Monday, September 24, 2007

Dancing Mike

There is a shadow world that exists while you're at work. It is a world of mothers, nannies, layabouts, restaurant workers and ne'er do-wells like me. The king of this world -- in our neighborhood, and nowhere else -- is Dancing Mike.

It used to be that The Vacquero, who sat on a bench in front of the coffee place all day, every day, wearing his cowboy outfit, was the King of the Daytime Weekday World. However, on the strength not only of his unique dancing style (showcased once a year at the Glen Park Festival) and his ubiquitousness, Dancing Mike has zoomed past The Vacquero and is now the unquestioned king of daytime Glen Park.

As I mentioned above, Dancing Mike came to prominence at the Glen Park Festival. Smaller than other neighborhood festivals -- which is appropriate, given that Glen Park is smaller than all of the prominent San Francisco neighborhoods -- the Glen Park Festival is one block long and congregates around a bandstand. During the day of the festival, the bandstand plays host to a number of bands I've never heard of. Most of them are designed to be palatable to hippies and demonstrate our neighborhood's collective appreciation for music from other cultures, thus hammering home the point that we are better than you.

Usually, this means we get a day of a salsa band, a rhythm and blues concoction, those guys who play "El Condor Pasa" on a bunch of wooden pipes, and maybe an African deal with bongo drums and women dancing around. NEVER will you see mainstream rock and roll or country music on the bandstand at the Glen Park Festival. We are better than that.

Which would all be just another yawn-inducing example of hippie culture gone awry in San Francisco, if not for the genius of Dancing Mike.

There is no way to put into words the herky-jerkiness, the otherworldliness, the unexpectedness and unfettered joy of Dancing Mike in action. Standing about 5'8", weighing in at around 125 pounds, the sixty-ish Dancing Mike arrives early, always wearing shorts and an unbuttoned short-sleeved plaid shirt. His silver hair is slicked back into a loose pompadour, his moustache is neatly trimmed. He is smiling. Someone has bought him skateboarding shoes.

And he dances. All day, without pause, alone, in a crowd, smiling out at the festival-goers. Whatever the music, Dancing Mike doesn't care. He dances.

Away from the dancefloor, Dancing Mike is a more serious figure. You can see him at neighborhood association meetings, trading in his shorts for a pair of too-long Levis. Sometimes his Levis are long enough to get caught under his shoes, which eventually results in little tears at the hems. However, don't be fooled into thinking the Dancing Mike is a dirty street person. Dancing Mike is always clean. His skateboarding shoes are always new. And somewhere in Glen Park, Dancing Mike owns his own home.

The Jawa and I are always pleased to run across Dancing Mike. Usually, we see him at the park, striding off purposely toward a goal known only by him. He walks hunched over and hurriedly, his head bobbing to a tune that he shares his no one. He looks bemused, and he is always polite. Dancing Mike.

When we see him, the rule is that the first one to spot him must tap the other one on the shoulder and say, "...Dancing Mike." The correct answer to this is "sweet."

Last weekend we saw Dancing Mike at an open house a few blocks away. This was the oddest Dancing Mike location since we saw him grilling hot dogs at a neighborhood jazz festival in the park. That's where I learned that his name was "Mike." I added that "Dancing" part myself. Boy, does it fit.

How does Dancing Mike fill his days? Unlike me, he always seems to have a purpose, always seems to be heading toward something. He is not idle. Is Dancing Mike secretly a real estate mogul, checking out local open houses in search of his next investment? If Dancing Mike could relate the people, what would he say?

I ask everyone in the neighborhood about him, hoping to get a more complete picture of his life, but at this point, I seem to know as much about him as anyone.

- He likes skateboarding shoes
- He likes to dance
- He cares about the neighborhood
- He likes to volunteer
- He is always on the move
- He owns a house somewhere in the neighborhood
- He prefers Levis over other brands of jeans
- He takes the time to groom himself

But there's more. There's got to be more. Was there ever a Mrs. Dancing Mike? How long ago did he buy his house in the neighborhood?

I guess the central question is this: what happened?

What happened to Dancing Mike? If he's a homeowner, that means that at some point he was lucid enough to hold down a job, making enough money to buy a house. Unless he inherited his house, in which case someone in the neighborhood should remember what he was like as a kid. And if he inherited it, and was always a bit off, why isn't anyone taking care of him? Who's letting him roam the streets all day?

I like that we have a Dancing Mike in our neighborhood. He's easily more interesting that The Pen Guy, from our old neighborhood in Seattle, whose only claim to fame was that he hauled around hundreds of pens each day. He wasn't well-groomed and cheerful like Dancing Mike. In fact, I pity any neighborhood for lacking a Dancing Mike, and I'm just sorry I don't have enough money to buy him a "Glen Park" sweatshirt to wear around, though on second thought, I don't think I've ever seen Dancing Mike wearing any sort of outerwear. He probably runs hot, due to all that nervous (yet cheerful)energy.

Man, I need a job.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Extra Lazy Polacks

Everyone has a dark period in their lives, however short or long, that left a serious dent in their psyches. Mine happened in 1976, lasted only three months, and kicked my butt halfway through next week.

On March 21, 1976, my family moved from our small town in Pennsylvania to Southern California. We followed my dad, who had moved in January, cutting a dashing figure as he walked down the tarmac to his plane at Scranton-Avoca airport. "I won't be needing this," he'd said, handing his coat to my mother, and then striding, coatless, out into the snow.

Two months later we joined him. Thirty-one years later it's easy to forget what March in Southern California looks like to a bunch of East Coasters. We were floored, amazed to be swimming in March. There were palm trees, and when you drove past the Lemon Street off-ramp on the 91 freeway, it actually smelled like lemons. We were babes in toyland, absolute naifs who thought we should live in Long Beach because it had the word beach in its name.

One week later, settled into a tiny house in Anaheim, Noodles' Mom and I started at our new schools. And thus began the trauma we both still strive to overcome.

I'm not going to say that almost eleven years of life in Clarks Green, Pennsylvania (population 1,200) didn't prepare me for the realities of Riverdale Elementary School. All of that time running across open fields gave me enough stamina to outlast the gangs of kids who chased me home every day. But as I've said many times since, you show up in Orange County in 1976 and you're short, Jewish, wear glasses and have a big vocabulary, no amount of sports is going to save you.

It took a few days before anyone decided to call me "Fairy." By then, I'd already earned the ire of the class bully, Ernest. I'm not sure why. It could be any of the quirks outlined above, or it could be that, in my quest to be cool, I'd told someone that I wasn't afraid of Ernest. I was lying.

Weirdly, by the time Ernest finally jumped me and kicked my butt, I was no longer afraid of him. I'll never forget him on top of me, in the field during P.E., screaming "YOU PUD!" and me underneath him, not even blocking the blows, calmly saying, "A pud is a cigarette," as he flailed away.

They pulled him off me after awhile. He was crying hysterically, so the teacher comforted him, which I knew, even then, sucked. Nobody checked out to see how the freaky new kid was doing. They just called me "Fairy," then went off to do their own thing. I went back to the tetherball post, where I spent every recess of every day.

One week I took a test to see if I could go to this other school, with all the other freaky braino kids. I must have passed, because the following Monday, I was gone.

I liked that. Never even cleared out my desk. Just took off on a Friday, ran home so nobody would beat me up, and didn't show up on Monday. I hope they made Ernest clean up my stuff, and I hope it was full of things he found confusing and threatening.

Not that I'm bitter.

The following week, I began at La Veta Elementary where, mixed among the "regular" kids were two classes of "ELPs." Ask me what "ELP" stood for; I can't tell you. Everyone said it stood for "Extra Lazy Polacks." I liked to think it stood for "Electrically Powered," so I repeated this phrase to myself sometimes, quietly:
Electrically Powered.

La Veta Elementary School saved Southern California for me. Noodles' Mom didn't have a La Veta Elementary School, so she had to grind it out at hideous places like Vista Junior High. Nobody stepped in, and she hates Orange County to this day.

At La Veta I found two whole classrooms full of weird, smart kids, some of whom wore glasses and bought their pants at Sears. Some of us (after plenty of hard work) managed to at least look "regular," and some even mixed well with the "regulars." I wasn't one of them, sadly.

Thirty years later, I'm not sure that the "ELP" or "MGM" ("Mentally Gifted Minor" -- AKA "Mentally Gifted Moron") program did much to meet the needs of its unusual customers. For many years, I ran around saying that I never should have gone to La Veta, that if I'd stayed at the neighborhood school -- once we'd moved to a new neighborhood -- I would have gotten to junior high with a leg up. I encouraged Bud and/or Marsi to avoid La Veta at all costs. "Don't be branded a freak," I said, which she would prove over time to be a very ironic statement, indeed.

And of course, modern education theory rejects the entire concept of taking smart kids and separating them from everyone else. They call it "tracking," and it's considered only slightly less evil than racial segregation.

To a point, I agree. For kids in the middle, tracking sucks. For kids at the bottom, it's even worse. But for all the kids carrying around these huge brains and not knowing what to do with them, tracking at least puts them in the same place, pays some attention to them, and doesn't force them to spent 2/3 of their class time drawing war scenes on the back of their homework or feeling weird because they finished the quiz twenty minutes before everyone else. Thirty years later, I'm pretty sure that "gifted" kids are also "special needs" kids. The middle serves them no better than it serves special ed kids.

Let me step off my soapbox for a moment and go back to 1976. Two days ago I got an email from a guy I haven't seen in almost 25 years. I went to high school with him, but didn't really know him after sophomore year, because by then he'd been completely swallowed up by the punk rock world. One day he was sitting in the back of Mr. Lindskoog's class with long hair and a fleece-lined jacket; the next day he had a reverse mohawk. The last time I saw him, he was driving down Chapman Avenue in some old car. He had a mohawk and a tattoo on the side of his head. I am told that he hung out in the same frightening circles as Bud and/or Marsi.

He was a La Veta guy, though, and I remembered him from there as a skinny guy with blonde hair who had a rugby shirt that was identical to mine, and who occasionally presented outrageously controversial ideas as facts. Apparently, we played draydel with Dave K. Little kids.

And now he is a special ed. teacher which, given what I wrote above about "special needs," makes a certain kind of sense. He lives in Minnesota, has two kids, and sent a picture of himself -- a 40-ish guy with a goatee, holding a toddler, wearing a baseball cap and a polar fleece jacket.

Here's the funny thing: I have a good memory, and I'll bet that probably 65% of the people I knew in high school could email me and I'd instantly know who they were. Forget if they were friends of mine or not; I'd at least know them.

But there is a strange bond that I feel with the weirdos from La Veta Elementary School. Not you "regulars," only us Extra Lazy Polacks. In junior high school and high school, the ELPers dispersed, as anyone would. We would occasionally cross paths, giving each other an unseen nod or internal wink, a sort of, "Hey there, I see you pretending to be normal, and I get it, and it's okay with me, bub."

So a belated "thanks" to the small crew of La Veta alums who went to El Modena High School, class of 1983, and to the rest of the freaks who got together at Kim Senft's house that same year for a La Veta reunion. Welcome to the show, Mr. Former Punk, and Lisa Mac, if you're out there, call me.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Time for a New Table

It was an important moment, a momentous bridge to cross. The Jawa and I, and only us, were to complete our first father-son furniture moving project. The question was, would he, at age ten, be able to hold up his end of the deal? Literally.

The challenge was this: after several years of shopping for a dining room set, never finding one we could agree on, balking at the price of them all, Sandra Bullock and I finally found one we liked, for the low, low Craigslist price of $225 (chairs included). But there was a complication. Said dining room set was in San Jose, and once we drove down there (Saturday), checked it out, decided we liked it and plunked down the $225, we realized that we could only fit 3 of the 6 chairs into our car. No way was that table going into our car, nor the 3 other chairs. For once, we missed our old Subaru. But only briefly.

So we drove home and planned to return later in the week in a more appropriate vehicle. Not a rented truck, which would cost almost as much as the table itself. More likely, a borrowed truck. And then we learned this: we know like two people with trucks. "If we lived in Seattle," I told my bride, "we'd know tons of people who owned trucks."

"Do you think we can fit the table into a Prius?" she answered.

And right now I'd like to stop and say yes, Hammer, I know Wine Guy has a truck. S. Bullock said the table wouldn't fit in it because he's got that shell on it.

So we borrowed Jenny From the Block's Minivan on a Friday morning -- the first day of the year 5769(?), in fact -- and set out for San Jose for the momentous task at hand.

Jerry Seinfeld used to do a bit about the father-son team, moving furniture, with his father squinting through the cigarette smoke as he backs up the stairs holding a desk, saying, "easy, easy," while Jerry thinks he should be saying, "difficult, difficult, impossible..."

Would my Jawa be able to assist? Or would I be lugging this huge, mahogany table into Jenny From the Block's Toyota Sienna alone, or perhaps with the help of Charlotte, the retired librarian who sold us the table?

The spirit was indeed willing. My Jawa, age 10, head pumped full of Pokemon, wanted so badly to help me carry that table to the car. He grabbed one end, I grabbed the other. The table, at this point, did not seem all that heavy. The Jawa made it a few steps, then rested, then a few steps more, and then Charlotte stepped in and grabbed the other corner, so it was the Jawa, Charlotte and me hauling Charlotte's parents' wedding present to the car.

A word about Charlotte's house: it was in the middle of San Jose, across the street from a dead gas station and a Mosque. Cars sped by two at a time. It wasn't the greatest location for a house, but Charlotte, who had grown up there, told us of a time when the house sat across the street from nothing but fields and trees. "They went all the way to the river," she said. "What river?" I thought.

Too bad. As is often the case in San Francisco politics, "progress" (or "progressive") is not what it's cracked up to be.

We laid the table upside down in the back of Jenny From the Block's minivan. To do so, we had to flop the back seats down, leaving the 10-year-old Jawa no choice but to ride shotgun.

He did this with a mixture of awe and anxiety. At first, after we'd waved goodbye to Charlotte and her emotionally damaged house, he marvelled at the improved view of the road. It was panoramic, way better than the back seat, where you have a chair in your way. But there was the issue of the airbag.

"Will it decapitate me?" he asked, half-jokingly.

At ten, you are under some pressure to handle with poise many things -- like airbags-- that would have frightened you when you were in single digits. Only problem is that while they may still scare you, you cannot show it. You must joke about it endlessly, or ask seemingly calm questions about it, as if you were just curious. "So, it this airbag came out, would it break my legs?"

Meanwhile, I'm aging several years each minute, worrying about the dual tragedy that would result should I get into a head-on collision. With the Jawa at 4'7" and 70 lbs., he is only 2 inches and 10 lbs. below the minimum for front seat occupancy, but still. And then to return Jenny From the Block's minivan damanged.

So I'm a little nervous, but also living the wonder of parenthood as I look over, for the first time, and see my pre-teen Jawa sitting in the front. I can just reach over and mess up his hair, for example. It made me wish we were sitting in an old pickup truck, bouncing down a dirt road, but maybe that's just evidence that I've seen way too many of those Chevy truck ads they play during football games, the ones with John Mellencamp music playing in the background.

And all is well and good until we reach the freeway, at which point my Jawa turns into the most obnoxious male backseat driver I have ever met. "Dad! DAD! DAD! You're too close to the car!"

"DAD! You're driving 75 miles per hour! What's the speed limit here? 65? Slow down!"

It had become obvious to me that we would need some support for the 32-step task in front of us, so we dropped by Sandra Bullock's massive new place of employment and kidnapped her, placing her in the back, along with the table and chairs. She hunkered down back there while the Jawa continued to deliver a continuing assessment of my driving skills in real time.


By the time we reached home, I had decided that, eligible or not, the Jawa was banned from the front seat until age 12. Maybe by then he will have calmed down a bit and come to terms with the airbag.

Although, via the absolute magic that is Volvo engineering, our car's airbag will not deploy unless the front passenger seat is holding a minimum weight of 100 lbs. So in theory, he could ride in the front seat, as the Shaman and Tony Hawk have before. In reality, he is banned. For reasons of my mental health.

The new dining room table now takes the place of our old pink formica 1950s table. We bought that one at an antique store in Snohomish, Washington, in 1993 for $100. On Friday, fifteen minutes after we posted it on Craigslist, it was gone, sold to a San Francisco mini-mogul with two kids and another on the way, for use in a rental property. She paid us $74, only because she didn't have another dollar. Afterwards, I worked it out: that table cost us 8 cents a month.

After it was gone, we were oddly somber. That table, we realized, had taken us through life as apartment-dwelling newlyweds, through the Jawa's birth and resulting babyhood. It had born the brunt of Play-Doh, water-soluble markers and countless blobs of food. Fourteen years we had it, from ages 28 to 42, which is a pretty significant period. It was time for a grown-up table, but also time to take note of all that our old pink table gave us.

We can only hope our new table -- Charlotte's parents' wedding present -- will offer as good an ROI.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Abba Intrusion

I have spoken often in this space about my commitment to providing the Jawa with a firm, interesting and slightly esoteric pop music base. I believe strongly in my responsibility to save him from Justin Timberlake, even as I am admittedly wide-eyed at JT's massive talents.

As I write this, however, there is an equal and opposing force trying to indoctrinate my Jawa in the evil dark musical arts. Sandra Bullock, whose interest in music has never gone any further than "it's got a good beat, I like to dance to it," spent the past weekend exposing my Jawa's fine-tuned ears to music rated no better than that which you would hear on a local top-40 station.

And now, this.

Tonight, as I scramble madly to record each nugget of wisdom that drops from the lips of my fellow Parent Association officers, the Jawa and his mother are joining the Hammer and her child at the Orpheum Theater, for a performance of ... Mamma Mia.

If I spelled that wrong, it was on purpose.

A word about Abba, the bass-challenged Swedish pop group whose circa-1979 music inspired Mamma Mia. Even as a pre-teen, I loathed Abba. I knew then that there was no place in my musical canon for glittery Swedes singing in phonetic English about royalty that dances and rememberances of dalliances with men named Fernando.

I shunned Abba even as they made their irony-fueled comeback in the 90s, sitting smugly on the sidelines each time a wedding DJ cued up an Abba tune. Not for me.

As I get older, I realize that I must give Sandra Bullock's taste in music some time. Not equal time, I mean, come on. The night Frank Sinatra died, I tried to get her to lie on the floor in the living room and listen to a few choice Frank cuts. She lasted all of five minutes. Lost in my own revelry, it took me that long before I glancedd over at her and saw that, rather than glazed over, her eyes were ablaze, reflecting the organizing and planning that was going on behind them.

"You're not listening to the music, are you," I said, flatly.

"I wonder if those chairs I saw in the Pottery Barn catalogue would fit next to the couch," she answered.

So before any of you start bagging on me for not considering her commitment to music equal to mine, think of that.

"You never know what they're listening to when you're not there," someone told me once. On Monday, I returned home from the craziest wedding I've ever been to, to find the Volvo's CD changer full of "their" CDs -- Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Pure Funk, a couple of old Derailers and Old 97s CDs that I introduced S. Bullock to about ten years ago, and the dreaded "Abba Gold."

Did they distribute this CD to every woman who graduated from college between 1990 and 2000? Does the practice continue to the present? Is it included, already loaded, in the CD players of each Volkwagen Jetta as it is wheeled off the showroom to its new owner?

I should talk. I love John Cougar Mellencamp. And I eagerly remind you that my problems with Abba probably stem from the inarguable fact that I am no fun and not a good sport. Don't try to drag me onto the dance floor; you will lose a friend. Want me to karaoke? I'll leave first.

Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is a great dancer, and effortless natural, and she has passed that skill down to her son. Theirs is a bond of physicality, of grace, where he and I bond musically on an intellectual level -- they are participants, while he and I are critics.

That doesn't make me sound all that good, does it. At least I'm honest.

I have had two positive Abba experiences in my life. The first came on a drive from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. My volleyball team all crammed into a Subaru Forrester for the three hour drive. So I was there with four of my favorite people in the world, plus a guy named Timmy Timmy -- I kid you not, he changed his last name to "Timmy" -- and someone decided that it would be a great idea to listen to "Abba Gold" all the way up. Five gay men and me in a four-seat car, plus "Abba Gold." How can you hate that?

Not strangely poignant, like when we stopped at the border and played George Michael's "Freedom." I'm serious. It was poignant. You had to be there.

The second time came when the Dinner Club, a social institution revered in our house, went to Japantown to do some karaoke. I will karaoke only for the dinner club, and only in a karaoke booth, and only when it was my idea in the first place and we didn't tell anyone until we got there what we were doing, and even then only when we are drinking Budweiser out of cans because the karaoke bar doesn't have a liquor license and even though we are all pushing 40 and at times the combined income of the two guys singing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" is something like $500,000 a year. I will karaoke then. I will open the evening with a duet. Ken Dunque and I will sing "Like a Virgin."

After that, Princess Grace will abruptly grab the mic out of my hand and launch into her version of "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight," or something like that.

But eventually, the Golden Boy and his Golden Wife will insist on singing Abba's "Fernando," and I will realize that, although the Golden Boy and his Golden Wife are smart, attractive, successful and funny, both of them are tone-deaf, which in no way dimmed their enthusiasm and in fact made their reading of "Fernando" unique and fabulous in its own exceptional way.

God gave everybody something, but he didn't give anybody everything.

I plan to slip into the Jawa's room tonight, quietly put some headphones on him, and play him a few tracks from my iPod. Something to clean his pallet. Something obscure and important. To me, at least.