Monday, March 05, 2007

Unlikely Kodak Moments

"They" will have you believe that the only the parts of life accompanied by sunsets and beaches can be truly memorable. Nowhere will you find greeting cards festooned with images of haircuts and the Vacaville Premium Outlets.

Which is why, too often, when life's great memories occur at places like the Parkview salon and the Vans Outlet, they disappear into vapor before anyone has a chance to log them. Minus any widely accepted signifier for "great memory," they fade into the stuff that makes up 90% of our lives -- checkbooks, grocery stores, car washes, staff meetings.

This is why I am glad to have been cognizant -- for once -- of the memories we were building on Saturday, as we went about completing the errands of our day.

Not much, really. A haircut in North Beach, followed by a trip to the bulk candy store. Ten minutes in the Walgreen's in Chinatown for passport photos. The Jawa refusing to smile, and then finding it appropriately funny when his photo emerges looking like a mug shot.

The Jawa has secretly developed a sense of the absurd that makes me very proud. While waiting for the photos to develop, he tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, Dad," he said, "how about some Easter towels?" He pointed at a display of very average-looking hand towels, arranged in a very average way, underneath a sign that screamed, "UP TO OUR EARS IN EASTER!" with colored eggs arranged all over it. "These are Easter towels!" he said gleefully.

My old passport bore a photo of me at age 22, sporting a representative 1987 hairstyle and two hoop earrings, looking very much like a pre-steroids Jose Canseco. As dated as that may look today, I would find it preferable to the one I am now saddled with. Lately, whenever I have my picture taken, this bald, middle-aged guy shoves me out of the way and takes my place.

Driving to see my grandparents in Sacramento, stopping at the Vacaville outlets to see if the Vans store has anything good on sale. Eating Subway sandwiches outside in the sun while Shack sits nearby, his leash hooked underneath one of the table legs. He's waiting for someone, anyone, to drop some food.

I won't claim that the Vacaville outlets are the ideal place for an epiphany, but when you spend as much time down the rabbit hole as I do, you take your moments in the sun where you can. For me, it arrived while sitting outside the 9 West store with my Jawa, waiting for Sandra Bullock to hopefully find a pair of shoes to replace the tired old brown ones she's worn every day since she sprained her ankle playing basketball.

The Jawa, Shack and I were sitting there, fending off the attentions of shoppers who love dogs. I don't know how many more Saturdays I've got to sit in the sun, in no hurry, with my little boy draped over my shoulders. Two weeks ago he was five, so I can only assume that two weeks from now he'll be 15. And I've yet to meet the fifteen-year-old who will absently put his arms around his dad's neck while waiting for his mom to emerge from the 9 West outlet.

At these times, if we're lucky, sunset, beach or no sunset, beach, time can slow down enough that we have time to be conscious of the way life is flowing over us. Like the way weather is sometimes perfect enough to fit like a favorite sweater, sometimes you can actually see memories as you build them. This was one of those times.

From there, to Sacramento, where, after 25 years of driving myself, I can finally find my grandparents' house without getting on the wrong freeway.

My grandparents have reached late December, I think, which makes every visit precious and bittersweet. This time, my grandfather was angry. He is not going gently into that good night. He can't stand being old. "You live long enough and eventually they've taken everything away that you enjoy doing," he said, more than once.

"But we've had a great ride," my grandmother countered.

"I DON'T CARE!' thundered Grandpa.

He's bored, Sandra Bullock told me later. All he wants, he says, is to have a place to go where he can play pool with other old guys.

Every visit, I hope, adds at least a month to their lives. My grandfather turns 90 in two months.

What they have now, mostly, are great old stories about their lives. Some of them I've heard many times. Some they now tell more than once during a single visit. Others I've never heard before. I know they lived on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, in a one-bedroom apartment. I know that my dad, as a very little kid, walked around the army base in St. Augustine, Florida, pointing out all of the officers, making my enlisted grandfather salute each of them over and over.

I know that my grandfather left the dress factory in 1959, a year in which, I now sometimes have to remind them, I was not yet born. I have heard many times that there friends used to climb through their kitchen window on Ocean Parkway and offer to babysit my dad, but Sandra Bullock has not and I don't really care if I have to hear about it 100 more times. I won't get bored.

When Noodle's Mom and I were little kids, my parents would pack us off to my grandparents house in Massapequa, Long Island, for a week each summer. Every year my grandmother would fill our heads with images of the wondrous, amazing things to be found in New York.

The two things I loved above all else were the Empire State Building and the Automat. One of my favorite childhood memories: driving our 1967 Plymouth Barracuda convertible down 5th Avenue, on the way to my grandparents' place. Stopping at a light a 27th and 5th. My dad hitting a button and putting the top down. Looking up and seeing the Empire State Building rising up in front of us.

But we never got to the Automat. I imagined it, this place where you put in money and pulled out food, but we never got to go. Then, one summer, we arrived in Massapequa to find that my grandmother had placed paper towels over the open oven. She'd cut slots into the paper towels, and written the names of food items on them: peanut butter & jelly sandwich, apple, chocolate cake, and my favorite, lemon meringue pie.

Since I was in preschool, sorry, nursery school, then, my grandmother has gone out of her way to make lemon meringue pie every time we visit. She is now 89 years old, has two fake hips and can no longer stand for periods longer than 15-20 minutes, so she will not be making me any more pies. Instead, they get into their Honda Element, drive to the store, use the crane in the back to unload her scooter, and then she rides into the store while my grandfather walks next to her and they pick out a lemon meringue pie for me.

At 7:30 on Saturday, my grandmother handed me 3/4 of a lemon meringue pie, telling me that "the last time, I almost had to run after you to get you to take it!" I told my grandfather to get himself down to the Rancho Cordova senior center and play some pool. To prop my grandmother in the corner on her scooter, with her crossword puzzles and a sign that says "DO NOT DISTURB" around her neck, because she says she doesn't like people all that much.

I seldom feel as comfortable with responsibility as I do driving home from Sacramento at night. The drive is just long enough -- 100 miles -- for one or both of Sandra Bullock and the Jawa to fall asleep. On this night, I can see the Jawa concentrating on his Nintendo DS in the back seat, the glow of the screen lighting up his face. S. Bullock dozes in the front. Both of them, along with Shack, who is sleeping in the back of our station wagon, depending on me to get them home safely.

This must have been what my grandmother was talking about when she told my grandfather they'd had a great ride. So sunsets, no beach, just I-80 and a string of supremely forgettable towns: Dixon, Fairfield, Pinole.

We reach the Bay Bridge and cheer our new FastTrak device, which propels us past toll booth traffic with two small beeps. San Francisco appears on our left. There's your sunset and your beach.

Tomorrow we will work on the house and take our chances with the Blue team that laughed at us a few weeks ago (this time they beat us with -- literally -- both hands behind their backs). I will try to fashion 15 pages of transcribed interview into something resembling a coherent, 2000 word magazine article. And then, tomorrow night, Sandra Bullock will sleep exactly 45 minutes because she is under so much pressure at work.

But tonight we are all fine. And this, we will remember.

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