, but then the band teacher introduced them, introduced their program, and they tore into "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel."

Parenting is sometimes easy.

On cue, the saxOphones all stood and slowly unfurled their solo. The Jawa was up there in his white shirt, concentrating very seriously on the sheet music in front of him. When the solo ended, they all sat, handing the spotlight to the brass section.

From there, they segued into "Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov," and "Oh Hanukkah, Oh Chanukkah," with the competing levels of precision and adorableness you can expect from 9 and 10 year-olds barely larger than their instruments.

I leaned over to Sandra Bullock, my cheerful and perky wife, and said, "Wow, he's really into this, isn't he?"

This has not been the most stellar year for our Jawa. Fourth grade, his first experience with a male teacher, ongoing run-ins with what passes for a bully in Jewish school and an increasing tendancy to argue his point until we are forced to dole out threats and their accompanying punishments, have made this year something of a shock to both him and us.

We liked it the way it was, when Parent-Teacher conferences were more like coronations, not discussions about poor handwriting, when our child provided daily explosions of cuteness and precocity with which to recount to our friends until they lapsed into boredom-induced comas. The Jawa has hit his first bump in the road, and I'm worried that he may decide that bumps aren't really worth getting over, as long as you've got something to distract you from them, like Pokemon. Or writing in a blog.

Parenting is not always easy.

This week, the Jawa and I will be home together. He will be on Holiday Break and I will be unemployed. I'm a little nervous about how the week will go. Will we spend the entire week arguing about everything? How many times will I stand at the doorway to his room, my arsenal of reasonings, threats, negotiations and suggestions exhausted, as he continues to ignore me and continue doing whatever the heck he feels like doing? Will I completely lose it and rip his Nintendo DS out of his hands, leaving myself standing there trying to figure out how to "save" the Pokemon game he refused to stop playing all seven times I asked him?

Earlier this week, I wrote the first of what I hope to make a series of stories about all of the lousy jobs I've had during my misspent professional life. I mentioned that the 24-year-old guy I've been working with asked my what my favorite job had been, and I answered, "coaching."

Actually, being the Jawa's dad has been my favorite job. It's also the one I'm best at, or was best at, at least. He's not the only one to hit a bump in the road this year.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bad Jobs, No. 1

Tomorrow is the last day of my part-time, temporary job at Sandra Bullock's company. What was intended to be a ten-week assignment lasted six months, but as of tomorrow, it will be over.
With that, it recedes into a long and undistinguished laundry list of jobs, not careers, that I've had since I turned 16 and plunged that scooper into that first tub of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

Earlier this week, I had a dream that I was ironing my khaki pants and white shirt, preparing for another shift at Aqua, a restaurant I worked at in 1992. When I finished, I went outside to find that someone had stolen my car. So I came back inside and saw that someone had also stolen my laptop, and Shack. I went to take a shower and there was no water pressure.

So maybe I'm a little bit worried about losing this job, which had been working out pretty well. I knew that I could be cut loose at any time, that every day I went past the original 10 week schedule could be my last, so I wasn't surprised. And yet I've still spent the past week looking for subtext that would suggest that I was actually being fired due to poor performance. This would make more sense to me than simply having a job's life expectancy run out.

Today I was training a 24-year-old guy to be my replacement, and he asked, "What's been your favorite job?" Unsurprisingly, it took me several minutes before I could come up with an answer. Finally, I mentioned a few seasonal jobs I'd had coaching high school baseball and high school volleyball. I am 41 years old, have two advanced degrees, and that was the best I could do.

If he'd asked me about the worst job I'd ever had, competition would have been much more fierce. Beginning with my first job, two days working as a TV repairman's assistant, the road has not been as smooth as I'd imagined it would be when I was 5 years old and wanted only to grow up and drive a cement truck at West Point. Would that have been regular Army or civilian contractor? I don't know.

I'm not sure where and when the split with a normal career trajectory happened. Maybe my first post-TV repairman job, at Baskin-Robbins #432, created a template I have not since been able to shake.

I got the job because my sister, Noodles' Mom, had worked there. Also, I loved ice cream. Who in my family didn't love ice cream? Unlike the sorbet-inclined Jawa, my family ate ice cream by the half-gallon. During the dark years of 1974-76, when our idyllic small-town Pennsylvania life was crumbling into dust, my dad still made sure that we got Breyer's hand-packed half-gallons at least once a week. Several years later he told me that it was "medicine."

Baskin-Robbins was a middlingly hip job for a sixteen-year-old in my town. Eventually, several people from my high school would work there, but that came long after I'd been dismissed by the owner, Harvey Lucas. The kid from across the street , Lord Vader, worked there too, but he went to the Catholic high school (which he now resides over as school president).

It wasn't a difficult job and it had more cache than working fast food. The only problem was that Harvey Lucas was insane.

Harvey Lucas was probably younger than I am today. I've heard that he still owns that Baskin-Robbins, that he used to own several but had downsized over the years. One of my friends worked for him into his 30s, which we all thought was odd except that this particular friend had somehow stopped aging, both physically and emotionally, when he turned 19. At the time -- 1981-82 -- Harvey owned only the one store, on Tustin Avenue and Walnut, in Orange.

The store sat one spot in from the corner, on which sat a Kentucky Fried Chicken (or was it an Arby's) from which Harvey, or someone associated with Harvey, would spy on us. He wanted to make sure we weren't giving away ice cream (we were), that we weren't being rude to customers (we were), and that we weren't serving scoops that weighed out at more than .16 of a pound (are you kidding?). He also had a spy camera on us, but it was inoperational. I learned that when Joe Sparks flipped it off with both hands one night. There were no repercussions.

The KFC, Baskin-Robbins and a few other stores were laid out around a central parking lot, in which my first girlfriend, Amber, and I would lean against our cars holding hands, after we got off work. That way, my parents would not know I had a girlfriend. Why this was important to me, I don't know. But it was.

My dad was unimpressed by Amber. Maybe that's why I kept the relationship a secret. He thought she was "a dud." He liked Ann Lundquist, who is now a chiropracter with her office a few blocks away from Baskin-Robbins, on Chapman Avenue. Ann Lundquist treated everyone like they were either 10 years old, an idiot, or a 10-year-old idiot. And she loved Garfield. But she had personality, which my dad liked.

On prom night, I drove up to Amber's house in my 1965 Alfa Romeo, impressing her family much more than I would ever impress her. So impressed were they, in fact, that her mother called my mother later that night to drunkenly share her pleasure at her daughter's choice of boyfriend. Or at least that's what I've been told.

I've always liked to think that later, after Amber dumped me in the parking lot of the Orange Mall, her family gave her a long lecture about making good choices.

Speaking of good choices, I'll intellectualize and say that my relationship with Amber killed my burgeoning career at Baskin-Robbins #432. Every week, Harvey Lucas would post the schedule. Then I would go up to the schedule and begin calling people to see if they'd switch shifts with me so that I could work with Amber. Later, when I'd been booted to the curb by both Harvey and Amber, one of the reasons he gave (I heard) was because I'd been changing the schedule.

But we will find, in time, that there were much more nefarious forces at work.

And so it went throughout my Junior year of high school. I put in a few nights at Baskin-Robbins, sometimes having a good time with Lord Vader and the wise-beyond-his-years Mike. I ate ice cream by the barrelful, like everyone else, and even once met a celebrity, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Pat McInally, who became my favorite football player for years afterward.

Sometimes it was good. Sometimes we'd all hang out in the store long after closing, or drive down to the beach and walk up and down the sand until sunrise. Lord Vader and the wizened Mike and I watched the embryonic "Late Night With David Letterman," laughing when we learned that Dave was once married to Lord Vader's cousin.

Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes we'd be raising the roof to a store full of ice cream-craving customers, only to see a familiar Corvette pull into the parking lot, followed by a familiar pair of brown polyester pants, Earth Shoes and a silver velour v-neck striding into the store: Harvey Lucas.

He was disco long after disco had died. He was also Jewish, one of the few Jews then in my life, which made finding my identiy as a Jew nearly impossible. Who wants to be part of this? I thought. Harvey, determined to squeeze the last bit of life out of the Me-Generation, had a young girlfriend: Linda. That she was had a chronically dour expression and worked at the KFC across the way was inconsequential. She was young. And her job gave Harvey the perfect excuse to sit in the KFC and spy on us.

One night I remember giving out sundaes to all of my friends. At that point in my social development, ice cream was capital. I was closing in on mainstream adolescent acceptance, finally, and if I could hasten my social growth by handing out some of Harvey's ice cream to football players and cheerleaders, I was going to do it.

Fortunately, I'd completed my underhandedness before the Corvette pulled up. Harvey got out and went into the Kentucky Fried Chicken to hang out while Linda worked. As he sat there, the tension in Baskin-Robbins #432 grew. Where Lord Vader and I may have played trivia with the gathered masses, we were now subdued. And once subdued, the terrible reality of what we'd sold ourselves at $3.65 an hour to do was starkly outlined.

Imagine a sea of zombified faces holding pink paper "Now Serving!" numbers. They are growing impatient and hungry. To this day, I've never seen expressions as blank as the ones worn by people waiting for ice cream.

Now imagine that you are what stands between the crowd and their ice cream. You can be generous or stingy. You are wearing brown pants and a white, pink and brown striped shirt, plus a brown baseball cap. Your forearms are sticky, covered with ice cream. They smell like sour milk. It could be raining, terrible ice cream weather. And still, they come.

Harvey is sitting at a table in the KFC, watching. He makes no effort to hide his intentions. He can tell, from across the parking lot, if you are doling out heavy scoops. And what if, at that time, a group of your friends comes in? Or your family? How can you explain, while miming the appearance of business-as-usual, that business is anything but as usual, because Harvey Lucas has unfolded his brown polyester pants across a bench at the KFC a hundred feet away?

On this night, I remember, I made a pint for someone. We had to weight the pints, too. I think they were supposed to come out at .90 of a pound, but that doesn't sound right. What I do know is that my pints were usually way over. Call it laziness, hubris, whatever.

So I make the pint and think nothing of it. I couldn't even remember the face of the person who'd bought it. Nothing about their demeanor seemed out of place.

Forty-five minutes later, the crowd had thinned, and we were relaxing, walking around with wet washcloths, pretending to clean the counters. In comes Harvey Lucas with an evil gleam in his eye.

"Did you make this pint?" he asked.

It was at this point that I learned to fear and loathe authority equally. I knew I was busted, but wanted it to be Harvey's fault, not mine.

"Uh...I think so?"

"You think so. I watched you. And it's way overweight."

"Oh, uh, I, uh..."

"If you want to get fired, keep making them this heavy."

With that he smiled, threw a crumpled up pink paper "Now Serving!" number at me, turned and walked out, leaving the pint on the counter.

How different my life might have been had I not overpacked that pint. Or had I been savvy enough to pick out Harvey's spies from the crowd. Maybe my later run-ins with bosses -- strangely enough, often named "Dave" -- could have been avoided.

Or if I had been someone other than me, someone capable of feeling contrite, able to apologize to Harvey and then toe the line afterwards, I would now be speaking to you from a CEO's chair.

Unfortunately, I am me. This is the sad conclusion I must face every time a bad job falls apart. Instead of bowing to the pressure, realizing that I had to keep my job, not only for money but for the guaranteed time with Amber, I took a defensive position.

Embarassed, sweating and worried, I loudly proclaimed that I would now ALWAYS over-pack my pints. I would serve scoops DOUBLE the size specified in the training manual, and I would give away ice cream to family, friends, cute girls, marginal professional athletes and anyone else who happened to catch me in a generous mood. Screw Harvey Lucas, his Corvette, his velour v-neck sweater and his growing empire of Baskin-Robbins stores.

Amazingly, it took a few months to catch up to me. Harvey was after me, I knew that, but I managed to stay out of his way. Post-work hijinks continued, all of us packing into Lord Vader's Volkswagen Thing for trips to all-night restaurants.

But then, inevitably and finally, I went too far.

Harvey was socially retarded, but he knew that as the leader of several potenially disgruntled teenage employees, he had to make obvious efforts to show us that he cared about our morale. To that end, he placed a small poster featuring a cheerful Smurf on the wall next to the schedule. "Have a great day!" it said. One night, after closing, I took on that Smurf, pouring all of my anger and resentment into its benign goofiness, as Ann Lundquist cheered me on.

"HAVE A CRAPPY DAY!" the Smurf now said. He'd taken a turn for the dark side and now wore a dangling cross earring, dark glasses and several tattoos. Garbage was strewn across the Smurf landscape. This Smurf would not be boosting anyone's morale. I made sure of that.

The following week, I went in to check the schedule. I wasn't on it. That was how I found out I'd been fired.

Immediately drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, I went over to the KFC, where Harvey was, as usual, sitting around. Maybe it was a mistake, I lied to myself. "Uh, Harvey?" I said, suddenly nothing like the bold rabble-rouser who'd defaced the Smurf.


"I'm not on the schedule."

"I know," he said, spreading his hands out. And I will never forget what he said next: "We don't need you anymore."

I went back into the Baskin-Robbins. Amber was working. I told her what had happened. She took the diplomatic route, which was not only far less than I'd been hoping for but also a hint at what the other shoe would look like when it dropped. Raw, hurt and on the edge of tears, I walked out to my car and drove home.

And that was that. No one quit in protest. No one went and talked to Harvey. They all continued working there, minus one co-worker, me. A week later, I'm told, they had their regular Saturday morning staff meeting, where Harvey told them that "someone had defaced the Smurf poster in the break room," but that "action had been taken." Unsurprisingly, Ann Lundquist didn't stand up and announce that she had been there, egging me on.

After a few weeks, I returned, sheepishly, to the Baskin-Robbins post-work social world. This proved that I was not only a bad worker, but also had no dignity. Amber dumped me a few weeks later.

In the years that followed, my dad, whose taste for Baskin-Robbins ice cream was in no way lessened by my firing, returned often to Baskin-Robbins #432, often speaking to Harvey when he was there. Eventually, he decided to pretend like I'd never been fired but instead had worked there for awhile and then quit. Harvey complied, thankfully, always dutifully asking not only about my sister, but also me.

Every bad job I've had has taught me something, though not everything I've learned has been good. Having Harvey Lucas as my first boss was probably not the best situation for a guy with my particular foibles and flaws. Sadly, he would not be the last boss I'd do battle with, nor would our battle be the worst of my working life.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Water Water Everywhere

Flush Puppy is desperate to buy a house. It has been her dream for as long as I have known here, which dates back to the child-free days of 1 bedroom apartments, motorcycles and parties on the front steps.

Since her husband, Butter Goats, owns a bar, their cash flow has never been what one would call abundant. Remember that when you stroll down to your neighborhood bar -- the guy behind the counter may seem jaunty and relaxed, but he is working 60 hours a week and making very little money. That's how it works.

But now it seems that they will finally be able to buy a house, if they can find one that doesn't also attract 19 other families willing to bid several thousand dollars over asking. Eventually, if they are patient, they will find a home. It will meet many of their needs, but not all.

And for them I have one bit of advice: DON'T DO IT!

I few minutes ago, I walked downstairs to start a load of laundry. During the past 24 hours, gallons and gallons of rain have thundered down onto San Francisco. Our little slice of heaven did not escape the torrents. Given our home's generally decrepit state, I should not have been surprised to feel the familiar squish of water when I stepped onto the rug in front of the dryer.

And yet, I was.

This happened a few years ago, the last time God decided San Francisco needed a quick cooling-off. That time, we panicked and ripped up the Pergo in the office, replaced it and crossed our fingers that the next time it poured, we would stay dry. And it did, through several light rains.

My response to the puddle was to walk away. I sent an email to Sandra Bullock explaining the situation, adding that I had "not yet addressed" the problem. Then I put on some shoes and walked back downstairs, whispering, "Maybe I imagined it," as I descended.

I didn't imagine it. The puddle was still there. The rug was soaked. I wrung it out as best I could, bringing forth streams of yellowish water. I stepped on the edge of the Pergo. Water shot out onto the floor. Next to the doorway, which last time was the mysterious source of the water, I found a small but very deep puddle.

The water, it seems again, is coming up rather than down. This means that the ground has been soaked, or we have a breach in our foundation, or that the creek that runs somewhere under Glen Park runs under (and occasionally, into) our house, or that there is a sacred Indian burial ground under our house and the spirits have been angered by the rain.

If the last scenario is true, we will have to keep it quiet. If the San Franciscans found out, they would protest us, make us move and then raze our house, never actually involving any Native Americans in the action but instead speaking for them in a paternal way.

One option we may have would be to stuff all of the fur that's lying around our house into whatever crack or hole we find. We seem to have an endless and constantly regenerating supply of that stuff.

I'm not talking about me being a Jewish guy with too much hair on my chest. Shack has mysteriously been dropping yards of fur onto every surface he touches for about the last month, and yet not only is he not getting smaller, he's actually getting bigger. "I wonder if he's losing his puppy fur," S. Bullock has wondered. Or maybe he is transitioning to his winter coat. Whatever the reason, the result is little pieces of fur everywhere. If you touch him, you come away covered with fur. If you sit somewhere he has sat, you get fur. If you pat his back, the fur flies. Literally.

So we could conceivably solve both problems. We simply go out and buy a loom, then weave the loose fur into blankets and stuff them into the puddles downstairs. Shack seems to be pretty absorbant. He goes outside into the rain, comes back in and is dry fairly quickly. I mean, God forbid we call a ... who would we call? A plumber? A cement guy? A tribal elder?

Looks like I picked the wrong week to get laid off.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Questions for Friday

Some questions for today:

If you're a young guy who's going to go to all the trouble of dressing up in a pink housedress and matching running shoes, then head out to take advantage of some bargains at the Tower Records closeout sale, wouldn't you want to expand your choices beyond Dr. John?

Going shopping while dressed as my Aunt Lillian suggests a certain veering from the mainstream. I would expect that someone outfitted in this way would be more interested in underground dance music or punk rock, not a groovy baby-boomer voodoo New Orleans boogie-woogie piano guy whose big hits were "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone," and "Right Place, Wrong Time." So I guess my question is this: aren't you worried that a bagful of Dr. John CDs might take the edge off of the shock value inherent in going out in public dressed like Aunt Lillian?

Another question: Who is the toughest guy at 24-Hour Fitness? The competition is stiffer than you might think. Though the greatest percentage of us at 24-Hour Fitness are weekend warriors, regular guys waging war with our decaying bodies, there are a few truly tough-looking guys sharing gym space with us.

The gigantic, Grizzly Adams-looking guy I've seen twice this week does not even register. Though his gut is magnificent, and though he is the size of an out-of-shape offensive lineman, he is soft and wears rugby shirts when he changes out of his workout gear.

How about the young white guy who seems to be working out his demons following a discharge from the Armed Forces? Yes, he works out in combat boots, with his dog tags clanging around his neck, and has multiple tattoos and a House of Pain beard. But he also wears a leather belt when he works out, and cargo shorts, making him look like the workout was something just suddenly occurred to him as he was out running errands.

Several months ago, I had a dispute with an old Italian guy at the gym. He was sitting on the machine I wanted to use, doing nothing, so I approached him and asked if I could work in. Instead of letting me, he launched into a tirade about how he was using the machine and should be allowed to continue using it. I walked away, then returned to point out that I had politely asked to work in and did not deserve his diatribe. To my shock, he agreed. "I'm hungover," he said, sadly.

I thought he was tough for awhile after that. He had a faded tattoo and light-sensitive glasses, and was in there pumping iron -- or at least sitting and resting at machines -- several times a week. This week, though, I caught him arguing with another old guy about precisely the same thing we'd argued about. That made him a habitual arguer, and no longer tough, in my eyes.

There are also random pumped-up guys walking around the gym. I thought one older guy was tough until I saw him park his Toureg in the handicapped spot a few times.

Then there was the Scott Peterson guy, who is pretty tough, I have to admit. He drives a huge Mercedes, which must be difficult for him because:

a) His arms are as big around as my legs
b) He is always on the phone

He is on the treadmill, on the phone. He is working on his lats, on the phone. He is talking to the people who work at 24-Hour Fitness, on the phone. I can't figure out what he does for a living. He is free during the day, drives a huge Mercedes and is always on the phone.


I know who the best-looking woman is at 24-Hour Fitness, though it is difficult to get a good look at her because she is always surrounded by several men with puffy hair. She comes in , walks on the treadmill, listens to her I-Pod and struts around in her 70% made-by-God, 30% made-by-Dr. Robert Rea body and has very pretty brown hair. As far as I can tell. As I said, you don't really get much of a look at her, because of the puffy-haired men.

It boils down to two guys, in the end. One guy is a little Satanic-looking with a shaved head and a goatee and has "Thug" tattooed the length of one arm and "Life" on the other. What makes him tough, to me, is that he reads The New York Times while doing cardio. Tough, and yet informed.

The other tough guy is a young Hispanic guy who looks like he'd be more comfortable with some of the more primitive Rocky Balboa training methods than our Nancy Boy 24-Hour Fitness machines and free weights. He speaks to no one, wears completely out-of-style gear and sweats profusely. He'd rather be punching out sides of beef, I am sure, but in this world where a man can be only a shadow of what men were meant to be, he is sentenced to throw around the weights in this overcivilized, bland environment. He suffers the indignity stoically. I feel his pain.
Today's final question is this: if Tower Records carries CDs by Bowling for Soup but not the specific Bowling for Soup CD that I was supposed to get for the Jawa, yet Streetlight Records, the independently-owned store a few doors down, not only doesn't have the CD but doesn't even have a little plastic divider with the band's name on it, does that mean the Jawa is too commercial for Streetlight Records, or too marginal for Tower?

Not that it really matters, but what's this business of a record store completely ignoring a mainstream band? I'm as big of a music snob as anyone, and I have to admit I felt a little pang for the Jawa when I saw that Streetlight Records, which is where we've bought many CDs together, had dissed Bowling for Soup, but don't you think someone might walk in there wanting that CD? It's not like Streetlight Records is Championship Vinyl and I'm asking for a copy of "Ebony and Ivory." And it's not like we haven't bought mainstream artists' CDs from Streetlight Records before.

And it's not like we dressed up like Aunt Lillian and set out in search of Dr. John's entire catalogue.

But Bowling for Soup? No.

I'll bet Amoeba has it. They have everything. And if that fails, we'll have to go to Amazon. Ask yourself again why independent record stores are a dying breed.

Today, as I was standing in a doorway on Market Street, talking on the phone, I saw one of the brokers from Zephyr Real Estate walk by. A few minutes later, she came charging back. At no time did either of us acknowledge that we had once worked for the same agency and had seen each other every Wednesday at sales meetings, or, for that matter, that we had ever come in contact before.

I like the mutual snub. Nobody gets hurt; everyone's happy.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Soundtracks and Indie Rockers

Everyone I know likes to think that there's a soundtrack to their lives. Maybe not as much as I do, but it seems like a pretty common wish. When your days mostly involve driving around, ferrying children from one appointment to another, running in place on a medieval-looking cardio machine at 24 Hour Fitness, or typing on a t-less computer in an otherwise silent home, you welcome something in the background. To me, the music you choose as undertow for your life can make or break a day.

This morning, I was driving between Brandeis Hillel Day School and the Pacifica 24-Hour Fitness. Instead of listening to my usual sportsradio, I chose track #4 from the Long Winters' new CD. Since I generally throw CDs into my player without reading the names of the songs, I have no idea what the song title is.

And I was sitting there in my metallic blue Volvo, driving up John Daly Boulevard, on my first trip to the gym in two weeks, listening to my old temping pal John Roderick sing about how someone's going to regret something or other.

Since this album just came out, I've been listening to it often. I've gotten past the point where I'm amazed that John can produce such good music, and now can forget, for several minutes, that I know the guy singing. That, Kathaleen once told me, is when you can tell that someone you know has produced something good. She said it after reading one of my many unpublished stories, so it was meant as a complement.

Several years have passed since I could really, honestly call John Roderick a friend of mine. We met in 1994, temping at Piper Jaffray in Seattle. We used to walk home from work, stop and have a few drinks, complain about our respective lots in life, discuss our shared love for plaid madras shirts and plan our respective futures, when the entire world of popular culture would bow down to our accomplishments. Sometimes he'd really tick me off, like the time he responded to me saying, "...if I ever lose my hair..." with a 120 decibal, outraged "IF?" but usually I just appreciated knowing a guy who seemed to be on board with the idea that someday the world would discover us, the misunderstood geniuses of the temping world, and whose skewed worldview matched mine.

It almost matched mine. One day I arrived at Piper Jaffray and he did not. "I was getting ready for work," he told me much later, "and I realized that I could keep doing this day after day, forever. So I just didn't show up." And with that, a little distance. He was someone who could do the things I only threatened to do.

And yet, put in an unusual situation -- my +1 at a party where he only slightly knew anyone -- he chose to sit and talk to the hosts' parents like a nice boy while the rest of us drank heavily and talked to each other.

Sandra Bullock was not a big fan. He was loud, boastful and could be abrasive, all things that do not fly in the world of S. Bullock. I, too, am those things, but also practical, and learned early on how to mete out those personality traits carefully and sporadically. And in the car, when nobody else was around to hear me.

John played in bands. In fact, i lent him my guitar, as that part of my life was long over. He was always asking me if I'd write about his band for The Stranger, the local weekly I wrote about music for. "Uh, sure," I'd say, hoping to buy time. All I knew was that the guy was loud, funny and seemingly as aimless as me. Lord only knew how that translated into music.

Also, his bands didn't last very long, and had ridiculous names. The Bun Family Players, for instance. And he didn't seem to be in "the scene." Yes, he did introduce me to Kat, from "Real World London" one day on the street, but she was with another guy I knew, so I may have been able to work that one out myself.

Several months after we'd both left Piper Jaffray, I ran into John at the local newsstand, Steve's Broadway News. He was working behind the counter. Unchecked reams of John knowledge spewed out onto customers at random times. I was a little wary, but then I'm a little wary of everything, and I kept getting sucked into the kinds of conversations you have when you're part of the world of under-employed, over-egoed 20-somethings like us, where you start out by saying, "Hey," and end up standing next to the cash register, talking about how evenually your genius will win out, occasionally interrupted as customers approach the counter to pay for their magazines.

Here was the plan: John would become a rock and roll star, and use his platform to finally expose the greater population to his ideas and dogma. I would write stories about the human condition, hopefully get them seen by people. "My dreams are getting smaller," I told him once, "I just want to be able to make a living and not have to wake up early." He boomed out a huge laugh and then continued on, something about also being a lawyer so he could roam the halls of power and change the structure from within. "Undercover."

For some reason, John loved babies. When the Jawa arrived, I'd stroll him down to Steve's Broadway News just to see the big tough indie rocker sprint out from behind his perch and start speaking baby talk to my infant son. Sandra Bullock liked that. It softened her opinion of him.

Around this time, I finally agreed to go see his band, now called the Western State Hurricanes. I'd changed publications and was now writing for the Seattle Weekly while teaching high school. The new music editor of The Stranger hated John, for reasons unexplained to this day.

So I went to see the band ... and was completely blown away. He wasn't just good, he was great. And he kept singing about broken relationships, which struck me as odd, since I'd never seen the guy with anyone, male or female. He was kind of a romantic loner.

Soon I did a little story on the band. They seemed to be on the verge or something, until they went on a short tour and imploded. Then John disappeared.

By this time, he was a peripheral character in my life, one of the few people I knew who were still living the slacker artist's dream while I played house with Sandra Bullock and my Jawa. The next time I saw him, he was dressed as some kind of Secret Service guy, standing on the edge of an agitated crowd at the WTO demonstrations, late 1999. He had a big moustache and wore mirrored sunglasses. I'd heard he'd been in Europe (I later learned that he'd walked across the continent, much as my great-grandfather did 100 years ago, but probably not on the run from the tsar), so I went up to ask him about it. "I can't talk now," he said, deadpan. "It isn't safe."

A few months later, we moved to San Francisco, and I became just another guy who listened to John's music. I'd never quite qualified for "hey, can my band crash at your place?" status, and wasn't even on the guest list. The new band, the Long Winters, had a CD, which was incredible, and I went to see them the first couple of times they came to San Francisco, showing off for my San Francisco friends, once catching up with John (who incongruently wore a purple Ralph Lauren Polo shirt for the gig, which I liked), once talking to a few other band people who remembered me from Seattle.

The last one was like a wake. After eight years in Seattle, marching up to the band and introducing myself because I was from The Stranger, or The Weekly, I was just another pathetic hanger-on, hoping to catch the lead singer's eye in hopes that he'd remember me and my friends would be impressed. I wasn't good enough friends with the guy to go out after the show and eat grilled cheese. I would not be appearing on any liner notes, under "Special thanks to:" I was just a balding guy who drove his car to the show, paid his $10 and stood with a couple of friends, talking about work and drinking a beer, singing along to the songs with all the other fans.

And that was it for me. My last link to the world of boy geniuses and rock and roll dreams was gone. Not a moment to soon, some would say. What good is street cred when you're over 40 and drive a Volvo? The last time I talked to John, he'd just finished blowing away a room full of people who hung on his every word. He was living in an apartment in Seattle with his mom. I just read a book by a woman who was married to Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers, for 25 years. They moved every six months until their kids were out of high school. Then he got famous and left. We make choices and we live with them. I leave the street cred question to the Jawa, who seems to be handling it fine.

But I still keep up, like any fan. I see that some filmmaker is putting together a documentary on the Long Winters, which I'm sure John loves. Like me, only minus the self-doubt, the guy loves an audience. Any chance to expound, he will take. And it still seems weird to me to be singing along to music from a guy who once asked me if he was being a jerk, because he hates it when he's being a jerk without even trying, and it sometimes happens to him.

It's really good music, though. Great soundtrack stuff. And I used to know the lead singer, way back when we were both standing in the starting gates, trying to figure out which way would lead to the finish line.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Crips v. Canyon Market

The much-anticipated grocery store has opened in Glen Park. As a result of the dogged efforts of neighborhood activists, the initially proposed Walgreen's was denied, as were later inquiries by Whole Foods. Instead, we have an independently-owned, neighborhood-focused food store called Canyon Market. Hooray for us!

The new Canyon Market opened last Tuesday, the day before our ill-fated trip to Lancaster, where they do not have anything resembling Canyon Market. In a Lancaster canyon, you may find methamphetamine labs and dead bodies, but no markets. Not so here in Glen Park.

So far, in the ten days Canyon Market has been open, I have been there four times. Once we went to look around; once I went to buy malted milk balls; yesterday I went to try and buy something for lunch and ended up buying organic peanut butter ($5.49). One night we went there to pick up some fruit and very small bag of Paul Newman's very own pretzels.

Canyon Market is part of a food revolution taking place in middle- to upper-middle class urban neighborhoods: the organic grocery store. You take the time-honored concept of a neighborhood grocery store -- the friendly grocer, the meat counter, produce, everything you need but not as much of it as you'd find at Safeway -- and then make it better.

I will tell you know what a $5.49 jar of organic peanut butter tastes like. In a word: gritty.

But I'm not going to put on my populist hat right now, no matter how much better I would look sans bald spot. I like the Canyon Market. Even more, I like the feeling I get shopping at the Canyon Market, that I am someone who would appreciate the carefully chosen items available there, that I am a sophisticated person who has freed himself from the corporate tyranny of Safeway, and will be eating pesticide-free fruit as a result, that any packaged foods I may buy will at least have cute packaging.

It's this kind of thinking that gets me down to the Ferry Building Farmers' Market occasionally, where I once had the best pear I'd ever eaten. Never mind that there is a grittier, dirtier farmers' market much closer to my house. As I've said before, I'm shallow; I like that the Ferry Building market is nice, attractive and clean, and that, by choosing to shop there I am demonstrating that I am a member of the class of people that shops there.

In order to maintain this, I must keep away from conversations with my neighbor, the Poet with the 48-inch Vertical Leap. He also appreciates the Canyon Market, but wonders exactly who is supposed to shop there. Glen Park is not exclusively an upper-middle class neighborhood. There are many people in the neighborhood, he noted, who probably would have found a Walgreen's very useful, far more useful than the Canyon Market.

Perhaps the three people who were shot on Arlington Street, two blocks from the Canyon Market, last Wednesday, would have appreciated a Walgreen's. Walgreen's does carry Band-Aids, antiseptic spray and other items useful to someone who has just suffered a wound. What use do they have for Newman's Own Organic Popcorn?

The house on Arlington Street is a gang hangout, we later learned. Supervisor Bevan Dufty noted that the police have "had (their) eyes on that house for awhile," and then he went on to assure us, the sophisticated Canyon Market shoppers, that this incident was isolated, and no indicator of an "ongoing pattern."

And so the worlds continue to collide in San Francisco, a very small city (49 square miles) crowded with all kinds of people, the majority of whom fly well beneath the radar while a few loud, college-educated white people presume to speak for everyone. What is the nature of our neighborhood? Are we Canyon Market or Crips and Bloods? By adding Canyon Market to the mix are we being progressive or just a bunch of ivory tower rich people in denial? If you build it, will they come? And will they be armed?

These are growing pains. Soon Glen Park will be another "special" San Francisco neighborhood, like its neighbor Noe Valley, which will be good for home values. All I really want it a place to buy some food, organic or otherwise, so I guess we're already on our way.